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The Harrowing Time By Nessa Watt

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The Harrowing Time.
By Nessa Watt
I knew life in Canada would be different. Hadn't I dutifully attended all the meetings and
lectures given at the Canadian Wives Club in my home city. I had even read all the
literature distributed by a very wise Canadian government. I knew it would be different,
but I did not know how different, until I had to live with it and stub my ego on it every
day in the week.
In my case it was not only a different country, but a different way of life. To begin with,
I had not lived on a farm; that is the pertinent point. In fact I did not regard myself as a
rustic type; therefore I had a decided shock when my fairly new husband informed me
he intended to become a farmer on his return to Canada. However, I rallied, confident
that love would conquer all- including my fear of the bovine species; so with my
blessing Rob returned to Alberta and bought a farm. He wrote, assuring me that it had a
good house, but in retrospect, I see that he was attempting to 'prepare' me; he wrote that
we would have 'fun' making our own improvements.
Seven months later I arrived. It was dusk as we drove into the yard after what seemed
endless miles of driving through country where only trees seemed to grow. On entering
the house I realised instantly that it lacked electricity; that must have been one of the
improvements mentioned. The house , mostly unfurnished, looked unwelcoming, and as
if to add insult to injury, a mouse scampered across the floor. I have never in my life
failed to jump on a chair or other elevation in the presence of a mouse, and this time
was no exception. I knew then and there that this was positively not the life for me.
Rob took me to see the rest of the house, but did show me the bathroom. I tried to
squash a horrible idea which kept invading my mind. I told myself he was just being
delicate. Later when I was forced to ask, he took me for a walk - to the other end of the
yard. There I made acquaintance with the 'bathroom', and was not at all impressed. The
decor was bad enough, but the draught was even worse. This, I thought must be another
of those casually mentioned improvements. And so it went on: water in a bucket, a
wood-stove - it looked as if it would bite me, and worse was to come. A coyote howled,
and I knew then, with absolute certainty I could not stay.
I took courage from the thought that in the morning things would not seem so bad. I am
always much braver in the morning. I would point out to my husband the great mistake
he had made, and if he loved me, he would leave this awful place. We would move to
the city. I would even be big about it and settle for a town. With such a comforting
thought, I fell asleep.
We were awakened next morning by sounds of movement in the house. Rob jumped up
to investigate. He came back immediately to tell me to get up as we had visitors. I
staggered out of bed and went to entertain my first company, wearing a negligee.
I saw six children ranging in age from four to fourteen years, standing in the middle of
the living-room floor. They did not speak or acknowledge the introduction; they just
stared, or looked me over as if sizing up horse-flesh. Rob told me they lived three miles
away, and they had walked all the way just to say 'Hello' to me. I attempted to engage
them in conversation, but it was no use; they did not want to talk- just to look.
I proferred a large box of chocolates which I had bought en route to send to my sweetrationed
parents, and this really activated them. They proceeded to demolish it. No word
passed any of the six pairs of lips, but the scrutiny continued. After what seemed an
interminable period of time, as if by an unspoken command, they filed out. As the oldest
reached the door, he glanced back, looked at Rob and remarked in a casual 'man of the
World' tone," Just wanted to see what you picked up over there". I began to feel like an
unpopular virus, because, in all honesty I have to admit he did not seem impressed.
It was still only seven o'clock, and somehow the house did not seem so bad; in fact it
looked bright and sunny, as did the country-side, which I viewed from the veranda.
Hadn't I always wanted to live in a house with a veranda? So when Rob began to tell me
of all the plans he had for us I just could not bring myself to tell him I was not going to
stay; in fact I could not think of one good reason why I should not stay, especially as he
assured me he would get rid of the mice - somehow- and I actually believed him. How
naive can anyone be? I was sure then that all would be well and I could adjust to my
new environment and I began to make plans for home improvements and facilities -
especially facilities.
The first winter was one of quiet content. We had only one source of heat - the
cookstove - so we used only one part of the house. On winter nights we were warm and
cosy, reading all the books and magazines which friends and family sent us. I had
written pleas for reading material, and they did not let me down. We came to know other
young people with whom we exchanged visits, and enjoyed companionship such 1s
unknown in this era of television and electronic entertainment.
