The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
I am preparing for another year at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, our eco-museum/coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery here in Val Marie. The museum has a fine collection of cowboy hats belonging to some of the first ranchers in this territory. One of them belongs to Curly Gunther, of The Mustang Wrangler fame. Like so many of the resourceful ranchers and farmers around here, after a life of ranching and wrangling, Curly wrote a book about his life on the range.
I collect self-published memoirs of prairie folk who never ‘retire’, just move on to adventures less strenuous on the body, yet still requiring enormous mental effort. I’m thankful they’ve kept records of a way of life that seems to be fast disappearing. I don’t mean to romanticize, there were many hardships and expectations of men and women ‘in the day’ that we no longer have to face, but, from what I read, it seems we’ve lost a way of living that built both character and stamina.
But that’s what eco-museums are for. Not only do we have Curly’s hat, but we have his memoir, if you are so inclined to read the story of a man and his crew who, in the Great Depression, drove a herd of cattle and horses fourteen hundred miles from Val Marie to Dawson Creek, BC, to keep them alive. If you swing by for a tour and a coffee you’ll also read a note that Curly’s son Jack insisted be tacked under his dad’s hat. It’s entitled: “In Honor of the Women Behind Their Men.” And it goes like this:
“It’s nice to see these old cowboys being honored in this way but it would be wrong not acknowledge the women that helped make them what they were. These women held the ranch and family together while the men were off on their adventures. They may not have had as colourful a life as the men but it was every bit as important. They raised the kids, fed the orphan calf, kept chores up, taught family responsibility and how to work, they even taught some of us to read and write. Many times I had a good meal at the homes of these laddies after being on a long ride with my dad, it was always given freely and much appreciated. Some of these women lost their man and had half grown kids to raise and a ranch to keep going. So let’s not forget the mothers of this land for without them these men would not have been worth a dam!!”
You tell ‘em, Jack! I’d whisper every time I stood before that note. One day a few of us locals were standing around talking about how it would be nice to ‘honor the mothers of the land’ with an exhibit. I had just finished making a batch of brownies and was wiping my sticky hands on my apron. Later that night, I’d run over to the Harvest Moon Café and slip on another apron before serving bison burgers and the supper special to Grasslands visitors. It suddenly occurred to me: the women Jack is talking about would have worn their aprons all day, morning til night, a uniform and protection as essential as a cowboy hat!
This Wednesday evening, March 16, Prairie Wind & Silver Sage will be having its Annual General Meeting on site, the old red schoolhouse, and all are welcome. I will be giving a brief performative description of the Apron exhibit, which has turned into a gallery exhibit honouring prairie women through their aprons and stories. I’ve got some real treasures thanks to many of the locals, and I hope to get more of their stories, to make sure that settling families of the surround are represented. To, as Jack says, honour the lives and stories of generations of women who kept families together, and how family ties are beautifully reflected in the ties of an apron, hugging a women’s own belly to herself.
Jack mentions the colourful and adventurous lives of the ranchers, which are by their very drama, hard to miss. But there are adventures, rich with colour, drama, intensity and courage within the home, as well. We have long recorded and given value to the world outside the home, where battles of greater physical scope are fought and, if won, recorded as history. But the inner battles often go unnoticed. The subtle, enormous differences between giving up hope and giving over to the force of Love, these women understood. I once heard someone define true spirituality as: when humility meets responsibility. If that’s true, then these women were spiritual geniuses.
Women have historically been the ones to face a family’s emotional and psychological struggles. These kinds of battles are hard to record, and have often gone unnoticed or just plain taken for granted. The same can be said for other challenges inside the domain of home. Over and over, I read about women extinguishing chimney fires, assisting at a childbirth, feeding a stranger, quelling a fist-fight, searching for an animal, battling a storm, staying by the side of a dying child, friend, even stranger. And yes, always, there is food. At the mention of food one farmer wrote” Ah, let us talk of ambrosia and nectar-farmhouse cooking!”
And the person behind the ‘ambrosia’ was the woman in front of the stove, wearing her apron. In “Remembering the Farm”, by Allan Anderson, one woman writes that after everyone ate supper and the children were at their lessons, she went “out, when it was moonlight and helped stook the grain….Then I’d sit up and be mending till probably two o’clock in the morning, and then I’d still get up at six to make breakfast.” Breakfast consisted of bacon, fried eggs, fried potatoes and apple pie. And you can bet, the whole while, through shooking and teaching and mending and cooking etc., she was wearing her apron.
The name of this upcoming apron project is “My Mother’s Apron”. But I don’t recall my mother wearing an apron. She was a housewife of the 50s. Aprons, after the second world war, lost their bib and were less about utility and more about fashion. The fifties was the era of cocktail sheer cocktail aprons. Women, in ads- although I doubt in real life- were wearing pencil thin skirts, heels, bouffant hairdos and lipstick. The ideal of woman went from a hardy, hard-working, warm and snuggly Ma in “The Grapes of Wrath” type to a curvy, girly, sexy Marilyn Monroe type. Her domain – according to advertising, popular culture and the growing visions of an urban, consuming, manufacturing world – went from kitchen to bedroom.
My mother chose to wear a sweat shirt and stretchy pants for cleaning and cooking. But she began wearing aprons in her seventies, when, my own sisters grew to love and appreciate them. In both my mother’s and sisters’ cases, it took a world shift in consciousness to make the apron a beloved piece of clothing, as dear as ones favourite sweater or sundress or winter coat. That shift is all about choice. There was a time where women tossed the apron, not out of hostility toward their mothers, but toward a world that had the gall to tell them what they were to do with their lives. Imagine being told: this is your job. Your gender makes you good at it. Do it. No questions asked.
Then, imagine living in a world where you are suddenly asked to leave the house and work in a man’s job while he serves his country at war. (He too, having been told: this is what your gender makes you good at. Do it. No questions asked.) And then, imagine realizing that you are actually really good at this ‘man’s’ job. And are highly productive and perform well. Only to be shuffled back into the home, and this time, into heels and make-up and still expected to turn out perfect pies.
I had no idea that aprons stood for so much, could stir up such feeling, such pride. For so long, older women have been burying their beautifully hand-sewn, embroidered aprons in a drawer. Or giving them to thrift stores, where lucky collectors like myself buy them for a mere two dollars! Suddenly I was being given a poem with every apron. This poem like an underground manifesto – womanifesto!- was called “My Mother’s Apron”. A tribute to the many uses of an apron.
Perhaps the best thing I heard a man say about women in aprons came from long-time farmer and new friend Tony Andree: “When I see a woman in an apron I know I’m in the hands of a professional!”
PWSS opens mid-May, featuring with apron art by Madonna Hamel and Aurora Borealis photographs by Sheri Grant.
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