Pioneer Mother Lived a Full Life
Written by Hulda Franklyn
Edited by Reg Quist
Our lives in rural, pioneer Alberta were seemingly dull, drab and full of drudgery. And by today’s standards we were miserably poor. But life isn’t dull, and work isn’t drudgery if one has a vision. We lived buoyant, purposeful lives and Mother lived that life to the fullest.
I can vaguely recall the spring of 1905. Dad had a cold and became too weak to go out. Muskrats were plentiful and spring pelts were being bought for a fair price. We needed that extra cash. Although she had never handled a .22 caliber rifle in her life, our city-bred mother, with the help of a black and tan terrier dog, shot and brought home the rats to be pelted and stretched by our dad.
Each year she raised chickens and ducks to earn money for our winter clothing. The pullets were kept over, and she sold eggs. The butter and egg money had to cover the household budget for the summer months. Mother’s poultry raising methods were anything but modern and her carpentry was worse.
Wooden boxes were plentiful in those days. What she couldn’t construct out of wooden boxes to serve in place of a chicken coop, wasn’t worth mentioning. These queer-looking contraptions were scattered all over our yard and to each was tethered a hen with her chicks running loose nearby.
In summer, to protect her poultry industry, Mother waged war on the crows and hawks that lived in the five acres of willow scrub about a quarter mile north. Shotgun in hand and supported by three trailing kids and a couple of dogs, she’d sally forth to do battle with the enemy of her flocks.
Wash days were busy days. When breakfast was finished, Mother would put water on to heat in the battered wash water boiler. It was battered because at one time in the early years she had thrown it downstairs to scare off some Indians.
The soft water came, if it had rained, out of the rain barrel at the corner of our log house. In periods of little rainfall, she carried water from a small slough about one-eighth of a mile away. Dad had dug a deep hole beside the slough to filter the brownish liquid.
The wash tub was a sawed-off vinegar barrel with staves an inch thick. If the wooden staves had dried out, the tub leaked at every joint. Mother would get Dad’s hammer and cold chisel and drive down the metal hoops until the water stayed put.
Mother didn’t have to choose which detergent gave the whitest, brightest wash. When all was made ready, she’d climb upstairs and bring down two bars of her home-made soap. For most of the day, she’d rub and scrub on that old wash board. She stopped only long enough to get a little dinner and have that after-dinner rest and chat with hard working Dad. That after-dinner chat seemed to have brought a lot of happiness and togetherness into their lives.
Mother never lamented or nagged Dad because we couldn’t afford the nice things she had been used to and must have craved at times. Mother loved good things. She hated the shoddy, cheap goods that were palmed off on us. For years she wore the good clothes she had brought from Los Angeles. When she went to town, which wasn’t often, her black, English walking hat and veil, set at just the right angle, topped off her apparel. She was correct to the last degree, even if not dressed in the latest fashion.
Mother’s fashion-conscious vein had little support from Dad. Coming home from town, he’d always report the happenings of the day. When some lady happened to be involved, Mother’s first question was “What did she wear?”
“Darned if I know. A dress, I guess,” was always his puzzled reply.
Mother’s home was her family haven. She firmly believed that a house was made to live in. Frank, a brown dog that had belonged to Dad since his bachelor days, had his place under the table. During cold or stormy days, we three kids dragged in all the necessary material and made cat houses, or what have you, in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Dad spent many a cold, winter evening in the comfort of his pioneer home mending harness or shoes. Threshermen would bring in their icy boots at the end of a cold day’s work, throwing them behind Mom’s Home Comfort range to dry and thaw out. Even huge drive belts were brought into the warmth of the kitchen.
But on Saturday, every inch of the bare board floor in our two rooms was scrubbed. To come in from play on a Saturday evening to a clean, scrubbed house filled with the good smell of freshly baked bread and roasting coffee beans is a memory I cherish.
In summer Mom planted a large garden. This had to be planted a long distance from the house to keep it clear of her poultry. Mother had to walk almost a quarter mile to weed and hoe her garden and bring home potatoes and vegetables for the table. This was in addition to her other summer duties such as berry picking, canning, churning and printing butter, cooking for extra workmen, gathering, cleaning and packing eggs, and tending poultry.
Note: printing butter refers to the practice of wrapping homemade butter in printed paper for sale at local stores.
We didn’t go to church on Sundays in the early years. Our Sundays were peaceful, happy days when Mother read to us from the Quiet Hour. The children’s page, and often a continued story in the Family Herald and Star Weekly. Mother never preached religion, but her love of God was a part of her very being. Even as a young child I sensed that God was very close to her. She never ceased to marvel at the wonders of His creation.