When I first arrived, during the month of August, I found that at the local dances, I was
extremely popular. The young men all seemed to want to dance with me. I began to feel
very kindly to the Canadian male; surely this showed they had good taste. I began to feel
very smug; but my ego was soon deflated when I found out that my popularity did not
stem from my sparkling personality, but from a misunderstanding. Arriving at the time
of year I had to be the new school teacher. I found out that it was customary for the
young men to vie for her favours and to make her feel welcome in the district. While it
lasted I enjoyed a feeling of being wanted, and I bear no grudge, as it helped me over a
period of adjustment which would have been much harder had I not experienced such
friendliness. Oddly enough, the teacher who came that year was an elderly lady who
became a good friend, and she, with her wonderful sense of humour, enjoyed the whole
thing immensely.
I found that people on the whole were very friendly and helpful to me, and I shall never
cease to be grateful for all the kindness extended to me; but there were still times when I
was very homesick- especially on Sundays. I had been used to family visits on Sundays,
and here we had no family; so Sunday was the loneliest day of the week. I wrote to my
parents that day and my longing for the familiar was so acute that I wallowed in
nostalgia until I inevitably burst into tears at bedtime. My husband, who practices his
own brand of phycology, was or appeared to be, quite unmoved by my misery; and when
I would say beseechingly,"I'm so homesick" (I was really begging for a shoulder to cry
on) he would look at me as if astonished by such a ridiculous statement, and say," How
can you be homesick? This is your home." For a few minutes
I would drown in self-pity; then I would get angry with myself for having been stupid
enough to have married such an un-feeling, obtuse and conceited man. My anger usually
burned itself out by Monday morning and I would able to function without homesickness
until the following Sunday. As the months passed, the feeling became less acute,
and I even managed to stay dry on occasion.
We frequently - too frequently for my pleasure - had a visitor whom I was rarely ever
pleased to see. He was the father of the six children who came to see me on the morning
after I had arrived. He rarely ever shaved - nor, I suspect, washed. My first encounter
with him came two evenings later.
We were leaving the local store when he came over, stuck his head in the open window
of the car, and said," She sure has you all hog-tied already- uh-uh. All shaved and
pretty- and wearing a white shirt." Rob merely looked embarrassed, but I was not going
to be intimidated by such a coarse creature so I bristled, and said bitingly in what I
hoped was a Grande Dame manner," My good man you would be much improved by
shaving and wearing a clean shirt." Rob then tramped on the accelerator and we took off,
so fast, that I was surprised to find that Bluebeard had not been decapitated and his head
left in my lap.
My husband recovered - a few miles beyond where we should have turned off, I was
given a lecture on the way not to speak to people over here, etc.,etc .. I admit I did feel I
had been a bit nasty, and made up my mind I would be a model of democracy,
friendliness, and neighbourliness in the days to come.
I am sure that I had many lapses, but I did try; and Blue beard- as I came to think of that
gentleman?- did not seem to harbour any grudges, as he made regular visits to the house
-usually to give Rob the benefit of his advice on the methods he would employ to
'break-in' a woman such as I.
I kept on making faux pas. It seemed to come naturally. I was, at first, appalled at the
habit of using the dipper to drink from the water pail; that was before I saw that it was
standard practice. The first time I saw Bluebeard head for the water pail I rushed
forward and filled a glass of water for him. Now it was his tum to be appalled, and I was
admonished in no uncertain terms about my 'high-falutin' ideas. He intimated that I was
not likely to last long in Alberta if I continued with such ridiculous notions. He then
wasted no time in high-tailing it off to the bam to tell Rob about my latest idiosyncrasy.
Blue beard appointed himself my mentor. He objected strenuously when I got a gaspowered
washing machine. He informed me that I was being spoiled, and no good
would come from it. When I bought a bathtub he almost - but unfortunately did not -
give up on us. After the initial shock, he rallied enough to sputter to Rob, " Oh my God,
she'll have you taking a bath every month." He continued to censor me, and advise Rob;
while I continued to simmer or boil, according to the amount of his interference.
The subject of the bath-tub brings me back to facilities. I admit to incredible stupidity, as
before coming to Alberta, I could not have believed that anywhere in Canada there was a
home without a bath-tub. They certainly did not tell me at the Canadian Wives Club. On
the contrary, it was impressed upon us that Canadians have a very high standard of
living, and in my youth I obviously connected the standard of living with running water.
