Keith Taylor's Memoir Essay: At Springhill Farm

Keith Taylor directs the Bear River Writers’ Conference and a whole lot of other things, chiefly, the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. He’s a giant among the writers of this state and beyond, offering his writerly wisdom and love of nature freely and fully.
Keith and I discovered one connection deep enough to cross national boundaries–we both grew up Mennonite, he in Canada, me in Lititz, Pa. As we were getting acquainted, he said he didn’t go to movies until. . . at which point I began laughing and blurted out . . . “The Sound of Music!!” We high-fived each other and didn’t need to say another word. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls this kind of cultural communication “thick description.”
Keith was kind enough to visit this blog and then to send me the essay below, along with permission to post it. You can access the same essay at the original publication site on Keith’s website here. Notice how he uses structures his memories and employs understatement to underscore the power of his geneological discovery.
KEITH TAYLOR

 

AT SPRINGHILL FARM

 

For many years I worked at Shaman Drum Bookshop, a small independent store half a block north of the central campus of the University of Michigan. We described our market niche as “academic and scholarly books in the humanities.” Many of our customers were professors and graduate students, but the store was also supported by a large segment of Ann Arbor’s overeducated population. We prided ourselves on the obscurity of the titles we carried and were startled, even a bit disgruntled, when we found that a book we stocked had made it onto someone’s bestsellers’ list.

In addition to the usual methods of acquiring books for our shop, we were always looking for ways to find a few more titles for a little less money. Several times a year we purchased review copies sent to the academic journals that had their homes in small offices and basements scattered around the university. Usually those books were so obscure that the editors had decided no one would ever choose to review them. We were able to get them for pennies on the dollar. Periodically we’d go through the boxes of these review copies and pick out books to add to our inventory, to sell as used books, or to sell as drastically reduced books on our bargain tables, the ones that stayed outside all year long through all kinds of weather. Out there we had to put books that we didn’t mind destroying after the tables had been forgotten during tornado season or after the bindings had frozen and thawed any number of times during a Michigan winter, books we didn’t mind losing to the shoplifters strolling past.

Most of the time we didn’t sell very many of these bargain books, just a few each day. We didn’t make very much money on them, just enough, perhaps, to keep us in toilet paper and ballpoint pens. But once a year our city sponsors something it calls the Art Fair, and hundreds of thousands of people come to town looking for cultural bargains. Then we could sell anything, as long as it was priced low enough. I imagined our bargain books—about farming practices in twelfth-century Syria or listing the Latin names for the insects of Missouri—drifting off to decorate the bookshelves of Midwestern villages and suburbs, gathering the particular kind of dust that collects only on books, until someone, probably an heir, put them out for a yard sale twenty or thirty years later, wondering why Dad or Mom ever bought such dull things.

In July, 1996, a couple of days before the beginning of the Art Fair, my friend Karl Pohrt, who owns the book shop, was going through the boxes of books with me so that we could find the ones we wanted to sell out on the street. Karl finds it difficult to admit that he may have purchased, however cheaply, a book about a subject so arcane that absolutely no one on earth would ever read it willingly. In this one case, I was usually the hard-nosed one, insisting that if we put the book out for three or four dollars, we might have a chance of selling it. If we kept it on the shelf inside, it might stay there for fifteen years, clogging up precious space that could be used by something just a bit more profitable. It was an argument we had for several years. Karl was right often enough to make me question my judgment.

But on that July day, Karl, usually so generous to unknown academic titles, came across a book whose specificity made even him laugh out loud.

“Here,” he said. “There’s probably no one in three states who’d read this. Except you, maybe.”

He handed me the book. Pioneer Policing in Southern Alberta: Deane of the Mounties, 1888-1914, edited by William M. Baker, Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge, andpublished by the Historical Society of Alberta in 1993. The book was a series of police reports writtenby or submitted to R. Burton Deane, a superintendent of the Royal Northwest Mounted Policeduring the period when the western prairies of Canada received their first European settlers andthen became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

I thought my friend Karl might actually be wrong: not even I could be interested in this. I planned to mark it at four dollars for the Art Fair tables.

