Coming back to Gimli


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I come to Gimli. That’s probably because my father died three years ago and my mother died last December.  My family is out at the Coast, my sister-in-law, my niece, my nephew. My daughter is on the island with her family and my son and his family are just across the border in the States. A ferry ride and an hour’s drive and I’m at their front door. Now that my parents are gone, will I come back every summer as I have done for fifty-one years?
I was brought up in Gimli. Did all those Gimli things. The Christmas concert at the Lutheran church, the orange and the bag of hard candy. Skating on the edge of Skorbahutch’s land where the railway spur and the track made a Y. Hunting rabbits in the brush piles. It took two of you. One to kick the brush pile, the other to shoot the rabbit that came running out. Skating on the outdoor rink, then indoors once the new rink was built. Curling. Lots of shouting by the skip and the sharp sound of the granite rocks hitting each other.
Hanging around Mary’s restaurant. Sitting in the booths eating hamburgers and chips, not those things in bags but home made French fries drenched in vinegar and salt. Playing the pinball machine beside the front door, trying to get an edge by lifting it a little only to have it flash TILT. Later, sneaking into the pool room through the back door to shoot pea pool and snooker.
Struggling through snow up to my knees to deliver The Winnipeg Free Press. I hated collection day because every time I went into a house to collect the money and give out the ticket that proved the subscriber had paid, my glasses fogged up. Solid white. It was like going from a freezer into a sauna at some places, then back into the freezer.
I went to all the hockey games I could afford and when I had an extra quarter, I watched cartoons and News of the World and feature films in Greenberg’s theatre on Second Avenue.
Fished on the outside of the dock for perch and swam in the harbour. There weren’t a lot of boats in those days and the water was still clean. I didn’t swim much because I was afraid of the water. Sometimes we went to the little dock and the other guys, the ones who loved the water, would dive all the way to the bottom and bring up stones to prove they’d been there.
But what is it that brings us back from far places? When we left school there weren’t many opportunities in Gimli. Some already had a plan, a goal or, like me, no plan, no goal, but grandparents in the city who wanted me to be something other than a laborer on the highway or a fisherman. Nowadays, it’s okay to be a fisherman but in those days my father would often fish for two months and come home owing more money than when he started. A lot of fishermen lived in shanties. Now, they live in mansions.
We went off to learn how to dress different, talk different, have different manners, think different, sneak our way into being pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, that sort of thing. I say sneak because a friend of mine told me that even though he had a Phd. and was the head of a university department, he kept waiting for someone to turn up and reveal that he was a fraud. I know how he felt. When I was at the university, I kept waiting for someone to stop me in the hallway and say “What are you doing here?”
We were all imposters of one kind or another, pretending we weren’t just small town kids who snuck in the back door.
Maybe that’s partly why we come back to Gimli every summer. To be ourselves. To be the kid in the third seat in the window row in Miss Greenberg’s class. Or the best forward on the PeeWee hockey team or the best goalie for the Midgets. Or, maybe, just to be the kid who, after a good day’s fishing, goes home with fifteen golden perch on his string.
When I got married and had a couple of kids, we used to go once a summer to have tea with Miss Stefansson. Miss Stefansson was very special. She was educated, sophisticated, and completely and totally dedicated to her students. She never married. We told each other stories about why that was. Given the kind of person she was, it had to be some tragedy in her past. We thought maybe it was a fiancée killed in WWI. I and my wife and kids went there and she made tea and we told her about ourselves, what we were doing, what we hoped for. Her house is gone now but when I walk past there, it is still there in my mind’s eye and I can still see us standing at the door and she is letting us in for our annual cup of tea and I’m going to tell her about my successes so she’ll know that the trouble she took with me was worthwhile.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the memories. When I was in Iceland the first time, my host took me on a two day journey. He frequently stopped to point out places and explain why they were important. Sometimes it was just a rock but it was important because something important had happened there. Maybe Gimli is a bit like that. When I walk on the dock, a thousand earlier ghosts of myself walk with me. When I sit on the sand, I sit with endless overlapping memories of having sat there before.
I sat there as a small child with my mother. I sat there later when I was old enough to come with boys my own age. I sat there as an adolescent with adolescent friends. I sat there with my wife. Then we sat there with our kids. A later, much later, I sat there with my grandkids.
Sometimes, I say to people, “This happened here.” Or “That happened there.” But often I don’t tell anyone except myself. This is where I kissed a girl for the first time. Here is where we had our dances and we wore drapes and the girls wore poodle skirts and a scarf around their neck and we danced slow dances close together. The guys who were cool popped their collars and, if they could afford it, wore leather jackets. Here is where we spent lazy summer afternoons playing baseball. Here….
The community hall is gone now but it was there that we danced to music made for teenagers, music that scared some adults but not my parents. They were so young they thought the beat was great. Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Here is where we rocked and rolled. It was in Harold Bjarnason’s parent’s living room lying on the floor, watching TV that we saw Elvis sing with his hips cut off at the waist so we wouldn’t be driven into a sexual frenzy by his moving hips.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. The memories are sharp, there are so many of them. The ages of the memories are all mixed up. The sound of a machine gun firing at the Gimli airbase when they had air force day. The hard, metallic, brutal sound of it. The sand around the target kicking up in spurts, the brass casings flying away from the gun, glinting in the sunlight. Being helped into a cockpit of a plane and sitting there imagining myself flying through the sky. Stopping a game of tin can cricket to watch a Harvard trainer diving down, straight down until it disappeared behind some trees. The game was on this piece of boulevard.It’s here we watched someone die.
Maybe a life is more than the present or maybe it can be more than the present. If you are lucky, that is. There are, after all, those who disappear. They never come back or they come back for a day or two if someone dies, then they’re gone again. They live in the two dimensional world of the present. History makes life three dimensional, a world of overlapping sights and sounds and smells and feelings. If you’re lucky. If you walk down the street where you lived and it is all right for the remembered past and the present to become one.

