The leaves are unfurling on the trees and the potatoes are in the ground. Every year as I drop my seed potatoes into the soil I think about a story from my childhood about a man who homesteaded nearby.
As a bachelor he often visited the neighbours both for company and the chance to partake in some home cooking. One of his neighbour’s wives peppered her sentences with “By Gee Whiz!” so often the bachelor took to teasingly calling her By Gee Whiz, as if that were her name.
Like so many of those early homesteader women,”By Gee Whiz” was hard working, generous hearted and a fantastic cook. She was also known for her fabulous garden. Needless to say, her family’s home was a favourite destination for the bachelor. One sunny afternoon in July he stopped by and was invited in for dinner featuring new potatoes freshly dug from her garden. After the delicious meal he hurried home, anxious to check on how his own potatoes were coming along.
Later he related the shocking outcome of his search.
“I came home, went out to the garden and what do you think?” he asked. “I forgot to plant!”
He had poked around in his weed choked garden without success and then found the seed potatoes shrivelled up in a paper bag in the porch right where he had left them.
By the time I heard the story it was well over three decades old and the man who forgot to plant had long since moved on. Still, the story was often repeated because people found it funny; even the man himself was said to have laughed uproariously as he told on himself. But as a child I wasn’t so sure about the funny factor.
A gifted worrier, I spent an unseemly amount of time puzzling in private over how The Man Who Forgot to Plant managed to survive. I’d lay awake picturing him in his little log house with the winter winds howling about the corners, his empty potato bin yawning like an unfed wild thing down in the cellar.
My grandparents settled here in 1930 on a homestead only five miles from where I live today … and the farm I was raised on is a mile closer than that! I grew up listening to stories about the challenges of those early years. Vegetable gardens were a pretty big deal in the late 1930s when all this took place. Back then — keeping in mind the Peace Country was one of the last areas in Canada to be settled — a trip to town still involved a horse and wagon and a month’s worth of planning. And even if you could get to town, it was the Great Depression and money was scarce. Without a garden to fill in the gaps there was no doubt about it; you were facing a long, hungry winter. The best you could hope for was a good crop of wild berries and maybe a moose. With every quarter section settled up, and every homesteader packing a gun, competition for any wild game was fierce. Today moose wander through our yard on a daily basis to lick our tires, munch on the roses and nap in the garden. But back then a set of moose tracks was an exciting sight.
I remember asking if The Man Who Forgot to Plant was an exceptional hunter or known for berry picking but to my great distress, no one could recall. I wondered if he had kept a milk cow or perhaps a small flock of laying hens. Maybe he was able to barter for vegetables with cream and eggs. Or at the very least, he could drink the milk and eat the eggs himself. My anxious inquiries revealed he likely had neither.
In desperation I turned to those other staples of a northern wintertime diet — turnips, cabbage and onions. Just because he had failed to plant potatoes didn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t planted anything else. In my little heart I knew my reasoning was faulty and so I didn’t dare ask any more questions. Instead I chose to think of him eating hearty meals of turnips, cabbage and onions. Maybe he just visited By Gee Whiz a lot.
It’s funny the stories that stick with you. It’s funny to think of what a little worrier I was. Funnier yet is how I still roll it around in my mind every spring come potato planting time. I may not forget to plant, but I will never forget the man who forgot.
Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns or check out her garden blog by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com