Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fresh Bread and the House Mouse

My Mom. World's Best Bread Maker

I love bread.
Freshly baked or cooled. Whole Wheat. White. Multi-grain. Potato. Sourdough. Soda. Banana. Rye. Leavened. Unleavened.
Have I mentioned that I love bread?
I could have lived on it.
Fortunately, my Mom made the best bread on the planet.
And I knew this how . . .?
Okay, the best bread in my four-year-old world.
Twice a week, Mom would drag out her large, white ceramic bowl and start adding the magical ingredients. She would add, then stir. Add, then stir. I especially loved it when she would make potato bread because it was so much fun watching her force the cooked, cooled potatoes through the colander.
Finally, the best part, when the mixture had turned into a ball of dough.
Then, Mom would punch and turn. Punch and turn.
And she would always give me a little piece to play with.
Dutifully, I would wash my hands, then reach, with eager fingers, for my piece.
I probably should mention that my little white ball of dough usually changed quite quickly to a little grey ball of dough. Obviously, four-year-old hand washing left much to be desired. And Mom must have noticed, because my tiny, little loaf never went into the oven . . .
In no time, six huge, beautifully golden-brown, perfectly shaped loaves emerged magically from the oven. And took their place of honour on the cupboard to cool.
And they smelled like Heaven.
And I knew that how . . .?
Alright. Alright. They smelled like my four-year-old version of Heaven.
And they were just asking to be sliced and eaten with some freshly-churned butter.
Impatiently, I would follow my Mom around the kitchen, begging for a piece.
Now. While it was still warm.
And always, she would say, patiently, “In a minute, Diane. They have to cool a bit so they don't make you sick.”
Mom had told me many times about the little boy who had eaten a whole loaf of hot bread and who had to go to the hospital because the bread turned to a hard lump in his stomach.
And I believed her.
I did.
My stomach didn't, though, and it had to be re-convinced every time.
“But Mom . . .”
Finally, she would sigh and relent, grabbing the big bread knife and carefully cutting through the crusty outside and into the wondrous middle.
Soon, I was sitting at the big kitchen table, happily munching my way through a large slice of fresh bread and butter.
This had to be done right.
I had tried on numerous occasions, to convince my Mom that crusts were simply to keep the yummy centre from drying out. But she had a thing about 'wasting food'. So, the crust was removed and quickly eaten, to get it out of the way. Then I could eagerly dive into the best part. The wonderfully soft centre.
It isn't possible to be happier.
I would lick my fingers carefully and then stab at any crumbs that might have fallen, collecting them on one fingertip. More licking.
When I had eaten everything possible, I would get to my feet and start following my Mom around the kitchen again.
“Mo-om . . .”
The most I ever conned her out of were two pieces.
Even if I didn't believe the 'little boy' story, Mom did.
But I outsmarted her. Sort of.
One afternoon, Mom had given my siblings and I our quota of fresh bread.
Then she, and they, all headed for the garden.
I was alone in the kitchen. With half a loaf of fresh bread.
My day had come.
I should probably point out, here, that I had tried, on numerous occasions, to slice fresh bread properly.
Each attempt was a dismal failure.
I would start out all right, then the knife would turn one way or the other and I would end up, not with a slice, but a wedge.
Which still tasted fine, just looked funny.
And made my Mom mad . . .
So, slicing was out.
I glanced around. The coast was still clear.
How could I get that yummy bread from the cupboard into me?
I reached up and touched the soft, white centre. Pressed it, slightly.
Watched it spring back so invitingly.
I pinched at it and managed to pull off a small piece.
I stuck it into my mouth.
I pinched off another piece. Bigger this time.
I dug at the loaf.
A really big piece.
And, quite suddenly, I realized that all I needed to get at the wonderful, soft, white interior, was two little hands.
And ten handy little fingers.
Which I just happened to bring along with me.
In the next few minutes, I scooped out every crumb of soft, white goodness, leaving just the outside, crusty shell.
Okay. Now. How to hide the evidence.
I stared at the shell of a loaf. Huh. Maybe if I just turn it.
I flipped it over on its face.
Mom will never know!
Have I mentioned that Mom always . . .
Okay, I'll move on . . .
The first thing Mom did when she came into the kitchen was tip the loaf back up.
Moms do those things. What's with that?
“What happened here?”
I stared at her mutely. How could I get out of this one . . .?
“It looks like we have a little mouse.”
Genius! Why didn't I think of that? I smiled and nodded. Yep. Mouse. Moms are so smart.
“Diane. Don't eat all the bread.”
I stared at her. What about the mouse?
She put her hand on my head. “It's not good for you to eat so much bread, Honey.”
Oh, yeah. The hospital thing.
“Promise me you won't do it again.”
I nodded, my eyes on the bread-shell on the cupboard.
“Good girl.”
I didn't get sick, like the little boy. But I also didn't ever dig at a loaf of bread again. I learned to eat the whole thing a slice at a time. By cutting it with a knife.
Like civilized people.
But there is a codicil . . .
Years later, after I married, I discovered that my husband came from a family of bread-lovers, just like me. Except that his family had fought, not for the soft, yummy centre, but for the crusty outside of his Mother's delicious bread.
Often, if one end crust had been taken, the other was cut off. If both ends were gone, the next logical choice was the top. Then the bottom.. Then the sides.
It wasn't unusual for my Mother-in-law to find a bread centre, lying naked on the cutting board.
Why couldn't I have been raised in that family?
Everyone would have been happy.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Getting 'Dress'ed

