Awhile back I had promised that I would from time to time post writings or sayings that my mother had left me.
Yesterday as I was cleaning out my storage room I was going through a box of some of my Mothers old things and came across a treasure.
My Mom always wanted to be a writer and in her late years even started taking courses on writing and enjoyed them immensely. And in this box I found a short story she wrote and I would like to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…..
A story by Bette McClelland
We stood, my Mother says, in true military fashion, eyes trained straight ahead and backs turned to the small, grey bungalow on Ritson Road that had been our home for the last four years. It was early spring, 1946. The war had ended in Europe and with it my Father`s factory job in Ajax. We were going home, down east we called it, leaving a city existence of convenience and comfort, of things become familiar and friends adopted as family, to a farm in the Ottawa Valley. Only two things now separated and yet soon would link these worlds apart. A taxi bound for the railway station and boarding a train of no return. I could look back on ten years, my brother and two sisters on less, but really had no understanding of a future, no dreams beyond the events of this day.
I loved the train. The heavenly. intoxicating smell of burning coal and the clattering of the cars along the endless track. We had lunch of egg and sweet pickle sandwiches and cold milk sealed in jam jars, and backing powder biscuits spread with strawberry jam. My father would enter the coach first carrying Sherrill. Andrew and I would follow him just as we had done before when we went east for Grandfathers funeral. My Mother would follow behind him with our baby sister held gently on top of a feather pillow. “It will be good” my Father said.
The farm turned out to be a delight. The house was a century old stone building with huge bedrooms and windows with sills big enough to accommodate three knees to chest bodies at one time.The laneway circled the house and behind the wood shed, a creek with a walking bridge let to the barns and the green fields beyond.
Spring and summer passed quickly that year but the cool days of fall and the bareness of the trees brought on the first stirring of loneliness. My father put on extra windows and doors all around the house and the old wood stove was lifted foot by foot from the big summer kitchen into the dinning room where we would spend the winter. The days grew shorter and the time we spent in the company of each other became out world
Our favourite day was Sunday. My father worked away from the farm through the week so we saw little of him except at supper and later when he and Mother supervised our homework and listened with great sympathy to our tales out of school. But Sunday was a day apart. On Sunday morning Father perked coffee! we would wake to the crackling of the cedar kindling in the cold wood stove and the sound of water being poured from the dipper into the aluminum pot, the basket being lowered into place and the snap of the lid as that aromic concoction was set over a flame. Plup..plup..plup. We sat on each side of the long table and ate steaming rolled oat porridge with brown sugar and milk and hot buttered toast with strawberry jam from a pail or fresh apple sauce. By the time Mother and Father were on their second cup of coffee we well into dreaming my father`s dreams. A trip to the sand hills, a bathroom some day, a horse maybe, for Andrew. He loved horses. They were someday dreams to justify today.
It was just such a morning that the knock came to our front door. It startled us. First because there was a solid storm door closing in our front door and the knock echoed loudly and secondly because in the country, only a stranger used your front door and in the winter, even a stranger would follow the path to the back of the house. Glancing at all of us with a look the quite clearly meant “behave yourselves” my father walked into the front hall and turning the china knob, pulled the inside door open, unhooked the heavy storm door and swung it wide. The hall filled with sunlight.
“Good Morning Sir”
“Good Morning to you.”
“I`ve walked a good distance since night and I wonder if I might trouble you for a cup of tea?”
A tramp. We had seen a few over the summer. Strange men, traveling alone and on foot. They would knock on our door and ask my mother for something to eat and a cup of tea and if she had it a piece of cake. We were warned not to stare at these travellers, just go about our business and let them enjoy their meal in peace.
“Come in, come in,” my Father insisted.
“are you sure Mr. I don`t want to be a bother to you and your Mrs.”
“Never worry, come in and warm yourself and the name is not Mr. it`s Hugh”
A tall shadow eased into the hallway. The door closed and the shadow melted into the darkness of the room. My mother got up quickly from the table. stirred up the left over porridge and lifted the coffee pot making a circular motion with it to satisfy herself that enough coffee was left for the stranger. She smiled and nodded as the man entered the bright kitchen. This room that moments before was vibrating with well turned voices was suddenly as still as an unwound clock. The stranger looked us over but he did not speak. He removed his hat before coming in. His hair was grey and matted and standing at attention in little tufts.
It reminded me of my Betty doll that had spent the last winter under the outside steps and for a moment I thought I was going to laugh out loud. I dared not look at Andrew so I kept my eyes fixed on the stranger. He took off a heavy wool coat, it was khaki coloured like the ones the soldiers were wearing in the `Buy War Bonds` ads.
“Don`t bother about your boots,” Father said as he tucked a warm scarf into the pocket and hung the coat up on the wall peg. The stranger seated himself at my Mother`s place and she placed a bowl of porridge down in front of him. She set a jug of milk and another containing maple syrup near him and then neatly arranged pieces of bread in the wire toaster and held it high over the coals. The stranger ate.
