Old documents

Today, as I sorted through a box of loose pictures from my mother’s  house, I came across a rather beat up envelope. It just had my mother’s first name scrawled on the front. I opened it. Inside was a treasure. For years, I’ve searched for pictures of my grandmother’s plays. Once in awhile I’ve found a photograph. Here, at last, were a half dozen pictures of actors in costume, of Blanche in costume. 

Although she was married young and had four children, in spite of all the work that a wife and mother had to do in those days, no automatic washers, no dryers, no dishwashers, no electric stoves, she found time to write plays, act in them, direct them, produce them. My grandfather, Swanee, was a carpenter, and he built the sets for her. 

She was born in 1896, died in 1930. She didn’t have a lot of time. But she made good use of it. She wrote numerous plays. She corresponded with an Icelandic actor in Hollywood. She wrote music and had it produced in England. She also wrote poetry and short stories. 

In the envelope was her obituary. In Icelandic. I spent the entire day, it is now eleven p.m., translating what would be for a fluent reader of Icelandic, a few minutes work. Two lines I left out. The obit writer got poetic and completely defeated me. I don’t think my grandmother would have minded. She loved being on stage and, now, her grandson, eighty-two years later, is putting her back in the spotlight. 
She died before I was born. I grieve that. I wish I had known her. How much fun it would have been to have an amma who wrote plays and music and poetry, who dressed up in costumes, and acted. How exciting life would have been with her living just two blocks away on the same street. 

Her death was so painful that it was hidden away. No one talked about it. I’d never seen her obituary until today. I didn’t know until I was in my fifties that she had been a writer and that, all on my own, I’d followed the same path. Sorry we never met, amma. But here you are, centre stage once again.

That’s her far right, among the classy ladies of Gimli, 1920s style.

Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson
Born 21. March 1896
Died 2 May 1930
Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson, from Gimli, died in the General Hospital in Winnipeg. Because of her illness she had been moved there. After only a short time, she died. Before she died, she was constantly ill for a number of years.
Mrs. Valgardsson was the eldest child of Mr. and Mrs. William Herbert Bristow from Gimli. Mr. Bristow is English. He’s the son of Rev. W. J. Bristow who graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, and was the long time priest at Offenham, Worcestershire. His mother was Margaret Elizabeth Pruen Bristow.
Mr. Bristow’s wife is Gudrun Fridrikka Gottskaldsdottir. Her parents were Gottskalk Sigfusson  and Holmfridur Jonatansdottir, both of whom are long dead. Blanche married Sveinbjorn Valgardsson  . He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ketill Valgardsson of Gimli. Ketill came from Eyrarsveit in Snaefellsnessysla. Ketill’s father was Valgardur Jonsson, and  his mother Kristin Brynjolfsdottir Gunnlaugson of Bjarneyjar of Breidafjordur. Soffia, Ketill’s wife was from Laxardalur in Dalasysla. She was the daughter of John Sveinbjarnason.
Bjorn and Blanche were married on the 8th of Nov., 1913. Their children are Earl Sveinbjorn, Alfred Herbert, Kelly Allan Arthur, Forence Glady Gudrun.
Sveinbjorn was a carpenter but sometimes he went commercial fishing. The long illness of his wife was difficult but he did his utmost for her and dealt with her illness wonderfully well.
The struggle against death was long and the death of the young mother a great loss. Along with Bjorn, there are four children to mourn her loss.
Mrs. Valgardsson was highly artistic and talented and loved art of all kinds. She had been involved with drama for some time in Gimli. Her funeral took place from her home on 6 May. A large number of friends and relatives attended the funeral. She was laid to rest in the Gimli graveyard.
Sig. Olafsson.

