THE LIBERATION OF FLORENCE JULIEN OF BRIGHAM, QUE.
Home is the choice you make about yourself
THE LIBERATION OF FLORENCE JULIEN OF BRIGHAM, QUE.
Home is the choice you make about yourself
You couldn’t call me a dropout from the affluent society, because I never was in it. By temperament I am not a businesswoman but a poet—and you know what that means.
In 1950 my husband and I separated, and I was left at age 30 with three young children to bring up. Total income: $70 per month. Since I was a newcomer to the American scene — I married a French Canadian in England and came here after the war — I did not know the ropes. Having no relatives here to fall back on and no one to help me find a home, I had to get what shelter I could for our small family. Always a great lover of nature, I finally managed to persuade a farmer in Brigham, Quebec, to rent me an abandoned shack on his land for seven dollars a month.
Brigham is a tiny village, about 250 people, three miles from Adamsville, which is half way between Montreal and Sherbrooke. Adamsville is a farming parish of 250 families. Fifty years ago it was half and half English and French, having been founded by the Adams family who owned the biggest farm in the area. Today, but for myself and one or two others, it is entirely French. My landlord, the farmer who rented us the shack, was a French Canadian who was very prosperous, having inherited two rich farms from his thrifty father. His grandfather founded the parish. There was no water or plumbing, and in winter snow seeped through the walls and frost lay on the floor. But I was able to get to a few church rummage sales and there I picked up some used fur coats for a dollar apiece and they did well as protective drapery on the walls and rugs on the floors. At a sale I found a zinc boiler in which to pack snow to make water. Having no piped-in water — and in winter no access
to a well — it was necessary for us to melt snow for washing purposes. For drinking water I went to the farmhouse and got a pailful of their fresh spring water.
Life was not too bad. I had read in an old book somewhere that what counts is not the number of your possessions but the attitude of mind you bring to them. My first poem ever to be accepted was written in that shack, standing on a chair to keep my feet off the frozen floor, in a temperature of 30 below zero. But the act of creation so enthused and warmed me that I hardly noticed the cold. We heated the shack with an old woodburning stove that gave out a cosy crackle. Though I laid in a supply of dry
wood each fall, I never had quite enough to last out the long winter and then we had to hunt through the woods, wading through deep snow looking for fallen dry branches of elm, birch, maple. Maybe all the hard effort of digging snow to melt it and wood - hunting (though I grouched at it at the time) kept us healthy. I know I never had a minute to feel sorry for myself: all my efforts, energy, time, were expendedin just existing.
For many years we lived like this. Food was cheap and simple: oatmeal porridge with brown sugar and milk, wild blackberries and raspberries in late summer, which I gathered to make delicious jams for the winter. The landlord let me tap 10 of his sugar maple trees in March when the sweet sap runs ... so that I made our own maple syrup on the old kitchen stove; it was fit for the gods.
That old wood stove had a good oven so I made our own bread, too, with sour milk or whey which I got from our landlord, cheaply. I invented my own recipe, using stone-ground whole wheat flour. The result was a substantial and satisfying bread which went well with our homemade maple syrup; the syrup of course was 100% pure sap, not a drop of water or sugar added. During the maple-sapgathering season — two or three weeks toward the end of March — the children and I had to keep racing from tree to tree to catch every precious drop of that sap so that none should be lost.
Back in England I had an aunt and cousin who wondered much at the struggling way we were living. In every letter they counseled me to move to the city, get an office job, place the children in an institution “where they would be warmer” and where they would have at least running water. But I told them I was not made for city life. I would have choked to death in dark streets. Nor was 1 made for the nine-to-five routine. I am a writer and live in a writerly way . . . not exactly bohemian, but a way where you suddenly hop off your stepladder, where you’ve been perched wiping the smoke black off the ceiling, to jot down an idea. The people who live all around are trim and orderly, and their homes are spick and span and gleam with polish. Even with 19 children treading snow in and out these French housewives manage to keep their homes spotless and looking like the ads for floor polish in Chatelaine. Their perfection is my despair — I could never get a home looking like that — but they have an innate gift for orderliness and method. I work how and when the mood comes on me, maybe at five in the morning, inspired by what the Greeks called rosy-fingered dawn, or maybe till / continued on page 52
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FLORENCE JULIEN from page 24
long after midnight, writing by the glimmer of an old oil lamp — for in the beginning the shack had no electricity.
