The Loneliest Christmas

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Christmas, whether you celebrate Christ’s birth or not, is a time of the getting together of family and friends.

Encouraged, even demanded by the retail sector, it is a time of gift giving and gift giving is always portrayed as a family event with people arriving at someone’s front door laden with gifts or in someone’s living room with a room full of beloved and loving people.

Television is guilty of creating a feeling of everyone else is happy, everyone can afford to give and receive expensive gifts in houses that have huge rooms and fireplaces. These imaginary houses are perfect from both the outside and the inside. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wealthy.

I walked through the toy section of Walmart yesterday. Part way through the tour, I thought this is insane. No one needs all this, or any of this. Out of the glittery boxes, the toys are nothing more than brightly painted bits of plastic. I then went to an exclusive Victoria store. Just inside the door there was a coffee table for seven thousand dollars. The perfect gift for one of those perfect houses in the advertisements. Who, I asked myself, buys seven thousand dollar coffee tables?

Since I don’t know, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. Maybe I need to upscale myself.

There is no power more powerful than television to make people feel inferior. Show after show has apartments and houses that the characters in the show, in real life, couldn’t possibly afford. In Vancouver where tear-downs are being bought for 1.2 million and over, yup, you have to pay 1.2 million, tear down the current house and then build a new one, people are buying condos the size of walk-in closets. They are buying lane houses no bigger than a one car garage.

Wages have not kept up with prices. Mortgages in Vancouver are taking as much as eighty percent of the combined salaries of a husband and wife. Then there are car payments and food and clothes and dental work and one thousand dollar baby carriages. Credit card companies are charging over nineteen percent and people are taking out HELOCS so they can buy groceries.

“I saw it on TV. Not once but many times. People our age, driving a new car, going on exotic holidays, buying each other enormous gifts. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a loser?” If this is how you feel, give your head a shake. Drowning in debt doesn’t make anyone a winner. The Magi may have brought expensive gifts for Christ but they were kings. They weren’t using a credit card to buy the frankincense, myrrh and gold. You don’t prove you love someone with your gifts.

Instead of buying like a king of ancient times, how about attending a Christmas service? There are free concerts. Christmas pot lucks work just fine. If the spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting, one can have a busy, productive Christmas, especially if the giving is the gift of including people so they aren’t lonely.

Times of celebration can be the loneliest times for people who are left out of the celebrating. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have family, who will be spending Christmas alone. For them an invitation to share Christmas dinner or to go look at Christmas lights with you or attend a concert, even if it is a school concert, will go a long way to making their Christmas a happy one. There is no joy like the joy of being included, to be part of someone’s festivities, to share a meal, to not be alone while everyone around you celebrates. You can give that to someone. Without maxing out your credit card.

When I was young, all my friends seemed to get married at the same time and, in a while, to have children at the same time. Now that I am old, many of those same friends are widows or widowers at the same time and not all of them have children nearby. Some are divorced. Some have a wife or husband in an institution. An invitation to share part of your Christmas can make the season joyful for them.

I always admired my father for what he did one Christmas. One of his seasonal working men was a terrible alcoholic. He got his pay cheque and drank it away. His temporary friends at the beer parlour helped him with that. He hadn’t saved anything to pay for room and board before the fishing began again and he took up residence in a caboose (a one room shack covered with building paper and tar paper, sometimes plywood) that sat on an old sled. The caboose was some distance outside of town at the back of the beach among a copse of poplar trees. There was always a large amount of drifting snow in that area. My father drove until the snow drifts stopped him, then walked over the drifts, carrying a bag of food and a twenty-six of whiskey.

He couldn’t find the caboose until he saw a chimney pipe sticking up through the snow. He then discovered a beaten down track and followed it to the caboose. He knocked and was let in. It was one room, one chair, one bunk, some wooden fish boxes for cupboards, a tin stove, some firewood, a lamp. There was a small window that let in light and when it wasn’t covered in frost, a view of the vast surface of ice that went all the way to the horizon. It would have been hard to have found a lonelier place

My mother had packed up some butter tarts, some shortbread cookies, some Christmas cake, a meal of turkey and vegetables.

