On a Marengo Saskatchewan morning in 1925 my great-grandmother made a grisly discovery. She woke her 22-year-old son with the words, “Come see what your father has done.”
My grandfather threw on his clothes, pulled on his boots and grabbing his coat from the peg by the farmhouse door, stumbled into the still dark morning of December 22nd. He followed the fast-moving small figure of his mother down the icy path to the barn. It was only two more nights until Christmas. Maybe his father had made something special for his thirteen year old brother or twelve-year-old sister.
Nothing prepared him for what he saw when his mother stepped inside the barn and held the lantern aloft.
It was true that his father had been depressed. Grain prices were down and the family was struggling. In the early years they had always made enough money from the farm to not only live, but to improve upon it and even make yearly trips down to visit family in Minnesota or to go south in the winter to escape the brutal prairie winters. They weren’t rich but they were comfortable. All that had gone the way of falling grain prices and temperamental prairie storms. Even so, no one expected my great-grandfather to shoot himself. But sometime in the night that is exactly what he had done.
His name was Frank and he was fifty-three years old. The same age I am on this same December day when he took his life. My great-grandmother Margaret was forty-seven; widowed on a prairie December morning just two days before Christmas. At twenty-two, ready to step out into a world of possibilities, my Grandpa Don instead found himself shouldered with the family farm.
Suicide doesn’t end the pain. It just passes it on to someone else.
Nearby, on their own farm, my great-great grandparents, Emma and Frank, had yet to learn the news that their only son was gone.
A couple of years later Frank passed away and the family decided to sell the family farms and move to Drumheller, Alberta. In 1928 Grandpa Don married my Grandma Isabelle and soon after my Aunt Doreen was born followed by my father in 1930. In 1929 Emma passed away and my grandfather and his younger brother decided to take up homesteads in the Peace Country. In 1931 their wagon rolled onto the quarter northwest of Dawson Creek that would forever more be known to our family as “The Old Place.”
Great Grandma Margaret (affectionately known as Little Grandma due to her diminutive size) came along for the adventure and my father, all of one year old at the time, loved to proclaim that moving to the Peace Country was the smartest decision he ever made.
Christmas is a time of memories. The only relatives from this story I knew personally were my Uncle, my Grandma Isabelle, Aunt Doreen and, of course, my father. Grandpa Don died ten years before I was born when he was only 52, from a stroke.
I grew up playing in the buildings at The Old Place that my grandfather built, but I never knew a time when they weren’t abandoned. They were rich fuel for a young child’s imagination. It was among the log cabins, barns and sheds that the dream of one day having my own log cabin in the woods took seed. In fact, I wanted to be a homesteader, go back in time, grow all our own food and live my albeit romantic version of a simple, peaceful life.
And it happened. Sort of. For 16 years I lived with my own family in a log house only six miles from The Old Place. I grew much of our own food and it was a simple and peaceful life. Most of the time. I am grateful to have lived my dream.
Today I am sitting at my computer in our fourth floor apartment, looking out over rooftops at a Chinook-riddled Peace Country sky, thinking of all the Christmases come and gone. Soon our oldest son will be flying in across the same skies I am looking at now. Our youngest son and daughter in law can’t make it in person this year, but we’ll Skype.
On our way down to my sister’s house for Christmas supper we will pick up my Mom from her apartment in Assisted Living. She will be excited and happy to see us, and a little confused. We will cross the parking lot to the long-term care facility to visit my father.
If he isn’t sleeping, he will smile when he sees us and try to talk. We won’t understand what he is trying to say, but we will smile and nod back. The strong, farmer legs that the grandchildren used to scramble up like a tree while he held their hands, encouraging them to walk their way up to his shoulders and somersault shrieking back to the floor, no longer work. It’s been ten Christmases since he started the long goodbye, the slow fade. Every year less of him remains, and yet all of him is still here. This is his fourth Christmas in long-term care. It’s the third Christmas since my mother first started showing symptoms of what we would later learn was a mix of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s her first Christmas in assisted living.
People always say they wished they had asked their parents more questions while they still could. We are lucky in that the slow decline of our parents have allowed us to ask and ask and ask, until the information wicket falls shut.
Now I wonder what to do with all the answers and stories swirling in my head. Watching first one parent, then the other, lose their memories makes me want to scramble to get everything down before my own brain tangles and it all vanishes like fairy dust. I want evidence that it all really happened. That we were all really here. That there were lots of good moments too.
So many Christmases, so many memories made under these same Peace Country skies. It’s like one big bowl of emotional sweet and sour soup.
So I guess I have my New Year resolution. To write the book of us. A family like every other, a family like no other. My family. Our family. The story of us. It won’t be the greatest story every told, but it will be ours. Or my version of it anyway.
I wish everyone a joyous season filled with good moments and great stories.