Grace steps out onto the back stoop. The northwest wind is whipping the sheets and shirts into billows and twists. It’s a cold, April day in Foremost – the clouds hover and swirl in constant quick changes from one dull grey shade to another, sometimes verging on black. Now and then a squall blows up and drops a few sprinkles of rain, just enough to wet the whites trying to dry on the clothesline. Finally, though, they’re just dry enough to bring in and drape over the furniture to await ironing. A sudden gust pastes Grace’s thin cotton housedress to her body and lifts her ash blond waves and teases them out of shape. She shivers and begins to reel in the clothes.
Sarah and Leila are having afternoon naps. Grace wishes she could lie down, too, but there’s so much to do before Howard comes home. It’s been tough without him the past two days. She glances at the sky as she unfastens the shirts and drops them into the wicker laundry basket along with the clothespins. She’s hoping that the few spatters she feels don’t multiply into a downpour again.
Howard couldn’t make it home last night because the road from Manyberries was too muddy. Even the tire chains wouldn’t have pulled him through the slimy gumbo of that post-Depression rural route. But today’s wind will have blown the road dry enough to navigate along the ruts. It’s a good thing, because Grace doesn’t feel confident running the house alone for very long. Shovelling coal into the furnace in the cellar, lighting gas lamps, cooking on the wood stove (and keeping wood in the stove), emptying the slop pail, heating water for the laundry, heaving it up to pour into the galvanized tub, scrubbing, rinsing and wringing the clothes and diapers, lugging them out to the porch for hanging – it’s all so overwhelming. And rubber gloves or no, washboards are hard on the fingers. She’s grateful for the addition of the clothes wringer, clamped onto the counter beside the sink. At least she doesn’t have to do that by hand anymore.
It’s still more than she can handle, especially with two little ones. Howard’s posting to school inspector in the Foremost Division is a welcome step up the ladder from teacher, to be sure, but it has its down side. She has barely recuperated from Leila’s birth a year ago – what seemed like days of continuous labour. She was exhausted. Remembering makes her weak all over again. Thank goodness they were still in Lethbridge, where hospital care provided comfort for the long lie-in.
Here in Foremost, without the city conveniences, like electricity, running water, and flush toilets, she feels quite abandoned. The cooking, the cleaning, the caring for a family of four in an old two-storey in small-town southern Alberta – it’s a bleak domestic existence for the postmaster’s daughter who’s been coddled all her life as an only child in a home with a maid to do all the chores. And now there’s a new responsibility: Sarah is going on four and needs help with her reading and the simple arithmetic she’s begun to tackle.
Grace scans the low sky and drops her eyes to the houses across the lane and beyond. They stand starkly defined. No trees hover over them; no bushes enclose them. She thinks of her hometown of Stettler, where a glance down the street shows a vista of lovely tall elms and a glimpse of a rooftop here and there among them. She pictures the rolling hills and foliage on the road to Buffalo Lake. How stark the contrast with this pancake prairie, not a tree in sight. The only thing resembling even a bush here is the odd tumbleweed rolling across the yard.
The pulley wheel squeaks as Grace grabs at the sheets. She manages to tame them enough to release all the clothespins, and finally drops the last one into the basket at her feet. She bends to hoist it up and into the house. The fire in the stove is heating the irons sitting on top. With luck she’ll be able to finish in time to start supper before five o’clock.
She hears a noise upstairs. Sarah is awake early. Grace sighs; now she won’t have as much ironing time as she’d counted on. She’ll have to finish it tonight, when she’d planned to relax with Howard after the girls fell asleep. Their time together is precious, but he has run out of clean shirts, and that’s a fact. He’s on the road all week visiting the schools in his area. A lot of hard driving and long days. Better than what some are doing, though, fighting in the trenches in Europe again.
Grace trudges upstairs to the girls’ bedroom and picks up the tow-haired little one.
“Ba deam, mommy.”
