Mrs Watson was a freckle-faced woman of ample girth and a heart to match. She gathered us up as if we were her own and whisked us into her huge, homey kitchen.
Looking at me quizically with her head on one side, she said, "How old are you, dear?"
"Ten. Going on eleven," I replied.
She nodded and said, "You're big for your age. That's good. Cora's clothes will fit you."
She turned to her daughter and said, "Take Patty upstairs and get everything she needs."
Cora Watson was two years my senior and a junior-sized replica of her mother. We were shy with each other as I stood in her room waiting while she methodically opened one drawer after another, taking an article or two from each. She piled the clothes neatly on the bed. When she had finished, we looked at one another, neither knowing what to say.
"Try these on," Cora said at length, handing me the clothes.
I felt strange as I looked in the mirror and saw myself, wide- eyed and pig-tailed, looking back.
"Cora!" Her mother's voice came upstairs.
"Coming, Ma! And we pelted downstairs, relieved that we were spared any more conversation fro the moment.
"Here, set the table. There's a good girl."
"Want to help me, Patty?" Cora asked with a self-conscious smile in my general direction.
Heavens! Was I supposed to help set the table? I didn't know! Mother and Mabel always did everything in our kitchen at home. Since they went away, Father had cooked and managed all our culinary needs. I grabbed a pile of warm plates, thinking this would spare me the humiliation of not knowing where to place the knives, forks and spoons. Cora carried on with the salt and pepper, bread and butter, and hot mats. I made another grab for the pile of napkins and began to distribute them holus-bolus.
"This one is mine," said Cora, with a shy glance, taking my indiscriminate distribution and rearranging the snowy napkins in their proper places as she named each one.
I was feeling very lost and incompetent by the time we sat down to dinner. My father and brothers too were wearing clothes loaned to them by our generous hosts, and looked as awkward as I felt. Mrs. Watson bustled back and forth between stove and table, with Cora and her older sister working in harmonious syncronization with her. There was a ten-year old son who sat beside me. He passed everything on the table to me until I glared at him. His mother teased him when she noticed what he was doing. His obvious attentions left me completely unmoved. After all, boys were a dime a dozen, weren't they?
"Try some of this bread, Mr. Sutton," said Mrs. Watson, passing a newly baked loaf to Father. Then she added with a smile, "Cora baked it."
Cora! She baked that bread? At her age? I felt my inadequate self slip down further on the chair.
"Patty can't bake anything," offered Fred, throwing me a disdainful look.
"Can't you, dear?" asked Mrs Watson solicitously. "Perhaps you can watch the girls and learn how. It's not very hard."
When two beautiful pies ware brought to the table for dessert, Mrs. Watson announced, "These are Cora's pies. I do hope you all like apple."
Fred gave me another cutting glance as he slid his fork into a wedge. If we hadn't been at the table, I should have stuck out my tongue at him. And if I hadn't been so hungry, I would have refused the pie. Perhaps I would next time! Throughout the meal, Cora accepted my family's compliments on her baking with unassuming grace. I looked in vain for a smug reaction from her and settled for the possibility that she probably couldn't ride a horse as well as I could! "So your missus is in England having a baby," M. Watson said, sipping his coffee with relish. Mrs. Watson clucked her sympathy.
"There was a letter from her when I was in town two days ago," said Father. "She will be coming home with the new baby and our older daughter in a month," he finished gloomily.
"Now don't you worry," Mr Watson said sympathetically. "Once the water begins to go down, the sun will dry things fast."
The next three weeks passed quickly for me. Mrs Watson washed all our clothes, augmenting our meagre supplies from their own stock. Her big heart went out to each member of our family.
Cora showed me her treasures - rings and brooches from boxes of candy, and a beautiful china-faced doll. She drew the prize reverently from its place in the wardrobe and gently unwrapped the coverings. Cora just gazed at her most valued possession. I wanted to take it out and play with it, but Cora and Mrs. Watson looked at me as I were a barbarian.
"That's Cora's CHINA doll," Mrs. Watson tried to explain.
"You don't play with CHINA dolls. You just look at them! You play with the wax one."
Cora also treasured a miniature set of china cups and saucers. These too were Just to be admired without touching.
