Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Good Thing

Family games - mischief made legal
On the ranch in the evenings, particularly the long, winter evenings, opportunities for entertainment were few.
If there wasn't anything on your one TV channel, you pretty much had to come up with your own.
Entertainment, I mean.
This meant music (the make-your-own variety), which we practised with more or less success.
Mostly less.
My own personal favourite.
Having a drink with the hired men in the bunkhouse.
Probably the least recommended for us kids.
Or games and/or puzzles.
Usually we went with games and/or puzzles.
One didn't get a lecture from one's parents when one played games and/or puzzles . . .
We had several favourites.
A word game which aimed for word construction creativity.
But only good for four of us six players.
Another word game. This one, disclosure being the goal.
Boggle. (Or if we were feeling daring, Big Boggle.)
Another word game.
Huh. I just realized that we played a lot of word games.
And three of us ended up being writers.
Go figure . . .
A card game played by four players.
Unless you're from Southern Alberta.
Where it is played by forty tables of four players.
But that is another story . . .
A card game resembling bridge and also played extensively in Southern Alberta. (Also known as 'Apostate Rook' if you played 'One High'. At least according to my husband.)
Poker and sequence, all rolled into one happy package.
And finally, Monopoly.
The apex of games.
The ultimate in Stringam family fun.
And won, inevitably, by Jerry.
Not that he tried.
Or even appeared to try.
He hummed, sang, bounced his knee rhythmically, talked, told jokes and CLEANED OUR CLOCKS.
Almost every time.
Why did we keep on playing?
Good question.
Inevitably, I would end Monopoly with a tiny little hoard of cash, very tiny, clutched in one hand as I stared with dismay at my little shoe, parked firmly on Park Place or Boardwalk.
Each with their large, expensive hotel.
And each with Jerry's smiling face behind them.
I would hand over my little pile, along with the last of my properties, and quietly fade into the sunset.
And immediately challenge him to a rematch.
To which he happily complied.
Okay, I get it now.
It's just another example of the 'I'll get him next time!' mentality.
I never did.
Get him, I mean.
Moving on . . .
Puzzles posed a bit less competition.
A more relaxing way to spend time together.
Visiting was permitted. Even encouraged.
But minutes could go by with soft music playing in the background and not one word said.

Our family's evenings now consist of visiting or playing cards.
Or watching movies.
Not too different from those I experienced growing up.
Family time.
It's a good thing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Writing More Betterly

A guest post by Diane’s chief proof-reader and editor:

Anonymous Husby-Figure

As all of you out there in blog-land know by now, my Beloved Diane likes to write. I for one think that she does it very well.  But – horrors! – sometimes she makes a mistake.
Some time ago, she appointed me to be her proof-reader/editor/fixer-upper by insisting that, although she really does proof-read her columns before she posts them, sometimes typos and grammos just slip in there and hide.
“Grammo” is the pet word I concocted for her very infrequent “grammatical” errors.
 Over the months, the most frequent of her infrequent grammos was the use of the wrong form of “its” or “it’s” as in: “Its simply not acceptable if it’s apostrophe is missing when its really needed  or present when its not.” 
So to speak.
So I do try to catch Diane’s  typos and grammos, because I do believe it makes for a better read not to have them in there, and I believe that it shows respect to you, her readers.
I do not claim to be a perfect writer, but I did learn early while chasing an elusive education the importance of being word-perfect.  So if you will indulge me, I will do as my Beloved does so well and regale you with the story of where my typo-grammo mania came from.

