Easter Water by Sara Burke by Sara Burke - Read Online

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Easter Water - Sara Burke

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It is bad luck to be first and a girl. Your role is set. You will care for all that come after. My mother Hilma was first born of nine, and as soon as she could understand a slap, she had to work. Her life would be for others, and governed by the circumstances that others brought to bear. Poverty was the first of those circumstances. It directed her path and impeded her progress, and to varying degrees, was with her all her life. Poverty, as defining as lineage, enslaves. Red hair, hazel eyes, rags for clothes, dirt poor. It is life’s thief, stealing health and years.

She was born in 1925 in Maniwaki, to a young, spoiled English girl whose family felt she had chosen badly, and a Quebecois with few prospects and a taste for the drink. Frightening, how you could look at that time and that place, and see just how it would go for her. Frightening how that’s so often true. Yet in spite of it, or more likely because of it, a heroine emerges. The generous, hopeful, loving woman that is my mother began there and then, went through hell, and made it to heaven.

Maniwaki was a logging town founded in 1849 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who had come along that hellish road of good intentions, to save the Algonquin Indians from themselves. An Algonquin word meaning Land of Mary, Maniwaki was a fitting birthplace for my mother, for she and Mary would be close in years to come. Soon after the Mission was in place, the riches of the forest attracted wood merchants, farmers and trade workers. The need for lumber was insatiable, building cities as far away as Boston, New York, and even London, England, as well as for a developing pulp and paper industry. Logging would come to be the area’s bread and butter, the dense forest and the mighty Gatineau River affording the perfect conditions. Cut it down and move it out. The French and British who settled there, and First Nations who were always there, scratched out an existence that was in some way dependent on tree and water.

I suppose in the beginning my grandparents were excited, hopeful even. Filled with the deceitful optimism that swirls around marriage, the kind that makes you suspend all rational judgment and take that walk. There was an expectation that they would stick it out, regardless of what would come to pass. My grandmother did that, lived with her choices. That meant my mother would live with those choices too, and have few of her own.

My grandfather worked when he could get it, as a farm hand in the summer, and in the bush camps during the winter. The nature of work in the Gatineau had evolved from square cut timber to sawn lumber to pulpwood for paper making. The supply of good quality trees had been exhausted around Maniwaki and the independent lumber operators were selling, most to an outfit called the International Paper Company. Grandfather described it as selling out, and lamented the death of the lumber camp lifestyle. He claimed to have no interest in the more mechanized industry of pulp and paper, but the fact of the matter was that those jobs went to European immigrants who were educated, and came across with the necessary skills. He was always looking for work and it usually eluded him. He drank most of what little he made and my grandmother made excuses for him. When the last of the camps closed, and he’d had enough of his in-laws’ contempt, he moved his young family north to Temiskaming, rich still, with trees for cutting.

Land of our own, Evy. Our own place, he’d plead, grabbing her around the waist, pulling her roughly to him and dancing her around. She would laugh and feign annoyance, auburn curls bouncing on her shoulders, dark eyes shining. Her cheeks would flush as he waltzed her toward the bed. She’d glance over her shoulder to see that my mother was sufficiently and safely occupied for the five minutes it would take.

Finally, my grandmother agreed to go. Truth be told, she was sick and tired of her nagging mother. She believed that if she could get him away from his chums he’d stop drinking. They would make a real life for themselves, clear the land, build a fine cabin. She would be Susanna Moodie, roughing it in the bush. She found the whole notion romantic. Fool.

It took what seemed like forever to save enough money for the move. This marked the first of many occasions that Evy would go through my grandfather’s pockets while he lay passed out, to collect a coin or two not spent at the hotel, and stash it in a tobacco can she hid behind the flour bin. In the end, her parents paid the bulk of it, happy to be rid of the lot of them. The Canadian Pacific Railway had a reduced fare for those brave souls who would move north to clear the land and populate the country. Prime Minister King expressed it best when he said, If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography. Incentives were offered. A regular ticket for the 15 hour trip from Maniwaki to Temiskaming was $14.25, but new settlers paid $10.20.

And so on a brisk, late September morning, once the second cut of hay was in the barn and farmers had no work left for day labourers like my grandfather, they set off, four of them by this time. My mother’s motherly instinct awakened with the arrival of her baby brother. He was like the most perfect dolly and she doted on him. He would be her favourite. The novelty and joy of taking care of her siblings would diminish with each new arrival, but not her love for them, nor her need to protect them. Those only swelled in her until she felt her heart might burst, and made leaving them impossible, or so she thought.

