Lori Knutson

Author

Gifts

I can’t keep from thinking today. Usually I don’t dwell on things but today’s different and I find ideas sticking to my mind like summer flies to honey.

It’s not summer. Outside these living room windows I can see that the snow’s piling up high and light as goose down on the barn roof and, on the tops of the fence posts, it does a most delicate balancing act, staying atop its narrow perch, all the while growing taller and taller. Soon I’m sure it’ll topple off. Everyone knows that you can only stack things so high before they fall. The cedar waxwings found that ball of suet I hung from the mountain ash. A few of them sit watching from the clothesline, the frost they knock off with their clutching feet drifting down like diamonds in the sun. Thirty others or so feast on those dry, red berries and pick away at the fat I saved for them. Pretty, really. Still, the view reminds me that spring’s a long ways off.

We got this coffee table the year we finally moved out to the farm after all those years of renting. The table was a gift from my parents. Not solid wood but a good veneer. The soft white cloth, graying and fraying at the edges from dust and use, follows the direction my arm gives it, moving in slow, deliberate circles over its oval top. The doily from the table’s centre along with my little china doll holding a brightly hand-painted bouquet close against her chest prettily, possessively, lay together on the braided rug.

That same china doll with her bright blue eyes used to sit on my mother’s bedroom dresser when I was a child. Not that I saw her all the time. My parents’ bedroom was off limits to Stella and me, and I keep that same rule today in my own house. But when I knew I could get away with it, I would sneak into Mother and Father’s room and look at all the grown up things, smell the perfume and night cream, press my face into the little lacey pillows that no one ever slept on. Mother’s nightgown, hanging on the back of the door, invited me to run my hand down its cool, smooth length as the circular mirror mounted on the dresser invited me to look a bit too long.

The china doll watched it all. She observed me stroking Mother’s silk, sniffing the perfume without actually spraying any, carefully lifting each item (including her) off the dresser, handling everything and then exactly replacing them. With her unblinking eyes, the doll witnessed the wonder in my own. It was the year of my sixteenth birthday that she found her way from Idaho into Alberta, from Mother's dresser and into my Hope chest. I wonder sometimes if my mother had also silently witnessed my clandestine admiration of that elegant figurine, as the doll was her only possession that she gave to me for my Hope chest. It’s true that she helped me embroider sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths, that together we knit and tatted doilies and potholders, collected various bits of house ware here and there. But the doll had been her own – a gift from her favourite aunt.

The Hope chest itself wasn’t actually a chest at all but a discarded apple crate. It was just the perfect size and so when I found it in the shed out behind our new home in the country, I was thrilled. I brought it up to my new room, bigger than the one in Kellogg and with a sloping ceiling, and stowed it away under my narrow bed. After that, every chance we got, Mother and I would think of things with which to fill it – all in anticipation of my wedding day.

Now with half-moon circles forming on my knees where I kneel on the rug, I remember his rough hands moving over my body and the dust cloth ceases its motion, coming to lay still on my lap. Anticipation. I can’t remember what I ever looked forward to. Seems too long ago to recall, like a sheet of grey gauze has settled over my head and shoulders so I can’t see either ahead or behind. But wait. Here’s a thought – a memory, actually.

If I remember correctly, I was about seventeen. Yes. That has to be right because that was the year after we moved up to Alberta and I was working as domestic help over at the Royer’s place just outside of town. They had some place! A large, neatly mowed yard, outbuildings and house all painted fresh white with forest green trim, flower beds all along the front of the house and one huge bed in the centre of the turn-around in their driveway. In those days they had a car, too, which really set them apart although in the years I worked there – three and a half altogether -- I never got to ride in it. Didn’t expect to. But I would admire that car when it was parked in front of the house, picture myself in that black, shiny automobile, moving down main street and garnering envious looks from those folks on foot or in wagons.

