I guess you could say I was a bit of a fashionista back in the day. Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, we teenage girls didn’t have much of an opportunity to shop for the latest fashions. Well, there were the Sears and Eaton’s catalogues, but those fashions were for “old” people like our parents. If we truly wanted to be in style, we had to sew our own clothes. For this reason, I and several of my friends joined the local 4-H club to take sewing lessons.
My first sewing projects didn’t impress me that much: we were taught to sew a simple apron, an A-line skirt and a sleeveless, collarless blouse known as a “pop top”. But it was enough basic knowledge to get creative using my mom’s foot-pedal operated Singer sewing machine. And the catalogues came in handy for choosing fabric and pattern-shopping if the local general store didn’t have anything to my liking. Sewing patterns from Butterick, McCall’s and even Vogue garnered my undivided attention but most of the patterns I purchased were from Simplicity.
One of the most challenging things I made and one of my favourites was a pair of hot pants; they also got the most compliments, which helped! The hot pants were cotton knit material, which meant that I had to buy special thread and be very careful not to pull the material too vigorously or it would stretch at the seams. They were a bib-style, gold in colour, had pockets and sported gold metallic Pooh-bear buttons. Another favourite was a lime-green Fortrel pantsuit trimmed on the arms and legs with white fringes. I can hear a collective cyber-shudder at the mention of this masterpiece. I understand.
But the story of how I got my first miniskirt required almost no effort on my part. It was so innocent, really. One of our neighbours was having a house-warming party to which my family was invited. As my mother and I entered the neighbour’s yard, the neighbour’s dog decided that he didn’t particularly like me and ran towards me, teeth bared. Snarling, he dove straight for my knee before the hosts or my mother could stop him. Fortunately for me, his teeth bumped my knee – hard, but the bite did not draw blood. Instead, he had a mouthful of my wool skirt tightly clasped in his jaws.
Now, the wool skirt was not cheap, and my parents weren’t exactly loaded. “It would be a shame to throw this skirt away,” I say to my mother. “I could just hem it up a little, and it will be just fine.” Suffice it to say, my mother’s skirt-too-short-version and mine differed slightly. Back home, my mother asks me to slip on the torn garment while she extracts the measuring tape from the sewing basket. She carefully measures the distance from mid-knee to top of dog-ripped-hole. As I await the verdict with bated breath, she announces that I can go ahead and hem the skirt provided I use hemming tape as close as possible to the damaged area. Voila – my first miniskirt!
“Nice blouse”, quips my dad as I head out the door to join my friends, wearing my new miniskirt. “You going to wear anything with it?”
My father was a beekeeper. Well, more of a “bee whisperer”. Unlike most beekeepers, he did not wear gloves or a net. This lack of protective gear never seemed to result in the bees stinging him. There just appeared to be a curious bond of trust between man and insect. I, on the other hand, was less fortunate.
Bees are not aggressive; they do not attack humans. They will only sting when they feel there is imminent danger. But it seems that every year their danger radar sounded off when they got entangled in my long, curly, unruly golden locks. I would swat madly at the bee with my bare hands as it buzzed around my head and run screaming into the house. Of course, by this time, the bee’s danger radar mechanism had already been activated with the bee offering the final sacrifice. All that was left to do for my mom was to calm me down enough to extract the bee without leaving the stinger still stuck in my head.
Every spring the shipment of bees arrived – from California, I think – on our small, 160-acre mixed farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. My dad would busy himself relocating the bees to their new home. Most years, he would get more bees than he paid for. No, there were no mistakes in the shipment itself. But oftentimes a swarm of bees would arrive at our place from a beekeeper who was not as diligent as was my father. You see, there can only be one queen bee in a hive. When there are two, one queen bee leaves, taking a group of followers (worker bees – all female) with her to search for a new home. At times, these swarms would temporarily rest on tree branches near the apiary and my dad would coax them into a hive. I have also observed my parents, buckets of water in hand, madly sprinkling a swarm of bees that looked like they were just doing a fly past. If they were successful in getting water on the queen, she would drop to a branch and the rest of the bees would follow.
My brother and I were most excited when honey harvest season rolled around. Dad would select and bring the honeycombs into the honey-processing shed. Mom would cut the tops off with a sharp knife, insert four wooden-framed honeycombs at a time into a large, cylindrical extraction drum, and crank the handle. Through centrifugal force, the honey would spatter on the walls and drip down to the bottom of the container. Meanwhile, my brother and I picked up gobs of wax mixed with the honey that my mom removed and chew the sticky sweet goodness like gum.
When enough honey was collected in the extraction container, my parents would open the tap and fill smaller cans to take them to market. Uncle John would arrive with his one-ton truck, the honey cans would get loaded unto the back and off we’d go to the honey co-op in Tisdale, known as the “Land of Rape and Honey”. No, this is not as ominous as it sounds. In those days, canola was known as “rapeseed” or “rape” for short.
There was only room for three people in the truck cab – uncle John, my dad and either my brother or myself. My mom never went; she was happy to have a day all to herself, no doubt. But how exciting it was for me when it was my turn to go! First, the drop off at the Tisdale honey co-op where my dad would always get a premium price for number one white, clover honey. Then, cash in hand, we would go shopping in nearby Melfort for new, first day-of-school clothes.