My mother was fascinated and terrified by the train, this huge, spitting and snorting steel beast. She was at once jumping out of her skin to get on, and digging her heels into the gravel to stay off. They had a packed lunch of baking powder biscuits and salt pork, and very little money, barely enough to get them started once they arrived, and certainly none to spend on a bought lunch. They looked smart though, not well-to-do, but proper. All they owned in an old trunk my great grandmother had travelled with from Europe when she had made this same kind of journey, the journey that we all take, that makes the break and carries you away from all you know towards everything you don’t. That journey is a bond that connects people and cultures and time. We all have a journey, a coming from somewhere else.

The train’s whistle made my mother screech and giggle and cry all at the same time. They boarded and the train slowly dragged itself away from the station, barely moving for the first few miles, as if giving them a chance to reconsider. My grandmother wept openly and looked panic stricken, as though she had just come to the realization that this was pure folly, and that it was too late to do anything about it. My grandfather put his arm around her and comforted her for a while, then lost patience, so she pulled herself together.

They would travel south to Hull, west through Ottawa to Mattawa, and north to Ville Marie, the closest station to the small enclave of Temiskaming. The time passed pleasantly enough. There were other passengers setting out on this same adventure, and the train was thick with dreams and hopes and fears. The apprehension and excitement had the women chatting and the men making plans. My mother kneeled on the seat, tip of her nose to cold glass of the window, and watched everything go by. Every few minutes she sucked in her breath excitedly and tried to get her parents’ attention, to show them the world passing outside the train, but she couldn’t get them to look quickly enough and what she was desperate to share was always moving away, just out of sight. After a half dozen or so times, they became irritated with her interruptions, and she gave up.

My grandfather took the opportunity to get a drink while the train was stopped in Mattawa, so he was in fine spirits for the last leg of the trip. The bush excited him. The timber was just about the perfect size, on account of it being a second growth following a fire a hundred fifty or so years before. This light timber was an advantage. You could maneuver through it, fell these trees fairly easily, and the roots did not yet have that cement grip in the soil, so the land could be stumped, cultivated and farmed sooner. Logging was possible here, for a man with a strong back, willing to do the work. An old growth forest is unyielding, solid as a stone wall. It will break a man not made of iron, but this was a kinder, gentler sort. Close to the Ottawa River it was clear cut, but as that train chugged along farther north, it was thick and filled with the promise of a future. Poplar, balsam, spruce, birch, balm of Gilead, tamarack, and the gem of the forest; pine. Pine was the treasure, perfectly created for its purpose, to meet first with men like my grandfather, and then with nail and hammer to grow the great cities of Canada and beyond. It was not too hard, so was easily cut in sawmills, and would float well on the log drives. It was strong and durable, and slow to decay. It was what the lumber companies coveted and the builders craved. If harassing in-laws were what pushed my grandfather from his home, these glorious pines were what pulled him.

Grandmother smiled weakly at how delighted he was, but her trepidation was growing. She reined it in to keep the peace, and keeping the baby from fussing occupied her mind and kept the hysteria under control. She could smell the booze on his breath. That, and the ever increasing distance between she and her mother, tightened the knot in her stomach. Hilma was no trouble, and wanted to help with the baby, but my grandmother wouldn’t relinquish him. She seemed to need something to hold on to.


So my mother left Maniwaki, the land of Mary, and arrived at Ville Marie, the town of Mary. The arrival of the train was an event in these small settlements. Along with people, the train brought agricultural and forestry implements, food, furniture, and most importantly, the mail. The train was the connection to home, to news of family left behind, to loved ones that might not be seen again for years, if ever.

Prior to the 1890s, when the railway began the first stage of work on a line between Mattawa and Ville Marie, the area was served by steamship, and the docks along Lake Temiskaming were the meeting places. Passengers would have to disembark at Mattawa and take a series of canoes and steamers, getting on and off to walk across tramways where the rapids could not be managed by these vessels, and freight and baggage were hauled over by a horse drawn truck. This tedious and time consuming portage, load and unload, was repeated all the way to the southern mouth of Lake Temiskaming, where a couple of larger, more comfortable steamers, dubbed the Meteor and the Clyde, would complete the journey. The train replaced all that, cut the trip in half, and the station replaced the dock as the hub of the community. It had all the amenities of today’s stations, as well as a small living space for the stationmaster. A number of sheds built behind the station stored items that would be loaded on or off the train. When arrival time neared, the children would lie flat and put their ears to the track, allowing them to feel the approach. Their excited hollering at the vibrations drew the adults to the platform well before the whistle announced the train.