And yes, that's me. Far right. Second row. Dressed in my best.
A Dress?!
Mom wanted me to wear a dress? To school?
I had somehow slipped into an alternate universe.

Mom and Dad were planning a trip. A long trip.
I was five. Anything more than an hour was a long trip.
I was being farmed out at my cousin Jody's place for the duration.
And during that time, my grade one class was to have its first, ever school pictures taken.
Way, way beyond exciting.
Then, the bad news. Mom expected me to dress up for this photo op. And I do mean 'dress'.
My life was over.
She dropped me and my little suitcase off at Uncle Jay and Aunt Jesse's and waved happily as she drove out of the yard.
A little too happily.
Jody grabbed my hand and dragged me to her room. From then until bedtime, we were a blur of activity.
In the morning, as per instructions, I dragged out the hated dress and laid it on the bed.
We regarded each other.
Then I glanced down at the small bag where I had stuffed my play clothes the night before. My little 'snap' shirt and jeans. So much more comfortable.
And really not that dirty.
And, best of all, my Mom would never know.
I smiled. My decision was made.
Have I mentioned that a great many of my decisions really weren't . . . thought through? And that, somehow, Mom always found out?
She was magic.
I wadded up my dress and shoved it back into my suitcase. Then I happily pulled on my shirt and jeans and snapped them up.
I was ready.
Aunt Jesse smiled at us when we presented ourselves for breakfast. Jody in her pretty little dress.
And me.
"Didn't your Mom send any clothes for picture day?"
I shook my head and mutely indicated what I was wearing.
Aunt Jesse frowned at me doubtfully, then finally shrugged and put another pancake on my plate.
Soon we were on the bus and all thought of itchy, restricting dresses was driven from my mind.
Grade One, with Miss Woronoski, was always wonderful, but this day was especially exciting as we anticipated our first, ever, class photos.
Okay, I know it sounds mundane. But we were five.
Everything's exciting when you're five . . .
The time came. Miss Woronoski lined us up for the parade down the hall to the 'photo' room. She arranged us neatly on chairs. The photographer told us to smile. The flash went.
Then, one by one, each of us sat in the lone chair to one side, to have our individual pictures taken. It was more excitement than my five year old self could handle.
And then, it was over. Our little faces had been captured. Immortalized for all time.
Along with what we had chosen to wear.
Some weeks later, our teacher handed out our pictures. I pulled mine out and stared at it. Look! It's me! And there we all were! My whole class.
Pictures were definitely things of beauty!
I tossed it to my Mom as I climbed into the car. "Pictures, Mom!"
She set it aside till we reached home.
By then I had forgotten all about it.
Later, my Mom called me into the kitchen. She was holding my small, brown envelope in one hand, and my pictures in the other.
"Diane, what happened here?"
I glanced down at the pictures and smiled. "Pictures, Mom." Okay, so quick, I wasn't.
"Yes, but what happened to the dress I sent for you to wear?"
I froze. My mind shuttling around frantically for an answer to her question. "Ummm . . ."
"Did you wear your play clothes to school on picture day?"
"Well . . ."
"Diane, I told you to wear your pretty dress!"
I stared at her, my eyes narrowed. How did you know?! Aunt Jesse told you, didn't she?!
Mom waved the picture. "Look at all of your friends in their nice clothes."
I glanced down. Then up at her again.
"Didn't you want to look nice?"
But I did look nice! My favorite shirt. My favorite jeans. I frowned. What was the problem?
Mom sighed. "Never mind."
I smiled and went off happily to play.