My aunt and cousin, who for 20, 30 years had held down good business jobs and lived in an all-mod-cons house in suburbia, could not understand me. They considered me totally batty. But even with every luxury and a steady income I could never have faced the sort of life that they traced out for me. They were offended when I told them so. They enjoyed their sort of life, with regular promotions, raises in pay, the annual four-week holiday, the better car each year.
In 1956 I wrote an account of our sort of life which was published in English Digest and readers wrote in to say that they did not believe it: they thought everyone in America was rich, with two homes, a swimming pool, two cars and every possible gadget. Their notions of American and Canadian ways of life had been gleaned from California-made films and glossy women’s magazines which made their way over the Atlantic. They judged every American woman’s kitchen by the super-kitchens they saw in the ads. If they had seen my kitchen. Not even a sink . . .
We never had anything so costly as a car. The village grocer who lived three miles away delivered foodstuffs once or twice a week. Sometimes when I needed to go to the Post Of-
fice I would walk the three miles with the children in fine weather. The sun bronzed our cheeks and the fragrant meadow breezes played through our hair. It was a tonic and a beauty treatment. What matter that we had no money? We were together, we had one another and the good fresh air. Another blessing we had was good health, which did not seem to be affected by the deep cold and deprivations of the long winter.
For 10 years we had no radio or TV. The children went to the village school and were educated in French, but at home we spoke English — and while there was no library nearby we picked up old books at rummage sales. The long quiet evenings were spent reading in winter, or making rugs for the floor from strips of old cut-up coats. One book that appealed to me was Lorna Doone, the classic of English country life by R. D. Blackmore. The author shows in this old romance a rare knowledge of country ways and of a rural wisdom that has almost died out. Another lover of the life-close-to-nature is Warwick Deeping and I read many of his books. In Doomsday he reveals that he, too, is at heart a dropout from a sick, money-mad society. Doomsday is the name of a farm, and the novel is the story of a greathearted man who put his soul and strength into building a life on the land in harmony with nature.
A friend sent me one or two of the garden books of Marion Cran, a woman who at one time was tied to a city desk in London but who finally could not endure it any longer and ran away to the country. One title was The Story Of My Ruin and it told with humor and rich detail how she found an old tumbledown 14thcentury farmhouse and with her own hands, and those of her husband, built it up into a really pretty and pleasant home, at little cost. Marion Cran’s books are rare, but if you should find an old copy at a garage sale snap it up and treasure it. You will learn a lot about planting an orchard, making a pond, and the delightful art of garden-making in sympathy with existing features. She writes: “I think the day of the highly ornamental garden is passing, and the idea causes me no distress; there is a lack of repose in set-up spaces; there is a restless reaction on the heart when the eye has to travel from one artificiality to the other and cannot linger on a broad and simple scape.”
In our shack there was little to read except these old books. We could not afford newspapers and magazines. Once, our groceries came wrapped in an old copy of a city paper, and to my astonishment I saw that at a New York art sale someone had shelled out half a million for a small Rembrandt. Why, the view from my back door was more magnificent than any Rembrandt or Renoir or Titian. It changed with the seasons, it was always freshly tinted — and it was free. On a rainy-sunny April day the sky was transparent blue and silver over the tender green fields. In May and June the green was richer and the air full of the fragrance of grass and flowers. The blaze of fall was magically lovely, with the maple grove all crimson and scarlet, and the woods myriad shades of russet and gold. Winter was blue and white and silver; and when a thaw came there was the ripple of a stream, the world’s most soothing music ... a stream, black under its heavy white coverlet of snow. A stream in winter is a thing of beauty.
Winters were long and hard, but always in mid-January the cold relaxed its grip, giving us a brief reprieve. One morning there would be a different sound to the birds, icicles dripped, making cheerful splashes, the harsh wind softened, the children packed soft snowballs and yelled with joy. We counted on that interlude to help us endure the rest of the winter.
