Life of a Farm Wife

(Fourth in our Harry Forbes Remembers series)

Harry Forbes’ Sister Remembers (these memories written by Helen Hoszouski, nee Forbes)

Life was hard for a farm wife like my mom; there were no fridges nor freezers, no indoor plumbing, no power washers or dryers, no conveniences at all. Water had to be packed in and out.

The clothes were scrubbed on the washboard using the lye soap that had been made at home. Water was heated to boiling on the wood stove in a boiler and some lye soap added. The white clothes were boiled in that to keep them sparkling white. Later there was a sort of half-barrel washing machine with a cradle-like affair to wash the clothes. It rocked back and forth by hand or some of them had foot pedals. A ringer (consisting of two rubber rollers) was clamped on the side of the tub through which the clothes were squeezed by rolling them through in order to get rid of most of the water. Though it was turned by hand it was an improvement over hand-wringing them.

The clothes were rinsed at least twice after being washed. For the white clothes, blueing was put in the last rinse water to keep them white. The blueing came in hard one-inch cubes. It was taken out of its paper wrapping, tied into a small piece of cloth and immersed in the water. When the colour was judged to be right, the block was put aside until the next wash day.

The wash load for eight or ten people was huge, including bed sheets, men’s denim pants and that fleece-lined combination underwear that seemed to weigh a ton when wet. There were numerous cotton articles in the wash each week including the men’s and boy’s white shirts. Men were not properly dressed up for special occasions unless they were wearing a white shirt, a tie and a suit. (For most families going to church every Sunday morning was one of those times.) The next task was to boil up some corn starch and water, then rinse everything that needed to be nice and crisp through that mixture.

Now the clothes were clean but still had to be hung on the line to dry. This could be a pleasant job on a warm sunny day but in the winter it was a finger-freezer. When the clothes were frozen so stiff they could stand by themselves, freezing fingers must wrest them off the line in small bunches. They were hung here and there in the house to finish drying.

With the clothes dry, the ironing had to be done. All the shirts, dresses, pillowcases etc. (everything cotton) were sprinkled with water, rolled into tight rolls and left for the moisture to penetrate the whole bundle. In the meantime the fire in the stove was built up (You probably had to bring in some wood.) The ‘sad irons’ were placed on the stovetop over the heat. When you could dampen your finger and quickly touch the iron and hear a sizzle, it was hot enough to use. If it was too cool it would not do a good job, and if it was too hot you’d have a scorched garment and have to start the whole process of washing all over again.

Mom said it would take her two days to get all the laundry done. She always planned her work so there wasn’t much to be done the following day, as she knew she’d be sick with a migraine headache. My sister Agnes remembered how we would tiptoe around at that time so we wouldn’t disturb Mom. We were afraid she might die.

The washing must have been done as I have described for thirteen or fourteen years before the first gasoline-powered machine was bought. The dealer came to the farm. It took a whole day for him and Dad to make the deal. It was finally made: the washing machine was traded for two white steers valued at $50.00 each. What a reprieve it must have been for Mom, but my brother Harry was disappointed that those steers were sold. He had planned to break them to be a team of oxen for himself.

How many people there were: her big family, the teacher (who always boarded at our place) and often a homeless man or two. Everyone who was there got their clothes washed. What a tremendous amount of work the washing, ironing and cooking entailed!

Mom was an excellent cook and had to make do with few supplies. She made enormous quantities of bread, buns and cinnamon rolls. Doughnuts were made en masse, enough to fill a big roaster. Delicious pies often graced our table. When we came home from school for noon lunch on bake day, there were always ‘dough boys’ with jam for dessert. These were bits of bread dough stretched and fried crisp in hot fat. Um um good! At harvest time she would have not only the family to cook for but also eight or ten hard working, hungry men. Sometimes in the early years she hired a girl to help her during harvest. Of course as the children grew older they all shared in the work, including baby sitting. My oldest sister vowed she had looked after enough kids and was never going to have any on her own. She only had six, three girls and three boys.

Mom always had a big garden to look after and canned numerous jars of fruit, vegetables, meat and chicken. During the thirties when so many men could not find work and as some of them walked the highways or got off the freight trains, they would see Dad working the nearby fields and stop to ask him about work. He knew they were always hungry and would send them to the house for a meal. No matter how little Mom had, she always found something to set before them. Many of them offered to split wood or do any other chores to pay for the food. They were not bums, just men for whom where was no work during the depression.