It's over 50 years since that day. A short time ago, my husband took me to see Tosca, performed by the Metropolitan Opera.
It was an exciting evening. One we had been anticipating for a very long time.
Grant was standing at the door, dressed in his finest. He looked at me. "Ready to go?"
I nodded.
He looked down. "Maybe you will want to wear something other than jeans and a shirt?"
Some things never change . . .

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Summer of '64

The summer I turned nine was supposed to be the most exciting of my life. And it was. 
For all of the wrong reasons . . .
First, the bridge.
Just a few yards down the road from our ranch gates, across the south fork of the Milk River, stood an aged iron bridge, painted black. It had great metal arches over it and many intricate bends and joints that invited exploration and/or concealment. On a hot summer afternoon, one could climb under the bridge, swing on the rope which dangled temptingly and drop down into the cool water below.
We kids on the ranch thought it was our playground.
Very early in the spring of 1964, great machines and earth-movers began to assemble next to our beloved bridge.
And a large crew of men accompanied them.
For days, we watched from what dad deemed a 'safe distance'. (Actually, to him, a safe distance was the top of the machinery hill, but who could see anything from there?
And who was listening?)
Of course, if I'd realized then that this crew was actually there to replace our great and marvelous playground, I probably wouldn't have been quite so enthusiastic.
As it was, this was almost more excitement than my nine-year-old self could handle.
Life just didn't get any better.
Second, the movie crew.
Dad announced that he had some really exciting news.
A movie crew was coming to the ranch to film.Movie crew?
Suddenly everyone began to act strangely. The hired men actually polished their boots. And availed themselves of the showers and laundry services.
My older sister spent hours in front of the mirror, trying new 'looks' and fashions.
My brothers practiced lines from westerns.
Mom, ever practical, began bringing in truckloads of food.
The ranch was suddenly antiseptically clean. (Well, not quite, but you get the picture . . .)
I got in everyone's way. Okay, this was normal, but I didn't want you to think I wasn't proactive. 
The expected day grew closer. And closer.
I stopped sleeping. Well, actually, Mom stopped sleeping, but I did feel sorry for her.
The anticipation was palpable.
The day arrived. 
The movie crew didn't. We never did find out exactly why . . .
But everyone's stretched nerves and feelings of anticipation were not wasted. The movie crew might not have shown up. 
But something else did.
Third, the flood.
Dad had been keeping an eye on our river as it . . . grew.
Finally, it became clear that our quiet little trickle had officially turned into . . . something huge and brown and scary that threatened everything in its path.
Including us.
And several of the bridge-building machines that had been sitting placidly in the shallow river beneath the bridge.
But I didn't think about them.
My motto has always been 'panic first, think afterwards'. And it has served me well.
Banished to the balcony overlooking our back yard, I alternately cried or moaned as Dad, my two brothers and assorted hired men struggled with shovels and mud.
The normally milky, now chocolate-brown, river crept nearer and nearer.
Yes, that's our yard -
there's usually a road, (and a cliff)
between us and the river.
It topped the high cliff bank.
It started flowing across the lower pasture.
Higher. Higher.
Finally, it reached our yard and began lapping at the tiny bulwark of sand bags. The barricade that had seemed so huge only moments before.
Dad and his crew worked frantically, trying to reinforce what now looked like a pathetic little mud pie, against all that water.
All day, they worked.
And finally, the waters peaked. Then slowly began to recede.
We lost part of our yard. A small part.
The bridge crew had some equipment damaged, but nothing that couldn't be repaired or replaced.
Unfortunately, the same wasn't true for the rest of Alberta and Montana, wherever the Milk River flowed. Communities suffered millions of dollars in damages and at least 30 people lost their lives. In fact, the June, 1964 flood remains in the history books as one of the greatest disasters ever to hit Montana.
Old bridge, new bridge
and very, very wet equipment
But the waters receded.
Back on the ranch, everything wasn't as pristine as it had once been, but was soon put to rights.
Our new bridge was finished and the old one demolished and hauled away. The crew left.
We kids scampered around on the cement marvel for a short while, but soon discovered that its smooth surfaces provided few hiding places and absolutely nowhere to hang a rope.
It was abandoned.
Often, our family would stand on the house balcony and watch the river as it curved gently around the ranch.
Once more, it was the calm, quiet flow that watered our stock and our crops, cooled us on hot days, and supported us in our floundering efforts to swim. Once more, it was the color of the sediment that gave it its milky hue and its name.
Eventually, I even lost my fear of it.
Yes, for me, the summer of 1964 was an exciting, memorable time.
Sometimes, I wish I could forget it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My Lady . . . and Other Horses

