Having been born on the seventh day of the seventh month in 1949, my birth date has always been easy to remember.
It was a hot July day during the Fair at my hometown in Manitoba. The new hospital had just been built the year before, so I was one of the few babies who had been born there. Prior to its establishment, women did their “laying in” at a woman’s house referred to as a nursing home. My mother recalled that, two days after I was born, she had heard a woman crying out in French while in labor. She was probably from the French-Canadian village twenty miles away. Fourteen years later in high school, I met the girl born two days after me, and we became best friends. Though thousands of miles apart and in different countries, we still keep in touch. It seems our being together in the nursery was a foreshadowing of a friendship that was meant to be.
I spent my first five years in a little house across the tracks on the north end of town. As a toddler, I shared a bed with my sister who is eight years older. I always wondered why as a child I dreamed about being lost in the woods with a bear chasing me. Years later, my sister told me that she’d tell me stories about my being abandoned in the woods and her saving me from a bear so that I would snuggle up to her in bed.
An elderly brother and sister lived together on the corner of our street above a gas station that the brother ran. They became close to our family, and we referred to them as Aunt Eva and Uncle Ralph. One day, before I’d learned to walk, my mother caught me scooting down the sidewalk, wearing a hole through my pants and diaper. I was going to see Uncle Ralph. One other day, we had afternoon tea with Aunt Eva. When she placed a glass of orange juice in front of me, I popped up, exclaiming, “Oh boy, beer!” My mother was horrified. Aunt Eva just giggled. After that, whenever Eva had a group in for tea, she’d tell my mother to make sure she brought me to entertain the ladies.
During these simple times, amenities were primitive. We had a wood stove in the kitchen. Having been quite attached to my pacifier, I recall the day I was convinced that I was too old for it and I should toss it into the stove. When my mother lifted the flat, iron lid by a handle inserted into the hole in it, the flames from the fire burst through the opening. Perhaps this event has contributed to my fear of fire. I may have been convinced that I was a big girl by abandoning my pacifier, but I have been a lifelong nail-biter ever since.
There was no public waterworks in our town. A small pump by the kitchen sink provided water from the well for cooking and washing dishes. Bath time occurred once a week. A large galvanized tub was set on the kitchen table, and the water from the pump was heated on the wood stove to fill the tub. We took turns bathing, and being the youngest, I was first. I vaguely remember one time my sister decided to join me rather than waiting her turn, only to find a nondescript floater greeting her.
Without plumbing, we also had to use an outhouse in the garage during the summer and the porcelain pot stored under the bed at night as well as during the cold of winter. One day, the family was going to go for a car ride, but I was nowhere to be found. The family looked all over the yard, calling my name. Finally, my sister found me in the garage outhouse, sitting on a one- holer munching on a giant piece of rhubarb from our garden. She loves to tell this story.
Late one afternoon while my mother was preparing supper, a mouse scurried across the kitchen floor. I was traumatized. While my sister chased the mouse and finally caught it under a mop, I stood on the table and screamed for my daddy. Mum told my sister to hold the mop until Dad got home, so she could continue preparing supper. I continued to cry from my perch on the table. Having to go to the bathroom but unable to leave her post, my sister squirmed uncomfortably. Needless-to-say, she was not a happy camper when our father got home, lifted the mop, and found nothing there. Hearing scratching in the night gave me another reason to snuggle closer to my sister.
The next morning the elderly lady next door, having heard my cries for Daddy, asked my mother, “What on earth did the little one do that she got such a spanking?” She didn’t realize that my mother would never have spanked me. That was not her modus operandi. If I ever did something wrong, all she had to do was give me a look of disappointment, and I was filled with remorse. Sometimes I thought a spanking would hurt less.
When I was five, we moved to the company house on the opposite end of town. It was still a few years before the town would have waterworks, but now we had a cistern in the basement that held water for use with the plumbing system and a septic tank so that we could use indoor toilets in the winter. We still had an outhouse in the garage which we used in the summer to conserve water and reduce the number of times the septic tank had to be pumped. Progress was being made.
I may have been too young to remember the milkman coming to the little house across the track, but I definitely remember Johnny who delivered milk in glass bottles to our front doorstep at the company house. His milk wagon was pulled by two work horses whose nostrils poured steam on early winter mornings. My parents would set out the empty bottles the night before, and Johnny would replace them with full ones the next morning, usually before dawn. By the time we retrieved the full bottles during winter, the milk was often frozen, and the cream at the top would have popped off the cardboard tops.
My favorite activity at the little house had been swinging. I missed my swing so much when we moved across town that my dad built a huge frame on which to hang two rope swings. One day while he was building it, a man walking by asked my father what he was doing. Dad, with a typical twinkle in his blue eyes, responded that he was building a saw horse for a tall man. I spent many blissful hours on that swing set, pumping as high as I could.
When we got waterworks and no longer needed the cistern, my dad spent hours chiseling a door into the thick cement walls so the area could be used as cold storage for Mum’s preserved fruits and vegetables. He added a rod at the top of the opening and hung a rope swing on it, so I could swing even in the winter. After I started school, memorizing Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Swing” was especially meaningful for me: “How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing Ever a child can do!”