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Friday, 9 September 2011

Last night I sat down and drew up a chart, listing my remaining days here and the various things I wish to do, or have to do. I’m going to be busier than of late. Allowing myself a day for cleaning the house and packing, I have 22 or 23 days, 13 of which are already ear-marked for trips out, or visits. That doesn’t leave many days for writing.
I’ve been going back through the interview with Caroline Sandoz again – the one I recorded in 1996 – as well as putting together a few photographs I might take with me when, or if, I call in on her. Naturally, I asked her quite a few questions about her father. She didn’t need a lot of prompting. She spoke of him as ‘very bright, very talented, but quite lazy.’ He didn’t believe in undertaking physical labour. That was for the lower classes. But he had a talent for picking good workers. He was an excellent linguist. He spoke German as well as his native French; he learned English, she said, in six months. From his vacation work as a postal clerk back home he had a fair knowledge of Spanish and Italian. ‘He could swear,’ she said, ‘magnificently, in five languages.’ As for the violence that Mari had suffered, by the time Caroline came along ‘he’d simmered down.’ He made threats, ‘but I knew it was all bluff.’

Caroline remembered going out with her mother to pick cow-chips for the stove – and sneaking off to feast on prickly pear fruit in season. Mostly, she said, they’d get the chips from around the wells. Back at the place they’d stack them carefully, layering them like shingles so that the rain would run off. She said she had fond memories of this crude fuel. When you burned it, it smelled like hay.

She spoke of the move to the Sandhills – which of course took place when she was only six months old. ‘People thought he [Old Jules] was crazy. But he was crazy like a fox. He got by in this world, and he got what he wanted.’ But it was quiet out there; her older brothers and sisters were away at school and she would sit and watch the road to see if anyone came by – and if they had kids with them. She pointed out that it was much quieter out there than by the river. There were no trees, so although the wind blew much of the time there was none of that soughing or rustling. And sometimes it didn’t blow. One time they had nine calm days in a row, and there was no water for the cattle.  

For Caroline, what people tend to overlook when they read Old Jules is the role of her mother. ‘She was a hero. She was my protector – protected me from myself. The last licking she gave me I was eleven years old, and it was a double-header.’ She laughed as she said, ‘I told her I didn’t give a damn and she gave me another.’ Her mother, she added, was much more honest than her father. ‘Mother’s background was middle class; Papa was a little bit upper class, and he never let her forget it.’ She added something that I hadn’t realised, that her mother originally came out to an uncle down in Arkansas. It was later that she travelled up to Hay Springs to meet the man who never showed.

I asked her about her father’s personal appearance. What would we have seen had we bumped into him in town? He never used a cane, she said, despite his limp. He used a gun. A rifle in town, a shotgun in the hills. And he always wore his tan canvas coat with brown buttons, sometimes an old army coat. He’d get a shave and a haircut once a year, for the county fair. And they charged him double: once for the beard, once for the hair. She often wondered what visitors thought about him – like the top officials from Swift of Omaha, the meat packing company, who came out to hunt and stayed at their place.

She spoke of Old Jules’ medical knowledge. He’d had three years at medical school, she said, before he came out, so he knew some basics. Besides, they were all pretty healthy. Despite their activities, there was only ever one serious accident: one of brothers broke a collar-bone out sledding, and they had to call the doctor, who came out on his old grey horse. They had a balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables to go with the meat. ‘Papa was a good shot and Mama was a very good cook, so we ate well. And we butchered our own animals; grandpa had been a veterinarian’ It wasn’t considered right for a girl to witness that, but she saw plenty, ‘looking through the knot-hole in the corral.’ And Jules encouraged others to live the way they did. ‘We’d have wagon loads of carrots and onions. He gave people raspberry, gooseberry plants or slips. He wanted them to grow things.’

In sum, Caroline painted a different picture from the one we get in her sister’s book. But then she was talking about an older man, an older wife, and more settled times. Mari got the full force of her father’s rage, and perhaps of her mother’s bitterness; and those were still true frontier times. Caroline talked of the treats that would always be included in any order from the store. ‘We’d get a hundred-pound sack of “nigger-toes” – Brazil nuts.’ And she talked of the fun they had. ‘We always got the board games out after supper, and we all joined in – except Mother, darning socks.’ For years Papa played pinochle. ‘He’d get very excited… pound the table.’

She added that he had reason to be pleased with life. ‘He came out [in `84] with nothing.’ And here they were, with land, a farm, a store, and modern conveniences.  A travelling cinema that would set up in the barn; there was a telephone, albeit one strung along the top of the fence-posts that anybody could listen in on – when the  cows hadn’t chewed on the wire. ‘I got a lot of entertainment from the phone. I was eight years old and had to sell things in the store while the others were out in the fields. As soon as it rang I listened. Learned a lot of stuff. I was scared to death to stay by myself, and we had a flat roof, more or less, just a four inch drop. When nobody was around I’d go up there and sit by the chimney, then jump off when the phone rang. Five rings meant anybody could listen.’ But, she said, they listened to everything. ‘Papa talked French on the phone so he couldn’t be understood. Some of the neighbours talked Bohemian and he’d get mad.’

Life for Caroline was much more social than it had been for Mari in the early days. They had regular dances in the barn. ‘Papa couldn’t dance, but all of us did. Mama was an excellent dancer. Some of the settlers made a living out of playing. Papa would have a collection for them at midnight and if there wasn’t enough he’d top it up out of the store.’ She added that she married a man who never danced, ‘but he took me anyway. You always had the first and last dance with your partner – so he’d take a friend for me. I had fun.’

I don’t doubt that Mari’s version of her young life is accurate. But I guess it is, as all accounts, selective. As the youngest of five in my own family, separated from the three older ones by a war, I had a very different experience. Parents mellow as they age – or the fire dims.

Today looks like being as beautiful as yesterday, ideal for painting windows - although Matt has just called me to say I should help him with the haying.