Waiting For The Ferry

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Winnipeg Icelander

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Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.

 

 

The Caragana Hedge

When I was a boy, now more than half a century ago, there was a lot of snow. When I’ve said that, I’ve had people say but, Bill, you were a lot shorter then. However, I have markers from that time, the most obvious one being the caragana hedge that grew along the front of the yard. The hedge grew well over my head. In summer, it was clothed in green leaves and when the yellow blooms were out, it was abuzz with bumble bees gathering nectar. I know the nectar was sweet because we plucked the flowers and tasted the nectar. Occasionally, the hedge hid a sparrow’s nest with tiny eggs.

In fall, the leaves turned yellow and fell off the hedge. When the wind blew down from Hudson Bay, driving bitter rain, then snow, the orioles and robins fled south (sensible birds that they were) the caragana hedge grew dark, gathered shadows. Nearby, the mountain ash, planted close to the front door to bring good luck, drooped with clusters of red berries.

Slowly, slowly, as snow fell, as it stopped melting during the day, it began piling up, and the caragana hedge now collected the beginning of drifts. The wind swept the snow over open fields, along Third Avenue, filled the ditches, piled snow against cottages and trees.

Although I earned a quarter or even fifty cents for shoveling snow from people’s sidewalks, no one shoveled the public walk in front of the caragana hedge, the walk that led to school, to Centre Street with its grocery store and post office. People walked where the sidewalk had been, fences and hedges, their guide. They wore a trail on top of the drifts but still the drifts grew until they overreached of the caragana hedge and only a few dark ends revealed where the hedge of summer housed its bees and birds and butterflies. We drank no nectar as the wind whirled snow around us. The mountain ash still held clusters of berries topped with crowns of snow and the occasional small bird would bravely venture out and sit there, dining on frozen berries.

There are no days to match the days during a Manitoba winter when the wind drops, the sky is pale blue, the sun, although weakened, is bright and the snow reflecting the sun dazzles the eyes.

It is these days–the days of skating on the glare ice of Lake Winnipeg, sledding, snowshoeing, chasing a soccer ball over the field–that released us from the house into the blue and white world of friendly winter that we waited for at the window. Days spent playing road hockey, often with frozen horse turds, for horses still pulled sleighs to town  from farms to the west. Our goals were blocks of firewood, our sticks patched together from ones that had been broken during a hockey game and thrown over the boards. These were days when we went back inside, red cheeked and ravenous, pulling off moccasins and heavy jackets and pants, ready for soup and sandwiches, for peanut butter cookies, for steaming mugs of cocoa.

These days released us from days of bitter cold and wind, when ice formed on the windows and I hunched deep inside my parka as I trudged along the road to the train station to wait for the daily newspaper. In summer, I carried the papers in a canvas bag over my shoulder or in the basket of my bike but now, my head covered in a leather helmet with ear flaps tied tight under my chin, my face wrapped around with a red knitted scarf tied at the back of my head, my hands in gloves, inside mittens, my body layered with long wool underwear, with a pair of pants and then wool over pants, a shirt and sweater and over everything my parka. I towed a sledge behind me and on it, a box filled with newspapers. Often I struggled against hard, icy granules driven by a hard wind. Sometimes, I’d turn my back to the wind and walk backwards and, when I had to turn into the wind, I’d bend forward, my  head deep in my fringed hood.

The packed snow on the roads turned to ice and many times I slipped and slid and caught my balance but other times, I fell to one knee or onto my hands. Many homes never shovelled a path from the road to their gate and it meant wading through deep snow in the ditch, over the boulevard, awkwardly opening a gate because of my mittens, opening a storm door and putting the paper between the two doors, then shouting, “Paper.” , then clambering back out to my sleigh.

When I went out to deliver papers or walk the five blocks to the skating rink, I wrapped a wool scarf around my face to protect my lungs. I breathed into the scarf and it was soon thick with my frozen breath. When I got to my destination, I hung up the scarf  in the hope that the ice would melt and that the scarf would dry out before I had to put it back on for my return journey. That seldom happened and when I put it back on, it was still wet and the moment I went outside, the wet wool froze stiff

In recent years when I’ve  een in Manitoba in winter, I’ve driven through puddles in January, slogged through slush on city streets. Something like this was inconceivable during my childhood. The first time there was melting was in early spring when, during the day, the top of the snow would warm and would freeze at night so a fine glaze settled over the snow. The snow banks began to shrink and, for me, the progress of spring was the gradual reappearance of the caragana hedge until, finally, in late spring, all that was left of winter, were the stubborn, hard crusted small drifts that lingered in the hedge’s shade.