Upstairs I was building the piles of cheap books we hoped to sell outside. The weather was living up to its clichés: hot and muggy. I was sweating and uncomfortable. It’s the time of year I feel most like a foreigner in Michigan, most like someone from the provinces of western Canada. Before I priced Pioneer Policing in Southern Alberta and threw it on the pile, I thought I should look up my home town, Didsbury, in the index.

There was one reference to it, on page 177. The place name was easy to find. It was the last word on the page: “. . . we went there to Kansas 15 miles s.w. of Didsbury.” This meant nothing to me. I’d never heard of a town or region close to where I grew up that was called Kansas. And I had no context for the quote. The entry began just a couple of short paragraphs above. William Baker, the editor, had labeled it:

A True and Faithful Wife

Constable K. G. Murison, Crime Report (submitted to Deane): Suicide of Mrs. Mary Findlay of Kansas, 23 October 1907.

I thought this was an interesting coincidence. My great-grandmother, alive around then—I didn’t remember the date or condition of her death—was named Mary Finlay, without the d. But I had never heard of Kansas. And, even though there were many family stories about the pioneering generation, there was certainly no story about a suicide.

Like many Westerners I am proud of my pioneering grandparents. I know that the myths we built about their undaunted courage are at best half-truths, but I also know that there is still some truth in them. The stories of their survival and success are the stories that have been preserved. After all, I am here, living a bookish life none of my grandparents could have imagined. My cousins and second cousins, my aunts and uncles—business owners, plumbers, politicians, police officers, engineers, teachers, preachers, even a few farmers—are still in Alberta, prospering, for the most part, although we have our share of the usual woes.

But I kept reading the police report despite my lack of personal connection to it. A suicide, after all, is usually intriguing.

On the 14th inst I was notified that a Mrs. Findlay had been found in the yard of her house. I notified Dr. Little & then we went there to Kansas 15 miles s.w. of Didsbury.

Constable Murison would almost certainly have gone on horseback. Dr. Little may have ridden in a buggy, although the roads out there in 1907 would have been nothing but mud paths. The weather had probably turned cold already, although I doubt that the ground would have been completely frozen yet. The wind coming down from the mountains fifty miles to the west would have been bitter.

It is easy for me to imagine that landscape. It is the one that formed my sense of how the world should be. For the first eleven years of my life I lived at the very northwest corner of the North American high plains, very close to the place where the dry grasslands intersect with the Rocky Mountains to the west and the subarctic forest to the north. That slightly rolling, sparsely forested land, often intersected by small creeks and the coulees they carve, with a band of mountains, perpetually snow covered, rising to the west, has a rich black soil that people of my grandparents’ generation had discovered could grow a type of hardy wheat in vast quantities. Range cattle grew fat there, despite the weather. Beneath that land was one of the world’s largest supplies of fossil fuels, although most of my family sold off their farms before oil was discovered.

Since Alberta was settled so recently, mostly after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the stories of European immigration to Canada and the struggles of homesteading in the West have always seemed much closer to my life than the comparatively older stories I hear about the American West. Although not possessed by the bug of genealogical research, I have ended up with a fair number of documents and photographs, primarily because I expressed more interest in these old stories than most of the relatives of my generation.

