Monday, December 01, 2014

Digging up family history

Although I'm pretty well finished with planting things, I'm still digging - but now I'm digging for facts about my family.

While I was at work on the landscaping, I crouched over each patch of ground, picking out the stones and construction rubble and thought of my relatives in Canada who cleared the land for their farm in the province of Ontario during the early 1800's. They've been on my mind lately as I continue to dig but not in the DG anymore. Now I'm hunting for information about their history.

They felled the trees, burned the stumps and used a horse to pull a crude plow through the virgin land. The men worked the horses and used axes while the women and kids followed behind picking up rocks and stones, piling them into berms. They worked like dogs but they were building a future and grateful for the opportunity. When the land was cleared, the farms they created sound like beautiful places. My Aunt Alvina, long deceased but fortunately a memoirist, writes of the family farm where she was born in 1901.

"The area they chose was comprised of 350 acres of sandy loam, situated in a rather scenic area amid gently rolling hills - a large meadow through which ran a fairly large creek which brought endless hours of enjoyment for the boys, who loved to go fish and wade in the clear sparkling water, besides catching a good supply of trout. The clear water also was a source of pleasure as one could readily see the fish darting to and fro among the rocks and weeds. It was so inviting on a warm day, we would go wading and splashing with our bare feet with rolled up skirts and pants. It was fun! Beyond the creek was the greater part of the meadow and beyond that was quite a high hill which was called "the Mountain".  It was covered by a variety of trees-balsam, cedar, poplar and the good old Canada maple usually so colorful in the autumn which produced a sap for the lovely maple syrup for which Ontario is noted."

Here's a section I love:

"Many times during the winter, Clem, Hilda and perhaps George would pile into the sleigh or cutter on a cold, frosty moonlit night, fortified by hot bricks at their feet and covered with buffalo robes, off to a dance they'd go. This was usually the only diversion they had and was the topic of conversations for weeks before and after the event. When Sunday came around and also news of the party - the priest usually gave the people a 'You're going to Hell sermon', however that didn't stop them, for off they went when the next party popped up."

Memories of farm life were tender ones for my aunts and uncles, city slickers by the time I came along. They left the farm around 1907 or 1908 but I believe they still and always thought of themselves as farmers.

As a kid, on September Sundays, we'd pile into a couple of cars and repair to the countryside to Bob's farm where we played farmer, digging up potatoes and shtooking wheat. Bob, a family friend, was eternally an old man in my memory - a bachelor farmer dressed in dirty overalls. He had a goiter problem, a huge Adam's Apple and bulging eyes. He was skinny and the few teeth he had were yellowed from his continual smoking. There was always a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He spoke very slowly and deliberately. Despite his gruff appearance he seemed to like kids and he usually had a surprise of some kind ready for us on visiting days. Riding on a cow's back was one such surprise.  He'd pick us up and settle us on the cows back and then pile up some fresh cut grass in front of the animal so that it would stay in one spot. The elevation seemed very lofty to me and quite exciting. As I grew older I can remember reading on the animals back - one of the more curious ways I've read a book.

Digging potatoes on Bob's farm

During one of my university years, I had a garden on Bob's property. He'd turned the earth for me and I came out in the spring, set the rows with my hoe and sowed the seeds. My father probably forced me to do this as part of the payback for tuition...I was too self-absorbed to think about charity and he was always harnessing me (to the plow, so to speak) and encouraging work for the joy of it. Bob did all the really hard labor in advance and I got the good part - planting yellow wax beans, beets, rhubarb, potatoes, peas and onions as soon as the frost danger was over. Harvest time yielded bushels and bushels of vegetables which we donated to an orphanage. My boyfriend's little black Austin convertible was loaded up to the gun wales. I rode in the back using my body to keep the veggies from blowing out as we crept our way for the few miles to the orphanage. We made several trips a day on Saturdays until the plants were picked bare and the nights were getting frosty.

Old Bob came to my wedding. It was the last time I saw him. The reception was held at a restaurant in the airport presaging how my life was going to unfold. Bob and my three maiden aunts (all in their sixties at the time) got blotto drinking Manhattans in the Fly-Away bar (not the actual name) before the wedding. None of them really drank much and they ordered Manhattans because they'd heard of the drink. What happened afterwards I shudder to think. My father reported that they all suffered mightily from hangovers. Fortunately, the aunts lived right next door to the Catholic Church; if "mourning after" confession was necessary, they didn't have far to go.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I think you might enjoy our book club book. (The Care and Management of Lies) It has a lot about farming in it.
    I think your life was more interesting than ours!!!