Patricia Simons was a prairie Girl. From 1922 when she was born in her Aunt Mary’s house in Wawota Saskatchewan, until 2008 when she passed on in the Alpine town of Revelstoke, B.C., Mom held that vast prairie sky dear to her heart. She loved the soul-searching, body drenching heat of the summers and the chest-numbing, breath-freezing cold in the winter. She loved big open blue skies. She felt hemmed in by the mountains and the sea. Hemmed in by Dad and his mother and possibly even all five of us kids. She loved the rough and tumble wide-open for anything sense of the prairie.Pat loved to dance. Her mother, Esme Simons, and grandmother, Granny Reade, used to dress up and take Pat to the community hall dances and the barn dances and the rodeo dances. They had one pair of dancing shoes between them, a pair of high-heeled baby-Jane strapped shoes that belonged to her Granny Reade. Granny always got to hit the dance floor first and then Mrs. Simons and when the two of them were pretty much tuckered out, then one of the boys who’d been waiting in line to take the leggy, blue-eyed girl out for a whirl would step up. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” Mom never said no. No reason to. Lots of people, all family, friends, neighbours there to look out for you. If some guy got fresh, well….
Take the kid at the general store. Now his daddy owned the store, the kid was just a young un about fourteen maybe, and Pat she was maybe 12 just starting to bust out in all the physical accoutrements of a young lady. And young Louie, well, it was commonly known he went out back with the girls. The older girls always giggled about it at school but nobody Pat knew had been there so she wasn’t sure exactly what to expect except she thought it must be fun. But when they got out back, Louie started groping, and Pat drew back in alarm. “Ah whaddya want to be like that for?” Louie asked and reached for her again. Pat’s newly formed breasts were heaving and she was mad as a mud hen when a gopher goes for her nest. Pat wound up in true oldest-in-the-family fashion and busted him right in the nose. Pat was quite capable of looking after herself. And sometimes others.
Take Charlie, for instance. Charlie once helped Pat hitch up the ox to pull the sled back home from school. Charlie could be very nice if he liked you and things were going well for him that day. Which was good because all in all, Charlie was what Pat’s dad referred to as a “big lummox” which meant he was bigger than the ox, and “a brick short of a load” which meant he didn’t do so well in school. But keeping Charlie in school kept him out of trouble. Until one day Miss Pettinger called him a “Stupid oaf”. Spittle flew from her mouth when she said it and when Charlie stood up to answer her back, his little school desk came with him and the classroom exploded in laughter. Charlie yanked the desk off his body and went for Miss Pettinger who backed herself up against the blackboard waving the pointer at Charlie who snapped the pointer like a toothpick and flung it to the floor. Charlie wrapped one hand around Miss Pettinger’s throat and lifted her off the floor, squeezing so hard that Charlie’s face went white while Miss Pettinger’s slowly turned blue. The room was suddenly quieter than the old gulch road at midnight and even the biggest boys (about half Charlie’s size) hung back uncertain what to do. Miss Pettinger’s feet dangled in the air, kicking in violent little jerks, reminding Pat of a rabbit caught in a snare and suddenly she was pulling at Charlie’s sleeve. “Charlie!” she said sharply. “Charlie you know better! You put her down.” Slowly, painfully, Charlie turned his attention from Miss Pettinger to Patsy. “Charlie!” Pat repeated, hands on hips. “Put her down!” Charlie blinked at Patsy. She didn’t tease him like the other kids did. She said hello to him on the road or passing by the fields. He looked at Miss Pettinger who was turning blue and then at Pat who had the same look Charlie’s Ma got when she was about to give him what for. “Aw, alright, Patsy. If you say so.” The room breathed a sigh of relief as Miss Pettinger slid to the floor and scrabbled behind her desk.
That was Mom, fearless when others knew enough to be afraid. At the age of twelve she was sent to ‘live out’ with the Adam family. Now, Pat’s Mom was on occasion a violent woman for whatever reasons, and most often Pat being the oldest would be the target of her abuse. But in the Adam household it was the men who were violent, not teaching and caring like her Da, but all stern and preachy except for when they drank. They were not at all like Da.
So it was a wonder she fell in love with Joe, the youngest son who joined up as soon as war was declared and asked Pat to marry him before he went overseas. “You’ll be my wife. You’ll stay at home and help out while I’m away,” Joe whispered. Pat drew back in the old Ford, bumping her head in the process. “What do you mean—stay home?”
“Now, dear, it’s war time. There’s no money to buy a house, and you’ve got your room at Mom and Dad’s.”
“What’s the use of getting married if I ‘m still a live-in? And what about the little cabin being built near the poplar grove. That would suit me just fine.”
“That’s for renting out. Mom and Dad can’t afford to just turn it over to us.”
“Then we’ll have to rent it from them, won’t we?”
Joe gave in, and they were married.
