The Women in My Life

raefurcoatl_0005

They were always there. They were there before I was born. They were there after I was born. They were part of my world as much as the sun, the moon and the stars.

My mother was seventeen when I was born. She wrapped me up warmly and took me to watch the King and Queen ride down Portage Avenue. I don’t remember it. I expect I was asleep. I know I was there because a few years ago as she was sorting out her belongings before going to Betel, she showed me a newspaper and the front page story was about the King and Queen’s visit. She said, “You were there with me.”

We stayed at my grandparent’s house for a few days.  My grandmother was small boned, always busy, always looking out for my best interests. I expect that started the first time she saw me. I’m sure she held her hands to her cheeks and in her thick lrish accent said, “What a beautiful baby.” I’m sure she was afraid because both her sons had died when they were small children. Died of birth defects that today would have been prevented with diet and what is now minor medical treatment.

My grandmother, brave soul that she was, packed up her belongings in Ireland and, by herself, took a ship to Canada to marry my Irish grandfather. How brave she was. How typical of all the women who risked everything for a better life. Irish, Icelandic, English, Scottish, Welsh, Ukrainian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, an endless list of women who risked facing the unknown for a better life for the children they had or hoped to have.

She loved me as only a grandmother can love. With no reservations. She helped me learn to read, knitted clothes, sewed, kept me at her place on holidays and took me to places only the city could provide, art galleries and museums, places like Assiniboine Park, later, found me a summer job, let me stay with her when I went to university.

In Gimli, when my mother took me there to join my father, there was my step grandmother, Catherine. Widowed and left with four children, a house but no money, she was resourceful, uncomplaining, grew a garden, found part time work, cooked for restaurants, took in boarders, and loved us all. She raised, under the most difficult circumstances, a family that did well in life, didn’t just survive but prospered. And under the umbrella she created, there was room for many others and one of those was me.

My mother. What can one say about a girl who became a mother in 1939? World War II had just begun. Life was fractured. Soon there would be shortages. She was an inventive cook and baker, creating dainties from white bread dipped in chocolate and rolled in shredded coconut. This city girl plucked and cleaned ducks. She managed my father and me and my brother when he came along four years after me. Like her mother, she knitted and sewed and quilted. Quilting frames sat over the dining room table for weeks as she and her friends and relatives gathered to make each other quilts.

How many meals did she make? How many clothes did she wash? How many dishes? We should calculate it and then pile them all up in one place so we can say, “My mother did this?”

However, she did more. When my father asked her to take care of the credit union’s books, she agreed to do for two weeks. Twenty years later, she retired. Her story astounds me still. She had grade ten. She had no training in bookkeeping. She had to learn everything on the job. At first, she went to annual general meetings, she was the only woman there. There are things I often tell people such as, she never hired a man. There were opportunities for men. Hardly any for women. She believed in women helping women.

There was no prouder day in her life when a young professional woman came up to her and said, “Rae, you inspired me.”

 

There were, though, other women, if not so intimately in my life, still in my experience and my mind. Think small town Manitoba between 1940 and 1970. Travel is still difficult. There is little money. Prejudices and rigidity prevail. Yet, there are women like Lara Tergesen. My mother told me that Tergesen’s store, now so famous, would have ceased to exist if Lara hadn’t doggedly gone to keep the store open in hard times. Or Gwen Geirholm who ran Geirholm’s Hardware Store while her husband travelled about putting in tin ware and furnaces and myriad other tasks that needed to be done. Or my great aunt, Violet Einarson, becoming a real estate agent when real estate agents were men. It was known that God had ordained men to be real estate agents. Violet wasn’t all that impressed by ordinations. She had her own real estate business and insurance business.

I think that my experience in Gimli, watching these strong, independent, determined women was why, when I was offered a teaching position at a private women’s college in the United States, I had no hesitation in accepting the position. It seemed quite natural that I should work to help young women get ahead.

There were others. However, these were the ones in my firmament, the ones whose path I saw. They often lived with tragedy and grim determination. They made do. They made a life for their families. There are thousands, tens of thousands of women who were like them. They never got any medals. Medals are a men’s thing given by men to men. They are often deserved. But they ignore the women who made those triumphs possible.

On International Women’s Day, and on other days, often at night when all is quiet, I think about these women and others, and say thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Not just for me personally but for me and for the friends I grew up with and for the community.

Thanks.

