In the early 1920s, my parents and my three much older siblings lived on a vegetable farm three miles south of Estevan, Saskatchewan. The town is tucked into the southeastern corner of the province just ten miles from the American border and fifty miles from neighboring Manitoba.
This farm, nestled in a valley, had a stream flowing through it and was framed by low-lying hills to the north and south. It was picturesque for that area, but for my immigrant parents it was also the scene of dawn-to-dusk hard work.
A certain Christmas on that farm stands out in family lore. As darkness fell on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. in 1925, my mother alerted my father to get ready for a trip to the hospital in town. Labor had begun.
This meant that the family’s Model T Ford had to be pressed into service. My father went to the dark shed where it was kept and began cranking, but Tin Lizzie wouldn’t cooperate. He resorted to the common practice of putting a pan of hot ashes under the engine to warm the oil. This also failed.
His report to me many years later was that finally in exasperation he gave the crank one mighty twirl , saying, “Oh, hang it all,” and the engine sputtered to life. He nursed the coughing, complaining beast by delicately adjusting spark and gas until it settled into a somewhat steady four-cylinder put-put-put-put.
He and my mother started off on the three-mile trip across a wide, shallow valley, Tin Lizzy hesitating repeatedly. “This thing is going to quit on me,” my father said half way to town, to which my mother replied in desperation, “It can’t quit!”
Wind-driven snow filled the ditches along the gravel road. No street lights added cheer to the frigid darkness. No other traffic appeared. They were two lone travellers on a mission while fighting the winter elements on the western Canadian prairies.
When they came to the hill into town, my father knew the drill. He turned Lizzie around and backed her up the hill. This was common practice because the gas from the tank under the driver’s seat was fed by gravity to the motor.
By the grace of God, the flivver made this maneuver successfully. It was then only a short distance to the hospital on Fifth Street where my mother disappeared quickly into the care of a nurse and my father took up his watch in a small waiting room.
He was dressed for the winter cold in a bulky buffalo coat, a fairly common garment at that time. This coat apparently changed his appearance because the head nurse, Mrs. Hogman, well known to the family, didn’t recognize him and thought him a vagrant seeking shelter from the cold. She told him firmly that he couldn’t loaf there; he would have to leave. When she realized her mistake, she quickly cancelled her order — with apologies.
That section of the small hospital was quiet until 4:45 Christmas morning when the hush was broken by the lusty cry of a newborn, and I announced to that sleepy town of 2300 souls that I had arrived.
I became the first of two children of a “second family” since the youngest of my three older siblings was already 10, and my parents were 42. Did they want to keep me? Today that question might have been asked by a professional during the early stages of the pregnancy. It would have pitted my mother’s “right to choose” against my right to live.
But 1925 was a different time. Poverty and hugely greater workloads and inconveniences of that time notwithstanding, even unexpected infants were quickly enfolded into the love of family and community.
My name had been chosen in advance. It was to be Donald. But Mrs. Roach, visiting my mother in hospital, offered, “This is your little Noel – the Christmas baby.” That name was added. And so it was that out of the love and fortitude of my parents, the strenuous efforts of Tin Lizzie, the thoughtful suggestion of a neighbor, and above all, the grace of God, I was then and am now Donald Noel Bastian. And that’s how I got here 85 years ago.
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