There are things that we did as children which seem to be total insanity from our own cautious adult point of view. The child, Yvonne, was not afraid to try things, but I was definitely less foolhardy than my sister Marsha and our friend Christine. On the day that we all climbed up to the top of the silo at her family’s neighbouring farm we were just doing what kids do. With that sense of immortality, that those who haven’t seen much death tend to have, pushing the boundaries is only natural.
True, Marsha and I had seen a dead kitten once, and a dead pig too, but if not for our friend Christine we wouldn’t have seen either. My parents were extremely protective of our little budding psyches in regards to animal’s births, deaths, and any attempts at procreation in between. Consequently, all it took was a quick phone call with an invitation to a pig funeral and we were on it like flies on a jam jar.
The pig was the runt of the litter, and had not survived. Somehow or other Christine had sneaked it away from her father or her older brothers who would have certainly given it a much simpler burial. It was a tiny fresh corpse, and to our great relief the pig easily fit into the shoebox that Christine had lined with an old piece of red fabric, without us having to do any cutting —to the shoe box, not the pig! (We were farm girls, not barbarians!) It was a simple thing for Christine to gently arrange the pig’s little body into a natural lying down position. With its front legs forward, and it tiny head resting on them, it looked very much as if it would be happy with a tiny green apple in its mouth.
Let’s be honest. How would I know if it looked “natural” in the position it was resting in or not? The only dead pig I had ever seen before this occasion was one in a cartoon, and it had an apple in its mouth. The little piggy’s eyes were at least, for our sakes, mercifully closed; otherwise it would most definitely have freaked us out. To the pig, I’m sure; it would have made no difference.
The hole for the pig’s burial was dug before we got there. Christine put it close to the wall of the shed, where huge crates of apples were sometime stacked in season, because there was no orchard grass to struggle with digging through there. After Chris telephoned and told us to come over pronto, right after the tragic event happened, Mom called us to sit down and have a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Marsha and I worked hard at acting like we had nowhere to go and nothing to do. We felt that otherwise Mom would have been suspicious. Why? I have no idea. Christine was always calling to ask us to come over and Mom never gave it a moment’s thought on any of those other occasions. Maybe our thoughts that Mom would have been suspicious had a lot to do with the guilt we were having. If we were off to see and learn about something that we hadn’t seen or learned about at our house, then it must be bad to see or learn about it in the first place. Right? Let’s all just blame the nuns for this. It must have been because of the nuns at Our Lady Immaculate School in nearby Strathroy.
Marsha and I had recently had to leave our one room school for two weeks and go there to prepare for our First Holy Communion. Mom and Dad were told that there was a lot to learn, and the Priest felt it was best that we gather with all the other Catholic kids to be taught what we needed to know, all together. No matter how isolated we felt from our neighbourhood school friends while going through it, especially as they walked past our yard after school when we were already home playing, and the big kids yelled stuff like “Hey Catholic kids! Whatcha’ doin’ Catholic kids?” (It didn’t take much to embarrass me in those years; I was shy, and this kind of attention was mortifying!) I was glad about one thing that happened in that two-week period. Amidst all the non-stop rote learning of catechism questions, most of them about sin, Mother Lucia taught us the best song I had ever learned up to that point, about a Kookaburra that sits in an old gum tree. I thought at the time that Australia must have been a great place— to have gum growing on trees!
