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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

My father loved the chuckwagons. He had the Stampede in his soul.

He’d grown up wild in the hills around Winfield, Alta. He was charming and daring, proud and emotional, handsome and tall, kind and conscientious. He got into boyhood messes, like the time when he was 10 and he set the forest on fire behind the farm when showing off for some other kids. His ma swore that he would see the back end of a wooden spoon, but his older sister begged for him to be spared. He was so loved that it was hard to stay mad at him for long. He had a miles-long trapping line and he would walk it every week, looking for rabbits, ferrets and mink to trade for chocolate bars at the town grocery. He threw a mean fastball for the school baseball team and dreamt about playing for the big leagues.

But then in Grade 10 his best friend (who was older) graduated high school and took off to the air force, and so he followed. He loved it there. The air force campus in southern Alberta was full of spirited guys just like him, handsome in their short blue wool jackets and pleated wool pants, learning how to fly and take care of airplanes.

He was there for a year, but his dreams were cut short because, as the youngest child, his mom called him back home to take care of her on the farm. It broke his heart.

Those years, stuck on the farm, ate away at him. He cleaned, bought the groceries, tended the animals, baled the hay. He loved his mother. But his wild heart raced, yearned to be on the road, in the air, to be free. Eight years, tending the farm, watching while his life passed him by.

Then he met my mother. She was Métis, smart, beautiful and she could dance like the wind.

It’s funny how some people set your soul free. That’s what my mother did for my father. To watch them dance was to watch them fly. She had a waist that he could wrap his hands around and a beehive haircut. He could throw her up in the air and spin her around his torso, through his legs and back up in the air, quick as you could say “Cheese Whiz!” She could dance the twist so low that your knees hurt just looking at her.

They had two kids at first and moved to Edmonton. He found work in the oil field. He was a natural leader, supervising pipeline sites. Three more kids came along, but still the adventure called. They moved to a ranch up north, near Fort St. John. Five hundred head of cattle, 1200 acres, quarter horses, a barn, a field of wild strawberries, a forest, a stream. All the land you could see was ours. There was freedom in them there hills.

But then, after I went to university, my mother died.

My father’s heart was broken again. Without her, he was a heart wandering. He loved so much, cared so hard. We kids had scattered to the Earth by then, lost ourselves.

But some days, at special moments, we would meet and the magic would return. The magic of our lost family, the magic of the freedom my parents had when they were together.

The Calgary Stampede was one of those moments. My dad, older but still tall and handsome with his mischievous eyes, thumbs tucked through his jeans belt, black cowboy boots and hat. We’d meet him there, just one or many of us, whoever was around. He’d hear a song and he’d grab our hands, the boys and girls alike and we’d dance where we stood. His capable hand grabbed one of ours, swung us around, showed us where to go. If you’ve ever had a confident dance partner you would know, the touch on the elbow, the touch at the waist, at the small of your back, showing you with subtle clues where to move. He made you look like a star.

We’d grab some pie and a milkshake and head over to the chuckwagon races, way up in the seats to see it all. Up there in those stands, looking over the dirt racetrack and the hills beyond, in those moments, when the wagons flew and your heart threatened to pound out of your chest, I would catch glimpses of my wild dad again. The gold tooth smile, one hand thrown up in the air, the excitement, the smell of dirt and fresh air, stadium seats and pop. We would eat terribly and laugh and yell, happy to be excited.

It’s hard to believe that he is gone, but I’m grateful for the moments that bring him back, those Stampede-type moments. The times when your heart bursts with joy and you just want to live harder, dance all night or ride a horse hard across the plains. My dad had the soul of a stampede, taking risks, going for it, racing wild through life and I’m happy that I got a chance to run alongside.

Lareina Abbott lives in Calgary.

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