Margaret Holmes - Author/Artist
©Provost News Photo/Column © by Margaret Holmes
Getting Cultured at Chautauqua
It was plain to see Aunt Lou was bragging about the Chautauqua, the way Momma was answering on the phone. “Really,” she was saying. “It must have been entertaining.” in that funny voice she uses when she’s annoyed and trying not to show it. A long pause, then “Yes, I’m sure the children would find that educational” and “I wonder how you can get the time to go.” (This was a dig about Aunt Lou’s housekeeping not coming up to Momma’s standards.) and “My, my!” and so on.

When Momma finally put the receiver down, hard, on the hook, she said, “They have been to the Chautauqua every night and some afternoons! It just makes me furious. And I almost begged your father to take us to hear that famous Mrs. Edwards singing. I’d like you children to hear some good music and there’s Lou telling me about the songs she’s sang and her gown and her jewels and going on about all the stylish people that were there. We can’t afford to go. Oh no! But they can and they’ve not yet paid for the cow your father gave them. Bert coming here, whining about there being no milk for the children.”

Momma clashed the dishes getting them off the table and I didn’t know who she was madder at. Dad for not taking us or Aunt Lou for getting taken.

Dad had said he wasn’t putting out good money for a lot of la-de-da stuff. Play acting and screeching sopranos didn’t appeal to him, he said, with him not knowing if the crop would get off this year and them down-easterners bleeding all the western farmers dry. He’d been a down-easterner himself but you’d never know it now to hear him talk.

When he’d settled on his homestead land the CPR survey was laid out only a couple of miles away and he thought he’d struck it lucky. There would be a town close by with elevators to take the grain and easy shopping. But the CPR, the crooks, had changed it and run the line six miles away, only half a mile from his brother Bert’s place. And now Bert’s young ones went to town school and looked down their noses at the one room school his kids went to. He blamed the whole thing on those bloodsuckers on Bay Street. It was all graft and politics, that’s what it was.

Momma tried to keep him off talking about it, if she could, but she took a chance again at supper time.

“I’d just love to take Peggy to the Chautauqua tomorrow. It’s the play ‘Peg O’ My Heart’ and I just wish Peggy could see it and her name being in it. Wouldn’t that be nice for her? What chance does she have here, never seeing anything but that big hill out there. Can’t even see the neighbours. She’ll never get a bit of culture!”

Momma had a thing about the hill. Said that’s what she liked about the west, being able to see so far, and then she gets herself plunked down here behind that big hill. She wasn’t missing much seeing those neighbours. Their yard was just full of old machinery and junk. Momma had been a school teacher before she married Dad so she was pretty keen on us children getting cultured.

You could see Dad was having a change of mood. He was sitting real still and not saying anything. Finally he says, “All right, Mary. Nobody’s going to say I don’t treat my family decent. We’ll all go tomorrow. You get yourselves ready. Peggy and Dan, you snap around and get your chores done early and we’ll all go to the Chautauqua and besides that, we’ll go early and have supper at Lee’s Restaurant before it starts.”

We were all so excited we could hardly sleep that night and the next day Momma was moaning about her clothes, taking them out of the closet and putting them back saying, “I haven’t a thing that’s fit to wear!” and sorting out white gloves and good stockings. We had to bath and it wasn’t even Saturday and have our hair brushed half to death and clean our fingernails, twice.

Dan and I had never eaten a meal in a restaurant, ice cream sometimes in the summer, but not a real sit-down meat and potatoes meal. The waiter brought a menu with all sorts of things to eat listed on it. Momma whispered to us not to pick something expensive and I decided on wieners, ’cause I loved them and we hardly ever had them at home. Dad said you couldn’t go wrong with roast beef but Momma thought veal cutlets sounded lovely and just wait ’till she told Lou the next time she phoned up. Dan asked for sausages and he and I couldn’t look at each other without giggling, we were having such fun.

