Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .



All of My Friends

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Daughter of Ishmael by Diane Stringam Tolley

Daughter of Ishmael

by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Saturday, March 2, 2013

With Butter on Top



Fresh, Tasty, and good for the hands . . .?
We had manners in our family.
Bad manners are still manners, aren't they?
Let me restart.
We had good manners in our family.
And some bad dinnertime pranks.
Better . . .
The evening meal was always special at the Stringam Ranch.
Mom was a terrific cook so the food was always good.
The conversation, with two parents, six kids and assorted hired men would be endless and, if not brilliant, at least entertaining.
The day's ranchwork was done, so the men were happy and relaxed.
And the pranks and hijinks were ongoing.
There were several tricks that ocurred regularly.
But the favourite had to do with the butter.
Butter?
With such a large group at mealtimes, much passing of dishes from hand to hand was expected.
And necessary.
Most of it was done politely. With a nod and a 'thanks'.
The meal proceeded smoothly.
But occassionally, someone would decide to 'liven things up a bit'.
And this usually accompanied the passing of the butter.
Now, the butter at the Stringam table was always freshly churned and delicious.
And went with everything.
So it was passed frequently.
Now, I should point out here that it was good manners to receive a passed dish directly, especially if one had asked to have it passed. Thus, if one requested the butter, one should then take the dish right from the passer's hand.
Common courtesy.
But the trick at the Stringam table was to pass it in just such a manner that the receiver's thumb would get stuck in the butter.
Okay I don't know what that's called.
Common dis-courtesy?
Or just plain funny.
Inevitably, nearly everyone at the table would end up, at one point or another, with their thumb in the butter.
Good thing Mom made everyone scrub up 'doctor style' before meals or we might have gotten more than nutrition served with our food.
But I digress . . .
With 'butter dipping' a common prank, it was inevitable that the receivers would get more and more creative with their receiving.
A nod and a simple gesture to set the butter down on the table was usually the first attempt.
One that was inevitably ignored as the passer waited patiently for a more polite method of transference.
Finally, the receiver would put out his or her hand, thumb tucked as far out of sight as possible.
It can be done.
It just isn't very comfortable.
Inevitably, no matter how hard the receiver would try to avoid, one digit or another would go in the butter.
And the passer would happily return to their meal, content in the knowledge that they had contributed to the evening's fun-filled mealtime.
While the receiver carefully wiped their fingers on their napkin.
Oh, I forgot to mention – napkins were also a necessary part of the every meal.
Moving on . . .
Finally, because the prank became such a common part of the meals, people stopped receiving.
The passer could sit there forever with the butter dish in their hand.
No one would reach out to take it.
In fact, people had been know to simply put out their knife and take a bit of butter while the passer was still holding it.
Unheard of!
But clever.
But one night, my brother forgot the new order of things.
He asked my Dad for the butter and put out his hand to take it.
He did remember to tuck in his thumb.
Dad regarded the outstretched hand for a moment.
No visible thumb.
What to do?
Finally, he simply turned the entire dish over and set it, butter side down, on Jerry's hand.
Mission accomplished.
Dad went back to eating.
Jerry went to wash.
After that, no one went butter-dipping anymore.
Who could top that?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Because You Loved Him



Okay, he's cute!
Our family was at the movies.
We had popcorn and treats.
Soft drinks.
And the quickest route to the bathroom mapped into our heads.
We were ready.
Erik was four and a little more than eager.
The theater darkened slowly.
Expectation grew.
They don't do this any more, but in times past, every step to the opening of a movie served to heighten the anticipation to a fever pitch.
Slowly lowered lights.
Projector springing to life.
Train of white light beamed on the still-closed curtains.
Said curtains slowly drawing back.
Pictures suddenly appearing.
Sound.
It was inspired.
Everyone in the theater was transfixed.
Hands which only recently had been scrabbling (Grandpa's word) through the popcorn hung suspended, unmoving.
The audience waited, barely breathing, for the first signs of Movie.
And then it finally came, restoring breath and life to those watching.
And they were truly prepared to be entertained. Even bewitched.
Our movie that night was ET. The story about the little Extra Terrestrial.
It began . . .
Cute little kids and family interaction.
ET was introduced.
Erik crawled into my lap and announced in what he fondly believed was a whisper, “I don't like him. He's scary!”
Not scary enough that he wanted to leave, however.
He watched as the children in the movie befriended the helpless, stranded little alien.
Adopted him.
Loved him.
(Spoiler alert . . .)
He cried when ET 'died'.
And cried, again, when he came back to life.
At the end of the movie, he sighed happily and followed the rest of us out of the theater.
On the way home, as usual, we talked about the film and Erik posed the question, “Why was ET so much cuter at the end of the movie than at the beginning?”
I stared at him. “He was just the same, sweetie.”
“No. He was cuter at the end.”
We thought about it. How could something that really never changed in looks get 'better' looking?
And then it hit me. “Because, at the end, you loved him, sweetie.”
“Oh. Right.”
And it was true. The ugly little alien remained ugly until we got to know him.
Loved him.
And then we saw his beauty.
Truth comes best from a four-year-old.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

