Thanksgiving blessings

No destination is as important to North Americans of Icelandic descent as that of the farm on which their ancestors lived. In article after article, people write about the rush of emotion that occurred when they stood on that hallowed ground. They can, with no difficulty, see their grandparents or great-grandparents making hay, bringing in the sheep or cows. The sound of the waves on the shore is the same sound their ancestors heard. Many people refer to this land as “My grandparents’ farm.” But in fact the people who left for North America seldom owned land.

All Icelanders were not equal – socially or politically or financially. Nearly everyone had to be attached to a farm, and workers were allowed only one time during the year when they could move to another farm. There were six classes of people on these farms.

1. There were the Bændr, the land owners, at the top of the heap. The big shots. They were the farmers for whom everyone else worked. They had political muscle, and fought hard against the emigration of their workers who were providing cheap labour. Newspapers were filled with stories about the disputes between those who would emigrate and those who saw their power eroded.

2. There were the Húsmenn. These were people who had property on the Bændr ´s land but were not allowed to make hay or to use the pastures.

3. The Kaupamenn were labourers who were hired to work for the farmer.

4. There were Hjáleigumenn – the equivalent of crofters renting a small farm (hjáleiga) from the Bændr.

5. Then there were the Vinnumenn, the servants.

6. And, finally, there were the paupers. There were many paupers. The heaviest tax on the Bænder was the tax (fátækra útsvar) to support the paupers .

If your ancestors were not No. 1, and didn´t actually own a farm, they had good reason to leave Iceland. If they did own a farm and emigrated, there must be a story there? They had a legal and political system that made everything in their favour.

There was little actual cash. The peasants – yes, they were peasants – paid their rent and the money they owed in June and July with wool. In September and October, they paid with smoked and cured mutton, grease and tallow, and sheep skins and lamb skins with the wool still attached. Fat of any kind was always in short supply, and butter and cheese were usually kept for personal use or for bartering. Sometimes butter was used to pay taxes.

If your people worked on a farm, they were, essentially, indentured servants. Some farmers treated their people well. Others treated them badly. The landscape was beautiful, but nothing is beautiful when you are hungry. Emigration did not happen easily. People were driven to leave Iceland out of desperation. The trip was long. The way was hard. Many died.

But, in spite of all this, the beauty of Iceland stayed with many of the emigrants. You can read it in their poems, in their prose. You see it at Icelandic Celebration and August the Deuce, at Thorrablot and in the Icelandic clubs, in the Snorri program, and at the Icelandic summer camp. You see it in the frequent visits of Icelandic North Americans to Iceland.

You see it in those emotional visits to the places our ancestors left. The descendants of paupers, servants, crofters, labourers, tenants, still hold a place in their hearts for Iceland. When you visit this special destination, the farm of your great-grandmother or great-grandfather, or great-great-grandparent, take the time to reflect on what their life was like in the 1870s, and how desperate and brave they must have been when they walked away from both house and homefield for the last time to create a new life for children not yet born.

When you are setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner take out pictures of your ancestors who left Iceland for Canada, set them on the buffet or even on the dining table. Before you begin to eat, tell your family and guests something about them and, when you say grace, include these people from your past in your thanks. It is because of them that you sit down to a feast today. After the meal, when you’ve eaten your turkey, potatoes, gravy, your pumpkin pie, and are enjoying your coffee reflect upon the empty dishes, your full stomach, the photos and silently give thanks to Jon and Jonina, Gunnur and Gusta, or whatever their names were. Bless, bless.

(This article appeared in a slightly different form in Logberg-Heimskringla. This year is LH’s 125th birthday. Consider giving someone a gift of a subscription to celebrate.)

good days remembered


There’s longing and then there’s longing. I don’t mean Romeo and Juliet type longing. I mean longing longing. The kind that drives you out of the house on a rainy evening fifteen minutes before the grocery store closes. You drive there hoping that the doors will be open, race inside and grab a box of brownie mix from the shelf. That’s longing. I can’t think of a smile I’d walk a million miles for but for Namaste Brownie Mix brownie mix I’d drive six blocks at nine-forty-five on an ugly night.

That’s what it was like one Thursday many years ago. I’m not sure what caused me to think about it. The mention of a girlfriend’s mother who approved of me (not something that happened a lot) and showed her approval by making brownies every time I came over. Or maybe it just was because it was the same kind of day. It had rained all weekend. Not drizzled, like it usually does, but rained. Prairie type rain. The kind that makes you feel wet and chilled right through your GoreTex. It was that kind of day when the doorbell rang and my grandson with his lopsided grin and his jacket undone, said, “Hi, Grandpa. We’ve come to visit.”

