Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Remember Saturday: Part I

In Remember Saturday, a fictional and female narrator recalls the day a small farming town in the early 1900's changed forever and her family's struggle to continue with hope in the midst of grief and tragedy.

Remember Saturday: Part I

“Blessed night and even better dreams, for through the day’s clouds, tomorrow’s light breaks way unto heaven.”
- M.M.

It was Saturday at sunrise. Our rooster crowed his daily good morning from his roost in the barn. For some strange and unusual reason – for which I had always assumed was due to the sense of power he felt when the sun summoned him – he created his home by the hay door just as a king claims his castle to sit on the highest peak of his kingdom. Every so often, I would arise far before the necessary time just to catch a glimpse of that proud and majestic creature, facing the east with his head held high. Now, looking back, to think of a rooster, which is only the feathered and winged equivalent of a ladies’ gentleman, occupying my mind in such an entirety is so verily amusing. But I can only presume that the poetics of it all was my way of allowing my imagination to soar for only a few moments in a place where dreams never came true.

For in that old, sleepy town of MacNeillton, young ladies, as well as young men, had little expectations to meet. The gentlemen were to become farmers – or business owners to supply the farmers – and the ladies were to become their wives. Not that any of it bothered me. I had, even as a young child, wanted a large family and a caring husband. I remember that as the rest of the girls were dreaming of wealthy and fashionable men to sweep them away into a life of romanticism, operas and gay parties and balls as though to wish away all realities, I preferred the austere ones. This is not to say that I never wished upon my heart that I could do all these activities in such company, but there was something in the simplicities of a homely life that I could never take for granted.

But as my heart endeared the thought of the silly, blustering mass of rusty feathers, I would hurriedly sneak out through our summer kitchen and sit on the pasture fence, shivering in my gown, housecoat and Papa’s mucking boots. Amid the frosty air, was that scent of clean, crisp life…that smell of perfection as though you are the only solitary soul to experience Providence’s heaven, but on earth. It was each tiny droplet that, in its iciness, had wiped away all the transgressions that wafted past and made me treasure these early October dawns. And as I sat there, the sun would peak its shining celestial face above the golden fields to signal the handsome creature to call out its announcing.

But above all of the pleasures of the early mornings, I best preferred Papa’s weekly carriage ride into the main of town. At half-past seven, he would depart with the eggs, honey (depending on the season), pies of all sorts and preserves that Mama had prepared in the utmost care the night and days before. For every Friday evening, after dinner had been eaten and cleaned up, the whole house – or the summer kitchen if it was too warm to bake in the main – would smell absolutely grand! The memories of picking harvest fruits in the orchards or wandering through the berry prickles to find the blackberries that Mama wanted would make their way past the doorframes of the kitchen. Mama was such a wonderful baker. Everyone in town and around in the surrounding fields and farms would wait for her pies to arrive with Papa. The queer thing was that Mama never actually accompanied her works of culinary art to the mercantile. She was never, by any of the townsfolk, to be considered timid or inwardly in the least bit. But I can only assume that it was for the same reason that she only replied a quiet, “Thank you,” to the praises of her baked goods. That was who she was. She seemed more intent on the type of apples than the type of gratitudinal raptures sung by those who favored her baking.

Every Saturday morning, Mama would dress early, forego the handmade bread and spend a good hour packing and listing all that was to be ridden into town. She placed each pie in a wooden crate that Papa had made specifically to fit her tin pie plates. He had one day surprised her with a dozen of the caramel wooden structures all decorated with brand new silk ribbons. Papa was so very proud of his idea to have crates that opened on the side by way of hinges and a wire latch and that had a shelf that could slide with ease into the center. He said that this way, his beautiful wife could have her beautiful pies ride into town with grace and security. Mama started to laugh, not at him, but at the fact that he took her baking with such an air of respect and pride. And when he revealed the wooden boxes for her jars of jams and jellies, she could not contain herself.