"Cora has had that cup and saucer there for four years, and never a scratch or chip," her mother said proudly.
"And no wonder!", I thought, uncomprehendingly, for this was something I totally failed to understand - toys which were just to be looked at! Feeling that I should get things back onto my own personal plane, I suggested that we go for a horseback ride. Once again, two pairs of eyes turned on me with mild reproach.
"Cora doesn't ride horseback," her mother explained with patience. "That's more for boys."
I felt totally out of place...
Father was frantic to get home and fix things up before Mother, Mabel and baby Bernard arrived, but the wells were polluted now from the flood waters, and unfit for drinking. Drowned cattle and chickens lay over the land.
One day, toward the end of our third week with the Watsons, Father tried to get back to the house himself, on foot. Mr Watson warned him not to try, for "The land is not fit yet."
But Father was determined, and set off down the hill. We watched him from the house. Toward the bottom of the hill he began to sink into the slimy mud. He sank up to his ankle at one step, and up to his waist a few feet further on. Reluctantly, he turned back, and we waited for a few more days until the winds and sun dried the land enough for the Health Officer to test our well-water. Once it was safe, we climbed into the Watson's wagon for the ride home. We looked back at Mrs. Watson, Cora, her sister and brother with lumps of heartfelt gratitude in our throats, even if I hadn't felt like 'Patty Sutton - Girl' while we were there!
Our house was a disaster. Ruin and mud lay everywhere. The water had risen above our floor, leaving quantities of silt over everything. The doors hung askew on their hinges, warped. The furniture was water-stained and mildewed. The smell of mustiness pervaded every article in every room. Our home looked ghost-like and abandoned.
I looked for my father that evening. Eventually I found him, standing alone, silhouetted against the sky. His face was set in hard lines. His broad shoulders drooped. The unutterable sadness of this strong man who was no longer young and who had weathered so much hardship through toil and determination, touched me deeply. He stooped to pick up a dead fish and toss it from him. I want to stand beside him in silence. Together we surveyed the ruin of our beautiful fields, our vanished livestock, our home wreathed from the virgin prairie by back-breaking labour and hope. He shook his bowed head. .
"You would never believe it," he said, with a catch in his throat.
"Are we going to try to fix it?" I queried.
He said nothing for a moment or two. Then his head lifted and he nodded. "I think so," he said.
We shovelled silt from the floors in the house, until we could barely stand upright. I filled pail after pail with fresh water and scrubbed those floors on my hands and knees with a brush and yellow soap, My hands blistered and peeled. The more I scrubbed, the more silt oozed up through the boards to lie there ridiculing my totally absolute - and ineffectual - efforts, Each day I scrubbed those wretched floors again. By the next morning, there lay a fresh layer of silt. I cried from utter frustration as I scrubbed. Each morning I carried all the bedding to air in the sun all day, but each night when we crawled into bed the smell of mustiness was just as intense as the night before. It was all so hopeless.
Every few days the Watsons' wagon arrived bringing food and words of encouragement. At first I was delighted to see our cheery neighbour and filled with excitement when we unpacked the hampers of wonderful food. But as the days went by, I felt increasingly listless. Fred dragged himself about too. Neither of us felt very well. Then our temperatures rose sharply and we began to cough - with, a whoop. Father put us both to bed and went into town to meet Mother.
The sound of her arrival bucked Fred and me up a little. She came into the house taking everything in at a glance as she cams upstairs to see us. She stood in the doorway and looked at her ailing children.
"Oh, my God! It's the lost Tribe of Israel!" she said. Fred was critically ill. He lost weight and looked dreadful. I was listless and pale, and Dr Crole said a change from the farm would do me good. Mother bought my heart's desire for me - a blue gingham dress like the other girls wore! I was no longer an English 'Bloke'.
At the end of the summer, Mother said she simply couldn't face another winter on the farm now that we could afford an alternative. And so Father rented rooms for us in Saskatoon. We had barely settled into our new quarters when I developed itchy red spots. It was not a proper rash, but Mother -watched me closely. I called out in distress in the early hours of one morning. Mother came in to see what was troubling me. She threw back the bedcovers, and there they were - about twenty of them scampering as fast as they could for the nearest dark corner. Bedbugs!
"Joe! Come here at once!"
