A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

The Good Neighbour


This is my father in his garden at Frog Point, Humbug Bay, Manitoba. It is north of Hecla, nearly at Pine Dock.The government launched a plan at one point to see if people could grow gardens in these northern communities along the lake. They should just have gone to my father’s fish camp and taken a look. he didn’t need any grant.

Last summer, after being in Manitoba for three and a half months, when I returned to Victoria, I found an azalea and a rhododendron dead. It had been a dry summer. They were beautiful plants, valued parts of the garden that fronts my house. I have no lawn. Just a garden of mixed shrubs and flowers. Also, when I left for Manitoba, my fig tree was covered in new figs. When I came back, the figs had dried up and fallen off the tree.

Perhaps it is vanity but Victoria, given its climate, is a city of garden proud people. Plants of all kinds flourish here. When I first moved to Victoria in the early seventies, I was amazed to discover trees and flowers that we’d had in southern Missouri. The climate allows extravagances such as the palm tree in Playfair Park. People grow palms simply because they can. More spectacular, though, are the tulip trees, astounding fountains of flowers. The rhodos at the University of Victoria are breath taking.

Not to garden seems churlish. Only the blackest of thumbs couldn’t make something grow.

I come from a family with two stellar gardeners. My father, surprisingly, a rough, tough commercial fisherman, loved to garden. At his fish camp along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, he grew masses of flowers, rows of vegetables. The soil that lay over the limestone had been undisturbed for eons and he had all the fish offal he could possibly use for fertilizer. My Irish grandmother was the other gardener but while she grew some flowers, her heart’s desire was vegetables. Her city garden, created under difficult circumstances, flourished, was laden with string beans, peas, was packed with carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes. Her side yard provided plums from wild plum trees she’d brought from the forests around Gimli. Rhubarb and strawberries flourished.

That is why, too busy editing and writing, too busy going to Manitoba for Islendingadagurinns and ice festivals and holidays, I’ve left my garden untended, unweeded, unwatered. In spite of that the Grape Hyacinth have provided a wonderful display among a mass of white flowers the name of which I do not know. The daffodils look like they are on steroids. The rhodos, after looking limp last fall, are bursting with large red blooms. However, they all show the signs of stress from last summer.

I swore before I left this year, I’d have an automatic irrigation system in place. Those who don’t know me won’t understand what a brave and foolish statement that was. Mechanical systems defeat me. Fortunately, there live across the street a couple who are exceptional gardeners. Someone recently said to them, “If I were getting married, I’d want to get married on your lawn.” You only need a glimpse at their “lawn” to understand why.

When I mentioned to David that I was going to put in a micro watering system, he took me around his yard to show me how such a system worked. Then I went off, with his advice, to buy the component parts. Knowing nothing, when a salesman sold me the wrong plastic tubing, I bought it. It put me back a day and after trying to make the tubing work, David went with me to HD and we were told, oops, sorry, wrong tubing. And, no, we don’t have any of the right tubing but if you drive to Rona in Langford (this is quite a distance) they have some. End of day one.

Today, I left early for Rona, found the correct tubing, plus some more bits and pieces sold separately and after having watched what David did yesterday, went to tackle putting the system in place. Fortunately, my neighbour saw me and came over. And, for the next four hours, did most of the work required to get the system in place and working. We both got soaked. It was chilly. Didn’t matter.

I’m a bit thunderstruck. I’ve always been lucky with my neighbours but help for two days in a row getting in an irrigation system is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside of small town Manitoba. This is, after all, the big city.
Good neighbours make a community. If there are more people here who are like my neighbours across the street, I really have moved not just into a house, but into a community.

My Vinarterta Heritage


Heritage is a funny sort of thing. It turns up in strange places and in strange ways.

Yesterday, I took cousin Dilla and JO for supper to Amma’s Tea Room and Gift Shop.

During the summer Amma’s is crowded and getting a seat is often a problem. All the summer visitors are in Gimli. In March there aren’t many visitors. There are locals about in puffy parkas and fleece lined boots and toques. They’re usually on an errand of some kind. There’s no hanging around on street corners to gossip when it’s 22 below and there’s a 20 mph wind.