It was the early 1980s and I was in a graduate school senior seminar, learning French Revolution history and cultural anthropology from Dr. de Luna.  (His name of course is of French extraction, and we often heard about his relationship to the moon – “lune” in French.  Some of my classmates preferred to suggest that it was “loon”, others wondered whether there was a vampire connection, but most of us ended by irreverently, although affectionately,  referring to him as Professor De Lunatic.)  Now besides endless etymological meanderings about his name, Dr. De Luna liked to tell us, almost daily, about how any written work, as in papers and articles, that we gave him HAD TO BE WORD AND LETTER PERFECT.  A summary of his reasonings: “It is disrespectful of your reader if said reader stumbles over typos and grammos  WHICH ARE ENTIRELY AVOIDABLE because you MISGUIDED doctoral candidates were TOO LAZY to proof-read it.  Your work is therefore sub-standard because your miserably lame analysis and argument that you think is intelligent discourse is unreadable because your reader is distracted when  having to stop to figure out what it is that you MEANT to say when you made your typo  . . . . . “ 
I think you get the point.  We got the message, many many times over.
Not so lunatic, when you stop to think about it.
So, time came for us to present to the dear Professor our first major research papers; and, a few days later, time to hand the graded papers back and discuss them in seminar.
Dr. De Luna went around the room, handing each paper back to its (notice this is the right one!) author, each with some mostly encouraging commentary and all with some very vociferous praise for being letter-perfect in the typo and grammo department.
All but one paper – the one belonging to a good friend, Ostap.
Now you should know that Ostap had a great sense of humour, was actually a very good scholar, but he had not internalized the message about being word-perfect.  He just didn’t think it was all that important.  At least not yet.
We came to discover, by the Professor’s 10-minute+ recapitulation of the obviously degenerate if not criminal intent and nature of anyone who dared to hand in a paper IN THIS SEMINAR that was anything LESS than word perfect, once again how important this whole typo-grammo business was.
At the end of his lecture (not the one about the French Revolution), Dr. de Luna passed this last paper to Ostap, with a scowl and a stare, and asked: “So, Mr. Ostap, what do you think I should do about this sort of thing?  Hmmmmm!???”
Ostap quipped back without the blink of an eye:  “I think you should stop worrying about it so much!  You’ll enjoy life a lot more and live a lot longer!”
We weren’t sure how long Ostap was going to survive.
But he did, and went on to a bright future. 
But not as a writer.
Dr. De Luna retired shortly after.  We think it was because of a brain aneurysm.  Caused by the lodging of typos and grammos in the blood vessels of the brain . . . .

And so, my friends, I pledge to continue doing my best to save you from typos and grammos in my Beloved’s columns.

Its the least I can do.  (Oops!)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mrs. Amazing