Father arrived in his nightshirt to stand beside Mother who held the lamp. She extended her arm toward the wallpaper, her mouth hanging open in speechless wonder. Her eyes enlarged in horror. Father followed her gaze directed toward the wall.
There they were! Hundreds of the pests racing feverishly for the nearest cracks!
"We are leaving here this very minute!" Mother announced firmly, and we began hurling our belongings into trunks and boxes. Although it was still the middle of the night, we all trooped out onto the street and marched firmly along to the Empire Hotel, which Father was now managing one of his numerous business ventures of which we had known but little, back at the farm. There were no vacant rooms that night and we all sat in the lobby until morning.
Father decided to keep Mother and Baby Bernard at the Hotel with him where he could see that they were looked after under his eagle-eyed supervision. He managed to rent a house for the rest of us, and hired a Scottish couple to look after Mabel, Fred, Buzzy, Ray and me.
'Ern' was a panicky little man who found courage in the bottle. After a bout of drinking he would come home, weaving and fearless, until he was sobered by his wife's soft Scots "Oh, Ern!" and was led meekly to bed.
We returned to the two-room schoolhouse - seat of our former humiliation. Now, some three years later, we were behind our peers in virtually every subject. It was decided that I should be placed in the same class with the other ten-year olds. My writing was good and I had a flair for literature. But my arithmetic! Instead of making allowances for my three years on the farm, my teacher humiliated me in front of the class for my lack of ability with those wretched numbers! I dreaded each school day with increasing fear.
One day I felt I could stand this dally humiliation no longer, and played hookey. Wandering happily through a store, I felt a heavy hand fall on my shoulder. Even before I looked around, I knew it was Father.
"Patricia! What are you doing here? Why are you not in school? Come!" The angry voice turned my heart to icewater.
My father took me firmly by the hand and marched me straight back to that hateful school.
"I have brought Patricia who has been unwise enough to play hookey," he announced, and left me to the most scathing ridicule I had yet endured from the teacher. The entire classroom atmosphere was strained by the time she had finished with me, and I finally slumped down into my seat in abject misery....
Mabel and I shared a bedroom in our new rented house. My beautiful sister was invited to parties frequently. She now joined the Roman Catholic Church choir, in which Emily also sang, and practiced at least one evening a week. Mabel blossomed under the unaccustomed attention from innumerable young men in town, and I rarely saw her any more until the morning.
One night I was half aroused from sleep by a tinkling of articles on the dressing-table. Thinking it must be my sister, I turned over and prepared to drift back into sleep. Thunk! I was wide awake in an instant! I opened my eyes to see a bloated face in the lamplight. It was a man, and he was peering down at me! With a scream that would raise hair on an egg, I lost all control.
Fred and Buzzy came pelting down the hall, and Ray stood on the landing rubbing his sleep-filled eyes at the unexpected uproar. Our housekeeper and Ern came out of their room to see what was wrong. The stranger rushed for the stairs, but Fred tripped him at the top and he fell headlong to the lower landing. Ern took in the situation at a glance, and bolted back into the bedroom where he locked himself in with his bottle. Our housekeeper and the boys descended upon the intruder.
In the course of some heated discussion, it was discovered that ha was a bachelor who lived a few doors from us in a house of similar layout. He had been drinking, and had mistaken our house for his! Bruised and sobered, he gathered himself up and shot out the door with our housekeeper and the boys hurling deprecations after him!
I refused to be quieted. Fred and the housekeeper sat up with me for the remainder of the night. The incident was reported to Father the following day, and both he and Mother tried to comfort me. I remained devastated. Our night invader was overcome with remorse and begged Father to allow him to apologize to me, but my nerves were so frayed that my parent would not permit him to see me at all.
I was sitting on the porch a day or two later. A friendly dog from the neighbourhood came upon me from behind. He and I had been great friends. I took one look and began to scream hysterically again, while the poor dog stood there looking at me with a hurt expression in his eyes, and a lowering tail. Up the street I tore, screaming at the top of my lungs.
Take her to see Dr Crole," Father ordered. "Her nerves are frayed to pieces."
"I think the little lass should get right away for a time," our knowing doctor advised. "She is highly strung and has had a bit too much lately."
And so my parents began to discuss the possibility of sending me away to school.
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