Some of the restaurants close down in the fall and don’t open again until Gimli quits looking like Siberia. The Beach Boy, one of my favorite hangouts in high summer because of the pickerel fillets and Mediterranean salad, is closed, but when I phoned, the owner said March 18 we’re open. I return to Victoria on March 17. Bad timing. However, I’ll be back shortly. I want to be here during the spring.

Amma’s Tea Room has a different strategy. It opens for supper 5-6:30. There’s just one meal prepared. No menu choices. Last night it was veal cutlet with gravy and pasta with a cheese sauce. I couldn’t eat any of it—gluten in the pasta, gluten in the gravy and the coating on the veal. However, Cousin Dilla, knowing the way of all things Gimli, phoned ahead and asked the chef to make something gluten free for me. It turned out to be chicken salad on a bed of mixed greens.

The ladies had wine. I had cranberry juice and tea. The ladies had cheesecake. I was saved from serious calorie intake because the desserts all had gluten. My virtue, what there is left of it, wasn’t voluntary.  The bill was $36.00.

One of the Gimli heritage delights is meeting people unexpectedly. We were just finishing up when Valdine Bjornsson (Geirholm) appeared and we had a short chat. Valdine and I started grade one together and went through all the triumphs and tragedies of the next twelve years in the same class.

Although it’s called Amma’s restaurant there were no Icelandic dishes. Once the summer trade begins, there will be.

However, tea room and Icelandic don’t quite rhyme. Icelanders are addicted to coffee, kaffi, not tea and Amma’s looks and feels very English. I’m not sure what an Icelandic café should look or feel  like. Maybe wickedly strong coffee, 17 Icelandic desserts, rotten shark, dried codfish, a few sheep’s heads, and, for the less adventurous, lamb and whale meat. With chess sets at every table and couches for people to lie down on after knocking back glasses of Black Death.

There is the local KaffiHus. In spite of its name, it’s food, which is quite good, is standard coffee shop fare. Sandwiches and melts and wraps and muffins.  It’s coffee is excellent.

Maybe that is what is left of my heritage.  An occasional name. Some occasional food. However, it’s hard to separate Gimli heritage and Icelandic heritage. They are wound tightly together. The Beach Boy is owned and run by a Greek. However, the restaurant’s forte is pickerel fillets and pickerel fillets are as Gimli as you can get.

It helps that a short distance away from Amma’s is Tergesen’s general store and book store. We dropped by the book store since it is one of the few places you can always get Icelandic books in Icelandic and in translation. They also have books by writers of Icelandic descent—there’s Arnason, Gunnars, Holm, Valgardson—and Icelandic authors such as Indridason and Yrsa, two wonderful Icelandic authors. And the clerk in the bookstore who chatted with us is from Iceland.

Gimli used to be Icelandic. Now, it’s a bit like archeology finding that heritage. There’s the Viking statue, thank goodness. There’s Islendingadagurinn. Thank goodness. There are the visiting Icelandic groups, often excellent choirs, who come and entertain. Thank goodness. There are the charters back and forth. Thank goodness. There are usually some Icelandic flags fluttering in the breeze. If you know where to look, you can buy vinarterta. No local skyr though. A local person who used to make it for sale says that the health rules and the costs imposed make it unprofitable to make locally.

In the spring the Reykjavik Bakery will open. Thank goodness. Birgir will return from his wanderings in Europe. He will make us cookies in the shape of Viking helmets and Icelandic brown bread.

We wished Iceland well during the kreppa but, at the same time, hoped that it might lead to an influx of Icelanders seeking refuge in New Iceland. That hasn’t happened. It’s easier for Icelanders to go to Europe. They can get a job without a lot of paperwork. It’s closer.

I’m not complaining. I take what I can get. At Lans Aux Meadows, all they found was a pin but it was a very precious pin. It proved the Icelanders had come to the New World. Maybe our Gimli pin is vinarterta. It proves that we do have an Icelandic heritage.