Gunnar wouldn’t leave his lonely snow driven place. My father and he talked for a while, then my father left and Gunnar, we’ll say he was called Gunnar, spent the night alone with the snow and wind and his thoughts.

Some people asked my father, why did you take a bottle of whiskey along with the food. My father’s reply was that it was the gift Gunnar wanted. It wasn’t up to my father to judge what he should or shouldn’t have.

I’ve thought of Gunnar often when I’ve felt lonely, when, for a period of time, because of circumstances, fate, ill luck, I found myself alone when others joined together to celebrate. I’ve comforted myself by thinking of that cold winter night with the wind blowing, the snow drifting, a man alone in a caboose and saying to myself this temporary moment I’m going through isn’t so bad.

We need others, we need community. Condo towers, suburbia, cities, apartments, poverty, illness, old age, death of a partner, a host of things work against community. Small acts of kindness, especially at special times like Christmas help restore it.

The Moveable Feast

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After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

My Irish Grandfather

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I loved my Irish grandfather.

When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited Master McGraw. I grew up listening to BBC news with him. He always listened to news from the Old Country. He taught me cribbage and, in the evenings, he always had time to play two or three games with me, always sharing strategy with me. He and my grandmother taught me to play bridge early and many an evening, we played three handed bridge.

Sometimes, he and my great uncle, took me to the country with them when they went to hunt grouse. It was then that I saw why my grandfather had been considered a great shot. He bagged grouse at distances I would have thought impossible. He took his shooting skill to France in 1915 and was both a sniper and machine gunner. Because of his ability with a machine gun, he was asked to be a gunner on an airplane. He declined. He said that tail gunner’s lives were measured in minutes.

He seldom talked about his years in the trenches but I know he thought about them for something about the war would appear on the radio or TV, or in the newspaper, and he’d sit, silent, his face a picture of sadness. His only outburst about the Great War was when my grandmother once made a disparaging remark about German soldiers and he fiercely defended them. They were, he said, incredibly brave and no civilian had any right to criticize them. Once, when I was about ten, I asked him if he killed anyone in the war and he said, “Thousands. We used to lay down an enfilade and no one could get through it.” And then would say no more.

One time he told me that a new recruit had joined them to replace someone who had been killed. He was a farm boy from Saskatchewan. He was nervous and kept poking his head over the top of the trench to see what was happening. He was warned to stop doing it. He didn’t stop. He poked his head up one time too many and a sniper shot him. He was dead in less than a day after coming into the trenches.

He also told me that there were so many rats in the trenches and no man’s land, feeding on the remains of the dead, that the soldiers would put out a bit of food and when they came to get the food, the soldiers would try to bayonet them. The soldiers hated the rats and hated the thought that the rats, at some point, might feast on what was left of them after an attack.
He and others in his troop were so exhausted that they would fall asleep during a bombardment with heavy artillery firing, bombs falling. They slept until they were called into battle.

He immigrated to Winnipeg when he was young because he had three sisters already there. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He came from Northern Ireland and was, you could say, Protestant, but only because you couldn’t say he was Catholic. I never knew him to go to church. If he’d had any faith in God, he’d lost it in the trenches.

He came back in a hospital ship. He’d been wounded by shrapnel and the wound had infected. There were no antibiotics in those days. It took a year before he was free of the infection. He also had been gassed before he’d been wounded. His lungs were burnt but that wasn’t enough to be sent back to Canada. A couple of weeks leave and it was back into the mud. The rest of his life he had trouble breathing. In cold weather in Winnipeg, riding his bike, he sometimes ended up leaving the bike and crawling through the snow as he gasped for air. Where, I wondered, where these despicable women who handed out white feathers to shame young men who had not volunteered to go to France and die in the trenches. None of them stood on street corners and handed out money to help my grandfather or any of the other soldiers who came back from Europe wounded in body or mind.

He had joined the army out of loyalty to England, Northern Ireland, and Canada. He went to fight the good war. During the war, he discovered that loyalty and idealism only went one way. He and his compatriots were cannon fodder, their lives not even worth considering, their family’s pain of no concern. He said that at one point they were down to six bullets per soldier while the officers were served Christmas dinners with all that went with a traditional dinner. My grandfather and his buddies ate beef out of a tin and strawberry jam. It is always this way. When the upper political class wants to wage war, they appeal to patriotism and when that doesn’t work, to threats.

