The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
My first Sunday in Val Marie, George and Annette Hayes took me to my mother’s homestead. The second Sunday, I made coffee in the church basement with Theresa. Vi who brought a loaf and Amy brought cookies and we together carried the goodies upstairs and set up chairs at the back of the Nativity of the BVM, where whole congregation, all eleven of us, sat down to visit.
It became pretty evident early on that a huge reason the church is still open is because of Amy and her husband Wayne and his father Tony. Along with the indefatigable sacristan Theresa and her husband Caspar, (a man in his eighties who still does a lot of the lifting and fixing around the building, and who rings the bell before mass giving the town anywhere from twenty-five to two and half minutes to get to the church on time), this family not only keeps the place up and running, but fills the pews with their rambunctious children, who make up half the congregation. Their eldest daughters also serve at the altar, cowgirl boots and sparkly dance tights showing peeking below the hems of their angelic white robes.
The life of a country church is always hanging in the balance. Money is tight. Attendance is low. Priests come and go. Already, in my short time here, we’ve had three. At the moment we have Fr. Joe, a man who understands what it takes to be a rural priest: “You have to not mind being alone. And you have to love to drive! Luckily for me, I fit the bill. But this is not a life for a young man with big plans.”
It’s evident that workshops, retreats and book studies aren’t possible when most of a priest’s time is taken up getting from one village to another, over the space of twenty-four hours. Fr. Joe in his Volkswagen, is like a Pony Express delivering love letters from God, come summer dust-storm or winter blizzard, which is nothing short of a bi-locating miracle, when you have eight parishes to serve.
We rotate the times of the mass monthly, which makes for some conscious planning every four weeks. In Kelowna, when I started going to church with my dad, I knew where I would be between 8 and 9 every morning. But here, mass is celebrated at any number of times on the weekend. It’s one of many facts of rural life that puts one’s priorities and faith to the test.
One evening last spring, after mass, upon leaving the church, Tony looked up at the sky and observed the moon half-full, like a crooked smile.
“Wet moon. That’s good. We could use the rain.”
“Wet moon. You see how the yellow of the moon is tipping over, like a bowl of water about to be emptied? That’s called a wet moon. You watch. It’s gonna rain in a few days.”
And sure enough, it rained. I was glad for the rain, as much for the farms as for my desire to believe in Tony’s farm-folk wisdom.
I love how language can reveal a deep and long connection to Place. Here, for many old-timers, it’s still all about of gauging future action based on present behaviour of wind, sky, land and animal. I realize how rarely, until now, I have stepped outside to see how my day will shape up. The app on the phone replaces in the warnings in the bones. The 7-day forecast disregards the angle of the moon.
But the truth is, the weather is always sitting just outside the door, like a dog at the foot of the bed, waiting for us to wake so it can present to us its itinerary: “So, here’s what I have planned for you today!” You wake when the sun shines, you make muffins, can peaches, stew tomatoes when the wind is howling or the storm rages.
Men like my father and Tony may worship ‘God the Father’ on Sundays, but they acknowledge the feminine face of God in Mother Nature, all week long.
“Oh well. Mother Nature will do what she wants and we just have to pick up the pieces, I guess.” Tony doesn’t spend too much time crying over spilt milk or lost crop. What would be the point? What’s done is done. And his resignation, his surrender to the greater forces remind me of my father. I have a sudden insight as to why, when we sold the family home of 43 years, he could just get up and go, move on, not look back, make the best of what was in front of him.
So much about people here reminds me of my parents form this territory. But mostly, it’s the language and the expressions. You betcha.
Every profession and every territory has its own language. At the bureau where I worked in radio journalism, background research material was referred to as “bumff”. The finished script was a “green’. A government spokesperson was a “flak”. When choosing guests we steered away from the academics and officials, the “pointy-heads’. We preferred the colourful, untameable story-tellers. They were “good radio”, or, as one young reporter referred to them: “RFG. Radio F’n GOLD!”
The stories I liked to work on were not the breaking news, shocking, “sexy” stories. Inevitably those would become tomorrow’s “fish wrappings”. They were the ones “with legs”, they hung around, nagging our consciences, they touched on deeper issues, many lives. But, being as that “resources” (ie: money) for “stories with legs” have but dried up, I decided to come here, where things still ‘dry up’, but people find ways to see it through, stay to see another year and take another shot at a bumper crop.
Every time I find myself in a new territory I feel like a kid, all over again, trying to learn the language of grown ups. I remember one childhood summer, my mother was telling me about our upcoming summer vacation. We would be staying in a cabin with a ‘wood stove’! She was very excited. I was very curious: how does a stove made of wood not burn up? The first time I was told about ‘stone boats’ I thought: how does a boat made of stone not sink? And, as for ‘riverbeds’, how does one sleep in a bed of water? Wrapped in a sheet of ice?
Just recently I was talking to Tony on the phone.
“What are your thoughts on wind?”
“Well, right now, I don’t like it one bit. It’s made a mess of my yard. And then there was the year the flinkin’ Plough Wind came a destroyed my barn and lifted a tank and dropped it in the bed of my truck and broke it half! And the ‘norwester’ is nothing but trouble. Always cold and vicious. What temperature you got in town?”
“Down here we’ve dropped 23 degrees in three hours. I would hold off that trip to North Gillespie if I were you.”
I make a long whistle. Some days when the roads are bad or the weather turns fowl, friends make pacts with each other to make sure and call when we get home from where ever we’ve been, especially if it’s a day in the Grasslands, hiking or taking pictures, exploring, getting lost in the wild. Single people don’t have families waiting for them. You can go unnoticed for a long time.
“And”, he adds, “I think I’ll take my own advice and wait til it gets a bit warmer before I go over to Sheri’s to get my ears lowered.”
“My ears lowered. You know, my hair cut.”
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. She also welcomes comments regarding Prairie Expressions. For comments you can reach Madonna at email@example.com