The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
This title came from a conversation with George Hayes. I met George and his wife Annette at mass, my first Sunday in Val Marie. I was staying at the Convent Inn, the school my mother attended in the 30s and 40s, and where her love of music and singing took hold for life. That June morning, I heard the church bell ring and threw on the only frock I’d brought, dashed out of my basement nun’s cell, up the narrow staircase and into the bright sunlight and birdsong of an early summer prairie day.
Before the bell stopping swaying, I was across the little highway, up the steps and into the cavernous Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The church shelters two hundred and fifty parishioners, easily, but at the moment, it tremulously cradles eleven. Twelve counting me, the newest lamb, tentatively returning to the fold. It still packs them in for funerals, when the village women all make sandwiches and cakes and bring them to the ecumenical kitchen staff, to sort and slice and serve with coffee.
After mass I introduced myself as daughter of Aurore Hamel, nee Laprise and niece of Fr. Laprise, her priest brother.
“They were both born here, along with six other siblings,” I say. “But I’m just not sure where.”
“I can show you exactly where,” says George.
“Right now, if you want. It’s the McCrae farm now, but the homestead is still standing, sorta.”
“You might wanna change out of your Sunday best,” says Annette, indicating my summer frock. “It’ll be muddy out there.”
It was muddy, and the grass was overgrown, hiding gopher and ground squirrel holes, rusty farm equipment and the jawbone of a cow. They pointed to the collapsed roof and watched as I trundled off in the direction of the old farmhouse.
“Don’t keep your nose in the air now,” they yelled. “We keep our eyes on the ground for a reason – so we don’t fall into those holes you just fell in!”
“Or step on cow pies!”
They laughed as they yelled out all the possible trips and traps before me, then turned and headed back to their sedan. They figured they’d get back in time for Sunday Brunch at The Community Club, which consists of sausages, scrambled eggs, tater tots, pancakes with Millie’s homemade maple syrup, free gossip and a bottomless cup of pale coffee.
It hit me, alone with the grass and the ghosts, standing in front of the attic window that had dropped to the level of my glasses, that this was the same shingled building in front of which my mother stood, as a girl, in the photo we used on the back of the program for her funeral service. In the picture she is squinting into the sun, wearing her first communion dress and an expression of docile frustration.
The realization hushed me, inside and out. I didn’t weep. I didn’t need to. Not that I could ‘feel her with me’; I wasn’t alert to such subtleties. I was still tuned to urban rhythms and noises and the hyped-up energies of traffic, coffee shops, cell phones, and advertising. The problem with ‘using velocity as an answer to complexity’ , as the poet David Whyte puts it, is you lose sight of anything not moving at the same speed as you. I hadn’t yet learned to live on ‘prairie time’. But that would come, later.
There would be plenty of ‘laters’. Later, for instance, when I decided to rent a ‘villa’ at the “Shady Lane Villas’ apartments, I would have to wait a month to have the stove and washing machine removed from my living room. Later, I would learn not to hike in the community pasture or up 70 Mile Butte after a rainfall. Because, if I did, the mud – the gumbo – would cling so tenaciously to the bottom of my boots, that I would return from a walk three inches taller in Frankenstein’s monster’s mud boots. Later, Caspar would let me ring the church bell and I’d get rope burn and later I’d help at the Sunday Brunch, designing heart-shaped pancakes with Maurice in the kitchen. Later, I’d make my own turbo-coffee at home and bring it in a thermos.
And later, my Cree friend Joseph would reassure me “if you keep returning to the spot, any spot of land, it eventually reveals more to you. It would like it if you would come back and visit. Just like people.” But just like us, it waits so see how we treat it, hear it, understand its kinship with us, before it will tell a stranger deep things about itself.
And still later, I would have a moment, a brief flash of understanding of what Joseph meant, when I stumbled on a dozen teepee rings on a ridge under a stormy sky, walking from Wood Mountain to Fort Walsh, with fellow pilgrims, shepherded, that day, by eight wild horses.
I returned to the community club that Sunday in time for scrambled eggs, my own thoughts, scrambled and excited by the discovery of my mother’s childhood home. I sat down with George and Annette.
Thank-you. I’ll keep going back out there.
You’re welcome … You know, I was just sitting here thinking … I remember your mother’s uncle. He had a pair of Percherons, huge horses. After the war when he got back, he was still young. I was very young, of course, but I remember him. We loved it when he came and ploughed and stayed for supper and stayed the night too. It took a day just to get from farm to farm in those days. Yep. We were very fond of him.
He was a good visitor.
Older folks here visit. They don’t: stop by, pass through or pop in for a second. They visit. They are the story-tellers. Some of their kids have inherited the gift. They sit around after supper and tell tales.
These are my contribution to the Saskatchewan Story Pool. Stories overheard, collected, passed on, dug up, unearthed, brushed off, re-jigged, and sometimes, made-up. They are certainly not restricted to one place. They – or versions of them – pop up anywhere anybody takes the time to tell a story well. And, even more important, where there are people willing to slow down and enjoy. I personally love nothing better than to have a great tale-teller say to me: “pull up chair, pour yourself a coffee, this’ll take a bit.”
Perhaps in reading them you will recall some of your favourite stories. The great thing about stories is they belong to us all. When we tell them we heal. When we listen to them we learn. Especially when shared by elders: indigenous and pioneer, alike. If you’ve had a trying day, or doubt you could ever belong to the same gene pool as your idiot neighbour, I hope these little dispatches will hold a nugget of truth or relief for your troubled soul or burdened brain. At the very least, may it elicit a giggle, a glimmer, or a sigh.
Good visitors are everywhere. I personally don’t believe a chat on internet counts as a conversation. Nor is friend a verb you can do to a stranger by clicking on a box on a screen. Although we might never meet, here’s hoping these words give you a hankering for a good visit.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org