Waiting for Spring


There is a time when the year turns. The winter has grown old. The snow has piled high, layer upon layer, its strata revealing blizzards and heavy snowfalls. The roadsides have piles of snow scooped high by snowploughs.

People begin to turn toward the sun, marking its progress, its growing brightness, its growing warmth. Old instincts buried deep within our brains begin to shake themselves from drowsiness.

We have begun to respond to the first indications of spring. They are already there at the beginning of March. The hard ice created by being walked over, slippery, treacherous, melts around the edges, become soft and ragged. There are pools of dark water in low spots on the roads. There is the sound of car tires splashing through the puddles. There are children wearing brightly colored rubber boots stamping in the puddles.

At night Winter reasserts itself, freezes once again the water that appeared during the day, hardens the surface of the snowbanks that had softened with sunlight. The snowbanks, once a pristine white are now grey and black and the snow melts and the dirt that has collected gathers on the surface. What were graceful, curved, fluted snowbanks collapse upon themselves, begin the process of flooding the fields and ditches.


The birds are bolder; leave the perches where they have huddled through the winter. They sing to the strengthening sun.

People walk over the snow covered sidewalks, their parkas undone, their heads bare. They will retreat again and again for Winter does not give up so easily. Wind and driving snow, hoar frost thick on the trees, ice, hard as iron will return.

But down by the harbour people get out of their cars and trucks to look at their boats secured against the winter, cocooned in plastic, raised on wooden beams and oil drums. On the ice the work that must be done for the coming summer speeds up for jagged cracks appear, the snow cover softens on the lake.


The trees still remain unmoved, their branches brittle. Not yet, not yet the bursting pussy willows, the leafing buds, the growing tips. Not yet, but soon.

In ancient times, the sun circled around the earth, the people feared that winter would never end, that spring would never come and when it did appear, they sacrificed a man and maiden to their gods, their blood a sacrifice to spring and growing green that would feed them with crops of grain and fruit.

And our ancestors, not so long ago, huddled together seeking warmth in shanties along Lake Winnipeg, waited out each cold day, marking each few minutes longer the sun lingered in the sky and when the green world appeared once more had hope there’d be food to fight off hunger, to mend their scurvy laden bodies, stop the bleeding of their gums, warm their bones. For them the lengthening days were life saved from winter death.

Today, we know the turning of the globes and need no blood to greet the spring. But still we shake off winter’s indolence, enjoy the warming sun, make plans, imagine once again the blooming flowers, our boats upon the waterSONY DSC.







Lake Winnipeg in Winter

SONY DSCIt snowed last night. The morning was pristine white. The snow here is soft, fluffy, dry unlike the wet heavy snow of the West Coast.

The sky was white, fading into blue and everywhere there were blue and grey shadows and by early afternoon the low spot at third and centre was filled with water. Trucks and cars going through it went splash, splash and the water rushed away in little waves.

At the lake’s edge there was wind, cold enough to make me wish I’d brought a scarf. The reflection of the snow and the drifting  crystals turned the horizon white, made it endless as if there was nothing in the distance but infinity. The bare corrugated ice of the race track once free of snow,has drifts stretching across it.

There is no risk of being lost in a white out because the wind is gentle, sending the snow scurrying over the lake’s surface. On both sides of the track there are high ridges of snow that were ploughed to provide barriers for cars hurtling around the curves during the Ice Festival.

The dock is crusted with ice and frost. In the distance are poles marking fishing nets. There are three sports fishing huts, incongruous with their sharp edges in a world where the wind curves everything except the cast up blocks of ice that form ridges here and there.

Walking on the race track is easy, the surface dark and rough, not like the ice that has been polished smooth by the wind. The drifts are not yet deep. The point at the north side of the bay is blurred by the frost in the air.


As I trudge over ice and snow, I think of my father and his father and his father, all working on the ice as commercial fishermen. I think of the first settlers, confounded by ice like this, hard enough and deep enough to support cars and trucks, ice that had to be chopped and chiselled until four feet, sometimes six feet down until water appeared and nets could be set.