The important First-Day-Of-School (FDOS) has passed.
With its first-day outfits, hair dos, school supplies, shoes, and angst.
And pictures of the same.
And now we take stock.
To store away for the next FDOS . . .
My good friend, Betty (I do hope she doesn’t mind me calling her Betty!) has three kids of her own.
And she fosters babies.
Tiny ones.
I know. She’s my hero, too.
Her kids attend two different schools.
Neither within walking distance of their home.
Her FDOS takes planning: 
            1. Stay up till midnight, getting FDOS supplies sorted, labelled and stowed.
            2.Up at 6:00 AM.
            3. Shower and makeup.
            4. Babies (she has two) up and bathed and changed and fed.
            5. Kids up and dressed.
            6. Kids kitted out for FDOS.
            7. Kids in the car.
            8. Drop off kid #1.
            9. Drop off kid #2.
           10. Home again by 8:30.
           11. Have baby #2 ready for pick up by care worker at 8:32.
           12. And breathe.
See? Planning.
And she did it. All of it.
She’s supermom. Or the close earthly equivalent.
Feeling happily accomplished, she set her four-year-old to playing, parked baby #1 beside some toys and began to tidy the kitchen.
Then she opened the freezer.
And discovered the breakfast she had been going to feed her school kids.
No wonder she had managed to get everything done.
All sense of triumph drained away in an instant.
She felt horrible. She had sent her children to school with empty stomachs.
Okay, yes, they did have a good-sized morning snack.
And an even bigger lunch.
And throughout the summer, they had never wanted breakfast before 10:00 AM.
But still . . .
When Betty told me this story, we laughed.
Betty tells it well.
And hindsight is often really funny.
But it got me thinking. (I do that sometimes.)
About Betty’s to-do list for her FDOS.
And how she had done it. Almost.
It made me tired.
Yep. One breakfast out of the year forgotten . . .
I still think she’s amazing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The wind blows in Southern Alberta.
A lot.
And usually from the west.
Invariably, it’s hot and dry in summer.
But in winter, you get a selection. Either it’s cold and penetrating; or warm and very, very melty (my word).
This second wind, known as a Chinook, comes in from the west without warning, forming a great arch in the overhead cloud cover and raising the temperature forty degrees in an hour.
The people who make Southern Alberta their home have learned to live with the wind.
What else can you do?
The kids adapt at a very early age.
Case in point . . .
I was five and in grade one. That magical time when everything is . . . magical.
It was winter.
A warm Chinook had blown in during morning classes.
And we had been sent outside for recess.
Not an unusual combination of events.
We ran about the playground, moving with the wind, or trying to make headway against it.
Or huddling close to the school when we had had enough.
And that was when it happened.
And it was Kathy who did it.
Now, I will admit that Kathy was a slender little stick of a kid.
Wiry and athletic and just a tad daring.
But still, her action was life-changing.
She stood out in the wind, unzipped her coat, held the sides out and . . . leaned over.
And the wind held her there!
I am not making this up.
It held her there. At an angle.
Like a kite.
The rest of us had to try it.
We had more or less success.
For some of the heavier kids, the wind wasn’t – quite – strong enough.
For the smaller, a little too strong. It could actually lift them off their feet or roll them over backward.
But for those of us somewhere in the middle, it was remarkable.
You almost felt as though you were flying!
After that, no one zipped their coats shut during a Chinook.
Instead, you used said coats – and that wind – to blow yourself wherever you wanted to go.
And world-altering!
I could see Kathy’s invention of cloth and wind being used for amazing things.
Like . . . pushing great vehicles.
Oddly enough, when I told my parents, they were less than enthusiastic.
And not at all willing to take me and Kathy’s invention immediately to the patent office.
Moving forward . . .
The decades have gone by.
And still, whenever the wind blows, I think of Kathy.
And her coat.
And that clever mind that made such entertaining use of something that could have been so aggravating.
Sometimes, you can still catch me out in it.
The wind, I mean.
Holding my coat open.

And remembering . . . 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Quoting Quirks

We watch movies.
Old movies.
A lot.
Our family was raised on the crazy antics of Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon in The Great Race.
The hilarity of Danny Kaye in The Court Jester.
The magical song and dance of  Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon.
The comic timing of Red Skelton in The Fuller Brush Man.
And these are only four of the hundreds we sat through together as a family as they were growing up.
Inevitably, these movies had a great influence on our lives.
When the characters made mistakes and paid dearly for them, my family suffered alongside. When a story ended, inevitably, in triumph, we celebrated.
We lived their lives. Learned their lessons. Grieved and cheered with them.
The stories became very real to us.
We discussed them endlessly.
The lessons learned. The principles taught.
And our conversation became peppered with noteworthy lines.
I do mean peppered.
Our youngest son, three-year-old Tristan, was playing with a small, battery-powered railroad with a friend. "Push the button, Max!" (The Great Race)
Friend, "My name's not Max."
People visiting our household would often gape in confusion as quotes cropped up in the conversation.
We knew what was being said.
They didn't.
Occasionally, someone would join us who knew that the answer to, "And there was much rejoicing" was a subdued, "Yay!" (with appropriate hand movements) from Search for the Holy Grail.
Or that, when asked to do something specific, would know to quip, "I'm smokin' a salmon!" from Oscar.
And that, with the end of a meal, the appropriate gratitude was voiced by the words, "The meal was good. The wine was excellent. I must send the Cardinal a note." (Again, with appropriate hand gesture, this time, hand kissing.) A noteworthy quote, though we weren't wine-drinkers, from The Three Musketeers.
We were the family who would break, unexpectedly, into song.
And everyone would know the words.
Occasionally, outside of our home, others would take note of our unique (note that I'm using the PC term) customs.
For good or bad . . .
Our daughter, Tiana, was in kindergarten.
Almost five.
Her teacher heard her singing, "Goin' Courtin'. Goin' Courtin'." (From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.)
She pulled her aside and asked her to repeat it.
Tiana obliged.
The teacher frowned and asked her where she had heard that.
Tiana stared at her.
This was probably her first experience with someone who didn't eat, breathe and sleep movies.
So, not like her family at all.
"It's from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." she said finally. "Just before they learn how to dance."
Her teacher was puzzled. "Do you know what it means?"
Tiana smiled at her. "Oh, yes, it means 'dating'."
"Ah." Still puzzled, her teacher let her go.
But brought up the subject at our next parent-teacher conference.
I have to point out that it wasn't the only time I had heard from confused elementary school teachers.
Moving on . . .
But as the kids grew into junior and senior high school, our family quirk became more acknowledged.
Even occasionally appreciated.
Especially when a teacher would pose a question or repeat a quote from an old movie or program and our child was the only one in the class who knew the answer.
Or who laughed.
They became the universally-acknowledged 'experts' on old movies.
And, more importantly, quotes from movies.
It was a fun way to raise a family.
It is a fun way to live.
I think its time for another one.
"Push the button, Max!"

