Desperate Manitobans

032They’ve survived the coldest winter since 1889. The temperatures plunged to minus fifty. It was colder than Siberia. Snow drifted until it covered windows. They could hear the houses cracking and creaking as the cold squeezed the joints. Ice formed on the lake until it was six feet deep. Winter began early and didn’t end until spring was nearly summer. People stood at windows and stared longingly at the sky, hoping for a peek at the sun.

They survived. After all, they are Manitobans. They still remember stories told by earlier generations of climbing out of two storey windows onto snow drifts, of driving in trenches of snow ten feet high, of cattle frozen to death standing up in the fields. Like the bears, they hunkered down, became drowsy in front of television sets, watched a life time of rented movies, raised the birth rate in the coming fall, dreamed of green grass and stood longingly in front of store displays of flower and vegetable seeds. They nurtured geraniums in pots. Summer will come, they whispered to their children as they put them to bed.

Spring has come and gone. It’s been a spring of dark clouds, cold rain, late melting snow, the kind of spring in the days when local farmers grew their own food, caused nightmares of a hungry winter to come.

Summer is here and desperation is everywhere. It’s in the farmers’ eyes, farmers who can’t seed their fields, farmers who have seeded their fields, fields that are now underwater. It’s in the wearing of shorts and rubber boots and determinedly eating an ice cream in spite of the rain while wading through puddles.

Manitobans are defiant. There were three women in bikinis lying in deck chairs at the hotel outdoor pool. In spite of the wind, in spite of the rain, in spite of the ominous clouds. I kept waiting for them to start singing “We will overcome.” One of them was so hopeful that she was rubbing on suntan lotion.

The guy who rents bicycles, tricycles, quadracycles was animatedly explaining to a father, mother and two children the advantages of seeing the town under pedal power. The father kept looking skeptically at the dirty grey clouds. Rain started and ruined he salesman’s pitch. However, Manitobans wouldn’t have called it rain. Rain here has to reach a certain level of drops per square foot before it is considered rain. This would be considered a gentle sprinkle. I remember my mother saying to me, get out there and deliver your newspapers and me saying, “In that?” and her saying, “That’s nothing. It’s just a little sprinkle.” I thought it warranted the building of an ark.

It is dispiriting to watch a man eating a soft ice cream cone dipped in chocolate in the rain. Especially when he’s wearing bright tartan shorts and a lemon yellow golf shirt. He has a determined, bulldog look. He is not seeing, feeling or acknowledging the rain. I think he should move under a canopy before the cone gets soggy.

Is there any sight sadder than a beach with hardly anyone on it? Beaches are not complete without people lying on blankets and towels, gamboling in the waves, playing with brightly colored balls, flirting, squealing, building sand castles. Today, five determined souls were wading about the shore. They couldn’t be locals, I thought. We were taught by our mothers that black clouds often harbored lightening and lightening is attracted to the highest object on a flat surface such as a lake. I kept waiting for a lightning bolt to turn them into lightning rods. However, they had come to the beach to frolic in the water and frolic they were going to do, lightning or no lightning.

When the sky was sprinkling and a bit of wind was blowing, everyone disappeared. In a few minutes, the sun shone through a hole in the clouds. People reappeared like magic, a cascade of brightly colored clothes, lots of bare skin searching for vitamin D. They weren’t there and then they were there. The hole in the clouds closed but people sitting at sidewalk tables at Kris the Fish refused to go inside. They kept eating their pickerel fillets and French fries. I thought, good for them, although, personally, I don’t like my French fries sodden with anything except vinegar and lots of salt.

I love Gimli. I admire Manitobans. They ignore the bad stuff and celebrate the smallest moment of sunshine in their lives. That’s what got their ancestors through the horrors of being a pioneer in the swamps and on the lake in winter. They live on hope. Tomorrow will be better they say before they fall asleep. And it will, unless it isn’t, but then the day after will be better and it will. Summer will come and be celebrated. The garden will grow, people will get a suntan, grain will ripen, fish will willingly swim into the net, and next winter can’t possibly be as bad as last year’s.

The Lesson of Lawns

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

I’m guilty. I admit it. Although cutting grass when I was a teenager kept me in spending money in the summer, I have abandoned having a yard that looked like a putting green.

In Gimli, Manitoba, where I grew up, the summer campers/cottagers were a source of pocket money for movies, hamburgers and fries, candy, comic books and, later, dates with local heartthrobs. Sometimes, I got jobs painting cottages but, most of the time, the market was for lawn cutting.

Most of the cottage husbands were Friday to Sunday night men. They came down to the beach after work on Friday and went back to Winnipeg Sunday evening. Winnipeg, in high summer, is sweltering, humid, oppressive, and, in those days, there was little, if any, air conditioning. Every summer one of the papers would have a picture of someone frying an egg on the hood of a car or on a sidewalk.

