by Johnny Carlton
Copyright 2012 Johnny Giesbrecht
Johnny Carlton is a writer of suspense thrillers available as e-books at www.amazon.com
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of going to visit my grandma and grandpa on their farm home in Saskatchewan, Canada. These were my grandparents on my mother’s side, the Martens family.
During the years that I’m thinking of, from 1935 when I was born to about 1950 when I was a young teenager, my mom and dad and sister and I lived in two different areas, first about ninety miles west-northwest of my grandparents’ farm. The changeover from horse transportation to motor vehicles was still in progress and many families, like my own until after we had moved much closer to my grandparents’ place, still did not own a motor vehicle and relied entirely on horses for transportation. This meant that ninety miles required a three-day journey, one way. So it was not something one did every weekend. When we moved to a little hamlet in central Saskatchewan we were only about twenty miles from my grandparents’ place; and, also, my dad bought a truck (for work purposes), so we got to visit Grandma and Grandpa Martens a lot more often.
A long lane led from a country dirt road through emerald-green, quaking aspen trees onto their farmstead. This large yard was more or less surrounded by bush, but close beyond that were open fields under cultivation.
As one came out onto the yard from the lane, the most prominent feature was the house on the left side. It was a handsome two-story white structure with a wrought-iron fence closing off an inner yard. This fence had two wrought-iron gates in it, and from the gates two narrow concrete sidewalks led toward the house. The sidewalk farthest away from the lane led toward the kitchen door, and the other one led toward a door into the dining room. The upper half of that door displayed a fancy frosted glass window. These sidewalks leading to the two doors were a unique concept that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Adding to the charm were circles of colorful flowers that Grandma had planted beside the walks.
Near the kitchen corner of the house, but outside of the wrought-iron fence, was a small one-room building called the summer kitchen. It held a big, black wood-burning cook stove, wooden table, a bench for sitting, and a large serious looking machine with sprocket wheels and rollers that was used for pressing bed sheets after they had been washed and dried. It was called a mangle. The main purpose of the summer kitchen was for cooking meals in warm weather without heating up the house. Most farm homes had them.
On the side of the yard opposite from the house was a fair sized barn of a dull red color. It had once been busy with horses, cows, colts, calves, and there had also been pigs and chickens housed in other buildings on the yard; but over the years things had slowed down and more and more of the Martens farmland was being rented out to neighboring farmers. Grandpa was getting older and one of his sons was farming elsewhere and the other one did not really take an interest in farming; hence less and less farm animals. I can remember the barn eventually sitting empty and I think there was old farm machinery parked here and there around the yard. Yet the farmstead was not falling into dilapidation, but rather was kept clean and tidy and prosperous looking.
For me the barn was a malleable thing that my wild imagination could turn into anything from a castle to a Buck Rogers space ship. And my sister Rosella didn’t hold me back either. I remember that under her guidance, on one occasion, the empty barn hayloft became the deck of a sailing ship, and from it we watched in wonderment as a ghost ship called The Flying Dutchman hove into view on the misty ocean, frightening us considerably before it passed on by. (Rosella got the idea from a poem in her school reader.)
The two of us also enjoyed walking together, in single file, on old cow paths that meandered here and there through groves of aspen trees.
The wave of hospitality that swept toward Mom and Dad, Rosella and me upon arriving on the yard for a visit was overwhelming. The four people who lived there would not wait for us to come into the house but always came out to meet us and greet us with a flood of happy small talk–all administered in Low German, their first language, as it was ours. (My sister and only sibling and I had been quite well anglicized but we could speak the Low German language well enough.)
The four people who lived on the farm were Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Henry, and Aunt Susie.
Grandpa John Martens was a tall, slim man from Russia who, with his wife, had sailed for Canada in 1893. They lived in Manitoba for nine years before moving to the homestead in Saskatchewan.
Grandpa always had his hair clipped short, and instead of shaving he took the clipper to his face as well, every few days, so that he always had a beard stubble. (As we’ve all seen, this style of grooming has made a comeback among some young men in recent times.) He wore the normal shapeless pants and flannel shirts that farmers wore, and on a cool day added an old coat left over from a suit of which the pants had worn out. When he was outside in summertime, he topped off the outfit with a felt dress hat (sort of like the one Indiana Jones wears) that had seen enough years to render it satisfactorily shapeless so that it matched with the rest of his everyday clothes. On Sundays he sometimes wore a suit and tie, and I think also a newer dress hat.
Grandpa didn’t talk a lot, but whenever he said something it was in a confident manner, giving a bit of a bulldozing impression, yet his manner was always friendly and good natured. For the most part he was not at all a showoff, but he had one little act that he sometimes performed for the entertainment of others. Although he had never experienced war action, he had received military training in the old country. His act was to pick up Grandma’s broom and, holding it the way a marching soldier holds a rifle, he would go through various marching movements and turns, at the same time barking out a sergeant’s orders to himself.
