Can it be so long ago that my mother brought me to Gimli? She had first taken me to see the King and Queen in their Winnipeg parade. She even kept a newspaper from that time showing the parade. “See,” she said many years later, “you were there.”
Not that I remember any of it.
I think the first thing I remember were the hollyhocks that grew along the south wall. Impressions of colour and the smell of fresh mown grass. But memory is deceiving. Was that during my first summer or was it a later summer for the hollyhocks, mostly pink with a few white and yellow, were always there.
I was three when I fell in love with the girl down the street. I gave her a bouquet of dandelions.She had golden hair.
Later, but how much later, are the images of winter? Vast snow drifts. Someone said maybe they weren’t so vast. You were smaller. I was relieved when I found photographs in my parents’ album. Channels cut through snow that reached nearly to the cross bars of the telephone poles. And clear memories of walking on drifts higher than the caragana hedge along the sidewalk. Only the tips of the caragana stem showed here and there.
We dug tunnels in these drifts, turned the tunnels into rooms, crawled into them and sat beneath a snow dome because it felt exotic and secret and exciting. We chased each other through these tunnels. We were still close enough to our grandparents’ memories of WWI to pretend that we were creating tunnels under the German trenches so we could pack them with explosives and set them off just as an attack was launched.
We built forts of snow, cutting large blocks and piling them up, then made snowballs, chose sides and pelted each other, attacking and retreating until it was time lunch or supper or to have a nap.
Snow drifted so high that we could go into Loni Beach, the summer resort just north of Gimli, climb up the drifts on the roofs of cottages, run down the roofs and fling ourselves into the air because we knew the snow would cushion us.
Snow that required wearing snowshoes, that required us to learn to swing our feet from the side so we didn’t put the edge of one snowshoe onto the other and trip, falling face down. When we did fall, it was a struggle to get up. We thrashed about , kicked off our snowshoes, struggled to our feet. Dry, fluffy snow covered us from head to foot.
Our neighbour built a slide from snow, froze it, built it in layers to the top of a garage, then gave us a ladder so we could get onto the roof. No one fretted about insurance coverage as we climbed up the ladder, sat on our sleighs and raced down the slide. We spent entire days sliding, stopping only for hot chocolate, soup, a sandwich. We waddled in our layers of clothes, scarves wrapped around our faces, the wool thick with ice from our breathing.
We skated on an outdoor rink. It had wooden walls, a bench to sit on while we tied our skates. The older kids pushed makeshift wooden shovels to scrape away the snow. We fell down a lot. When it started to get dark, we took off our skates, pulled on our boots and headed home. Alone. Without adults to protect us.
Our mothers made us stand just outside the kitchen door while they swept us off with a broom. We turned slowly in a circle as they swept.
When I was two, my father bundled me into a sleigh, tied a rope around his waist and took me rabbit hunting. He thrashed his way over the drifts. He was a crack shot. The sound of a twenty-two in the cold air was sharp, sudden, with no echo. He piled the dead rabbits on my feet. They were for Sunday dinner.
We learned that if we broke through the snow or ice and got wet, to roll in the snow so the water wouldn’t penetrate to our skin. We learned to wear homemade glasses to reduce the glare from the snow so we didn’t become snow blind. We learned that prairie chickens plunged into soft snowbanks and were sometimes trapped by the snow forming a crust. We learned that there were days when blizzards sprang up, when the wind drove the snow before it so hard that it hurt our skin, when the houses across the street disappeared, that it was best to stay inside, to play snakes and ladders, or read comic books, or play with our toys.
We learned the sound of someone coming to visit on our back steps, the sound of boots stomping off snow.
We learned to stick our tongues out and let the snowflakes fall on them. Someone showed us how to make snow angels. We made whole choirs of them.
When warm weather began, we watched the drifts shrink, then freeze, then shrink, until we could walk about with our jackets open and the only places there was snow was in the shade, along the north side of houses, under the maple trees, among the closely spaced caragana stems.
But now there are no drifts in which you can tunnel, no drifts into which you can fling yourself from a roof, no drifts that require snowshoes. Today, while I was on the way to Winnipeg, the wind driven snow scooted across ploughed fields just barely dusted with snow, the frozen black earth slightly faded to grey by a fine
layer of snow catching in the uneven surface. The highways are not like deep clefts in a landscape of snow.
Stories of deep snow have to be confirmed with old photographs.
No climate change? No climate change. Of course not. But the child inside me remembers that there was snow everywhere, drifting against our houses, engulfing our streets, falling for days on end, sometimes softly, sometimes as the sharp edge of wind, filling the ditches, taking away all the edges, turning everything except the bitter cold, soft. And he wonders this December, watching no more than a skiff of snow, not even enough to pick up in a mittened hand, where all the snow went.