Night after night she studied a book on astronomy. On clear nights, with a shawl thrown over her shoulders, she’d go out and study the stars. Mother saw wonder and beauty in all of God’s creation; with the exception of electrical storms.
Dad didn’t mind the storms. He would sit with us on the steps as we watched the black clouds roll up and the lightning flash; forked, angry and fearsome. Eventually Mother would come and herd us into the safe corner of our home.
But after a hailstorm when the crops and gardens were in tatters, it was Mother’s optimism that dispelled the gloom.
“Just wait and see! Two weeks from now after this good rain, everything will be looking up again.” Then, turning eastward, she’d draw our attention to the glorious rainbow; the sign of hope and promise.
Christmas preparations, started months before, were plain fun. Wild strawberries had to be picked for special jams, grain for the birds had to be gleaned from the fields, ready to be hung on a pole for that special day; and hazel nuts had to be gathered and stored. Closer to the festive season, we’d help her de-seed the fat, sugary raisins for our cake and plum pudding.
At that time of year Mother had extra work to do. She sewed all our clothes. The Christmas concert always called for new dresses. She had only one basic pattern to go by. How she altered it to dress us so nicely, I can’t imagine.
Our pioneer home didn’t get by without accident or illness. Many a night I have seen Mother sit by the light of a feeble coal oil lamp, poring over her Swedish doctor book as one of her family lay ill. There were many miles between us and a doctor and there were no telephones. Her role would change to that of an almost professional nurse as she gently brought us back to health.
To augment our scant sugar supply during the First World War, Mother tried beekeeping. Successful at first, this venture gradually succumbed to numerous odds against it by the end of the second summer. Mother claimed that long ago she had heard that bees were sensitive creatures and sensing her sorrow for her father’s death the March before, the bees had grieved themselves to death. It was a fine story.
Swedish by birth, Mother had come to Brooklyn, New York at the age of 18. She made good use of the opportunities to learn English and cooking, and after two years was able to hire out as a professional cook. During her 12 years in the United States she mingled with some of the better families of that day and this made a significant imprint on her life. She loved good music and good books, and she had a desire to share these pleasures with her family. On a winter evening, we’d gather around the table in our living room and hour after hour she read to us in her clear, soft voice.
I have seen Mother laugh so the tears rolled down her cheeks when most people might have cried. During the ‘Dirty Thirties’, Premier R. B. Bennett dreamed up the grand idea of planting caragana windbreaks across the prairies to keep the soil from blowing away. The call went out: “Caragana seeds – 50 cents a pound! Let’s defeat the windstorms!”
Mother went to work. She collected sacks of caragana pods despite the scratches from the plant’s sharp thorns. She spread them to dry on the upstairs floor and during the next three weeks we gradually became accustomed to the popgun warfare under our beds as the pods dried and split open.
At last, after much winnowing and sorting, she weighed and sacked 25 pounds of good, clean seed. As directed, she shipped it express paid to the Lacombe Experimental Station. A few days later she received a telephone call from our C.P.R. express agent. Her seed had been returned – collect. They already had so much seed they didn’t know what to do with it.
“Now isn’t that just wonderful” Mother replied. “Now I can donate that seed to the C.P.R. and they can plant a hedge all along their right-of-way, clear down to Ottawa.”
Mother never indulged in self-pity. Never did we see her cry except over a touching story. Not even the day Dad went Home. But there was no ready smile that day, no song on her lips all winter.
But when spring came, she began to brighten up, and one day at the dinner table she said to my brother, with the old mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “That slough should feel pretty good this summer. I just gave it that bottle of tonic you bought for me.”
We knew then that the familiar Swedish songs we used to hear her hum and sing were on their way.
Mother had a treasure chest, a large white shoe box. Into it she put bits of poetry, carefully cut out of magazines, a printed sermon that appealed to her, even pictures of men and women in the news that she admired.
“I haven’t time to really enjoy these things now,” she would say. “They are for the quiet time in my old age.”
But oddly enough, even though the family had grown into adulthood by that time, Mother’s quiet years never came. There came instead, a fateful morning that changed everything. That morning she walked around in a fog. With a sinking heart, I noticed the palsied movement of one hand. I knew – stroke and Parkinson’s disease. The doctor confirmed my suspicions. We tried everything, but stroke followed stroke, until her body became completely useless.
For ten weary, shaking years she lay abed, her buoyant courage gone. But the quiet end finally came, and we laid her to rest beside Dad on a rise, overlooking part of the prosperous West they had helped to build.
And I am sure that up there among her wonderous stars there is a flower garden, where Mother, a little child at each side, can move in her graceful way from flower to flower, admiring and basking in the love of a great God, who has given to all mankind the opportunity to lean on Him and enjoy life to the fullest – for that was the way Mother lived.