BY DOUGLAS ALLEN
Over the years growing up, my father would tell my sister and me one particular story that entirely captured my imagination. It was about getting ready to travel with his family by horse drawn sleigh. He would tell the story each year around Easter time. It was always the same story as I remember it. My sister, a little younger than me, remembers it rather differently, however, and to this we shall return to next time.
In my recollection, the night of which my Father would reminisce, would always be cold, even though spring was on the doorstep. In fact, it was only upon reflecting upon the story as an adult that I even realized that the moment my Father was describing was, in fact, on the cusp of Spring. As a boy, I had always conceived of the story as being in the middle of winter, so strong was my Father’s emphasis on the cold. In my Father’s memory, and then its reflection in my memory accumulated over the years of growing up, the moon is always full and bright, vivid, almost touchable, in the pure cold air of the prairie night.
My Father would start his story by recalling how my Grandmother would bundle him and his four siblings into the sleigh, while my Grandfather got the horses ready. My Father had a strong memory of the moment and of the way as a child he and his brother and sisters had been carefully settled into the sleigh. My Grandmother always took great care to ensure they were all covered by enough warm blankets. The way he described it always made me think of a series of warm woollen comforters, placed to perfection. I could always see in my mind the overlapping of plain woollen blankets, and the tucked-in parts on the side.
While I did not receive the gift of knowing my Grandmother directly, I am told that she was a very kind and hard-working woman. As I write this, I have a mental image of her. It is of her busying herself getting the family ready during that same evening my Father spoke of. You could see her preparing in the darkness relieved only by the brightness of the moon, at times so bright that it made you think for a moment that you were in a strange state between the day and night. I can see her beaming eyes in the dark, just catching enough moonlight for you to be able to see them. What you could see in those eyes was how much she loved her children, looking after each of them with care and attention, and how much she loved the farm and her life on it. She would be smiling, telling the children they were all going to have a lovely trip and stay warm.
You can almost smell the goodness of this women, like the smell of baked bread, or the smell of the flour of the homemade noodles she would sometimes send from the prairie when I was a small boy.
You can almost smell the goodness of this women, like the smell of baked bread, or the smell of the flour of the homemade noodles she would sometimes send from the prairie when I was a small boy. Sometimes the packages would be of homemade noodles. But there were other times, my favourite times, when she sent a package containing Smarties. When the postman would ring the doorbell, I would run to the door asking my Mother to let me smell the package. If it smelled like noodles you knew you were out of luck, and the disappointment must have been visible upon my face. My Mother would then scold me and tell me in no uncertain terms that the noodles were a much better gift because they were handmade by my Grandmother and that I was to appreciate her work. The smell of the goodness of love and thoughtfulness and work was always embedded within those noodle packages, and it is that smell that has endured in my memory of her, long after the sweetness of the Smarties have given way.
And to my mind, it would seem that that same smell of goodness resides everywhere in the rooms and hallways of this memory of my Father. It resides in the idea of looking after the people that you love the way my Grandmother looked after her children, and, indeed, I am told, others beyond her family within her community.
Still, Grandmother loved the horses, and they were very much a part of my Father’s memory. My Father always recollected seeing the breath of the horses by the light of the moon. Indeed, you might argue that they are central to the memory, without them the family would not have been going very far at all. The idea of looking after your horses is also bound up with the essence of this memory, together with the sense that the horses felt almost a pleasure in the fulfilment of their role of pulling the sleigh to the family’s destination. You could say that the horses were considered as an extension of the family.
I got this feeling as a boy. The two horses embedded in my memory by my Father’s recounting were large and strong, used to the heavier work of farming, they were accustomed to the task of working. The horses were strong enough to pull the whole family in the sleigh, but gentle enough to stand still while the family was being loaded. They would snort in the darkness over the talk of the children, anxious to pull out into the night, but faithful nonetheless in standing still. There had to be a great deal of trust in them. I see them as dark brown, their silhouettes illuminated by moonlight, difficult for my father to see over the blankets and the figures of my grandparents.
In my Father’s memory, my Grandmother was always loving and attentive to the details that made such a cold night bearable. There was almost a pleasure in being enveloped by the blankets and his mother’s love, and of being bundled up in a sleigh and pulled by a team of horses. It is almost magical. And perhaps this sense of magic makes itself visible most at the intersection of knowing what you have and looking at it with appreciation, and judging it as enough. There is comfort and pleasure there, in spite of the lack of “greater” modern comforts. My Father’s memories of the journey at night by horse drawn sleigh I always remember as happy ones. As a boy, I struggled to understand why things were so different in my Father’s stories. It seemed another world away, as though we had somehow been transplanted to a modern era that was devoid of all the things that had made those days for my Father so very special.
And maybe it is [the] sense of goodness and peacefulness that still rings true to our modern sensibilities. Maybe this is part of the reason why we are attracted to the world of the horse, as if all along they have not forgotten what is truly important.
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas’ historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.