(Sorry, rambling a bit is my thing when I reminisce,—now, back to the funeral.)Christine went into the house and brought out her Gideon student’s presentation Bible. Marsha and I had one too, but we had neglected to bring ours along. How were we to know that this was going to be a churchy kind of thing? Otherwise, we would have brought along our hats. In those years the Catholic Church took Saint Paul’s rules about women’s head-coverings to mean that a woman not covering her head during church was sinful . The two of us weren’t women yet , nor were we in church, but we thought it prudent to ask Christine to bring us each something to cover our heads with. She went back into the house and brought us out two hankies; I think they were clean; that I don’t remember, but even if they weren’t, a dirty hanky on your head was better than no hanky if it kept you from sinning. Then she opened up her little red Gideon Bible and read the 23rd Psalm— The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want…
“ Poor little piggy. You are dead.” I thought. “But you won’t want to have some milk that you can’t have because your mother doesn’t have enough nipples to go around for you and all your brothers and your sisters, so that you have to starve. You can have all the milk you want in Heaven… and honey too! ” Then we sang some of the hymns as best we could, from what we could remember from school. All of us used to sing them together every morning with Mrs. Clark in the one room school, S.S. No.11. down the road. Then we put the box in the ground, and took turns throwing dirt on it. We gathered wild daisies and clover flowers and sprinkled them all over the little pile too. After that we rubbed the tears out of our eyes with the fronts of our shirts and then ran off to watch the cows jumping on one another’s backs. They were so terrible at leap-frog, they should have just given up!
Oh yes, I’m so sorry, I almost forgot to tell you about the other funeral, the kitten’s. It was almost the same as the pig’s, but this time we were able to attend it guilt free. That’s because it was a spontaneous event, triggered by the discovery of a poor little kitty that had died a few days before. Marsha and Christine and I had been hiding all indication of our afternoon’s earlier activity, screened from view, behind the chicken house. Christine had brought some matches from the house and we lit fire to the little pile of twigs we had collected around the orchard, in a place where no one could see what we were up to, right up against the back wall of the wooden coop— Good Heaven’s No! Not a cremation! Though, considering the state of the kitten we had found, that might have been a good option.
Earlier in the afternoon, we had found a tin pie plate in the yard, which may or may not have been used to transport scraps out to the chickens. Christine gave it a quick rinse under a tap, and then we chopped up some nice juicy yellow plums in it. Forgive my errors or omissions here. Marsha’s version of this story is that it was peppers and onions, but I think it was big yellow juicy plums picked right off the tree behind the Derbyshire’s house. Just then the afternoon suddenly took a new direction, and fortunately so did the wind, putting out our fledgling fire under our cooking before we burned down the dry old coop!
That was the moment Christine found the kitten, and it would definitely require a hasty burial. This time a Kleenex box would have to suffice. The problem was that although the kitten was tiny, much smaller than the Kleenex box, she did not fit into it. Suffice it to say, that the tail needed a tail gate to be cut into the box so that the tail might remain outside it, (because it could definitely not be made to go inside with its owner.) The handkerchiefs came out again. (Kleenex just wouldn’t stay on our heads.) The little Gideon Bible was once again called into use, but I don’t recall too clearly what we sang— some hymns we could all remember well enough from our own school’s opening exercises, and maybe even the one Catholic song I learned from Mother Lucia at Catholic school— “ Laugh Kookaburra! Laugh Kookaburra! That′s not a monkey, that’s me Ha Ha Ha ! That’s not a monkey that′s me!”
Rising up the wall of the silo, there were widely spaced bars that a man could climb up like a ladder—a man, because they were spaced at a man-step distance apart, and they were steel bars, not step-ladder steps that you could easily have stood on in flip-flops. They were put there for a farmer in rubber boots, not a young girl in flimsy foot-wear. Our goal was to walk around on top of the upper perimeter of the silo and get a 360º view of the neighbourhood, to feel the breeze in our hair and the pounding of our hearts. I was the third one up, but at the last possible second I refused to go any further. My knees were trembling too much to lift even one of my feet off the top bar, let alone the second one! To somehow plant them on the narrow concrete surface up above that, was totally out of the question!
I had already seen what death looked like. As far as I could see, it was total stillness, and that was what bothered me. So, unlike my sister, Marsha, and our friend Christine, I don’t have the bragging rights to the circumnavigation of the silo— barefoot, in flip-flops, or any other way. Perhaps I might have done otherwise if there had been someone queuing up behind me, keeping me moving forward, but there wasn’t, and instead I chose to retreat. I chose not see the world from on high that day. I wasn’t willing to take the risk. I just wasn’t ready yet.