The Kindest Gift

DSC00595Yesterday, I found an unexpected package at my front door. I’m not used to receiving packages unless it is a book I’ve ordered over the internet.

The return address said it was from Clayton and Doris Bristow.

My finding the package, picking it up, reading the return address, taking the package into the house and setting it out on the dining room table, opening it, is a scene in a long narrative that began before either Clayton or Doris or I were born.

My great grandmother, Fridrikka Gottskalksdottir, came to Canada in 1876. She was three years old. Her parents had left a desperate situation in Iceland and traveled to the UK, changed ships, traveled to Quebec City, then on to a swampy, forested shoreline on Lake Winnipeg. They were part of what was called The Large Group. Earlier, a small, initial group had arrived on the shores of Willow Point after their barges were cut loose by a steamboat captain because a storm had started.

Shortly after my great grandmother and her parents arrived, smallpox broke out. One hundred and three people died. One of those was Fridrikka’s three month old brother. That they all didn’t die was probably due to the fact that some of them had previously had the cow pox, either from working with dairy cattle in Iceland or because they had been inoculated. .

At sixteen, Fridrikka went to Fort Garry to work. There she met William Bristow, a member of the British Army. The Icelanders had come to Canada hoping, like many other groups, to preserve their language, culture and religion. They named the exclusive reserve the government had given them New Iceland. None of the fantasies of cultural purity had much impact on young people and certainly not on Fridrikka. She married William Bristow.

One would expect that he would have stayed in the army, that Fridrikka would have become English. After all, the English dominated Western Canada politically, financially, and socially. Instead, William Bristow left the army and moved to what was now Gimli. Gimli, a small village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, survived on commercial fishing. William became a fisherman.

William and Fridrikka had thirteen children.

My grandmother, Blanche Bristow, was a sister to Clayton’s grandfather, George Bristow. George and his wife, Dolly, lived across the big field from us. We were on third and they were directly opposite us on second avenue. Times were hard but at Christmas we always exchanged gifts.

Dolly and George had four children. One of those was Clayton’s father,Rudy.  Rudy and I, in spite of our travels,  have always stayed in touch.

Clayton and Doris live in Winnipeg, a three or four day drive from Victoria. I don’t get to see them very often. Usually, if we bump into each other, it is at Gimli’s annual Islendingadagurinnin. This is the way of the world in 2014. When I was growing up, our families all lived close to each other. Nowadays, we are spread across the world.

This journey that culminated on my front porch began when Fridrikka, and her parents Gottskalk Sigfusson and Holmdridur Jonatansdottir, made the decision to leave Akureyri, Iceland. When William Herbert Bristow, the son of a Church of England minister,came to Canada on his own at fifteen.

When I opened the package that Clayton and Doris had sent me, there was a cheerful cookie tin. When I pried open the tin, there was a Christmas card and a vinarterta, the layered prune tort that symbolizes everything about our North American Icelandic culture. The note was from Doris and it said that like me, Clayton has celiac disease, and they knew how much I must be missing having vinartera at Christmas. They’d baked some vinartera as an experiment and were sending me one of the layered cakes.

It’s been a long journey, from Aukreyri and Oxford to decades in Gimli, Manitoba,, from Gimli to Winnipeg, from Gimli on my crooked path through Iowa and Missouri to Victoria, from 1876 to 2014.

I pick up this package and take it inside and put it on the dining room table where the winter sun shines on it and I cut off the padded envelope, then I take off the brown wrapper and open the tin and find within it that special vinarterta and I stand there and think, thank you Clayton and Doris, Rudy and Sig, Dolly and George, William and Fredrikka, Gottskalk and Holmfridur. Thank you. .