It’s a warm day today, only minus 7, so there is hoarfrost making lovely patterns on the windows where the seal has broken. Everyone says I should get this fixed and make sure the house is airtight, but I don’t think that is all that healthy. A house needs to breathe a little for the health of us all.
I vowed to stay indoors today and do the things I need to be doing, but I long to be outside.
When I was a child, my whole world was the outdoors. We lived on a farm near Dauphin, Manitoba, not far from the lake. Nearly all my earliest memories are of the outdoors, exploring the small wood next to our house, talking with the horses, watching bees, tasting the salt lick that the cows used.
One day, I climbed a tree at the end of the road near the front gate and then couldn’t get down. I thought I would be left there forever. Then there was a year, before I started school, when it turned unnaturally warm in February and we were able to play outside on the brown grass without coats and no snow.
I hadn’t started to appreciate the garden yet. That happened at my grandmother’s house, where I remember wandering at eye level among the cosmos and bachelor buttons. I recall the smell of the garden and the sound of the insects, busy in the heat of a prairie summer’s day. It pleased me to be there with her. The flowers pleased me as they lolled about in the sun. Those memories, though, are marred by the sound of my little sister crying at the front door of the house, where granny had placed a feather on the doorstep to keep her inside. Carol was afraid of feathers. She called them “bite-bites”. Perhaps she had had a run-in with a chicken once.
I loved my sister. She was the first person to ever consciously evoke this emotion in me. Oh, I suppose I must have felt love for my parents, who doted on me, but I never identified the feeling as I did one day when Carol and I were playing. We both had small, wheeled vehicles — hers was a little trike with a wooden seat, mine was a bit more sophisticated and grown up, me being 15 months the elder. We were racing each other around the house and eventually, we crashed. As we struggled to untangle from one another, Carol put her small hand on my forehead to help herself up. I felt a rush of love, a physical warmth that made me want to hug her. I was three or four.
When I had just turned six in January, my mother sent me to the local one-room schoolhouse at the invitation of the young teacher, even though it was midterm. It was an exciting time. Mom ordered a new outfit for me from the Eaton’s catalogue and when the package arrived it contained a white blouse with puff sleeves and a pretty collar trimmed in a thin margin of eyelet lace. There was also a red, white and black, plaid, pleated skirt with straps. I felt so important dressed in those lovely things.
The first morning of school, Mom decided I needed a hair wash. There was no running water at the farmhouse, so after giving me a good lathering at the sink, she carried me outside and dipped my head in the icy rain barrel. She always felt guilty about that, but I didn’t mind a bit. It certainly woke me up.
I was pretty good at schoolwork, but pretty bad at the people side of things. Mom had once dragged me kicking and screaming to a birthday party for a boy on a nearby farm. His name was George Abess and I was afraid of boys. I think I enjoyed myself once I got there as he had an older sister, but I wasn’t about to repeat the visit unless under duress. Now here I was at school, surrounded by boys, one of whom told me years later that they thought I was cute and tried to make friends. My reaction was to hang on tight to the schoolyard swing and throw stones at my would-be suitors.
Even here, I gravitated to the outdoors, wandering alone through the bushes surrounding the schoolyard, avoiding the other kids. I was preoccupied with sorting out the letter Q (written the old-fashioned way) with the number 2, both hard for me to get my fingers around. But by the end of being six, I could read all ten books in the Colliers Classics set of short stories and poems Mom had. A magic gateway had opened.
December 10, 2011