Margaret Holmes - Author/Artist
©Provost News Photo/Column © by Margaret Holmes
“Going For the Beef”
The summer I was eight years old I was allowed to go with Fred to bring the beef home from the beef ring. Previous summers, Catherine had gone, with Fred to help, but suddenly she had become disdainful of being seen in the buggy with her little brother. She was "helping mother" now on Saturdays and holidays, learning to clean and cook, and to take her place as a young woman, and she's a wonderful help, mother said, since Jean's gone to help Mrs. Wright.

Fred was torn between pleasure at being in charge of the expedition and annoyance of having to take me with him. He felt I was generally useless and dull, and had resented me ever since mother had brought me home, cocooned in shawls, from the hospital. His favored place, as the youngest, was usurped, and he had suggested to mother, more than once, that I should be returned.

Catherine and he had endless interesting games in the sand pit and under the trees. When I tagged after them I was unwanted and a nuisance, and when Catherine went to school, Fred was desolate "Margaret's no good to play with," he complained to mother. "She just breaks all my good stuff."

I had a certain value, now that we were older. I could be sent to the house to pilfer cookies from the pantry, or tea, which Fred was trying, wrapped in paper, to smoke. Sometimes it was towels I was sent for, if we'd waded out too far in the slough and gotten wet. If I demurred and said I was afraid I'd get caught, he had a ready answer. "She won't get mad at you—you're her pet!"

But today I was to go to Hayter with him, and I happily helped harness Lorna and backed her into the shafts. She was a quiet old mare, retired from farm work and completely safe. She'd carried a generation of children to school and allowed endless liberties. Sometimes three children rode her broad back, crawled under her stomach or slid off her rump as if she were a living slide. She never shied, like nervous Kate did, and mother could send us off, sure that old Lorna would bring us home again.

Fred did up the tugs, and I got the bit unsnapped to put in her mouth. I wished we didn't have to use the bit, a cold hard thing. I tried it between my teeth and thought how I'd hate it. Her nose was soft and velvety and I rubbed my cheek against it and pushed the bit in and snapped it back onto the halter. Then the nose bag went on, to keep the flies away. I pulled her head down and pushed the strings behind her ears.

We climbed into the high leather seat, Fred gathered up the reins and said, "Get up," and we started off, slowly at first, but when we'd passed the kitchen windows, Fred said, "Let's have some speed here," and slapped the lines. Lorna obliged, with a limping trot. She had a lame knee on her foreleg and couldn't run fast anymore.

"Gee, I wish we had a good horse," Fred muttered and I said, "Lorna's a good horse, she's the best horse around."

"Kate's better," Fred said, "We'd make some dust if we had Kate."

It was a beautiful morning. Meadowlarks sang from the fence posts and the sun was warm on our backs. Lorna's hooves made little dusty puffs, and left nice sharp marks on the soft dirt road, and the wheels spun merrily.

Fred propped his feet on the dashboard and wrapped the reins around his wrist, holding them in one hand, like father did. We were both wearing shoes, because of going to town. We'd have preferred bare feet but mother said shoes were to be worn in town. Fred's were laced up and mine had T-straps.

I wanted to eat the cookies we'd brought, but Fred said we had to wait 'till Cookson's. That would be half way and we could get a drink of water from their pump. I fancied I was hungry long before we saw their little house. Fred drove rather grandly up to the door, making it look like he was controlling a spirited horse.

Alfie came running from the barn and we climbed down and tied Lorna to the fence.

"Hey, Fred. Wanna drown out gophers? There's lots of 'em down in the pasture. I was just gonna take the dog down and catch some."

"Naw, I can't. Gotta go to the beef ring for the meat," and I called, "And maw said we wasn't to dawdle!"

The boys walked to the pump and started pumping, holding their hands over the spout and with faces down against it letting a little stream of water into their mouths. They laughed and wiped their faces but I said I'd get a drink inside. They'd splash me and wet my dress—Alfie liked to play tricks and make other boys laugh. Mrs. Cookson was waving from the step.

"Come in, come in, children. Have you come to spend the day?"

"We're going for the meat," I said importantly, "But I'd really like to have a drink please."