Monday, September 16, 2013

Making an Ash of Oneself

My Husby built our family a picnic table.
It was the scene of many, many family meals and celebrations.
And occasionally the scene of . . . adventures.
Let me explain . . .
First, a little background.
Husby built a little home for us.
Okay. Originally, it was built as a dog kennel.
Then converted to a chicken coop.
Then we cleaned it up, insulated and panelled the interior.
Put down new flooring.
Now it was a house.
We moved our family in.
Snug and cozy.
It was heated with a wood stove.
That is an important point.
But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
When I was expecting our fourth child, we decided that we needed more than 300 square feet to live in.
Husby built a basement and we moved our little house onto it.
Wow! Double the space!
We could now have such luxuries as . . . bedrooms!
A bathroom!
But still heated with a wood stove.
Now comes the part where the picnic table and the wood stove come together.
It was winter.
Not much call for meals outdoors when the temperature is hovering around minus 20.
The table had been shoved close to the house.
One day, just as we were preparing to head into town, Husby decided to clean out the little well-used stove.
He carefully collected the ashes into a paper sack and carried them outside to put in the ash can.
Yes, we really had an ash can.
Don't ask.
Moving on . . .
One of the kids had a minor emergency just as Husby reached the front door.
He set his bag of 'mostly dead' ashes on the picnic table and scrambled to take care of the problem.
Then we packed up and left.
The bag of ashes sat, forgotten, in the centre of the picnic table.
I should explain, here, that the wind always blows in Southern Alberta.
This is important . . .
We were gone for some hours.
The wind blew on the little paper sack full of ashes.
And finally, ignited some of them.
They consumed the bag.
Then started on the nearest combustible object.
You guessed it.
Our picnic table.
Pushed up tight against the house.
When we returned from town, my Husby stopped the car and turned it off,
Then hollered something unintelligible and ran for the house.
I was busy unbuckling children and pulling the baby out of her car seat.
I turned around just as Husby appeared with a bucket of water.
Which he threw on the picnic table.
It was then that I noticed the plume of smoke.
And heard the hissing of unhappy flames meeting . . . something extinguishing.
I moved closer.
Husby stood, surveying our picnic table.
Or, through the smoke, what was left of our picnic table.
An expression of relief and chagrin on his face.
“What on earth happened?” Me.
“I think I must have left the bag of ashes on the table.” He.
“Huh.” Me.
I herded the kids into the house while Husby poured more water on the picnic table.
Later, we took stock.
The table, miraculously, was mostly intact.
The bag of ashes had burned a large (12”) hole in the very centre.
The rest of it was still usable.
The miraculous part was the fact that the fire had confined itself to the centre of the table.
With the brisk wind, it could easily have burned the entire thing.
Not to mention our house.
Miracles, indeed.