Christmas Day in Gimli

(from my diary)

There were other magical days. Easter. Islindingadagurinn. The day school got out. Thanksgiving. Birthdays. But Christmas always had its own magic. Part of that were the songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Christmas Bells. Good King Wenceslas. Everyone has his or her own favorites. There aren’t a lot of rousing songs about Easter or Islindingadagurinn. I don’t remember a plethora of songs about school getting out. There might have been a tune or two about Thanksgiving but I don’t remember them offhand. There’s Happy Birthday but it’s brief and once it’s over, there aren’t any lively tunes about growing older.
Maybe the magic of Christmas is founded in its religious beginning. Maybe it’s founded on the mixture of pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs. Mistletoe and kissing and Christ being born. Mistletoe and kissing can lead to kids being born. No question about it. But I doubt if that had anything to do with Christ’s being born because his was to be a virgin birth.
When I was a kid there was nothing more important than the Christmas Eve service at the church. That’s because, ham that I am, I always got a few lines to say and a chance to put on a costume. I thought I always got a part because I was a brilliant actor. My mother said it was because I learned my lines. The church was always packed for the service. No empty pews at Christmas. We got small brown paper bags with candy and an orange. This was before the ToysRUs mentality took hold. A peppermint in one’s mouth with an orange in one’s pocket was a taste of heaven. That’s because nothing more was expected. TV hadn’t arrived to tell us about all the things we should want and make us unhappy because we didn’t have them.
Normally, after the service, we went home and opened our presents. Then Christmas morning there would be one present from Santa Clause.  We were very lucky children, my brother and I, because between my parents and my grandparents there was always a gift under the tree. The gifts were often something useful, like clothes we needed but sometimes there were a baseballs and bat, a bow and arrow, a football, not all at once but one for each year. There was always a book, usually one of the Hardy Boys series. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without a book. I didn’t know then that it was an Icelandic tradition to give a book at Christmas.
There was the Christmas tree, of course. We took the truck into the country and idled down country roads until we saw something the right size and shape, then waded through snow and chopped it down.  My father set it up in the living room and my mother directed the decorating. A lot of the decorations were handmade, knitted or cut from tin can lids. There were some store bought decorations and a string of lights.
People try to make Christmas however they can. Valerie Kline, my friend for twenty years, was born in an internment camp in Uganda during the war. There were no Christmas trees so her father decided to make one. He found a narrow tree trunk, drilled holes all around it. Collected palm fronds and stuck them in the holes. The family made decorations and since in their native Germany and Hungary they lit candles on the tree, they collected candle stubs , set them on bits of tin and fastened them to the fronds. On Christmas Eve, they stood back to admire their tree as Valerie’s mother lit the candles. Then in one great whoosh the dry fronds went up in flames and Valerie’s dad, Gene, grabbed the tree and flung it through the door. It was as Valerie often said, a Kodak moment.
More important than the gifts was the company. If I had to forgo one or the other, I’d have done without the gifts. As I kneeled on the couch so I could watch out the front window through the darkness and the blowing snow for my grandparents, I vibrated with excitement. They came down by bus and walked from the bus stop to our house. “Here they are, here they are,” I’d shout. My grandmother always wore a Persian lamb coat and black boots with a fur fringe. My grandfather wore a heavy wool coat that reached his ankles. Then uncles and aunts and cousins and best friends started to appear until the house was bursting with conversation and laughter. The coats and parkas piled up my parents’ bed. The smell of the turkey roasting, the cranberries cooking, the vegetables boiling and baking, the pies, the cakes, the cookies swirled out of the kitchen into the living room. We were always a large group because Christmas was about sharing. Christmas was about friendship. Christmas was about caring. It also was about story telling or playing Rummoli for pennies or Snakes and Ladders.  Christmas was about storing up good memories for the future to help us through the difficult times that are always ahead.
There were always desserts afterward. My Irish mother learned to make vinarterta soon after she got married so we always had vinartera with the Christmas cake. There were calla lilies and snowballs and rosettes. I don’t ever remember a store bought cookie. There were pies, of course. What would Christmas dinner be without pies?
Even as a child I remember pausing at these times, in the midst of the laughter and conversation and food, and looking around the room at everyone, and being grateful that Christmas was like this and wishing that it could always be like this.
It couldn’t be, of course. People grow older. They move. They  marry and have their own Christmases with their own children and their inlaws. They die. How I long for it to be possible to relive some of those Christmases, for those same people to come tramping through the door in a swirl of cold air turning white around them.
Although I now live in Victoria instead of Gimli and although my grandparents and father  and mother and brother are gone, we still make Christmas. Our lives aren’t as tightly bound because we live in cities but on Christmas Eve, we gather at my house for dinner and conversation and gifts. My son and his family come from Bellingham, my daughter and her family from Brentwood, my nephew and his family from Sidney, my sister-in-law and my niece from Vic West. Sometimes , if we’re lucky,  friends and relatives join us. We just add another table.
In Victoria at Christmas it often rains rather than snows. Some flowers still bloom in protected corners. It doesn’t look like Christmas in Manitoba. But with the magic of Christmas, when my guests begin to arrive, many others arrive with them. They’re the guests of Christmases past, still alive in my mind, my grandparents, my brother, my uncles, my father, our good friends, the Kellers. They swoop in through the opened door in their heavy winter clothes with snow and cold air swirling around them, still laughing, shouting greetings, doling out kisses and hugs, a crowd of them and I greet them, everyone, and welcome them to my house for no Christmas is separate from those of the past and no one is forgotten.

