Grandpa's early life is - to me - like something out of a history book. I have never been to Russia, although I would very much like to go and study Russian seriously. My wife, when I told her that once upon a time, just nodded and said that she had had this premonition of us living in Russia, so it was all no big deal. There are times when I feel like there is some strange bond between us Martenses and Russia, although it seems silly when I say it out loud. My own research has taken me, time and again, into the world of socialist and czarist Russia, often at times when it seemed completely unrelated to what I was doing.
My grandfather never set foot again in Russia after 1927, my father never got closer than Brussels and I have been in both Berlin and Beijing, but have never myself been any closer than that to the former Soviet Union. Grandpa could not actually speak Russian as an adult and my father had no grasp of the language whatsoever. I studied it for a time in university long ago, but I can no longer claim more than a very minimal reading ability, having decided to place my best efforts elsewhere. So, places like Zaporozhe and Moscow, names like Makhno, Lenin and Stalin, and words like kulak and priyut - they are part of an alien world to me, only meaningful in historical terms.
Winnipeg is the family siège. I was born there, as was my father and my mother was born less than 30 minutes away from it. Even though I have myself never kept a fixed address in the city of Winnipeg, I have returned to it more or less annually all my life. It was the place my parents thought of as home while I was growing up and where my mother and brother now live. It has been the one constant place in my entire life. I have never received a phone bill that didn't include at least one call to a number in the 204 area code.
So with this part of his story, Grandpa has moved into a world I know much better. I've spent countless hours in Eaton's in downtown Winnipeg. I know where the Brooklands neighbourhood is and Elgin Avenue is one of the streets along the way from my mother's house to the airport. What is perhaps the strangest part of it for me is recognising the Winnipeg I know in Grandpa's childhood memories, or perhaps more accurately identifying the trace of Grandpa's childhood in the city of today.
It is, of course, all different now. Kerosene lamps and horse-drawn carriages are as much a thing of the past in urban Canada as they are elsewhere. Winnipeg's streetcars disappeared in the 1950's, replaced by ugly orange buses. Brooklands is next to the airport now, and consequently much of the former housing has been replaced by commercial properties that depend on cheap land prices. It is now a ghetto of superstores and warehouses. Reading Grandpa's story reminds me that what is for me a huge gap between the world of 1928 and the world of 2003 was for him a gradual process - never so fast that it intruded directly on your senses. Many of the landmarks of his childhood still stand, attesting to the awkward truth that the world didn't come into being the way it is. Everything has a past.
But in 1927, not quite eight years old and fresh off the boat from Russia, it was all new to Grandpa. Neither he nor great-grandmother spoke a word of English and they had none of the comforts of financial security. Canada had come to them all at once, without history.
It did not take very long before Grandmother and her three daughters bought a house at 1844 Elgin Avenue. [This comes as something of a surprise to me. Although the whole family quit Russia, they had no significant assets in Canada as far as I know. Grandpa doesn't explain. I suppose it's possible that they had a mortgage. Mennonites used to be pretty well organised when it came to community banking, and Mennonite credit unions are still among the most successful banks in Manitoba.] Mother and I were with them when they moved in. I don't know where they got the used furniture from, but that first evening, we still had no table. Supper consisted of boiled potatoes served at a trunk next to the kitchen door.
Back in those days, the sidewalk on Elgin Avenue was made of wood and the water pump was just a short distance down the street towards town. [They had no indoor plumbing or well of their own. This was routinely the case in cities in those days and still is many countries.] There was no paving that far out because we were out in Brooklands beyond the streetcar line. The streetcars made a loop on Notre Dame, Keewatin, Logan and Main Street. [These streets are all major boulevards in the north-western and central part of present-day Winnipeg. The corner of Elgin Avenue and Keewatin Street is about 100m from 1844 Elgin.] There was a double track so they ran in both directions at the same time, about every 15 minutes. We used to go to Eaton's by streetcar in those days. One attraction at Eaton's was the machine where you placed your feet in a certain area and you could see exactly how your shoes fit. But that was in the "good old days" before they became aware of how much damage indiscriminate use of X-rays could do.
