We arrive in southern Alberta after four days on the train. We spend all the nights “sleeping” on the train seats, but learn from the man who hired mum that the sleeping car was included in the price he paid!
The rain comes down in buckets as we alight at the train station in Brooks. A little man wearing cowboy boots, hat, western shirt and jeans approaches us. After introductions are made, and we collect our baggage, we climb into the blue pickup truck the man drives and we are off. The ranch is a few miles out of town. There is a modest one bedroom house, and a shack and lean to as well as barns and corrals where a herd of horses stand. He leads us into the house and shows us the room which is ours. I am to share the double bed with mum. The rancher explains that he will sleep out in the shack. I have time to wonder where he will sleep in winter, but don’t say anything. I am still very shy.
That day, mum unpacks our things, and then she makes supper. It consists of canned yams, meat and cherry pie. We soon learn that this rancher eats only canned yams and cherry pie – for every supper. Mum and I soon grow tired of this fare.
The next day, the rancher shows me his older mare, suitable for riding for a young person with no experience. I am overjoyed. I am able to ride this horse out in the fields and can’t believe how lucky I am to have this dream become reality.
Later, I meet the rancher’s young niece. She rides a pinto horse over from her home, and we go riding together.
One day, as we canter across the field, my horse rears up and I fall off. I hurt my shoulder, and it bothers me for some time after.
One hot sunny afternoon – it seems that southern Alberta is always hot and sunny – so different from the rainy day on our arrival – I tag along with the rancher when he delivers a horse to another ranch. There are a lot of cowboys milling around when we pull up in the rancher’s truck.
These are not the “rhinestone cowboys” of Hollywood, or those Calgarians who don blue jeans during Stampede week in July. These are real cowboys. Blue jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hats, worn, not for effect, but because of the hot sun. Weathered faces and some, like the rancher with bowed legs from growing up riding horses all their lives.
In the evenings, I read the Western Horsemen magazines to which the rancher subscribes, and there is the popular prairie weekly newspaper, The Western Producer. They have a kids’ page, and I submit a poem which they publish.
This first published work excites me. I am just eleven years old, and about to enter sixth grade. I wonder if perhaps I could be a writer? The thought has never occurred to me before. I’ve had thoughts of becoming a teacher like my big sister, but writing is something that might be even better!
Mum finds the Seventhday Adventist church and pastor in the phone book, and we attend church a few times. Members of the church invite us to Sabbath dinner a couple of times, and Mum complains to me, that there was meat on the table! SDA’s don’t eat meat, she said. I learn eventually that there were a lot of differences in beliefs between the SDA people in Ontario and in Alberta.
One Saturday morning, she tells me that we aren’t going to go to church that day. Well, we stay in the bedroom and when the minister comes to the house, he and the rancher knock on the door. Mum will not answer. I am embarrassed that we are hiding. Why is mum doing this? Still, she calls through the closed door, at last, and tells the pastor she is not going to church. From the sounds, we know that they have left the house, and I hear the minister’s car start up. We stay in that room all day, and mum doesn’t open the door until after sundown, when the Sabbath is over.
The rancher tries to ask her about this behaviour but she ignores him.
My mum contacts her sister, Lena, in Calgary and she and her boyfriend come down to bring us back to Calgary to live. Mum plans to get on welfare, as she has found the everyday work as a housekeeper is more than she could handle. The day arrives, and mum hasn’t told the rancher that she is leaving. He is quite angry. We have only lived on the ranch for the summer, and I am sure that he doesn’t believe he’s got the money he’s paid for our train tickets back yet.
Nothing will change my mum’s mind though, once she reaches a decision. We leave that afternoon, crammed into the car. First, we stay with my mum’s sister. Lena is a bit rowdy. She smokes, drinks, gambles on the horses and has a great sense of humor. She wears a lot of makeup and jewellery and she dyes her hair. She is the complete antithesis to my mother.
One evening, a young fellow arrives at Lena’s. She introduces his as one of my cousins. He is very handsome I think to myself. We all sit down and have a game of Scrabble. Mum will play this game, and let me play it despite her religious beliefs. The cousin tries to make words but is a terrible speller. When I correct him he teases me.
The game finished, Lena brings out cards and shows us how to play “Hearts”. I don’t remember if Mum allowed me to play, or if she played or not. Cards are forbidden to SDA’s.
Mum and I go downtown to apply for welfare and are given vouchers for food, and to pay for an apartment. She finds a seedy little place right in the downtown, across a river in an older part of town. The school I will attend is across that river, so everyday I have to cross the bridge to reach the school. I don’t settle in very well. By this time, I believe the constant changing of places to live and of schools has taken its toll. I don’t remember much about the class, although I do remember this. I walk home one day, to have the boy in the next apartment stop me.
“D-do you want to listen to some records?” he asks.
The poor kid! I bustle away, blurting, “No!” as I run to my door.
I tell Mum and she says that I am way too young to be around a boy. In later years, I pity that boy and tell myself that I was rude. I was embarrassed whenever I thought about my reaction. The poor kid. I probably scarred him for life. Gets up the nerve to ask a girl to listen to records, and she bolts!
From the seedy apartment, which my older sister, Doreen, calls a slum, we move to an older, two storey house that has been converted into apartments. We will live next to her, in a bright little second story apartment. She lives just next door and it should be a cozy ending to our nomadic life. That is not to be. My mum resents Doreen, as Doreen is free with her advice and guidance, which mum calls “bossiness.”
We are now in a nicer neighbourhood. The elementary school is not far off.
I settle in at the new school. For the first time in my life, there is a girl in my class who is taller than me! Freida and I become fast friends. We take turns having our lunch at her place or at mine. She is funny and kind. At recess, I am included in ball games, and I am happy. I belong, at last. I like the teacher. He is the first male teacher I’ve had, except for a short stint in the small Ontario town, with a military minded teacher who, on dismissal, commanded, “Stand, turn, forward,” as though we were soldiers. This teacher is nice.
Despite the new friendship and my happiness with this new school, I am still very shy. I leave my slip on black shoes under my desk at the end of the school day, and when class starts the next morning, I am mortified to see that my shoes are on the teacher’s desk! I cringe, when he asks, “Whose shoes?” I don’t answer. He asks again, then picks them up and holds them above the wastebasket next to his desk.
“Going, going, gone!” He waits a moment, then drops them into the trash.
I tell myself that the shoes didn’t fit right, anyway, which is true. They were a bit big. Still, I am ashamed of my paralyzing shyness.
Mum makes plans, and we are on our way, in a moving truck, to live in central Alberta, in the town where her other sister lives, as well as her dad, my grandfather. True to past behavior, she doesn’t tell my sister Doreen that we are moving. Doreen will come home after school to find us gone. It is a cold winter day with snow on the ground and a sky of pink and gray. I want to move and yet I don’t. I find my sister overbearing at times and yet I am going to miss her. I like the fact that she promised me a small allowance, and told me that I would be responsible for my saving and spending. That is all gone now. The future is unknown. How I would miss my friend Freida.