I could not help feeling terribly let down each time I filled the kettle with a dipper from
the water-pail. In fact on Sundays I may even have augmented the water supply with
The first days of my life on the farm, my husband said," Don't worry Dear, I'll see that
you always have enough water"; and I actually believed him. However, after a few days
when he had brought me a half-pail of water each morning, and in the evening seemed
astonished when the pail was empty, I began to get the message. He was using that old
psychology again; and that is how, and why, I started to haul my own water.
I learned to collect rain water which was beautifully soft, and closer at hand - that is, if
it rained, and I only used well water for cooking and drinking. Any-way, what moron
dug the well by the bam instead of by the house? A man of course.
A gift from my parents bought the bath-tub. Rob humoured me and let me fix up a small
room as a pretence of the real thing. He devised a way to drain the tub to the outside,
and though it is true that I had to carry and heat the water to fill it, it was worth it, just to
feel we were making progress. The lovely shiny taps tantalised me, but I lived in hope
that one day they would gush water - preferably hot- into the tub.
On the subject of farm animals.
I had never at any time in my life liked being near cows -
nor their male counterparts, but here they proceeded to dominate my life. As we
gradually acquired a herd I began to realize how demanding they were. No doubt about
it; we had to jump when they moo-ed. They practically ruled us -or so it seemed to me.
If we were out somewhere, we had to hurry home for milking or feeding. They broke
into my garden, and not content to trample on everything growing, they chewed it up
and undid many hours of back-breaking work. Not to mention my blistered hands. Not
even the most welcome cream cheque compensated me for the chore of washing the
separator twice a day, and I was sure we had the separator with more discs than any
other ever manufactured.
One cow in particular became my bug-bear. Her name was Blackie. Rob was very
factual when he gave names to his stock. Blackie was a black cow, of course. Each night
as we had supper she would come moo-ing and drooling over the fence just a few feet
from the kitchen window. This was annoying enough at any time, but when I was
pregnant it was disastrous. Our table had to be by the window, so there was not anything
I could do about that. Each night for weeks I had to make a hasty retreat from the supper
table; one look at that drooling cow and I lost everything I may have eaten. My husband
- that old psychology at work once again - assured me that it was only a case of mind
over matter; I must keep my eyes on my plate and not the cow. Evidently I have a weak
mind and eventually admitted it. I took a tray into the living-room; out of sight, if not of
sound, of cow.
Blackie continued to plague me, getting through any fence and eating all in sight. By the
time my daughter was three years old the cow was still as bothersome. In exasperation
one day I expostulated to Rob, describing the object of my annoyance as, " that damn
cow'. A few days later my little one came running into the house to tell me, "That damn
cow is in the garden again Mama". Her father gazed on me with a look which clearly
stated, that because of my unreasonable antipathy towards the poor cow, I had set my
child's feet on the path of profanity.
I worried about it. I am a chronic worrier anyway, but being at that time, a devotee of Dr.
Spock, I refrained - with some difficulty - from remarking on it. It was a new' word for
her and she began to point out black horses, black shoes, black dresses, even black paint;
but the trouble was - she did not say, 'black'. It was a time of trial for me. If, when in
polite society, there was a black object in the room, I perspired visibly. How-ever, I
remained faithful to Dr. Spock and the language problem eventually resolved itself; but
it was all the fault of that damn cow.
The there was Old Red. Naturally she was a ginger coloured cow. I really disgraced
myself because of her.
One evening Rob asked me to help him take Old Red to a neighbour's farm. He had to
cope with two restive horses, so I would have to cope with the cow. He informed me that
she had to be bred, and an arrangement had been made with a neighbour for the use of
his bull. I knew little of animal husbandry and could not see why it had to be that precise
time which was not convenient to me. I was advised not to ask questions and get the cow
I got Old Red as far as the gate but she refused to go through it. Rob and the horses were
already out on the road, but no matter how I tugged, she refused to take another step.
She looked at me with such a soulful expression, and I noticed, for the first time, that she
had very large sad eyes. Rob was calling to see why I was taking so long. I told him why.
His reply - rather testy, I thought - was to give her a whack and get her going. I could
not bring myself to hit any animal while it looked at me with such pathos in its beautiful
sad eyes.