[Eaton's - which famously dropped the "'s" in my childhood in order to be more linguistically correct in bilingual Canada - was a famous nation-wide upmarket department store founded in 1869. It was second only to the Hudson Bay Company itself as an icon in the Canadian business community. Unfortunately, upmarket brands like Eaton fared poorly in the recession years after 1989. While its main competitor, the Hudson Bay Company, branched out into discount retail with its Zeller's brand stores, by the time Eaton's realised they too too would have to move downmarket, it was too late. Sears had made a successful transition into the discount retail market in the 90's and Walmart had moved into Canada in 1994 by acquiring the old Woolco chain, so there was no more room for a new discount superstore. The T. E. Eaton Company went bankrupt in 1999 and its retail assets were acquired by Sears, which sold the bulk of them and converted the rest into Sears stores in 2002.]
Eaton's made deliveries with wagons pulled by a team of horses. It must have been before Christmas 1928 when Eaton's made an unexpected delivery and a small package arrived for me. It contained a mouth organ [a harmonica], a gift from Aunt Susie and Uncle Isaak. The milkman made deliveries by horse and wagon too, but I think he came down the back alley to be closer to the kitchen doors. He would come to the house with a two gallon can and a measuring dipper and ladled the desired amount into your container. Uncle John Reimer, Aunt Käthe's husband, would sometimes come in with a team from their farm 30 miles away. He would unhitch the team in the alley behind the house and then take the streetcar into the city to do his shopping. The next day he would go back. I have a feeling that he mostly just went to Eaton's - Winnipeg emm Kjalla.
[Plautdietsch for "Winnipeg in the basement." Kjalla is pronounced challa and has the same root as the English word "cellar." If I recall correctly, this is a reference to the diversity of goods available in the housewares department, which used to be in the basement. It seems to have been a common moniker for Eaton's among Mennonites, because my mother and her siblings say it too.]
I don't know at what point Mother's wound healed, but eventually she started doing housework. What I do remember vividly is the morning she took me to school. By now it must have been some time in October. I was just a little short of being eight years old. I'm sure I don't know how Mother communicated to get me registered, but in the due course of time I found myself in the Brooklands School. The school was built of red brick and was three stories high. There were two main entrances, the left one for the girls and the right one for the boys. The school is still there, but the building I went to is now called the "Krawchyk School" as a new school has been built behind it. [The building is still there and is called the "Red School." "Krawchyk School" is only the official name. The whole complex is now called "Brooklands School."]
My class must have been for beginners. The students sat on little chairs and printed on half-sheets of paper. I dutifully copied what the teacher printed on the board, what it meant was far beyond me. There were only two English words that I understood: "yes" and "no." The teacher was a grandmotherly type with a figure to match. She must have been frustrated with a big overgrown beginner like me who couldn't communicate, but if she was, she didn't show it. When we were expected to be quiet, we had to sit straight up in our chairs with the right index finger over our lips. At washroom breaks she accompanied us and stood at the open door while we used the facilities.
It was a couple of blocks from home to school and I remember that it got to be rather cold walking there because I was dressed so poorly. My pants came to just below the knees where they buttoned. They must have been too short and too tight for me, because there was no room to spare at the knee. Below that, I wore long black stockings. [My grandfather was more than six feet tall as an adult, so I imagine he was quite tall for his age as a child.] My cap and jacket were not very warm. This was many years before people started wearing parkas. [Parkas are a traditional garment of far northern people, who made them out of fur. The word itself is borrowed from Russian, which in turn borrowed it Nenets, which is a Samoyedic language spoken in the far north-western part of Siberia. Modern parkas are conventional winter garments in northern countries, now usually made out of synthetic materials, but they only became commonplace in Canada after Grandpa was an adult when new plastic technology made them much cheaper.] My first English book, Peter Rabbit, was bought at the Salvation Army and, I suspect, my clothing was too. But then, beggars can't be choosers and for us it was a matter of survival in a strange land. There was no such thing as welfare for new immigrants. I doubt if I complained too much and it wouldn't have helped if I had, but I was aware that no one else was dressed the way I was. If others made disparaging remarks because of it, I couldn't have understood what they said, but I stuck out like a sore thumb to say the least.
Early in December, Mother and I took a train to Fiske, Saskatchewan where Uncle Isaak and Aunt Susie lived. I wonder if they didn't provide me with different clothes because I don't recall wearing those hated pants again.
In Fiske, I was in grade one. We had the "Canadian Reader" as our textbook which had Mother Goose rhymes in the first part: Tom Tinker had a dog. It said, bow wow. Jack Sprat had a cat. It said, meow. I'm sure I had those memorised in no time even though I couldn't read.
