Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .



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Daughter of Ishmael by Diane Stringam Tolley

Daughter of Ishmael

by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Stay on the Sidewalk Where it's Safe

My rocketship.

Occasionally, when Mom got tired of driving twenty miles of dirt roads for everything, my parents would move the family to our town house.
The one in town.
It was a whole different lifestyle for me.

I had a tricycle.
Red.
Sturdy.
With a little plastic tassel hanging from one handle grip that waved in the breeze when I went really, really fast.
Which I did.
Often.
I was the master of the universe!
I could go anywhere!
As long as I stayed on the sidewalk.
The streets around our block were 'dangerous'.
There were dragons there.
Okay, so Mom described the dangers as speeding cars that would flatten me into a pancake, but I put my own spin on it.
It was so much better.
So, back on the tricycle.
I rode it endlessly.
Doing laps of our block.
The different homes were categorized according to points of interest or what foodstuffs could be procured there.
Lodemier's house, where the baloney sandwich ruled supreme at snack time, and where best friend lived. Reese's house, where good cookies could be found at any time. Madge's house, another food emporium. Winter's house, with the cute, fuzzy Pomeranians. And so on.
It was paradise.
For me.
I'm not sure what they thought when Diane pulled onto their sidewalk on her trusty steed.
At least they were kind.
And polite.
But I knew that there was nothing more interesting than the homes on our block.
Why would anyone venture out onto dragon-infested gravel in search of anything else.
It just didn't make sense.
So I stayed on my sidewalk.
And was safe.
Most of the time.
There was an alley running the length of our block. The back yard of every home opened onto it. It was a hive of activity every day as dozens of children ran and played.
Occasionally, it was used for vehicles.
Go figure.
Our neighbour, especially, was known to park his huge grain truck there during harvest, to keep the behemoth (real word) off the street.
And that simple act diminished the safety margin by a factor of 100.
I don't know what that means, but it sounds . . . unsafe.
On this particular afternoon, our neighbour had come into town from his farm for lunch.
Having finished said lunch, he had strolled back out to his truck to return to work.
I had also recently finished my lunch. And was on my way to his house for a much-needed cookie fix.
For a short while, the two of us occupied the same general space.
But his vehicle was vastly superior to mine.
In size at any rate.
I was just crossing the entrance to the alley, safely staying on my sidewalk as he was backing his truck up.
I should mention here that trucks in those days didn't have warning beepers or rear-view cameras.
In fact, they barely had mirrors.
Needless to say, my neighbour didn't see me.
Or my tricycle.
It could have been a disaster.
I pulled into the alley entrance,
And stared, transfixed at the enormous blue box of the truck backing, slowly but steadily, towards me.
This was different.
Closer. Closer.
Huh. Something whispered that maybe I should get off my tricycle and move to the side.
I did so.
The truck kept backing.
Backing.
There was a tiny crunching sound as it ran over my tricycle.
Huh. There's something you don't see every day.
The driver kept backing, oblivious to what had just happened.
He waved at me cheerfully as he went past. Then, reaching the street, he reversed direction and headed out.
I watched him go.
Then looked at my tricycle.
Or the little mashed-together bits of metal that used to be my tricycle.
Sigh.
Dad would fix it.
I ran home.
Dad did fix it. And it looked even better when he was through.
Brighter red.
And two little tassells instead of one.
And I think he made it a little bigger.
Dads could do anything.
Soon I was back on the sidewalk again.
Conquering worlds.
Staying safe.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I'm Covered, Aren't I?

Swimsuit? Or underwear. You decide.

It was a hot summer day.
The girl whose family owned the only swimming pool in the town was hosting an impromptu pool party with her friends.
One girl came without a swimsuit.
“No problem,” the hostess said, “I have a whole drawer full. Just find one you like!”
She then waved, vaguely, before turning back to her other guests.
The guest disappeared, returning a short time later dressing in a modest blue two-piece.
Tossing out greetings to the young men and women clustered around the pool, she sauntered around to where her hostess was sitting.
And struck a pose.
“What do you think?”
Her hostess looked up, then shrieked and jumped to her feet. “Where did you get that?!” she said.
The guest blinked and glanced around nervously.
All eyes were on her.
“F-from your drawer, like you said.”
“The top drawer?”
“Y-yes.”
“That's my underwear drawer!”
“Eeeeeeee!” the guest sprinted back into the house.
She had been covered.
In what could easily be mistaken for a swimsuit.
But just being told she was wearing underwear made her scramble madly for shelter.
I thought this cartoon was hilarious.
Then, I saw it happen to my Mom.
Well . . . something similar, anyways.
It was still hilarious.