I have no idea what Victoria was like when I was a child. During my time here, 1974-present, there has been little winter. Occasionally, we  have blizzards, I got caught in one on Salt Spring Island shortly after the first time I went there to visit. I was trapped for four days. The power was out. It was cold, miserable, and by the end of the ordeal, I valued heat, light and hot water more than ever but it wasn’t Manitoba in winter with no heat, light or hot water.

It is not just that the weather is different but the landscape changes everything. Gimli is flat. Victoria is hilly, I now live on a ridge and the road down is steep. Even a small amount of snow or ice can create a dangerous, uncontrollable skid. Ice or snow appears and the city comes to a standstill. For two or three days after a snowtorm, the people revel in taking out toboggans and sleds that have sat unused in garages and basements for years.  They slide down the roads, in the parks, for wherever there are slopes, and they are endless,  the possibility of swooshing down, squealing, laughing, tipping over, having winter fun, creates images usually only seen on Christmas cards. Here, a snowfall is not about winter drudgery but a chance, once in a long while, to recreate Christmas scenes.

Here, people wrap their palm trees in sacking against the cold and drying wind. Here, we get drenching rains. Everything is wet during the winter. Instead of cold proof, clothes are water proof. Hypothermia is a problem. I cover my plants with mulch. As spring approaches and  the rains of winter ease, the temperature goes up and spring is  here with the sudden appearance of snowdrops. Patches of white flowers with their light green leaves, the snowdrops appear everywhere, in gardens, lawns, boulevards, in crevices, for flowers grow here rampant and then appear spring crocuses in clusters and the grape hyacinth in great swaths of colour. My first house came with a small tree that bloomed just after New Years every year, bright pink. No leaves. Just flowers flaming against the still dull yard. I worshipped it.

Palm trees here are a braggart’s tree. We are too far north for palms but in Victoria’s micro climates, protected from wind, they survive. People grow them as an act of defiance.  However, I prefer the Garry Oaks, the arbutus, the Douglas firs.  They do not defy the landscape.

Do I prefer the stately firs of Victoria to the dark spruce hunched against winter in Manitoba? Or the blue camas on the sunny slopes to the shy yellow lady slipper in its boggy shade? Why should I choose? Wherever I am, I hold the other in my memory.

The cargana hedge is gone now. They grow old, as we all do, and die. I thought caragana were immortal but they, too, come to an end. My memories survive, caragana hedge leafing out, its flowers blooming, shedding its leaves, turning dark with cold and disappearing beneath the snow only to appear again with the warming of the sun.

Perhaps, some people say, you exaggerate, winters were never so cold, the snow never so deep, the wind never so strong. There are photographs and records to prove them wrong, of course, those people not capable of understanding anything but their momentary experience. But for me, the best proof of all is my memory of that caragana hedge, higher than the gate, higher than my head, overtopped with drifted snow.

Which Is The New Iceland?

When I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that is, the capital of New Iceland, Iceland was a distant and storied place. During the war years, 1939-45, Iceland was an important strategic location, a permanent battle ship and aircraft carrier in the North Sea. Travel there was restricted largely to the military, first the British and then the Americans.

After the war, there were a few Icelanders who came to New Iceland. There were regarded as rather exotic creatures, sort of the way polar bears are when they drift onto land on ice floes.

A lot of people, including many of my relatives, spoke Icelandic. However, the tight, insular world of New Iceland, had started to break down. People who weren’t of Icelandic extraction lived in Gimli, Arborg, Riverton. WWII had brought the air force training base to Gimli and as a child, I was much more used to seeing and hearing pilots from many different countries than I was to seeing Icelanders. When I was in high school, two young airforce men from England taught us ball room dancing. They both had won dance contests in England. We heard French pilots in the bakery. We snuck onto the base so we could go to the rec centre to play basketball, swim in the pool, play badminton and floor hockey. When we became too noticeable, we’d be expelled. We’d wait a week or so, then walk the two miles to the PMQs, go from there through a hole in the perimeter fence, and make good use of the rec centre.

We grew up taking good Cantonese food for granted. Sam Toy provided excellent Cantonese food at prices we could afford.

Our classmates were German, Polish, Ukrainian, Irish, English. My father hired seasonal fishermen. Many of those were aboriginal.