I mostly liked working there. What I really liked was the walk. Well, not on those cold winter mornings when the slightest breeze could nearly slice open the thick scarf I wound around my face, but during the other seasons that half mile walk along the fences, fields and trees gave me time to myself, time to think. And it was pleasant what with the songbirds, the changing colours in the fall, wildflowers in the ditch and sometimes, in that little bluff just west of the highway, there were deer grazing. A lone animal one day, perhaps ten the next. Whenever I’d approach, they’d lift their heads from grazing, noses dew-wet, eyes fixed on me suspiciously, waiting for the cue to run. After a long moment or two they’d usually return to pulling at the grass or hay at their feet. Not very often did they opt for safety over food. But I suppose I didn’t appear as much of a threat, gangly young woman I was walking briskly along the side of the gravel road.

One spring afternoon, at least a couple of years into my employment there, I sat in the sunroom off the living room overlooking that huge lawn. I’d just got into a stack of mending. Everything: socks, pants, dresses, mittens. Lots of work to do but I always liked that better than having to pretend I was busy. Fortunately, the nature of Mrs. Royer didn’t often permit me to sit idle, so needing to feign busy-ness never became a problem. “

Ellie? What are you thinking of, girl? You’re miles away. I asked if you could leave that for a bit and head out to the barn.”

I wondered how long she’d been standing there in the doorway and felt my face get hot. She came and sat down lightly on the edge of the other chair. Absently, she fingered the cuff of her husband’s denim pants, the torn-out knee lying face up. I continued with the sewing held in my lap even though I could feel her watching me.

“What’s that in your pocket, dear?”

I glanced down and sure enough, out of my apron pocket stuck an edge of the folded newspaper picture.

“Let’s have a look, shall we?” Boldly, she plucked the paper from where it hid and unfolded the neat rectangle. Mrs. Royer let out a low whistle and suddenly I knew what she must’ve been like when she was my age. “My, my ... Who’s this?” She held up that picture from the Kellogg newspaper for me to see as if it were something I’d never seen before. Truth is, I’d studied that face and body nearly every day for the past two and a half years, ever since that trip my mother and I took back to Idaho to visit my aunt. That picture was etched onto the surface of my brain.

The day I’d discovered my love we were visiting at my aunt’s neighbour’s place, drinking coffee and eating the banana loaf she offered us. I remember that she was a fat, serious woman who talked disparagingly at length about her new daughter-in-law. Not long into the monologue (although it seemed like hours!) I couldn’t feign the slightest interest any longer so I asked if I might skim through the local newspaper that lay folded, not yet opened, on the corner of the table. Our host waved a dismissive hand, the ruddy, sagging weight under her arms swaying violently. She tucked her response to me in between her theories regarding happy and miserable marriages. “Go ahead. Not so much to read about, I don’t suppose. I never look at it. It’s Carl’s subscription.”

I moved into the other empty chair at the table so that I’d have room to spread the paper out away from the plate of cake and the coffee mugs. He was the first thing I saw when I opened that small-town weekly. In a picture that took up about one quarter of the page, he knelt on one knee, the other out in front of him, foot flat on the ground. On that extended knee, he balanced his helmet. His perfectly combed hair betrayed the fact that he hadn’t actually worn the helmet prior to the photograph being taken and from this, I also surmised that those shoulder pads were, in this instance, for looks, not for protection. That jersey probably hadn’t soaked up any sweat yet that day, either.

He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wonder what Carl thought when he turned to the Sports page and found a perfect rectangular hole and about a quarter of his page missing.

“I don’t know who he is,” I confessed to Mrs. Royer. “Just a picture I found in a newspaper.” What I didn’t tell is that when I met a man who looked like that, I planned to marry him.

She continued to study the photo and, after a moment, she stood up and handed me the clipping. “Well, those chores aren’t going to do themselves. Better get out to the barn. Could you bring in my sweater, dear? I think it’s hanging on that nail by the door.”

