As the crunch of heavy feet on hard-packed snow warned of the caller at least two minutes prior to the drumbeat on the door, I made a fast mental survey of possible visitors.
The milkman had made his rounds before lunch; the Legion boys had seen me splitting stovewood the day before and assured themselves that I had enough to last through the bitter cold snap; my husband was five hundred miles away at the Veterans’ Hospital; there was no resident minister in the district.
Shuddering at the thought of facing those thirty-five below zero degrees, I hesitated long enough for the caller to make his second onslaught. That was enough! Better to face the cold than have the baby awakened.
I opened the inside door and peered through the glass of the storm door. At first, all I could see was a snow-covered parka and a red nose; then, as the head raised and the eyes met mine, I recognized the face of the local constable of the British Columbia Provincial Police.
My thoughts veered in a dozen different directions as I fumbled with the lock on the outside door – bad news of my husband – his parents – mine in England – the older kids had been in mischief – the dog had raised mayhem with someone’s chickens…
“Is Sam in, Mrs. Kay?”
The cheerful tone of the man’s voice was a far cry from the voice of doom I had expected.
“No. He went to Edmonton for a check-up two days ago. I don’t expect him back for a week.”
“Darn it, we can’t wait that long,” said the constable, “who else does carpentry?”
“Well, there’s Fred Davis, Bill Heckles and Fritz Glaubmann. Why?”
“Gotta get a casket made.”
The words floated back on the cold air as the constable headed down the yard.
Securing the doors, I pondered on my husband’s sideline of work in this northern village. On other occasions when the police had called and Sam had made a casket, I had accepted it as one of those things.
His caskets weren’t the hardwood affairs with satin upholstery – anyone who could afford one of those would wire out and have it shipped from the city. Sam’s customers were represented by the Provincial Government who paid twenty-five dollars for a plain box and an indigent funeral. That would have been plenty to cover the cost of a plain rough box, but these men who were finally labelled “indigent” were all our friends; old trappers, prospectors and homesteaders who had stuck together through the hard times of the hungry thirties. Men who had shared their all with Sam on the tough days and had sat at this table whenever he managed to get the odd paying job. Lonely widowers and bachelors with no known relatives; but, as the end came for each, the indigent casket was constructed as carefully as our own bookcase had been.
Each pine board was dressed down to immaculate smoothness, joints and corners fitted perfectly. The casket was put together with rustproof screws and hinges, given two coats of maroon plastic finish and two pairs of black enamelled chest handles. Personal knowledge of the occupant-to-be enabled Sam to judge whether reinforcing would be needed – a six-foot, two hundred pounder carried differently from a five-foot, ninety-five pounder, and each casket was tailor-made.
Dismissing the subject from my mind, I prepared supper as the two older children, home from school, tackled their homework. By six o’clock we had eaten, and were poring over a jigsaw when the constable reappeared.
“Mrs. Kay, I’ve seen those three but not one of ‘em will tackle a casket. Don’t seem to like the idea!”
“Well, I don’t know who else to suggest. Who’s dead?”
“Old Jack Kenton. Must’ve tripped and knocked himself out getting in wood last night. Steve Johnson dropped around this morning – door was off the catch, fire out, woodbox half full; he found old Jack face down over an armful of firewood the other side on the leanto.”
Poor old Jack! A delightful mixture of yesterday and today, of grandfather and child. Eighty-two years young in heart, he could hold the kids spellbound for hours with tales of his adventures along the trapline. A self-educated man, he would sit by his old iron stove on a winter’s evening and read well into the night. He used only the minimum amount of sleep and always vowed, ”They’ll ne’er catch me dyin’ in bed.” And they hadn’t; at least he had died in the outdoors he loved.
“When are you going to bury him?”
“Tomorrow morning if we can get a box made,” was the reply. “Some of the boys are putting a fire over the grave tonight, then they’ll go at it with picks about eight o’clock. Soon as it’s deep enough, we’ll put Jack down and throw the fill back in.”
Some of the boys… other old-timers who were determined Jack would be properly buried.
“Well, I don’t know what I can do, but give me ‘til morning and I’ll see.”
Why I made that remark, I’ll never know. But, somehow, the constable read into it a confidence I was far from feeling.
If he wondered what I thought I could do when he had had no luck, he never did say.
As I stood by the stove rubbing real and imaginary chills from my hands, a gust of downdraft puffed the birchwood smoke into my face and reminded me it was darned cold outside. It would be cold in the workshop too, the place hadn’t been used for a week and we could afford to heat it when not in use. It was also fifty to sixty feet away from the house, a distance covered by some three feet of untrodden snow. I’d need help! The boy and girl were so engrossed in the jigsaw they had barely noticed the policeman’s visit, so it came as a shock when I threw their parkas over their shoulders.
“Come on, kids, let’s see if we can make the workshop.”
“Aw. What for?”
“Cos!” I retorted, pulling on an old balaclava.
Being the tallest by some ten inches, I broke trail, telling the children to trample down as much as they could while I fumbled with the frozen padlock on the door. At last it was opened, but relief from the wind was the only saving grace.
But there, above the plywood, I found what I wanted. A bundle of pre-cut, dressed lumber containing sixteen pieces six feet six inches long, and several lengths of one by two inch cleating.
Tying a piece of rope to the end of the bundle, I slid it out and down the steps to the snow. Passing each child an end of rope, I headed them back to the house.
Returning to the workshop, I searched for screws, hinges, handles, drill, screwdriver and saw. The paint, I remembered, was in the pantry to save it from freezing.
By the time I returned to the kitchen, the children were back at their jigsaw. So, telling them to move into the living room, I transferred the lumber from the back door to the kitchen, secured the doors once more and sat down as a stinging, tingling sensation travelled through my hands and feet as feeling returned to them.