However, there in the background, over coffee at Aunty Vi’s or at Dolly and George’s, at Grandma Bristow’s, there was Icelandic spoken. There were pictures of Iceland, post cards from Iceland, all those names ending in –sson but never –dottir since we’d stopped naming girls after their father’s, Helgisdottir or Ragnarsdottir and, instead, had adopted family names. We’d dropped the Icelandic letters. Valgarðsson had, in two generations, become Valgardson. Gottskalksson had become Olson.  And, perhaps more to the point, Gottskalksdottir had become Bristow and produced thirteen children who now traced their lineage not just to Iceland but to Oxford, England.

The Gimli Lutheran church had ministers from Iceland. The two seemed synonymous, Lutheran and Icelandic, as if all those German, Norwegian, Danish, American Lutherans, didn´t exist. Gradually, though, in Winnipeg and in Gimli, the services changed to English, the relationship between Icelandic and Lutheran faded. Having an Icelandic minister was no longer necessary.

We had some teachers of Icelandic background in elementary school but I don´t remember any difference that it made. In grade four we had Miss Greenberg, in grade five and six, Mr. Roal, in grade seven, Mr. Susky, in grade eight, Johnny Gottfried. None of them were of Icelandic background.

In high school, we had Miss Stefansson. The rest of the  high school teachers were a kaleidoscope of changing ethnicities.

We had the Icelandic Celebration. It was a party. A family party for a long time. A party about us, although I, for one, never learned anything about that Usness beyond seeing the Fjalkona on her podium, hearing some speeches in Icelandic which I didn´t understand. The speeches in English were filled with platitudes, no information. For me the Icelandic Celebration was about relatives swarming in through the door, lots of conversation, lots of food, and the occasional dollar slipped into my hand by happy visitors.

Today, we´ve got a viking statue that everyone loves in spite of his horned helmet, the local museum, the continuing Icelandic Celebration. The Icelandic language has mostly disappeared although a determined group meets at Amma´s Cafe regularly to practice speaking Icelandic. Icelandic desserts continue to be eaten but not baked sheep´s heads or dried cod.  

When a friend of mine went to Iceland some years ago and gave her name at a hotel, a name ending in –sson, which meant she was someone’s son, she got an odd look. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye. As a recent Icelandic visitor said to me, “That’s the way the spell Icelandic words in North America.”

Iceland is the New Iceland, no longer the poorest country in Europe, no longer rural, no longer isolated and New Iceland, well, it’s Canada.

 

 

 

The Poet from Arnes: background notes

Poetry, like hymn singing, was okay in Iceland. Both came with the settlers. The poetry and hymn singing expanded to become secular but still was an important part of the daily life of the settlers. Even today, numerous books of poetry in Icelandic written by the first generation of immigrants still exist. Also, still existing, are anecdotes about the struggle between farming and writing. It has been said about more than one farmer that “he’d have been a better farmer if he hadn’t spent so much time writing poetry”. I’ve noticed that some people feel the need to defend Stephan G’s farming, as if his life work of poetry was, somehow, an abdication of his responsibilities as a farmer, father and husband. His accomplishments as a poet absolve him of any accusation of neglect for a muse is a demanding mistress and his books could only be written by him while others could grow crops on his land.  It is true, crops, cows and sheep are demanding. The weather waits for no man. But, so is the creative spirit, the demanding internal mistress who wants all of an artist’s time and attention.

There is a struggle within some of us, if not all of us, between the practical and the romantic. To follow either to the extreme leads often to disaster. Following one with no attention to the other deprives us of joy or the material things we need. I have seen the creativity of individuals crushed by rigid, narrow minded views of reality. A middle aged woman once came to me in my role as creative writing teacher and said she wanted to write, there was a need, a burning desire to write. She had wanted to write for years but had belonged to a small religious group led by a man who considered creative activities evil. If you believe in reincarnation, he was probably an Icelandic bishop reincarnated. No slander on current bishops but even a cursory look at Icelandic history makes many of the religious leaders the foes of creativity.

There were many like this cult leader. In Iceland, two bishops went to the king of Denmark and got a law passed that said Icelanders were not to spend their time in frivolous pursuits. The bishops, of course, got to define frivolous. In their view of life, you cut hay, spun wool, lived a life of drudgery and when you weren’t working, you prayed. On the other hand, I’ve known poets who, for some strange reason, believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that they are going to make a living from writing poetry and expect to live off the excitement of their creativity.

These parts are filled by Oscar and his wife, Snolag. Both of them are good people but each takes a position that diminishes their lives. There are no bad people in this story.