Old documents

Today, as I sorted through a box of loose pictures from my mother’s  house, I came across a rather beat up envelope. It just had my mother’s first name scrawled on the front. I opened it. Inside was a treasure. For years, I’ve searched for pictures of my grandmother’s plays. Once in awhile I’ve found a photograph. Here, at last, were a half dozen pictures of actors in costume, of Blanche in costume. 

Although she was married young and had four children, in spite of all the work that a wife and mother had to do in those days, no automatic washers, no dryers, no dishwashers, no electric stoves, she found time to write plays, act in them, direct them, produce them. My grandfather, Swanee, was a carpenter, and he built the sets for her. 

She was born in 1896, died in 1930. She didn’t have a lot of time. But she made good use of it. She wrote numerous plays. She corresponded with an Icelandic actor in Hollywood. She wrote music and had it produced in England. She also wrote poetry and short stories. 

In the envelope was her obituary. In Icelandic. I spent the entire day, it is now eleven p.m., translating what would be for a fluent reader of Icelandic, a few minutes work. Two lines I left out. The obit writer got poetic and completely defeated me. I don’t think my grandmother would have minded. She loved being on stage and, now, her grandson, eighty-two years later, is putting her back in the spotlight. 
She died before I was born. I grieve that. I wish I had known her. How much fun it would have been to have an amma who wrote plays and music and poetry, who dressed up in costumes, and acted. How exciting life would have been with her living just two blocks away on the same street. 

Her death was so painful that it was hidden away. No one talked about it. I’d never seen her obituary until today. I didn’t know until I was in my fifties that she had been a writer and that, all on my own, I’d followed the same path. Sorry we never met, amma. But here you are, centre stage once again.

That’s her far right, among the classy ladies of Gimli, 1920s style.



Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson
Born 21. March 1896
Died 2 May 1930
Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson, from Gimli, died in the General Hospital in Winnipeg. Because of her illness she had been moved there. After only a short time, she died. Before she died, she was constantly ill for a number of years.
Mrs. Valgardsson was the eldest child of Mr. and Mrs. William Herbert Bristow from Gimli. Mr. Bristow is English. He’s the son of Rev. W. J. Bristow who graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, and was the long time priest at Offenham, Worcestershire. His mother was Margaret Elizabeth Pruen Bristow.
Mr. Bristow’s wife is Gudrun Fridrikka Gottskaldsdottir. Her parents were Gottskalk Sigfusson  and Holmfridur Jonatansdottir, both of whom are long dead. Blanche married Sveinbjorn Valgardsson  . He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ketill Valgardsson of Gimli. Ketill came from Eyrarsveit in Snaefellsnessysla. Ketill’s father was Valgardur Jonsson, and  his mother Kristin Brynjolfsdottir Gunnlaugson of Bjarneyjar of Breidafjordur. Soffia, Ketill’s wife was from Laxardalur in Dalasysla. She was the daughter of John Sveinbjarnason.
Bjorn and Blanche were married on the 8th of Nov., 1913. Their children are Earl Sveinbjorn, Alfred Herbert, Kelly Allan Arthur, Forence Glady Gudrun.
Sveinbjorn was a carpenter but sometimes he went commercial fishing. The long illness of his wife was difficult but he did his utmost for her and dealt with her illness wonderfully well.
The struggle against death was long and the death of the young mother a great loss. Along with Bjorn, there are four children to mourn her loss.
Mrs. Valgardsson was highly artistic and talented and loved art of all kinds. She had been involved with drama for some time in Gimli. Her funeral took place from her home on 6 May. A large number of friends and relatives attended the funeral. She was laid to rest in the Gimli graveyard.
Sig. Olafsson.