Our family was getting ready for church.
My current boyfriend, coming to church with my family for the first time and dressed uncomfortably in a shirt and tie, was seated in the great room, waiting for the rest of us.
I was the next to be ready, so I sat beside him and started talking.
Something I excelled at.
But I digress . . .
My mother scurried out of her bedroom and started puttering around in the kitchen, in plain sight of the two of us. She put a roast in the oven for dinner and then started tidying up from breakfast.
I kept talking.
But for some reason, my boyfirend woudn't look at me, but stared, instead, out the window.
I kept talking.
He kept staring fixedly (good word) at something outside.
Suddenly, my mother, still in the kitchen, said, “Oh, my! Look at me!”
I did.
As she was making a fast exit towards her bedroom.
At first I saw nothing wrong.
She was dressed in her usual fashion. Undershirt, bra, full slip.
Skirt. Stockings.
Oh. Wait. Something was missing.
Her blouse.
Suddenly my boyfriend's fixed gaze made sense.
He had noticed as soon as Mom had entered the room.
Huh. Funny that I didn't see it.
Okay, so observant, I wasn't.
Mom went through the rest of the day rather pink-faced.
Which was funny.
She had been completely covered.
Modestly, even.
In at least three layers of cloth.
But because the material had been termed 'underwear', she was embarrassed.
As I would have been.
As anyone . . . you get the point.
Aren't we weird?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Music to Soothe the Savage . . . Teacher

Ignore the glasses. But love the shoes!

I love to sing.
How I love to sing.
I'm not saying I'm any good at it. But I love to do it.
I sing all of the time.
When I'm cleaning.
Eating.
Sleeping.
Shopping. Actually, that is a big one. Usually, people just stare and shake their heads, but occasionally, someone will comment.
"Someone's in a good mood!"
Or, "Someone really loves shopping!"
Or, my favourite, "Mommy, that lady sings weird!"
I always have a song stuck in my head.
Usually something good.
Sometimes not.
Me, standing in line to buy tickets at the Citadel Theatre: "I have the worst song stuck in my head!"
Lady behind me with hands over her ears: "I know! And now it's stuck in mine!!!"
Moving on . . .
Singing calms me. It is my companion whenever I am doing something that doesn't require great concentration.
Dishes.
Laundry.
Sewing. Actually, sewing is probably my big one.
It was through sewing that I realized that I love to sing while working with my hands.
Let me explain:
I was in Home Economics. Home-Ec or Uugghh! for short.
We were sewing.
Aprons, I think.
Mine looked like . . . well, let's just say that no human being would ever be able to wear it, and leave it at that.
But I was happy.
And I was singing. You Are My Sunshine, as I recall.
A happy, cheerful sort of song that just went with the day.
My teacher, Mrs. M walked past.
"Diane! Quit singing!"
Now I don't want to suggest, here, that her reason for her protest was the quality of my singing.
Although it probably was.
I like to think she was trying to keep order in the classroom.
It's better for my ego.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was."
Silence for a few minutes. Sounds of sewing machines . . . umm . . . sewing.
Then, "You are my Sunshine . . ."
"Diane!"
"Oops. Sorry!"
More sewing.
"My only Sunshine . . ."
"Diane!!"
Notice the two exclamation points. That is to indicate the raising of Mrs. M's voice a trifle.
"Darn! Sorry, Mrs. M, I don't realize I'm doing it."
"Well, realize it!"
"Okay."
Still more sewing.
"Please don't take my Sunshine away!"
Mrs. M didn't give third warnings.
Instead, she walked past me and smacked me in the back of the head.
Teachers occasionally did that in the sixties. One trait that was left in the past. Happily.
It got my attention.
Briefly.
But I must be a slow learner.
Because it didn't stop me.
Instead, it made me realize that I love to sing.
How I love to sing.
I'm not saying that I'm any good at it . . .
You know the rest.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Important Lessons From the Unlikeliest Places

Dads. There's no one quite like them.

