- Wednesday, June 03, 2009
The relatives on my father's side were farmers—hard-working, plain-spoken people who understood and loved the earth and harnessed its power through sweat and skill and faith. I like to think that something of their noble, earthy spirit lives on in me, but clearly, it does not. I must confess that I am the poster girl for comfort-craving suburbanites everywhere. When I get close to the earth I so profess to love, it seems, well … dirty.
But it wasn't that way for my great-grandma Bittner. I met her only once, when I was very young. My parents decided it was time to embark on a pilgrimage to the family homestead. And so, in the summer of 1972, my brother Chris and I spent a wide-eyed week on the Bittner wheat farm in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
A four-year-old possesses a mind's eye like a fun house mirror; the shapes of everyone and everything are stretched to larger-than-life proportions. To this day I can play back my memories like scratchy pieces of stop-motion film.
The wheat is militant, standing at attention in uniform rows until a prairie wind spots me in the distance and decides to put on a show. Stalks higher than the Empire State Building become Motown dancers, bending and swaying, swaying and bending for an awestruck audience of one.
My great-uncles are benevolent Goliaths with wide grins and huge, leathery hands. At the end of the day, they smell a little like ripe fruit. Their own children are no longer children, and yet when they enter the farmhouse, they are once more the dutiful sons of Grandma Bittner, who is all one could hope for in a family matriarch. Eighty-five laborious years have compromised her mobility (she seldom moved from her kitchen chair), but she is still a dominant figure. I'm a little afraid in her presence, but there is a softness beneath her severe strength. The Saskatchewan sun has turned her a golden brown, and she is as kneaded and plump as the fragrant loaves of bread cooling on her counters.
The Bittner wheat farm is pure magic, but I'm not purely happy. Even a four-year-old can tell when something is amiss, and I'm troubled when my uncles' open faces cloud over. I strain to overhear and understand their conversations. The crops are in trouble. No rain for months. We hoist Grandma Bittner into the car for a drive, and each field we pass elicits the same response. Too dry, too dry. My heart sinks further with every mournful shake of her heavy head. I've never heard the word drought before, but I'm sure it's not good.
In the cool of the evening, my great-aunts and uncles gather in the kitchen and bring my parents up to date on the latest family gossip. Chris and I grow restless; we go out to sit by ourselves on the front porch. We are sleepy and warm and somewhat intoxicated with our freedom, until all at once the universe begins to go horribly wrong.
First, a cloud of mosquitoes attacks. The air is thick with them, and they only want Chris. We are mutually hysterical, and the grown-ups come running to the rescue. They swat at the swarm and eventually manage to get Chris inside.
Now I am alone on the porch, still sweaty and jittery from my brother's ordeal. But before my heart rate can return to normal, a new onslaught is launched.
A white flash scorches my eyes. A second later, all is consumed in darkness. The wind begins to howl, enraged to be losing a shouting match with a thunder that is more terrifying than anything I've ever heard. The rain the heavens have been hoarding is released with a savage vengeance, pelting the roof and slashing at the windows, drenching me instantly. Even the sturdy old farmhouse has turned against me, violently banging the screen door open and shut behind me. The lightning strikes again and again, illuminating the holy terror that is my first prairie storm.
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