Editor’s note: The course in “Writing Your Memoirs,” offered at Abbotsford House and taught by Anne Le Dressay, has brought out some wonderful stories by local residents. We share some of these stories below, and hope that their summer themes will bring comfort to our readers in frozen January.
Hot August Day
By Anne Le Dressay
In 1956, we lived on a small mixed farm on the Assiniboine River Valley near Virden, Manitoba. We were six kids ranging in age from six weeks to almost eight. I was six. We lived in an old, inconvenient, two-storey house of weathered wood with no running water. Mom cooked on a wood-burning stove.
That hot August day, the stove was at full blast: Mom was making relish. She had just taken a batch of jars out of the canner and placed them on the table, warning us not to touch them. I knelt on a chair by the table, admiring the bright colours and the bubbles still furiously working through the relish. Dad came in from the field, where he had been working the summer fallow. He told us to stay away from the windows because a bad storm was coming. His tone made me nervous, and I looked at the nearest windows, which faced east, and decided I was safe, though I didn’t know what the danger was and I didn’t realize that storms came from the west. The only west window was in the boys’ bedroom behind the kitchen. Its door was open, and from that end of the kitchen, we could see the storm coming.
It came fast. A sudden darkness, gusts of strong wind, heavy rain, flashes of lightning and crashing thunder. And then hail, clattering against the roof, walls and windows. We all fell silent. The storm had all our attention. Mom picked up the baby and stood to one side of the kitchen with the younger kids around her. Uncle Marcel, Dad’s brother, who was staying with us, came downstairs because the house was shaking so hard he was afraid it would blow away. I got down from the chair and moved so I could see out the west window. Emile was next to me, with Dad just beyond us in the doorway to the living room. We were on the far side of the house from the window, and I thought again that we were safe.
Then the bedroom window collapsed inward. Rain, hail and shards of glass flew straight across the house, almost parallel to the floor. Emile was the only one in direct line with it and a large piece of glass lodged in his knee. He was crying, probably as much from fright as from pain. Dad pulled him aside and said roughly, “Don’t cry. It doesn’t hurt,” as he pulled the glass from Emile’s knee.
Dad’s words were as incongruous to me as the sight of a triangle of glass in my brother’s knee. It doesn’t hurt? I could feel the pain, though it wasn’t my knee. Dad’s words made me reel. This was my first insight into the macho expectations placed on the boys I grew up with.
Now the wind blew freely through the house, so strong that even without the hail, it pushed out the north window in the living room, and the glass fell out into the front yard. As quickly as it came, the storm passed. The damage to the house was limited to the two broken windows, the mess on the floor and my brothers’ sodden beds. When we went outside, we found a dead chicken in the middle of the yard, one of the granaries pushed out of place and the old barn flattened. The new barn, a couple of years old, was unaffected. The best of all this novelty for us kids was the layers of hailstones we found among the flattened grasses in the ditch.
Unfortunately, the crops had been flattened too. Later that summer, Dad went away for a while. That felt odd because he’d never been away for any length of time before. When he came back, he told us he’d bought a house in Lorette, a village on the outskirts of Winnipeg, and that we’d be moving. “Outskirts” was a new word to me. It made me think of clothes. Later, all the cattle and the two horses were sold, and on the last day, we took our cats to a neighbouring farm.
In October, a transport truck came and took all our belongings. We drove all day, arrived in Lorette that evening after dark and waited for the truck. When it was being unloaded, I saw a row of four shadows of different heights watching from the nearby fence. The neighbour’s kids. That was only the beginning of the difference in our lives in Lorette: that we had neighbours closer to our house than the house on the farm had been to our nearest field.
Anne Le Dressay grew up in rural Manitoba. She taught English Literature and Creative Writing for a number of years at private colleges in Alberta. She has published two books and two chapbooks of poetry. Many of her poems are memoir. She is the instructor for the Writing Memoirs course at Abbotsford House.
Loons at the lake
By Gerry Liston
Our daughter Tricia passed away unexpectedly this past March. I’m attempting to write her biography. The story below will be in her bio. It is a family story told in her voice, as she might have written it.
It was October 1989, Thanksgiving weekend to be precise. My parents had bought the cottage a few years earlier, and Thanksgiving there, with relatives and neighbours about, was soon to become a tradition. The day in question was a dazzling Sunday afternoon with the fall foliage a symphony of colour. Overhead a few straggling geese, late for the flight south, honked a salute and bustled on by. With the crunch of dry leaves underfoot and the fragrance of cool, clean and crisp country air, we were invigorated.
Heading across the lawn in the company of my sister Vanessa, our parents, Aunt Ann, Cousin Jen and assorted cottage neighbours, I found myself speculating. Were we really going for a swim? Who would actually get ducked? Who would chicken out? More to the point, would anyone survive it?! The lake was a sheet of glass, mirroring a brilliant sapphire sky and looking every bit of its three-degree-Celsius temperature. As we neared the shore and lined up for a photo op, inexplicably, a few snowflakes drifted down out of the blue. Undoubtedly, an omen of things to come. Nerves were frayed as we put on brave faces and mugged for the camera, brandished by Uncle Garry. Perhaps the only sane one of the group, he had opted to forgo the exercise, in favour of the role of family historian.
Despite our finest procrastination, eventually the moment of truth arrived. As a single chorus we chanted “one, two, three,” and headed for the water, thereby demonstrating that “loons” were still at the lake. The faint of heart tried tippy toeing into the water with baby steps, while those made of sterner stuff took the kamikaze approach, racing in and plunging head first into the shimmering abyss.
Being of the latter group, I was shocked to discover, when hitting the depths, that the three-degree temperature was incorrect! Although not frozen solid, surely the lake had turned to liquid nitrogen! It was bone numbing, yet at the same time providing an exquisite tingling! The electrifying jolt of a thousand tiny needles, taking my breath away! The muted sounds of bodies plunging into the depths and garbled voices were audible. On rocketing back to the surface and emitting an ear-piercing shriek, I discovered that by then most of the group were engaged in their own versions of my victory roar. Or, perhaps it was anguish? We were all of one mind now though, stampeding to shore, swooping up our towels and racing indoors to the fire.
Cocoa or coffee in hand we shivered and huddled together, reflecting on the experience. All the kids were given a generous ration of marshmallows to float, while the adults passed around something called Baileys. It smelled wonderful, but its flavour was reminiscent of a Mars bar laced with Tabasco sauce.
The day concluded with a scrumptious roast turkey dinner. Everyone agreed the madness had whetted our appetites and we resolved to take the plunge again … um … someday!
Gerry Liston is retired from the Department of National Defence. He and his wife Pat moved to Sunnyside Avenue in 1975 where their two daughters Vanessa and Tricia were born and raised.