In the class was a girl who I now recognise as a slow learner. She read from a much easier reader that I remember being called the Flower Reader. Eventually, I must have learned the art of reading because I did rather well on this reader in comparison the girl for whose sake it was used. About the time of the summer holiday, I understood English well enough to overhear the principal, Mr. Goodwin, tell one of the other teachers that he was going to go back to school for his grade twelve. [The principal of Grandpa's rural elementary school had not himself graduated from high school!] There were two classrooms on the main floor and the principal taught upstairs. This school wasn't nearly as large as the Brooklands School, but it too was built of red brick. However, it did not have running water and there were outhouses in back with about a half dozen seats in a row.
There were two boys in Fiske that I knew, Victor and Alfred Loewen, the sons of John and Tina Loewen. Their mother was a cousin to both my father and my mother and had introduced them to each other back in Russia when the two were once returning from the outhouse. [Who knew the role of outhouses in turn of the century socialisation?] If someone was mad at the teacher, they would ask one of the Loewen boys to swear at the teacher in Russian and they would oblige. They had grown up in Ekaterinaslav - now Dnepropetrovsk - and spoke much better Russian than me. [Unlike many Russian cities named here, Dnepropetrovsk is still called Dnepropetrovsk.] I'm not sure how long the Loewens stayed in Fiske before moving to Saskatoon.
In spring, we moved across the road from Aust Susie's to the home of a bachelor farmer named Mike Moret for whom Mother cooked. [Remember that Tina Martens - my great-grandmother - had entered the country on a visa for domestic workers.] Later on, we moved to Doc Elder's, whose farm was at the north end of Fiske's main street. He had been a dentist who had moved to Fiske from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911 and was now farming two sections of land. [A section is a square mile of farm land. The prairies were divided in the late 19th century into neat checkerboards of squares a mile on a side and sold to colonists in lots of a quarter square mile. They are still sectioned that way in rural western Canada. Of course, by the 1920's farming technology had improved to such a degree that lots of 160 acres (a quarter of a square mile) were sometimes too small to be financially viable, and a consolidation of holdings ensued as farmers' sons moved into the towns and cities. Nowadays, a small family farm in Canada is likely to be one or two sections, and family farms of 2000 acres or more are far from rare.]
Because Doc Elder worked his land with horses he had to have many men working for him. So, he had a cookhouse to serve the men in an old railway car with the carriages removed. [Carriages are the wheel and axle housings of train cars. They have moving parts that wear much faster than the rest of the car, so they are detachable and replaceable.] Mother cooked for them and the men ate their meals there. We slept there too, in a long unpartitioned room. I remember when we started there Mother's English was still very poor. I'm not sure what it was that she had been instructed to make, it could have been rice or macaroni; with us, that would have constituted the main course. During the meal the men kept looking around. You see, she was not aware that she should also have cooked potatoes. Live and learn.
The Elder family subscribed to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. The Saturday edition had the comic section. [The big, thick weekend editions usually published on Sundays in the US are published on Saturdays in Canada due to a past history of strict blue laws. Until I was a child, there were no Sunday editions at all in Canada, and even today they are very thin compared even to a weekday newspaper. So, Sunday comics are Saturday comics in Canada.] Andy Gump filled a complete page all by itself. Andy Gump was a chinless character who, together with his sidekick, went through the most hair-raising experiences. They would be marooned on a cannibal island with the natives after them. Of course they barely escaped with their lives, but at night I would have nightmares and Mother would have to wake me to get me out of them. [Andy Gump ran in daily newspapers from 1917 to 1959.]
There were no electric lights yet. The town store had gas lights, but everyone else used kerosene lamps. The kerosene was kept in a metal can in a large box on the veranda of the Elders' house. They also had a can of gasoline in that box for their power-operated washing machine. I'm sure the Elders did their best to communicate with Mother, but the message did not always get through because I remember Mother mixing up the cans up and putting gasoline in the lamps. They must have needed the gasoline for something, because - fortunately! - the error was discovered in time. The lamps were emptied and placed in the sun to evaporate completely.