Joe came back from the war, as so many men did, a changed man. He was silent and bitterly amused. Subject to frequent bouts of rage. Drank too much. Wasn’t home a whole lot. Patsy knew something was seriously amiss. But his mother, that strong, refined woman who had nursed Indian chiefs and performed a tracheotmoty on the roadside with only a reed for a windpipe, had succumbed to a nervous breakdown while Joe was overseas, and Pat had nursed her. Strange to see Mother Adam so helpless and listless. Lying abed without a sense of purpose or duty. Pat thought she’d lost her for sure, but she’d nursed and soothed and cajoled her, until Mother Adam’s mind got set to rights, and then her body with it. No, Pat wouldn’t say a word to Mother Adam in her still fragile health. Besides, wasn’t Mother just beaming with pride and joy, now her son was home? So Pat pretended everything was fine. Just fine.
Joe got assigned to Tofino, on the West Coast, and Patsy bade her beloved prairie farewell, and all her life-long friends and family, and moved to an island surrounded by raging seas. It was a rugged place, this Tofino, a scattered parcel of buildings in a muddy flat carved out of dark forests and damp earth. Rain! She’d never seen the likes of the rain. Mud and dank skies. Her first pregnancy was a fine excuse to get home to Mother Adam to birth the baby in the family home. She left when she was six months along. She came back when Robbie was six months old. The young bride bringing Joe his first born, his son.
But at the station there was no one waiting for Pat and her babe. No one. After an hour or two, when the baby started wailing, and Pat gave in to looking very worried, the station master drove her into town. Once there, Pat went upstairs to their little apartment. The door was locked. Pat Knocked. No answer. She knocked again, louder. From upstairs a woman, a silver bracelet dangling from her wrist, leaned over the railing. “He’s not in. Won’t be til past five. You’d better come back. If you give me your name and where you’re staying, I’ll tell him you were here.”
“Mrs. Joe Adam. And I’ll be staying right here.”
The woman eyed her up and down. “Well, then, I’d better give you my key.”
Pat’s forte became pretending nothing was wrong. In the brief letters home, in the quiet hours sitting with Robbie playing at her feet, knitting or crocheting, waiting for Joe’s footstep on the stairs. But it ate at her heart, the emptiness of her marriage. Finally, Pat made up her mind to move out. She couldn’t stay with Joe going upstairs all the time and he wouldn’t stop seeing the silver bracelet. So Pat moved to housing on the other side of the Island, still too near the sea for Pats’ comfort. The sea was so huge, always moving in and then away, in and then away, as if it were a vast monstrous thing deciding whether or not to devour all that lived on the land. She took her infant son and lived openly alone hoping Joe would come, hoping her removal would spur a response in him.
But as the days became weeks and weeks became months and the first year passed, Pat fell into a deep depression. Joe seldom came to visit, and Pat, far from family and friends, caught scarlet fever. Neighbours became aware of a child uncared for, a woman abed too ill to move. Ambulances came, she was transferred to the hospital. Social services took her child.
Mother Adam wrote, inquiring about Pat. Joe was evasive. Mother Adam phoned long distance. Joe sputtered out about Pat being in the hospital. “Where’s Robbie then? He’s with you, is he?”
“Well, now, there’s no-one here to look after him, Mother.”
The upshot of that phone conversation was that Mother Adam sold the farm, and moved her husband and daughter to Belmont Park, and got Robbie out of foster care. She found Pat in a reluctant state of recovery. “She should be much better than she is,” the home nurse told Mother. “No reason why not.”
Mother Adam had a pretty good idea of what was going on. This girl had been a daughter to her. She wasn’t going to let her go. As Pat had done with her years ago, Mother Adam settled down to nurse Pat back to health.
Mom was pregnant with me at the time. She survived, and gave me a sister and twin brothers, all with the same father. Dad was a trial to bear, but when she got older, when the kids were grown and she’d spent a few years running a little cafe in the Kootenays, when she’d defied Joe and gone to Hawaii with her friends, they moved from a seniors tower in Vernon to a more spacious apartment in Salmon Arm, where Joe’s sister Jean, lived with her husband. This move to better housing deeply affected Mom. She couldn’t seem to replace the friends she had made in Vernon. Stumbled over names. Couldn’t connect people with their stories. In the final years of his life, Joe devoted himself to her. Eight years older, he succumbed to a sudden heart attack, leaving Pat listless and unrooted.
“Where’s Joe?” she’d ask. They had been married sixty- one years but she repeatedly asked, “Did he divorce me?” Eventually, Alzheimers, like the raging coastal seas, swept away all that Mom had known and most of what she’d been.
When her body finally failed and her spirit was released, I like to think Dad was waiting for her in that big open blue sky. Her Joe, once again the young man deeply in love with the long-legged, blue-eyed prairie girl.