We were just children. I was four or five and my sister, Joan, was eleven or twelve years old when we were informed by our parents that we were lucky kids to be able to take an exciting ride on a train to visit our grandparents’ farm for the summer. Before we had a chance to determine this luck for ourselves, our one small, battered, family suitcase was packed and we were at the train station being quickly helped up onto the steps of one of the giant, smelly boxes that was spewing a fog of steam and black smoke. Standing on the top step, our hands tightly clamped together, we both turned around – Joan to say her goodbyes, and me to say that I was thinking of changing my mind about this trip. But we saw no familiar faces.
I realized, sadly, that I had been abandoned by my mom and dad into the sole care of my big sister, the designated and reluctant caregiver. And the very, very long 100 miles of this “exciting” train ride sounded like, “Deanna sit down. Deanna be quiet. Deanna be still and stop doing that!”
After many stops which raised and dashed my hopes, we finally reached the one stop that was ours. I was never so happy to see Grandma there to meet us. I grinned from ear to ear when I saw her petite figure standing alone with that familiar smile on her small face, framed in her usual kerchief where miniature pin curls peaked through. In her print cotton house dress, lisle stockings, and brown Oxford shoes, she was the epitome of primness. I could feel her strength, however, when we assailed her with our loving bear hugs. Grandma picked up our suitcase, and together, we walked through the fields to the farm, following rocks that Grandma had painted white, so that we wouldn’t get lost when we walked back to Brown’s General Store located near the train station, to buy our many Grandma treats.
Our vacation at the farm was filled with lots of fun things to do. Grandpa and Grandma kept us busy and entertained by playing on Grandpa’s newly erected swings, a very big one hanging from the branch of the old maple tree for Joan, and a smaller one attached to a wooden frame for me. When we were inside the farm house, we often braided the fringes on Grandma’s settee or listened to conversations on the multi-party line telephone box which was located on the kitchen wall. In the evening when he was finished his farm chores, Grandpa, with his thick, white, wavy hair, bushy white mustache, and pale blue smiling eyes, would sit in his rocking chair smoking his pipe. I would climb up on his knee, curl up and be entertained with stories until I fell asleep.
But the biggest event for me each day was waiting at the mailbox by the road for the mailman with high expectations of getting a letter from my mom. On one of these occasions, I remember jumping up and down with sheer delight. My mom had sent us gifts. It was extremely rare to get anything new back in 1943. I tore open my parcel to find the most beautiful pair of red sandals in the whole world. I wore them everywhere, always reluctant to take them off even at bedtime.
The next best part of visiting the farm was playing in the hayloft in one of Grandpa’s two barns which stood side by side, separated by a laneway wide enough for the horse drawn hay wagon to pass through. It kept us entertained for hours jumping and dropping and rolling around in the loose hay. Grandma whose job it was to clean us up afterwards from head to toe, of pieces of hay and who knows what else,didn’t seem to mind at all.
One day while we were enjoying ourselves in the hay at the top half of one of the barns, we saw something flickering, something other than sunlight, through the cracks in the wooden slatted walls. Flames! We quickly raced down the ladder and ran screaming to our Grandpa who was just below us milking a cow. Grandma came rushing through the door. She quickly pulled us out of the barn. To my young mind, it seemed everything took place in slow motion. Grandma grabbed one of my hands and Joan the other one. They were yelling at me to hurry, running, and dragging me up the hill towards the farm house, over rocks and weeds and through cow pies. Then, the worst thing happened. Sadly, one of the cow pies sucked off one of my new red shoes. When I turned my head around, I saw my sandal had disappeared. It was then, the trauma of it all hit me and the tears started and the bawling began. I’d lost one of my new red sandals. And my world was in flames. After we got into the house, Grandma wrapped me in a blanket and placed me in her rocker. She started the chair rocking and told me to rock and pray. “Pray, Deanna, and don’t stop.” I only knew one prayer and so I began,” Now I lay me down to sleep, Now I lay me down to sleep and (sneaking in a whispered), God please save my sandal,” over and over and over.
Outside, the quiet farm yard exploded with the voices of neighbours who had come from miles around. They began carrying buckets of water and forming a long line from the well to the house. Somehow, I noticed this and my young mind thought that they were throwing the buckets of water on the wrong building. But Grandma explained that they were trying to save the house from catching fire. Well, that started the tears and howling again. Still in tears, my hand was grabbed again and now, wearing my old rubber boots, Joan and I were whisked out of the farm house. We were led into the field along the white painted rocks away from the burning barns and told to stay there until it was certain the house was safe from the flames. And keep praying, of course. After what seemed like a very long and frightening time, Grandma finally rescued us from the field, back to the safety of the still standing farm house. By then, many of the neighbours had gone back to their own homes. The farm was quiet again and the sight of the still smouldering barns brought the sadness of the realization that there was a good possibility that we would never play in Grandpa’s hayloft again.
I cried myself into an exhausted sleep that night. The next thing I remember, is that Joan and I were soon following the same white stones back to the train station for our trip home. I was carrying with me only one of my beautiful, new, red sandals, and listening to the familiar, “Hurry up, Deanna, stop dragging your feet and stop whining, we’re going to miss our train,” which we did.
And that’s another story.