Waiting for Spring

SONY DSC

There is a time when the year turns. The winter has grown old. The snow has piled high, layer upon layer, its strata revealing blizzards and heavy snowfalls. The roadsides have piles of snow scooped high by snowploughs.

People begin to turn toward the sun, marking its progress, its growing brightness, its growing warmth. Old instincts buried deep within our brains begin to shake themselves from drowsiness.

We have begun to respond to the first indications of spring. They are already there at the beginning of March. The hard ice created by being walked over, slippery, treacherous, melts around the edges, become soft and ragged. There are pools of dark water in low spots on the roads. There is the sound of car tires splashing through the puddles. There are children wearing brightly colored rubber boots stamping in the puddles.

At night Winter reasserts itself, freezes once again the water that appeared during the day, hardens the surface of the snowbanks that had softened with sunlight. The snowbanks, once a pristine white are now grey and black and the snow melts and the dirt that has collected gathers on the surface. What were graceful, curved, fluted snowbanks collapse upon themselves, begin the process of flooding the fields and ditches.

SONY DSC

The birds are bolder; leave the perches where they have huddled through the winter. They sing to the strengthening sun.

People walk over the snow covered sidewalks, their parkas undone, their heads bare. They will retreat again and again for Winter does not give up so easily. Wind and driving snow, hoar frost thick on the trees, ice, hard as iron will return.

But down by the harbour people get out of their cars and trucks to look at their boats secured against the winter, cocooned in plastic, raised on wooden beams and oil drums. On the ice the work that must be done for the coming summer speeds up for jagged cracks appear, the snow cover softens on the lake.

SONY DSC

The trees still remain unmoved, their branches brittle. Not yet, not yet the bursting pussy willows, the leafing buds, the growing tips. Not yet, but soon.

In ancient times, the sun circled around the earth, the people feared that winter would never end, that spring would never come and when it did appear, they sacrificed a man and maiden to their gods, their blood a sacrifice to spring and growing green that would feed them with crops of grain and fruit.

And our ancestors, not so long ago, huddled together seeking warmth in shanties along Lake Winnipeg, waited out each cold day, marking each few minutes longer the sun lingered in the sky and when the green world appeared once more had hope there’d be food to fight off hunger, to mend their scurvy laden bodies, stop the bleeding of their gums, warm their bones. For them the lengthening days were life saved from winter death.

Today, we know the turning of the globes and need no blood to greet the spring. But still we shake off winter’s indolence, enjoy the warming sun, make plans, imagine once again the blooming flowers, our boats upon the waterSONY DSC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Winnipeg in Winter

SONY DSCIt snowed last night. The morning was pristine white. The snow here is soft, fluffy, dry unlike the wet heavy snow of the West Coast.

The sky was white, fading into blue and everywhere there were blue and grey shadows and by early afternoon the low spot at third and centre was filled with water. Trucks and cars going through it went splash, splash and the water rushed away in little waves.

At the lake’s edge there was wind, cold enough to make me wish I’d brought a scarf. The reflection of the snow and the drifting  crystals turned the horizon white, made it endless as if there was nothing in the distance but infinity. The bare corrugated ice of the race track once free of snow,has drifts stretching across it.

There is no risk of being lost in a white out because the wind is gentle, sending the snow scurrying over the lake’s surface. On both sides of the track there are high ridges of snow that were ploughed to provide barriers for cars hurtling around the curves during the Ice Festival.

The dock is crusted with ice and frost. In the distance are poles marking fishing nets. There are three sports fishing huts, incongruous with their sharp edges in a world where the wind curves everything except the cast up blocks of ice that form ridges here and there.

Walking on the race track is easy, the surface dark and rough, not like the ice that has been polished smooth by the wind. The drifts are not yet deep. The point at the north side of the bay is blurred by the frost in the air.

SONY DSC

As I trudge over ice and snow, I think of my father and his father and his father, all working on the ice as commercial fishermen. I think of the first settlers, confounded by ice like this, hard enough and deep enough to support cars and trucks, ice that had to be chopped and chiselled until four feet, sometimes six feet down until water appeared and nets could be set.

It is here that the local people, the Cree, the Saulteux, appear, faint figures in the crystal mist. Native people showing the Icelandic settlers how to push a net under the ice with a pole and to push that pole with another pole and another pole so as to get the net stretched out and then to painfully, slowly chisel away another hole so both ends of the net can be secured.