The kitchen was so crowded I stood awkwardly wondering where I should go. An upright piano was on one wall, and a heavy sideboard against another with a brown leather sofa beside it. There were shelves with books and ornaments and large vases. Heavy gilt framed pictures of misty scenes were on the wall, and a huge black cook stove was in one corner. A square table almost filled the center with barely enough room to squeeze by. Everything was clean and neat, but a strange sharp smell was coming from a pot on the stove, and the air was warm and close.

I drank the water eagerly even though it didn't taste like ours at home and handed the glass back. (A glass. We just used the enamel dipper.) There were strange squeaking noises coming from behind the door. Mrs. Cookson laughed at my alarm.

"It's just Mr. Cookson, he's working on his radio."

In the daytime. On a nice summer day. My dad was never in the house in the middle of the day, except for dinner, and even if it rained, he'd be out in the shed fixing something.

"Isn't the radio a wonderful thing? Last night, Mr. Cookson was listening to Oklahoma!"

I said I liked Tarzan the best.

"Oh, but this is short wave. Mr. Cookson can listen all over the world."

Why would he want to do that I wondered. The world that mattered ended with Goodlands in the north, and Hayter on the south. Beyond that I couldn't see what there'd be of much interest. Well — maybe the lake in the summer.

Mr. Cookson was explaining something. He turned knobs and piercing squeals went up and down. "Got to work on that heterodyne," he said, but I didn't know what he meant. He had a speech impediment and combined with his accent made his speech hard to understand. I watched with interest the little bits of foam that gathered in the corners of his mouth.
"We better go," I said, but Mrs. Cookson said, "O, let the boys play for a little. They're playing catch, and Alfie's so lonesome, now, since his little brother's gone."

She broke off and reached a book down from one of the shelves. "Your mother must read this book. It's changing our lives. We are eating for health, now, following Dr. Harris' rules, such a clever man," and she showed the picture on the cover of a bearded, stern looking gentleman.

"Alfalfa and sunflower seeds and dandelion root, and prunes and senna leaves. All sorts of healthful things. If only I'd known this before, little Earl would still be with us. He was full of toxins, you know, from meat and acids." Her lips trembled, "Well, he's an angel now, I know that. He's in heaven, I know. He never did anything bad so he's gone to be a little angel." She was wiping tears from her eyes and I edged toward the door, "I'm making a lovely tea on the stove, there, from Dr. Harris' book. You cook stems and strain the broth —do you have to go? I'll give you some health bread, you eat it. It will cleanse your blood, and you shouldn't eat flesh, tell your mother."

I was out the door and calling to Fred, but she followed, pressing the pieces of bread into my hands. "One for you, and one for Freddie, now you come again, and spend the day, and tell your mother."

She waved at the path where painted stones marked a pathetic patch of half dead flowers. "See my garden, it's going to be beautiful. Just wait till the roses bloom. We had such flowers in Boston, lovely flowers. I want this to be just like Boston." She was wringing her hands, her face pink and agitated. Her husband put his arm around her shoulder, "Come now, Nina," he said, "Come on in."

When we were back on the road I unwrapped the bread and handed one of the slices to Fred. He looked at it dubiously. Brown and heavy, it had odd flecks of color and dark spots.

"It's got squashed bugs in it," he said.

"They're not, they're raisins."

"They look like squashed bugs to me, and there's green stuff. I'm not gonna eat bread with green stuff in it." He broke the slice in two and standing up threw the pieces at a telephone pole. "Bingo," he said, when they hit and fell.

I picked the raisins out of my slice and dropped them over the wheel onto the road. I knew they were raisins, but somehow I didn't feel like eating raisins just now. I ate the rest. It tasted good, not like mother's bread, but good.

"Mrs. Cookson says it'll clean our blood."

"My blood's not dirty," Fred said, "I don't need it cleaned."

I decided to look carefully the next time I had a cut to see if there was dirt in mine.

"She says Earl had toxins, what's toxins?"

"He had a belly ache, that's what he had. Alfie told me. And they cut him open, and he died."

"Why'd they cut him open?"