Old photographs

I dredged them out of the crawl space. Plastic yellow and red boxes filled with 35mm colour slides, strips of black and white film in brittle paper sheaths. They’d made many moves, Winnipeg to Riverton, to Snow Lake, to Pinawa, Manitoba, then off to Iowa and Missouri and, finally, to BC. Here, they’d moved to four different houses. The evidence of those towns and cities is all there, although some places spark no memories. Perhaps they were taken during a move but why did I take them? It’s a mystery.

I’ve had to relearn how to use a scanner, to master some new programs, although master is probably the wrong word since I’m struggling to understand some of the functions. I’ve managed to copy the slides and film onto the computer.
The first thing I’ve discovered is that even in their plastic boxes, the pictures are covered in dust. I’ve had to go to London Drugs to buy a lens brush. I’ll have to start all over again, cleaning slides and film strips before I make a final copy.
Dust or not, I’m reliving my life. Once again, my daughter is all dressed up in a pink dress, sitting in her high chair, reaching for the birthday cake her mother has made for her. In another picture she is sitting astride a kiddy car (at least that’s what I think we called it). It’s got bright red metal pedals, a wooden seat. She’s got on white shoes and white socks with her pink dress. I’m not sure she’ll be able to reach the pedals. She’ll grow into her gift.
But who gave her this locomotion, this childhood treasure? Did we buy it? Is it from her grandparents?  I’ll have to call my ex. She remembers everything. Like most men, I’m not good at details. She was at home, spending each day with our daughter, taking care of her, helping her, teaching her, making the world a good place for her. I was off every day teaching school.
That’s the problem with being young and having children. Young is a very busy time of life. Going to school, getting a job, working for advancement, buying a house, a car, furniture. We were fortunate because my wife was able to stay home. But I was learning to be a high school teacher and tutoring on the side.  
There’s another picture, earlier, taken from the back as our daughter is teaching herself to walk. She’s using the edge of the couch to help her pudgy little legs hold her up.
I remember that couch. All we had was a hundred and fifty dollars. Even in those days a hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t buy much. A friend of a friend sent us to a factory that made furniture. That’s what I loved about Winnipeg. There was lots of manufacturing and if you couldn’t afford Eaton’s or The Bay, there was usually a connection that would get you through the door of a wholesale.
Even the wholesale didn’t have anything for a hundred and fifty dollars. But, the owner, seeing two broke kids in desperate need said, “You know what? Someone ordered a couch. They put on a down payment then didn’t want it. Custom made. One fifty and it’s yours.”
Green fake leather. Built for giants. It was the biggest couch I’d ever seen. We took it. We could seat the whole family on it. It was not built for moving but we moved frequently and we took it with us. What else can you do when you get a great Winnipeg bargain? Years later when we left for Iowa so I could go to graduate school, we didn’t haul it with us. I wonder what happened to it? I’ll have to ask my ex.
Each day, I send my son and daughter a picture from their past. My son wrote back and said he remembered the sandals he’s wearing at the cottage in Gimli. They were a bit too long and he kept stubbing his toes. He admires a flowered shirt that I’m wearing at the beach and says that he’d wear a shirt like that. In those days I wore nothing but flowered shirts. I’d forgotten. When we moved to BC, I adopted the local camouflage, plain shirt, tie, tweed jackets, wool slacks in winter, cotton in summer. I gave up my cavalry boots for shoes.
I go back time and again to the picture of my one year old daughter on her kiddie car. My heart aches as I look at her for with the picture comes the memory of picking her up, holding her, helping her learn to walk.
I would that I’d taken a thousand thousand pictures of her and her brother but I came from a family that hardly ever took pictures. We have to make do with these few small treasures.
When my daughter saw the picture of her one year old self in the high chair reaching for the birthday cake, she wrote back and asked, “Is that me?”  Yes, yes, that was you. It all seems quite magical, birth and growth and aging. All the people we have been. Yes, let me remind you of your younger self.
A busy time. Lesson plans. Grading papers. Tutoring to make extra money. Taking classes for a BEd. Writing. Writing. Trying to get published.
But there was time for a cake, for a birthday party, for presents, for a pretty dress, for a photograph. 
Thank God for that photograph.