Old farmhouse gave shelter from life’s harsh realities

For all the years I spent as a little girl, our shady front yard and the rambling old house that stood in the middle of it sheltered me from many of the harsh realities of life. | Getty Images

It takes a lot of living to make a house a home, and our house saw a lot of living.

As a child I tried to imagine our sprawling farmhouse as the local showpiece it had apparently once been, painted in white with pale green gingerbread moldings above the triple bay windows. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, it was suffering the scars of numerous remodelling efforts, the most serious being inflicted by my father, who had begun renovations to change it from a drafty two storey house into a more modern bungalow.

His intentions were noble, but his work incomplete.

The few changes he did make upset me as a child. Gone was the oak staircase with its ornate newel post and the banister down which I slid. Gone were many of the tin ceiling tiles embossed with clusters of grapes. Gone was the access through the fancy front door.

The one feature remaining was the bay window, on which thick leafy patterns of hoarfrost formed on the single panes every winter when temperatures on the Canadian prairie frequently dipped to -25 C or more.

As a preschooler, I amused myself by melting designs in the frost on the windowpanes with Dad’s soldering iron, gently heated on the kitchen stove.

Every activity seemed to revolve around that McClary stove. Temperamental but versatile, it cooked meals, baked bread, and melted snow for wash water. Its oven door was often opened to welcome cold feet, wet mittens and even the runt from the litter of pigs, whose grunts when it revived sent me into a fit of giggles.

Right across from the cook stove was the kitchen pump. On rainy years we used it to draw the accumulated soft water from a cistern in the cellar, where upon occasion a wayward mouse met its Waterloo. For drinking water, we ran back and forth to the pump in the front yard to fetch what was needed.

Prior to its remodelling, I remember the steep sets of stairs in our farmhouse, one leading up to the bright wallpapered bedrooms on the second floor, the other going down into the dim recesses of the dirt floor cellar over which the house squatted.

In winter, the earthy smell of the potato bin in the corner mingled with faint traces of coal gas from the furnace, its heat filtering up through the single register in the front room — the only central heat we knew.

Sometimes when Mom went down to the cellar for a piece of salt pork curing in the big wooden barrel beside the cistern, I held the coal oil lamp for her, its flames flickering in every draft.

And there were plenty of drafts.

On January mornings, my mother was usually the first one into the kitchen. I sometimes heard her cracking the thin layer of ice in the pail of drinking water, skimming it off with the dipper. I would then hear the back door creak open and closed as she left for her early morning trek to the outhouse through the deep snow.

Whatever the rambling farmhouse lacked in winter, in summer its location offered ample compensation. Located along a little river on 160 acres of land a mile distant from the nearest village, our big front yard resembled a treed park. The trees and shrubs that grew there were like friends. If someone in the family mentioned “the elm,” we knew he was referring to the big tall elm in front of the house.

One end of the clothesline was secured to the basswood. At the other end was the ash. My swing dangled from the maple, cats sharpened their claws on the columbine, and hummingbirds frequented the caragana.

At one point there had been a page wire fence separating us kids from the cows, but with the passage of time, all that stood between the house and the barnyard was a long row of lilac bushes. In spring their fragrant perfume dominated the entire yard.

I made sure the living room in our house was enhanced by fresh lilacs, a touch of elegance otherwise unknown in a home where the linoleum floors were worn bare and coils of flypaper hung from the ceiling. My vases were sometimes discarded soup cans and chipped sealers, but for one short week each spring I basked in an aura of luxury, a pretend princess in pigtails.

More than once my father threatened to take out the hatchet and saw and exterminate the lilac hedge altogether, but there was always some deterrent. Either it was too hot or too cold or too early or too late or too disturbing to the bird nests, or too dangerous because of the bees or too much work to replace the fence, so he would just prune a few branches, grumble a lot and call it a day.

I understood his reluctance.

For all the years I spent as a little girl, our shady front yard and the rambling old house that stood in the middle of it sheltered me from many of the harsh realities of life.

To this day, I treasure the steadfast nature of strong trees combined with the unwavering love of a stable home, however humble.

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