There were a few instances this Winter where I was struck with a foreign thought. In the last few weeks as Spring has arrived I’ve looked back on winter and lo and behold the same train of thought has returned. It is as follows:
“What if I grew to like the cold? What if the stark crispness of the winter air was a force of blunt newness rather than a reminder that every living thing around me is in a state of dormancy? What if this deep freeze is an opportunity to take a needed pause? What if I decide to look at it this way? Will my cracked skin and shocked lungs then crave these reactions to the cold? What if I learned to like, no, love these winter months and the eventual renewal that they bring?”
When we got here 19 months ago I could hardly imagine I would ever feel this way. The truth is that its somewhere inside of me; this love of the endless rolling hills, frozen Winters, abrupt Summer storms and the glacial pace at which Spring takes its rightful place, this love I’m starting to discover for the prairies.
Before the Hamels, Fortins, Banmans, and Gummesons ever resided in the lush greenery of Chilliwack they called the prairies their home.
My mother tells stories of her trips to Calgary and Cabri, Saskatchewan as a child. She also recalls when she returned to Cabri for her grandmothers funeral when she was about Jens age. These stories always struck me as a child. I imagined her taking in each of her moments there, drinking in what she could of that rich, yet dry prairie life.
When I was 11 we traveled to Cabri as a family. We went to the grave-site of my great-grandmother and my mothers tears fell into the muddy ground that had been created earlier that day by one of those abrupt summer storms I know all to well. Here was a place that held so many hidden moments of a life she once knew, of family members now gone to be with each other and the Almighty. And I left a bit of my own heart there, aware that when I return I will have the same gut reaction, and my own tears will fall where hers long ago rested.
There are stories from decades ago of life on the prairies when the prosperity we now know was not abundant. There were dry, devastating summers and cold equally devastating winters. There were family members who did not make it past infancy and outhouses as inviting as playing fetch with a grizzly bear cub. In all of this there are stories that remain past these days of difficulty.
I loved it when Mom would tell the story of an elderly woman whose disposition was wound as tightly as the bun on her head. She was my great-great-great grandmother. One afternoon she was fed up with the children in the house who labelled that particular day as ‘boring.’ She brought them out to a hill. Here she unraveled her bun and her character and consequently rolled down that hill all afternoon with the children. The afternoon flitted away and once she realized time was rapidly approaching the hour of supper she replaced her bun and resumed her regular programming. If I were one of those kids I’m sure that day would be an almost mythical experience, a glimpse into how life used to be for a woman who had left her carefree childhood far behind.
Then there is my paternal Grandfather, Papa Lou as the great-grandkids call him. He was born in Krupp, Saskatchewan, a place that doesn’t even exist today. He left home when he was 12 in 1935 to work in the midst of the dirty 30’s. He has hundreds of stories to tell of his youth. One of the most memorable for me was when he was asked to roof a building. He hired a crew to help him out. He paid them per shingle they laid at a reasonable, but not exorbitant rate. This rate, of course, did not exceed what he was promised he would be paid per shingle. Because of the crew he finished early and was paid more than expected. He turned quite a profit. He was always a business man. He’ll tell you that years later in his military days he ran into one of the guys that he hired. He said “Don’t you remember me. I’m one of the fools you hired for that roofing job.” They went on to be good friends.
He found his way out towards Cultus Lake, BC with the military where he met my grandmother a stunning brunette, at Sunday mass at the Canadian Forces Base in Chilliwack. They married each other in Medicine Hat, Alberta 65 years ago. They honeymooned at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary, which was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Papa was working for them so they were able to book their honeymoon at a discounted rate.
Before they would settle in BC they would spend a few years yet on those beloved flat lands. They had their first child, my Auntie Mary Virginia, in a little town called Camrose. 2 years later my father was born in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, the prairie dog capital of the world. My young grandmother who we call Nanny went into labor right after Papa performed in a play where he was dressed as an old man with white hair and aging makeup. I can only imagine what the nurses thought of this Winter-Spring couple.
I have my own memories of the prairies. My first trip taken all by myself was to visit baby Benno in Saskatoon on my Spring Break in grade 12. I was so excited to have little Benno in our lives and I remember the ache of leaving him the previous December in the first month of his life. I’ll never forget Jen picking me up from the airport. He was all smiles in his car seat strapped into the stroller. His eyes were an irresistible blue and I loved him even more than the first time I saw him.
While I was there Pope John Paul the Second passed away. Jen, Darren, Baby Benno and I huddled around their TV, topped with bunny ears and watched CBC’s coverage of the death of a man who meant so much to our generation of Catholics. I remembered seeing this great Pontiff in the flesh in Toronto 3 years earlier at World Youth Day. My faith had been ignited there thanks to his vision and I badly needed it again. That trip was the start of something new in my faith as I took long walks with Benno and Jen in the Saskatoon Winter discussing my current state of being. If anything seeing their strong marriage and simple, yet busy life reminded me what I really wanted. A beautiful marriage and a beautiful family.
When I returned home in April I noticed something different from all my previous trips home. Everything that I beheld looked slightly foreign to me. The trees look too damp. The grass was so green. All over the place was this strange, green, spongy growth. There were mountains constantly in my peripheral. The sky was more grey than blue. It was a feast for my eyes, which are now used to the muted tones of the Alberta landscape that I have grown accustomed to.
We drove home on Easter Monday. We drove by the greatest of mountains and saw more trees and green then you can imagine. Then we passed Banff and rolled into the foothills. Everything started looking so familiar. The big sky welcomed me home with its ever changing canvas that would make any human marvel at the beauty of this earth.
And then I knew. I’m crossing over.
My heart will always be in the mountains, spread across the greenest landscape you can imagine. I have left these parts of me in the Fraser Valley, in a beautiful house tucked in beside what is called a hill in BC and a towering summit in the flat lands of Alberta.
The longer I live in the prairies, the more I realize its a coming home of sorts. We may be here for 2 more years or 20 more years. Regardless of how long it is, this move, which was so abrupt and so unforeseen, has given me a home in my own right, the ability to appreciate what I had, and the gift to acknowledge what has been.