The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
The great religious historian Huston Smith prefers to think of luck as grace. I was graced with Helen for a neighbour, living just up the road in one of the two story buildings commonly known as The High-rises. I assume they got that name because, unlike everything else around here, besides the grain elevators, they have more than one story,
Helen has more than one story too. She has thousands and can make anything and everything a gripping yarn with a punchline finish. Helen is a teacher in perspective. Having almost died on the surgery table she has evolved a philosophy of not sweating anything. For her the glass is neither half empty nor half full. Hell, she’s just happy to have a glass. Everyone should have a Helen.
My first morning in my new home she strolled across the yard and leaned against the doorframe, her own frame long, thin and wiry. In her pageboy haircut, seventies glasses and mischievous grin she could be any age, but her lined face belies a hard life.
In one hand is usually a cigarette, and, on this particular morning she held, in the other, a couple of freshly knit wash cloths.
“Your housewarming gift. I see they finally got that stove out of your living room.”
“Stove and washer and drier! I made the mistake of complaining to Moe about the appliances on my rug not realizing that he was the head of the housing committee. I got a big lesson in patience from him. Prairie time, girl you’re on prairie time, now. When in Rome…”
“Oh please, Moe’s never been east of Ponteix.”
“He said: ‘what are you complaining about? You could open up a laundromat!’ …and…I lost it! I’m afraid I am not the evolved, detached understanding woman I’ve been trying to become. ”
“Oh thank God! You’d bore me to tears! Don’t worry about Moe, he likes to get people worked up for no dam reason.”
“Yes, well, he reeled me in good.”
“Don’t sweat it. …I’m headed over to the colony, see what they’ve got for vegetables, you wanna come?”
On any given day Helen will get in her truck, and ask it, as if it were still her childhood horse, where it would like to go today. Often it’s to the Hutterite colony where she’ll buy a few dinner buns, a bag of vegetables and a pie or two. One day driving down the highway, headed, eventually, for home Helen, spotted a stranger walking toward town. She slowed down, rolled down her window and called out :
“You got anything planned for dinner?”
“ Here. Have a pie.”
Our village calendar has everybody’s day of birth, wedding anniversary and/or date of passing. And Helen busies herself baking cakes for many of them. One day she decided she missed having kids around, her grandkids rarely visit. And it seemed “only wise to be passing on my wisdom to the youth”, as she put. So she asked Betty if she could ‘borrow’ her granddaughter every Thursday and she’d teach her how to quilt.
“Never mind Ashley, what about me? “I blurted, having caught wind of her scheme.
“Well I’m not really in the market for a 57 year old granddaughter but, yeah come on over, we’ll see if there’s any hope for ya.”
I brought my twenty dollar sewing machine purchased recently at the Wednesday afternoon garage sale in The United Church basement in Swift Current. I was told just to keep my eye on Ashley for my first session. Ashley was making a tote bag from all her old jeans and the back pockets became compartments on the outside of the bag.
“Oh she’s a sharp one this kid. Show Madonna how you can get this thing into third gear. Ok back her up, watch where you’re going, you almost ended up in to Bracken there!”
I was itching to give it a go. Once I got my foot on the pedal I took off.
“Woah!” she laughs, “where the hel- , I mean, where in the Sam hill are you headed?”
“Looks like Cypress Hills to me!” chimes Ashley.
“Better back ‘er up, start over, be sure you got it in the right gear, there.”
“ I think she just ran over an old man!”
“ Poor fella couldn’t get out the way in time.”
And so it went, the entire afternoon, until Ashley showed me pity and sewed me up a diploma, ending a mad and crooked hemming spree across southern Saskatchewan.
After Ashley’s mother came and got her, Helen cracked open a cold beer and handed it me.
“Great kid, eh?”
“She’s a quick study!”.
“Yep. But I had to lay down the law from the get go.”
“And what would that be?”
“ Well, I got three rules: One- don’t be afraid to ask questions. Two- We’re here to have fun, so if I start getting bossy just tell me to BACK OFF! ”
She lights a cigarette and pours herself a drink.
“ And three?”
“ Oh yeah- don’t use my good scissors to cut your toenails.”
In the dead heat of summer Helen makes a tour of all the flower pots with her giant watering can. One day, after tending to my withered petunias she moseyed over to my door and yelled through the screen.
“Hey, did you see your old stove on the road the other day? ”
“What? Where?” I looked up from my computer where I was massaging a story on life support, so I welcomed a gift from the Story Queen.
“Moe decided it would fit in the neighbour’s place so he decided to push it over. But once he got to the top the hill he couldn’t budge it. So he just left it there.”
I handed Helen a glass of sparkling water and she sniffed it to see if there was anything stronger than bubbles in it, then shruged her shoulders and took a sip.
“Hill?”, I dragged out the word. “ There’s no hill in Val Marie.”
She lowered her glass and pointed her cigarette holding fingers at me and gave me a quick but lasting life lesson in perspective:
“ There is when you’re pushin’ a stove.”
Once, when pulling her lighter out of her back pocket, a folded piece of paper as worn as an old Kleenex fell out.
“Oh yeah”, she said, opening up the limp note.” This here’s what I want sung at my funeral.”
She handed it over and I took a look.
“Oh yeah, I know this one, we sang it as kids, but we did it in French: Quand le soleil dit bonjour au montange-“
“That don’t matter, French, English…I’ll be dead anyway. “
That’s the funny thing about people out here, they are not hugely attached, yet deeply sentimental.
It’s always a revelation, what gets kept in back pockets and glove compartments.
It was Helen who explained to me why people take a long time warming up to new folks.
“They’re just waiting.”
“To see how long you plan to stick around. You get too attached to people here, and then they leave.”
I just found out that Helen’s moving. Her husband got a job in another RM.
“You want that chair? “She waves her cigarette at a pink recliner.
“Do I! Does this foot-rest lever work?”
“ Sure, you just kick the crap out of it and voila!”
“Great! Now I just gotta figure out how to get it over to my place.”
“Piece of cake, we just roll it over, hell, it’s all downhill from here.”
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 email@example.com