It’s next to impossible for my aunt, Connie Clark, to have a conversation with her 85-year-old mother without reminiscing about farm life on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.
Whether it was dragging eight kids out to a dirt field to pick stones before spring planting, another cow breaking a fence, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through their country kitchen, or the little hands that carried splashing pails of sap through the bush during maple syrup season, the memories are nearly endless, Clark says.
“I don’t know how I did it with all eight of you kids,” her mother, Hester Cunningham, always says.
One day, after a long chat with her mom, Clark, an early childhood educator in Lions Head, Ont., started writing down some of those memories.
“It was a dark Saturday morning, the hydro was off, and I was still in my housecoat,” says Clark, a mother of three and grandmother of six. “I just started putting together some rhymes. Within about 20 minutes, I had written a little ditty.”
That ditty is now in the form of her first children’s book: The Farm Family Grows, with illustrations by artist Stuart Burgess.
Printed locally by the Tobermory Press, the self-published book came off the presses just in time for Cunningham’s 85th birthday in December. Clark was also able to present the book as a gift to her seven siblings, their children and grandchildren — a family that has now grown to include 96 people.
“I was just so thrilled,” she says. “I wanted to give the book to my family before it was released publicly because it was about them, for them.”
The book turned out to be one of the most special Christmas gifts ever, bringing tears to the eyes of her siblings and joy to the faces of her many young great-nieces and nephews.
“I wanted to make it fun and light, but it still moves me when I read it to the children, because every page I turn to I feel like I could tell them a story.”
The counting book starts out with a pair in love, Hester and Tom Cunningham, who died in 2008. The rhythmic story follows the growth of their family from one to eight children, and the farming adventures they experience along the way.
“They raised pigs and cows, and tapped maple trees. Along came Jimmy, to make a family of three,” the story reads.
Clark says one of many fond memories includes being a little girl, gathering sap out in the bush.
“I remember Dad — he was such a quiet, gentle man — he’d wink at you and get you to taste the sap. My feet were freezing and my hands were in wool mittens, it was cold but the sun was out and it was exciting,” Clark says. “I’d step into the snow and fall to my waist. I remember the smell of the old snowmobile, and as spring got closer, the ruts from the tractor driving through the mud.”
Clark says she always feels so blessed to have been raised in a rural setting, learning and growing while spending so much time outdoors. She hopes to pass on the same values to her own children and grandchildren.
Now she has the chance to share those fond memories with the next generation of kindergarten children in the classroom — the same cohort who gave her story a test run long before it went to print.
“I took it to school and used it as a counting activity,” she says. “I would read the story and pull out little Fisher-Price people every time I read the next verse and the farm family grew. The children were really involved — they loved it.”
Clark says after reading countless children’s books as part of her job, she always had ambitions of writing one herself. After getting the stamp of approval from her class, she eventually approached Burgess, who agreed to illustrate the book.
She later spoke to staff at the Tobermory Press, who helped her take the next step in making her dream a reality.
Not only is the story a personal one, but Clark believes it reflects an important part of rural Canada and its history — one that is slowly fading.
“I am very proud of my heritage,” she says. “We all can’t be farmers anymore and no one can make a living off a few hundred acres like my father did. It’s the true Canadian lifestyle we’re losing.”
Penned in 2012, Clark laughs the tale is already out of date.
“One by one, they expanded more and more. Now the family of 10 has reached 84!” the last page reads. Clark says that number has now reached 96 — all people who have roots in rural Ontario farm life.
“To anyone else, it’s a children’s book,” she says. “But to us, it’s a big piece of our lives.”