The relationship between my mother Jeannie and her future mother-in-law Myrtle was strained from the very day that my dad Bill brought her home to meet his family in their big yellow brick farm house near Melbourne, Ontario. It was just after the Second World War, and she had the grave misfortune to be of German descent. Little did it matter that her own brother had fought against the Germans or that she and her family had suffered as much as they had during the war. Mumbled behind red paisley handkerchiefs, her family were “immigrants…dirty Germans” and discussed at Ladies Aid meetings— “Catholics too!” and that was all that mattered to many of the smug long- settled Scottish Presbyterians in the farming community they had chosen to settle in. It was my mother Jean’s 16th birthday when she arrived in Canada, a day she remembers vividly as a very sad and tearful one.
It was of no consequence to the intolerant ones that she had actually been born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where her mother, father and three oldest siblings had settled decades before and where six more of her older siblings had been born. Ethnically, she was on the wrong side of the tracks and they seemed to set their faces in rigid masks of disinterest whenever she spoke of sitting on the front stoops of girlfriends during the war, and how they all wept bitterly together when the dreaded telegrams came to their own or their neighbours homes. Perhaps her natural American tendency to be so open in discussing her feelings put up another wall between her and these stoic descendents of kilt- wearing warriors who headed off to snowy highland battlegrounds, carrying cold haggis along as a treat.
My grandfather, James Levi Stephenson, however, was fond of Jean, this bubbly young American woman who loved his son. After the wedding, his approval was a much needed encouragement to this eighteen year-old city girl, so unfamiliar with the day to day routines of farm life and struggling to adjust. Whether it was feeding the chickens, cleaning the eggs or stoking the fire in the kitchen’s big old cook range, she never seemed to be able to do things to the satisfaction of her mother-in-law. No doubt it was an extremely steep learning curve.
When baby Marsha was born, fourteen months into the marriage, despite the tensions between Myrtle and Jean she became immediately the apple of her grandmother’s eye, rocked, crooned to, and enjoyed as every little one ought to be. It was on my grandma’s floors and at my grandma’s feet that she first learned to crawl and she may in all liklihood have taken her first steps towards her as readily as towards her parents and so it was, I am told, that I became lost in the potato fields. I suppose you could say that this is jumping ahead a bit when last you heard about me was the day of my birth.
Actually, the way the story goes from here is partly gleaned from having been told it and partly from memory. Nevertheless, it wasn’t her or anyone else’s deliberate meanness that drove me to run off to the potato fields for solace, but simply someone’s callous disregard. I still remember the reason I was upset. It was all about the gravy! I loved chicken, and I loved turkey too, but mostly because of the gravy. My mother was a wonderful cook, having learned some pretty amazing culinary skills from her own mother. My maternal grandmother, a wonderful warm and loving woman we all called Mum, had been born into an poverty-stricken peasant family. Perhaps they didn’t call them peasants in the early 1900’s anymore, but in any case due to the dire financial state of her family she was sent away to be part of the kitchen staff in a castle belonging to a member of the Hungarian aristocracy— a bit like a Downton Abby character, but in this case true. In that environment the skills required of everyone from cook to scullery maid were exceedingly demanding. Consequently she became a gifted cook who in later years taught my mother, the youngest of 10 children, all that she knew, especially how to make awesome gravy!
So, it was goose-killing time on my Aunt Irene’s farm, and to celebrate the completion of this arduous task she, my father’s oldest sister, had brought a dead goose to her mother and father’s house. I don’t blame her one bit for celebrating the slaughter. Her geese were notoriously vicious, chasing my sister and me around her yard until one of them caught us by the back of the arm or the back of the leg, with its horrible honking beak. It always left behind a big red painful welt which then turned purple, later green, and last of all yellow.This particular goose had caused more pain than snapping a mousetrap on your middle finger or getting your toe caught under the screen door. He had been in the oven all afternoon and Marsha and I could smell him in our yard next door as he roasted away in all his goosey, gravy-smelling glory. We wondered how he would taste and Marsha said she didn’t really care; it would just be fun to eat him because he had hurt us both so much.
That was when the big wooden wall phone in the kitchen rang out loudly through the window. Then my mother called my sister Marsha inside. She told her to go put on her fancy clothes and her Sunday shoes. She was invited to go and sit at the big dining room table at my grandmother’s house for dinner. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t allowedto go to my grandmother’s house and eat the goose. For sure and certain there just wasn’tany way that Marsha was going to be able to sneak out some gravy for me in her pocket either! In fact her little red kilt and her fancy flounced blouse didn’t even have any pockets. Not even any hope of getting a scrap of crispy golden skin, lint covered or not!
But, back to the reason I got lost in the potato field. My father was a wonderful potato farmer. He seemed to know everything a man should know in order to make a sandy Caradoc township field yield more bushels of potatoes per acre than any farm for miles around .He even had the Potato Club certificates and prizes to prove it. On the day of the forbidden goose feast my dad was out cultivating in the most distant field on our 100 acre farm, the furthest back corner from our house. I decided in my weepy- eyed state to go seek him out for solace. My mother had tried to petition on my behalf that I might also be permitted to join my grandmother and my grandfather, my two aunts and their husbands, my two cousins and my sister at their feasting. Didn’t my grandmother know that her chairs were big enough and that my sister and I were small enough that we could even share one if we had to─ we were already used to sharing?
Off to the field I trudged, hands in overalls pockets, in pursuit of the person I knew was never too busy to dole out a little sympathy− my daddy. It was a warm day and the bees were buzzing and the butterflies were fluttering by, but never-the-less I wasn’t about to get slowed down by distractions on my mission to reach my beloved father. Just then I spotted them- the cutest little green marbles I had ever seen! Somehow I had never even seen them before, growing on the potato plants amidst the dark green leaves. They were waiting there just for me to collect them and to surprise everyone! One by one, I began carefully choosing only those that were all the same size, here and there, plant by plant, row by row, gathering some for me and some for Marsha, and some for little brother Butchy and some for Baby who got to keep the name Baby, even though we already had another baby then, and for Kathy whom we had to call The Baby so that we could tell her and Baby apart. When both my pockets were full, one for Marsha and one for me I made three little piles, one for each of the rest of my siblings. By then the sun was starting to beat down hotter and hotter and my tear-swollen eyelids were starting to get heavier and heavier. I would just rest there for a minute or two in the cool shade at the base of the plants and then I would go on to find my dad. Would Daddy ever be surprised at what I had found!
The bees were buzzing, and the butterflies were fluttering by, those pretty little yellow ones that lived in our cabbage patch, fluttering by… fluttering by… fluttering…… Suddenly a sharp upwards tug brought me immediately to my feet. A whack, then a hug, and then another whack on my behind; fierce hugging and then tears, both mine and hers streamed down our faces and mixed all together as she hugged and kissed me again and again. The taste of my mother’s tears and my own all mingled together. I tried to think just what they tasted like. And then I figured it out …It was love!