There is a codicil.
My brother, Jerry, and his family were over to our little house for dinner.
As they were leaving, Jerry spotted the hole in the middle of our picnic table.
He laughed, sat down and said, “This porridge is too hot! said Papa Bear.”
Miracles aside, it was pretty funny.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Vicious Muffy

Muffy. Okay, she got bigger . . .
We lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba for eight months.
It was a beautiful city.
It just wasn't home.
But, in support of the breadwinner/student in our family, we packed up our household and moved.
Now anyone who knows our family, knows that we are completely enamoured (good word) with Old English Sheepdogs.
Hair and all.
So when I say that we moved bag and baggage to Winnipeg, that includes our dogs.
Because what's one dog without another dog, right?
And both of them need a dog . . .
Okay, my husband didn't get it, either.
I should point out, here, that OES (see above) are extremely gentle and friendly.
Though they can be protective.
But that is another story . . .
We lived in a townhouse.
Having moved from a mobile home in Alberta, we were overjoyed with all of the extra room.
But that townhouse had a minuscule yard.
Or, in other words, tiny.
I would let my dogs outside, and they would turn to me, doggy faces frozen in shock, as though to say, “What? You expect us to run in here?!”
I would point and tell them to 'go run!'
They would sigh and trot to the far (I use this term lightly) fence.
And back.
In about 3 seconds.
I would shake my head and close the door, leaving them outside for a little while to get some 'exercise'.
Yeah, it didn't make much sense to me, either.
One morning, I had put Muffy outside by herself.
She wanted to go.
And no one else did.
This isn't rocket science.
A few minutes after I put her out, my phone rang.
Cool. Someone wanted to talk to me!
I answered.
It turned out to be my letter carrier, calling from the nearest phone booth. (Cell phones existed only in the minds of Science Fiction writers at this time.)
She couldn't get into my yard because of the vicious dog guarding the gate.
There was a vicious dog in my yard?
How did it get in?
And where was Muffy?
I dropped the phone and hurried to the door.
Swinging it wide, I peered outside cautiously.
Muffy, standing beside the gate, turned and looked at me.
And then I realized that the vicious dog spoken of was my 35 pound stick. With hair.
It's true. An OES, shaved, looks like a toothpick.
On toothpicks.
Yep, the dog world equivalent of a 98 pound weakling.
While I'm in information mode, I should also tell you that OES don't have tails. They are nipped off soon after birth.
Thus, when the dog is happy, or excited, or hungry, or tired, or worried, or . . . you get the picture . . . they wiggle.
Their whole back end.
It's quite a sight.
And that was what Muffy was doing.
So this pile of hair, back end shaking like a hula skirt was what had frightened the letter carrier.
Okay, I guess I can understand.
Someone who isn't used to dogs could certainly be intimidated by the sheer size.
And the motion.
But, to me, it was funny.
That anyone would be frightened of Muffy . . .
I grabbed my dog, apologizing profusely and dragged her away so the carrier could complete her mission.
Then I explained that she was extremely gentle, and even introduced the two of them so Muffy would know that the woman was a friend.
And vice-versa.
All was well.
Until I received a notice from the postal company that no more deliveries would be made to our house if our vicious dog was in the vicinity.
Okay, this had gone a little far.
I looked down at my 'vicious' dog, currently the bottom of a game of 'dog pile' with my boys and sighed.
But we complied.
Yard time was moved to the afternoon.
To avoid any conflict.
And letter carriers.
P.S. I completely understand that not everyone likes dogs, and that some of them even have a terrible fear of dogs brought on by attacks and/or experience that they really can't control, so I apologize to them for this story. I'm the same way with guard-chickens. But that is another story.

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