Desperate Manitobans

032They’ve survived the coldest winter since 1889. The temperatures plunged to minus fifty. It was colder than Siberia. Snow drifted until it covered windows. They could hear the houses cracking and creaking as the cold squeezed the joints. Ice formed on the lake until it was six feet deep. Winter began early and didn’t end until spring was nearly summer. People stood at windows and stared longingly at the sky, hoping for a peek at the sun.

They survived. After all, they are Manitobans. They still remember stories told by earlier generations of climbing out of two storey windows onto snow drifts, of driving in trenches of snow ten feet high, of cattle frozen to death standing up in the fields. Like the bears, they hunkered down, became drowsy in front of television sets, watched a life time of rented movies, raised the birth rate in the coming fall, dreamed of green grass and stood longingly in front of store displays of flower and vegetable seeds. They nurtured geraniums in pots. Summer will come, they whispered to their children as they put them to bed.

Spring has come and gone. It’s been a spring of dark clouds, cold rain, late melting snow, the kind of spring in the days when local farmers grew their own food, caused nightmares of a hungry winter to come.

Summer is here and desperation is everywhere. It’s in the farmers’ eyes, farmers who can’t seed their fields, farmers who have seeded their fields, fields that are now underwater. It’s in the wearing of shorts and rubber boots and determinedly eating an ice cream in spite of the rain while wading through puddles.

Manitobans are defiant. There were three women in bikinis lying in deck chairs at the hotel outdoor pool. In spite of the wind, in spite of the rain, in spite of the ominous clouds. I kept waiting for them to start singing “We will overcome.” One of them was so hopeful that she was rubbing on suntan lotion.

The guy who rents bicycles, tricycles, quadracycles was animatedly explaining to a father, mother and two children the advantages of seeing the town under pedal power. The father kept looking skeptically at the dirty grey clouds. Rain started and ruined he salesman’s pitch. However, Manitobans wouldn’t have called it rain. Rain here has to reach a certain level of drops per square foot before it is considered rain. This would be considered a gentle sprinkle. I remember my mother saying to me, get out there and deliver your newspapers and me saying, “In that?” and her saying, “That’s nothing. It’s just a little sprinkle.” I thought it warranted the building of an ark.

It is dispiriting to watch a man eating a soft ice cream cone dipped in chocolate in the rain. Especially when he’s wearing bright tartan shorts and a lemon yellow golf shirt. He has a determined, bulldog look. He is not seeing, feeling or acknowledging the rain. I think he should move under a canopy before the cone gets soggy.

Is there any sight sadder than a beach with hardly anyone on it? Beaches are not complete without people lying on blankets and towels, gamboling in the waves, playing with brightly colored balls, flirting, squealing, building sand castles. Today, five determined souls were wading about the shore. They couldn’t be locals, I thought. We were taught by our mothers that black clouds often harbored lightening and lightening is attracted to the highest object on a flat surface such as a lake. I kept waiting for a lightning bolt to turn them into lightning rods. However, they had come to the beach to frolic in the water and frolic they were going to do, lightning or no lightning.

When the sky was sprinkling and a bit of wind was blowing, everyone disappeared. In a few minutes, the sun shone through a hole in the clouds. People reappeared like magic, a cascade of brightly colored clothes, lots of bare skin searching for vitamin D. They weren’t there and then they were there. The hole in the clouds closed but people sitting at sidewalk tables at Kris the Fish refused to go inside. They kept eating their pickerel fillets and French fries. I thought, good for them, although, personally, I don’t like my French fries sodden with anything except vinegar and lots of salt.

I love Gimli. I admire Manitobans. They ignore the bad stuff and celebrate the smallest moment of sunshine in their lives. That’s what got their ancestors through the horrors of being a pioneer in the swamps and on the lake in winter. They live on hope. Tomorrow will be better they say before they fall asleep. And it will, unless it isn’t, but then the day after will be better and it will. Summer will come and be celebrated. The garden will grow, people will get a suntan, grain will ripen, fish will willingly swim into the net, and next winter can’t possibly be as bad as last year’s.

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.