He would pack everything on the back flat of the carriage, fasten the horses to the front and make a final call for passengers. Even though there were days when our entire family – Mama, who would get off at the post office; my elder sister, Edina; my juvenile brother, Wesley; and Papa and I – would ride into town together, it was mostly just the two of us. These journeys, however short and rather uneventful, were our special time. Everyone else knew it, too. There were times when Wesley wanted to join us, but Papa plainly explained to him that he had to act as the man of the household while Papa and I were gone. Wesley seemed to always take to Papa’s excuse and assumed that he was being given a tremendous responsibility. Therefore every week, when the duty was passed down a generation, my brother would puff out his chest in the most comical of fashions, deepen his seven-year-old voice for the reply and strut up the walk from the barn to the side door. Even within the humor of it all, it gave Wesley a sense of maturity, so Papa and I did not feel quite as terrible leading him on so. Of course, neither of us would ever admit that we looked forward to the Saturday ride.

Papa was a proper and gentlemanly farmer who had a rigid disposition to read. I was never very sure of his current mood, except for when he smiled. Oh, what a fine-looking smile my papa had! It only appeared from time to time, but when it did, it created a world of security for me. I felt as if all was well and for a brief moment, God had given us perfection. His smile reflected all that I cherished as his daughter…

And today I did. Papa helped me onto the front bench so that my long skirts and petticoats would not catch on the iron fitting around the wooden axel. He then stepped forward to kiss his wife on the tip of her nose. For such a reserved man, it seemed odd and so very out of character to me. I assume, perhaps, because it seemed like such a childish notion. Thinking of the ladies who made their nesting within the calicos at the mercantile, most did not have the same open relationship that I associated with Mother and Father. Many of the married couples I caught glimpses of from day to day were just as my father was naturally: reserved. But it was, in a sort, romantic, the way they would carry on with their affection for one another.

Papa took up the reins and pleaded for our two aging horses to move along. They were getting on in years and no longer did the usual rider’s cry work. They were too stubborn and perhaps losing their hearing, so only did some whipping of the leather reins get them to lift their hooves. Finally, he started the horses on and as we exited the side cattle gate leading away from the grey stone barn, Papa raised his left hand over his shoulder and motioned his final good-bye. Mama would always wave back until we passed the hill and she could no longer see us among the fields and fences. Whether she stood there or simply went inside, I suppose I will never know. But I know what Papa did. He would, just before we would round the bend near the old maple tree, pull on the reins. Our horses would reluctantly slow up and he would take one longing look behind him. There was nothing to see. Most of the house had passed behind the orchard hills and, even though the barn could be seen, its rafters and the chicken coops were only visible…

And he still gazed back. He always did no matter the weather or the rush. I could never understand why, but he always glanced back.

That ride into town took no less than three-quarters of an hour on an average day. But there were sometimes when the road would wash out in spots along the river and a makeshift detour was made. At a moment like that, there were two detours to choose from. The first being a longer and more out of the way route to town did seem to be the only choice when the main road degraded to such an unrideable state. The second, especially for the more adventurous folk, consisted of the younger men allowing their inner schoolboys locked within them to appear. They made themselves a full new set of wheel tracks. Of course, this usually meant that they were driving through a few wheat fields or two. Imagine a hard-working planter looking out at his field one morning to see his new neighbor innocently riding about his crops. The pleasantness for us was that the road near our farm never became washed out, so Papa never had to worry about anything of that sort happening.

However, for the most part, none of this would ever happen because the dirt road wasn’t really that bad. Although it was quite smooth, we still drove over every bump and dip with absolute caution. There were a few times when one of the wheels bobbed into a ditch and the eggs did not make it to McLuhan’s General Mercantile in their heavenly-given shape. Papa had once opened the straw baskets to show the storeowner the seven dozen eggs that Wesley had awoken far before dawn to collect. Nonetheless, to his dismay, he revealed a mess of scrambled yolks, whites and shells. Mr. McLuhan though it to be humorous as his laugh filled the store with a booming echo, but Papa found it to be quite the opposite. Despite the damaged condition of the eggs, he gave Papa half the money for it and he and Mrs. McLuhan had quite the breakfast that morning.

It was memories such as this that peppered my childhood. We had so many jovial moments and so many times that I wish never to forget. There was always something, yet nothing would match my memories of that day:

I could see the hitching post outside the post office. Mrs. Hanson and her daughter, who was only one year my junior, took charge of the service after Mr. Hanson passed away the winter before of pneumonia. It must have been unimaginably difficult for the two women to continue on after his death. Mr. Hanson had developed the deadly illness as a complication of a cold. The doctor tried everything to save him, but it was his time. His funeral was very sorrowful. To see a man whom I knew well and who aged accordingly to my parents being lowered into such a black grave, really verily hurt. It pained me to watch a woman who could be my mother dusting a single handful of earth on her husband’s pine coffin. It just seemed so wrong…it seemed so very wrong.