They shame you with white feathers and public campaigns accusing you of being a coward for not allowing yourself to be maimed or killed for their cause. When the war is over, you are now a nuisance, an unwanted expense that might mean taxes have to be raised. Once the war is over, the only good soldier is a dead soldier. They are in their graves and can be forgotten except when politicians want photo ops.

He’d been quite a good boxer and he taught me how to box and gave me two pairs of boxing gloves. Because of that, I and my friends set up rings in the yard during the summer and sparred.
He never made much money working as a laborer for the railway. He and my grandmother never owned a car. He rode a bike to work. My grandmother knitted, sewed, grew a large garden, preserved.

They let me stay free when I went to university. They found me a summer job through one of my grandfather’s brothers-in-law. After I got married and needed a car because of my job, they loaned me the money so I wouldn’t have to pay interest. My grandfather hated the banks and the paying of interest because after he’d come back from the war and married my grandmother, they had bought a house and when the Depression began, he had his wages cut so he couldn’t keep up the payments and the bank foreclosed. As always, the government, no longer needing men for cannon fodder, abandoned the soldiers who had risked their lives to defend their country.

He was, without doubt, the most honest person I’ve ever known. Although he hated banks with a passion, when he once was given twenty dollars too much when he cashed a cheque, he turned around and went back into the bank to return the overpayment. I learned that type of integrity from him. He’d take no dishonest dollar from anyone.

I also learned from observing him that it is a lie when people say someone is dishonest because he is poor. Many people would have thought my grandfather poor. The people I’ve known who have been thieves have been the well-to-do, the rich, the people who feel entitled to take what doesn’t belong to them.

He lost two sons when they were very young. That left my mother as his only child. She was the centre of his universe and, through that, I and my brother were part of that world. His son-in-law, although a very hard worker, when he was starting out had no money and no one to borrow from to start his fishing business and sometimes there wasn’t much money in our house. My grandfather never objected when my grandmother paid for a sewing machine or a washing machine for my mother. Or provided me and my brother with clothes. Their home was always our home. A trip to Winnipeg for shopping always ended up at their supper table.

He was badly scarred by the Depression. He lived in fear it would return. It colored his whole life. He only had a few years of education and he thought that I would be best off if I would get a job with a large company and stay there the rest of my life, amassing seniority so when the next Great Depression came I’d have the most security. He was fighting the last economic war. The future betrays us all. Yet, he supported my going to university, supported my getting a graduate degree.
He was seventy-four, the same age I am now, when he died in the Gimli hospital of a heart attack. There were no stents or bypass operations then. His last words to my father were “Dempsey, I’m done this time.”

We buried him in the graveyard of a small town in Manitoba, a long way from the farm in Ireland where he grew up. I thought, at the time, he should have been cremated and his ashes sent back to Ireland to be buried in the family graveyard but then I realized, he’d fought for Canada, he’d made his living in Canada, buried two children in Canada, and even though once a year, he put on his sash and marched in the Orangemen’s parade and went to their picnic, it was just a day’s nostalgia from years past. It was no more meaningful than when my father’s people celebrate their Icelandic Viking heritage. None of them actually want to go back to being Viking pirates. When the day was over, my grandfather put the sash back into its box. He wasn’t interested in participating in the Troubles. He carried no pistol in his pocket.

His heart was in Winnipeg, in the Legion with the other old soldiers, at the bingo table, in his overstuffed chair beside the radio, across from me at the card table, at the Christmas dinner at my parents’ house.

Randy Bachman on Salt Spring

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This is what success can look like.

The skies are covered in cloud. There’s a light rain. It’s the kind of day to stay home on Salt Spring Island and read a book in front of the wood stove. Instead, we’re traveling through the grey afternoon light, through the tunnel of fir trees and arbutus, past the roadside stands that have signs saying free range eggs for sale, some late season flowers in an odd assortment of jars, past trucks loaded with firewood and marked with a scrawled price on a piece of cardboard. A lot of the trees are bare.

