Sunday, January 06, 2008


Beulah with her tatting kit, never far away. Sam with Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management (ISBN: 0486209741) Kains, M. G. (Author) Oldfield, J. E. (Introduction by)
At some point -- which I have never properly figured out, but either during or just after WWII -- the Sam Strachans moved to a small house on NE 63rd street in Portland and also, at least for a while, owned another similar house on 65th. This was an area of town still largely woods and they bought, as the title of the book says, “Five Acres” or about that. The little house (what we might call a “starter house” now) had two bedrooms and a partly finished cellar. (My house in Valier is much the same.) We kids were not encouraged to go down in the cellar, but it was at least partly dirt where potatoes were heaped up for storage. The smell was rich and dark. But I also seem to remember a kind of simple office where ledgers were in rows at a ledge-style desk. I suppose the KK archives were there.

The garage was big enough for Grandpa to build a Kozy Kamp in it, and he always seemed to have one puttering along. He used old-fashioned tools and I would pick out the long clean curls of wood from planing the sides of boards so as to hold them up to my head alongside my red curls, brushed into sausages.

But the point of the acreage was the garden, partly row crops and partly cane fruits such as raspberries or boysenberries. Sam subscribed to the ideas of Rodale, so there was always a stone pile where garter snakes lived and a compost pile that rarely interested us much. What we loved most was the surrounding woods, thickety small growth of alder and other brush. It was just big enough for a small child to imagine being lost, but one was never out of earshot of traffic, not that there was much of it. We didn’t live there -- just visited -- so we never created the kind of little hooch or hut that kids in residence manage to make out of scraps. Rather, we made nests and beds among the bracken. To us it was an introduction to what scholars formally call “wilderness” but to adults it was potential development, which eventually happened after we were gone.

The inside of the house felt quite different from my mother’s house on 15th. Looking back at my father’s photos of the prairie houses, I see that it was furnished with the goods and chattels of those houses -- I can pick out the mantel clock and some of the pictures on the wall -- but also in the style of those places: pictures are hung high on the walls. The light used was generally the one in the middle of the ceiling and never had a very strong bulb in it. The floor had old woven rugs. My grandmother’s little pump organ was there -- I don’t know where it finally went. (Many things were gradually sold as money was too short.) The fireplace was very much in use.

The kitchen had a built-in dinette and a bit of a pantry cabinet wall across from it. There was no dining room and I can’t remember a big extended family meal there. Maybe by this time Beulah was not quite up to it. They ate what they raised, mostly, and Grandpa impressed us because he put sugar on his sliced tomatoes! He claimed it tasted the same as salt, but we doubted it. Margarine at that time was white and came in a bag with a little capsule of coloring in it. I would beg to break and mix the coloring, as one was presumed to do, but Beulah thought it was an unnecessary bother. They just ate it white unless I insisted on “helping.” I thought it was “the way things are supposed to be.” In my primary years, I had a strong Martha Stewart streak and felt that order must be maintained in the world. (Maybe that was the war influence.)

Grandpa Strachan died in that little house February 22, 1951. The story I had in my head was that he was working in the garden, came in to lie down for a nap, seemed all right (didn’t complain), and was only there for a bit when Grandma heard him make some kind of vague sound. When she called to him and got no answer, she went to see what had happened. It was a heart attack, close to instant. In my own mind this account became mixed with Marlon Brando in the “Godfather,” dying among the tomatoes, so I was startled to discover that it happened in February. Not that Sam Strachan was in any way like a Mafia Godfather. He was always essentially a school superintendent turned gentleman farmer and entrepreneur: quiet, diligent, organized, and reliable. The Thomas Jefferson ideal that his father, Archibald, came to the Dakotas to pursue -- with no success. Wrong temperament. Tough environment.

Beulah Strachan moved to her daughter’s home, a new dream house on the west side of the West Hills, and the whole dynamic of the family changed as they reorganized the financial arrangements that had protected the parents in their old age. Beulah and Sam had been so entwined since Septemeber 19, 1901, when they married, so used to working side by side in their pith helmets, that she hardly knew how to live alone. She died March 31, 1953. Canada geese are supposed to have this kind of faithful bond. It is a mixed blessing, but it had worked beautifully for five decades through many hardships. Their lives, their “lifestyle” if you insist, are my ideal, but one I’ve never come close to achieving. Maybe now.

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