Once inside the dark interior of the barn, the air humid from the livestock’s thick breathing, I stopped beside the nail from which hung Mrs. Royer’s old brown sweater, the one she wore for outdoor chores in the early spring and late fall. I brought out the picture and noticed it was becoming yellowed and so tattered. I felt suddenly angry with my employer. What gave her the right to touch you, to take you from me, and stare and talk about you as if she’d like to know you. As if you’d even give her the time of day, the old cow.

It’d been that way the entire time I worked there. I liked to do my jobs quickly and go home, but she’d always interrupt me, stopping me part way through something, sending me elsewhere and then scolding me for not finishing the thing I’d started. I got through by telling myself that when I got married, all the work I did would be for me and my family. Then when I saw her downtown on a Saturday night, I could walk right by and pretend not to see her, not have to talk to her at all. Of course, I did speak to her downtown and at church after I was married. Last week, I baked a carrot cake for the lunch following her funeral.

I remember the day I finally met him. Two men were to arrive that morning to help with the season’s cultivating, planting and calving on the big farm on the town’s edge, and Mrs. Royer had asked me to make breakfast for them. In that way, the Royer’s were generous. Their hired men worked hard but they were well paid and well fed.

By the time he tapped on the screen door, I was frying ham and stirring pancake batter. Even now, the smell of frying pork can remind me of seeing him that first time, of how I froze there on the other side of the screen door, my heart thudding and my mouth drying, the man from the Kellogg weekly’s Sports page smiling at me, waiting for me to let him in.

“Mornin. This the Royer place?”

I think I nodded and slowly opened that door with its familiar squeak, stepping aside to give him room to take off his boots. I forgot to offer to hang up his coat but he took it off anyway and slung it neatly over the chair in the porch.

“Here.” I took the coat from the back of the chair and hung it over Mrs. Royer’s chore sweater from one of the hooks lining the wall. Not daring to look directly at him, I asked leading him into the kitchen, “Do you play football?”

“What? Well, no. Don’t think I ever have. That ham smells good. What’s your name?”

“Ellie.”

He pulled a chair out and sat down. “I’m Cully.” He glanced around and asked, “Where’s Mr. Royer?”

“Out checking the cows. He had a couple calve during the night. Mrs. Royer’ll be down in a minute. You’re early.” Now I looked at him. He sat straight in his chair, relaxed but polite. His stature may’ve been slighter than that of the football player but that handsome face was his mirror image.

“You their daughter?”

The idea seemed ludicrous but how could he know? And so I answered him straight. “No – I work for them. Have for a few years now. They never had kids.” I stirred the pancake batter and shook my head slightly. “Weren’t able to.”

“Hmm. So what d’you do here?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him lean his forearms on the bare tabletop and watch me intently. Not my face or the back of my head but my back – and lower. My bottom and maybe my calves, too. I tried not to move at all as I turned the ham slices. Before I could answer, Mrs. Royer was right there.

“Oh, you’re early. Are you Culvar or Donald?”

He stood up and extended his right hand. “Morning. I’m Cully Jullsen.”

Mrs. Royer took his hand but didn’t seem to know what to do with it and let it go nearly as quickly as she touched it. Her eyes hadn’t left his face. As he sat back down, she pulled out a chair across from him.

“Would you like some coffee? Is it ready, Ellie?” I brought the pot from the stove and nearly dropped it when she remarked to Culvar, “My, you look familiar. You don’t play football, do you?”

* * *

Six months later, he asked me to marry him. Two and a bit years after that, he felt he could afford to – or that he’d never be able to so might as well marry me, anyway, poor or not. And poor we were. Right after we married, we rented a small house about a mile south of town, on the same road as the Royer’s and a mile and a bit west of my folks’. I quit work for them a week prior to my wedding day and was quite surprised when they presented me with a twenty-five dollar bonus upon my departure. Still, I was glad to be gone. Not that my new life was easier, mind you.