Age or inexperience were no barriers when it was time for roundup on the Stringam ranch.
The newest Stringam was merely perched up on Lady and told to "Hang on!"
A little background . . .
Or multiple riders.
That worked as well . . .
Lady was a tall, black mare of indeterminate years, who knew more than most of the humans in the vicinity. She would be put on tail (the position in the . . . er . . . rear . . . of the herd.) and could keep the entire herd going.
With or without human guidance.
So it just made sense to put the most inexperienced rider with the wisest teacher.
All one had to do was be ready for any sudden shifts and turns.
If a cow suddenly took it into her head to take off for . . . elsewhere, Lady was on them in a heartbeat..
Less, if your heartbeat is slow.
Over the years, we had a few mishaps. Lady would suddenly spot a member of the criminal element sneaking away and she would charge, heedless of whomever was sitting in her saddle.
Many times, if her rider was particularly inattentive, she turned right out from under and her hapless human would suddenly discover just what it was like to hang, suspended, in the air.
For a moment.
Then he, or she, would discover that the hardest thing about learning to ride was the prairie.
Lady would complete her transaction and return peacefully to the scene of the crime. She would nose her rider gently and look down at them with soft, 'Now what are you doing down there?' eyes.
She was too sweet and too gentle to really make any of us angry, regardless of how long it took to regain our breath.
Plus she was a darn good worker.
The funny thing is, we never tried bringing her out without a rider. As I look back, that would have been a logical experiment. (And certainly one that my brother George, he of the strange aversion to horses, would have loved to try.)
But the fact of the matter was that there were simply too many other Stringams clamoring for a chance to help with roundup.
To send out an empty horse would have been criminal, however entertaining the rest of us might find it.
Lady was definitely one of a kind.
Oh we had other horses. Lots of other horses.
The amazing Shammy
Slim. Tall and rangy, and with a terrible loathing for men. But a sweetheart when ridden by a woman or child. Coco. Another gentle mare, quiet, unassuming, but lazy. Far happier with her nose in a manger than breathing the soft prairie winds.
Steamboat. An enormous and unholy mix of thoroughbred and percheron. He could cover the ground quickly and efficiently, but with a gate that could rattle the fillings out of anyone's teeth.
The ponies, Pinto, Star and Shammy, who would submit to anything their young riders could inflict, except leaving the ranch buildings.
Luke. Nipper. Topper. Eagle. Peanuts. Gypsy. The list goes on and on.
These, and others like them were our partners and friends during the long hours that define ranching.
Each had their own distinct personality. Likes and dislikes.
And all were graded according to ability, size, and disposition.
As us kids grew, we were graduated from one to the next.
But we all started with the same mount.
To say that we could ride before we could walk was, literally, true.
We had Lady.
She of the very, very apt name.

Feisty little Rebel

My littlest sibling, Anita (she's so cute!)
With another of our horses, King Prancer . . . and a friend

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Stronghold

The Old Garage.
Somewhere beneath Mom's garden and those walls was . . . the stronghold!