Alzheimer’s and Kindness

Today, when I went to visit the nursing home where both my parents currently live, I discovered my mother in the doorway of her bathroom entangled in her nightgown. She was naked from the waist up and unable to find the appropriate holes for her head and arms.

“Help me,” she said but I don’t think she had any idea she was speaking to her son.

I’m not used to idea of finding my mother half-naked and confused, of having to help her with this simplest of tasks. Normally a nurse would magically appear to take over but today the hall is empty. I managed to straighten out the nightgown, to get her arms and head into the right places.

“Take off my pants,” she said and went and sat on the edge of her bed. I pulled of her shoes and slacks and pulled down her nightgown.

My father had appeared from his room. “This is crazy,” he said and turned and left. There are no double rooms so my parents, although t hey are married sixty-eight years, are living separately. Few couples come here. Nearly all the residents are women, widows who sit in lines close to the exit, wearing bracelets that lock the doors automatically if they try to leave.

My mother tried to pull back her blanket but couldn’t for along with Alzheimer’s she has macular degeneration and, therefore, only peripheral vision. I pulled back the blanket, helped her into bed where she curled up into a fetal position. I covered her and, although it was only three thirty in the afternoon, wished her good night.

This, for the young readers who believe no such fate could come their way, was a woman who was a credit union manager for twenty-two years, who sold insurance, who regularly braved northern winter roads to bring supplies to my father at his commercial fish camp.

My mother loves this nursing home, or loved it, when she was still aware. She wanted to come here and quickly joined in the activities. She looked forward to volunteering for folding face cloths. She enjoyed Friday night happy hours, the church services, the mind games, the physical exercises, the company of other women.

My father, on the other hand, hates it here. He came unwillingly, driven in by his inability to live alone or with anyone else. Before he came here his paranoid dementia brought him to my home half a continent away in Victoria, then after he became convinced that I had stolen his morphine pills, his money, was trying to poison him, had listening devices in all the walls, his paranoia drove him away. Unable to live on his own, he raged against having to move into a care facility. He refuses to participate. He goes into rants over the food. He particularly despises pasta.

He has good days and bad days. On the good days I have my father back, not the charming, amusing man most people, including me, remember but, at least a person who is rational and can talk knowledgeably about his great passion, the penny stock market. Most of the time he is angry. The morphine he has to take to control the pain from a shattered vertebra increases the paranoia but he can’t get by without it. It’s a fine balance. Enough drugs to control the pain but not too much that would mean he sleeps all the time.