The road is slick, has curves in it sharp enough that they need signs to warn people to slow down. By the time we reach the Fulford Hall, the light has disappeared. We thought we were early but the parking lot is full. Cars are parked along the road. We slow to a crawl because people are appearing from behind cars and sauntering across the road.

Inside the hall, we turn in our tickets, get our hands stamped with red ink. I stop to look at a guitar that is being auctioned off. It has been signed by Randy Bachman. There is a bowl of suckers for sale for a dollar apiece. They’ve very cleverly been named Lalipops instead of Lollipops. The play on words is because the evening is a benefit being put on to raise funds for Lali Formaggia, who was seriously injured in a plane crash. She was returning from a backpacking trip when the plane she was on struck a tree shortly after taking off. She survived but had a broken arm and third degree burns on her legs. Randy Bachman has generously agreed to do a one man two hour show similar to his Vinyl Café gig on the CBC. Forty-five friends of Lali have pitched in and volunteered to organize and promote the evening.

Outside the Fulford Hall there is a sign with black letters that advertise the event. Friday night and Saturday night. This is Saturday night and during a break between the two sets, we hear that we are lucky we came tonight. The Friday night crowd wasn’t as lively. This crowd is high energy. People are pouring in the door, their voices up half an octave with excitement, smiling is endemic. Waiting for the concert to begin, people are standing rather than sitting, there is a roar of conversation, people are flowing into and out of the kitchen area with pie and muffins.

A woman climbs on stage. The crowd sits down. She makes a few general comments about the show and introduces the special guest of the evening, Lali Formaggia. Lali has a strong accent, long blond hair and tells us about the plane crashing, her trying to crawl free, her legs being on fire and calling for help. Someone called John came to her rescue and pulled her away from the plane. She was two months in hospital and hasn’t been able to work and won’t be able to work for some time.

Randy Bachman comes in and the room is electric with anticipation and admiration. He has had a house on Salt Spring for a long time now. It’s made of rammed earth, cost millions to build and I know about it not because he is just down the road from JO’s place but because I saw it on a David Suzuki show. Rumour has it that his place is for sale but during the show, he said that he’ll be in Toronto for another year and a half and then he’ll be back in his garden on Salt Spring. You could feel a sense of relief. His being here makes people feel good.

There are people who are natural story tellers, who know how to engage an audience, who know where the emotional content of their narrative lies. Bachman has had a lifetime of learning to be the best of Canada’s story tellers. His stories about growing up in Winnipeg, playing locally, making repeated efforts to gain an audience, the crazy events that happen, the results of which are unplanned and unpredictable, touch an audience because they’re stories everyone can relate to. Yes, he may be more talented than any individual audience member, but he’s been subject to the crazy whims of fate and the vagaries of luck and circumstance. Like all of us in our own way. What isn’t in the stories is how he became a successful businessman in spite of being in a tough business where lying and deceit are the norm, where nearly everyone is out for himself and there is nothing bigger than the egos of the participants and yet has managed to keep a reputation for integrity. Somehow, through all the years of dealing with bar owners, concert promoters, producers, technicians, audiences, he’s managed to keep something of that enthusiastic beginner on the way to becoming The Guess Who and BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive).

The audience is older. The average age is probably around sixty. There’s a lot of white hair and bald domes. There are some younger people and people with young children but the tickets are 55.00. It would be pretty steep for twenty somethings with two kids.

The audience is hungry to hear the stories about the songs they danced to when they were young. It is a night of entertainment and revelation. People are swept along as Bachman explains that he and the other band members had green cards that allowed them to work in the USA but that when they were going to Texas to play they were warned to turn around because those green cards also meant they could be drafted. That event resulted in the song American Woman and when Bachman explained that the song sold millions before radio stations figured out it was an anti-war song and that the American Woman wasn’t a rejected lover but the Statue of Liberty, that grey haired audience laughed with delight for they’d been around for the Vietnam War. No one had to give them a history lesson. They’d been there.

