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.