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Text Messages from 1900

The Smith farm has endless cubby holes and storage spaces. Marjory and Raleigh’s house from town was moved to the farm when they passed away. Demolished now, I played in its upstairs as a small child. I discovered Marjory’s china dishes there, still in a cupboard, plain navy blue with gold trim. Many years later, when I was to be married, I asked for those dishes. Now they lay in my china cabinet, as they once lay in hers.

There are many hideaways: the other old house, now a storage shed; the big red barn, rumoured to house rats; the log cabin in the garden.

The log cabin was built in the ‘50s to showcase family antiques, including things brought from Northern Ireland in the 1870s. A stove, several curio cupboards, and a beautiful Victorian settee used to be covered with items of interest, many collected over a century of farm life. A gramophone, a stuffed baby alligator, a stereoscope with photographs of places long since lost to time, pots and pans, sleds and skates, pipes and paperwork. Bit by bit, Grandma Barbara has dispersed these antiques to more secure locations. The log cabin is no longer filled as it was when I was a child. Sinking slightly on its foundation, the log cabin lies to the south of the old house. It was built traditionally with chinked logs, cedar shakes on its roof which are now covered in moss.

On a visit home last summer, I unlocked the deadbolt, then pushed open the door, ducking under the low threshold. Inside, the open rafters gave plenty of headspace. Two, lace-covered windows let in a little light and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that the log cabin was mostly empty. The heavy woodstove, of course, would likely remain in place forever. Rusted cast-iron pots, not of much use or value, rested on the stove as if waiting for time to roll away so they might be used again. There was very little else.

Beside the stove lay an old, wooden trunk, dragged into the middle of the room, as if someone meant to deal with it but ran out of time and energy. Its wood had weathered to a dull gray. Its mechanisms—straps and hinges—were stiff and cracked.

I sat on the concrete floor beside the trunk and pried its lid open, leaning it against the stove for support lest the lid’s weight pulls the hinges free. A glance showed that the truck was filled with books, paperwork and albums. At the top lay a black garage bag filled with newspapers. I flipped them over hoping for an exciting cover like the Winnipeg Free Press announcing the end of World War II or the local newspaper celebrating Marjory’s career in a retirement notice. But no. Instead, I found a Winnipeg Free Press from July 30, 1981. Charles and Diana kissed from a balcony. A second paper, the Winnipeg Sun, featured the same story, howbeit with a different picture—the happy couple marching out of St. Paul’s.

I sighed. Of all the things to save, the newspapers the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding have to be the most useless. It was probably the most documented event from the last century, just behind D-Day. There’s no end of memorabilia from that ill-fated royal union, filling the shelves of used bookstores all over the world.

Under the newspapers lay more interesting items. I found old school textbooks, monochromatic volumes, slim and easy to fit in one hand. I opened the cover of “The Teaching of Mathematics” by J. W. A. Young and was rewarded with “Marjory Thompson” written prettily on the flyleaf. There were notebooks. A slim volume titled “Marjory Thompson, Spring Session, 1917 Normal School Winnipeg. Sewing Models” had little slips of fabric, hand-sewn with mostly even stitches. A cardboard folio opened to a photograph of a schoolteacher with her nine pupils in front of a one-room schoolhouse. The photo was overexposed though so the faces were lost to time.

Below the stack of textbooks, at the bottom of the trunk, lay a large book. A bouquet of irises grew over its front cover, embossed and foiled. Each page had tiny slits cut for holding postcards vertically or horizontally, according to the card. Sketches of flowers, early photographs of towns and scenes across Canada, cartoons, and funny sayings—the postcards were pretty displayed, organized mostly by date.

Like a hundred-year-old text message with a colourful design, Marjory’s sister Norah jauntily wrote in 1909, “How are you, Kid? Are your students any good at all?”

In 1911, a Miss Carter wrote, “The new teacher is coming a week from today. Her name is Jeannie Doffin. I do not know if that is how to spell it. I must go and preserve some blueberries as Mother says I have spent long enough writing letters.”

“Not much new. Dreadfully cold. We miss you greatly,” wrote Marjory’s mother in 1915.

One after another, postcards gave up secrets while others begged questions. Who was the John who signed his cards “with fondness?” Why did Norah thank Marjory for money but said she wasn’t telling their mother about it? Why were the parents headed to town, the fateful day that Harry froze his toe while driving the horses and had to be hospitalized for an amputation?

I was mesmerized by the postcards, lost in Marjory’s world of the early 1900s. Their language was mostly the same as ours, perhaps a little more formal, a little less familiar, but their concerns were the same. Weather. Money. Work. Communication. Someone anxious to hear from someone else. Others too busy to write. These people were the same as us. They just lived a hundred years ago. That was all.

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