by Margaret Hamilton from Toronto, Ontario
This afternoon at the stable where I keep my horse some women were reminiscing on projects they had experimented with back in their twenties. One recounted buying a farm near Lindsay with her husband and another couple. She went on at length about the hardships and dreariness of farming in the winter: the deep snow, trying to muck out the cattle, and get them their feed.
I grew up on a dairy farm and as I drove home that night I began to reflect on the bleakness of dairy farming in mid winter. I needn’t recount the realities to anyone who grew up on a farm. We all remember the dark early mornings. Windows had to be left open because of the coal furnace, and so, when I was little I used to jump out of bed and run down to stand in front of the wood stove while mom put my clothes on. Of course dad had been out the door two hours earlier to do the milking. Frozen pipes, empty cisterns, wet woolen mittens, rubber boots with no linings, dinners of macaroni and cheese or potato soup – all were facts of existence, never questioned or even thought about as children.
But then, of course, not all of winter was met with adversity. We could ride on the toboggan behind the work horses and big sled, not even noticing the manure. Or, if we did smell it, the scent was somehow warm and fresh – sweet and leathery. There were forts and tunnels in the snow banks; quick, hard snowballs when mom and dad weren’t watching.
And most special were the afternoons when we trekked down to Stainton’s pond, built a fire to keep warm, and skated, slapped pucks, and tried to score between the boots set up as a net. I learned how to maneuver the blades with Ken Stainton holding me between his arms while I struggled with the hockey skates handed down from my brother (toes stuffed with newspaper so they’d fit). For those few hours the boys were Frank Mahavolich, Rocket Richard, the Pocket Rocket, Davy Keon, Gordie Howe and Boom Boom Jeffreon.
While my brothers were dreaming their way to Maple Leaf Gardens, mom frequently sent me with a bag of apples to Mrs. Mabel Wright who was confined to a wheelchair, but still had to bake her weekly pies. I didn’t mind the walk North, up the hill, because it led me into the steamy warm kitchen of Mrs. Stainton. Lean, tough, and no doubt exhausted, she always greeted me with a delighted smile and an insistence that I come in and sit. It was one of those kitchens that seemed to go on forever. I would slip into a wooden chair and stare in wonder as she reached up to the shelf on the top of her Quaker stove and pulled down trays of hot cinnamon buns. Of course I had to have one, and I had to have it with butter. Often I wished I could just stay there, in that room, wafting rich and effusive odours. She always took the time to wipe her hands on her apron and ask me how I was. She was concerned if I had a cold or had lost weight after suffering from the mumps.
She was what I imagined a grandmother might be, except that she wasn’t old. As a child I could only think that she must be the perfect mother – why did mine always have something for me to do – another chore? More piano?
Mildred Stainton, in my childhood mind, was forever in her kitchen, kneeding dough, pulling magical culinary wonders out of her oven, and inviting me in.
Of course as an adult, I know that Mrs. Stainton was a mother too, and as a mother she would have made the same demands on her three sons that our mother made on us. Both struggled with the poverty of farm life and tried to lead their children to easier lives. Their foundation of unrelenting support has given all of us confidence and an undeniable reassurance that we can become whatever we want to. And, yes, my life is easier than my mother’s was. Yet as “dreary” as farm life may seem to some, without a doubt, what makes my life so satisfying as an adult are the memories of those winter mornings, the snow drifts, the pond, and the cinnamon buns.