That Night


It will always be ‘That Night’.
The night my friends and I learned first-hand that drinking and driving don’t go together.
It could have been so much worse . . .
Lethbridge, Alberta is a city of about 50,000. Forty-nine miles north of Milk River.
For the kids of my home town, it was the ‘big city’.
The place for movies and fun on the evenings when two-movie-a-week Milk River had rolled up its sidewalks.
In the hands of a steady, careful driver, it took a good part of an hour to get there.
And some planning ahead if one wanted to get to a particular movie on time.
Me and a group of my friends had stuffed ourselves into a car belonging to a friend of a friend.
And I do mean ‘stuffed’.
I’m not sure how many people were in there.
Let’s just say that, if we’d had seatbelts, there would not have been a sufficient number.
Moving on . . .
We made the trip and arrived at our movie with plenty of time to spare.
Happily, we got in line for tickets.
It was then that our driver/car-owner announced he wasn’t interested in seeing, to quote him, “Some stupid movie”.
Instead, he would wait until we were finished.
In the bar across the street.
We watched him go.
Not really worried. Thinking he would be responsible and ensure he was in condition to take us all safely back to Milk River on that long, dark highway home.
We enjoyed the movie and emerged into the cool evening air some two hours later.
One of the boys went into the bar and emerged with our driver.
One of them was not walking very steadily.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you which one.
Our driver had spent his time trying to drink everyone else in the bar ‘under the table’.
Whatever that means.
I think he had won.
“Rrrready t’go?” he slurred at us.
I don’t know about the others, but my little teen-aged heart stopped right there.
My date put his arm around our driver. “Buddy,” he said soothingly, “I’d better drive.”
“Wha’d’ya mean?! I can drive!!! SSS’MY car!!!”
“Bud, you’re drunk. You can’t even see the steering wheel!”
“SSS’MY car!!! Ssstealin’ my car!!!”
“No, Bud, we’re not stealing your car. You can sit right next to me and we’ll all get home safely.”
“SSS’MY car!!!”
“Yes, it’s your car, and you can sit next to me . . .”
“No onesdrivin’ MY CAR!!!”
This went on for some time.
I hurried to a nearby phone booth (google it) and called home.
Getting my sleepy father out of bed.
“Daddy! Our driver’s drunk!” I wailed over the phone.
He was awake immediately. “Don’t let him drive!”
“We’re trying not to, but he’s so angry!”
“Don’t let him drive! Do you think you can convince him? Do I need to come and get you?”
I looked over at my friends, grouped around my date, who was still trying to talk to his friend. My date was saying something and the driver was shaking his head forcibly, nearly sending himself tumbling with the simply action.
“I don’t knooow!”
As I stood there, my date propped up his friend and stood back. The friend/driver nearly fell over – saved at the last moment when someone grabbed his arm.
Finally, to everyone’s relief, he nodded.
“I think they’ve convinced him,” I said. “We’re on our way.”
Happily, everyone piled into the car, with my date behind the steering wheel and our would-be driver beside him.
We left the brightly-lighted city and started out along the dark highway.
We didn’t get far.
“I ssshould be drivin’! SSSS’MY car!!!”
My date looked over at his friend. “You’re too drunk, Buddy,” he said. “I’ll get us all home safely.”
“SSS’MY CAR!!!”
He grabbed the wheel.
The car swerved sharply and my date took his foot off the accelerator and finally regained control as the boy sitting on the other side of the ‘driver’ wrestled him back into the middle of the seat.
“SSS’MY CAR! SSSSTEALIN’ MY CAR!!!”
“No we’re not stealing anything!”
“I’m Drivin’!” Again the driver reached for the wheel.
My date pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine, pocketing the key. “Let’s walk this off,” he suggested. He slid out of the car and pulled the ‘driver’ out behind him. “C’mon Buddy, let’s walk this off.”
The two of them went around the car to the ditch and started walking up and down, my date talking quietly and the ‘driver’ shouting more and more incoherently.
Lights appeared behind us.
Grew brighter.
A pick-up truck.
One we all knew very well.
Another friend and his date pulled over in front of us.
“Trouble?” he asked.
I went over to them. “Our driver’s drunk,” I said.
“Do any of you want to come with us?” he asked.
Relief flooded over me. “Well, I do!” I said. I went back to the other car. My date was till walking up and down with his friend, talking softly and soothingly. “Does anyone want to catch a ride?” I asked.
One other person scrambled out of the car. “I do,” they said.
“I’m going with Dennis!” I called to my date.
He waved. “Do!” he said.
I climbed into the truck and made room for the other person.
For a few seconds, we watched my date continue to walk and talk, trying to convince our agitated ‘driver’ that he really was in no condition to drive.
Then we drove off, the car and my other friends disappearing into the darkness behind us.
I felt like I was abandoning them.
Half an hour later, I was walking through my front door.
My relieved parents met me as I came in.
“What happened?” Dad asked.
I told them.
They shook their heads. “Thank the Lord you had enough sense to keep him from driving,” Mom said.
“Well, they were still trying when I left,” I said. “I don’t know what happened after that.”
Later, one of my other friends called to say that they had all gotten home safely. My date had managed to calm the ‘driver’ enough to get him back into the car. And the rest of them were able to keep him from grabbing the wheel.
We learned two things that night:
1.      1.  If there’s any possibility you’re going to be the driver . . .
2.      2.  Don’t be stupid.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wake Me When I'm Done