The difference between them can be seen in the attitude of the cows toward them. The cows respond to Oscar’s thoughtfulness and singing. Snolag is more businesslike. The cows still produce milk but it is now a duty instead of a pleasure. One can extrapolate that to all sorts of situations in society. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, officers, bosses, police. The outcome might be much the same but the feeling is different. How we feel matters.

Oscar disappears in a storm. There’s the assumption that he’s drowned. Snolag takes over the farm, makes decisions for the present and the future, does a good job.

Oscar has tried to bring romance into their lives with no success. The garden he planted for Snolag died.

He disappears, nearly is drowned in icy water, nearly freezes to death. Make what you will of that. He is rescued by a woman who keeps  him safe all through the winter. She’s a mythic figure, native, passionate, if you want, his creative soul. Somehow, magically, at a terrible price, she provides him with what he most wants in life, a son. The price is that he may sing for no one else. Folk tales are full of instances of bargains made, rewards given, bargains broken, betrayals, and the price paid.

Snolag, at Oscar’s reappearance, behaves in character, completely and totally practical, she starts breakfast. Her behaviour, although surprising, even shocking to some, has its roots in reality. Men were ever wanderers, often traveling far from home in search of game or a job. They could leave their family for long periods of time, then simply turn up. Odysseus took ten years to come back home.

However, even though she has earlier resented the time Oscar has spent on his singing, now that she has found love with the arrival of a child, she is aware that something is missing with Oscar no longer singing. The love she has experienced and is able to extend to her relationship with Oscar means she recognizes and feels the loss. However, she makes the mistake of shaming Oscar into breaking his vow and the cost is everything that has made her happy.

This story is filled with magic. The mundane and the practical struggle against the creative. The magic transforms people’s lives, allows Oscar to survive, to return, for him and Snolag to have a child, gives them happiness, takes it away. This struggle goes on every day in every place. Within a person and between and among people.

A simple promise broken in the Garden of Eden. The opening of Pandora’s Box. There was a time when a man’s word was his bond. Even in recent times, pioneers on the prairies would, according to Broadfoot, write a note saying, “I owe you ten dollars. I’m good for it.” Not keeping one’s word was an unforgiveable sin. You paid your debts. You kept your word.

Folk tales are not politically correct, nor are they Disney’s prettified stories that no longer reflect the human condition. Grimm’s tales reflect the human condition, human desires, they coddle no one. They are not for children. They are stories for adults about adult subjects. Taking away what folk tales have to say about our lives, separating the narratives from how people really feel so that a romanticized view of life is left, demeans and diminishes them, demeans and diminishes us. Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell were wonderful but presented such an idealized, romanticized view of American life that it reflected hardly any segment of daily life for American society.  That doesn’t mean that every piece of art has to force reality on the viewer. Some art is solely for entertainment. Thinking isn’t required.

However, the lives of Oscar and Snolag, the conflict between them, the outcome, require, I believe, some thought about our own lives.

 

On loving our community

My mother became a Credit Union manager quite by accident.

My father had gone to the local bank to borrow two hundred dollars to finance his commercial fishing for the fall season. The bank turned him down. The bank manager was quite straight forward about the reason. He said it wasn’t his job to lend out money but, rather, to collect it so it could be sent to Toronto to be loaned out by the banks there.

Although the local manager was polite, the attitude of the banking system was right there, in my father’s face, as we’d say nowadays. There was the Eastern contempt for the western Canada, contempt for small businesses, contempt for rural people. We were the suckers standing in front of the carnival tent with the huckster carny man giving the pitch to separate us from our money, the medicine man standing on the back of his wagon extolling the virtues of his medicine that would cure everything but, in actuality, would cure nothing, the immigration agent taking our money and disappearing with it, the companies selling us mouldy grain and rotten canvas tents.

It was all there. “A lousy two hundred dollars,” my father said. He wanted the two hundred dollars so he wouldn’t have to borrow it from a fish company. If he borrowed money from a fish company, then he had to sell them his fish for the coming fishing season. That meant they set the prices. He couldn’t sell to the fish company that was offering the best price. Dealing in a perishable product, he was trapped in a system that was a remnant of the medieval system of the indentured servant.

He joined the Credit Union board. It had, if I remember correctly, no more than a few thousand dollars. It was run from a local home. When the person taking care of the books said he couldn’t do it anymore, my father brought the books home and asked my mother to take care of them for two weeks. That two weeks stretched into twenty years.

