ALMA Halstrom remembers her first day of school.
"The prairie grass grew so tall, you couldn't let a kid outside. Mother knew I'd be safe at the school where there was a fenced yard. So one day, off I went in the buggy with my two brothers."
Alma was four years old. The year was 1916.
At school, the teacher found a place for Alma and chalked the letter "A" onto the desk. Every day, using a handful of dried peas, the little girl traced one letter and then the next.
North Vancouver's newest centenarian Alma Holden was born on the family farm in southwestern Saskatchewan on Dec. 26, 1912. The middle child of five siblings, each born five years apart, says that "music was built in me."
Morning and evening, when their parents were milking the cows, the children went straight to the kitchen cupboards for pots and pans and the lids and spoons to beat on them. "To this day, I remember my special pot," says Alma. "Uncle Gus decided he didn't know how to milk. He became our babysitter and our director. He trained us to march and keep a band going."
After supper and the chores were done, the family gathered around the wood heater, "and the light from the coal oil lamps flickered on the walls while the stories were at their best."
While her mother sewed and taught her daughters to mend so that the repairs looked like embroidery, Alma soaked up the stories that went back to Sweden and Norway. "I was the one that kept the family history going back into the centuries and the old country," she says.
Musical education became more formal when Alma left the farm to board and attend school at Swift Current. She took piano lessons and it seemed most of the friends she made were musical.
One friend was Leonard Halstrom. "We got married in 1932, in hard-up times," Alma remembers. "We didn't spend a nickel because we didn't have one."
The couple managed to rent a farm that had been repossessed by one of the big loan companies, sharing tools and labour with other farmers. They started their first rhythm band, 25 women playing kazoos and other simple instruments, accompanied by a banjo player, Leonard on the saxophone and Alma on piano. "I was a heavy, big player on the piano. I played all over that piano and that gave enough substance to carry the band. It just came so natural," she says.
One bad day, Len injured his leg severely and that put an end to their farming life.
With their two children, they moved west to Victoria, where Len had family.
In all the years since, wherever Leonard and Alma lived, from Victoria to Surrey to Delta, they played music at home, in community centres, at conventions and seniors residences all over the West Coast and as east as far as the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah. They built up a vast repertoire and, if they didn't happen to know a tune, Alma was always able to pick it up, even without the benefit of sheet music.
"Leonard and I had an orchestra all of our life and we played together just about every day for 59 years. After he died, I couldn't walk by the piano without saying hello for a couple of hours," she says.
Alma continued to perform with her rhythm band in Surrey and formed a quartet called The Delta Twilighters. It was only a few years ago that she had to give up playing the piano.
The music that was built in Alma from the time she was a child is still there, even without a piano to express it. Perhaps it comes out in her stories, each one perfectly recalled, clear and true as a note of music, the pure expression of love.
Memory Lane 2012 opened with a profile of Ernest Fitch, who left us on Nov. 30 at the age of 107, and closed with two centenarians, Harold Plumsteel and Alma Halstrom.
I am grateful to them and to everyone who shared the stories and memories that connect us to a time still within living memory. Thank you.
Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact her at 778-279-2275 or email her at email@example.com.