A re-post for a busy day . . .


My Dad was big on responsibility . . .

Like lots of dads.
And he tried to teach it to his kids . . .
Like lots of dads.
With more or less success . . .
Like lots of . . . you get the picture.
From my earliest memories, my Dad has been a finisher. Any task he was given or that he assigned himself was always completed with exactness.
It was a good example for us to follow.
Most of the time.
At one point, when I was little, Dad had been assigned to teach a class in our church congregation.
He took it very seriously.
Not only did it give him the opportunity to share his thoughts and beliefs with a group of young people, but it also provided a captive audience.
Something else he loved.
Moving on . . .
Every Sunday, one could find my Dad.
Perched on a too small folding chair, expounding to his group of enthusiastic eager excited resigned youngsters.
He was always well-prepared and ready.
Eager to share what he had learned.
But my Dad was also the county's only veterinarian.
At certain times of the year, he was the epitome (great word, right?) of busy.
Still, he would show up for his class on Sunday morning, ready to instruct.
It was spring.
Calving season.
Dad hadn't seen his bed for days.
Mom drove to church because he didn't trust his blurred vision and slow reflexes.
But he could still teach!
He collected his manual and scriptures and took his seat, facing his little congregation.
He began.
A few minutes later, he jumped.
And . . . woke himself up.
Not a good sign.
He peeked at his audience.
For the first time, ever, they were looking at him.
All of them.
And paying attention.
In fact, one could probably say they were riveted.
Dad felt his face grow hot.
He glanced down at his lesson.
What on earth had he been saying? He had no idea.
Dad taught us two things that day.
  1. Neither wind, snow, sleet, or lack of sleep should keep anyone from carrying through with their responsibilities.
  2. Lessons are much more interesting when the teacher is asleep.

Don't you dare fall asleep in my class! That's my job . . .

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fifty-Seven Cents

Me. Prospective laborer . . . and fashionista.