At day’s end, dad would buy a loaf of bread, a ring of kovbasa (garlic sausage) and a case of Orange Crush soft drink. With the sun painting the western sky in the warm colours of a prairie sunset, we would pull over on some country gravel road overlooking the prairie landscape to commence with our supper. My dad would break off a piece of kovbasa, wrap it in a slice of white bread and pass it along to the hungry occupants who would ravenously devour our sandwich and sip the soda.
I’ve eaten many a glorious meal in many fine dining establishments both in Canada and abroad. But this meal in the open Saskatchewan prairie has them all beat by a country mile.
When the thermometer shot up above 30 degrees Celsius, I decided to take my 3-1/2 year old grandson to the local spray park.
“Take his water bottle and snacks”, says my wise daughter-in-law. I don’t have his favourite snack, a type of trail mix on hand, so I cut up some cucumbers and red peppers into bite-size portions and stick them in a baggie.
And…off we go. He on his glider bike and I trying my best to keep up with him on foot. Things are going swimmingly at the spray park. My little munchkin gleefully runs through spray jets, stops the flow of water at various fountains with his tiny feet and mimics the big kids by pressing buttons which activate various sources of refreshing cool water.
As expected, he soon joins me on the park bench and asks for his water and a snack. I pull out the baggie with the veggies. With those baby blues staring directly in my face and in the most indignant voice he can muster, he asks, “that’s IT?!”
I quickly reach for my back-up snack, crackers. Those he readily gobbles up.
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‘Ah, my room. My tiny, tiny room. It is approximately six feet by eight feet. It’s sparsely furnished with a small dresser against one wall and a foam-covered wooden bench for a bed. I lean my backpack against the only free space along the wall and plop down on the bed. I’m here!”
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A British-styled creamed tea event to kick off the launch of my book, A Squatter in London: freshly baked scones, served with real butter, strawberry jam and clotted cream was enjoyed by all. Tunes by British musicians of the seventies helped to set the tone for a reading from my book. It was fun to celebrate with family and friends in not-quite-spring Saskatchewan!
It’s tough being a teenager. It’s even tougher when the fashion is poker-straight, super long hair and yours is shoulder-length and curly. It’s the sixties. I’m sitting in my classroom and I’m doing my best to ignore the screechy sound of my teacher scribbling math formulas with chalk onto the blackboard. I glance across the aisle with envy at my classmate Nadine – she with the poker-straight hair. I watch as she blinks away those perfectly-trimmed bangs tickling her eyelids while simultaneously flipping back her long mane of hair with a saucy little toss over her shoulders.
Nadine is my best friend, but she cannot possibly know the teenage angst those actions are causing me. I’m determined – then and there in that math classroom – that things must change. Somehow. Somehow, my hair will look every bit as stylish as Nadine’s. I’m still preoccupied with this hair thing when the bus drops me off at the end of the lane at our farm, four miles from the village.
“I need big rollers!” I exclaim to my parents upon entering the farmhouse.
“What’s wrong with the ones you have?” asks my mom.
“They’re not big enough!” I reply with that whiny, high-pitched, hard-done-by teenage wail. I already own a set of the largest, pink plastic hair rollers that the general store in my village has for sale. But they don’t get the job done. They really are too small to achieve the desired look.
Superhero Dad to the rescue. Resourceful farmer that he is, my dad has the perfect solution. He disappears into the tool shed and returns with a hammer, a large nail and a bunch of aluminum pop cans. He then sets to work hammering holes into the pop cans with the large nail. Voila! New, big rollers for me!
The next morning, I shampoo my hair. I roll strands of wet hair around my new metal rollers and attach them to my scalp with bobby pins. Then I head outside to air dry my hair in the warmth of the late spring sunshine. But not so fast. Oddly enough, thick wet hair and metal aren’t the best recipe for a quick dry – even if there are holes for aeration. I’m stuck wearing those cans on my head all afternoon. And, wouldn’t you know it? My parents have company. They stare at me like I’m some sort of alien creature but are kind enough not to say anything.
Finally, after about four hours or so, my hair appears to be dry and I gingerly remove one pop can roller after another and brush out my hair. I grab a mirror to assess the fruits of my labour and… well, the good news is that my hair is no longer curly. The bad news is that my entire head of hair including my bangs is now puffed out in a rounded, moon-like shape. Not at all like Nadine’s hairstyle! I race for my stash of metal hair clips and proceed to pin down my hair, bangs and all. I’m thinking this will flatten my hair and perhaps the bangs will catch onto my eyebrows and stay put. However, as soon as I remove the hair clips…sproing goes the hair on the sides. Sproing go the bangs creating a sausage roll on my forehead. Sproing. Sproing.
Time to call on the professionals. My neighbour and good friend Iris is this farming community’s master stylist. She is self-taught and just has a knack for styling people’s hair. Maybe she can help me with my dilemma.
“Sit down,” says Iris when I arrive at her house. “I have an idea.”
She disappears into another room and reappears with an ironing board and an iron. She asks me to lay my bouncy hair on the ironing board and begins to iron it, bangs and all. Finally. My hair is straight!
In the 1990s hair straightening irons became commercially available. It only took the world 30 years to catch up to what us resourceful, teenage farm girls had figured out back in 1967.