That house we rented for those first few months had stood empty and open for over a year before we inquired about it. Mr. Johnson, on whose property it sat, took us through it the Friday before I finished work.

“Not much around to rent right now, I don’t figure. You kids’d be smart to take this right now. Had another couple asking bout it just the other day,” he warned us as he lumbered on ahead, his tall, soiled cowboy hat almost brushing the top of the door frame as he moved up the stairs and into the bedroom at the top of the stairs. A narrow, rusty twin bed frame sat alone under the window. My eyes scanned the floor, dirty and littered with cigarette butts, newspaper, and beer bottle caps. Except for the torn girlie calendar on its floor dated 1927, the floor throughout the rest of the house looked the same, as far as I could tell. And we weren’t helping. Because the weather was so warm that day, Culvar and I had decided to walk out to the Johnson’s from town instead of taking my father’s wagon. The mud from the quickly vanishing snow along the roadways now found its way into the house. Mr. Johnson didn’t seem to notice.

“Looks like there’s been some parties out here.” Back downstairs, he nudged a stout brown bottle with the pointy toe of his boot from where it lay under a bench along the kitchen wall. There were six of these benches in the house. Three in the living room, three in the kitchen. They looked like they’d come from a church or maybe a schoolhouse. They had all been painted light blue a very long time ago. “I’ll talk to my boys.”

The Johnson boys were hoodlums. There’s no better term for it and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable living on the same land as them even if there was a good two-and-a-half miles or so between our dwellings. A few years back, there’d been a rumour that the two of them had been suspected of killing a railroad worker when he’d confronted them about hopping a ride. That was somewhere in the States and the story started to go around shortly after they’d returned home from looking for work there. Who can know for sure if it’s true. They never went to jail.

No word of a lie. I cried everyday for a month after we moved into that place. Oh, not in front of Culvar, after I’d gone on and on about how I’d finally be freed from my drudgery at the Royer’s. Down on my knees scraping petrified blobs of pink chewing gum from the living room walls, memories of my former work softened, seemed distant and, in a way, like a sheltered place. I thought that marriage would give me that protected feeling. Instead, I felt exposed.

Right off the bat, the work was so much harder than most of what I’d done as a domestic. For that first month, I worked from the time Culvar left the house before the sun rose until after it had set and he’d returned. During that initial week, I darted from one task to another, like a worker bee, overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of pollen in a meadow of flowers. I never completed one chore before I noticed another that took immediate precedence. I’d polish one pane of glass, scrub and wring one sheet, peel potatoes, varnish one stair, wire-brush the flaking paint from one window sill.

The second week brought a need for order and routine, and the new idea that I was my boss. For the first time in my life, I made a list. Since that day, I haven’t stopped listing directions for myself, what I should accomplish each day. The day the lists cease, so will I.

Three weeks into it, I still woke up wanting to cry and as soon as Culvar was gone, I did. Then I’d straighten up, take from my apron pocket the list I’d made prior to supper the evening before and I’d do the first thing on it before I allowed myself breakfast. Most days, I’d cry before I expected him back, too. I suppose I was tired but the lists made each day seem doable:

  1. clean out cabinet under sink
  2. put cleaning supplies in cabinet – make rags
  3. dust top shelves
  4. line with paper
  5. plates to the left of sink; cups to the right
  6. pots and pans beneath
  7. put extra plates in box - take to the church Sunday
  8. sweep kitchen area
  9. mix bread – let rise while mending pants
  10. bring in wood
  11. sweep
  12. bake bread
  13. cook supper – stew
  14. do dishes
  15. read Psalm 148

By the end of March, I knew my job and got through the days without crying.

Culvar and I had an argument on that second Friday in April – the first day I’d been happy about my new life. It had been warm and clear for the duration of the day, what was left of the snow under the bushes and in the trees, shrinking quickly. I saw a robin outside the kitchen window in the willow tree and thought she must be singing for her mate but she remained alone all afternoon. She pecked around the warming ground at the base of the tree and about the yard, returning often to a branch so she could look over the land and call out.