There is a resident here who just celebrated his one hundred and fifth birthday. “I don’t want to be like that,” my father says. He is agitated. He is lying on his bed. He swings his legs over the side, picks up his cane, starts to stand up, lies down again. He repeats this motion over and over again, only occasionally standing up and walking as far as the door of his room, then back. “I want to die.”

“I want to die. I want to die.” I hear this refrain over and over again but he also wants to see the doctor every Friday when the doctor comes to visit.

Shortly after I arrived at the beginning of June, my father had a fall. The nursing home called and I immediately went there. There’d been a bed check at five a.m. At six forty-five he’d rung the emergency bell.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. He’s a mess. His face is cut from his right eye to well down his cheek. His arm is broken. His hand is unrecognizable. It is a swollen lump like half a black cantelope. “I woke up and I was lying on the floor. I kept trying to get up and kept slipping. I thought it was water.” It wasn’t. He was slipping in his own blood.

He can stand more pain than any other person I’ve known. He once was on the road to his fish camp. He heard a car coming very fast on the gravel. He ran to the front of his car but before he could get any further a car came around the curve and rammed into the rear of his car, knocking him onto his back and driving his car over him. It ran up one leg and ended with a front tire on his chest. The driver and passenger thought he was dead. When they saw he wasn’t, they lifted the front end of the car off him. He

was paralyzed and couldn’t move. They put the car down, the driver lifted the front end and the passenger pulled him free. By the time help arrived, my father was sitting in his own vehicle and refused to go to the hospital. He did, however, go to the hospital three days later because of the pain. His leg looked like an overripe banana and had a crack in the bone.

No sissy, this guy.

They bandage his face and put a tensor bandage on his arm. He doesn’t complain. However, in the days to come, he is convinced that his injuries are the result of a beating. “I couldn’t have got hurt like that from falling out of bed,” he says, completely forgetting that he was found at the entrance to the washroom. The most likely cause was a TIA, a small stroke that often presages a larger one.

I come every day. I bring mr. big chocolate bars, jelly beans, licorice all sorts, bags of bulk cookies from SuperA. I’d bring gold and silver if it would help.

I nearly always bring Chico Bandito, my chihauhau because Chico loves to be patted and praised. For many here, a chance to pat a dog is the only opportunity to express physical affection. I’ve learned to say hello to everyone because while my parents have many visitors, some residents have none.

This morning, I picked up my aunt Florence and we drove to Selkirk to Gilbart’s funeral home. My parents want to be cremated. My mother wants her ashes buried in her mother’s grave. My father wants his ashes buried in my mother’s father’s grave. They’ve left clear instructions in their wills.

I’m a bit hesitant about preplanning. I don’t want to feel like I’m rushing my parents toward death. But we plan many things– marriages, pregnancies, christenings, educations–why not this? With the undertaker, I discuss the details of picking up bodies, of cremation,

of services then, with my aunt’s help, pick out two urns. A flowered one for my mother because the pattern reminds me of one of her favorite dresses. Seagulls on a blue background for my father because on his boat on Lake Winnipeg with blue sky above and blue water beneath, he always was happy. I think everything is done when I make out a cheque but I’ve forgotten my parents’ social insurance numbers. I promise to telephone with them as soon as I get home.

Later, when I’m back at the nursing home, I see a nurse bring my father his pills and, sitting

beside him on the bed while he takes them, rub his back and quietly tell him he’s doing just fine. My mother, awake for awhile, has had a good day because she participated in the face cloth folding where she can visit and still feel useful.

This is a place filled with tragedy but tragedy softened by kindness and compassion and, I realize, that those are two of the many things this place has taught me.

To change the world is impossible but to say hello, to lift a chihauhau into someone’s lap,

to accept my mother’s nakedness and help her dress, to hate my father’s paranoia but not my father, to take on the role of decision maker, these I can do to make the world a better place..

First published in Logberg-Heimskringla

Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper

100-283 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B2B5


West Coast Icelanders

I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.

If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.

All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.

This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.

This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.

Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.

His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”

The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.

He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.

Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.