Meanwhile, wives and children were ensconced in Gimli cottages, either owned or rented. The cottages, shaded by large, old growth spruce trees, made of wood with lots of windows and screens so the night air could flow inside and cool breezes from Lake Winnipeg could blow through, didn’t absorb the heat the way that city buildings, built of stone and brick, did.

The husbands, coming down by train or car, were much like the fried eggs by the time they arrived. The cooler air perked them up. They lay in hammocks and napped or had a beer while their bodies cooled off. They were in no mood to mow lawns or cut down weeds. Instead, they hired local kids.

My first lawns were cut with a push mower. This was hard labour, the kind of hard labour that should only be handed to hardened criminals. Gimli was cooler than Winnipeg but when you are twelve, pushing a lawnmower on a lot two chains (66 feet) wide, the sun beats down on you until your shirt is soaking wet and you have to keep going to the artesian well and its ice cold water. The water was so cold that we believed it could crack your teeth.

I can still hear that hand pushed lawn mower. Whirrr, Whirrr. The trick was to get up some momentum. That way you could overcome the resistance of the grass. I didn’t have a grass catcher on the back. That meant when I’d finished cutting the grass, I had to rake it and deposit it at the edge of the back lane. Then, with a pair of hand shears, trim the grass from the sides of the wooden sidewalks and along the edge of the property, from around trees, and along the perimeter of the cottage. Standing, waiting to be paid, I felt like a red twister licorice stick left in the sun.

Payment? One dollar. However, if memory serves me correctly, a movie was twenty-five cents. That was four movies. A hamburger was twenty-five cents and chips (French fries) were a dime. Ice cream cones were a nickel. That lawn was worth twenty ice cream cones or ten comic books.

I went up and down the nearby streets knocking on cottage doors offering my services. Men in shorts and bottles of iced beer in their hands said, “Okay, kid. A buck. Do a good job.” They’d put in their time and come Sunday night would board the train back to the hell of Portage and Main.

Some people wanted their yard kept up but others, whether they didn’t care how the yard looked or didn’t want to spend the money, let their grass grow quite long before hiring me. I quickly learned that those lawns needed negotiating. Pushing the lawnmower through the grass was hard, slow work. Sometimes, the grass, if it was damp, jammed the mower and I had to stop to clear the blades. A dollar fifty.

Life and capitalism became easier when my father bought one of the new gasoline power mowers. The price stayed the same but I could cut more lawns per day. In those days no adult male would have been caught dead cutting lawns as a job. It was kid’s work. Today, grown men arrive in trucks, towing trailers filled with equipment.

Spruce trees were a mixed blessing. In those days Gimli had a forest of large spruce trees. Yards with a lot of spruce trees often had untidy grass in patches that were easy to cut. However, spruce tree roots lie on the surface of the ground and I had to bump my mower over them.

Occasionally, I’d get someone asking me to cut knee high grass and I’d have to go at it with a scythe. I liked that work. There were two types of scythe, the S shaped one and the straight handled one. I preferred the S shape. I learned to be wary of the blade, treating it with respect. I learned to sharpen it and to keep the point up and not jam it into the ground. I loved the rhythm of the work, the way the grass fell as I swept the blade ahead of me. I sharpened the blade with a whetstone and watched that I never brought my hand against the gleaming edge.

Maybe because cutting grass was, for me, paid work, I’ve never had any great desire to create a putting green lawn. I see them as some sort of mental aberration and think uptight, controlling, type A owner. However, that may just be an excuse for my indolence.

I’ve owned three houses in Victoria, BC. The first had hardly any front yard, a bit of side yard and a grassed back yard. However, I was busy writing and teaching and, sad to say, out of despair, my neighbour, a great air force guy from Gimli, when he couldn’t stand my back yard messiness anymore, would cut my grass when I wasn’t home.

House two had a double lot. It had gardens, gardens and more gardens but it still had a lot of lawn. I kept the lawn cut, in those days, in spite of the slope, running behind the gas powered mower. However, to the chagrin of some neighbours, I did my best to turn the lawn back into a Garry Oak meadow. One of my neighbours swept her lawn with a broom after cutting it. Random daffodils in the lawn, grape hyacinth by the thousands, tufts of this and that. I was rewarded by my attention to meadow and shrubs by three magnificent stages sleeping in my front yard one summer evening. They knew where they were welcome.

My latest house has no grass, except for some quack grass that I’m gradually pulling up by the roots. The yard is all granite with some soil dumped on top of it, enough to grow some trees and a variety of flowering bushes and plants. There’s not a flat spot anywhere and granite hogbacks with soil filled pockets doesn’t a putting green make.

I feel that I’ve betrayed my beginnings, those summer days spent cutting lawns, those quarters and fifty cent pieces and dollar bills. There lingers within me that boy laboring under the sun learning about lawns and earning a living and deciding, at some point, to be like the husbands lounging in the hammocks having a cold drink, napping, reading a book, rather than the hired help. Perhaps, I tell him, I benefited more from cutting those lawns and those long, hot days than just the few dollars that I earned.