“Drifters, driven in, taking the tamarack out on sleighs across the frozen Red Deer river, through frozen swamp, feet rag bound, knee deep snow, walking beside the load, fifty miles to town and back. Them horses didn’t have much in ‘em, scraping what they could through snow cover. Unshod, trying to get up the Gibson Hill. A bitch of a hill and a bitch of a winter. They used to stop at my place…”
Stories from my childhood. Around the dinner table, uncles loosened their belts and pushed back their chairs. I always fed ‘em before they started back in the morning. Them and their horses…
I saw them so clearly, the tamarack haulers, squatting on government land west of Olds, making their wooden money, the only kind they saw those days, ten cents a post or trading for groceries in town. I saw gaunt faces, hollow eyes, black beards, cap ear flaps pulled low. I saw them bundled in rags, wearing everything they owned, trying to keep from freezing to death. And their horses, bones sticking out through hide, heaving a load of logs up the infamous steep and icy Gibson Hill. I saw their wives and kids in a squatter’s shack with an oil lamp and bannock, iced slat walls, cots pulled close to the fire.
Such moving pictures ran through my head the length of my childhood and then some. I put myself to sleep with them, embellishing and shaping, making them my own. How accurate my visions were I have no idea. It didn’t matter.
Neither did it matter if we had heard the story before. I don’t know how many times I heard the one about granny stirring up the bachelor’s home brew. Seems she was out looking for the cows and y’know how she always useta pick up a stick when she walked. So she wanders into the bachelor’s shack and sees this big pot simmering on the stove she thinks is soup and gives it a turn with her stick. She’s wearing this red sweater and black skirt and the old bachelor hiding in the cellar thinks she’s the RCMP and when she leaves he dumps out his still…
I still hear the humour in the storyteller’s voice and the laughter around the table, the sound of it, and visualize the old moonshiner hiding in a cellar somewhere on the godforsaken prairies, a phrase I learned as soon as I could talk.
My mother-in-law was another great with the stories. She would set her formidable elbows along the length of the dinner table, scattering grandchildren either side, and settle in on Mrs. Hosegood, Charlie Hosegood’s mail order bride, who travelled all the way across the Atlantic then three thousand miles across rock, forest and plain, to meet Charlie in Calgary. But she stopped only long enough to say hello before hopping back on the train and heading for Banff, already a famous resort town.
The stories in my head consist not only of a particular narrative but the expression on the faces around the table and the sight of the table itself with its candles and scattered cutlery and flowers in the centre, its pie-smeared plates, and the smells of the devoured dinner, the taste of it still in my mouth, and the sound of the assembled voices around the table, and… and… The five senses magnified.
If, especially as a child, you had the experience of story, that experience will stay with you forever. You will feel compelled to listen to every detail of other people’s stories. You will find yourself having to tell stories. Finally, at some further point, you will know that the story isn’t complete until it is written. You will have to write it down.
…they were always starving. Jack Brown. A lot of them had names like Brown. He could eat fourteen of my pancakes at a toss. One time, it was bitterly cold, he arrived with a load after a 12-hour trek through the bush across the ice at the Garrington ferry, felt himself coming down with a chill. The only thing I had on hand was a bottle of Rolly’s Liniment… Well, boys, he drinks down the whole damn thing. I was some surprised next morning when he was still alive.”
*Thank you Jack Hodgins for your book of the same name.