Monday, January 27, 2014

Let Me Tell You About Mary …

First thing I have to get out of the way is the terrible stone of guilt in my chest that I let 20 years pass without sending her a letter or calling her on the phone, but I thought she was dead. Ian had dropped by to see her in the early 90's, and had a good catch-up. A few months later I unexpectedly ran into someone from the Valley and asked, "How is Mary?" and was met by, "Oh, didn't you hear? She died in the fall." I was so glad Ian had seen her in the Spring, but a little hole fell out of my heart.

I was 27 when I met her. We were staying in her neighbour's Bev's guesthouse for a few weeks while we looked for a place to live. I went with Bev to take a parcel up the long driveway to Mary's ancient grey farmhouse. Mary came outside, blinking in the winter sun. She was wary of me, a stranger, almost to the point of rudeness. You could tell she was sizing me up, 5' tall, 80 lbs. It was plain I didn't look like much to her.  

The second time we went to her farm, I took my boys. I think she'd called to say the ewes were beginning to lamb, and Bev had asked to see the new lambs. Our youngest was about 16 months old. He was big sturdy boy for his age, with golden ringlets I had not had the heart to cut, olive skin and eyes like chocolate pies. He was wearing a brown snowsuit, with a hood trimmed in fake fur.

We climbed out of the truck, and I got him out of his car seat. He was in my arms, straddling my hip, facing the opposite direction, but he turned at the sound of Mary's voice and reached up to sweep his hood back. She looked at him in utter astonishment for a few seconds then turned without a word and went into the house. When she emerged she was carrying a photo of a toddler, which could have been Zak. She handed me the picture and took the baby from my arms. "That's my son Stephen," she said, "and this one is the living image of him when he was a baby."

That's how our friendship began. We couldn't have been more different, but somehow we just clicked. She was tall, if not six foot, then certainly very close, brawny and muscular. Her skin was dark, her eyes black, her hair dark curls streaked with grey, usually stuffed under a wool cap. Her face was Slavic or Inuit, and there were gaps in her teeth. Her skin was as lined as old leather and I judged her to be 20 years older than she really was.

She'd been widowed young, raised her children and ran the farm her father homesteaded alone, living in the house he'd built when the Columbia Valley was really frontier country. Walking into her house was like walking  60 years into the past. No electricity upstairs, or heat either. Just the big stove in the kitchen and a wood stove in the parlour. The toilet was equipped with a path and had a fine view, seeing as it had no door.

We found a place to live, a few miles down the road, but we had to pick up our mail at the post office, which usually meant a visit with Mary a couple of times a week, and she repaid the visits, as she drove by on her way to town. Mary loved a bargain so she'd shop in both Golden and Invermere. I once pointed out she'd spent $5.00 in gas driving to Golden to save 25 cents on sweet rolls, and she laughed and said, "But it's the thrill of the chase." 

She raised sheep, grazing them in a great swooping meadow below the hill the house sat on. One day we were standing in the yard watching the sheep graze in the meadow below. Suddenly she darted into the house and came out with a 22 rifle. Raising it in one easy motion she fired. I had not seen what she was shooting at but she said with satisfaction, "Got 'im!" Seeing my confusion she asked, "You didn't see that ki-yute in my lambs?"  She walked down the hill into the far corner of the field and returned with a dead coyote. 

She had an old barn with a sagging roofline, and numerous sheds. She had chickens and rabbits, a cat and a dog, a couple of goats, and a fine kitchen garden which had to be double-fenced to keep the rabbits and chickens at bay. She had a little spring that ran a clear stream of water to her cistern and twice a day she'd fill an old stone trough with clear, cold water and wait quietly for all the sheep to drink, explaining that though the stream ran right through their pasture, a sheep won't drink moving water.

She ran a 40 mile trapline on snowshoes through the cold grey shards of the Rockies that tumbled to the back edges of her property. One winter day, as I made an unusually late mail run I decided to make a call on Mary and as I turned toward her drive she staggered near-frozen across the road ahead of me. I pulled into the drive, opened the big pipe iron gate and helped her into the passenger seat.

She was soaked through and too cold to talk. I helped her into the house, started a fire in the stove  and put the kettle on as she shucked off her water-laden parka. I had to take off her boots and her soaked clothes as she was too stiff with cold.  She was too modest to strip in front of me, so I got some towels and while she dried off as best as she could I got her big flannel nightie and woolen housecoat off their hook in the bedroom and some dry socks. She took off her wet underwear from beneath the covering of the housecoat. I towel dried her hair while she drank hot tea.

Finally she was able to tell me that she'd gone to cross the slough by the railroad tracks across the highway, just opposite the driveway, and she'd stepped onto thin ice, had broken through and gone under. Thankfully it was shallow water. By breaking the ice in front of her with the big staff she carried she'd managed to pull herself back onto solid ground and shed her snowshoes. She'd just staggered across the tracks when I pulled out of the parking area at the general store/post office.

The next year at Christmas she gave us six young Rhode Island Red hens to add to our small flock. This was a wonderful gift, because she raised beautiful laying hens which sold at premium prices. Once Spring came they were free to roam, which they did, always coming back to roost in our little barn at night. But one hot summer day when Mary came to see us, we were sitting on the porch enjoying a glass of lemonade when she asked, "How's them chickens doing?"

I told her they were doing great, they'd grown into great fat hens who laid an egg every day. She said, "I want to see them." This didn't seem much of a problem since we could hear them chuckling to themselves as they picked through the leaf litter in the treed slope just above the house. So Mary, Ian, Zak and I went into the woods single file, Mary leading the way, looking for chickens.

Suddenly Mary whirled and ran back towards me, screaming, "Hornets! Hornets!" In her wake was a swarm of small but fierce ground hornets. She had stepped into a nest of the things and they were boiling out of the ground. I yelled at the boys to run, and I ran.

Later we all sat on the porch with clay dug from our creek bed plastered on our numerous hornet stings, a blob of clay here, and a blob there, and another there and another there until we all got the giggles at how silly we all must have looked screaming and running out of the woods like our tails were on fire. 

It was Mary's antiquated gun I borrowed when we had bear trouble, and when rain threatened to get her newly baled hay wet and she couldn't find anyone to help her get it into the barn I spent an afternoon pitching hay bales that weighed almost as much as I did from her old truck into the second floor of her barn. "I wouldn't have believed you could do that," she said afterwards. "That was really something."

And here's what hurts. I was looking for some information about the area where we lived those many years ago, before circumstances pulled us so far away. And I found this. If only I had known.

1 comment:

Linda P. said...

That must have been wrenching. I had a similar occurrence last week, although perhaps the emotional component could better be described as wistful in my case. I am patterning a character's personality in a new book loosely on what I remember of my mother's best friend from their young married days. She intrigued me as a child. In the mid 60's, she divorced her husband, remarried and moved overseas. I went looking for her online last week and found that she had died just last year, having moved about 30 miles from where I now live. How I would have loved to have met with her and asked her about their lives and friendship as young married women. Those were questions I never thought to ask my mother before her death four decades ago, when I was myself a young married woman.