Under the floor of the old garage was a dark, mysterious, magical stronghold. A place of adventure. Of devious deeds and dead bodies long kept hidden. Where pirates, coming down the Milk River in ships, hid their treasures. And their secrets.
A place of adventure. Of wonder.
And vegetables.
Accessed only through a solid, well-camouflaged wooden door, this place was known only to the best and brightest . . . and bravest . . . that the ranch had to offer.
Okay, I admit that I had to wait until one of my larger, stronger minions actually grasped the great iron ring and pulled the door up on its protesting hinges to grant me entry, but from that point . . . I. Was. In. Charge.
Yes, okay, so they also had to reach up to the single hanging bulb and pull the string because it was too far up for me, but from then on . . .
I spent hours there.
Or at least as long as it took my mom to collect her baskets of vegetables and start back up the stairs.
At that point, I would abandon whatever scheme I had launched and scamper up behind her.
I could conquer worlds. Defeat any foe. Accept any challenge.
I just had a bit of a problem with being left in the dark.
The heavy door would be lowered into place with a theatrical thud, and the hideout's secrets would once more be hidden.
Entombed. Quietly, patiently waiting until the next time the sunlight briefly, piteously exposed them.
I loved the root cellar. I loved its mystery. 
Its possibilities.
But I should probably mention here that the south fork of the Milk River never, ever could have floated anything larger than a rowboat.
Well, except, maybe during the flood of '64. But a pirate raid then would, of necessity, have to be brief.
And very, very fast.
So, my stone-walled, dirt-floored stronghold probably never concealed a treasure. Or a body.
I think a cat got mistakenly shut in once for a few hours, but as it emerged unconcerned and completely unscathed, I don't think that counts.
I don't know if that particular root cellar still exists. It had been years since I was back there. But my memories of it are still sharp and clear.
The damp, cool air. The 'heavy' feel of the stone walls and dirt floor. The . . . fuzzy-looking boards that formed the staircase.
But most especially the smells. Earth. Fresh vegetables. Wet, aged wood. Things growing. Things crumbling back into earth.

There is a addendum.
My husband and I have spent many hours travelling on the underground in London, England. It is a remarkably run, efficient system.
But in the deepest tunnels, we met with an unexpected bonus.
Stepping off the escalator, I took a deep breath.
Earth. Old timbers. The natural smells of molder and decay.
I smiled.
It smelled like memories.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Take me In to the Ball . . . Game