Looking at that bird, I realized spring was here, and that I was married to the man I’d hoped for and we shared a home together, a home I’d managed to make clean and livable. Some task, let me tell you. I’d made buns and the kitchen smelled warm and good, with the window over the sink propped open with my butter mould to let the fresh air in. Behind my ears, I’d sprayed a little of the Eau de Toilette I’d bought for my wedding night. When I heard the rusty turn of the door knob, my heart leapt.

“Hi.” I left the stove and came to the door to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. He turned to hang his work coat on its peg before answering.

“Hi.” My husband moved past me into the kitchen, washed his hands in the basin, sprinkled a bit of water on the back of his neck and dried off with the tea towel.

I’d followed him in from the porch. “How was your day, dear?” Gave the gravy a stir and poked at the potatoes with a fork. They were done. He shrugged and kind of grunted so I pressed on.

“What’s the matter? Wasn’t a good day?” I walked over to where he sat at the table and lay a hand on his shoulder. He stiffened.

Without looking at me, he snapped, “Look it, Ellie, I wasn’t just at home all day, cooking and relaxing. I worked hard, an for nothin, so right now, I’d just like you to leave me alone.” Culvar stood up and stalked across the kitchen and up the stairs to our bedroom. He shut the door hard and I felt a lump rise in my throat as a large tear slid down my cheek. The gravy bubbled and I removed it from the stove along with the potatoes.

Then a wave of heat rose in me, hotter than that stove and making my heart pound and my palms sweat. I wiped my hands on the tea towel he’d used a moment ago and let it drop to the floor. My chapped hands tightly gripped the counter’s edge as I steadied myself, fearing that the spinning in my head would cause me to fall. Blood pounded in my ears, my feet and hands tingled. I wanted so badly to take that empty pitcher from the top of the icebox and hurl it against the wall. Instead, I found my voice.

Following the path he’d taken up to our bedroom, I burst through the door he’d closed, letting it slam up against the wall, causing a scar there that would remain until we moved out. Culvar lay stretched out on the bed, hands behind his head. He still wore his boots.

“Get your boots off my bed!” He didn’t move, didn’t even open his eyes and so I stepped forward and tugged his feet off the edge of the bed. He didn’t shift back while I spoke but allowed his legs to remain sticking out rigidly over the edge of the mattress.

“You have no idea what I do around here!” Each word exact as a knife thrust. “You think you’re the only one working? I have scrubbed this shack top to bottom for a month! Cooked your meals and washed your clothes! I made us a place to live out of a glorified granary! Haven’t seen anyone, haven’t done anything but slave away, not expecting you to notice my work but hoping one day, just one day, you might!” I let out a short heavy breath, a disgusted, exasperated kind of sound, then I told the truth. “I wish I never got married!”

I stomped from the room before he could see my tears. Grabbing my coat from the porch and slipping on my rubber boots, I shoved out the back door and walked blindly down the rutted path that lead to the road. The breeze was cool and I wrapped my arms tightly about myself, walking rapidly, fuelled by adrenaline, the product of long-awaited fury. I’m sure I muttered like a crazy woman all along that dark path until finally, about the time I’d reached the road into town, my mind calmed. It was then I noticed how still, how serene was this night world outside that house on Hughenden Lake. Stopping in the middle of the wide gravel road, I let my hands hang loose at my sides and tipped my head back, eyes towards heaven. The night was clear. A million stars and a million possibilities in them. I wondered if I was pregnant. Stars made me think of babies ever since Birdie, Culvar’s mom, told me that those tiny lights in the sky are tiny souls watching and waiting to be born. That, at least, was something I could look forward to.