On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.

True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.

Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.

(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)

Rob Ford’s Ferris Wheel

At one time it was Toronto the Good. Then it became Toronto the Smug. The people who lived there believed it was superior to everywhere else in Canada. Torontonians were supposed to be more cultured, better educated, more literate, more sophisticated than their country cousins. Winnipeg might have the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Rainbow Stage or The Winnipeg Art Gallery but that was small potatoes and look at the downtown. Decaying. The Portage and Main area haunted by people who sniff gas and drink cheap sherry in the stairwells of parkades. In any case, real culture was in Toronto. That’s where the class acts came to act. 
Vancouver? Well, Vancouver might have the Queen E, Vancouver Playhouse and the Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver also supports major civic facilities such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Museum, Maritime Museum, the Pacific Space Centre, and Science World.  But it’s brash, a city of all new money, a city of social climbers and misfits who have long hair and insist on parading nude on the beach. But, it believes in libraries.
Now that Toronto is no longer the cultural capital of Canada, the denizens of Forest Hill have to give up their attitude of superiority. All that sets them apart is the price of their houses. Vancouver can beat them on that. Imagine, if all you’ve got to brag about is that your house is more expensive than someone else’s? But those people who frequent Bloor and Young have got to give up feeling that just being in Toronto makes up for their daily lives.
For awhile, Torontonians can still wallow in the illusion that they’re superior. But we already know that’s not true. It’ll be hard on their vanity but no one can really blame us if we smile into our hand as Toronto shuts down its libraries. Replaces libraries with a ferris wheel. Toronto the Smug has begun the process of becoming a cultural wasteland similar to the physical wasteland of Detroit.
It used to be when some of those four million people came back home for a summer visit and you asked them where they were living, they said, “In Taronna.” In a voice that also said “And you aren’t.” They obviously felt superior. That’s all over. They used to brag about the CBC being headquartered in Toronto. All those radio and TV programs were produced there. All those stars lived there. So they felt like a star, too. That’ll soon be gone. A city that doesn’t believe reading matters is a city that can’t grasp the kind of programs the CBC produces. FOX NEWS will soon become the Toronto icon. It goes with the circus on the waterfront. You don’t need to know much to ride on a ferris wheel.
Was this how Rome fell? Because people quit believing that education mattered? That culture was an expensive luxury Rome couldn’t afford? If libraries don’t matter, one has to ask what is the purpose of universities? Essentially, universities teach people how to read. Imagine the money that could be saved if the University of Toronto were shut down. Those buildings could be turned into condos and pubs and strip joints. Except, of course, for engineering. You have to have people who can build big ferris wheels and carnival rides and keep them running. But those people could be trained at a technical college.
If Rob Ford has ambitions to become premier, he needs to make a list of all those institutions that are of no more value to the people of Toronto than libraries. Then show he is serious by shutting them down. Theatres jump to mind. Ballet. Art schools. Art galleries. Why would any real Torontonian want to watch a bunch of adults wandering around a stage playing let’s pretend, or grown men in tights hopping about a stage, or go to some place to look at a bunch of pictures? They can see pictures in the Sear’s catalogue.
Those few effete intellectuals who don’t like the new Toronto can leave. They can go other places where people are prepared to waste their hard earned tax money on libraries and those other things effete intellectuals like. They can go to places like Winnipeg or Vancouver or Saskatoon or Fredericton. They can go to Calgary. Even Calgarians believe in libraries. And some of that other stuff. Or they can go to my home town, Gimli. We’ve got a small but good library in Gimli. It’s named after one of the teachers who educated many generations of us. She taught us to read and to love literature. People go there to read, to borrow books, to do research. Teachers bring kids there to show them that we value reading and writing, that literacy is important.
Of course, we don’t have the biggest ferris wheel in the world, or dodgem cars or freak shows or roller coasters so most Torontonians wouldn’t be interested. And don’t protest, those of you who live in this fallen city. You elected him. He must reflect your values.