An animated series aired several years ago, to great praise and equally great censure.
Because of the negative and very vocal comments, I chose not to watch.
For three years.
One evening, while working in my office, next to the TV room, I caught a few snatches of conversation coming from the program presently airing.
Two older children were asking their father why there were no pictures of their third and last sibling.
"Didn't you want her?" one of them asked.
It caught me because I am guilty of snapping thousands of pics of our eldest. Hundreds of our second, and then, progressively (or is it de-gressively?) less as each child made an appearance.
I made up for it with the last, when we were back into the thousands, but those in the middle . . . lost out.
The premise intrigued me.
I went to check it out.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that what was playing was an episode of 'that cartoon'.
But I was hooked by the subject matter.
I sat with my teenagers to watch.
The father reassured his children that he had, indeed, wanted their baby sister. Then he proceeded to tell the story.
He had left a terrible job in a nuclear plant and had been working at his dream job in a bowling alley. His work was appreciated and made him, for the first time in his life, happy.
Then his wife announced that baby number three was on the way.
He knew that what he earned at his dream job couldn't possibly support another child.
He would have to go and beg for his old job back.
Have I mentioned that it was horrible?
That he hated it?
Well, it was.
And he did.
Moving on . . .
When one faced the front entrance of the nuclear plant, they were presented with two doors.
One for new workers.
One for returning.
The 'returning' door was small. So small that anyone entering through it was forced to do so on their hands and knees.
Thus, on their knees, they could beg for employment.
It made quite an impression.
I kept watching.
Of course he was given his old job back.
And, of course, humiliated with every step.
Finally, seated once more in his old office, he was presented with a plaque which read: 'Don't Forget. You're Here Forever.'
This was fastened permanently to the wall directly in front of his console, where he wouldn't fail to see it.
Back to the two elder children and their conversation.
"So why are there no pictures?"
And his reply, "Oh there are pictures, kids. Lots and lots of pictures. They're where I need them!"
And then you get a view of his office as it looks now.
On every wall and, indeed, all available surfaces, are pictures of the little girl, in every stage of development.
And they cover much of the plaque.
Which now reads, 'Do It For Her'.
I cried.
It made me think about all of the fathers who go, every day, to a job they hate, just to feed and care for their families.
They are our unsung heroes.
We need to do more singing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Backing Talkwards a Bittle It

What a cutie! 

My Dad had a speech impediment.
Sometimes, he said things backwards.
Oh, he could control it.
He just chose not to.
An odd trait for someone who was such a stickler for proper pronunciation at all other times.
And don't try to tell me that doesn't have any effect on a young child learning to talk.
For years, I thought the song, Rock-a-Bye Baby went like this:
Rock a bay bybee
On the tee trop.
When the blind woes,
The radle will crock.
When the brough bakes,
The fadle will crawl.
And down will bum caby
Adle and crawl.
You're right. That's not even English.
But that's how I thought it went.
I heard some kids singing it the right way and totally confronted them.
It happened something like this:
Me: What are you singing?
Them: Rock a Bye Baby.
Me: That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
Them: Let's play somewhere else.

As years went by, I realized that we really didn't put the dirty dishes in the washdisher.
Or that salt didn't come out of a shakesalter.
And that my favourite ice cream wasn't Scutterbotch.
Others had to find out for themselves.

My nephew, two-year-old Michael was staying with us while his parents prepared to receive his little brother.
The imminent arrival, scheduled for, at most, two weeks, stretched to six.
Leaving little, impressionable, just-learning-to-speak Michael at the mercy of his grandfather.
It was a happy six weeks.
Michael was playing cowboys.
And had dressed accordingly.
He had his gun and holster.
His boots.
His overlarge hat.
And his training pants.
He was ready.
Grandpa had just come in from outside and was sitting in his easy chair, waiting for lunch.
Michael stalked up to him in his best 'gunman' style.
"Stick 'em up!"
Oh, he was good.
Dad looked at him.
"What are you? A coy-bow?"
Okay, for years, I thought that was how it was said . . .
"No, Crumpa, gow-boy!"
"Coy-bow."
"Gow-boy!" He stuck to his guns, so to speak. And his pronunciation.
Dad, one last time. "Coy-bow."
Michael was starting to get a little confused, however. "Gow-pot!"
That's when I broke in. "Michael, do you have to go potty?"
"No! No! Gow-boy!"
Dad laughed. "You're right, Michael, Gow-boy."
Michael had outlasted his grandfather.
A noble feat.
I don't want you to think that my Dad bombarded us with twisted talk all of the time.
It was the exception rather than the rule.
And he always correct us afterwards.
But it was fun while it lasted.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When the Cure is Worse Than the Disease

Okay, it seemed bad to me!!!
And ignore the glasses!