In contrast to Grandpa’s tallness, Grandma was a short woman, medium wide. She always wore a long dark dress, an apron, a little flat hat, and a kerchief over that, tied under her chin–all pretty much standard stuff for married women of her generation of the Mennonite religion and ethnic group.
She was dark of complexion with eyes as deep brown as a native American; but that she was one was highly unlikely since she came from the old country. My dad used to say that he thought she was a Gypsy somehow displaced into a Mennonite community. Actually, she had been adopted, but no one seemed to have much background on her birth history.
Grandma was charming–totally friendly, generous, patient and good natured. She was an all-around good worker and quick to jump up to help anyone with their needs; but her favorite work seemed to be the tending of her large garden. This was situated on one side of the house and reached all the way to the road. I’m sure it produced a great variety of important vegetables, but I remember it mainly as a delightful orchard where I spent happy times spoiling my dinner by filling my face with blueberries, raspberries, currants, plums, etc.
All the meals cooked by Grandma, with the help of Aunt Susie, were good, but somehow breakfast sticks in my memory the most. (We often stayed overnight, at least when we still made the long trips.) Breakfast could include corn flakes or porridge, but that was just a start. We would then get serious with fried potatoes, fried eggs, and cracklings (little delicious crumbs of high calorie meat rendered from pork lard). To soak up some of the grease and not let it go to waste we used Grandma’s delicious home-baked buns, and everything was liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper. In those days people knew how to eat. Somehow I can still remember eating this great breakfast off a classy looking blue and white plate that had pictures of windmills on it.
Uncle Henry and Aunt Susie were the two children of the family who had not left home and in later years dedicated themselves to looking after their aging parents. The other members of the family, Aunt Annie, Uncle John, Aunt Lena, and my mom, Agatha, married, left home, and were spread around a bit. Aunt Annie and her family eventually moved to North Dakota, Uncle John and his family farmed in various places in Saskatchewan and then lived in the city of Saskatoon, about forty miles south of Grandpa’s farm. None of these dear uncles and aunts were afflicted with wanderlust (in spite of the fact that Aunt Annie somehow found herself in another country), but Uncle Henry and Aunt Susie may well have been the champions of all stay-at-homes. My dad, who could see humor in everything, used to comment on this, taking note that for some time even after they were grown up, Uncle Henry and Aunt Susie–and Mom too before Dad took her away from her home–had never seen a river, even though they lived only about seven miles away from one.
Uncle Henry was classic in other ways too. So far as we could tell, he had no desire to become a successful farmer, a successful business tycoon, or a successful anything. But he was very creative and talented, and one can’t help but wonder how he would have turned out if he had been born a half a century or more later, with all the educational opportunities and encouragements to talented children that we now have. As it was, Uncle Henry, like a great many of the children of pioneers, never got past grade four in elementary school.
Uncle Henry was tall, broadshouldered, and strong, with a rugged face to match. Unlike Grandpa, he kept himself clean shaven. I liked the way he dressed. I doubt that I ever saw him not wearing a checked flannel work shirt buttoned up tight at the collar, often complete with a necktie. Over this he wore denim bib overalls. On his feet he had ankle-high laced work boots, on his head a gray-tweed visored cap of the floppy kind. These caps, popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, but still available in the ‘40s, looked kind of glamorous when worn at a rakish angle with the floppy part all hanging to one side; but Uncle Henry wore his dead center with the flop sticking out to both sides. He wore this cap from the time he got out of bed in the morning until he got back into bed at night (although I never actually saw him in bed and simply make the assumption that he didn’t sleep with his cap on). The only times he was ever seen not wearing it was at mealtimes–that is, while he was bowing his head to say grace and while he was actually eating. At those times the cap hung on a post of his chair backrest. Then, as soon as he had swallowed his last mouthful of food, he would reach for his cap and put it on his head, dead center.
His next step, without fail, was the relighting of a home-built cigarette, or the rolling of a fresh one and getting that one started. And I’ve never seen anyone smoke a cigarette as fast as Uncle Henry. You’d have thought he was sending urgent smoke signals regarding some emergency.
Getting back to his talent and creativity, he had taught himself to play the violin and was quite good at it. But I think that even more than being a natural musician, he was, at heart, a writer of fiction–humorous fiction. Or maybe he should have been a stand-up comedian. So far as I know he never actually wrote a story, but he told many of them, always humorous ones, apparently making them up as he went along, and endangering his listeners with death by laughing fit.