I used to play in the ruins where a set of houses used to be, along the back alley of Fiske's main street. That sort of stuff was a real treasure to an eight-year old. While I was there one Saturday the back door of one of the storekeeper's houses opened and the mother called to her daughter to come eat a banana. I had never tasted a banana. I had eaten an orange though. I remember I had taken an orange to school one day, which I stored in the hole for my inkwell. It seems I was too impatient and before long my teeth had perforated the skin enough to extract some of the juice. The teacher noticed and took it away from me. I didn't appreciate that. [The production and transportation of tropical fruits to industrialised northern nations was still fairly new in those days, and the Central American banana export industry had only just become a major concern in the late 20's.]
When the summer holidays were over, I started grade two in the Fiske school. However, after the fall harvest Mother's services were no longer required, so we went back to Winnipeg. I asked the teacher for a note to give the school in Winnipeg, but I had some difficulty making myself understood. Eventually she understood and obliged my request.
In Winnipeg, Mother went back to doing housework and I returned to school. Naturally, we lived at Grandmother's again. I dutifully delivered the note from my teacher in Fiske and found myself in class 3A on the third floor. [He was suddenly promoted to grade 3.] I'm sure my previous teacher had meant well, but I was hardly ready for what I had to cope with. I suppose most of my subjects must not have been too bad, because they don't stand out in my memory, but spelling was terrible. We had 25 words on the spelling test every week. I'm sure I didn't know how to study spelling and I wonder if I even knew what the words even meant, but I had seventeen or eighteen of the words wrong every time. [I should note here that my Grandfather's last career before retiring was as a proof-reader for D. W. Friesen publishers.] The teacher must have been close to despair - I certainly was.
That Novemeber I had my ninth birthday. We didn't celebrate birthdays in our house back then, or if we had I'm sure I would have remembered it. At Christmas I received a gift I treasured very much - a Meccano set. The fact that it was one of the smallest sets didn't bother me at all. You could build all kinds of things with it. When Robert [my father] had a larger set of his own he used mine to supplement his. Both sets went with us when we moved abroad and neither returned. I do wonder what became of them. When we came back to Canada, we were too poor to buy another set for our son.
[A Meccano set is very much like an Erector set. The concept was invented in 1901 in Liverpool and sold wherever the Union Jack flew. The company, however, fell on hard times in the late 1970's and went into receivership in 1979. The trademark name lives on through its independent French subsidiary, which still manufactures and sells Meccano sets. I remember seeing one in a department store in France years ago when I lived there as a student. My father had very fond memories of his set and regularly bought me and my brother comparable toys - Legos, Erector sets and the like - and then played with them himself.]
During our stay in Fiske, Mother met a young man of 28. She was five years older than him and had a nine year old son, but he proposed to her by mail and she accepted. He lived on a farm north of Fiske, the Henry Craig place. That February he came to see Mother. I remember they were sitting on the sofa in front of the big window next to the front door when I complained that I did not have enough bolts for what I was building with my Meccano. The next time he came, he had a small metal box with a dozen more bolts for me.
The wedding of the widow Katharina Martens and David Dick took place on the afternoon of February 17, 1929. The ceremony was performed by Johann Klassen in the Zion's Church of the General Conference on Elgin Avenue. [The General Conference is a sort of sub-sect of Russian Mennonites. Mennonites - like Trotskyists - tend to proclaim the unity of their movement while breaking up into splinter groups.] There were quite a few people at the little church, but there was no reception as such. There was no shower or wedding cake. The closest relatives came to Grandmother's for lunch. I remember someone saying that the only way Grandmother could put people up for the night would be to have one group go to sleep on the beds and then lean them up against the wall once they were asleep so that the next group could use the beds.
After the wedding Dad took us to visit some of his relatives close to Winnipeg, and then we left for Saskatchewan. It was Mother's money that paid for the tickets. Dad had exhausted his money by purchasing a ticket to Winnipeg.
But I am already older than Grandpa Dick was when he makes his first appearance in Grandpa's life and I'm nearly as old as Grandma Dick was at the time. They were young in that other world, their world. But they are gone and the world of their youths is gone with them. For the moment, this world belongs to us. I can't see Grandpa's world as he saw it, all shiny and new. The things he saw as a child are mostly gone now, and what does remain is old and decayed.
What will my great-grandchildren know of my world when they are my age? As a science fiction reader, it is something that I've given some thought to. But in the end, I suppose it depends as much on them as on us, because we can't make them see it as we do.Posted 2003/04/03 23:25 (Thu) | TrackBack