My father steered the horses past the post office and around the side of the store. Mr. McLuhan did not care for his customers to be tying up their wagons and horses in the front of the mercantile. His exact words were “…your wagons are interfering with my displays which, in turn, will soon discourage my customers from coming in.” I, however, thought it was such a droll proposition partly due to the common knowledge that Mr. McLuhan owned the only general store within a four hour trot of the town. Nevertheless, if any of the McLuhans made a suggestion, it became a convention which the rest of the town was encouraged to abide by, except of course, for the McLuhans themselves.

Papa and I removed the goods from the back and entered the store with the pies, preserves and eggs as the bell atop the door alerted Mr. McLuhan of our presence. I always found the store so inviting and warm, even on the coldest of days. I liked entering and smelling the burning on shivering mornings such as this. I liked the rich, dark wood that covered the walls, floors and created the shelves. I liked being surrounded by such interesting things; browsing the catalogues for contemporary items was intriguing. I liked it all because it let my mind drift into places that it never could imagine. I, for some reason, found McLuhan’s General Mercantile as a place of refuge and inspiration. For every time someone would walk through that paned glass door, you would be greeted with a smile (unless Old Man Peterson was there – he would snarl) and a proper, “Good day,” was offered.

The women of the town, not all, but some, would gather in the back near the calico and cotton spools to have their weekly gossip session. If anyone needed to acquire any sort of knowledge about anything in town, those were the women with whom to speak. Every now and then, a cackling sound would arise from behind the domestics, and it could always be assumed that they were using some poor soul as the object of one of their cruel and teasing jokes. There were days when I would browse my way to the back just so I could overhear any snippet of information that could come in handy for my quilting circle.

Mama would have been so verily ashamed of my eavesdropping. Since I was a child, I was always instructed that “taking part in the downtrodding of others” was a sin. She was right, but there were those moments when my curiosity won me over. Mama never had that problem though. On those occasional Saturdays when she accompanied us into town, she would always speak cordially with the women, then continue on with her shopping. The others would give her this unusual and indescribable look, but Papa glowed with pride. This was his reason for marrying her, he had once said. He loved to revel about his wife. I believed that he admired her for her spirit. Mama could stand up for what she held for and never budge an inch. Like the time when Mama, in front of the entire town council, protested the rights of the women in the town. She had heard about the suffragettes fighting for their rights in an article printed in the Montreal paper and it motivated her. Papa supported her, but the rest of the town did not. She did not seem to mind though. She said that she did the best she could and that, maybe one day, I might have a voice just like all the other men. I had never asked her to do that for me, and yet, she was willing to stand up for me. Perhaps I never expressed my gratitude enough. I assume that only God knows if I will ever have that voice that Mama wanted so dearly to have. But I loved and admired my mama. She proved to me that if I could work on today, then change could come tomorrow.

Papa was leaning on the counter and discussing the usual with Mr. McLuhan: weather, politics and what the Reverend would preach on tomorrow morning in church. While the two men carried on just like the women in the back, I found myself staring at the new dress ordered straight from Toronto. It was amongst a few other new arrivals, however, the one hanging on the black iron dress form drew my attention. It looked so elegant in the mid-morning light. It was incredibly grand. The stitches were perfect and its ruffled hem invited my hand to reach over the inner railing to touch the display. With its eyelets of lace for a chest, sapphire waistshirt and billowy skirt, I could imagine myself dancing in it. The Harvest Dance was soon approaching and all I could hope for was that Alistair MacNeill would ask to escort me.

He was quite the gentleman. He lived only three farms away on the western side of the river, but his father leased out their land to the locals. Mr. MacNeill was the sole guardian of Alistair. He was also the superintendent of all the schools in the county. This meant that he had to travel more than he preferred, and his absence affected his son to a slight degree, but Alistair was ever so kind to me. Whenever I passed him on the roadside or in town, he would never cease to tip his head in refined acknowledgement and greet me with the time of day. He and I would then walk along together and he would further inquire about my family, my plans and my general existence. I found him to be romantic in a removed sort of way. He was the quiet prince of the fields and barns and orchards that surrounded him, and yet, he never acted it. I don’t believe that he ever even knew.

