My Aunt Isabel was my mother’s youngest sister and married to my Uncle Albert. They lived on a farm just outside Athabasca and my fondest childhood memories are of times on that farm.
Uncle Alberta was a lovely, warm and funny man, big and strong and handsome, and was always kidding us or playing practical jokes on us. His parents, known to us as Grampa and Gramma, lived on the farm as well in a beautiful little house surrounded by a huge vegetable garden. They were from Poland and would often call out to us in Polish. Gramma wore a headscarf and a big apron over her long skirts, just like in the old country. She had the most beautiful face, craggy and tanned and her eyes almost disappeared in the creases when she smiled, which was often. We loved to sneak into the massive garden to raid it for big fat carrots and sweet plump peas. Gramma would give us hell, waving her broom and yelling at us from the back porch in Polish. We would scream and run away into the woods with our stolen goodies clutched in our hands. We were never actually punished for being in the garden though.
It was only as a young adult that I realized they were not actually our grandparents at all but my uncle’s parents. Rather, we were related “by marriage” as they say and even that was a bit of a stretch.
Aunt Isabel was far and away our favourite Aunt. She looked very much like my mother – and my sisters and I – fair and freckled and blue eyed. Her four daughters and one son all looked very similar, and it was very evident we were all related to one another when we gathered together. Isabel was warm and funny and loving and kind. We ran like young puppies when we were at the farm, getting dirty, racing through the barns, fetching the cows home, driving the old tractor from time to time during haying season, breathing in the clean air and farm smells.
I was the oldest of the pack and always the bossiest when we visited. Because of the strong family resemblance between all of us, I remember having a deep sense of belonging, knowing I was safe when I was with them. Perhaps that’s why I loved our time there so much. Long hot summer days, roaming the countryside on foot or on bicycles, sitting around a bonfire at night singing nonsense songs, carting the little ones around on one hip. We would jump out of bed in the morning, grab a quick breakfast, slip on whichever pair of rubber boots fit and run all day. There was always plenty of milk and eggs, fresh bread, big family dinners and lots of love spread around like homemade jam.
My particular chore when I was on the farm was to make sure the cows had water. Beside the corral there was a wooden pumphouse inside of which was a pump and a huge tin water trough. The cows could poke their heads through a long window and dip their soft noses into the trough to drink. My job was to check it every morning and afternoon. I would flick the switch on the wall to get the pump going to fill the trough and then turn it off when it was full. It was a slow process and my cousin Brian, who was a few years younger than me and usually looked after the task, and I would sit and watch the cows as, alerted by the sound of the pump, they ambled over to drink. One day we arrived late and to our dismay a cow had managed to climb through the window and into the trough getting stuck and fouling up the water. We were just kids and while we often managed to get ourselves out of scrapes without alerting the adults, after trying to push and prod and yell at that cow to go back out through the window, we were forced to run for help. My Uncle and Grandpa came running and after a few good pushes, some banging on the trough and some harsh words from them the cow climbed back out and ran off. The trough was permanently scarred from the encounter and Brian and I lived in anticipation of it happening again, both fearful and excited, confident we could handle it ourselves next time. But it never did.
The farmhouse was very small in those days. When we visited, all the kids slept in a row on the floor in the living room including the cousins. There was no indoor plumbing. We had to use the outhouse across the yard and water was hauled into the kitchen for everything from washing up to baths in a huge tub on the floor once a week. A big slop bucket sat under the sink that had to be emptied throughout the day. Fresh drinking water was kept in a large silver bucket on the counter. A huge dipper hung on the side of the pail and we would dip it in the water and drink our fill. It was a communal dipper and we never thought twice about sharing it around when we were thirsty. At home, we got water from a plain old faucet, so this was always a great novelty. Gosh I love those memories!
Down the road on the next farm lived Uncle Albert’s sister and husband and their children. One of their daughters was my age and we were best friends whenever I was at the farm. We called ourselves shirttail cousins. We hung out together every day all day, having sleepovers back and forth, rambling around the countryside, climbing trees, spending hours finding the perfect branch to cut and strip of bark, using it to whip through the air or poke at interesting things in the woods or berate the cows to come in for milking.
At milking time in the evening, we would hang around the barns while the cows were being milked and Uncle Albert would squirt milk right from the cow into our mouths like he did for the barn cats. My sisters and I, city kids, would make faces and cringe at the warm fresh milk but we always went back for more the next day.
I remember one visit when my Aunt was butchering chickens. She set up a stump out in the yard and deftly grabbed a chicken, draped it over the stump and in one swing chopped it’s head off with an axe. The chicken would then run around in circles, headless, until it fell over, truly dead. While my younger sisters were squeamish about it and ran off to play, I was fascinated and stayed to watch and later learned how to pluck and strip off the feathers and get them ready for the oven.
Sometimes we would head out to Baptiste Lake to their family cabin and we would swim and get sunburned and scrape our knees and wear our bathing suits all day long. One summer when I was about twelve, I jumped into the lake and gashed my knee open on a piece of broken glass. The local doctor, Dr. Brown, happened to be at the lake too and was just down the beach from us. I was quickly wrapped in a towel and carted into town where she put twelve stitches in my knee without any freezing. I screamed bloody blue murder the whole time. It was only a few days later that my sister Elaine fell against a jagged piece of metal and had to be hauled into town where Dr. Brown had to stitch her up as well. It was also the same summer my youngest sister Pat almost drowned and one of the uncles jumped into the lake fully clothed to rescue her. My Aunt Isabel said we were an exhausting bunch to have around that year!
We would sometimes visit the farm at Easter. The old gravel roads to the farm would be muddy and slick and more than once we got stuck in the mud or the ditch. My Uncle Albert and his brother-in-law would come to fetch us. When I was very young, it was in a horse drawn wagon. We would get dropped off at the farmhouse while the men went back to tow the car out of the muck with the horse. It became a family joke that my father was always sliding off the road and needing to be rescued when we visited. City folk!
Also a huge presence in those Athabasca holidays was my Grandfather Dan Currie, my mother’s dad. When I was young, Grampa Currie lived a few miles outside Athabasca in a small cabin in the woods. He was well over six feet tall, handsome and mysterious with a wry sense of humour. At one time I remember that he kept a goat. When he was young, he had worked on a project on the Alaska highway and later worked for an insurance company in Edmonton. He loved to hunt and fish. He was a talented water colour painter as well and my parents had a collection of his paintings of wildlife and lumberjacks and trappers and people hauling logs out of the woods with horses. My sisters still have all those paintings. It was often said that I got my love of art and my artistic ability from him.
Grampa Currie would walk several miles into town every day to do his shopping and drop by the old trading post to sit around a wood stove and visit with his old cronies and talk about the state of the world. My grandfather lived a very interesting life long before he came to live in Athabasca and was in many ways a bit eccentric.
In my early teens, he had a stroke, off by himself in his cabin in the woods. He managed to walk into town like he always did but was unable to speak and that alerted people to his condition. As a result, my Aunt and Uncle built a small cabin on the farm, much like the one he had in the bush and he came to live with them.
Aside from snippets of memories of his original cabin, family get-togethers and old pictures, my clearest memory is of him walking up the road on a hot summer day with a huge watermelon under each arm and breaking them open with his hands, so all of us kids could feast on them.
When I think of those times, I can hear the birds singing in the meadows, the clucking of chickens, the cows calling to their calves, and our laughter as we looked for mischief and ran just a little bit wild every summer.