During the break between the two sets, a fellow got up and made the point of telling us that no money was being skimmed. That every cent collected would go to Lali. Then there were the draws for signed Randy Bachman posters. When we first arrived, after I’d found a seat, I’d gone back to buy three tickets on the guitar and the posters. Didn’t win so as we were leaving JO bought a poster for twenty dollars. Because she grew up in Winnipeg, Bachman has a musical place in the teenage heart of her youth.

The audience did a great ooohhhmmmm for a friend of Lali’s who spoke for a couple of minutes and thanked Bachman. It was a supreme Salt Spring moment. When the audience was asked to help out with a couple of songs, it did so with enthusiasm.

At the end, the audience stood up to applaud. That has become a meaningless, annoying habit Canadian audiences have got into. However, on this night, it was well deserved.

On the way back over the winding road, I smiled a lot. It had been a memorable night. I now knew the surprising impulse that replaced “white collar worker” with “taking care of business”. I knew about the pizza deliveryman who looked like Fidel Castro who went on to become a brilliantly successful musician. I woke up smiling the next morning. In spite of the clouds and the rain.

I’d watched a community come out to support one of its own who needed help. I’d watched a famous person who doesn’t need to help anyone, help someone who needed help. I saw some of the forty-five volunteers and the audience members who bought tickets, Lali pops and posters, who came together for a good cause. It used to be called being a community.

After my grandmother died at age thirty-two, my grandfather was bankrupt. My grandmother had been ill and needed private nursing for four years. All his savings had gone for housekeepers and nurses. He was a carpenter and, in the winter, he went fishing on Lake Winnipeg. They had four children. The community in Gimli, Manitoba, gathered together and held a fund raiser for him. Those are the community values we sometimes talk about with nostalgia. However, I felt as I sat in the audience listening to Randy Bachman, that there are places where those community values still exist.

Ashern Icelanders

Janet LeBlancq’s stories in her 32 page booklet I Know How I Got This Way capture a time some of us remember with nostalgia. She was born in 1947 and in 1957 when her parents split up, and she and her mother returned to Ashern to live with her Amma and Afi, she was ten. Over the next few years she lived in a small Manitoba town filled with relatives, friends and neighbours. What made her life different from that of most children was that her stepfather Charlie Clemens was an undertaker. The business was a family affair. In the first story, “Funeral Processions”, that I published with her permission on my blog, she talks about polishing the hearse, the effect on the family when someone died but more than that, she gives us tidbits of a time past. She says that “The whole town involved itself on the occasion of a funeral. All the businesses closed for an hour at the appointed time of the service and school would finish early so the teachers could attend.”

It is hard to imagine all the businesses in any town today shutting down for a funeral. For one thing, towns are larger, businesses aren’t all owned by local individuals. During the ‘40s and the ‘50s, even into the ‘60s, the structure of towns allowed local people to make independent local decisions. In such an instance, there would have been no customers anyway since they’d all be at the funeral. However, it wasn’t just funerals that affected whole towns. I remember when the Gimli senior hockey team was competing successfully against the other teams in the area. Townspeople were fiercely loyal and it was not unknown for many businesses, if not all of them, to shut down and a hockey cortege rather than a funeral cortege would wend its way to where an important hockey game was going to be held.

In a story like “Church Revisited” she says “Our congregation was a reflection of our town, there being an equal number of Icelandic and German members. Germans sat on the right side of the church, Icelanders on the left.” Nowadays, pews are mostly empty and the few people who loyally go to church worry about how they are going to pay for a new roof, not about someone’s ethnic identity.

In her story “The Backyard’s Burning” Janet tells us about the burning down of the funeral parlour and morgue in the back yard. However, her story reveals much more about life at the time. There’s her envy of her cousin Glen because he has a red and white Chevy. He is older and he and his friends are heading for the Snack Bar to play pool and hang out. In Gimli, we had Mary’s café. We hung out in the booths, eating burgers and fries, played pinball and often migrated next door to play pool. These were all part of small town culture.

There is the picture she presents of the response to the fire, to furniture being hauled out of the front door of the house, of “Valerie’s dad, Bill…who saved the day….With a fireman’s axe and brute strength he managed to chop down the reinforced corner of the garage and prevented the flames from spreading to the house.” Our resources and our heroes in those days were local. The results affected everyone’s life.