I have a photograph of the Finlay family taken in a studio called Abernethy, at 29 High Street in Belfast around 1897, several years before they emigrated. They are all cleanly scrubbed and are wearing clothes they would have worn only to church. Even their shoes are clean. The younger children had not yet been born, and Great-Aunt Mary—who had her mother’s name just as the firstborn son, William, carried the father’s—was still alive, probably about eighteen in the photo. Over the years I had looked at her more than anyone else, trying to imagine her death from tuberculosis just a couple of years later. She looks wide-eyed in the picture, a bit stunned, but she is beautiful. She is the only one smiling. She resembles the pictures of my mother when my mother was young. There is something in her and in the other children pictured—Aunts Sadie (whose given name was Sarah) and Lizzie; Uncles Will, Charles, and James; my grandfather, John, as an eight year old—that resembles my own child. Some of their characteristics are immediately recognizable: the jaw line, the shape of the eyebrows, the way the lips are pushed together seriously.

click to enlarge image
click to enlarge image
Finlay Family, Belfast, Ireland, circa 1897

Great-grandmother Mary is holding a baby, Charles, and is wearing a long black dress. Her hair is pulled back severely, making her look angry. Because of her straight-backed unsmiling presence, I had called her the Wicked Witch of the West.

Great-grandfather William dominates the photograph, squinting into the camera, his big beard looking uncombed and a bit wild, his large, obviously calloused, right hand resting dangerously on the armrest of the photographer’s chair. All of our stories indicated that the family was poor, but in this photograph they look quite prosperous.

I turned the page of Pioneer Policing and started down 178:

Mr. William Findlay said as follows:

William is a common enough name, and I thought there could have been several Williams in 1907 out in that rural district, even though the population density then was something less than one person per square mile. And my great-grandfather’s place in the world was a common place. His family’s story was like most of the homesteaders’ stories.

The Finlays were the last of my ancestors to arrive in Alberta. After a series of bad debts overwhelmed their small vegetable farm in northern Ireland, they immigrated to Canada in 1904. Even that late they were still able to get 160 acres simply by building a home on it and clearing one field within three years. Like many of the English and Irish immigrants, filled with hope but also carrying their memories of the pastoral landscapes of the old world, they named their farm. Because they built their house close to a natural spring on the side of a slight rise falling off to the east, they called their place Springhill Farm. Perhaps the name disappeared when they sold the farm. More likely it disappeared during the Depression, when the mortgage officers remembered debts simply by the names of the farms. The beleaguered farmers dropped the names in the hope that they would be forgotten or unfindable. Some were, but the romance of the names never returned.

The Springhill Farm homestead was in an area I had always known as Westcott, a small farming center some fourteen miles west and a bit south of Didsbury. William and Mary Finlay came with nine surviving children. One child had died in infancy, and their oldest child, my Great-aunt Mary, had died of tuberculosis in Ireland several years before the family left.

Because their second son, my grandfather, John Finlay, died of a brain tumor at the age of thirty-two in 1921, four months before his only child, my mother, was born, certain stories were preserved. My grandmother created an image of her husband for my mother. She selected and described the life of the Irish immigrant farmer until she turned him into a prairie saint. She wrote a book describing his life that she gave to my mother on her thirteenth birthday, on September 5th, 1934. It is bound in leather with my mother’s name, Joyce M. Finlay, embossed in gold letters on the front. The title is Your Daddy. After my mother’s death, that book, filled with cracking photographs, poems, and the story—as my grandmother hoped it would be remembered—became part of my library.

In this book about my grandfather, the early life on the prairie is given some of its harshness. My grandmother quickly describes how the first house the family built had burned down during their first winter on the prairie. The family lost three hundred dollars, all of their savings, and everything they owned but a couple of books. Those old primers from northern Irish schools, charred and water-stained, have been a part of my library for many years. I’ve read with pleasure Aunt Margery’s Maxims, published by Hodder and Stoughton at 27, Paternoster Row, London, in 1897. The bookplate on the inside cover, from the Rosetta National School, reads:

Presented to Master John Finlay for very superior Answering in the Third Class at the Annual Results Examination, June 1898.

Issac Harvey, Principal

The book’s cover and the edges of the pages are blackened by the fire that destroyed everything else. When I hold that book, I can quite literally smell the fire in that isolated prairie farmhouse during the fall of 1904.