Summers we had a garden all round the shack. I went wild purchasing seeds, indulging a taste for flow-
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ers as far as our purse would allow. I should say that one of the joys of winter was the arrival of the spring seed catalogues, those glories of color. We would spend hours around the kitchen table listing the things we would order if we were rich. In the end we had to cut the order down to lettuce, carrots, peas, beans, tomatoes and those flowers that would grow well in our northerly area.
I bottled beans and fruits in a boiling water bath. Our grandmothers used this method of putting up fruits and vegetables if they owned no canning machine. Having to walk everywhere — we could not afford even a bicycle — gave us all good appetites; and the homegrown vegetables and home “canned” tomatoes and beans went down well.
It was necessity that made us live the simple life. Although I sold some stories and poems, they did not bring in a fortune. Still, I earned enough to invest in a secondhand typewriter, and over the years I wrote a book, From My Window, which has been published only in fragments in such journals as Woman’s Day, The Times of London and the Manchester Guardian. I originally took up writing as therapy for a nervous disorder. Now I am hooked. I just can’t stop. I get letters from time to time from people, usually in England and the United States, who have read my articles and have gone to the trouble of writing to editors to find my address. As a matter of fact, my really fine library of used books on farm and garden matters is stocked with books that these unknown and unseen friends have sent me over the years. My library is the best-furnished part of my home. One lady in Wales sent me some rare volumes on gardens, with hand paintings to illustrate them, from a nobleman’s library with his crest and motto. It cost her a small fortune just to mail them. Through my articles I’ve had letters from as far away as New Zealand and India, and everyone wants to know more about Canada. One lady wrote from Northern Ireland asking if I could find her a job here. Alas, there are no jobs in Adamsville. Even my own children had to emigrate as soon as they were of working age.
The world finally caught up with us and we got a radio. I am listening to it as I write. The children have grown up and gone, I am alone, and the radio keeps me in touch with the world.
You’ll forgive me for saying it seems a crazy world. Here in Canada they are paying farmers not to grow wheat and other farmers not to produce milk . . . while people go hungry. The government may have waste on its conscience but I have none on mine. Nothing is wasted here. Kitchen waste, like eggshells and tea leaves, I have always dug into the soil. I use no chemical fertilizer, and my tomatoes and lettuce and onions have a delicate flavor. I don’t overproduce — just grow as much as I need. If I wanted to be greedy I could slam on the old chemicals and grow a riot of oversized stuff that would be tasteless. But my motto is have a little and have it good, so I have a few black and red currants for jelly, blackberries and loganberries. Ten years ago we dug a trench to bury household garbage and planted raspberry canes atop it. Now each year I have exquisite berries, richly red, plump and juicy and perfect. I send some of our raspberry jam and jelly to city friends and they say they never tasted anything so wonderful. My recipe is simple. Pure fresh fruit, water, a squeeze of lemon juice and sugar, simmered slowly on the old wood stove. It has life in it, purity and nature’s goodness.
A few years ago I moved into an abandoned farmhouse for which I pay another local farmer $25 a month. I laugh when I read of women paying so many millions to beauty parlors. A walk in the meadows breathing the clover scent as it comes on the south wind is the best beauty treatment there is in the world. I have never had five dollars to spend on a hairdo. I admit my age, 51, but despite the grinding poverty and the hard life I have not one grey hair; my hair is dark gold as it was when I was a girl. My only outings are walks. They are my only recreation besides gardening and reading. The more sophisticated forms of entertainment and relaxation are beyond my budget.
Birds come to my windows readily for suet and sunflower seeds which I spread on the sills in winter. All summer long they sing around the house. So do I need concerts at fancy prices? One dear friend we made was Sammy, a duck that came swimming up the river one summer from whoknows-where. I raise adorable puppies and give them to local farmers. At one time we had nine cats, but the number varies from three to seven as some wander off or find new homes nearby. We have at various times adopted stray cats and dogs.
With such a large and varied household I am never lonely. I have not seen a film since I was married 29 years ago. I have visited Montreal only once or twice. Yet, dull though it may sound, my life is full and rich and satisfying. I am content. ■
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