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.

Christmas Past

I can’t find a suitable winter picture of my grandparent’s house so high summer will have to do.

There we are, the lot of us. I can’t find the photo but I don’t need it. I can see us quite clearly. We’re at my grandparent’s house in Winnipeg. It is a small, tidy blue house with a kitchen, a living room that was turned into a dining room on special occasions, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a basement. It is in a working class neighbourhood. The Italians have started to move in, buying up two story frame houses on twenty-five foot lots and fixing them up.

We weren’t a large family. My mother’s parents, my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, me and my new wife.  Grinning like all get out. We’re in our best bib and tucker. The women in their best dresses. Us guys in good dress shirts and slacks. Only my dapper father is wearing a suit.

We’ve gathered to celebrate.  But what, precisely, is it that each of us is celebrating?

My Irish grandfather came to Canada before 1914. He had three sisters already in Winnipeg so he settled in the city. He got a job as a glazier, then as a drayman. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, without hesitation, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He was young, he was Protestant, he was living in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were constant.  I expect he was celebrating the fact that since he’d arrived in Canada that he didn’t need to carry a pistol in his pocket, that when he returned to Europe in 1915 to fight for King and country, he’d survived his wounds in the Great War, that as hard as things were in the Great Depression, he managed to hang onto his job.

My Irish grandmother was, I expect, celebrating that she’d met my grandfather when he was on leave and had gone home from the Front to see his family in Ireland, had met her and had saved her from spinsterhood by writing from Canada after the war, asking her to marry him. She’d booked her fair on the Empress of France and, a woman by herself, she crossed the ocean, crossed the continent and now had a home of her own, a daughter and two grandsons. Until my grandfather wrote she had seen her future as a babysitter, housekeeper for her brother’s wife because, even though her brother was the youngest in the family, he would inherit everything. Her own house. Her own husband. Her own child. Grandchildren.

My father was celebrating that he’d married my mother, that he’d survived numerous disasters, both physical and financial, that he was loved and liked by my mother and her parents, that somewhere north, through the falling snow, there was, in his home town, a large Icelandic-English family that supported  him through a number of tragedies. Times were difficult and he had to have two jobs to feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, but he was doing it. He was proud of that. I expect he was celebrating that he had finally been able to buy a car. He’d wanted a car for a long time.

In the picture, my brother, four years younger than me, is tall, taller than everyone else. Good looking, very blond and, as an older brother, I’m not sure what, as a teenager, he was celebrating except being with his family, with his girlfriend. His smile says he’s very happy. In the not too distant future, he would die in an accident at work but in this moment, there is no warning, no presentment, only happiness with the place, the people, the food, the holiday.

The girlfriend? Although they didn’t marry, I expect she was celebrating in that moment because she knew that everyone in the room, not just my brother, loved her. She was the daughter my parents never had, my sister I never had, my grandparents’ granddaughter they never had. The happiness of that moment was so great she and I became like brother and sister and her family and her husband’s family, sort of related by marriage to us, have become a big part of my life. Happiness endures.

My wife? Celebrating her beautiful green Christmas dress she was so proud of, a dress that set off her copper colored hair, celebrating being recently married, celebrating being there in that room, safe, loved, secure, happy that there was a place for her, happy to be with people who wanted her, celebrating our having a place of our own, an apartment in the top floor of a house even though if you went barefoot, we were in danger of getting splinters. Celebrating that she had found a job and could support us as I finished my degree. Celebrating that my parents cared enough about her to buy her a muskrat coat (bought through a Winnipeg wholesale) so she’d been warm while waiting for a bus at five o’clock in the morning as she went to work.

And me? If someone had said to me, that evening, what are you celebrating, Bill? I’d have said, I’m celebrating that I’m in the last year of university, that I’m married, that we’ve found an apartment, that I’m writing, that I feel, in this moment, we’re together, talking, visiting, sharing a meal. I know that I wasn’t celebrating gifts. I have no memory of gifts. I know there must have been some, but whatever the gifts were, they are long gone, long worn out, long forgotten. What I remember is being together, the table set, the supper cooking, the conversation, us sitting on the wine colored, overstuffed couch and on chairs that had been added to the living room for extra seating, happy at being in the light and warmth instead of alone in the dark and cold outside where the wind whipped the snow over the drifts.

That was my celebration. The conversation, the voices, the food being placed on the table, the anticipation of eating, the place at the table, the knowledge that in this moment, we were one. In a day or two, we’d go back to our individual lives, the distance among us would need walking, driving, telephone calls, letters, to overcome the silences of the miles,  but for now we had us. That was something to celebrate.