The Backyard’s Burning

Our backyard funeral home burned to the ground in the winter of 1961. I was on the way home from school, walking across the school yard with a group of friends. My cousin Glen was 16 and had a car, a red and white Chevy. I saw him on his way to his car with a bunch of the older kids. I was envious of them, they would be heading for the Snack Bar where they would play pool and hang out, and that was cool. I, on the other hand, had to go home and report in to Amma and probably do some household stuff. As if to validate our differing motives, Glen and his gang were running, while I was walking real slow. Amma’s right across the road from the school.

As I watched I saw Glen suddenly change direction and start running toward Amma’s and I saw Amma at the back door of the house waving, beckoning Glen. I walked faster, curious as to what was up. It was a windy winter day, the snow on the roof of the morgue was billowing in clouds. As I crossed the road, I heard Glen yelling “Fire! Fire!” Amma was yelling too and I bolted toward home, 3 or 4 of my friends close behind. The billowing clouds on the morgue roof weren’t snow clouds at all but smoke. We couldn’t see flames at first. Glen got the garage doors open and he and the big kids pushed the hearse and station wagon out into the backyard and away from the building. The next thing I knew, the fire truck had pulled into the driveway behind the morgue and the men were pulling out the fire hose. Now the flames could be seen through the small front windows. One corner of the burning building was just a sidewalk’s width from the back wall of the house. I guess they thought the whole shebang was going up in flames, guys were hauling the furniture out the front door of the house, directed in their efforts by my Mom who must have been summoned home from work. The firemen never did get any water to flow out the fire hose, something was wrong with the pump. All they had was our garden hose, so it was a no win situation. Valerie’s dad, Bill, was the one who saved the day. I remember that’s how it was later recounted. He was a very big man with the hugest hands I’ve ever seen. With a fireman’s axe and brute strength he managed to chop down the reinforced corner of the garage and prevented the flames from spreading to the house. The building that had been the garage and morgue was no more after that fire.

All that was left the next day was the foundation and concrete floor which, form that time on, served as a parking area. The paint was singed off the back wall of the house, I remember sweeping up paint chips that spring, months after the fire. Somehow, we took that whole time in stride. Later conversations among the grown- ups expressed thankfulness that the house was saved and that the fire hadn’t happened a week earlier. It had been a very busy time and the morgue had housed sev eral bodies awaiting burial. The day of the fire, the morgue was empty. Could have been a crematorium! Bill’s strength and courage were legend after that day.

A second fire the same year destroyed the skating shack right across the road from Amma’s. There was another hero too, this time it was Siggy Sigurdson. A crowd had gathered, drawn by the smoke and flames and someone had asked if anyone was inside. One of the kids, Roddy, thought my cousin Chuck was. They had been in the skating shack together when the fire started and now Chuck was nowhere to be found. The shack was engulfed in flames. Siggy was poised at the doorway and had taken his shirt off, ready to plunge inside to look for Chuck when word came through that Chuck was at home. He’d been terrified when the fire started and he raced home and hid under the bed, which is where Aunty Hertha found him. The message got through to Siggy just in time.

Those fires had forever effects on our family. The funeral home never again occupied my, or anybody else’s backyard. Eventually, Doc Steenson’s old house one street over was converted into a Funeral Home. In later years when we’d be leaving the house on some substantial trek like going to the lake or to Winnipeg for a couple of days, Amma would always make us wait in the car while she went back into the house to check that she’d turned the stove off. I find myself saddled with the same compulsion to this day.

Story “Funeral Processions” from I know how I got this way

Janet LeBlancq, in spite of her French name, has an Icelandic background. She spent most of her early years in Ashern, Manitoba with her mother, grandfather and grandmother. “Funeral Processions” from I know how I got this way” by Janet LeBlancq (Arnason). Her grandfather, Asmundur Arnason, died when he was 32. Her grandmother, Lara, married Charlie Clemens. Her mother, Margaret Stefania Arnason, married a 41 year old miner by the name of LeBlancq. The marriage didn’t work out and Margaret and Janet moved back to Ashern to live with Afi and Amma. This story and one to follow both come from a collection of stories about those Ashern years.