“Shh, honey.” She would like to ask what nap-time bogeymen have disturbed Sarah, but she doesn’t want to waken Leila, still sleeping peacefully in the crib. Grace hugs Sarah and kisses the tears away, then hustles her out of the room to the little potty chair in the hall. Sarah tries to pull down her own panties but needs help. She wriggles onto the small seat.
“Wan go ‘side,” she says from her perch.
“It’s too chilly,” says Grace. “You can play with Dolly in the house while mommy gets some of the ironing done.”
A shaft of sunlight suddenly infuses the hallway through the west window, flooding the floor and lighting up the dust motes. Grace’s spirits lift. She looks out at the sky – the clouds are scuttering away in the breeze, the blue background expanding. The rest of the day may be sunny.
“Sun,” says Sarah gleefully. “Go ‘side.”
Grace knows she’s too busy to take the girls out for a walk. Besides, she wants Leila to stay sleeping – she woke up several times last night with a cough, and the rest will do her good. But she can’t let Sarah out on her own – there’s no fence, no way to keep her safe. She can’t be wandering. She could get into the outhouse, or stray down into the coulee where the ticks await her succulent, peach skin. But the fresh air would do her good. Maybe there’s a way...
Sarah stands up, job done, and Grace helps straighten her clothes. Then she carries her down the steep stairs – Howard and Grace still help her with those, afraid she’ll take a tumble. In the front hall closet, she sets Sarah down and pulls the leggings, heavy wool sweater, and bonnet off the lower shelf. She helps Sarah get dressed, then adds mitts, coat, and rubber boots. She pulls the harness off the top shelf and fastens it around her and picks her up, strap and all. She hesitates a moment, thinking, then heads straight for the cellar stairs. Her skipping rope is in one of the unpacked boxes down there with her old dolls and toys she’s saved for her own children. It will do.
In the basement, with Sarah still in her arms, Grace rummages through the boxes on the storage room shelves, finds the rope and climbs back up the stairs, not wanting to linger on the dirt floor with all the spiders and beetles. She opens the back door and steps outside onto the stoop, setting Sarah down carefully so she can’t fall off the ledge. Grace loops one end of the rope over the clothesline and ties it securely, then takes the other end and knots it through Sarah’s harness strap. She backs down the steps to the ground, holding Sarah’s little hands to brace her as her short legs follow awkwardly, one step at a time.
Grace opens the small shed under the stoop and pulls out the trike and a push toy, the little rainbow-patterned cylinder that chimes as it rolls like a lawn mower. But Sarah chooses the trike, climbs on and starts her journey across the yard, part weedy, part grassy. Grace pulls on the rope and is satisfied that it will hold. She goes back inside to listen for Leila.
Though the clay soil is hard, the crabgrass impedes the progress of the little trike. Sarah soon gives up and climbs off, picking up the push toy and making her rounds. With the clothesline as her tether, she can go from the house to the lane, from one side of the yard to the other, but no farther. The rope is just long enough to give her this much space. This is her playground, for a little while at least. Reined in now and then by the rope, she marches along muttering “daddy home, daddy home, daddy home.” She misses Howard, misses being tossed up in the air and caught securely in strong arms. He is the joy in her life.
Howard grasps the wheel, shifts into first, lets the clutch out slowly and steps gently on the gas. The car slips sideways. He quickly turns in the opposite direction to compensate for the skid. The engine coughs; he depresses the clutch but it’s too late – the engine conks out. Now he’s stuck. He’s in a dip in the road where the mud from the last two days of rain has not yet dried. The spring of 1940 has been a mean, wet one for a rural school inspector in southern Alberta.
“Damn,” he mutters, and opens the door, stepping as lightly as possible onto the mucky road. The fresh shine on his oxfords isn’t going to last long in this. His first thought was to gun the car through the bad patch, but the surface isn’t solid enough to support its weight. He has been too anxious, too tired, to assess the situation properly. The rain made it impossible to travel last night. He’d stayed in Manyberries at the principal’s house. The mattress was lumpy and the blankets too flimsy to hold off the night chill. Now he feels a sneeze coming on and suspects he’s due for a cold. He just wants to get home. Grace will be needing him.