Although there are hints of trouble in my grandmother’s book, I had never seen them. I was glad to own it, but I was overwhelmed by the tedium of her attempt to accent the rosy endurance of this immigrant family she had married into. My grandmother’s truth was the one that forgot or erased pain and remembered only joy. She begins her description of the family in Ireland, around a fireside in what most of us would now consider a crofter’s shack: “Blessed and interesting is that fireside with its detail of home life into which has been carefully woven care, discipline, schooling and religious training of a family of rollicking boys and girls.” I found this sentimentality at best amusing and at worst boring. What is perhaps more unusual is that, like my mother before me, I believed it.

If we had wanted to know information that presented a different side of the family life, we wouldn’t have had to look very far. We owned another photograph of the Finlay family, this one taken in Alberta in 1905 or 1906. We seldom looked at it. Like the earlier one, it’s a posed and planned family photo, but this time it is not a studio portrait. Here the family sits outside, with a white clapboard wall behind them. The siding matches the siding of the tiny Baptist Church a couple of miles from the farm that is also preserved in a photograph. Unlike the Irish photo, there is no record of the photographer, but it seems likely that an itinerant photographer passed through on a Sunday morning. The picture taking would have been an event, and all the members of the family, this time including the three youngest girls, are obviously dressed in what passed for their finery.

click to enlarge image
click to enlarge image
Finlay family, Wescott, Alberta, Canada, circa 1905

But the look and feel of this later picture is entirely different. Not only do they all look weathered, the way we would expect them to look after working in the wind and under the prairie sun for months on end, but they look leaner. Hungry. William, so daunting in the photo eight or nine years earlier, now looks tired, scruffy, and perhaps a little crazy. He is a man much diminished from the earlier picture. Mary too has changed. Even though she is smiling, her face is sagging. Haggard. Her eyes seem manic and a little frightening. Only the older sons, including my grandfather, and the two oldest daughters look slightly comfortable. The family in this photograph is unmistakably poor. And the picture is unsettling.

In his report Constable Murison puts the statement of Mr. William Findlay in quotation marks. Although he makes the farmer sound a bit like a provincial bureaucrat, I began to imagine the voice, reserved and thick with brogue:

Mary Findlay, deceased, is my wife. She is 45 years old & Irish. We have been in this country three years. My wife never spoke to me with regard to taking her life, but she was terribly worried about the hard luck we have had in this country. We have been burned out, hailed out, & frozen out during our 3 years’ residence here.

Like most farming families we had heard the stories about crop failure. The burned books, the only things to survive the fire, were now comfortably preserved in a closet in my Ann Arbor home. I was becoming less convinced about the idea of coincidence.

I last saw deceased on the night of the 13th when I went to bed. She had been sleeping with the children for the last two weeks so I did not know whether she was in bed or not. I woke up about 2 a.m. & saw a light burning in the kitchen & I called to my wife to put it out but there was no answer, so I got up & looked around but could not see her.

I wondered what the light was. A kerosene lamp? A candle? Homemade or store-bought? And I was impressed by the syntax of that last sentence, everything running together in a kind of desperate hurry, the syntax of grief and, maybe, just maybe, the syntax of self-justification.

In the police report he continues speaking:

After a while I went & called my neighbour Mr. Alex Robertson & we looked together but without result. Next morning we found her dead lying just where you see her now.

At this point I no longer had many doubts. Alex Robertson was a name I knew. The chances of coincidence had disappeared. Alex and his son were family friends, and my family had kept in touch with them well into my own childhood. I think I was even taken to their farm when I was very young.

Constable Murison now quotes Alex Robertson:

I came over to Mr. Findlay’s about 3 o’clock a.m. on the morning of the 14th inst. & helped look for Mrs. Findlay but could not find her. We found her where you see her now. No one has touched her since.