Mr. Lee, himself, came out, from behind the cash register, to ask if our meals were all right and we said everything was fine, but I was having a problem with the thin strips of cabbage that were under the wieners on my plate.

I whispered to Momma that the cabbage tasted funny and she said, “Just leave it, dear. That’s sauerkraut, nasty stuff. You don’t have to eat that,” and Dad agreed, although usually we had to clean our plates.

There was ice cream afterwards and we felt pretty rich and important walking out of the restaurant and over to the big Chautauqua tent in the fairground. It was huge, like a big ship or something, with two pointed tops with poles sticking up and flags flying. We were early so we had first chance at the best seats and got to look around at everything. The man at the entrance took Dad’s money and said he’d be smart next year to buy a season ticket. It was cheaper that way. Dad said since we’d a long way to come, we just couldn’t plan on coming in every night, but he’d give it some thought.
We took seats right at the front. They were hard planks but there was backs to lean against and grass underfoot. It was pretty well squashed down where the people had been walking on it all week. A raised platform at the front had cardboard trees along each side and a picket fence with a gate across the front. A big cloth across the back of the stage had more trees and flowers painted on it.

People were starting to arrive and Momma said, “Don’t stare,” but how could I help? There was so much to look at. Momma was taking note of what the other women were wearing but she was quiet about it, not letting them know. She whispered to me that she guessed she wasn’t too out of style. I thought she looked real pretty in her dress with the scalloped hem and her hat sort of tipped over one eye.

Dad was talking to other farmers about crops and weather and Dan stood beside him trying to look grownup. Dan and I both had on our Sunday clothes and Dad had his good blue suit on that he always wore for going to meetings.

I waved to my cousins when I saw their family coming in and Momma turned and waved too. They had to sit way back. They didn’t get good seats like us and Momma said, “That looks like another new dress your Aunt Lou’s got on. My heavens!”

Someone pulled the curtains shut on the stage and then Mr. Harper, who ran the hardware store, stepped up on the platform. The crowd quieted and Dad and Dan came and squeezed in beside us. The entertainment was going to begin.

Mr. Harper welcomed everyone and said he was glad to see another good crowd. “The response this year has been encouraging,” he said, “and speaking on behalf of the local committee, I can say we all feel it’s been a successful endeavour and the community has been well entertained and enlightened by the lectures and by the artists who have come from far and wide bringing culture and a glimpse of the outside world to our little town. Tomorrow, sad to say, is the last day but there are fine programs planned for tomorrow to bring this years Chautauqua to a close. Tomorrow afternoon, Mrs. Elizabeth Berry, an expert on nutrition, will bring for the ladies, the latest information on food in her lecture ‘Feeding Your Family for Fitness.’

“Following this is a lecture, for men only, Dr. L. Freesan, a distinguished doctor from Chicago, will speak frankly and openly and young men are urged to attend and hear his valuable message. No ladies will be admitted to this part of the program.”

There was a general rustling and clearing of throats. Momma looked straight ahead and Dan strangled a laugh and coughed when Dad frowned at him.

Mr. Harper quickly went on. “In the evening an exciting experience is in store for us all. Mr. James, that well known explorer, will show, with his magic lantern, actual photographs of strange tribes and wild animals from darkest Africa. Perhaps, ha, ha, I could have said wild tribes and strange animals. Ha, ha. We hope to see you all here again tomorrow night, and now, ‘Peg O’ My Heart’, the delightful play that has been enjoyed by audiences all across this great land. Thank you.”

