The Keepsake

Mama’s treasures tumbled helter-skelter from a battered shoebox onto my soft green carpet. One particular keepsake reminded me of a Mother’s Day gift I gave Mama so long ago. As I sat there, memories of a hot, dusty afternoon floated back to me.

During the Depression, our family of ten lived on a farm near Schuler, Alberta. Papa was a dirt farmer breaking the virgin prairie. Yet the more land that was cultivated, the more soil particles were loosened, ready to blow. I recalled again the familiar hopeless feeling we shared after each uninvited whirling dust storm that swept our grain fields bare.

Despite the hardships, Mama always kept her account at the grocery store in good standing, therefore credit was available whenever Mama sent me to pick up a much-needed article. Mr. Schuler, knowing each of us personally, would write out the bill and remind us to take it home for Mama. Mama sometimes paid the bill with farm products instead of money.

It was May 6, 1938 when I entered the store on such an errand. My nose was immediately met with a new aroma. Usually the place reeked from the pungent oil used on the floorboards to keep dust from billowing as it was swept with a long-bristled corn broom.

How I loved this new sweet scent! I soon realized it drifted from a box on the counter filled to the brim with pink carnations. The flowers had arrived just in time for Mother’s Day the coming Sunday. How thoughtful of Mr. Schuler to think of a way bring cheer to the surrounding farm mothers during these discouraging times. Made of crepe paper, the carnations looked so real I had to touch one to be sure. And they would never wilt.

Optimistic with the thought of making Mama happy, I asked the merchant, “How much would a corsage cost me?”

“They are only one dime each, Alice,” Mr Schuler replied with his usual friendly smile.

My breath sucked in as I repeated the price in a whisper. “Wow! Only ten cents.” Then I came to my senses. A dime was far more than I had to spend.

Head down, I trudged home. Puffs of dust sprang up with every step I made in the well-worn hollows of the wagon trail. A hopeless feeling surrounded my young heart. Where would I ever get ten cents?

From out of nowhere the idea came. If Mama can trade eggs, butter and cream with Mr. Schuler on a regular basis for the special foods we were unable to grow or make on our farm, then why couldn’t I do some wheeling and dealing?

It pleased Mama that I was the one who eagerly volunteered to collect the eggs into our round wicker basket from the nearby hen house. Each day I’d hide three more eggs in the soft woollen toque I kept under a wooden apple box. Friday came and I had saved a dozen eggs; I was ready to make the trade on my way to school.

I took my lunch pail (a half-gallon syrup pail) to the hiding place and gently laid each snow white egg into it. Unfortunately there was no paper available for me to lay between the layers of eggs to protect them. The dozen eggs filled up the entire space, leaving no room for my lunch. So Mama wouldn’t ask questions I hid the sandwiches for lunch in my pockets.

I began the two-and-a-half mile trek to Schuler, treading carefully so as not to jar the eggs. I felt a sudden rush of excitement when I got to the last ditch on the north side of the store. It spurred me to run up the steep embankment, and that’s when my left leg got caught in the thick weeds. I fell onto the hard ground, face first into the dried thistles that lined the embankment. I heard the sickening crunch of eggs inside the tin pail. My dream of giving Mama some happiness also crashed with the fall.

Mr. Schuler must have heard my wails of anger and disappointment. He ran from the store, his face pale with concern. “Alice! Are you hurt!?”

With tears streaming down my face, I stopped bawling long enough to ‘make out’ what he was saying. Looking up into his sympathetic face, I blubbered, “No, I’m not hurt. I had wanted to make a trade with you, a dozen eggs for one of your pretty flowers for Mama.”

“Well,” he said, “let me see what we have here.” He pried tight lid open with his fingernails. I followed him into the store; I couldn’t bring myself to look at the mess inside my lunch pail. All I could think about was the carnations on the counter….and that there would be no pretty carnation for Mama.

Mr. Schuler looked inside the pail. “Well, I do believe Flora can put these eggs to good use.” With that he left me standing alone as he took my pail to the kitchen attached to the store.

Not sure I’d understood him, I gazed after him while my heart fluttered with hope, imagining the happiness the carnation would bring our over-worked Mama.

SNAP! Startled out of my daydream, I saw Mr. Schuler close the lid with the palm of his hand. With a cheerful smile he handed me the sparkling clean lunch pail. But it felt light, empty. Searching his face, I wondered if he had forgotten to put a flower inside it for me.

“Here you are. It’s an even trade. I do hope your Mama will have a lovely Mother’s Day.”

I thought school would never end that day. I grabbed my lunch pail and dashed out the door. Running and skipping I soon came to the last hill that overlooked our busy farmyard. Unable to wait another second, I rested for a moment on a big rock by the fence, I removed the tin wire handle from the pail sockets and yanked off the lid. The waft of sweet-smelling carnation sent me leaping to my feet and running down the lane in search of Mama. This was so exciting. I simply couldn’t wait until Sunday.

“Mama, oh Mama!” I dashed into the stifling hot kitchen. Beads of sweat glistened on Mama’s worn face as she rushed about preparing supper for all of us.

“You’re home early, Alice.”

“Mama!” I said bubbling with excitement. “Look at what I have for you in my lunch pail.”

Mama cautiously pried at the lid. “I can’t begin to guess what you picked up again on the way home. Another frog?”

“No,” I giggled.

“Perhaps some wiggly worms?”

My laugh rang high with excitement. “No!” I squeaked.

Mama lifted the lid and a sweet aroma floated from the warm pail. Mama’s tired face took on a radiance I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. She sniffed the flower again and again. Then Mama reached out and embraced me holding me close to her sweat-dampened bosom. No words of love were spoken but Mama’s radiant smile spoke volumes.

Today I sit on the floor so many, many years later amongst the few treasures Mama kept in a shoe box. I gazed at the carnation nestled in my hand. My gift has faded to a pale pink; no sweet aroma escapes from its papery petals. I caress the stem in which a rusty pin is still embedded. Tears blur my vision and drip onto my hand as once again I feel Mama’s warm embrace.

Once again I see how proudly Mama wore the that radiant pink carnation pinned high on her left shoulder to enhance the black crepe dress which was only worn on special occasions. And in the air lingers the soft sweet scent of love.


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