I was going to be minding one child.
For two-plus hours.
And the best part? Someone was going to pay me for doing it.
It was my very first official baby-sitting job.
Actually, my first baby-sitting job of any kind.
I had just turned twelve.
I was legal.
And I was way past excited.
Imagine having a job and getting paid to do it. And fifty cents an hour wasn't uncommon. Why, some of my friends had even been paid a whole dollar an hour!
I could just picture the wealth that would soon be mine!
I reported for duty at precisely the right time, armed with everything I might need. Books. Games. Snacks.
Shannon, the little girl I was looking after, was four.
And adorable.
She played quietly and was fairly obedient.
I’d have to say it was a good first-time experience.
All too soon, her mother was at the door and my time was up.
Now, for the exciting part. Where I got paid for the work I did.
Or maybe I should clarify: Where I should have gotten paid for the work I did.
“Diane, I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” her mother said. “I’ll have to pay you later.”
“Oh,” I said. “Ummm . . . all right.” What else could I say? ‘No. I’ll stand right here until you produce the money?!’
I packed up my kit and left. Okay, that was a bit . . . anticlimactic.
Several days later, at Church actually, the mother approached me. “Diane, I asked your brother how much I should pay you.”
Wait, I thought. You asked my brother? My brother?! Why on earth would you ask my brother and not me?
“He told me that you charge twenty-five cents an hour.”
Excuse me. He told you what?!
“So here’s your pay for two and a quarter hours.” She dropped two quarters, a nickel and two pennies into my hand.
Fifty Seven cents.
Fifty seven cents?!
I stared at the woman. Then at the money in my hand.
I had worked for over two hours for fifty seven cents?!
Suddenly my dream of riches made babysitting seemed like just that . . . dreams.
I still managed to smile and thank her.
I think.
I know I had words with my brother who simply shrugged and said, “How was I to know?”
I’m sure you can probably understand why I never hired him as my manager.
Oh, and I never really did much babysitting after that.
A few times when I simply couldn’t think of an excuse.
But I made up for it later by producing and raising six children.
Hmmm. I just realized that I never got paid for that, either.
Well . . . not in money.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lentil Soup

Not everything was beautiful in Paris . . .

Living in Paris was an education for my Husby.
On so many levels.
Picture it:
Young men between the ages of 19 and 21, most away from home for the first time.
Many of who have never done their own cleaning or laundry.
And only the very basic of cooking.
Scary, isn’t it?
Like I said . . . an education.
Fortunately for the other seven young men in his apartment, my Husby did know how to cook.
The problem was, it wasn’t always his turn.
Others needed their chance.
Oh, woe . . .
It was Hanson’s turn to cook.
Something that only came around every eighth week.
Which may explain why all of the young men returned home alive.
Ahem . . .
Hanson had made his specialty. Lentil soup.
Which contained lentils.
And water.
But nothing else.
Also missing was the all-important ‘flavor’.
I should mention here that Hanson was alone in calling it ‘soup’.
Seven young men were gathered around the great dining room table for dinner. I should mention here that one end of their long table had been pushed against the outside wall just below a large casement window which stood open in the pleasant summer air.
Just FYI.
 It had been a long and busy day.
All were hungry and casting yearning eyes toward the kitchen.
Finally, Hanson emerged, triumphantly carrying the pot containing the much-anticipated meal.
He set it down and removed the lid.
Seven anxious noses sniffed the air.
Seven noses came up empty.
“’Lentil soup’ again,” one of them said, sighing.
“Yeah,” Hanson said, grinning. “Help yourselves. I made lots.”
The first victim young man took a helping from the pot and passed it along.
The second followed his lead.
As did the third.
Finally, it reached Davies, seated next to the window.
He peered into the pot and made a face. Then he lifted it and before anyone could protest or even make a sound, he simply tossed it and its contents through the window.
It landed upside down on the lawn.
Where it sat for several days until someone finally got the courage to go out and retrieve.
Hanson was thereafter (good word) relieved of any future cooking duties.
It was just safer.
For everyone.
And especially Hanson.
You know, I was just thinking . . . it’s been forty years. I think Husby might nearly be ready to try lentils again.
I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Snow in July