The curtains opened again. There were lights all across the front part of the stage and there were the trees and fence and all, and now there were people too. A tall man in a uniform stands near the trees and by the gate a beautiful lady in a long dress, just covered in frills and ruffles. They meet and talk and he tells her he has to go away and she cries and it’s just so beautiful I can hardly breathe. An then he sings that song “Peg O’ My Heart”, and walks away. In the next scene her daddy is telling her to forget him ’cause he’s been gone so long and she should marry a fellow with a big plantation and lots of money. Then that fellow comes on stage and although he’s polite and good looking, I just know he’s up to no good. He’s got that sort of sneaky look and I want to tell her not to marry him but Momma shushes me. He’s telling that girl her sweetheart’s gone off and left her and we know he’s just fighting in the war. Then here comes the soldier, limping up the walk, and he’s all rumpled and wounded and when he sees that other fellow with his arm around the girl, he just goes wild and takes out his pistol and shoots. “Bang.” I jumped right off the seat I was so scared and a lady near the back screamed. But the worst thing was the bullet hit the girl instead of the other fellow and she falls right down on the stage, in her fancy ruffles and her pretty green dress. And then they pulled the curtains and said there would be an intermission.

We’d been so interested in the play we hadn’t noticed there was a storm coming up. Lightning flickered and thunder was making some far away rumbles. Dad said he’d just go out and button down the side curtains on the car, in case we got a shower. When he came back in he said, “That sky looks pretty bad out there. We might be wise to head for home.”

Momma said, “Maybe it’ll go past” and I said “Oh, please, we want to see the rest. We don’t know if the poor girl’s dead. How can we leave now?”

The sides of the tent began to shake. People were peeking out and getting nervous. Someone opened up one of the flaps and a gust of wind toppled over one of the cardboard trees and it hit the picket fence and the fence fell down and the curtains blew back and forth, the poles holding up the canvas roof started swaying. Mr. Harper got up on stage and called for attention.

“We’re perfectly safe,” he said. “This tent is completely secure. If you would please return to your seats we’ll continue, in just a few minutes.”

Trouble was, hardly anyone heard him, for the walls were rustling and snapping and the thunder was getting louder. Hard drops of rain started hitting the canvas top and there was a general stir and people started to gather at the door and declare they were going to leave for home.

“It’s getting bad,” Momma said. “Let’s go. This tent may be struck by lightning. Come on, children.”

We ducked into the car as fast as we could. Town people were running with programs held over their heads. The rain banged on the car roof and seeped in around the curtains. We shivered and pulled the car robes around ourselves.

Dad said, “Just pray it doesn’t hail,” and we did. The road got greasy pretty quick and Momma screamed a couple of times, as the car slid around and the ditches started getting full of water but, it wasn’t long ’till the rain ttapered off and when we got home the ground wasn’t even wet in our yard.

We were sorry then we hadn’t stayed but Momma said she was grateful that Dad had got us home safely. “Anyway,” she said, “this way we can make the ending be any way we’d like it to be. I think that girl isn’t dead and will recover and that villain will pay for the lies he’s told.”

I liked Momma’s ending to the play but I wished I could have really seen it. Dan, he thought she was dead, alright, and there would be a murder trial and he wished he could have seen that.

Dad said, “Joe Read, from south of town, says his wheat’s already turning colour and it’s only about a foot high.”

“The rain should help,” Momma said and Dad said, “No, it’s too late. Just make second growth. The pasture, it’ll help there.”

Afterwards, when I was in bed, it seemed like I’d never get to sleep. The tent, the play, the restaurant, the crowd, and the storm kept flipping over, one after the other, in my head, all muddled together.

When Momma and Dad came upstairs I could hear them talking and moving around their room.

Momma said she was surprised at Mr. Harper. It was bad taste to announce that “For Men Only” lecture, like that, in mixed company and with children present. “People could have read it on the program,” she said. “I just didn’t know where to look!”

Dad said she was right and it would just put ideas in young people’s heads. “You know something,” he said, “you were the best looking woman in that whole tent.”

“Go on, John!” Momma said.

Dad said, “It’s the truth.”

“How about that actress with the long blond ringlets?” Momma asked.

“A wig, most likely, and even if it’s not, she couldn’t hold a candle to you, Mary.”

“Now, John,” Momma said, “It’s late and we’re tired.”

I guess that was about when I fell asleep. It was true, what Momma said, getting cultured sure made a person tired, but it was worth it.
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