I spent a fair amount of time with him in his room, watching him admiringly through a haze of tobacco smoke while he played his fiddle or got involved in entertaining me with exciting totally original stories. The one I remember the best was about a frog making a long trip and having many adventures along the way, including getting stuck in a lake of snot.
Although I didn’t hear it, he had once spun a long fantasy yarn to a group of visiting young adults. This involved their neighbor (who was not present) as the main character and had him making a trip to the moon with a horse and buggy–or was it a sleigh? It would have been great if all his wacky stories could have been recorded for posterity.
Aunt Susie was a dark haired, pleasant looking, always neatly dressed woman. She was a good worker and besides helping Grandma with everything, spent a lot of time doing housework for other people in the area. This income helped to supplement the unfortunately decreasing revenue from the farm. Like the other three, Aunt Susie always welcomed us warmly when we arrived for a visit, and kept up this openness and hospitality for as long as we stayed. She also had a good sense of humor (which she needed with Uncle Henry around) and a pleasing enthusiasm and interest in the simple happenings of everyday life.
Having welcomed us royally upon our arrival, we were then ushered into the house–which was even more beautiful on the inside than on the outside. By today’s standards it would have looked just a bit humble, but then, and particularly to my childhood eyes, it was a luxurious mansion.
The kitchen was long and relatively narrow, and furnished with the things that slightly classy farm-home kitchens of the time boasted: There was a massive black cook stove with bright nickel trimmings, complete with a hot-water tank on the side and a closed-in warming shelf at the top; a long wooden table, chairs, and a cabinet (not built into the wall nor attached to the wall); and, near the door, a large box for firewood and a washstand with basin and pitcher, soap and towels. Also near this door leading outside was a large wall mirror enclosed in a wide, dark-brown varnished frame which had pegs sticking out of it for hanging hats and jackets.
Four doorways, complete with doors, led out of the kitchen. The one at the far end was pretty much a forbidden portal–at least I always felt afraid to go through it–for it led into the gloomy interior of Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. I think I felt that if I entered it I might suffocate mentally and emotionally from contact with some kind of mysterious old-folks vibrations that emanated from out of the shadows, the effects of which only people forty or older could hope to survive.
On the inner wall of the kitchen (that is, on the side toward the rest of the house) and closest to the bedroom, was the door to the cellar. This was not a full basement but had enough room for the storage of garden produce and home-canned food. There was also a barrel of apples and, more than likely, a large stone crock of mustard pickles or sauerkraut, since these were popular at the time.
One of Uncle Henry’s rare true stories (as opposed to his many fictitious ones) was about how he had seen Grandma coming up out of the cellar with a mouse perched on the top of her head, on her kerchief. Not wanting to frighten her with an announcement about the hitchhiker, he had flicked the little creature off her head before letting her know about it.
Next to the cellar doorway was the one leading upstairs. This one had a door too, but that was usually left open. The stairwell was walled in and the single flight of steps led to what could have been thought of as a hallway except that it was quite short. It did, however, lead back on either side of the stairwell behind railings, but these spaces were pretty much filled in with clothes racks and clothing on hangers. I think there were also cardboard boxes; and one thing my sister remembered as being there behind the railing, when we lately talked about that house, was a flour sack full of peppernuts. I suppose the air was drier there, making a good place for some kinds of storage.
From the very short hallway one door led to the right and one to the left. By the one to the right we entered Aunt Susie’s bedroom. I remember that room as having sunlight streaming in through three windows, two in one wall and one in another, here and there reflecting off pretty glass knickknacks and jewelry laid out on her dresser. I particularly remember the long strings of pearls hanging in loops from one of the dresser posts that supported the mirror.
When my mother and Aunt Lena had still been living at home, this room had been divided into two, but the separating wall had been taken out many years ago. Now Aunt Susie had the whole area to herself, and she kept it clean, uncluttered, and cheerful looking.
The door on the left side of the little hallway led into Uncle Henry’s bedroom. He had shared it with Uncle John before that older brother left home. I don’t know what it had looked like then because I wasn’t born yet, but as I remember it from my childhood visits, it was totally Uncle-Henry-esque.
The room contained a cot where he slept, a little table in one corner with two chairs, and a big steamer trunk. On the wall hung his beloved violin. On the little table was a kerosene lamp, a tin of tobacco and an ashtray.
The room had a comfortable, pleasant atmosphere, part of the charm of which was a bluish tinge of tobacco smoke hanging in the air. I spent quite a bit of time in that room, bugging my uncle and listening to his humor; you’d think I’d have been addicted to nicotine before I reached my teens. We would park ourselves at the little table, across the corner of it from each other, and I still have a pretty clear mental picture of him sitting there, tweed cap dead center, a rapidly shortening cigarette never far from his mouth, as he worked at seeing what crazy story he could come up with to entertain and shock his nephew.
