By Madonna Hamel
After the Solstice the light slowly returns, giving us a few extra minutes every day. However, it’s also true that on December 21st the season of winter officially commences. I must admit, I have an affinity for “real” Canadian winters, but that’s because my apartment is well-heated and my personal aesthetic involves lots of big sweaters and a home full of books and a comfy couch.
For years I lived on the west coast and forgot what a “real” winter felt like. In Vancouver it rare1ly snowed, and in Victoria, on Christmas Eve, you could walk down to Clover Point in a raincoat with your thermos of tea and go fly a kite. But I was born in Dawson Creek and later, Prince George B.C. where snowbanks were often higher than street signs and frost bite was a common hazard for kids not smart enough to come in from the cold. I almost lost a toe to frost bite and now I can’t walk too far in the cold without that one toe wanting to head home before the rest. There was so much snow we could leap off the back balcony without harming ourselves. Our school yard had great piles of the stuff plowed into corners which eventually became forts. I defended mine with ferocity, shoving other boys and girls down the icy slopes as if my life depended on it.
Later I moved to Quebec City where the cold was not only intense but humid. I remember one night rushing home feeling like my eyeballs had turned to solid ice. When storms hit, because I worked walking-distance from the radio station, I often volunteered to “put the show to bed” so that others could drive home while they still could.
On one of those nights my mother went into intensive care thousands of miles across the country. I received the message as I was leaving work and rushed down to basse-ville and my apartment to await a call from my father. The narrow streets of the old city were plugged with stuck vehicles and tow trucks and plows waiting to harvest the snow and blow it into a line of waiting dump trucks.
When I rounded the last corner to my apartment along the St. Lawrence I saw there was a drift against my door five-feet high and three-feet wide. I stood slumped and snowed-out of my home and lifted my head and wailed. My long-time friend and fellow band mate Denis stuck his head out the window, just as his neighbours did the same.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est Cherie?”
“My mom’s in the hospital and I can’t get in because of this-” kick, kick “Maudite neeiiiiige!”
“Attends! Attends! I have a pelter- shove- you know what I mean!” offered Denis and he ducked his head back in.
“And we have wine!” yelled the neighbours, which seemed as fitting and oddly reassuring. As if there were no catastrophe too huge that a good bottle of wine couldn’t make it all better.
That night in Quebec the wind continued to send falling snow up against the old stone building by the river. And when I woke the next morning I found I had gone from being snowed out of my home to snowed in. But it was Saturday. I’d spent the night saying the rosary – after having spent half the night looking for it, then looking for the little wrinkled pamphlet that reminded me of the order and nature of the Mysteries. I don’t know why I prayed the rosary; I usually make my appeals direct and spontaneous to the “close and holy darkness”. But when praying for one’s mother it seemed fitting to pray to the mother of all mothers. It wasn’t until 3 p.m. that I called Denis and asked if he might come dig me out.
I’m sitting at my little desk in Val Marie, watching the snow slither across the road in great dusty white snakes. I am warm and cozy. I don’t have to go anywhere. I’ve got Handel’s Messiah on the stereo and I welcome the early falling darkness so the twinkly magic of my Christmas lights can take over. I reach to the shelf to find stories of other winters, not as cozy as my own.
As far as my own family, I can go as far back as 1659, thanks to the Annals of Marie Morin, Canada’s first nun and published author and ancestor on my mother’s side. According to Marie, surviving and enduring the extreme cold qualified them all for martyrdom – that and the hunger, poverty and constant threat of Iroquois raids. Marie was born in Quebec City, but her fellow sisters, Hospitaller nuns from France, had never experienced the winters of Canada.
Writing about the others she said “The cold of this country cannot be comprehended except by those who suffered from it. Their house had holes in 200 places. The wind came easily… everywhere… in the common room, in the cells, in the wards, in the apartments of the poor, in such a way that when it snowed and had blown in the night, one of the first things that had to be done in the morning was to take wooden shovels and brooms to the snow which was close to the windows and doors in great amounts. They could not prevent anything from freezing, even the bread, which was hard as stone. The water, which was placed on the table to drink, froze within the space of a quarter of an hour. The same for the wine, the meat and the soups. Hardly did one have the leisure of eating her little portion, the last mouthful was as cold as ice and frozen when served on the plate.”
One evening, over a hot meal, the wind blowing outside, I was recounting the story of Marie and her fellow nuns to my supper guest Ervin.
“But Madonna,” he said. “You don’t even have to go that far back! It was like that in this province until very recently. And even now, people freeze to death walking home!” Finding a scrap piece of paper and a pen he began making a list of things I should have in my car at all times. I have always bragged about living in cold climates, but never have I lived in a place where the combination of cold and isolation can prove fatal.
Another book I dip into often is “Chronicle of A Pioneer Prairie Family” by L. H. Neatby. The Neatby family came to Saskatchewan in 1906. The author’s father was a doctor in London, England and was ill-prepared for life as a prairie farmer, settling his family of nine with little more than 3,000 books and his medical satchel. The winter of 1908-09 was particularly “grim and degrading,” writes Neatby. Their house “was abominably cold. We spent much of our time in bed; mother was in bed almost continually, day and night, to give warmth to the infant Kate. As we had not the fuel to keep a stove going by night, the temperature in our living quarters sank to many degrees below freezing-point. The preparation of breakfast took up a good part of the morning for ice had to be melted before porridge could be cooked. The bread, home-baked and moister than the modern bakery product, froze to a hardness that made a billiard ball mere pulp by comparison.”
Last night, drifting off to sleep, I woke with a start: I’d forgotten to plug in my car. After running out into the bracing wind in coat and pajamas I was wide awake, so I picked up a book my sister gave me almost 40 years ago: “The Winter Years” by James Gray.
It fell open to this:“Then came 1936. Beginning in January and continuing for two solid months without even the semblance of a break, an unbelievable cold spell held the West in its grip… In the rural west motor transportation was completely immobilized. Most cars and trucks used outside the cities were crank-equipped. But cranks could not spin frozen engines, and many a desperate farmer seeking to heat his truck engine with a blowtorch succeeded only in setting it afire. For most farmers there was little point in starting a truck or tractor, for there was no place to go. The side roads from Winnipeg to the Rockies became blocked by snowdrifts.”
As I write this the wind has begun to pick up. The kettle is whistling. A drift is forming at my door. I have no need to go anywhere. I am safe and I am warm. Having spent a day reading about the lives of my ancestors and the foremothers and fathers of this unique part of the world, I realize my Christmas gift is the opportunity to be thankful to them for sticking it out, and passing onto me some of that hardy prairie DNA.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.