"I can't do it!' I shouted.
"Why can't you," he shouted back.
~~she has such sad eyes. I can't bring myself to hit her".
"I thought you did not like cows".
"That was before I knew they could look like this".
"Ye gods", yelled the by now infuriated man, "I'm not asking you to hit her eyes. Get to
the other end and you won't see her eyes!"
Reluctantly I moved to the other end, only to find out that cows also have very flexible
necks, for just as I was about to give her an encouraging pat on the rump ( I would not
hit hard no matter what that cruel husband of mine said ) I looked up, and there she was,
looking at me out of the sides of her sad eyes.
"Ye gods and little fishes. Hit her", yelled a man who was fast losing his patience.
Then I gave her a light pat with my hand; but of course she did not move.
"That's no use", yelled my irate husband, " Get a stick and swat her. Get her out the gate
at least".
He was getting angry, so I said placatingly, " Do you have to take her? I don't think she
wants to go anyway".
That did it. Rob started towards a tree to tie up his horses, but before he could complete
the task, my guardian angel came to my rescue. She - ( Or is it he? What sex do
guardian angels come in?) must have been worried that my long-suffering partner would
succumb to what must have been a terrific temptation - to hit me as well as the cow. At
that moment a wonderful thing happened. A friend who had intended to visit with us,
hove into view and enquired mildly if he could help. Rob then uttered what I can only
class as a masterpiece of understatement; he said, " I don't mind if you do".
I was dismissed - rather brusquely, I thought, and made my way back to the house. I
found myself wondering whether to be sorry for myself or the cow who was obviously
being forced into a relationship she plainly did not want, or for myself, married to a
hard-hearted monster who was quite unmoved by the sad eyes of a dumb animal.
As I write this, remembering this incident from a distance of twenty-five years, it has
occurred to me that Old Red went quite docilely when our friend took her. It is rather
disconcerting to learn that even a cow can recognize a sucker.
The only two relatives who ventured this far to check up on me were unfortunately
involved involved with our farm animals.
My mother surprised us one day by deciding to show us that she had more courage than
we gave her credit for. Actually she was trying to convince herself too. Unknown to
either of us she went to bring the cows in for milking.
Out of the bush on the other side of the yard there emerged a string of bovine specimens,
followed by my mother who had furnished herself with a hefty stick and was
enthusiastically prodding, poking, and whacking the rump of the rear animal, rather in
the style of a drum major beating his big bass drum. Just then Rob joined me. He looked
more than a little agitated.
"I wish she would not do that", he said.
" Do what", I said.
"That", was the elucidating reply.
"Well Sammy does not look to concerned", and no sooner had I said it than the awful
truth dawned on me. Sammy was our bad-tempered and extremely temperamental bull.
We had acquired one of our own by that time. At this point I should say, that on her
native heath, my mother has, on more than one occasion been seen to shinny over a five
foot wall in a most un-lady-like manner, in order to avoid meeting even one cow face to
I said, " Do something".
Rob said, "What".
As the entourage came closer Rob called to her that he would take over, but my mother
was enjoying her position of power and was reluctant to relinquish it. She insisted on
seeing each one into the bam, and gave a final firm smack on Sammy's rear end as he
On returning to the house she made it plain that she was very proud of her
accomplishment. We tried to deflate her ego, but my farmer who knew the bull only too
well, felt that we should tell her the truth in case she should do it again - on one of
Sammy's bad days. He stressed how much he appreciated her help and thoughtfulness,
but if next time she wanted to help in this way, would she check with him in case the
bull should be with the herd. My poor mother instantly turned a peculiar shade of
chartreuse, and quickly collapsed into the nearest chair; she had heard tales of Sammy's
temperament. A week or so later she regained her natural complexion, but never again
did she go for the cows. In fact I doubt if she even maintained a nodding acquaintance
with them; which may have been because she did not trust her knowledge of animal
My other relative, a gentle elderly lady, ran afoul of George who was a ram. In the two
weeks that she stayed with us, George rarely left the yard. He saw her on the day she
arrived, and for George, it was hate at first sight. If my cousin stepped out of the house
he prowled up and down the other side of the fence and glowered menacingly at her. We
tried to keep George out of the yard, but somehow he always outwitted us and found his
way back. We were somewhat embarrassed by George's behaviour as my cousin was
extremely nervous of him, and it is rather ego shattering to be over-ruled by a ram. To
add to all this, it rained almost continuously for two weeks. The visit must have been
quite a strain for Peggie. I know it was for us; and the worst was yet to come.
