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.