This was scary stuff. I had bellyaches sometimes, especially when maw said I had to take cascara. Sometimes when I went to the backhouse I got looking at the catalogue and didn't do anything, and maw made a fuss about open bowels. I thought bowels were mostly a nuisance and a waste of time, when I could be doing something interesting. I didn't know people would cut you open.

"That's what they do in hospitals," Fred said, "Earl was in the hospital."

"Well, I'm never going there! But anyway, he's an angel now. I think being an angel would be fun. They've got big white wings and they wear long nightgowns and bare feet and they can fly anyplace. I'd fly to the top of the elevators and look over the whole town. See what everybody's doing. You could see everything from the top of the elevators."

"Gee, you're so dumb, Margaret. Angels can't just fly around anywhere they like. They've got stuff to do. They gotta do what God says."

"What do they gotta do?"

"Well, look after things, take messages, stuff like that. Some get the guardian angel jobs, and have to look after babies, when they're sleeping."

"What kind is Earl?"

"I don't know—how'd I know? You ask such silly things. Anyway, I'd rather be a ghost. Ghosts don't have to do anything but float around, and scare people."

"Those weren't real ghosts that scared us. They were just big boys with sheets on, maw said. There's no real ghosts."

"Oh, yes there is—maw just didn't tell you because you're a scaredy-cat. There's lottsa real ghosts in the graveyard."

"How do they get out, from the graves, through all that dirt?"

"They're spirits, they're not bodies. Oh, it's no use talking to you. You don't know anything."

I didn't take offense. I knew everyone in the family was older and smarter than I was. Bored with the conversation, I asked, "Can I drive?"

"O.K. for a while, but not when we get to Hayter - and don't pull on the lines like that, you'll have us in the ditch."

I sat up straight and held the lines snug and watched Lorna's brown rump jogging up and down. She lifted her tail and dropped soft brown turds on the singletree. How could she do that? While she's trotting along? I closed my eyes and tried to imagine running and doing that. It wouldn't work. I'd never be able to do it. Horses were wonderful. I wished I was a horse. I'd be a coal black mustang with a flowing mane and a white star in my forehead. I'd gallop faster than any other horse, and no one would ever be able to catch me. I'd snort and stamp my feet.

I snorted and shook my head and Fred said, "What’s the matter with you?"

We could see Hayter elevators now. We were proud to have seven elevators. That's how you could tell it was a good town, some towns only had two or three. We both had a nickel tied in a handkerchief in our pockets and we were to use it for a treat at the store. But first we had to go to the slaughter house for the meat. It was a squat red building, alone in a fenced yard outside the town. I fancied it had an evil look, bad things happened here, animals were killed. I didn't want to go in. "I'll hold the horse," I said, and Fred making a show of braveness opened the door and went in. He was soon out again.

"Leave Lorna," he said, "She'll stand, and help me carry the bag and bring the clean one from the buggy."

Little prickles of fear ran down my back as I followed Fred into the ugly building. There were shelves along the walls, with the names designating where their share of the meat was stored. Some shelves were already empty, but others held bags of lumpy shapes sagging and seeping spots of blood. The floor was gray cement and sloped toward a drain in the centre. "That's for the blood to run into," Fred said and I shivered. He'd pulled our sack of meat off the shelf but wanted help to put it into the buggy. I put the clean flour sack on our shelf for next week’s meat, and together we lugged the awkward thing out and heaved it in the back of the buggy, pushing it under the seat, out of the sun.

"Let's get away from here," I pleaded, and Fred said, "It doesn't bother me," but I think he was lying.

In to Hayter at last, we rolled past the two schools and the community hall, turned the corner at the garage and went past the lumber yard, Lewises' machine shed, and the post office (another Lewis) and the blacksmith shop, and tied Lorna to the hitching rail in front of Sturdy's store.

This was more like it —this was exciting—lots of candy in big glass jars and licorice and chocolate bars, cookies with marshmallows and pink icing, peanuts—I went from one to the other, looking, trying to choose, first deciding on one and then another. Mr. Sturdy looked at us sourly. He had a mouth that turned down at the corners. He didn't smile.

"What are you going to get," I asked Fred, and he said, "I'll have a small pack of Sweet Caps, Mr. Sturdy."

"Who are they for?" Mr. Sturdy asked suspiciously.