The day had begun like any other that summer.
Cloudless blue skies.
Soaring temperatures.
Plans to spend a few hours near or in the river.
Dad had taken my brothers, Jerry and George out to the field, haying.
Chris and I were helping Mom do'Mom' things in the kitchen.
Well, Chris helped.
I tasted.
Hey, it's an important job!
Shortly after lunch, Chris and I got decked out in our fancy swimwear, ready to head to the river.
Mom walked with us as far as the lawn. She glanced up at the sky.
"Oh, my!"
I tilted my head back.
Much of my blue sky was no longer blue.
Instead it was rapidly being obscured by really ominous-looking clouds.
Black clouds.
A storm!
I loved storms.
And we certainly hadn't seen enough of them in Milk River in the early 60's.
Our trip to the river was forgotten as Chris and I followed Mom back into the house and took up positions in the living room.
One window each.
Then we waited.
The clouds boiled up, obscuring the sun. The rest of the sky.
The lightning started.
Flash.
Crash.
I should point out here that I had learned to count by timing the interval between the flash and crash of lightning.
One. Two. Three.
With each flash, there was a shorter and shorter interval.
The excitement level increased. 
Well, my excitement level increased.
Mom was darting back and forth from one window to another, anxiously watching for her husband and sons return from the hay field.
I was little. I lived in a 'never worried, always happy' world.
Occasionally, I glanced at my worried mother curiously.
But that was the extent of my sympathy.
Moving on . . .
Finally, we heard a weird sound from outside.
A rising wind howling across the chimney.
And then we saw the wall of . . . something come towards us across the yard.
Some really white-looking rain.
I moved to the couch beside my sister.
Her window had the better view.
Mom scurried into her bedroom and emerged with several pillows.
"Here, girls," she instructed, "hold these up against the windows!"
I stared at her. But if I held the pillow up against the window, I wouldn't be able to see the storm!
We all heard the shattering of glass from the kitchen.
Instantly, Chris pressed her pillow against the window.
Sighing, I copied her example.
I don't know how long the storm lasted.
Too long, according to my mother.
Not long enough, according to me.
After it passed, we stepped outside to see the damage/amazing-ness.
It all depended on your point of view. 
The yard was four inches deep in snow.
Snow?
Not bad for the middle of July.
I stepped out into it.
It was funny snow. Crunchy. More like pebbles than soft, white fluffiness.
I stomped around in it. Gathered a handful. Carried it back to my Mom.
She was standing where I had left her, just staring.
"Look, Mom. This snow is weird!" I tried to hand it to her.
"It's not snow, darling," she said. "It's hail."
"Huh." Yep. I was always on top of things.
As we were standing there, Dad's truck pulled into the yard and skidded to a stop on the slippery road.
He and my two older brothers got out.
At least I think it was Dad and my brothers.
Certainly they had the right size and shape.
But there, all resemblance ended.
They were caked with mud. Straws of hay and grass sprouted all over them.
They really looked like . . . monsters.
I was prepared to run.
Before I could react, however, Mom moved forward and wrapped her arms around the taller one, mud and all. Then she moved on to the shorter pair.
Okay. Not monsters.
We all moved back into the house.
While Mom swept up the glass from a broken window in the kitchen, she and Dad told their stories.
His was far more exciting.
He and my brothers had been baling hay, with Dad and Jerry on the stooker behind George driving tractor.
When Dad had seen the clouds, he had tried to signal George to stop.
But George couldn't hear him over the noise of the tractor.
Finally, in his best Superman style, Dad leaped off the stooker, ran forward, scaled the tractor and turned off the key. Then he grabbed George, made another heroic leap, and shoved him and Jerry under the tractor.
Okay, it's always so much better in my imagination . . .
The three of them had gotten a very close up and personal view of the storm from beneath this rather sketchy shelter.
Fortunately, though the hail had splashed them with mud and debris, it hadn't caused them any permanent damage.
Not so the rest of the ranch.
Chickens and other birds, not quick enough to get under shelter lay in small heaps in the barnyard.
Fences had been smashed to the ground and the entire garden lay in ruins.
Appendages had been hammered off vehicles and other machines standing unprotected in the barnyard and many windows were broken.
And the grand new house being constructed behind the old ranch house where we currently lived was especially hard hit.
Besides other damage, the newly-installed siding had been hammered to bits.
Pock marks had been knocked clean through the painted boards.
Ruined.
And we hadn't even moved in yet.
There were two hail storms that summer.
The second just as nasty as the first.
Mom finally gave up all hope of getting any peas out of her garden.
Or much else, either.
And the hay crop had been ruined.
And there was a lot of repairing and clean up.
Most of which I . . . umm . . . supervised.
But we survived.
To tell the stories.
My favorite thing.
And, by the way, I still love storms.

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Diane was born and raised on one of the last of the great old Southern Alberta ranches. A way of life that is fast disappearing now. Through her memories and stories, she keeps it alive. And even, at times, accurate . . .

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