It had been prearranged that they would stay with an uncle of my grandfather. He had taken advantage of the Dominion Lands Policy some years before, and had set himself up nicely. Land was readily available and inexpensive, for immigrants and pioneers who were resilient enough to farm it. Henri had purchased 160 acres for $10, under the stipulation that within three years a home would be constructed, and a mutually agreed upon acreage would be cleared and cultivated. He built a simple cabin from the logs cleared off the property. He trapped, hunted and fished to survive the first few years, then met a young woman from a neighbouring homestead who agreed to be his wife. She planted a garden, added some feminine touches to the home, and improved his life tenfold. Evy had met him only once, but found him to be steady and respectable. He did not think much of my grandfather, did not abide his drinking, and was none too pleased to have him and his young family moving in. He would not refuse them though, and so the two families would merge.

Henri’s wife Helen had not been blessed with children, and she was over the moon to have little ones in their home. Henri met them as promised, with his team of horses, two powerful looking studs, a black and a roan, pulling a wagon. My grandfather shook his hand and they made small talk about the trip as they loaded the old trunk. Grandfather had spoken with a couple of men on the train, he said. They had a line on some work in the camps and could see the foreman tonight. If Henri would be so kind as to take Evy and the children home he would meet them there soon, he said. Nobody was fooled. My grandmother silently prayed that he wouldn’t get too pie-eyed. Henri, stone faced, helped my grandmother with the baby, up onto the box seat. She was mortified to be seated there, with a man not her husband whom she barely knew. She wedged my mother between them, ignoring her plea to ride in the wagon bed with the trunk. Henri snapped the reins and the horses headed home.

Evy and Helen took to each other immediately. Helen was tiny in stature but big of heart, and had a lovely way of putting everyone around her at ease. My grandmother noticed the look that passed between Helen and Henri when she explained that her husband would be along shortly, that he already had word about a job, and wasn’t that just a great stroke of luck. Henri went out to unhitch the team and finish off the evening chores, and Evy and Helen bonded over the children who were quickly fed and tucked into bed after the long day of travel. The women visited pleasantly while Henri smoked his pipe on the front step. They too were soon in bed, and Evy cursed my grandfather under her breath for not being there with her. This was a bad omen, a harbinger of what was to come and a reminder of what had been. He stumbled in sometime before dawn, drunk to be sure, but not so far gone as to wake the children and disturb the whole household. He crawled in beside Evy and put his arms around her and was asleep before his weight settled into the straw. Her relief at having him home outweighed her anger. She hung onto him. The loss of home, the bone weary exhaustion of the trip, and the anxiety she felt about the move wrapped around her. She buried her face in his chest so as not to be heard, and sobbed.


As it turned out, the families would not have to live together for long. Grandfather was able to join a crew of lumbermen who were leaving for the bush in a few days. The foreman was at first reluctant to hire him, due to the amount of drinking he did during the negotiations, but grandfather sealed the deal by offering my grandmother as cookee, an assistant to the camp cook. Evy had hoped he would end up in the camps with Henri and that she and the children would stay with Helen for this first winter, but it was not to be. It was fortunate really, she tried to convince herself. She was not afraid of hard work, and it meant that they would both be earning a wage and have their own bit of land even sooner.

This was the cycle of development of this area of Canada, and many areas throughout the country. Logging provided farmers with work and income during the winter months, beginning in late September. After the spring thaw and the river drive, these men returned to their farms for the growing season, to sow crops and fatten livestock. What the farmer didn’t use for himself and his family, the logging companies purchased to sustain the camps over the winter. Hay and oats were needed for the teams of horses and oxen that hauled the logs to the water’s edge. Root vegetables like potatoes, onion, turnip and carrots, that would survive the winter stored in a cold room, would be bought to feed the men in the camps.

A timber cruiser employed by the logging company would travel through the bush and stake the area to be cut, as much as a year ahead of time. Then in the fall, the lumbermen and a few women who would work as cooks, although these positions were primarily held by men as well, would begin the trek to the locations selected for the current season. Teams pulling wagons also made the trip, but they were overloaded with supplies for the camps, and there was no room nor respect for anyone looking for a ride. The foreman did make an exception for grandmother, but only because she had Hilma and the baby in tow. Grandfather had neglected to mention that two children came as part of the deal, but the foreman would not turn them away, with them standing there ready to go. Just as grandfather had suspected. They squeezed into a cramped corner of Henri’s wagon, and were glad of it.