With a tentative finger, I flicked a chunk of snow from the board that had been on the bottom as it was hauled from the workshop.
“You must be nuts,” I chided myself, “theoretical knowledge gained by watching someone else do a job, doesn’t mean you can do the same job.”
It was worth the try, anyway, I thought. Thank goodness, Sam had left a supply of the necessary materials…
So, pausing only at eight-thirty to remind the children it was bedtime, I set to work – cleating, drilling, screwing and assembling, and at eleven o’clock I had a reasonable facsimile of a do-it-yourself casket. Six feet, six inches long, thirty inches wide and deep, with hinged lid but minus handles and paint, it sat across two chairs and took up most of the kitchen.
At that stage, my aching back and sore hands urged me to call it quits but, sitting on the floor enjoying a cup of coffee and a cigarette, I cast a critical eye over the product of my labours. I could see all kinds of imperfections; more, I suspected, because I knew just how it would have looked if Sam had done it.
At least, I consoled myself, surely the bottom will hold with a screw every four inches – and a coat of paint should cover a few blemishes. So I persevered for a few more hours.
At two-thirty in the morning I dropped on the bed fully clothed. A strong smell of acetic acid from the plastic paint permeated the house, but I was past caring. My masterpiece was finished, complete with handles – would it really matter if they were a quarter of an inch lower on one side? – holes drilled through the edge of the lid, and a small packet of screws inside to secure the lid once Jack was made comfortable.
My back may have ached when I lay down, but it was sheer agony at six o’clock when junior gave his first squeak; upper arm and shoulder muscles hurt like blazes, and the unaccustomed effect of drill and the screwdriver on the palms of my hands gave me an overall feeling of having come off second best in an argument with a bull-dozer.
It was fortunate that an empty stomach was junior’s only complaint once his diaper was changed, and he was adept at feeding with the bottle propped against the side of the crib.
Having spent a few hours within six feet of the stoked-up range, my paint job was in the condition called “dust-free” – dry enough to be handled gently. So, when the children came through for breakfast, I commissioned their help and we transferred the casket from the chairs to a position across the sink. The boy drily commented, ”I bet it would’ve been warmer sleeping in there last night than it was in my bedroom." The girl blanched at the thought of having slept the night under the same roof as “that thing”. But it must have borne some semblance to what it was supposed to be, or the criticisms would have come hard and fast.
Breakfast became a question and answer period as the children released a curiosity that had not occurred to them the previous evening. They were used to small carpentry jobs being done around the house, and the sound of a drill or saw was a familiar lullaby; but, even Daddy had not used the kitchen for such a purpose.
I suspected their was even a glint of awed admiration in the boy’s eyes as he prepared for school. He knew of no other mother in town who had a home-made casket sitting on her sink – I had a provided a real swell topic for schoolyard conversation.
At eight forty-five the whole detachment of local police, corporal and constable, arrived at the back door.
“Did you manage anything, Mrs. Kay? Would anyone do it for you?”
“I didn’t ask anyone,” I replied, “but come in and see what you think of this.”
Kicking snow from their boots, the two men entered the vestibule and stepped inside, removing their headgear as they ducked through the low entrance into the kitchen.
I pointed to the sink and they both gaped open-mouthed for several seconds before the corporal found his voice.
“What the Sam Hill!” He looked around, saw a few ends of cleating, a neat pile of sawdust and the tools. “D’you mean to say, YOU made this last night?”
“All my own work.” I hoped I wasn’t sounding too proud. “Finished it about two-thirty. Only hope the bottom will stay in – and that it will do for you.”
“Do? Jeepers, Al, let’s get going. If the boys get through the frost, we’ve nothing to worry about.”
Taking an end apiece, they swung the casket off the sink and made for the door. Five feet from the kitchen exit, I realized what was going to happen.
“Oh no! You can’t!”
They pulled up short. “What d’you mean, can’t?” The constable had his back to the doorway but the corporal, who had followed my gaze, saw what I meant.
Six feet high and thirty-two inches wide, that doorway was at right angles to a vestibule thirty inches wide and three feet long. It was just impossible to manoeuvre the casket out that way.
“O.K. Let’s try the front door.” The corporal dismissed one setback only to run full tilt into another.
Our little cottage was built to conserve space as well as keep it snug in the long winters, and the doorway between the kitchen and living room was only twenty-eight inches wide.
The three of us started to laugh at the same time. “Looks like you got yourself an oversize woodbox for the winter,” spluttered the constable.
“Heck, no!” This kitchen’s a leanto, mebbe we can lift the roof and hoist it out.” The corporal was adding to the teasing but, although my sense of humour could appreciate the ridiculousness of the situation, I was mentally groping for a solution.
“Hold your horses, boys, we’re not beaten yet.”
Grabbing the steel tape, I squeezed around the end of the casket to the window above the table.
“If only there’s enough space between the sill and the header of this window.”
“Haw! That window might be wide but it’s too shallow.” Obviously, the constable did not expect us to get out of our quandary that easily.
But we were saved, the window was a sliding sash installed on its side, fifty-four inches wide and thirty-two inches high.
“Hurry, Al, or we’ll freeze the house. Get the storms off while I take these out.”
Al shot outside, stood waist deep in snow, and took off the storm windows while the corporal removed the inside sash.
It took no more than two minutes to spin the casket around, slide it over the sill and put the window back in place. My relief at seeing it sink into the snow far out-weighed the chilling effect of the cold blast which hung on for another fifteen or twenty minutes inside the kitchen.
So, old Jack was buried with no undue delay, and Sam was quite surprised, getting off the train a week later, to be met by the corporal of police who said, ”Get back on that train, boy, we’ve got a far-better-looking undertaker than you now.”