Root and Branch

Skirt Magazine, December, 2007

“Last week we made 700 pierogi.” Violet’s words floated back to me as she led me down the basement stairs of her Saskatchewan farmhouse. I paused midstep, trying to calculate how many woman-hours it would take to produce 700 little triangles of dough stuffed with potatoes and cheese. Way too many hours, I decided, before scurrying to catch up with Violet. She hadn’t slowed to wait for me. No surprise there. At age 82, she was still managing a 160-acre farm. I suspected that she rarely slowed for anything. By the time I reached the bottom step, she was pulling the second of two enormous pans of cabbage rolls out of the oven. Prodding the tender bundles gently, she nodded with satisfaction. Dinner was ready.

The kitchen table upstairs, already covered with platters of pierogi, bowls of sour cream, and trays of pickles and carrots, had disappeared behind a milling crowd of relatives. Most of those gathered for this Sunday family dinner lived in or near Saskatoon. The rest of us had come from as far away as Ontario in Canada, and from West Virginia and California in the U.S. I’d arrived two days earlier with the California contingent. Neither Canadian, nor farm girl nor blood relative, I was connected to Violet’s clan through marriage, and I was discovering Saskatoon, and the clan, for the first time.

300 miles due north of the Montana border, Saskatoon is smack in the middle of Canada’s prairie. My husband’s grandparents had been among the early European pioneers who’d settled in the valley of the Saskatoon River. They’d built a house out on that wide, endless prairie, and had spent a lifetime turning the grasslands to wheat. Of the eight children they’d raised, most had scattered to other provinces. A few, though, had stayed, passing on that farming tradition to their offspring. My husband, our two sons and I had come to Saskatoon to connect with the cousins who still tilled the land.

It only takes fifteen minutes to drive from downtown Saskatoon to farm country. Suddenly you realize that the buildings have fallen behind you, and the world is composed of nothing but land and sky. We spent our first day in Saskatchewan driving along country lanes past neat farmhouses that seemed, to my urban eyes, to be awfully far apart. Our first stop was at the edge of a field where, some thirty yards off the road, a fence bowed sideways in a losing battle with the wind. The family’s first homestead had once stood right there. It has been gone for decades, but it was easy to imagine what it must have looked like: a log cabin hunched low to the ground, its mud-plastered walls whitewashed, its roof made of sod.

I stood on that roadside and made a slow, 360 degree turn, seeing nothing on the landscape but an undulating sea of wheat. What had it felt like, I wondered, to come from a crowded European land to this vast, open, lonely space? Had it been exhilarating or terrifying? Or both at once?

We saw three farms that day, although we kept our visits brief. It was mid-July, and a critical time for farmers. Weekends provide no respite from hard work. Still, word had gone out that we were coming, and at each farmhouse we were met with firm handshakes and glasses of iced tea. While my husband sat with his cousins at kitchen tables and pored over genealogy charts, I talked with wives who, like me, had married into the family. I wanted to learn something of their lives – a vain hope, perhaps, given the little time we had – like trying to understand an entire civilization from a few shards of pottery.

Mary, cousin Norman’s wife, plucked a large, framed family portrait right down off the wall and introduced me to her children, one by one. They’ve all left the farm now, she told me – married and moved into the city. Her youngest daughter had, improbably, wed a cruise ship captain, trading waves of wheat for the real thing somewhere in the distant Caribbean.

Sylvia, a grandmother many times over, sturdy as a fireplug and with a mop of short, curly hair, greeted us with a smile on her pleasant, open face. She’d been hard at work in her garden, undeterred by the searing July heat. An eager storyteller, she regaled me with cautionary tales about the hazards of farm living, from the account of the two year old who’d been kicked in the head by a horse (and survived!) to the story about the teenage neighbor who fell into a coma from drugs and alcohol (and survived!).

Jeannie gave me a tour of her brand new house – a prefab with three bedrooms and a full basement. Out back stood the small trailer where her family of five, with three kids under the age of seven, had lived for the past two years while they saved money for the new place. The trailer made me think again about that very first sod house on the prairie, about large families living in cramped quarters while they looked ahead to better times.

Back at Violet’s, I walked through her garden – two acres of vegetables that she planted herself and watered by hand. You name it, and Violet probably grows it. Corn, potatoes, cabbages, radishes, strawberries, raspberries – she cultivates all that and more, pickling or preserving what she harvests, then selling whatever she can’t use. She raises chickens, grazes fifteen head of cattle, and in her spare time she embroiders – beautiful Ukrainian designs in red and white cross-stitch. Where, I wondered, does she find all that spare time? And then I remembered the long Saskatchewan winters.

I looked east, across dozens of flat miles of Saskatoon farmland, measuring my urban self against the women I’d met that weekend and finding that I came up a little short. We had spoken together in kitchens that looked deceptively similar to mine, with their oak cabinets and linoleum floors. But these women tested themselves daily against a harsher reality than anything I faced, living as they did where fields of green stretch to the very edges of the world and where, in winter, snow could imprison you for days. My own world seemed smaller and much less heroic. Yet standing there, surrounded by Violet’s rows of cabbages and beans, I had a sudden, vivid recollection of a similar garden, planted and tended by my grandmother in a prairie town in America’s mid-west. She, too, had left a small European farming village to make a new life on the prairie, and I realized suddenly that, although I had come to Saskatoon to discover my husband’s roots, I had, surprisingly, found my own.

Patricia Bracewell’s non-fiction has appeared in American Baby, The Phoenix Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. She is the editor of Left Coast Writers’ on-line travel and writing column, Roadwork.

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