MacRae's milk can overflows with memories

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 5, 2002

It was one of those countless milk cans so evocative of life around dairy farms – strong, straight sides; a pair of rugged handles near the top; and a lid shaped like a schoolgirl's tam. But this can had a difference.

Instead of bare metal scarred from years of use, the can was painted from top to bottom with a country scene: a green and yellow two-storey house and gray gambrel-roofed barn set against a treed background. Blue sky spread across the lid, while lush green grass reached out as a welcome mat to the front door of the house. Either side of the door was a window.

Pointing to the window to the right of the door, Cochrane resident Joan MacRae told me over coffee: "That's the kitchen window. That's where my grandpa used to sit and watch for me to return from school or the neighbors."

When Joan was just a young girl, that's where she spent some of the most memorable years of her life – there at her grandparents' home in Prince Edward Island, in that narrow neck of land between Summerside and Kensington, not far from what is now the island-end of the Confederation Bridge.

Joan received the can, especially painted for her by a PEI neighbor, as a surprise gift on her 25th birthday. The can was originally from the neighbor's dairy farm, which adjoined the property of Joan's grandparents. But now, instead of milk, it was full of memories.

"I used to walk down the road to their farm to pick up the day's milk," Joan said. She still recalls the glass milk bottles with a bulge in their neck for the cream, and the red clay dust that covered her shoes and clothes on dry days and the gumbo where she lost so many boots on rainy days.

"But what I remember most is the salt air," she said. Malpeque Bay was only a few minutes' walk away, the source of world-famous Malpeque oysters.

Joan's grandfather, a fisherman most of his life, built the three-bedroom home pictured on the can.

"I lived in the house for three years," Joan said. "I used to have to sleep with my grandmother. While my dad was stationed in Goose Bay, my mother, three brothers and I all stayed together there. I attended Grade 1 in a one-room school house."

Her grandmother worked nearby at a frozen food plant till she was 65. She sat out back with other women like her, peeling potatoes all day long – by hand.

Joan moved to Cochrane a year ago with her husband, Terry Brauen, and two children, Kara, 12, and Emily, 7.

I first saw the milk can last summer while it was sitting on the floor at Paint Box Artist Supplies, waiting for Joan to pick it up. It had undergone a bit of retouching necessitated by the move. Like so many fascinating experiences around town, that's what prompted a coffee so I could learn more of the story.

An accountant by profession, Joan has distinguished herself locally through live theatre. She co-produced (with Elsa Peterson) this past winter's Vision Theatre Players Guild production of On Golden Pond.

And artistic gifts don't end with Joan. The Christian Children's Fund of Canada just announced that daughter Kara's Christmas card design will be among three that will appear on the foundation's 2002 cards. The Christmas cards will be sent to all CCFC-sponsored children around the world. Kara is a Grade 7 student at Mitford Middle School.

Unfortunately, Joan's stay in Cochrane is about over – for now, at least. Imperial Oil has transferred Terry to St. John, New Brunswick, where he'll be in charge of the company's call centre operations. Joan and the kids will be joining him at the end of the month.

I asked Joan, if she were to take a milk can from here, what scene she would want painted on it to remember us by.

It would be the view from the top of Cochrane Hill looking west, she said.

"I always want to remember Cochrane nestled in the Bow Valley against the backdrop of fields and mountains."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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