The Last of the Pioneers

Once, they were myriad. You found them everywhere. Icelanders having kaffi and kleinar, passionately discussing politics or religion, reciting poetry, the state of the crops, the weather. All of it, of course, in Icelandic. That sing song language was heard in stores, on streets, in homes.

At first, of course, it was the original settlers who began to disappear into places like Brookside cemetery. Go to the cemetery and you will find gravestones with Icelandic names. My father’s great grandparents, for example. Lutheran ministers, business people, housewives with names like Ingimundson, Johnson, Thidriksson, Albertson.

Over the decades, their children grew up, then joined them, carried away from Lutheran and Unitarian churches to small plots of ground. Tears and prayers marked their passing. And kaffi and ponokokkur . We have given up Viking funerals and burning boats floating from the shore, replaced it with quiet conversations, the clanking of coffee cups, the eating of sandwiches and sweets. The Icelandic service is now in English. The conversation in the reception room is nearly all in English. Here and there a small group talks Icelandic.

However, as amazing as it seems, some of that second generation have lived, are still live, among us. A few days ago, one of them, born GUDLAUG ADALHEIDUR OLAFSSON but affectionately called Lauga, died in the nursing home at Selkirk. She was just about 99. Born in 1914, the year WWI started, she was born on a grain and cattle farm in the small Icelandic settlers community near Sinclair, Manitoba, the daughter of Thorgrimur Olafsson from Borganes, Iceland and Gudrun Rosa Thorsteinsdottir from Leira, Iceland. The farm actually straddled the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.

Lauga had a phenomenal memory. She was the Wicki of West End Winnipeg. Mention an Icelandic name and she could tell you their genealogy plus their life stories.

She also remembered her childhood clearly. She described going to town, collecting the cheque for the cream, threshing, the rituals of funerals, much of it nine decades gone. Every afternoon at four o’clock, she had coffee and chocolate and it was during this time, at the kitchen table that I heard her stories.

It was she who, having worked as a mother’s helper after her father could no longer afford to send her to the Jon Bjarnason Academy in Winnipeg, explained to me that there was an error in my children’s picture book, Sarah and the People of Sand River. In the book Sarah had her own bedroom. Lauga said that wouldn’t have happened. Every bedroom would have been in use. As a servant girl, Sarah would have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

Times were hard when she was growing up. There were times of prosperity but those were followed by recessions and even depressions. She lived through the Great Depression. She proudly told of how the local Icelandic community held bridge evenings to raise money for people who could not afford to buy coal. In Winnipeg, in winter, fuel is necessary for survival. She also liked to tell about how individuals who were better off took clothes and food to those who were having a difficult time.

Lauga was a repository of Icelandic literature and lore. She and I quickly discovered we shared a belief in fylgjas. Fylgjas are spirits that are part of a person and often precede them on their journeys. Her husband, Agnar, had one. My father had one. My father, I told her at coffee one day, would be up at the fish camp. No cell phones in those days. No phones. My mother and I and my brother would be at home by ourselves for long stretches of time. Then my mother would start baking as if for a guest. When I’d inquire who was coming, she’d say, “Your father will be here shortly.” His fylgja had arrived. And he followed. After a while, I got so that I recognized his fylgja and would say to my mother, “I think Dad is going to turn up.”

Lauga was, without doubt, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I liked her enormously. The greatest compliment I can give her is that I wish I’d met her earlier, known her longer. I’d have heard more stories, learned more of the details of what it was like being part of a pioneering Icelandic family in rural Manitoba. When she told her story of her shoes being burned fighting a prairie fire and having to wrap her feet in rags until there was enough money to pay for a new pair (money from a bounty on gopher tails), you knew you were listening to reality.

In the writing of fiction, we call those clincher details. Lauga was a fount of clincher details. Listening to her over coffee, I would think to myself, I couldn’t have made that up.

As a community, we are proud of the fact that some of our members still speak Icelandic. Lauga and her husband, Agnar, both spoke Icelandic. Agnar taught at the fabled Jon Bjarnason Academy, a private academy in Winnipeg that taught Icelandic among its other subjects. Agnar died in 1996. He was a gold medalist in Mathematics and Latin. He was a chess champion. He had lots of choices for a wife. He chose Lauga.

Because of illness and because of the Depression, she wasn’t able to complete her formal education but she had learned to read Icelandic at the age of three. She read widely and well in both Icelandic and English. She loved literature. It was her copy of Independent People that I first started reading. She was a good match for a gold medalist and chess champion.

She, like many who lived through the 30s and 40s, knew hard times. They didn’t stop her from having dreams. She reminded me in many ways of my Irish grandmother who lived in Winnipeg. She, too, had gone through the Great Depression with all its privations. These two women both discovered how to dress well with limited budgets. Sales at Holt Renfew meant the best of clothes without the highest of prices. Bargain hunting was a survival skill.

Luaga loved shoes. Her collection of shoes meant nothing until I heard about the prairie fire and her having no shoes. Then I understood the importance of that closet full of shoes.

She loved the West End of Winnipeg. At one time it was an Icelandic enclave. Over the decades she lived there, it gradually lost its Icelandic character as people moved away. However, she stuck with Garfield Street, with her memories of all the people in all the houses where Icelanders had lived.

I’ll fly to Winnipeg so I can be at her funeral. During the service, I won’t think lofty thoughts. I’ll think about how a girl from a dirt poor farm in the southwest of Manitoba made a life for herself, raised a family of four daughters, was an intellectual match for a chess champion and was a strong bridge partner, went from sleeping in someone else’s kitchen to her own five bedroom home filled with Icelandic artifacts. I’ll think of fylgjas and white horses that come galloping out of the north presaging blizzards.