Eventually, the chilly spring air packaged in black compelled me to make my way back to the house. I prayed he’d be asleep when I got there, and thank God he was. Our uneaten supper sat cold on the counter top. For some reason, my husband had taken out a bowl and a couple of cookie sheets, as if he expected me to bake into the night. I lit the lamp in the centre of the kitchen table and opened my Bible. Tomorrow would be another day, I thought. When I was younger, I had quite a bit of spunk.

When I woke the next morning, Saturday it was, Culvar was gone. I felt the sheets next to me and found them to be warm. Did he decide to go to work? Did that miserable farmer want to take yet more of my husband’s time? I flipped back the covers and my feet felt the rag mat beside our bed. It was probably seven-thirty or eight, and light filled the kitchen as I tied my robe and made my way to the stove where the coffee pot waited. He hadn’t even made himself coffee. Just left.

I put a pot on to perk, made the bed and got dressed. My first cup I drank from the mug from which the least enamel had chipped, thumbing through Mom’s newest Eaton’s catalogue and watching the birds out the window, flitting from branch to bare branch against the blue backdrop of sky. Reaching out across the table top, I pulled today’s list towards me. I would start the day making dough for the cinnamon buns we’d take over to Culvar’s mom’s tomorrow. I jumped when the back doorknob screeched.

“Hello?” I called and got up from my chair. Culvar stood in the doorway of the porch leading into the living room. In his hand, he held a little purple flower.

He looked at me and then down at the crocus. Holding it out to me as I approached, he explained, “Found it on the west coulee hill. First one I seen. Hope you like this kind.”

I threw my arms around his neck, breathing him in, morning air in his hair, and then we did something we hadn’t yet. We went back to bed. Every spring since, he’s brought me the first crocus he finds.

* * *

Today I’m thirty-five and as I finish up this dusting that’s taken me nearly an hour (a task that should take ten minutes), I remember the crocus that brought us together and another gift that has forced apart. Marriage’s that way: the distance between a man and wife is variable and never static. Sometimes miles, sometimes an inch, and the distance can change within a heartbeat, or the closing or widening of the gap can be so gradual that you don’t notice it until it’s too late. This morning, it’s a chasm formed as suddenly and as violently as if by a split in the earth’s crust.

Culvar has never forgotten my birthday or our anniversary. He’s good at remembering special occasions and although not extravagant or overtly romantic in his gift-giving, always thoughtful. He’s bought me several household goods I’ve wanted – not needed, mind you, but special little gadgets to make life easier or simply nicer. Surprisingly, he has good taste in linens, and has, in the past, presented me with lovely sheet sets, woven tablecloths, and napkins. Pieces of flowered china trimmed and etched with gold – a pitcher, a gravy boat, a platter – all delivered Christmas morning. Seeds for my flower and vegetable garden along with gardening gloves. These are some of the offerings I recall with special fondness.

This morning’s gift, the morning of my thirty-fifth birthday, unlike the others, was both extravagant and romantic. And now, I wish he’d never bothered. This is the birthday he should’ve forgotten.

Even before breakfast was on the table this morning, I received the card. Culvar came in from feeding the cows while I was beginning to prepare our morning meal, measuring out oatmeal and breaking eggs into my medium-size bowl. He’d must’ve had it in his coat pocket as he did chores because the envelope was cold as the January air when he handed it to me, and the edges were creased from the shift of his coat as he forked hay and poured chop.

“What’s this?” I pretended to have forgotten my own birthday. It’s a game we play. He remembers. I pretend to forget. He stooped down to pick a large piece of straw from his wool sock and smiled up at me. A flash of green, eyes bright beneath dark, moist lashes.

“Happy birthday, Ellie.”