Now the questions started, the ones that could never be answered except in imagination. Who would have ridden the mile or so over to the Robertson farm? John, my grandfather? He would have been eighteen then. He would certainly have been helping his father. Did they find Mary’s body when the sun came up? Was it a shadow in the grass that slowly became ominous as the light lifted? Did they cover her body? The younger children were very young, and wouldn’t my grandfather have tried to protect them?

Constable Murison, the Mountie, continues in his own words:

We found her body lying about 2 yds from the water closet & in the closet I found a bottle of carbonic acid nearly empty.

My father, born in 1920 and an Alberta farm boy until he was released from essential duty at the end of World War II, remembers the carbolic acid they used to doctor the animals. They would dilute it heavily, just a splash or two in a pail of water. It still stung his hands when he patted it on saddle sores or the scratches along the legs of horses. They used it on the stumps left after they clipped the cattle’s horns.

I also found a letter in deceased room bidding her children good-bye which I enclose.

Here, just given the layout of prose on the page, I knew what I would soon read. But I didn’t jump ahead. I had to read everything.

Dr. Little performed a post mortem & found that she had been poisoned by carbonic acid & stated that as deceased had stated in her letter, bid good-bye, & also that she would never be seen alive again, there was no doubt that she died by her own hand & therefore no inquest would be necessary.

The body was handed over to her husband. Deceased leaves 9 children, 4 of whom are under 12 years old . . .

I stopped for a moment at the ellipsis at the end of the report. Was it part of the original or had something been cut by the editor? Was it the kind of information—names, perhaps—that would be of interest only to the family? One sentence followed.

The following is a copy of the letter referred to in above report:

I wasn’t sure if this was a direction from the editor or if it had been written by the constable. It seemed to me by then that both of them had a sense of the dramatic that I could trust. I knew I was about to read my great-grandmother’s suicide note, and that no one in the family had known about it for two generations. I read it in one rush.

Sunday night, Oct. 13th, 1907

My dear dear children.

This is likely the last words you will hear of me or from me. I have not much to say only that my life has been blighted with trouble and disappointment. I have been a true and faithful wife. Your father told me this morning to leave the place because I will not sleep with him. I love my children. God only knows how I love you all. I don’t want any more children, but my heart yearns for each of your prosperity and eternal salvation. You all know that your sister Mary has gone to Heaven and [I] want you each one [to] meet her there. Jesus Christ is the way to God. I know I will lose my reward but I know in whom I have believed. If you ever get married study the matter well and never be advised by anyone unless you love the person. To you Sarah & Lizzie, Willie & John I leave to have a mother’s care for the younger children. May God bless & provide for them & you all is the prayer of your own mother. Good bye till we meet again.

Although I immediately told Karl and some of my coworkers in the book shop what I had found in this book we had all been willing to chuckle about a few minutes earlier, part of me still couldn’t believe the story. I thought that something of this must have survived in the family history. Although I know enough about them to understand why they chose to hide this story, I couldn’t believe the people in my grandparents’ generation could be so successful at it. I went home to look in the book my grandmother had written for my mother. In the first chapter I found these sentences, so unremarkable in their sweetness that I had never noticed them before:

This refined and beautiful Mother gave herself to her family most untiringly. After many heartaches and losses by fire, and the hardships of pioneering in a new land, she died on October 13, 1907. This sweet, brown-eyed, rose-tinted Mother just wore out.

Three weeks before I found Professor Baker’s book, I had been back to Alberta for the funeral of a paternal uncle. I had driven by the Westcott road. It heads off toward the mountains from old Highway 2 about fifty miles north of Calgary. It moves up one of the slowly rolling rises in the land, then disappears over the crest. I thought of my Irish ancestors struggling at their Springhill Farm a few miles down that road. I thought how odd it was that no one but me and perhaps one or two of my mother’s cousins had thought of that place name for half a century or more. I didn’t take the diversion to see the old place. I wasn’t sure I could find it.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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