It is here that the local people, the Cree, the Saulteux, appear, faint figures in the crystal mist. Native people showing the Icelandic settlers how to push a net under the ice with a pole and to push that pole with another pole and another pole so as to get the net stretched out and then to painfully, slowly chisel away another hole so both ends of the net can be secured.

It is then some genius created the jigger, that simplest of tools that allowed nets to be run under the ice. On ice like this, trying out a new invention that would mean fish to eat in the dead of winter. And when it worked, men making more jiggers so more families could survive the hunger winters for the idea of easy hunting for meat is a city myth. My great grandfather went many times to hunt for deer and moose and came home empty handed. Fish was more dependable.

I stand with my back to the wind and I think of all the nets my father set and lifted in a lifetime, all the frozen fish we packed, shipped to market.

But also on the ice faintly in the haze are others not so fortunate. Those who were lost in blizzards and froze to death. Those who walked all night on frozen feet and had to have them amputated and spent the rest of their lives on their knees clearing land and doing chores.

Anyone brought up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg who goes out on the ice is never alone for a host of images surrounds with him. Even when it’s a fine day with a light wind and a blue sky.

Ice Vikings


You weren’t there. There’s no use denying it. I was there and if you had been there, I’d have seen you. Of course, I might not have recognized you in six layers of clothes, a parka with the hood up, a balaclava covering your face except for your eyes. So, maybe you were there. It’s possible.


It was overcast. The kind of overcast that creates a white sky from horizon to horizon. The fan on the weather vane outside my window was turning but not like the wind will sweep you across the lake and you won’t make it home until spring kind of turning.

People wearing so many layers of clothes that they looked like giants or serious in need of a membership in Weight Watchers were walking down to the harbour. You know, the Gimli harbour where the summer sun dances in diamonds across the water, where people lounge in bathing suits and suntans.


My ears led me to the action. There SONY DSCwere snowmobiles racing around, cars racing furiously on an ice track, motorcycles with studded tires speeding over the lake. White mist flew up from them. They trailed clouds of white ice and snow. The cars hurtled past. No casual Saturday drive this. When I say hurtled, I mean hurtled. Now you see them, now you don’t. The teenager in me was delirious with delight.SONY DSC

There were bombardier rides. People piled into bombardiers and out of bombardiers, using hay bales as a step up and step down. The bombardiers were coated with frost. My grandfather used a horse and sleigh. My father used a tractor and caboose. Bombardiers are luxury personified. You get to sit inside out of the wind.

There were frozen chicken curling competitions. The little kids curled with frozen quail, the bigger kids with frozen chickens and the adults with frozen turkeys. The winning teams got to keep the losing teams quails, chickens and turkeys.

There was an Icelandic frozen fish toss.  I thought they’d be tossing hakarl or maybe small whales but the frozen fish they were pitching looked suspiciously like pickerel. Some of the snow mobile riders in their snow mobile outfits looked like they could toss small whales around. They looked like warriors from Star Wars. I was quite envious. I think I drove the first snow mobile in Gimli or close to the first one but I didn’t get to look like that. I just looked like me in a parka. And the snowmobile didn’t go very fast. And it broke down.


There was a puck shot competition, kid’s ice fishing, ice golfing and right now, as I write this, there is a meat draw madness event. And tonight there is going to be a short film shown on a large outdoor screen. On an outdoor screen!. It´s March 2!  I keep waiting for a notice saying they’ll chop a hole in the ice and go nude swimming at midnight. If I’m at the Lakeshore hotel tonight and people suddenly start disrobing and someone yells, “Surfs up!” and everyone bounds over the patio rail and races onto the lake, I’ll know its frolic in the frozen lake time.

Thank goodness my credit union, that is the Noventis Credit Union, put up a big white tent where hot drinks were sold. I sought refuge there.


If I hadn’t been such a wimp, I’d have gone to the Viking Inn last night for the mechanical bull riding.


