Thursday, July 22, 2010


At some point in history houses began to be horizontal instead of vertical, at least on the prairie where there is plenty of land. To my mind a two story house is iconic, the “way it’s supposed” to be. The house below is in Saskatoon, a vintage example.

But Saskatoon is a college town as well as an immigrant town, so that when the old folks who built these houses after WWI died of old age, the next generation tended to move sideways and convert the tall houses to rentals. This one was rented by friends of mine, the McConnells, some years ago when Clyde was on the faculty there and it was the time in their family when there were still kids and animals, but not much cash.

Sue remembers: “Our old house in S'toon was/is very simple and had bedrooms so small that the chest of drawers had to go out in the hall. It had a claw foot tub and no shower. There was no duct work from the furnace to the upstairs, just a vent in the wall over the kitchen. Ian used to write me notes and "mail" them through the vent. They would float down onto the stove. But it had a nice yard with hollyhocks, and was freshly painted inside. Except for the basement stairs which I painted lime green. The kitten dashed across the wet paint, so there was a trail of paw prints on the dining room floor.”

Houses and time do a waltz for most of us, at least for those who don’t move a lot from one generic place to another. The McConnell’s are in Calgary now, owning a snug little one-story on a hillside. Clyde has been painting (he’s an artist) on the back porch because the light is so good and there’s really no convenient space in the house. It was not a particularly good summer to be rainy! Rain would have been more welcome a few summers ago when his project was terracing the back yard! Now the two cats sit happily among the flowers on several levels.

The front has been totally transformed by the sudden surrender of a big tree, which mercifully didn't fall on the house!

In 1970 after Bob divorced me, I stayed on our little Two Medicine ranch all winter, solitary except for the horses and cats. I wish there were some word that describes the period just after a major change in relationship -- something like honeymoon except in reverse. Maybe not many people get that little transition time to catch their breath. For a while I thought about fighting to get ownership of this place away from Bob, but the road along Two Med on the south edge wasn’t paved and rain made it impassable. The core problem is that where one lives is connected to what work one can find. I probably could have continued to teach, but it would have meant a struggle on the road in winter.

Since that time (1970) the road IS paved and the interchange between Highway 89 and the Two Med River is completely re-engineered to be far less dangerous. Bob sold this little ranch in order to buy the Flatiron Ranch that now belongs to Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Tribe. Locally the Flatiron Ranch is known as the Doane Ranch, though Corky Evans owned it for a while.

In the spring of 1971 I did go back to working for School District #9, not as a teacher but as a public relations person. I drove our little red van to work but it sometimes bogged down in the mud. When it did, I’d leave it and walk the rest of the two miles to the ranch. Bob and Ramona Wellman lived at the Highway 89 crossing of Two Med and he’d come along with his pickup and throw a chain on the van, so when I walked back out, it would be sitting safely on the grass. I had no phone, so he must have just been keeping an eye out.

That fall I taught again. As soon as I had a bit of money in spring, I moved into Ramona Wellman’s childhood home. Her maiden family name was Wippert and she said she always liked this house because in those days the snow piled up above the first floor, but you could still see out the windows in this house. The house had been empty for a few years and before that was rented to Richard Little Dog’s family. When I moved my brass bed in, I put it under the little cluster of nails (to make sure they were secure) where the Little Dog Thunder Pipe Bundle had hung. Its protection lingered.

That summer I contentedly scrubbed and painted and wallpapered and replaced almost all the glass in the house. Pulling up old greasy linoleum was one of my favorite occupations because it was so transformative. When I got down to the boards, I painted them with multiple coats of tractor paint. There was an old styrofoam cooler on a high shelf in the entry shed. Someone had left dead gophers in it long ago. When the lid came off the phrase that came to mind was “great gray greasy gopher gut goo.”

Wellman’s let me “pay the rent” by giving them receipts for materials. The labor was free. Therapeutic, really. That winter the snow piled up to the second floor and I had to go in and out a window where I dug a little entryway. After two years I put everything in the van and left for the coast to go back to school, but I left that house with regret.

After a few years Ramona was talked into moving the house across the street and over a block, in the process turning it so that what had been the front became the back. Also, the addition that had contained the bathrooms, one up and one down, was removed. But the project ran out of steam. Now the sun porch is boarded and the yard has grown up in cow parsnips. The bones of the house are waiting for the next dance partner. I thought of buying it instead of my house in Valier, but I’m too old for a two-story house now. I wish it well.

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