First stop was the depot, where the men were assigned to camps. Grandfather’s was the closest, so they wouldn’t have to travel much farther. Henri would be working at the last camp, almost a full day’s travel from the depot, because of his strong team of horses, that would have to pull the logs the greatest distance to the lake. He was grateful that his nephew would be elsewhere, for he wished to disassociate from him and his drinking, and did not willingly disclose to anyone that they were relations.

From the depot the men moved on to their designated camps, in crews of 30 to 120. Camps were located within three miles of the staked bush, so the men would not have to walk any further than that to begin work each day, and so the teams would not have to haul their loads much more than four or five miles to the lake. The logs would be piled at the water to await the spring break-up and the log drive to the mill, where tree would be turned to board. My grandparents’ camp was one of the smaller ones, with 32 men, my grandmother, and the children. They walked in, grandfather carrying their clothing and bedding on his back, packed in a repurposed grain sack called a turkey. Grandmother carried the baby in a papoose that kept her hands free, one to carry a small canvas bag of items for her and the children, the other to keep hold of my mother. Soon one of the lumbermen scooped Hilma up onto his shoulders, and the hike in was most enjoyable from that vantage point. Some of the men knew each other from previous seasons, and a few had met grandfather at the hotel. They were in good spirits for the most part, many glad to leave wife and children for the camaraderie of these hard men. They were respectful of grandmother and the children, so kept the cursing and crude talk to a minimum.

It was a glorious day, one of those days when you look around and you can’t help but see God. The bite of cold in the air reddened cheek and nose, and encouraged quick steps. The weak, autumn sunlight dappled the ground as it shone through the trees to the forest floor, thick with leaves shed from the deciduous. Reds and yellows fluttered down around them like confetti. Hilma loved the rhythm of the swish-crunch as they walked. The snap of a stepped upon twig rang sharp and true, echoed through the bush, and seemed to come from all directions. Birds of every size and variety provided the accompaniment, the blue jays in particular making their presence known, squawking disapprovingly at this band of interlopers, these disrupters of the peace. It was beautiful and magical, my mother imagining she was a princess with her court, on the way to her castle. On this day she fell in love with the forest, with all of nature, from blade of grass to mighty pine, from field mouse to deer and moose.

From her perch, she could see the whole crew, this gang who would come to be her family for the next six or so months. And what a sight they were. Some of these men weren’t yet 20 years old, others more seasoned and well into their sixties. All of them with faces weathered to different degrees. Years of impossibly long days filled with impossibly hard work, in harsh cold and blazing sun, etched deep lines across their cheeks and foreheads. More than a few had visible scars inflicted by a wayward branch as a tree came down. A couple had that crook in the nose that comes from a break that doesn’t quite heal properly. And their clothing! If Hilma was royalty on her way to the throne, these lumberjacks were the court jesters. All save a few wore grey wool trousers and plaid flannel shirts. These were worn and patched, mostly at knee and elbow. Suspenders were common but came in different widths and colors. Some wore vests or coats of varied cut and material, most a heavy wool called mackinaw. They had on high boots, in preparation for the snow that would inevitably come, and some of these looked like they would be of little use when that day arrived, thus the importance of socks. Socks were gold. Worn two pairs at a time, rarely washed in case they’d be pinched while hanging to dry by the stove, socks could make or break a season in the bush. Men who had extra pairs were said to tuck them into pockets or tie them around the neck to act as scarf. Anything but leave them unattended back at the bunkhouse. Socks were serious business, but taking and hiding a pair on a lad was a bit of sport as well, entertainment to pass the time.

To complete the costume, the crowning glory, a hat. While there was little variety in the style of pant and shirt, it was with a cap that the lumberman made his unique fashion statement. All were wool, for nothing is better to ward off the cold and keep body heat in, but that is where the similarities ended. Hilma could count many different colours and combinations of colours. Some were tuques worn close to the head. A few had a brim to shield eyes from the sun. Others seemed to have many layers precariously piled up, like a lopsided cake. Some were worn tilted to the left or right, some pushed back off the forehead, or pulled low over the eyes keeping the face in shadow. These men, embarking on the adventure that was life in a bush camp, obviously had a sense of humor, but their attire served a practical purpose as well. When trees are being felled all around, you