Grandmother had given her sewing machine to my mother but I don’t ever remember her patching jeans on the machine; it was always done by hand with needle and thread. She may have used the machine in later years. She would sit and darn holes, as big as her hand, in socks.

Flour and sugar came in hundred pound cotton bags. The names of the companies were printed on them with bright coloured ink. These were emptied, washed and spread out on the grass. It seemed that the sun (and maybe the grass) would bleach the last of the printing out of them. They were used for many things from tablecloths, tea towels, sheets, pillowcases, aprons to petticoats and bloomers (that translates to slips and panties -though they couldn’t really be called panties). Mom made all of our dresses too, from patterns she cut out herself.

After we got a radio Mom loved to listen to the soap operas and discussed the happenings with her friends. If you listened in to those discussions you would almost think they were talking about people they knew, they became so involved with the plays. Back then the plays were of family happenings. There was not the violence, sex and immorality that make up plays and movies now.

Mom loved to dance to the old-time music and was a very graceful and accomplished dancer. She taught us the old dances and made sure we did them properly. There is a building called the Armouries in Maple Creek. Once a year an Old Time Dance was held there. The real old dances were: one step, two step, three step, seven step, fox trot, barn dance, schottische, slow waltz, old time waltz, minuet, square dance and others. It was a delight to stand up on the balcony and watch the whole room full of dancers dip and flow in unison like ocean waves.

Mom always longed to go to one of those dances. One year we kids all contributed our pennies and probably collected about three dollars in all. We ordered a purple dress and shoes for Mom so she could go to the dance. But Dad was away working at the time and couldn’t get home for the evening so Mom wouldn’t go without him.

Times were hard but Dad and Mom were good managers and hard workers, so we always had clothes to wear and food to eat. There were no luxuries but we had all the necessities and a stable home.

Time rolled on and eventually all my siblings were out on their own except the youngest son, Kenny. In 1948 our parents bought a ranch in the Cypress Hills south of Piapot, Saskatchewan. Dad had, at last, realized his dream of having a ranch. They lived there until it was time for Kenny to marry, then they moved into the house they had previously bought in Maple Creek.

Town life was good for Mom. She still had all the housekeeping duties that follow a woman wherever she goes, but she was released from the extra work. She listen to the soap operas and carried on long discussions concerning them with her sisters and friends.

Dad was in the hospital in Medicine Hat a few months before his death when Mom fell one morning as she was sweeping the landing and broke her leg above the knee. As it healed in Medicine Hat hospital she ended up falling again, re-breaking it in the same place. From then on she favoured that leg, always afraid of reinjuring it. She was now eighty years old.

Mom had valued her independence theretofore. As she and I had walked together on slippery streets a few years earlier, I had taken her arm. She was quite indignant and told me she didn’t need any help. I soothed her feelings by telling her I had taken hold of her arm to make sure I didn’t fall. Now she was losing her independence.

After Dad’s death in 1977, Mom continued to live in her home, still doing her own housework and cooking until 1988 when something, maybe a stroke, began to deprive her of her memory. She tried staying with her daughters in the Lloydminster area, but was lonesome for her own place and the boys at Maple Creek. Her eyesight was becoming very poor even after cataract removals. She could no longer live by herself and finally decided to move into the Senior’s Lodge in Maple Creek where she spent her last eleven years.

I had never heard Mom play the mouth organ. After she moved to the Lodge, I recalled her telling me that she used to like playing it and was quite good at it. One day in a store I found a mouth organ and sent it to her. She resumed playing and spent happy times filling her room with the old time music. A favourite time for her was when volunteers, including her oldest son Harry, would come and play the music that took the seniors back in memory to their younger days; the music they all remembered so well.

Her humour and quick wit stayed with her and she seemed to be a favourite with the staff at the Lodge. For Mom’s 98th birthday, her family gathered for a birthday supper at the Lodge. After supper Harry prepared to play the music. Mom called him over and said, “Now you behave yourself or I’ll take you over my knee!” Any time music was playing, Mom sat and kept time by patting her leg. Her timing was perfect; if there was a double beat she never missed it. She played the mouth organ for her 102nd birthday. Thirteen days later she passed away on June 23rd, 1999.

Mom lived a life of hard work and loyalty to friends and family. She raised eleven children who are healthy, industrious citizens, all who have honoured their marriage vows. The influence of the honest, upright, unselfish way of life Mom and Dad and the majority of the generation of their era lived, can be seen down through the generations of their descendants.

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