On the day my cousin left, we were positive that we had George safely out of range, but
just as Peggie stepped into the yard to enter the car, George came flying out of no-where
and bunted her soundly from behind, sending her flying into a large puddle of muddy
water. Well, when we had picked Peggie out of the puddle and hustled her into the house
to change into clean dry clothing for her journey, we then realized that George was no
longer with us. He had apparently gone away satisfied. He had done what he wanted to,
even if he had to wait for two weeks.
As my cousin said good-bye at the station, she looked at us fondly, and told me to keep
cheerful as things were bound to improve. She was too polite to say that she was sorry
for us in our rural setting; but my sympathy was with her. I was sorry she had not had a
more pleasant visit. I would have liked if she could have regaled my other relatives in
Britain with tales of the wonderful life I was living.
Rob, who has a diabolical sense of humour at times, said he was sorry too, because she
was going to have an uncomfortable journey; after all, George had charged at her like a
battering ram (He said he intended no pun) and she would be constantly reminded of
him for the next two days at least. He added that he did not recommend a two day train
trip under those circumstances.
To prove that I really tried to be a good farmer's wife, I have to record that I kept
chickens, and for some-one who does not like birds, I gave myself E for effort. I had a
bad experience with a hawk when a child and am terrified of being pecked - a definite
draw-back when collecting eggs.
The manual on egg production said I must not allow the eggs to be kept warm so I wore
out a lot of shoe-leather trotting back and forth to the chicken- many times each day; but
every time I went to collect the eggs the nests were occupied. There was only one
solution, so this rank amateur quickly reached into the nest, grabbed the feathered
occupant by the tail and tossed her out. I decided to keep my method a secret, and by the
time my husband noticed that the chickens all seemed to have lost their tail-feathers, I
had found a new method. It had to. I missed those tail-feathers as much as did the
chickens. It had become increasingly difficult to toss them out of the nest when I had so
few tail-feathers to grab.
Our mentor, my cross, and self-styled friend, Bluebeard, was sure our poultry had
contracted an obscure poultry disease; but I did not give myself away. I came up with
yet another solution. I had optimistically brought with me, a pair of gauntletted riding
gloves ( Well, I had heard that people did ride horses in Alberta ) and they were just right
for the job. I did not feel a thing when those irritable birds pecked at me. The gauntlet
was firm, and all those stupid birds did, was to blunt their beaks. I felt quite creative, but
for some obscure reason kept my method a secret. Maybe I was afraid that Bluebeard
would find out.
Looking back at those early days, I can remember so many incidents which now strike
me as funny. I can now laugh at my early fears and mistakes. I can even forgive
Bluebeard. He was a thorn in my side in those days. His terrific sense of infallibility was
enough to raise my blood pressure; but the poor man has my sympathy now. His longsuffering
wife finally 'had enough' and divorced him. He is now the hen-pecked husband
of a strong-minded woman. The last time I saw him he was closely shaved and wearing
a clean white shirt. He did not even need a deoderent. How are the mighty fallen.
Some of the old neighbours are gone now, and many have have left the land; but I am
glad I knew this country while some of the pioneering era remained. Only those who
have known how to live off the land, to be dependent on the elements, and on their own
efforts, know how satisfying life can be, after the challenge has been met. It was with
regret that I see this way of life disappearing from our province. There was a kind of
friendship offered then, unselfish and sincere, and I shall always be grateful that it was
offered to me.
Two years ago, after twenty-three years, I returned to my native land. Within a few hours,
despite the wonderful welcome from family and friends, I knew I did not belong there. I
could hardly wait till I could board the air-plane which would bring me home.
One evening recently, while reminiscing with my husband, I remarked that there must
have been times when I, in my ignorance of customs here, and with my some-what
unorthodox methods, must at the beginning of our life together have been a trial to him.
He did not answer immediately, but when he did, he said, "Well, it may have been
harrowing, but it was never dull". For the sake of our future relationship, I have decided
to accept that as a compliment.