Okay, it's a very common condition.
But I was twelve.
It was totally the end of the world!

I had acne.
I was devastated.
Looking back, it couldn't have been all that bad, but when I compared my blotched and disfigured face to that of my best friend, with her milky, creamy, clear, totally spot-free complexion, I just wanted to wear a paper bag over my head.
And did, but that is another story . . .
My mom sympathized.
She said she knew exactly what I was feeling.
But I had seen clear-skinned pictures of her as a girl.
She wasn't fooling anyone.
But she did buy me different 'cures'.
They didn't help much.
But they made us both feel pro-active.
One such cure was a thin, pink liquid that one painted on.
With a brush.
What it didn't accomplish in actual pimple eradication, it more than made up for in unique-ness.
And price.
For months, every evening, I would carefully coat my face, neck to forehead.
Then I would wait.
Now, the instructions were very clear on this point.
One applied the product to every visible surface.
Then one waited.
Twenty minutes.
While said product dried and tightened.
And tightened.
Until one's face was roughly the colour and consistency of a native signal drum.
Then, just as the wearer/owner was certain that all facial features had successfully merged into one great shiny shapeless mass, one could wash.
The relief was instant.
And unfathomable.
Okay, I don't know what that word means, but it sounds distinctly . . . deep.
Which is what the relief was.
Moving on . . .
For many weeks, the process was adhered to.
Without fail.
And also without results, but I'm nothing if not persistent.
Then, one night, I made the fatal error:
I painted myself.
Lay back on my bed to wait the requisite twenty.
And promptly committed the final, unforgivable sin.
I fell asleep.
When I woke the next morning, my pillow felt . . . strange.
Rather . . . sticky. And at the same time . . . gritty.
What had Mom done to the laundry?
And why hadn't I noticed it when I first went to bed?!
I sat up and stared down at the pillow.
It was covered with pink slivers of  . . . something.
I could see them glinting in the morning light.
Slivers?
Then it hit me.
I gasped and made a record sprint to the bathroom.
Then slowed and hesitated before I looked into the 'great revealer'.
Finally, I poked my head briefly into sight.
Okay, my face hadn't fallen off.
Good start.
I peeked again.
Something was distinctly wrong, however.
One more time, a little longer.
Shards of pink stuff clung to my cheeks, chin and forehead.
This time, I stayed.
Well, I guess I should wash.
Better late than . . . you know the rest.
I did so.
Then, toweled myself dry.
And leaned in for a closer look.
And shrieked.
Lines seamed my normally youthful skin.
Deep lines, following the natural and heretofore unseen creases in my skin and caused by the drying and cracking of the evil pink coating.
I looked . . . old.
At least thirty!
Or a hundred.
My life was over.
I slumped down on the side of the tub and hid my face in my hands.
Mom skidded to a stop beside me.
She had come running when she heard me scream.
Old habits . . .
She moved my hands aside and looked at me.
Her eyes widened.
"What did you do?"
"I fell asleeeeep!"
She started to laugh. "It'll be okay."
OKAY???! Was she nuts?
I stood up and moved, with her, to the mirror.
"Look at me! I look . . . ancient!"
"It'll go away."
I shook my head in disbelief.
I knew I was forever disfigured.
Nothing on earth could fix this.
I would be regarded as the freak.
The 'Seamed One'.
The . . .
"Breakfast is ready," Mom said.
Okay, my despair could wait until after I had been fed.
I followed her, glumly, to the table.
And, for a short, wonderful while, forgot my troubles in a stack of pancakes with scrambled eggs, bacon and hot chocolate.
My favourite.
But meals can only last so long.
And the school bus was drawing nearer, even as we ate.
I could put it off no longer.
I got up and made my slow, unhappy way back to the bathroom, feet dragging.
Only to discover that Mom had been right!
The lines were nearly gone.
Ah, the resiliency of youth. And youthful skin.
With lighter steps, I bounced back into the kitchen.
"You were right, Mom!"
She nodded.
But she was careful not to say, 'I told you so'.

I learned from that experience.
After that, I spent very little time 'pimple hunting'.
I really didn't have that many.
And I had definitely seen worse.

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Diane was born and raised on one of the last of the great old Southern Alberta ranches. A way of life that is fast disappearing now. Through her memories and stories, she keeps it alive. And even, at times, accurate . . .

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