Now he slips and slides around to the trunk and pulls out the chains. The mud makes his progress difficult, but finally he has placed a set in front of each of the four tires. His shoes caked with gumbo, he makes his way to the passenger door. He backs onto the seat and reaches into the glove compartment for the kitchen knife he keeps there for emergencies. He lifts one heavy, mud-caked foot, the left one, and scrapes off as much of the goo as he can. He places that foot on the running board, then gives the other one the same treatment. He needs both shoes clean for the next stage. He swings his body into the car and closes the door, then slides over to the driver’s seat.
“God, if there is one, please help me get this baby moving,” he says out loud. He pulls out the choke part way, switches on the ignition, and gradually depresses the accelerator. His skill serves him well. The engine catches. He quickly pushes the choke back in and begins the routine – reverse, forward, reverse, forward. Gearshift, clutch, and accelerator work in turn to roll the tires gently and rhythmically onto the chains. With the motor in neutral and the hand brake set, he climbs out of the car again and secures each chain to its wheel, then repeats the shoe-cleaning process and gets set to ease out of the mud. He’s performed this drill many times in prairie gumbo. This time is no different. The chains take hold and the car churns slowly across the wet patch and up onto the drier roadbed at the top of the rise.
He scans the track ahead. It looks rutty but negotiable. Riding with chains on dry roads means slow and bumpy progress, though. It’s also hard on the axle, not to mention the tires. He puts the car in neutral again, pulls on the brake, and gets out to begin the chain-removal process. Finally, he stows the chains in the trunk and resumes his journey. He’s sweating from the effort of the past twenty minutes. He glances down at his hands, his suit, his once-white cuffs – filthy. Another shirt to wash and iron. Without the mud it would have lasted longer, perhaps a day or two. Maybe he can just soak the collar and cuffs. The suit? Well, he hopes once the mud is dry a good brushing will do the trick.
The steady putt-putt of the motor begins to mesmerize him, becomes the sound of the taxi he drove in Toronto...
Howard’s thoughts drift back to 1930, and he’s driving his fare through city streets shimmering with rain, vying for a place in the slow-moving line-up at the gate of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. He’s a good driver, darting in and out when he gets a chance to pass, but this is a bad time of year for making any headway in traffic in Toronto. It’s good for a struggling university student earning his tuition behind the wheel, though.
He’s living cheap. There’s no other way. He’s got to get himself educated and start working on a profession. He knows it can’t be music. No money in that since the talkies put him out of a job conducting the pit orchestra at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Now he’s aiming to teach, but he wants a firm academic foundation before he starts the training. He wants to do more than survive in this depressed world. He wants to achieve, go as high as he can go. The only way to do that is to build on the skills and knowledge he has going for him already. He’s used up all his savings now. Luckily there are still some who have cab fare to make this temporary job possible. And lucky he has the scholarship. As he has many times before, he blesses his parents for his brains. And his aunt for marrying money. She has helped to pay for his degree.
He drops his passenger at the Royal York. It’s late. The doorman has no fares for him, and there’s nothing on the two-way radio from dispatch, so he cruises slowly to the side of the street, parks, turns off the engine and picks up his flashlight. He casts the beam over the pile of books on the passenger seat – his travelling companions. He’s never without them, because slack hours are the only time he has to study. Classes all morning, library research all afternoon (on the days he doesn’t have geology lab), and driving cab from suppertime until two in the morning. He has burdened himself with a heavy schedule because he wants to finish quickly and get back home to Calgary. Toronto is just a necessary stop along the way. He’s eager to return to the quieter pace of life on the prairies, and to renew his acquaintance with that captivating Stettler teacher.
A flash of white on the passenger side pops him back into 1940 on the rutty prairie road. He catches the back of the sign in the rear view mirror – he knows what it says. Entering Foremost, Population 500. Home, for now. His mood brightens as he imagines the scene around the next corner – the white two-storey at the top of the coulee, his three girls inside, and the promise of a hot dinner.