His Mom and his baby sister were right behind him. After the kids got their jackets and boots off, they hunted up their Uncle and Aunt who were just getting out of bed. Sean got permission to use his uncle’s computer and Rebecca, after showing us her two toy dogs that mercifully had lost their ability to bark since the batteries had died, demanded we draw her mommies and daddy’s and babies. Her aunt, wise in the way of kids, found an old catalogue and cut out paper dolls. While their Mom and Dad were away playing soccer and golf, Kristin and Sean played FISH. Rebecca spread her cut outs over the kitchen table, creating and uncreating families. Then the grandkid’s parents turned up and we had the Shepherd’s pie I’d baked the night before.

Days like that are still memorable decades later. Not for anything special or unique but because the rain beats on the windows while we’re warm and comfortable. Because we’re together and have nothing that has to be talked about nor anything that can’t be talked about. Because there’s a four year old and a two year old who climb from one lap to the other, drawing our attention to toys and paper and crayons, swapping pencils with us, asking for drawings of sheep and pigs and cats, slipping in and out of the room and our conversation. All that was needed was someone to have come in the door with a violin or an accordion and play a tune or two and we’d have had a caleigh. A penny whistle would have done but none of us is musical and no magical visitor appeared, shaking raindrops from his shoulders and starting a tune.

After everyone had left, the house was a shambles, stuffed tigers and crayons and coloring books and cards spread about in a kind of happy chaos. That’s what me started thinking about my old girlfriend and her mother. She wasn’t a girlfriend, girlfriend, the serious sort. We went out a few times together then became friends, the kind of friends where there aren’t any complications from lust or jealousy. That meant I could keep eating brownies and arguing politics with her father. There’s a lot less rain than snow in Manitoba so it was mostly snowy Sundays that I and some of my friends would crowd through the door, take off our boots and spend the day arguing politics. It was a big family, seven kids if I remember correctly so organization was necessary and chaos was imminent. People came and joined the debate, shared the brownies.

Thanksgivings were crowded like that at my grandparents. They had a small house and big hearts. Lots of people, lots of talking, lots of laughter. My grandmother was a short, slight Irishwoman, with an Irish lilt to her voice and a quick welcome at the door. The earliest memory I have of visiting her was when I arrived at the back steps, probably brought into the city by some neighbor and dropped off. I said, “Here I are, Grandma.” It’s a line I’ve heard repeated many times. Hundreds of times I’ve come to that door, eventually bringing with me a wife and two children but each time I knocked, turned the handle and stepped into the stairwell, a faint, small voice always echoed “Here I are, Grandma.”

There were two major occasions in my grandparent’s lives. One was July 12 when my grandfather, a lifetime away from Ireland, would put on his Orange sash and march down Portage Ave. following the fifes and drums and King Billy on a white horse. It was an exercise in nostalgia for the Battle of the Boyne meant nothing in Canada where working class neighborhoods were a mixeture of Italians, Greeks, Scots, English and Scandinavians and there was every denomination of Protestant and Catholic. We went to hear the pipes, to see King William in his red coat and long wig, and to have my grandfather march by with a wave of his hand. We went for the train ride to the picnic, the egg sandwiches and the lemonade, the stories of Ireland with its green hills and soft rain.

The second holiday that really mattered was Christmas with its turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and gravy and cranberry sauce. The food was good but it wasn’t that that made it Christmas. It was the getting there. The dressing up and having our hair brushed, the drive into the city, the carrying of gifts to the house, the excitement of arriving, my grandmother’s joyous cries and my grandfather’s quiet, satisfied smile, the smells and the sounds, the tiny living room crowded with a table and chairs, the sense that we were somehow doing this together, bound by blood and marriage and love.

Some people define an inheritance as how much money they receive upon a death. There’s never been much money in our family but there’s been many brownies, much spirited debate, many holiday meals, and many hearty welcomes. Money soon gets spent but the rainy day my grandchildren came to visit , I felt rich: I greeted my grandchildren at the door, I cooked for my family and we crowded around the kitchen table to swap stories and tell lies. We had such a good time that if there’d been even a penny whistle, we’d have had a caleigh.