Of course, there were Vikings and Icelandic flags. Vikings were great travellers. Even so do you think they would ever have imagined themselves flying across the frozen lake in snowmobile outfits, their helmets with horns trailing icicles? Yelling, Ye Ha. Or the equivalent in Icelandic. Personally, I think they’d have loved it. You couldn’t have got them off the snowmobiles, out of the bombardiers, out of the madly racing cars.

Just another day in Gimli. Never a dull moment.

(The reason my article says there was a white sky and it is blue is that after a day of taking photos my memory card collapsed. I lost all the Pix. I had to reformat it. Lost all the photos from day one. Today, day two, it’s warm, blue sky and the photos aren’t nearly as dramatic. Sigh. Photogarphic tragedy.)


Waiting For The Ferry


When I lived in Gimli, Manitoba, I splashed through spring, swam through summer, danced through fall with the swirling leaves and skated through winter. The seasons were everything. They were anticipated, enjoyed, never mind the wet days of April, the sunburn of July, the first cold winds and frozen puddles of October, the blizzards and frigid temperatures of January and February.

When I agreed to come to the West Coast, little did I know those rhythms, those spring days when the temperature rose to zero and it felt so warm after the winter that we strode down the muddy streets with our jackets wide open, would disappear from my life. In place of spruce trees, poplar and paper birch, there’d be massive firs and Garry Oaks and arbutus.


In place of wild raspberries and high bush cranberries and saskatoons, we’d pick blackberries on the roadsides. In place of pickerel fillets fried to a golden brown, pickerel cheeks served in sweet and sour sauce, baked whitefish, smoked goldeye, we seek out salmon, pink and red, halibut and cod. In foraging in the forest, we’d not risk frostbite or freezing to death but dying of hypothermia because of wet and wind. In place of Lake Winnipeg, there’d be the Pacific Ocean and, instead of the shimmering eastern shore of the lake, we’d have the lights of Port Angeles.


Manitoba was all about highways, threading themselves to Winnipeg, to Brandon, to Ontario, north to Dauphin and The Pas, south to North Dakota. Here, life is all about ferries. We make our plans by ferry schedules. The ferry leaves Swartz Bay on the odd hour. The ferry leaves Fulford Harbour at ten minutes the even hour. Our trips to Vancouver are laid out like military strategies. Catch the seven o’clock at Swartz Bay, arrive at Tswassen at 8:45, arrive in downtown Vancouver at 10:00, constantly keep in mind the last two sailing times back to Victoria. A night sleeping in the car at the terminal is not a happy night. It’s that or a motel room somewhere reasonably close.


The rhythm of our lives are the rhythm of the ferries. It is not wise to arrive at the ferry terminal, any ferry terminal, at the last moment. It often means a two hour wait for the next ferry. Of course, you’ll be first in line.

My favorite ferry terminals are at Fulford Harbour and Vesuvius. Both have small communities where you can do a little tourist shopping and get a good cup of coffee.

Recently, I had over an hour’s wait at Fulford. Welcome to the life of the West Coast Icelanders.



Laughter: Jeg (I), the cat and the cream jug



It is 1892, my lang amma has been in Canada for 17 years. She is married, very Icelandic but has chosen an Englishman, an army officer, the son of minister who has a master’s degree from Oxford. Surprisingly, shockingly, he leaves the army at Fort Garry, moves with her to Gimli, Manitoba, and learns how to fish. However, letters reveal that, like everyone else, his struggle to feed his family means hunting, often without much result, taking on construction work. The fact that he is English, speaks English, has an English name, Bristow, doesn’t make life any easier for him or Fridrikka in the Icelandic settlement of Gimli. Perhaps, if they’d moved to Winnipeg where his name and accent would have counted for something, life would have been better.

Like the cat, Bristow, as he was referred to, needed to find another way of getting at the cream in the jug. Just as the Icelanders needed to find other ways of getting the cream out of the jug or the fish from under the ice.