It is then some genius created the jigger, that simplest of tools that allowed nets to be run under the ice. On ice like this, trying out a new invention that would mean fish to eat in the dead of winter. And when it worked, men making more jiggers so more families could survive the hunger winters for the idea of easy hunting for meat is a city myth. My great grandfather went many times to hunt for deer and moose and came home empty handed. Fish was more dependable.

I stand with my back to the wind and I think of all the nets my father set and lifted in a lifetime, all the frozen fish we packed, shipped to market.

But also on the ice faintly in the haze are others not so fortunate. Those who were lost in blizzards and froze to death. Those who walked all night on frozen feet and had to have them amputated and spent the rest of their lives on their knees clearing land and doing chores.

Anyone brought up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg who goes out on the ice is never alone for a host of images surrounds with him. Even when it’s a fine day with a light wind and a blue sky.

Ice Vikings

SONY DSC

You weren’t there. There’s no use denying it. I was there and if you had been there, I’d have seen you. Of course, I might not have recognized you in six layers of clothes, a parka with the hood up, a balaclava covering your face except for your eyes. So, maybe you were there. It’s possible.

SONY DSC

It was overcast. The kind of overcast that creates a white sky from horizon to horizon. The fan on the weather vane outside my window was turning but not like the wind will sweep you across the lake and you won’t make it home until spring kind of turning.

People wearing so many layers of clothes that they looked like giants or serious in need of a membership in Weight Watchers were walking down to the harbour. You know, the Gimli harbour where the summer sun dances in diamonds across the water, where people lounge in bathing suits and suntans.

SONY DSC

My ears led me to the action. There SONY DSCwere snowmobiles racing around, cars racing furiously on an ice track, motorcycles with studded tires speeding over the lake. White mist flew up from them. They trailed clouds of white ice and snow. The cars hurtled past. No casual Saturday drive this. When I say hurtled, I mean hurtled. Now you see them, now you don’t. The teenager in me was delirious with delight.SONY DSC

There were bombardier rides. People piled into bombardiers and out of bombardiers, using hay bales as a step up and step down. The bombardiers were coated with frost. My grandfather used a horse and sleigh. My father used a tractor and caboose. Bombardiers are luxury personified. You get to sit inside out of the wind.

There were frozen chicken curling competitions. The little kids curled with frozen quail, the bigger kids with frozen chickens and the adults with frozen turkeys. The winning teams got to keep the losing teams quails, chickens and turkeys.

There was an Icelandic frozen fish toss.  I thought they’d be tossing hakarl or maybe small whales but the frozen fish they were pitching looked suspiciously like pickerel. Some of the snow mobile riders in their snow mobile outfits looked like they could toss small whales around. They looked like warriors from Star Wars. I was quite envious. I think I drove the first snow mobile in Gimli or close to the first one but I didn’t get to look like that. I just looked like me in a parka. And the snowmobile didn’t go very fast. And it broke down.

SONY DSC

There was a puck shot competition, kid’s ice fishing, ice golfing and right now, as I write this, there is a meat draw madness event. And tonight there is going to be a short film shown on a large outdoor screen. On an outdoor screen!. It´s March 2!  I keep waiting for a notice saying they’ll chop a hole in the ice and go nude swimming at midnight. If I’m at the Lakeshore hotel tonight and people suddenly start disrobing and someone yells, “Surfs up!” and everyone bounds over the patio rail and races onto the lake, I’ll know its frolic in the frozen lake time.

Thank goodness my credit union, that is the Noventis Credit Union, put up a big white tent where hot drinks were sold. I sought refuge there.

SONY DSC

If I hadn’t been such a wimp, I’d have gone to the Viking Inn last night for the mechanical bull riding.

SONY DSC

Of course, there were Vikings and Icelandic flags. Vikings were great travellers. Even so do you think they would ever have imagined themselves flying across the frozen lake in snowmobile outfits, their helmets with horns trailing icicles? Yelling, Ye Ha. Or the equivalent in Icelandic. Personally, I think they’d have loved it. You couldn’t have got them off the snowmobiles, out of the bombardiers, out of the madly racing cars.

Just another day in Gimli. Never a dull moment.

(The reason my article says there was a white sky and it is blue is that after a day of taking photos my memory card collapsed. I lost all the Pix. I had to reformat it. Lost all the photos from day one. Today, day two, it’s warm, blue sky and the photos aren’t nearly as dramatic. Sigh. Photogarphic tragedy.)