I was charmed by these stories. They capture a time and place and roused in me a flurry of memories. It was through the diligence and generosity of Jim Anderson, of Jim Anderson books, that I obtained a copy of I know how I got this way.

Funeral Processions

So there I was, a kid growing up in a tiny town in Manitoba’s Interlake region, with a Funeral Home in my backyard. My bedroom was also “the Office” where my Afi did his Funeral business. Outside, where one usually finds a yard, was the morgue and a garage for the hearse.

On Saturdays my chores included washing that hearse; it was a beauty—a 1929 Packard, black of course, with a red velvet interior and mahogany runner bars set in the floor. It had an exterior sun visor, and, except for its length, looked like the old cars you see in the movies driven by Al Capone’s boys as they blast their way through the streets of Chicago. It was actually fun to wash and polish that beautiful car and I dreamed of the day I would be big enough to drive it.

A business call meant someone had died and our entire household went into funeral mode. If the deceased was a local I would hear my Mom and grandparents reminiscing about times they had shared, but for all of us it was mostly business. My Uncle Lawrence worked with Afi; they would pick up the remains and be in the morgue for long hours doing the embalming and cosmetic work. I remember it being said that when they were through, a body looked asleep.

When the morgue was occupied, an air of solemnity descended on our house, orchestrated by my Amma. My sister and I, and my two cousins who were regulars at our place, were not allowed to linger or play anywhere near the backyard. I never did see the inside of the morgue, other than a stolen glimpse through a closing door. I guess I knew the rules and, fearing the consequences, obeyed them without question.

My Mom did the obituary writings and phoned them into the Winnipeg newspapers. That call would be made from my room! She also did a lot of the funeral arrangements, like booking the church and minister, organizing the pall bearers and ordering the flowers. The funeral wreaths and flowers were shipped from Winnipeg by bus. In the winter the flowers would sometimes arrive fresh frozen. The flower pick-ups from the bus station was a part of the whole business that I could be included in. I recall going to the café bus stop with my Uncle Lawrence to help load the flowers into the station wagon, with flourish, I might add. It was a mark of distinction, collecting something or someone from the bus, and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to do it all by myself. The only part of the whole funeral preparation not done directly by my family was the grave digging. The prerequisite to commissioning the service of a grave digger was determining the location and sobriety status of two local gentlemen who were the regulars for this task. Somehow the graves got dug, summer and winter.

When the bereaved family came to the Funeral Home to “view the remains,” I saw a lot of crying people and learned to be respectful of the moment. This meant being quiet and not around or, at least, out of sight. On the day before a funeral service, I would be in high gear washing the hearse and the station wagon; usually my older cousin Glen helped me.

The whole town involved itself on the occasion of a funeral. All the businesses closed for an hour at the appointed time of the service, and school would finish early so the teachers could attend. The funeral procession from the church to the cemetery was a solemn affair that everyone watched. The Packard, gleaming black and with headlights on, led the way, driven by my Afi. I was proud of my family; I recall how shiny the cars looked, and my Afi’s top hat. We would watch them pass in a thoughtful moment, and then go back to our playing.

Book review: I know how I got this way

ashernmuseum1
One of the joys of being a writer and editor is the unexpected pieces of writing that drift in from the mail slot. One of these, sent by Jim Anderson, the proprietor of Jim Anderson Books, his business that buys and sells books and ephemera and collections of papers to do with the Icelandic North American community (or Iceland), is I know how I got this way by Janet LeBlancq.

This 32 page collection of reminiscences of “growing up in Manitoba with Icelandic grandparents, Amma and Afi is set in Ashern. The oral tradition is an ancient one in the Atlantic island home of her ancestors, passing on the history, trying to stay awake while men, women and children knitted through the long winter nights, sweaters, socks and mittens, to trade with the Danish ships that came, carrying the necessities the barren rock couldn’t provide.”

Janet says, “Amma and Afi’s homestead came complete with a two car garage and a morgue. My Afi was a funeral director; he and my Mom’s brother, Uncle Lawrence, operated a family business, burying everyone in the Interlake region of Manitoba.” Neil Bardal might have disputed the claim of burying “everyone in the Interlake region” but since the stories are anecdotes told from the perspective of a young girl, the claim is quite justified.