These were real people, people who when they got up every day, wondered where the next meal or the meal after that was coming from, wondered where they could go to make enough money to buy basic food stuffs, clothes, equipment, dogs, a horse and sleigh. Santa Claus didn’t come along and say “Here you are. All the cream you want and you don’t have to do anything to get it.”

So, maybe when they saw this cartoon about the cat appear in the Almanak and his having to work out how to get the cream, their laughter may have been partly from self-recognition.

Here is my translation. Corrections and additions not only welcome but sought. Give me a more accurate translation and I’ll make the necessary changes.

It’s painful to be as hungry and thirsty as cat is. She cannot get her head into the blessed cream pitcher. She has tried and it is impossible.

Wonderful  is the taste of the cream even though the cat had to wait but patience, after all, is a virtue.

Pussy is not used to thinking things out and planning but when there’s a goal in mind, she can manage it.

And I, how often have I longed for the cream in the cream jug and how hard have I had to think, to plan, to work to figure out a way to get the cream out of the jug?







The 10 cent Christmas

My aunt Florence had a stroke and had to go into Betel, the nursing home in Gimli but, if she were still with us, there’s a story that she would tell. She told me about it many times and I was always happy to hear it again.

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was 18), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the air force and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope for the future. Love, they believed, could overcome al l problems.

Their first Christmas Eve, all they had between them was 10 cents. Mind you, 10 cents still meant something. You could buy something with 10 cents. It was two-thirds of a haircut, for example. It was two-thirds of a ticket to the movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just 10 cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make with foil they scrounged from cigarette packages, with tin from cans, with bits and pieces of glass, with chains made from colored paper.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for 10 cents?”

And the butcher, who had known Forence all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage, even though new interlopers like my  uncle were appearing because of an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.





Christmas Gifts

I have reached an age where there is not much that I need or want. It makes me a difficult father and grandfather at gift giving time. I can just hear my kids saying, “What are we going to get for Dad?” and, in despair, buying something they’ve noticed is missing or worn out in the house.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was childhood in which gifts from family and friends, gifts from Santa Claus, were eagerly anticipated. One’s heart’s desire in childhood is often quite simple, quite obvious; we’re not usually subtle in childhood. We’re inclined to say things like, “Boy, would it ever be nice to have a bike. Joe has a bike. A red CCM. You should see it.”

I expect that’s the kind of thing I said that meant my grandparents put a red CCM, kid size, under the tree.

I was lucky. I always got one or more Christmas gifts. Christmas Eve is a big event for people of Icelandic extraction. That’s when we opened the gifts that had accumulated under the tree. From my folks, the gifts were inclined to be practical, to be things that I needed, like new pants, shirts, socks. That, too, was a remnant of an Icelandic tradition but, in Iceland, during the time of emigration, conditions were hard and each person usually got one new piece of clothing. We weren’t well-to-do but we were better off than that.

I always got at least one book. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys. Over the years, my library grew. I read my books over and over again, borrowed more where I could, bought some when I managed to make enough money from baby sitting or cutting lawns or shovelling snow. However, there was something special about knowing, from having felt the wrapped gift, that there would be a new book to read on Christmas day.

Christmas morning it was hard to stay in bed. My brother and I didn’t get up until we heard that our parents were awake. Then we crept into the living room to look under the tree to see what Santa had brought.

I don’t ever remember doubting Santa Claus’s existence. The existential questions didn’t plague me. How could he cover the whole world in one night even with his magical reindeer? How could he get in and out of houses when they didn’t have fireplaces? Ours didn’t. He came down the chimney, he’d have dropped straight into our wood burning furnace. No, for me, everything was possible. And no one was so mean as to say Santa Claus didn’t exist. No one forced adult disillusionment and cynicism on a couple of little kids.

Santa may have been secular and materialistic but we never saw any conflict between him and Christ. They were two good guys. Santa was jolly. Christ was serious but we didn’t really think much, if anything, about the grown up Christ. Our Christ was the baby Jesus in the manager and while Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on our lips so was Silent Night. Santa might bring that desperately wanted football but that did not diminish the joy in the brown paper bag with hard candy and an orange handed out at the church.

