Ninety-three Decembers

I smell the snow before I see the first few flakes in the air. My insulated boots crunch on the gravel of my driveway. I'm walking in the dark of this cold December morning to the bus stop, about a mile away from my house in rural Prince Edward Island.

I think about a day ninety-three Decembers earlier in Romney Township, Kent County, Ontario. The day my great-grandparents moved their six children to the farm that they would eventually call the "home place." Winter had already set in by December of 1917. The roads between the old farm and the new farm were not passable, so the move was made by bobsleigh over snow-covered fields, about eight miles.

The crescent moon shines above me on my left as I walk, as do a couple of bright stars. The sun has yet to crest the horizon, but the glow in the sky tells me it's not far away. 

Moving Day was a Tuesday. The family had moved into the house by that evening. In the barn was the family's livestock, including a few cows, some chickens, and a pregnant sow. Not everything made it over on that first day. My great-grandfather ("Pa") would return in a few days to the old farm with his eldest son, seven-year-old Glen.

I watch the line of cars whiz by on the highway. The cold air stings my cheeks. I wait for a break in the traffic before crossing and walk a few hundred paces to the abandoned driveway that is my bus stop. I pull my phone from my pocket and check the time. I'm a few minutes early.

Thursday dawned and it seemed a fine day to travel. Pa and Glen hitched the team to the bobsleigh and rode off in the direction of the old farm. I imagine five tiny faces pressed against the glass window of the new house watching them ride away.

They would not see Pa and Glen again for nearly a week. As the story was told to my great-uncle Reid, who was just a baby at the time, what came next was the worst storm anybody could remember. The temperature dipped to 20 below.

Ma checked the livestock in the cold barn. She wrapped two young calves in blankets to keep them warm, then discovered the sow was having her piglets.

She tucked each newborn piglet into the folds of a blanket and trudged through wind and three-foot drifts to the house, where she placed it in a box by the oven door. Then back to the barn again, until all eleven piglets were safe. She repeated these trips every hour as she brought the piglets back to the cold barn to let them suckle from their mother, then back to the warmth of the house.

The bus is now ten minutes late. This isn't unusual, but on this cold morning, it's inconvenient. I stamp my feet. Several dozen crows fly over -- the first of hundreds that will eventually pass over my head. The first group is followed about a minute later by the the new light of the sun. They ride the crest of dawn from east to west like a wave.

Pa and Glen would bring the bulk of the firewood on their return trip, and the house was getting cold. Ma sent her eldest girls, Marguerite (eleven) and Edith (nine), into the snow to dig out a few wooden rails from a nearby fence. Ma did some digging of her own and discovered a small handsaw packed among the few things that had made it over from the old house. She cut lengths of rail to feed the stove.

The old cook stove roared to life, warming the house, the children, and the eleven little piglets. Ma made soup and bread. 

Most of the neighbours lost livestock that week. Ma would say later her greater fear was losing one of her young children.

I dig my phone from my pocket again and see the bus is now nearly a half-hour late. I remove my gloves and type a message into Twitter, and in an instant hundreds of people know I'm late for work. I call Erin, who bundles up the kids so they can all drive me to my office in Charlottetown. 

By the time I arrive back at the house, the motor of the car is running and the interior is warm. I kiss each of my kids' cold red cheeks and think briefly of a meeting I am running late for.

5 comments:

auntie said...

ooohh excellent Dave. I do love these interwoven stories. It's challenging to do it so well. good job!

Craig Wesley said...

You're a fine writer, David. I mean it. With this story you manage to be so evocative without telling your reader -- via armies of modifiers (the devil's own instrument) -- how to think and how to feel. I like it. Very much.

To you, sir: an admiring nod, a tip of the hat.

Dave Atkinson said...

Praise from two people whose opinions I value very much. Thank-you.

Auntie -- I know you hold the keys to a treasure chest of stories that I crave. You and I need to have a series of looooong talks.

grammie said...

Well told, Dave!

auntie said...

what? hand over my best material?