Back down in the kitchen now, we’ll check out the one remaining doorway leading out of it to other parts of the house, this one just to the left of the one leading upstairs.
It brings us into a dining room that I always thought looked cheerful even though it had a lot of dark wood, like the large table and chair set in the center, and a couple of gigantic cabinet affairs that held dishes and fancy china. One of these cabinets (and I know this sounds incredible) also contained a hide-a-bed in its bottom parts. So it wasn’t the best place to bed down a couple still on their honeymoon.
There was a door leading out to the front yard; the top half of that door held the beautiful frosted-glass window which I already mentioned. Like the other rooms in the house, the dining room walls were done up in colorful, flowery wallpaper.
On the other side of the room from the outer door was another doorway, this one leading into the final room of the house, and my favorite one, the parlor. (Today it would be called a living room–which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense; don’t we live in all the rooms of our houses? We should have stuck to calling them parlors.)
Grandma and Grandpa’s parlor was a fairly large room (it seemed huge to me) that had the classic look of the early twentieth century. That would be at least one step back in time from when I was enjoying it in the mid-century forties.
The walls were tastefully papered and held some ancient looking framed pictures. Rather than a rug on the floor there was smooth, flower-patterned linoleum. Not centered in the room, yet a good five feet from one wall, stood a beautiful potbellied wood-burning heater, ornate with iron curlicues and nickel trimmings. It had a hinged door at the front, and in this was a several-paned little window made of transparent mica, through which one could see (on winter days or on cool summer nights when the stove was being used) the flames bobbing cheerfully. The four curly legs of the heater stood on a rectangular tin and cork mat that protected the floor from the heat. A stovepipe led up through the ceiling into Aunt Susie’s room and from there to a chimney on the roof. The reason for keeping much of the stovepipe uncovered was so that it could transmit more heat. Where it went up through the parlor ceiling it was framed by a circular iron grillwork about a foot and a half in diameter. This allowed more heat to come up from below into the room above.
One of the most beautiful items of furniture in the parlor was Grandma’s rocking chair. It stood at an angle in the corner closest to a door that led into Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. That already-mentioned chamber of mystery had two doors, this one and the one that led into it from the kitchen. (With the two doors, a child that had wandered into the room and was suffocating from the strange emotional vibrations of gloomy old-folks bedrooms, would have a better chance to escape.)
On that wall of the parlor where the bedroom door was, there was an interesting piece of furniture that I suppose one could call a forerunner of the sofa. We had plenty of sofas around in the forties–we called them chesterfields–but my grandparents didn’t have one. What they did have was a piece of furniture called a sleep-bench. It was upholstered like a sofa, although I don’t think it had springs, and it had no backrest and no armrests. One end of it had an up-curve that was in effect a built-in pillow. One could flop down on a sleep-bench and take a nap, but it could also be used for sitting. Strangely enough, no one ever seemed to mind that it didn’t have a backrest to lean against. But what if two people wanted to take a nap at the same time? Answer: Across the room from the sleep-bench was another sleep-bench, identical to the first. There were also four or five chairs in the parlor, beautifully crafted, dark wood, varnished; there was no shortage of seating space.
Grandma’s rocking chair, complete with a crocheted white decorative panel on its backrest, won first place for furniture proper in my mind, but I was sure that the most beautiful thing in the room was the kerosene lamp that hung from a chain in one corner. As well as its tall, graceful glass chimney, it had a glass shade that was decorated with pictures of colored, transparent flowers, causing it to look like part of a church window. And all around its edge hung slender crystals that reflected the amber light of the lamp’s flame.
In the wonderful cozy atmosphere of this room everyone would be gathered in the evenings, sitting on fancy wooden chairs, sleep-benches, and Grandma in her rocking chair. And what were we doing besides engaging in the Mennonite tradition of all talking at the same time?
We were eating apples that someone had brought up from the cellar, and cracking sunflower seeds. We would spit the shells out on the floor with perfectly innocent abandon. That was why linoleum was better than a rug on a parlor floor. When the seed-crunching orgy was over, the shells could easily be swept up.
Uncle Henry was, without a doubt, the world’s champion sunflower-seed-cracker. As he rapidly fed the seeds into one side of his mouth, a steady stream of empty shells arced out from the other side. No, he didn’t smoke while he was doing this.
Some of the happiest days of my childhood and boyhood life were spent immersed in the warm and happy glow of that parlor, that house, that farmstead.
It’s all gone now. There’s nothing there but an open field. Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Susie, Uncle Henry, and other members of that family, including my mother, have gone on to other-worldly adventures.
But I have them, and the place where they lived, in my memory. And by writing about it in this essay, I’ve been able to share with others a little bit of the beauty of it all.
(Just a reminder that all my previous postings are also available for your reading enjoyment.)