The mighty Ball Player/Cheer leader.
At the Stringam ranch, size definitely mattered.
Average was never good enough.
The buildings were oversized. The land was oversized. The animals were oversized.
Well, at least that's how everything looked to me.
I was four.
One thing that was larger than normal was the barnyard and I know that because . . . well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The game of preference among the ranch residents was baseball.
On summer evenings, all of the hired men would gather around the radio, and later, the TV, to cheer their heroes in the national pastime. I had no idea what it was that so interested them. All I knew was that this was the one time in the week that everyone stayed put. And paid proper attention to the most important person on the ranch.Me.
On evenings when no game was being broadcast, and once all of the animals had been properly tucked in for the night, those same hired men would challenge each other - and any one else who could swing a bat - to a game of pick-up.
In the barnyard. (Remember what I said about size . . .?)
I was always parked safely atop the fence behind home plate and charged with the solemn duty of being the sole member of the audience.
They told me it was because I was the best at cheering. But I knew differently. It was because they feared my 'heavy hitter' status.
Well, if they wanted me to cheer. Cheering was what they would get.
Enthusiasm, I had.
Unfortunately, staying power, I didn't.
Inevitably, something would distract me. A cat. Dog. Butterfly. Imagined cat, dog or butterfly. Clouds. Grass. Wind.
And quite often, the game went far past my all-important bedtime - which, I might point out, came while the sun was still high in the sky and which was a terrible waste of daylight, in my opinion.
But I digress . . .
It was the most magical Saturday. One in a summer. When the haying is finished and the evening chores are still hours away.
Time for the annual Saturday afternoon baseball game.
Even my mom left her evening meal preparations and myriad other duties and joined us. (I should point out here that Mom was probably the best hitter of the lot - a fact that rather irked most of the hired men.)
My Mom, Dad and brother, George, were playing on a team with two of the men. My elder brother Jerry, sister Chris and four other men made up the other side.
I was, once more, on the fence.
Figuratively and literally.
The game was pretty much tied up.
Whatever that meant.
Al was up to bat and there was a strange gleam in his eye.
Not that I could see it. On the fence. Remember?
He nailed that ball and it sailed straight and fast, over the heads of our intrepid outfielders, and towards the barn. The new barn. With brand new windows.
One of which did not survive what happened next.
Everyone gasped and winced when the tinkle of breaking glass reached us a split second later.
Our only ball disappeared inside.
Time was called as everyone scrambled toward the barn.
Al was left at home plate, still clutching the bat, a look of horror on his face.
For the next half-hour, we searched for that ball.
The shattered window bore mute evidence of it's passing. But it was not to be found.
Directly inside the row of windows was a corridor which ran in front of the tie-stalls and allowed for feeding. On one side of this corridor, the outer wall, on the other, solid, wood planks reaching to a height of about five feet and forming the front of the stalls. Then there were the stalls themselves. Then another, wider corridor. And on the other side of that space, the tack rooms.
Every square inch of the tack rooms, stalls and in fact, the whole lower floor of the barn were minutely searched.
No ball.
And chore time was fast approaching.
And people were talking about Al's hit as having been 'over the fence'. There were several long faces as the members of the opposite side acknowledged that Al's team had just drawn into the lead by one run.
Those people frantically began sifting through the hay in the mangers. The straw on the floor.
Still no ball.
"If we don't find it soon," my dad said, "we'll have to quit. We have to do the chores before it gets dark."
Redoubled efforts.
Still no ball.
Then Al, he of the mighty swing, walked over to the broken window to inspect the damage more closely.
"Well, here it is!" he said.
The rest of us turned to look. Sure enough, he was holding our baseball.
"Where was it?" Dad asked.
"Here. On the windowsill."
"What?" Everyone clustered around.
"Yeah. It was sitting here on the windowsill."
"But how could that be?" Mom asked. "It went through the window like a shot. We all saw it."
"I dunno. I just found it sitting here on the windowsill."
"Well, that is strange."
They probably figured out instantly what had happened, but I had climbed on one of the horses and missed the dénouement.
Fairly typical for someone with my short attention span.
The game went on and the incident was relegated to an amusing side note in a (with the exception of the broken window) very fun afternoon.
It was years before I figured out exactly what had happened.
The ball had smashed the window, still going at a fairly hefty pace. Then it had bounced off the heavy planks of  the tie stalls just inside and landed right back onto the ledge.
Simple logic.
Don't know why it took me so long to figure out . . .

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cow Weather

Husby and I are fighting the flu.
We're not sure, yet, who's winning.
So, a repost . . .
Ha! I KNEW it was going to snow!

“Look to the cows,” said Dad, the wise,
“And you will come to realize,
That by their actions, you can tell,
The weather patterns, fair or fell.”
And so I watched, and so I saw
That he was right, my smart ol' Pa!
And he knew what he talked about,
If you're predicting rain. Or drought.

The cows, they crowd together tight
And you know cold will be the night.
They seek the shed and shelter warm
If rain or snow will be the norm.
And stand out grazing peacefully,
If sun and warmth are meant to be.
Against the breeze, their tails they turn 
Kept safe from wind's more nasty burns.

But just today, I got a scare,
From cows around me everywhere,
For when I stepped outside my door
And glanced towards the purple moor . . .
(Oops, Alberta's where I live, you see,
And so I meant the wide prairie.)
My cows weren't where they're s'posed to be,
They sat on branches. In the trees.

So now I have to figure out,
Just what they're telling me about.

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Irresistibly Sweet Award
Delores, my good friend from The Feathered Nest, has nominated me!

Sunshine Award!!!

Sunshine Award!!!
My good friend Red from Oz has nominated me!!!

My very own Humorous Blogger Award From Delores at The Feathered Nest!

Be Courageous!

Grab and Add!

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Ghost of the Overlook

Ghost of the Overlook
Need a fright?