In one story, “The Backyard’s Burning”, (Our backyard funeral home burned to the ground in the winter of 1961.), she says it was fortunate that “the house was saved and that the fire hadn’t happened a week earlier. It had been a very busy time and the morgue had housed several bodies awaiting burial. The day of the fire, the morgue was empty. Could have been a crematorium!” If it had been me living at Afi and Amma’s and there had been as many as three bodies at a time in the funeral parlour, I, too, would have figured we were doing it all.

I am absolutely delighted that Jim managed to find two copies of this booklet (one for him, one to be shared by me and JO). It is publications like this, made up of honest, heartfelt stories, full of details that if they weren’t written down, would be forgotten in the hurly burly of life.

The author captures a feeling for the time, right after WWII ended. In her first story, she begins by saying “My parents met in Montreal in 1945 on V-E Day. My Mom was 35, a career woman, my Dad, a 41 year old miner. They got married in 1946. My Amma refused to travel from Manitoba to the wedding; she didn’t approve of my Mother marrying a Frenchman, and so far from the Icelandic connections. After I was born in 1947, she finally did visit us in Montreal and, 25 years later I would travel from Montreal to say my last farewell to Amma in a Winnipeg hospital.”

“On Saturdays my chores included washing that hearse; it was a beauty – 1929 Packard, black of course, with a red velvet interior and mahogany runner bars set in the floor….It was actually fun to wash and polish that beautiful car and I dreamed of the day I would be big enough to drive it.”

In “Church Revisited”, the narrator says, “In the beginning we went to church every Sunday because my Amma made us go….Our congregation was a reflection of our town, there being an equal number of Icelandic and German members. Germans sat on the right side of the church, Icelanders on the left.”

Some of the stories like “The Two of Diamonds” are about schoolhouse rivalries. “Raiders of the Edible Orbs” recounts a raid on an orchard for apples. After having read both stories, I sat and thought about, with a great deal of pleasure, similar incidents when I was about the same age as the narrator. “Anyone who has ever raided an orchard will tell you, nighttime raids are best.” The object of the raid, Mrs. Schartz’s apple trees “was only a block down the lane but we used such careful sneaking up techniques that it took us 20 minutes just to reach her orchard gate!” In my case during a raid in Gimli, our target was the crabapple tree of the local dentist. We would probably have worn Viking helmets on our raids if they’d been available but plastic Viking helmets were still far in the future.

In “Broken Hockey Sticks”, the narrator begins by saying that “It seemed that the boys had all the fun. They knew how to build the rafts, and they could get the teenage boys to help—and everyone knows that when you’re a 10 year old girl, the only teenagers that will talk to you are the ones who have to because they’re neighbours or family.” She goes on describe a summer where the girls far outshine the boys in a battle of the sexes that the boys aren’t even aware is happening.

It is on page 28 in “My Driving Career” that I found the only description I’ve ever seen of how driver’s tests were conducted in rural Manitoba when I was kid. The author, born in 1947, is eight years younger than me. However, rural Manitoba didn’t change much from 1939 to 1947. The towns were small, isolated, everyone knew everyone else. There were few, if any, secrets.

She started steering a car when she was three. She started driving a car as soon as possible. “When I was fifteen, Lloyd Barnes called my Mom and said, “We better give her a license.” And he did. My “test” was to drive Mom’s car to Lloyd’s cafe on Main Street, answer a skill testing question, “”When were you born?”), and sign my name. Then Lloyd sent me on an errand in the car; my safe return clinched the test.”

I know how I got this way
is short, it’s made of folded sheets stapled together, it was published by Dragonfly Publishing Arts, Hornby Island, B.C. V0R 1ZO in 1995. I think two things should happen. Logberg-Heimskringla could do worse than call Hornby to see if Janet LeBlancq is still there and, if she is, get permission to run some of the stories. If that happens, then maybe Dragonfly Publishing or Janet herself could run off a hundred copies in the expectation that many LH readers would identify strongly, as I did, with the stories and want to purchase a copy.

Janet, thanks, because of you, I’ve had a pleasant evening reliving my childhood in rural Manitoba.