Fred said, "My dad."

"Your dad smokes a pipe."

"Sometimes he likes a change."

"How old are you?"

"Fourteen," Fred said, and I had my mouth open to say he wasn't, he was twelve, when Fred pinched me and gave me a fierce frown.

Mr. Sturdy gave a sour wintry look at Fred as he handed him the little pack. There were five cigarettes in it. "I hope it doesn't make your dad sick," he said.

I picked four different candies and one licorice plug. It looked like chewing tobacco and had a shiny red heart on the front. I broke it in two and gave one half to Fred but I kept the piece with the heart for myself.

I expected to get a puff off Fred's smoke when we got out of town and he could light it, but he said I was too young, and there would be dire consequences if I told at home that he'd used his nickel for cigarettes. I didn't know what consequences were but they didn't sound like anything I'd want. He'd keep the licorice for after, he said, to take the smell off his breath.

Going home wasn't much fun once the candies were all gone. Fred put away his cigarette half smoked and said he wanted to make it last. He and Art Nelson would probably smoke some when Art came over, it was sure a lot better than the tea, he said.

I was half asleep when we drove into the yard at home and tired of sitting, hungry again and thirsty from the sweet, cheap candy. Catherine and mother came out to get the meat and I trailed them into the house. I'd lost interest in helping put Lorna away and undoing her harness.

The back kitchen was fiercely hot. Saturday was the day a lot of baking was done. The meat was carried into the cooler kitchen beyond. The cook stove, each spring, was moved, with many complaints, by our father, into the back kitchen, so the rest of the house could be kept more comfortable during the hot days of summer. The cooking, canning, heating of water for washing clothes, all took place in the steaming little back room, while the other rooms, with blinds pulled and doors closed, stayed cool.

A large dish pan was brought to wash the meat. "Heaven knows what's on it, maybe fly blows. Bring the vinegar." Mother peeled the bag from around the pieces of beef. "O dear, another shank! And look at the size of it... That's no two year old beast. More like an old cow — and this roast is half gristle!"

Father came in to the house on an errand, and mother demanded he look at this meat!

"Well, you know maw, we have to get the bad bits too, same as if it was our own beef."

"That's not much like the beef we put in—that steak's going to be like eating shoe leather."

"O, you always make it taste good, maw." Mother was pleased at that, but not yet willing to let the matter go.

"If you don't talk to that man, I will. We've had more than our share of poor cuts. And how can I cook that roast tomorrow, with company coming? I'll just have to can it with the rest, for stew."

The big boiler was already on the stove heating water for the jars of meat to be canned. Usually we had fried steak for supper on beef ring day, the roast would be kept cool in the big crock in the cellar, and roasted the next day, while whatever else was allotted was canned for later use. In the winter it tasted good, with fat white dumplings floating in the gravy.

Dad said he guessed he could kill a couple of chickens for tomorrow, and went out. Mother sharpened her knife on the rim of a crock and started cutting the meat into thin strips. Catherine packed it tightly into jars.

There was a row of big brown loaves of bread standing cooling in the pantry. "Can we have a piece, Fred and I? We're hungry."
"Didn't you eat your candy?"

Fred said quickly, "Yes, and we stopped at the Cookson's, too." He wanted to distract her from too close an investigation of what we'd bought."

"And Mrs. Cookson says we shouldn't be eating flesh—what's flesh?" I added.

"O, poor Nina," mother said, "How is she?"

"She wants you to read a book about what to eat and she was kind of crying."

"I must go and see her. I'll just have to make some time to go and visit with her, poor woman. Yes, take a piece and then out with you. We're busy here."

We cut great slices of the warm bread, coated them with butter and sprinkled brown sugar on top, pressing it into the butter so it would stay on, and went out to sit in the shade of the house.

Fred said next time maybe we'd go by Pickles. Mrs. Pickle had made them lemonade last year.

Note: Beef rings were co-operative groups that provided fresh meat in the summer to the members, each week, in an era before refrigeration was available to farmers or small town dwellers. Each member would supply a steer or heifer, not more than two years old, and weighing a specified amount. A butcher was hired, and the meat apportioned so each member by the end of the summer had received the equivalent of the donated animal.
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