The Story Pool – By Madonna Hamel
Well, we did it. The grain elevator fundraiser passed without any major glitches and with all the requisite hitches and oopses. The night before the event the school held part of its sports day in the hall. Maurice was asked to help teach kids fencing and hell, he’d put up a few in his day so sure, why not. It wasn’t that kind of fencing, but he helped out anyway. When he got home he suggested to Pat, “we might wanna get over there early to air out the sweaty kid smell.”
“And set up tables for 300 people, don’t forget.”
When they got there the tables were already set up by the kids the night before. Joy and Paul arrived shortly after and got to work with tablecloths, hauling boxes of beer and liquor from the hotel. Pat got busy laying out all the auction donations, but every time she’d type up a new sheet for Marvin who would be auctioning them off, someone else came in with something new! I had my eye on Paulette’s big clay tray of succulents; I marvel at her front yard which is basically a garden of desert plants every time I walk past her house. Yes, a mini Paulette garden would do nicely!
But then, I saw the faux wood stove donated by Judith, who drove down from Saskatoon to help in the kitchen, cutting squares for a thousand. (Yes, those prairie women were pulling off their ‘loaves and fishes’ thing again – there were squares for a small army). And, oh no, there’s a hand-built barn wood frame with barbed wire insert done by a man in Bracken whose work is revered in these parts. And I’m not even going to bid on Wes’ coatracks made from elevator wood and railway spikes; folks are on cell phones with bids coming in from Ontario! There are cushions, and original art from the artist contingent from Val Marie. And supper and lunch and rooms for a night supplied by all the merchants. A jacket from Cowtown and a t-shirt from a Cabbage Town movie set. A set of steak knives, a coffee cup from this year’s Women’s Bonspeil, and a set of dryer balls!
We had a bluegrass trio on bass, mandolin and banjo. Their combined ages were younger than most folks in the room, but they could write and play songs from an era in which none of us were born. And their harmonies were sweet enough to be served as dessert! We had storytellers onstage and behind bar and stretched out in the old theatre seats lining the walls. We didn’t eat lunch until ten and then we had cold cuts and cheese sliced after hours by Caitlin at the Harvest Moon and served on buns donated by the Hutterites, who, because of their faith, could not come out to the festivities, but gave freely to their “extended community” because that too is an element of their faith. The bluegrass kids got up and serenaded us over dinner and then we auctioned on into the wee hours of the morning.
They probably could have done without my apron skit, would have saved a little time. But I was so happy to do it, as the collection-project expands steadily, and I was able to tell the latest story, about a dying woman who watches the preparations for the leveling of the ‘Last Elevator.’ And Ervine insisted he read the letter that got my whole project started, a note tacked to the wall of the Prairie Wind & Silver Sage eco-museum, where the collection hangs, and written by Jack Gunter, insisting we salute the women of the territory as well as the men. ( I suggest, if you want anyone to sit up and listen to your words, get Ervine Carlier to read them. He has a golden voice meant for radio, preferably during emergencies when everyone needs to just calm down.)
The ‘Last Elevator’ story starts with a young woman sitting by her dying mother’s bedside. She wants her to know that she’s “taken to wearing aprons, just like you mom. Just like you, I wear my apron, indoors and out. It keeps me from worry and it keeps me from doubt. I never saw you without an apron, until all the work was done, and then you took to your bed, at the age of 81.
But mother rose to warn me, you young ones, remember this! This here is sacred land, right here I found my bliss, and she pointed to the horizon, tears rolling down her face, she drifted for a moment, as if travelling off in space. But she came back to warn me again:
Can you imagine this place without an elevator? It says prairie like nothing else can. Try saying Egypt without the pyramids, or Netherlands without the windmill. Try saying arctic without igloo. Or France without cathedral. Say prairie without crocus or cottonwood… And she drifted off to sleep. And I put my lips to her ear and whispered:“No ma, I can’t. Any more than I can see you without your apron.” And it was my turn to weep.
In her diary she had scribbled these facts:
In 1882 there were six elevators on the prairies. In 1900 there were 333 in Manitoba alone.
In 1938 elevator growth peaked and leveled at 5,758.
I got volunteered to announce the items to Marvin the auctioneer. When we passed midnight I pointed out to Marvin that we’d been doing this for two days now! When it came to the dryer balls and the succulents I knew we’d be in for some ribaldry. But the balls went for a fortune and the plants are still being fought over. Such is the talent of a good auctioneer, and Marvin has a way of milking the last penny out of a person just by keeping us laughing.
Marvin started the bidding on a serious note. Just a while ago he returned home to no home, just a pile of cinders where his house oughta be. The support and sympathy he received, he said, reminded him that we are a fortunate community indeed, pulling together, making things work. Of course, he didn’t see the way we stumbled til the last minute behind the scenes of the fundraiser.
The day of the event my set-decorator friend Avril arrived from Toronto and I immediately set her to work designing a giant cardboard grain elevator onstage. We painted it white and in bold red paint did our best to copy the lettering “Val Marie 1927” on the top. We hung a giant bolt of fabric Pat gave me for the sky, sewing it onto a piece of rope from Maurice’s place and then Page tied them to hooks near the ceiling after Per duct-taped the elevator piece together. I used embroidery floss to attach the elevator to a ladder for ballast. It looked like the guest of honour, up there. And indeed it was. I hope no one is looking for that ladder.
If only we could remember: next time, even if it’s not perfect- and it never is- we do create a magical moment found only in small places like these where people turn out because they want to help a cause, or mix with friends, but mostly, I suspect, they want to have fun with their neighbours, and not bitch about them, nor worry over brandings, calvings and seedings, business and taxes.
Our constantly expanding and shrinking elevator committee is basically a mix of control fanatics, pie-eyed dreamers, nervous nellies and earnest well-meaning pseudo-planners, plus a couple of people who always do the lion’s share of the work. And what do you get with a gang like this? Bad backs, increased heart rates, more than a few unreceived messages, dropped balls, forgotten meetings, undelegated duties and false assumptions. Not to mention some stress-tested friendships.
But you also get a hugely entertaining and heart-warming event that lasts until the wee hours of the morning and brings out the hugs and backing slappings and going back for seconds. You shoulda been there!
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 madonna firstname.lastname@example.org