I left the stove, joining him at the table with my coffee and bringing a mug to him. The oatmeal bubbled on the stovetop in its heavy pot, the fire in the stove beneath it crackling. (Next week, the gas range from Eaton’s would finally arrive.) Culvar had sealed the envelope. As he sipped the too-hot coffee and stared at some far off spot in the living room, I slid my finger into the envelope’s corner where the flap hadn’t perfectly adhered. I opened the gift with a jagged tear and removed the card. It was large, adorned with out-of-focus roses and sweeping, gold writing. Unlike any card I’d ever been given. “To My Wife, With Love, On Her Birthday.” I opened the card and out slid the crisp twenty dollar bill revealing the words he’d written in ink: I love you. Cully. I’d never seen the words on paper like that.

“Oh ...” Twenty dollars is a lot of money. The thought of it now makes me sick to my stomach.

“Thought you might wanta buy yourself some cloth, make a dress or two.” He shrugged and grinned. “Maybe order a dress outta your mom’s catalogue. That’d be a treat. Save you all that sewin.”

It was just this morning that I’d leaned across that sun-drenched table and kissed my husband right on the lips, whispering, “Thank you.”

I called up the stairs. “Kristoffer! Regina! Come down! I’ve got something to show you!” As he snatched the card from my hand, I heard their bedroom doors open and their feet hit the staircase. By the time they reached the bottom, he’d already tossed both the card and the bill into the fire under the coffee and oatmeal. Before the children rounded the corner, I hid the empty envelope in my lap, crumpling it in my fist.

“What, Mom?” Kristoffer wanted to know, Regina peering out from behind him, trying to see.

“Oh . . . it was a deer, here in the yard. Real close. It’s gone now. Something must’ve scared it off.”

My son walked to the window above the sink and looked out. “I don’t see any tracks,” he murmured, then asked, “Breakfast nearly ready?”

Culvar gulped down what remained of his coffee, telling us, “Gotta go. Lots to do this morning. Have a good day, kids. Don’t be late for the bus.”

With that, he was gone. In a little while, the children followed, dawdling down the long driveway, dangling lunch pails, trudging towards our mailbox where the bus would stop for them. Thomas slept, as he’s doing now, and I cried. It’s two o’clock and he hasn’t yet come in for lunch but I’ve got some potato soup on the stove in case he does. I place the polish and dust cloth on the top shelf of the front closet. Then, for some reason, that old coat of his catches my attention, the one he won’t throw away but, thankfully, doesn’t wear in public. He hasn’t for years. But I can remember a time when he did, although it seems a lifetime ago today.

* * *

That morning I remember, in my other life, I’d arranged to catch a ride the short distance into town for my doctor’s appointment. Miriam Olson was going, too. Taking her three children in to see her sister. I recall that her children were unruly and she seemed haggard by the time we’d driven the short distance to Hughenden. Silently, I wondered how she’d survive the day, how she survived at all contending with those four monsters. I was more than relieved to get out of that wagon.

In the doctor’s office I let the nurse (Lorna Gilcrist – there was a rumour that she’d had an abortion as a teenager and was unable to have her own children) now I had an appointment and sat down in one of the two stiff-backed, vinyl chairs. I was grateful there was no one else in the waiting room. I soon gave up trying to read last week’s edition of the Wainwright newspaper, opting instead to gawk out the large picture window at the town’s main street. At nearly ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, it was pretty quiet but interesting to me as it differed from the Saturday night shopping scene I was used to.

In the café across the street, I could see through dusty windows the banker (Edward Shultz) and the general store owner, whose name has slipped my mind. He sold the store a couple of years after Culvar and I married and moved back down to the States to look after his aging parents. I like the new owner much better. The two men leaned back in their chairs, coffee cups on the table between them but I didn’t see either of them take a drink. They just laughed, sometimes so hard that one of them would slap the table top or rock back and forth.

There were a few cars angle-parked along the street in front of the shops but in those depressed days, folks mostly walked or brought wagons to town. It wasn’t unusual to see an old horse hitched to a post beside a battered truck, loaded with coveted hay upon which the happy horse would munch. That day, there were no horses on the street and only a handful of people – mostly men – hurrying in and out of stores, getting what they’d come for and going back to work. Very unlike Saturday nights w