It Takes Strength to Tend House and Home Alone

The author looks back at strong women who took pride in tending their home on their own.

| June/July 1995

Throughout my childhood, summer and Nanny's log house on the hill above the waters of Shuswap Lake were synonymous. The dwelling, which was built by my grandparents in 1930, was painted canary yellow on the outside with plaster between the logs. It was half-surrounded by a roofed-in Virginia creeper woven porch. Alternately perched and sprawled there, on boards routinely swept with a wet broom by Nanny, I found one of my favorite places on Earth. Now and then, the dancing of leaf shadow on the pages of Robinson Crusoe or What Kady Did would be enough to send me into a trance, broken only by my twin sister's foot tapping. As a child Donna hated to read, but what we shared in the cool, roomy house was a haven.

At Nanny's I also entered the dichotomy, of a farm ceasing to function while the land remains in all its glory. Since Nanny's husband Papa Bert died, the barn stood empty and the root cellar had begun to collapse. Despite the decay, bumblebees swam their slow wake through a world of emerald grass, clover, and plantain while the aroma of cottonwood buds, cherry blossoms, and fresh-turned earth drifted across the yard.

Nanny did her best to endow me with domestic smarts, but I was happiest romping with my sister through the field toward the unpruned orchard where robins and warblers sang. Before long a plaintive call of, "Come, girls, where are you?" would waft across from the porch. While Nanny's outside voice was frail and distinctly feminine, inside she was capable of a good, solid bellow if necessary. So we'd scamper back.

In those days Nanny seemed tall, elegant, and capable. Her silver hair hung in clouds beside her full, worry-laden checks. Nanny had beautiful hands and a light touch at the piano where she played songs, like Mendelssohn's "Woodland Echoes." The deafness that had afflicted her since the age of 30 played havoc with her sense of tone. A cord traveled in tributaries to her ears from a small gold box nestled in her bosom. It squealed horrendously, and she would yank it out and spin it in frantic attempts to tune in the world.

Nanny's love manifested itself in work. Even her barking was an expression of love for us, the wayward pups. With sound heels she would march across the hardwood expanse, broom in hand, armed against any insurgence of dust kittens.

If Nanny wasn't latching the handle onto a freshly heated flatiron, ready to dash it across the surface of every scrap of laundry right down to the underwear and dish rags, then she was at the baking table. She stood in her pink house dress kneading bread, beating cake, and rolling out what Nanny, her son Don, and a boarder in the 1930s. amounted through the years to thousands of pies.

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