Life By The Railway Tracks

Railway trains were the main means of transportation for my grandmother. She received a free pass to ride the train anytime and anywhere. You see, my grandfather worked as a section-man in the forties and fifties.

I remember Grandpa getting up earlier than the rooster crowed. The house would be so cold that when you first placed your feet on the floor, their first response was to retreat to the warmth of the feather tick.

He’d hurry about, stuffing paper into the cook stove and carefully spread bits of kindling on top. Then, he’d light a match and set the paper to flame. Once the kindling got going nicely, he added a few pieces of chopped wood from the wood box.

I hated the suffocating sulphur odour of matches when they struck the matchbox, but once the kitchen warmed, the smell dissipated. Crackling and snapping sounds of wood burning, followed by the occasional exploding pop and the smell of a toasty fire cheered everyone. A warm orangey-red glow bounced off the still dark walls.

Then Grandma got up, pulled on her long brown stockings, put on a slip, dress and sweater and headed toward the kitchen. She used a dipper that hung on the water pail to put water into a pot and set it on the cook stove. Once the water began to boil, she added a pinch of salt and some oatmeal. She never measured her ingredients. The palm of her hand was her measuring cup and her fingers, her measuring spoons. Early clink and clank sounds served as the snooze button for the remainder of the half-grown children still at home. The smell of something to eat and the warmth of the kitchen roused the household, but when the church bells tolled seven times, the buzzer was off and that meant the last call.

Grandpa had already left for work by then. At that time, men on the track laboured hard. Their day began with meeting at the section hut. The section foreman laid out the schedule for the day. Then on the pushcart the men hopped and manhandled the bars. Up and down, up and down like a teeter-totter, they receded to a mere speck down the horizon. It took a fair amount of time to get to their destination where repairs needed to be done. They were a hardy bunch for there wasn’t any machinery to do the job. Ballast was hauled by wheelbarrow, then shovelled and spread evenly with a spade. New railway ties or rails were set in place to keep maintenance up to par.

Grandpa walked the worn path back home for lunch if the repairs were not too far away. The first thing he’d do was head for the washbasin, scrub his grubby hands, and splash water all over his face and hair. Then he’d dry himself off and comb his hair.

We surrounded the table, sitting as still as a cat waiting for the right moment to pounce on her prey. I made an attempt to grab the bowl first. Suddenly these words blurted out at me. “Non. C’est Papa qui commence!” I felt humbled. Grandpa was king of his castle. The growing children showed respect by waiting for him to sit at the head of the table and begin dishing out the food. From that moment on, I knew the rules and abided by them.

In those days, everyone living in our little Jack Pine village was poor. And nearly every family produced a fair number of children. There were thirteen children in my mother’s family. The first child died of pneumonia at six months of age. Another family in the same town raised twenty-one children. Birth control pills hadn’t been invented yet and even if they had been, a good Catholic wouldn’t use them.

Grandma and Grandpa were Metis-French Canadian. Being half-breed, a stigma attached itself like a ball and chain. My grandparents knew the pain of being mocked and rejected. Only before my Grandmother died, at the age of ninety-eight, did she admit to being a Metis. Poor Grandma! She always wore long sleeved sweaters and a big straw hat in the hot summer heat as she hoed and pulled weeds in her garden. She didn’t want her skin to become any darker than it already was. She floured her face and neck to lighten the color of her skin. Later, when things became easier, she used a light powder.

Grandma worked hard. There weren’t the conveniences of indoor plumbing or electricity. Dropping a bucket into the well, tipping it so that it could get filled, and drawing it up by rope was as natural to them as it is for us to turn on a tap. No plumbing also meant sitting in the smelly outdoor toilet and using catalogue pages for toilet paper. We were recycling and didn’t even know it.

The toilet always got tipped every Halloween, sometimes needing to be rescued from the downtown area. But one time, my Grandpa came up with a brilliant idea. “Eh, mon Dieu! Je prie que c’est les garcons mauvais qui tombe aux milieu,” he said out loud, making the sign of the cross to bless his action. He moved the toilet over a few feet from the hole in the ground and lightly covered the hole with straw.

He sat in the dark by the window and watched, waiting patiently to see if someone would fall in his trap. “L’heure est proche!” he said to Grandma. Everyone was out doing his Halloween trick or treating. “C’est pour celui qui est tres mechant. Les ‘tit demon.”

Suddenly they heard screams and cursing. When the troublemakers came along in the dark to do their dastardly deed, they fell in the hole. Yuck! Yuck! And double Yuck! Grandma and Grandpa enjoyed live theatre in their own back yard. That was one time Grandpa got to play his own Halloween trick. The next few years their toilet was the only one left standing.

In the winter, Grandma brought in pails of snow, placed the snow in large metal containers and thawed it on the stove for the following washday. Before she could heat it to wash, she had to run the water through a flour bag cloth to get rid of dirt and debris. A water tank on the side of the cook stove kept the water hot by the fire. She brought out her square aluminum tubs from the closed-in porch, one for scrubbing and one for rinsing, and set them on backless wooden chairs. Grandma also collected her scrub board. Scrubbing the clothes with a bar of homemade soap and then rinsing them was a difficult task, but wringing them by hand was even more gruelling.

She would go outdoors in any kind of weather to hang clothes on the line to dry. In winter, the clothes froze stiff like boards. When she brought them in, they looked like invisible clothed bodies. The clothes were awkward to handle until they defrosted. Placed over chairs, they completed the drying process. There was something about that fresh, pristine smell that can’t be described. The next day everything needed to be ironed. Bulky cast irons sat on the stove. She used one handle to slip in the hot iron. When it cooled, Grandma slid the cold iron on the stove and snagged a hot one in its place.

Living near the train tracks could shatter anyone’s nerves if you were caught off guard. In the middle of the night, you could hear the train whistle blowing from at least a mile out of town until it passed right on through. The song in the night began in tenor and slowly turned into bass. The earth rumbled as though an earthquake was taking place.

The C.B.C. news never was neglected at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I can still hear the silence just before the noon buzzer went off indicating the exact moment of the change of hour.

Grandma’s favourite day of the week was shopping day in Winnipeg; a hundred mile trip. She used her free pass to ride the C.N.R. train but the bad part was the train left at four in the morning. Knowing her, I believe she didn’t mind. It gave her a whole day to go to Eaton’s and shop for bargains. I think this was the only ‘me time’ she enjoyed in all those years.

The same evening, the train arrived back around a quarter to ten. The station was boisterous and the platform boards ebbed and flowed with the number of people that met the train. It was one of the daily events everyone looked forward to and not a soul missed the opportunity to see–who got off the train that night. Once the train left the station, everyone went home for a busy and hectic day that was to follow.


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