Sugar Shack

by Bryan Decontie from Kitigan Zibi, QC
Mar 5, 16

Like every young man, I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know. And so I had decided to announce to my mother that I was going to re-orient my career. I was going to leave college and become a brush cutter.  

For those not familiar with brush cutting, it’s a noble job. It consists of clearing the under forest, called the brush, with a brush cutter – a rotating blade driven by an engine that makes a lot of noise. In the quiet forest it sounds kind of like a muscle car in a calm neighbourhood. I pictured myself as a macho guy, made of muscle. I would also be made of money, money that I would earn with my brawn. And that I would use to buy myself my dream car: a used Honda Civic. I was sure that with that car and the brush-cutting job I would attract girls.

It was a mild, March day when I told my mother my plans - to leave school and start earning money in the bush. She listened carefully. She didn’t say a word. I had feared that she would object, but instead, she smiled and called me by my nickname. “Ti-Gars,” she said, “how would you like to start today? You can come work with me at the sugar bush?” Not suspecting any malice, I accepted. Gladly. I was excited to start earning money. I was happy because it felt like it was the day I would show my mother that I had entered adulthood. 

It was sunny and relatively mild when we arrived at the sugar bush. The job she gave me was easy enough. I had to clean the maple syrup barrels. But the barrels had only one small hole. I couldn’t wash them like you wash dishes. I had to fill each one halfway with water, add baking soda, lift the barrel on my lap, and shake it like I was a washing machine, then empty it and then repeat if necessary until it was sparkling clean.  

I washed my first barrel. Easy enough. I washed my second barrel, no problem. I washed my third barrel and that’s when it got tough. Three barrels and thirty minutes into the day, I was wet, tired and fed up. 
I was also cold. 

At the time, dedication wasn’t my strong suit. I fell back on pride. I resolved I was not to show any signs of despair to my mother. I had another 6 hours of work in front of me and 150 barrels left to clean. 

My mother was five foot one and a half and a force to be reckoned with. I still fear her today. She was also a wise woman. She didn’t offer me any help, nor compassion. She ignored me and went about her job. I on the other hand was watching closely for any sign that we could take a break. The break didn’t arrive for four long hours. At lunch. 

We sat in the truck eating. My mother said “How are you doing Ti-gars?” 

Picture a dog in the rain, splashed by a passing car; hungry, tired and miserable. That’s how I felt. 

I said, I was fine. 

She could see that I wasn’t fine. But instead of words of encouragement she said, “Good. Let’s pick up the pace so we can go home early.” 

The idea, the theory of it, sounded fantastic. But my muscles were aching – and had been for hours. With whatever pride was left in me, I said, picking up the pace was a good idea. 

Although I was miserable and desperately wanted to quit, I set off to finish the job with my tiny mother. She never seemed to tire. How she did it, I still don’t know. 

When we finally finished I crawled into the truck and she looked at me. 

“Here is your half of the pay,” she said. And she handed me 50$. 

50 dollars! 50 dollars for 7 hours of work, in the cold wet miserable bush. 

My mother could see that I was not overwhelmed by the generosity of her employer. And that is when she said to me, “I never had the chance to go to school. And because of that, what you have done today, is what I do everyday.” 

And I turned and I smiled at her and, for the first time in my life, I did act like a man. I admitted that I was wrong. I handed her the $50 back. It did not feel right to deprive my mother of these earnings.