At first, she had office hours one afternoon a week, then a day a week, then two days a week, then the Credit Union put a safe into the house. The number of days increased. Deposits increased.

Finally, my father said he’d build a commercial building and rent out part of it to the Credit Union. He was a do-it-himself kind of guy. He’d had one business, a laundry, go bankrupt on him, and he’d learned to keep costs down. He bought a corner lot through which a creek ran. People said no one could build on that piece of property. He had culverts put in. He had a friend who was an engineer who drew up the plans. He and my father bought salvaged steel beams. They sub-contracted work. The metal safe in the house was replaced with a vault in the new building.

My mother learned on the job. Good people helped her. She attended meetings and conventions. In the early days, she was the only woman at the conventions. That was hard.

But what lay behind her decisions as a manager was love of community. She’d been an only child and was often lonely. When she’d married my father and moved to Gimli, a small, rural village supported by commercial fishing, an airbase, summer tourists, mixed farming, she said she was never lonely again. She was absorbed first by my father’s large, extended family, then by the community itself.

She saw her role, the credit union’s role, as helping local people. She never forgot the bank’s refusal of the two hundred dollars to my father. Someone once said to her, you have all that money and she replied, it’s not my money. She did not see the credit union or her role as a manager as a way to make herself rich. She would have dismissed the idea that “greed is good” as no more than an attempt by the greedy to justify their selfish actions. Greed is only good to those people who do not love their community.

She saw herself as a custodian. Her job was to do what was best for depositors while, at the same time, do what was best for borrowers. That meant being sure that people could afford what they were buying, could make the payments. It sometimes meant providing business advice, particularly for people wanting to start a local business. Her job was to  help others, not herself.

There were no get rich quick schemes. No loaning out as much money as possible to anyone who applied so that she could get a commission or bonus. She worked for her salary. The profits belonged to the credit union members. There were no liar loans. There was no bundling of crappy mortgages and selling them off to unsuspecting businesses or individuals so that more crappy loans and mortgages could be made to increase the size of her commission.

She was just a credit union manager in a small town but she stood and stands head and shoulders above all the bankers in North America and Europe who have been so driven by greed that they’ve placed the entire banking system in jeopardy, all the bankers who have looted their banks, who have speculated with their depositor’s money.

A small town credit union manager with ethics. Something nowadays it seems impossible to find among the wreckage of arcane financial instruments, of billion dollar losses, of obscene bonuses paid with money that should go to stockholders.

Head and shoulders over these greedy bankers? She retired with enough money to keep her in comfort in a small town way. A three bedroom bungalow. An older car. Money in the bank to cover daily expenses and to make a trip to visit her son each Christmas. It would have been good if she’d have had a pension for her twenty years but there were no pensions in such small places in those days. She and my father managed on their savings and their investments. Head and shoulders and more.

Would people have admired her more if she had ripped off the credit union by changing the rules so she got a commission on loans and then pushed out as much money as possible, selling off the mortgages and starting over and over again? Some would, I guess. There are people in our society who worship Mammon. Who believe that greed is good and, if they get a chance, are as greedy as possible, who have no sense of responsibility to their family, friends, neighbours, community.

Her ceremony at the Lutheran church yesterday was simple. Three of us spoke about her life. A friend sang a hymn. We all joined together in singing two hymns. Her ashes were in a pottery urn, beside it a picture of her when she first came to Gimli. They were flanked by two simple vases with a few flowers.

People came on this warm Saturday, they came in spite of it being Canada Day, in spite of it being the municipality’s 125 anniversary. Her grandchildren came and her great grandchildren.

We gathered at the graveyard under a blue prairie sky with white floating islands of clouds. The minister said a prayer, scattered some earth as he said ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The undertaker put the urn in a red velvet bag and placed it in the hole that had been prepared in my mother’s mother’s grave. The graveyard is on the edge of farmland, at the juncture of the original pioneer road and Highway 9. There are glimpses of Lake Winnipeg to the East. To the West are the gravel ridges of pioneer hardship.

The graveyard isn’t old but it is old enough that my Icelandic great grandparents are buried there. They came to the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1876 with the first Icelandic settlers. My mother, as Irish as Irish can be, her parents both from Northern Ireland, slipped into this Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Native community and made it her own. Her ashes and the bodies of her parents rest here, a long way from Ireland, a long way from the Mountains of Mourne but they share their resting place with the people who were part of their new Canadian life.

She loved Canada, this town and the people in it and, for a lifetime, she did what she thought was best for everyone.