This story was passed on to us by one of our students, Kimiko Karpoff. It is a re-write of one of her grandmother’s memories from her time in Oyen, Alberta in the early 1940s. Kimiko’s grandmother, Florence Karpoff, was a deaconess, and later a minister’s wife. But, as Kimiko says, “her deaconess-ness never really left her.” Enjoy.
Florence carefully wrapped up the Christmas cake. She had saved pennies and scraped together enough to purchase precious sugar, fruit and flour to make the cakes. It was hard during the war. The minister couldn’t expect to get paid if everyone else in town was just getting by. Even if they had money, supplies and staples weren’t easy
Her children gathered around her legs, eyes round, wanting to eat the cake now but knowing that if they waited it would be even better at Christmas.
Florence was not surprised to hear a knock at the door; the minister’s family often had callers. The children followed as she ran to answer it.
“Is the minister home?”
An elderly couple stood at the door, wrapped against the November cold. They were not locals.
“He’s not in at the moment, but will be home shortly. You’re welcome to come in.”
With her guests seated in the living room, Florence turned back toward the kitchen when she noticed little Jimmy had already climbed onto the gentleman’s lap. Smiling, he waived away her protest.
“I like children,” he said. So Jimmy sat and Florence sat and John, Polly and Teena gathered on the floor around them. And a story unfolded before their eyes.
Harry and Mary had come to be married by the minister.
Mary had been Harry’s housekeeper for close
to 40 years. She was the widow of Harry’s friend Bill, an old school mate from his childhood in Minnesota.
Harry’s family had a pioneer place in the 1870’s. His father was a bum and the fighting household was ruled by his Mother. She had no time to show her boys affection. But he remembered always the gentleness he felt from Bill’s mother whenever he went home with Bill.
Harry had run away to Canada when he was in his mid-teens and had eventually homesteaded near Empress Saskatchewan. He’d gone back to Minnesota one winter in time to act as Bill’s best man when he married Mary.
Over the next five years, luck had fallen hard on Bill. He lost his farm and had had to work out as hired help. He and Mary and their two girls lived in a shack on the farmer’s land. Harry’s homestead, on the other hand, prospered, and he found time to make another trip south to visit his old friend whom he found leading a bleak existence with his family. Mary was expecting another child in the spring.
During Harry’s visit, Bill was gored by the farmer’s bull and died.
At the funeral, Harry listened to conversation of the women preparing the coffee. The farmer would need new help and would need to have his shack back. Where would Mary go? they wondered. She had no family.
As neigbours left the funeral gathering, Harry stayed. He wanted to know, was it true, did Mary have to move? “Yes,” Mary confirmed, “the farmer needs his shed.”
“Well, I need a housekeeper,” Harry decided right then. “Come home with me.”
The next day Harry loaded Mary and the girls and their few possessions into his sleigh and brought them back home to his homestead.
So in a sense, Bill’s family became Harry’s family. He set Mary and the girls up in the living room. It had never had any furniture anyway. She took over the housekeeping and all waited for the spring baby, a third girl. Over the next few years Harry added a lean-to onto the house. Now the girls had a room and so did his hired man. The girls grew up, went to school. Mary had refused to accept wages from Harry having felt that she could expect no more than that he feed the four of them.
Now, like many farm women, she laid the breakfast table at night — turning upside down the big soup plates ready for oatmeal. Mary soon found that on the first of each month she would find bills under her plate. Harry would say of the money, “Oh, go buy something.” As the girls grew older their plates began to give silver, and then bills. When the girls finished high school Harry sent them to university, one into nursing. “I could afford to,” Harry said.
When the oldest daughter shared the news that she was marrying a young doctor, Harry thought the old house too shabby for a big wedding. He built a new house and the hired man moved into the old one with his family.
And so the years went on. Each daughter was married with Harry giving away the bride. Each of Mary’s grandchildren had been welcomed.
Last fall Mary’s eldest daughter and her doctor husband had come home to visit. She embraced her mother and then stood back to look at her. “Mother, what is the matter? Are you sick?” Mary was evasive. She was really just tired, she said. “You know, since the war we’ve taken on another hired man. They’re both older so it takes two to do the work of one. But it makes three men to cook for and wash for and many things are hard to get,” and on she went.
For the first time Harry looked at Mary and saw a frail, white-haired woman. He suddenly realized that he, too, was a white-haired old man. Before the week was out he went to town and returned with a “girl” to help out.
This spurred a question among the neighbours. “Does Harry need a housekeeper to help out his housekeeper now?” When this filtered back to Mary she was mortified. She announced that she better try to find a place in the little nearby town. Perhaps the girls could give her a bit of money to help out.
Harry had another idea. “Let’s get married, Mary. Frankly, after forty years, home wouldn’t be home without you.” After much discussion, Mary agreed. They had their license and here they were.
Just then, Florence’s husband Ted, the minister, arrived.
“I’ll go next door and get Claira,” Florence said. “She can act with me as one of the witnesses. Come,” she said to the children, thinking to take them across the road with her. Harry, smiling at his new friend Jimmy said “Let them stay.”
And so the wedding proceeded. When the ceremony was over, Ted announced, “You may now kiss the bride.” Harry leaned down and kissed Mary heartily. Beaming at the minister’s family gathered around he said, “That’s the first time I ever kissed her.” Mary smiled. “That’s not true,” she said. “You kissed me on the day I married Bill.” “That would only have been a peck, not a real kiss like this,” he said and kissed her again.
Florence slipped out of the room to put on coffee. On the counter were the cakes she had just wrapped for Christmas. When she carried the plate in, Mary knew exactly what she’d done and protested. But Christmas cake was now wedding cake and the children got their wish of not waiting to Christmas to taste it.
As Mary and Harry collected their coats and prepared to leave, Florence wrapped up the rest of the cake and slipped it into Mary’s hands. Mary smiled. “Now I’ll have a piece of wedding cake to share with our girls when we go into Saskatoon next week to tell them,” she said. The bill Harry pressed into Ted’s hand was enough to pay for supplies for several Christmas cakes. If they could get the sugar.