My father spoke a little about the weather and commented on several items he had heard earlier on the CBC news, but the stranger made only a meagre attempt to reply. My little sister Sherrill, held captivated, as were the rest of us, by the presence of this man began to fidget in her chair. she had curled the red ribbon in her hair around her finger so many times that it untied itself and fell into her glass of milk. The strain of good behaviour was to much for us. We all burst out laughing, even Father. With her tongue rolling around behind her lower lip as if she was chasing a marble, and her bright eyes darting from face to face, she rescued the rather wet ribbon, wrung it out with deft of a washer woman and hung it to dry on her arm. The stranger, undisturbed by this family commotion, finished his meal and for the first time since he entered our home, a faint smile crossed his weathered face.
“A meal of brawn my good lady, I thank you.”
Tramp didn`t seem the right word to describe this man. Andrew`s curiosity was whetted.
“What is the word brawn?” he asked.
Sherrill, with the red ribbon, was weaving her way behind the chairs to get closer to the stranger. With her last dip behind Andrew, she came face to face with him.
The man looked mildly pleased with this attention and lifted my little sister up and set her gently on the torn knee of his trousers.
“Many years ago, Boy, over a hundred years to be more exact, Englishmen considered brawn to be a real food delicacy. At Christmas time especially it was sold in the market places by poulterers,fish dealers and even pastry cooks. It was made from the flesh of boars which were allowed to live in a wild state and as they were being fattened for market, their hides were strapped and beaten with leather whips to make the flesh become dense and brawny. After butchering, it was taken in rolls two feet long and ten inches in diameter and packed for show in wicker baskets. It brought a good price. In time, the French, who captured Calais from the Englishmen, found large portions of brawn and they too believed it to be a great delicacy. It was served for many years at Royal occasions and coronations. Of course the method of producing such a treat was barbaric by todays standards but never the less it was delicious just as was the meal your good parents have served me.
Again the table fell silent. The stranger rose to his feet, setting Sherrill carefully down beside Mother. He lifted the heavy overcoat from the peg and as my Father grasped it by the collar to support the weight, the guest shuffled into it. He reached into his pocket and produced a pair of brand new, grey wool mitts.
“Have these Hugh, the sally Ann gave them to me yesterday.”
Father`s glance fell on the man`s bare hands. He hesitated only a moment, then reached out and shook the hand of the stranger.
“Have a safe journey.”
The stranger touched to peak of his hat and he was gone.
“Daddy, why did you take that poor man`s mitts. He is going to freeze. You have mitts Daddy, lots of them” we echoed each other.
Father stared down at the huge hand knit mitts in his hand.
“He had more need to give them than I had to refuse them” he said quietly and then set them up on the warming oven with all the rest.
Monday morning was bitterly cold; too cold to walk to school Mother said. Blowing snow had blocked much of the roadway. The milk truck, which usually arrived at our farm at 8 A.M. didn't`t get through until nearly noon.
“Bad morning Hugh, real late today.” Mr. Leonard apologized. Ben Leonard was a burly man with apple red cheeks and teeth so white they looked painted. He was always laughing, an infectious kind of laugh that got you laughing too and I liked him. In the summer, he had given me a ride over to my aunt Lou`s house for a few days holidays in that big red mil truck. It was like riding the telephone wires we were so high up. You couldn't`t be shy long with him.
Ben Leonard was not laughing today. His eye`s looked tired and when he spoke his mouth hardly opened. He chose his words with care.
“A man was killed over by Stittsville last night.”
My Fathers hand dropped from the zipper of his macinaw.
“Hit by the snow plough I suspect. Don`t know who else would not know that they hit him.”
I felt Mothers arms around my shoulders.
“Did you know him Ben?” my Father paled.
“No idea, no idea. I didn't`t even see him at first. He could have been buried till spring, but for this dog standing up on the bank making a hell of a fuss.”
I didn`t like dogs. One had left three teeth marks in my brothers face. I slid my hands into the sleeves of my wool sweater to steady from shaking.
“Weren't`t you afraid of that dog Mr. Leonard?”
“Well, I tell ya, I had a mind just to leave him be but strangest thing. I saw a little patch of colour in the snow, something red like maybe clothes, and I said I better have a look. I got out and crawled up on the bank and there he was nearly covered in snow. Frozen dead!
He pause a moment, his eyes fixed on a square of the worn linoleum on the floor as if he was seeing the awful sight all over again. We all searched the floor.
“You know Hugh, the man was well dressed too. Heavy coat and lugged hat and all. Strangest thing though, there was a red ribbon tied to his wrist. That`s what I saw, that ribbon.
My Father put his arm around my little sisters shoulder and with his big thumb he squashed the tears now weaving down her small face. With his other hand he reached to the top of the stove and took down the heavy wool mitts.
“I will give you a hand with those milk cans Ben”, he said and turning the mitts thumb to thumb, he slid them on, unlatched the back door and stepped out into the cold morning.
This story was written by her but had never been shared, I think it it deserved to be heard. Well done Mom.