But there had to be some way for me to purchase that elaborate piece of work. If I hinted enough, I might receive it for my eighteenth birthday. It was certainly worth a try. I had to think about this: How could I mention the dress without being too forward? I could always point it out to Papa when he finished his business with Mr. McLuhan. Or, perhaps on the way back to the house, I could remark about its beauty, yet practicality. It is not as though I plan to become any taller…

My thoughts were quickly interrupted by a boy’s cry outside the store. I placed the dress that I had removed off the form over my arm and stepped up onto the display window shelf to see who it was. Yet, before I could approach the glass, I heard the thumping of footsteps up the old knotted stairs. I peeked my head around the corner as the door violently swung open to reveal Arthur, better known as Arty. He was a small boy for his age who would come over to the farm to fish in our portion of the river with my younger brother, Wesley. The two of them were good friends and wherever one was, the other was usually not too far behind.

As the little golden bell slowly ceased its ringing, the boy asked for the doctor and my father between great breathes of air. The women from the back came rushing up to the front counter and formed a throng-like circle around the distraught child. They were not concerned with the problem itself, but with the potential new material they could use for their next gathering. One of the other children who had been begging his mother for the mercantile's licorice drops ran across the road – by orders of Papa – to the doctor’s house. He was a single man who practiced out of his living room and refurbished the dining room into his operating room and the parlor into a waiting area. I watched out of the corner of my eye through the window as the heavy door opened and the doctor answered. The child spoke to him and the doctor immediately turned on his heel to retrieve his things. He came out, put his medicines and instrument case into his saddle bags and quickly darted with his horse over to the store.

Arty had finally caught his breath and, with my father, went outside to bring the wagon around to the front. Papa was no longer apprehensive about the demands of Mr. McLuhan, for he knew that something was terribly and horribly wrong back at the farm. I highly doubted that the store keeper would mind the commotion. Emergencies such as this tended to escape his family’s reign on the rest of us, thankfully. Mr. McLuhan was a hard and sometimes spiteful man, but even with his stiff character, he would open up to the rest of reveal a softer and more caring self when the moment arose.

I moved toward the door, yet I realized that everyone was staring at me. I soon understood why I was attracting the many sympathetic and distraught glances all pointed in my direction. Before I made my exit, I handed the dress to one of the women who happened to be wearing the most atrociously millinered hat I had ever seen. It took my mind off the situation at hand for a moment, but my imagination quickly returned to the present and to Papa and the doctor waiting outside the mercantile for me. Papa had already turned the rickety wagon toward our farm as if he was ready to leave me behind.

As I dashed out slamming the door behind me and stumbled down the front stairs, I heard the doctor say that he would meet the two of us at the house. He galloped down the road and I could still hear him calling for his chestnut brown stallion to travel faster. I approached the wagon and carefully climbed onto the left side of the bench. The crude contraption lurched forward before I was fully seated. It was as if our horses desired to return home as much as Papa and I did. My father hurried our horses as if there would be no tomorrow. And in his mind, that was a very true possibility. He did not know what to expect on our arrival back at the farm. My brother sent Arty and he had little information to give the doctor or my papa. All he could ask for was assistance and Godspeed for Mama’s coming help.

Papa’s world revolved around his wife. He loved her with a love I had never seen before, yet my only wish was to someday experience it. I looked over at him while we were riding back. There was something in his eyes that was so incredibly fearful of what he might find. His hands were shaking and his knuckles were a ghostly white from gripping the reigns so tightly. I had never seen Papa like that before that day. I could plainly read him; his thoughts and reflections of his past with Mama were clear in his expression. I could only assume that he was thinking back to all the wonderful and loving times that he and Mama had had together…The times that they had given it all to create the life that they lived now. They were proud, and yet, still so humble. I hoped, for Mama’s sake, and Papa’s as well, that she was alright. Perhaps it was just a sprained ankle and Wesley had taken it too seriously. I started to pray as I had never prayed before.

This could not be happening. Not on Saturday…

End of Part I


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