We didn’t really have Icelandic traditions because my mother was Irish and it’s Mom’s who take care of these things while Dad’s are off doing whatever it is that Dad’s do to pay for gifts and turkey and potatoes and gravy. And cranberry sauce. However, we were very fortunate in having an Icelandic Icelandic family, the Bjarnason’s just two houses south. After we went to the late night service at the Lutheran church, we then went to the Bjarnason’s where Gusta fed us sukla and cookies and cakes and everything nice. We ate so much sugar and spice that it was amazing that we didn’t turn into girls. There wasn’t a single snip or snail to be seen. Moreover, none of us boys complained. None of us said that’s too much sugar and spice. I’ll skip the next piece of vinarterta.

There were, I know, gifts under the Christmas tree brought by Santa. However, only a few of them stand out. The desperately desired bike my grandparents gave me. The football that got used in pickup games for many years. Probably, though, no gift could match the Cooey .22. I was twelve. Nowadays, with all the fuss about guns because our larger, more urbanized population uses guns to do harm, giving a twelve year old a rifle may seem preposterous.

However, my father started teaching me to shoot a .22 when I was two. He held the rifle and I aimed and pulled the trigger. He took me hunting with him around the same time, hauling me behind him on a sleigh. We ate what he hunted. Our favorite meal, Sunday after Sunday, was rabbit pie. We ate venison, goose and ducks. We even ate beaver tail and prairie chicken.

I hunted rabbits with my .22. When I brought them home, I was proud of my accomplishment. Rabbit for the stew pot. When I shot a prairie chicken and brought it home, I was proud of providing a prairie chicken for the stew pot.

Maybe it is prosperity, the ability to buy whatever you want for yourself. Maybe it has something to do with extravagant competition, bigger and bigger and more expensive gifts. Maybe it has to do with the artificial manipulation of desire on TV, the turning of Santa Claus from a jolly old elf who likes his Coca Cola into a pitchman so crazed that no happiness can exist for a child unless he or she is buried in toys.


What is left, for me, thank goodness, is the joy of giving. However, even this is tempered with the knowledge of a Canada that I don’t remember. I know that some people in Gimli did not have much and there may not have been anything or very little under the Christmas tree. There may have been no Christmas tree. The bag of candy and the orange at the church may have been the only gift. However, as a child our world is small, it encompasses family and, perhaps, friends. We are not part of discussions about how much can be spent on Christmas gifts or Christmas food or how poor other people might be.

However, as I grew up, I don’t remember soup kitchens, food banks, people living in cars, homeless people pushing grocery carts with their few possessions.

Maybe, because we weren’t constantly being told that we should want things, we were satisfied with less. One of the finest gifts my brother and I ever received came from a friend who came to live with us for a while. He wasn’t much older than us. It was a kind of pinball game you played with it resting on the floor or a table and there was a slot and spring with which you could send metal balls shooting up. There were numbered metal pieces that were curved and each one had a value marked below it. We tried to get the balls into the various curved metal pieces. We played with it for years.

Adults know that we created Santa Claus. We know that Coca Cola helped to develop his current image. As a child it did me no harm to believe in a jolly old elf who was generous and kind and brought kids gifts. The larger questions, the  unanswerable questions of right and wrong, of materialism vs. idealism can wait until later. Kids need jolly old elves in their lives. More than ever. Their adult worries will start soon enough.

Perhaps, though, for me, the most important part of Christmas was Christmas Eve with its ritual of attending a late service. Ritual matters. These many decades later, I remember no more of the gifts than those I’ve mentioned and, of those I have mentioned, there was none more important than the small paper bag with hard candy and an orange that was given to children at the service. Never have I forgotten holding my paper bag as we sang Silent Night. In childhood, that bag contained the sweetness of both the candy and the exotic flavour of the orange. Today, as I think back, what matters is that I know that those kids who weren’t lucky enough to have gifts on Christmas morning, had that bag with those candies and that orange and, I’ve been told, were sometimes given more than one. I hope that is true.