My Uncle Albert died suddenly one cold December day in 2001 at his home in Benson, Saskatchewan. He had lived in the little house in the hamlet of Benson for most of his life, his father’s people building the house next door to their own after their son–Albert’s dad, Tenor–died in 1932 when the young boy was seven-years-old. Albert’s mom–my grandma, Isabelle–was left to raise Albert and his younger sisters, Laura (my mom) who was two-years-old, and Edith a two-month-old infant, by herself during the harsh years of the Great Depression.
My grandma–Belle, as she was known to her friends–died in 1971 and Uncle Albert, a lifelong bachelor who had lived with his mother and slept on a pull-out sofa all of those years, was left alone in the tiny house. He added an addition to make more room (ironic, in a sense given that there was now one person living where four had lived in the past), installed indoor plumbing, and made the house his own.
In time, and much too soon, Albert’s sisters Laura and Edith passed away. Edith and her husband had never had children, so my sister and I, and Uncle Albert were the last remaining members of that branch of the family. That my sister and I were adopted and, therefore, not blood-related was irrelevant: we were family. On Christmas Day in 2001 I received a phone call letting me know that Uncle Albert was gone too.
Not long after Uncle Albert’s death an auction was held to sell his farmland, equipment, and vehicles. That tiny house he had lived in for most of his life, on the plot of land in Benson that still had the same green outbuildings I remembered being there when I was a child, was sold at the same time. There was discussion, at the time, about whether it made sense for me to keep the little house. I longed to retain that piece of history but, given that we lived 1,500 kilometers and two provinces away, it seemed to make little sense.
On the afternoon of the auction, I stood at the back of recreation center as the auctioneer put the house on the block and opened up the bidding. Lower. He dropped the price lower. Then lower again. Who would be interested in buying a tiny house in a hamlet in the middle of nowhere? I had to step outside to prevent myself from raising my hand and bidding on it myself. Eventually, a bidder came forward and the tiny house became his for an unimaginably low price.
I had taken a last walk through the house the night before the auction and my sister and I had sat on the floor in the attic going through trunks and cardboard boxes collecting family ephemera that we wanted to retain. We would be leaving Benson after the auction with no concrete plans to return and, as it now it seemed, no reason to return.
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Seven years later, in 2009, I was in the midst of writing my memoir and I visited that tiny house in Benson over and over again in my mind as I waded through memories of long ago, grieved that Death had claimed too many who once were part of that Benson history.
I was saddened that perhaps no one remembered the big empty house that once stood next door to Grandma’s tiny house where my grandfather’s people once lived–those same good people who had built the tiny house for grandma and her children. A big green garage had sat in that same space for so many years that memories of the big house were fainter with each passing year.
Who remembered the sound of the ticking clock that once sat on the corner of my grandma’s dresser next to an open window where a sheer curtain blew into the room on a hot summer breeze? What about the little bed tucked in the single bedroom where two young girls slept, safe next to the larger bed that was their mother’s? Who recalled the oiled wood on the stairway leading the attic my sister and I were forbidden from entering as children, and that seemed that much more inviting by our being kept from it? Or the worn wooden spool that served as a doorknob on the screen door, and the thwack of that door slamming followed by a scolding of the little girl who let the door slam?
An idea conceived in the back of my mind and, tentatively, I broached it to my husband: I wanted to buy the tiny house back. I was delighted when he agreed to my sentimental desire and, as we talked about next steps and what we would do once the house was ours, I felt hope and excitement at the prospect of going home. We wouldn’t uproot our lives immediately and move to Benson–we would likely never move permanently to the little hamlet–but I had plans, ideas, dreams, and we spent the rest of the warm summer afternoon sitting on the patio talking about them.
The next day, it was easy enough to find contact information for the Rural Municipality which seemed the likeliest way to find out the name of the person who owned the tiny house. The RM gave us his name and phone number and my husband made the call while I sat outside in the sunshine and dreamed. When he joined me outside and said he had talked to the individual who now owned the tiny house, and that he was willing to sell it, I was ecstatic.
My joy turned to confusion when I heard the asking price: ten times more than what the house had sold for at the auction. I couldn’t believe it. I was convinced he had not heard correctly and begged my ever-patient husband to call back and confirm. He made the call. The price was the same. It made no sense.
By this time we were living in Washington state and didn’t often hear news of what was happening in Saskatchewan. A bit of research revealed that there was an oil boom–the Bakken formation, it was called–perhaps the largest oil pool discovered in Western Canada since 1957. With the oil came workers, and the workers needed places to stay. Trailers and bunk houses were being brought in to small towns, houses that once stood empty were cleaned up and rented out, and the owner of Grandma’s tiny house in Benson had plans that didn’t factor in sentimental granddaughters.
The owner sent us photographs of the tiny house and yard. It looked much like it had the last time I had been there. The original house was intact and the addition Uncle Albert put on was still there. There was a troubling cement rectangle behind the house; someone had been making plans to build a structure for the oil workers to stay in. Aside from this, though, the grounds appeared relatively unchanged. I pored over the images, kicking myself for letting the house go in the first place and frustrated at the oil boom that was preventing me from getting it back.