The Weekend Carpenter

I built a woodshed last weekend. It looks like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. My only defense is that there is now has a wood stove and it needs dry wood. Wet wood doesn’t burn well, and the winter rains start soon.
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There are lots of big trees here. I chose two that are fairly close together, then erected two posts and a 2×6 crossbar  some distance away. You have no idea how reckless this project is. I’ve never built anything in my life. They only gave me a passing grade in shops because I caught my thumb in the lathe and they were afraid they’d be sued. I’ve still got the scar. The shop teacher told the principal that if I failed and took the course a second year, he’d have a nervous breakdown].
The boss who oversees all won’t let me use her power tools. There’s a good chop saw on the back porch, but she has visions of my hands flying off. I’m inclined to drift away and think about other things when I’m working. A handsaw can’t do much damage. An errant hammer usually just means a smashed thumb. A power saw is not so forgiving. Or a nail gun.
Salt Spring ground is uneven. Except for hollows filled with moss and deadfall, large rocks covered in moss are everywhere. When it rains, the hollows fill up with water. Next to where I chose to put the woodshed, a large cedar tree had fallen some years ago.  It’s old enough to have mostly crumbled into a heavy, deep red pulp. I had to break it apart in places with an iron bar and rake it so I could get back and forth easily.  I wished I had a yard of good Manitoba gravel to level the area. I probably should have called Ganges to see if I could get some crushed rock, but that would take days, maybe weeks, to get delivered, and I was in a hurry. 
When I began the shed, there were low grey clouds and fog so thick I couldn’t see Galiano Island. There’s no thunder and lightning here, not like on the prairies. Instead, the sky closes down on you, the mist rolls through the trees, rain starts a few drops at a time, then settles in to fall all day, all week, all month. Once, it rained thirty days straight. It wasn‘t raining hard on the weekend and there wasn’t any wind but the rain was relentless. I hadn’t expected to build a wood shed and hadn’t brought my Gortex jacket. As a matter of fact, I had no jacket. The weather report had said sun with broken cloud. I put on a sweater, cut a hole in the top of a garbage bag and at the sides. It made a perfectly good rain jacket except for the arms. It was a tight fit because every time I’ve picked blackberries, I’ve eaten them with ice cream.
I spiked two side beams to the trees and nailed them to the cross bar. I didn’t say this would be beautiful, just dry. I nailed some boards across the bottom to tie the frame together, then ransacked the scrap pile. There’s no hurrying. The rocks, moss and water with a tangle of wild rose bushes that never bloom see to that. The wood pile looks like someone has dropped pickup sticks. Boards that may be the right size have to be teased out of the pile. They’re often too long or too short. The too-long ones, I used for the roof. I put them on crosswise. That turned out to be a mistake.
The next morning, it was still raining. The pools of water were deeper. I’d thrown tarps over any wood that could be cut up for the wood stove. I wished I’d brought rubber boots. I started cutting and nailing boards on the walls vertically. With all the rain it’s better to have the boards up and down, with narrow boards over the cracks. The boss came out to inspect my work and said “That’s called board and batten”. At least, I think that’s what she said. The rain was making my hearing aide buzz. During the night, I’d wakened up with a realization that I should have put the roof boards running from the peak to the eave on this shanty. If I do that and put slats over the cracks, the roof will be waterproof. No shingles needed.
The roof boards will have to come off but I decided to do that later. By the time the sides were finished[ , my arms and feet were soaked. I needed coffee. I dragged a tarp over the roof. Everywhere on Salt Spring, you see tarps. They’re the islander’s equivalent to duct tape. The way I use tarps, you’d think I’d been born and raised on the island. If there isn’t a spare tarp or two, I feel unprepared for life. City people need jobs, bank accounts, lines of credit, to feel secure. On SS people are free spirits. A place out of the rain, some homemade goods to sell to the tourists at the Saturday market, an old truck or van, a half dozen tarps, and life is good.
The shed is not much to look at, but no rain comes through. It’ll do for this winter. The next time I’m here, I can change the roof boards and, if there’s time, saw and split wood and store it safely. SS does get snow and sleet. Once, the roads were closed for two weeks. The power does go out. It does get cold. If a blizzard knocks out the power, the wood stove will heat the entire floor.  
In the city, at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie but we don’t often remember to give thanks for electricity that nearly always works and when it doesn’t, it is rapidly repaired, or water that flows from a reservoir rather than our well, or streets quickly cleared of ice and snow but, away from the city, where people are on their own when things go wrong, we slip in thanks for a shed of dry wood in the face of winter storms.
 (A slightly different version was first published in Logberg-Heimskringla)