RETURN OF THE NATIVE
Among other things, Melfort, Saskatchewan, is great therapy
In one of those blinding flashbacks filed forever in my memory bank, I see myself as a frostbitten mite in black buckled overshoes and voluminous woolen muffler, struggling through a prairie blizzard. I am treading carefully in the footsteps of a Sasquatch (actually an elderly male friend of my mother’s who always wintered in a moth-eaten buffalo hide), because after school I’d managed to cross the street to his house through the storm and now he was stuck with seeing me home.
I never doubted the outcome of our journey for a moment. Trudging along behind, a skinny page to his hulking King Wenceslaus, eyelashes snowed firmly together and nose slowly whitening in the Arctic air, I knew we’d make it. After all, my guide was the town bailiff and my grandfather wound the town clock. My father grew the biggest, fattest dahlias for miles around (the size of wagon wheels, they were) and my mother once had the distinction of cooking for a threshing gang — doling out great dollops of fried potatoes and vast rashers of bacon to 20 men at a time, 30 men, God knows how many. My Aunt parceled fresh bread in a bakeshop and broke the string with her fingers and my grandmother was a rarity. She spoke only in a hoarse whisper due to a botched operation in Newcastle-onTyne at the turn of the century. What harm could possibly come to a girl with a background like that?
Always knowing exactly who and what you are is the legacy of a smalltown upbringing. And when you migrate, as I did at the age of 21, to Toronto, to make your fortune, that knowledge can become a formidable weapon. But there is another side, for wrapped around that solid inner core of security there is a cloak of raging insecurity.
You may know, but will these city slickers accept who you are? Learning largely from books and movies and not from life, you can be fearsomely gauche. And you worry. Will they find out when the first gaping holes in your facade be-
gin to show? When you forget to tap the little spoon but sprinkle salt wildly across your dinner plate, will they laugh? If you drink that doub%; martini (for heaven’s sake, I was 24 before 1 knew what a martini was) from the beaker instead of the glass, will they turn away in disgust? When your very first celebrity prattles about having calypso in her repertoire and you sympathize because you think she’s got some tropical disease, will they drum you out of the corps?
I was born in Melfort, Saskatchewan, 60 miles southeast of Prince Albert and still in Diefenbaker Country, a Depression child. I lived there most of my life until I was 21. When I was in public school, in the 1930s, the population was 2,001, a curious figure when you saw it posted on a roadsign. Now there are 5,000 people and many changes. Melfort has a radio station, an airport, a community swimming pool, a geriatric centre and a sprawl of new housing around the edges of the town. Farmers in the area do not depend entirely on wheat; there is mixed farming now. The last time I was home, three years ago, a delegation of affluent Japanese from Tokyo was buying up beef cattle as breeding stock.
Over the years, I have returned often, usually to gather my wits after some strictly Eastern-spawned debacle had shattered my calm.
This time, I am making the journey by train, seeking to revive old memories of earlier continental crossings. And so, in the shrill sunlight of a Toronto afternoon, I feel the Supercontinental slowly sort through the web of tracks that spreads out from Union Station. We click past the soiled factories and the doom of the abattoir, past muddy railroad sidings and backyards eczemaed with all the ugly junk of urban life, and then, mercifully, we are among the snow dumplings and artful evergreens of Ontario’s farmland.
It is easy to remember the past, sitting in a train. How as children we picked wild raspberries along the Carrot River,
filling endless peanut butter pails roped about our waists, turned the handle of an old ice cream freezer until our arms almost fell off (but pure cream produces ambrosia), how we slyly teased the fierce dairy bull locked up in his solitary dark shed. And the pathetic funeral of a 15-year-old girl who died of pneumonia, they said, because she wore running shoes and no socks in 40-below weather. Her family was broke and my mother borrowed a white satin dress from somebody for the burial. Not even a real coffin, they said, but a pine box nailed together by a neighbor. How we waited impatiently for the burning down of the old Chinese laundryman’s shack. He was supposed to have VD and the fire would kill the germs. And that precocious 12-year-old with enormous breasts who lured boys to the top of the water tower to . . . well, do it. Do what? Some of us weren’t quite sure but it sounded wicked and delicious.
Now, in the Saskatoon railway station and later in a taxi, conversation turns on problems very different from the mindgrabbers in Toronto and Montreal. Out here it is the weather, highway conditions, slow grain shipments and the difficulty of integrating Indians. Nobody seems to talk about Canada’s immigration policy, legalizing abortion, American domination of the economy or the shrinking safety of our cities at night. On the prairie rape is a crop.
Melfort is about 180 miles due north of Regina and its population and that of surrounding towns is almost entirely white. When I was a child, Melfort was not only white but Wasp (a term not in use at the time, of course) and early 20th-century immigration into Saskatchewan came mostly from the British Isles, Ontario and the United States. A big campaign in Britain, with splashy posters promising heaven on earth for peanuts (the prize was called a Homestead and you could claim 160 acres free if you could find transportation and if you cultivated the land for three years). One of these posters attracted my grandfather back on the Tyne in northern England and he emigrated to the Prairies in 1911. The following year he sent for his wife and seven of his 10 children and the family narrowly missed passage on the Titanic.
Joy Carroll is the author of eight novels, the latest being The Moth.
In the 1930s the people who counted were British or American; those days are gone
There were only a few “outsiders” in those early days — a couple of Germans who had arrived after World War I and who had been, only a short time ago, The Enemy ... a handful of Jews, mostly store owners and some farmers plus one bearded ancient commonly referred to as The Rabbi. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his calling because as a child I had no idea what a rabbi did except that he killed flocks of chickens. Put like that, it had a sinister ring. There were a few Ukrainian farmers north of town but all we children heard about them was their astonishing talent for producing paralyzing home brew.
Right into the 1930s the people who counted in the town were of British or American stock — the mayors, the councillors, the postmaster, the doctors, lawyers, ministers and teachers. Today, the Mayor of Melfort is Jewish. Many of the professional men are from Europe, and there is a doctor from India. They have brought with them a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of the great world.
But to me, Melfort was never dull. (I didn’t leave because it was dull but because I had a terrible need to experience strange places and people.) Life was always highly competitive; students were embroiled in academic contests, skating exhibitions, curling bonspiels, music festivals. Adults had hockey, clubs, the annual fair and hunting. My father competed strenuously every summer in the Flower Show, trying desperately to force Old Man Piper (a gent who had the advantage of growing his pansies on a river bank) to the mat.
Despite all this intense gladiatorship, the long sharp winters and the dry hot summers forced many people to read a great deal. I often read myself into stupors, trying to gobble up the far reaches of a world 1 could only dimly sense. Whole authors disappeared into my hungry head; Edgar Wallace and Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Scott and Mary Roberts Rinehart, George Eliot and S. S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens, anything on the printed page, down the hatch. I even read the Oxford Dictionary because it had fascinating pictures and a medical treatise by Aristotle (forbidden to me because it contained color illustrations of human reproductive organs). Childbirth in a rice paddy (The Good Earth) drove me into hysterics and I was bound for China. I got my hands on a clandestine little book called Maria Monk wherein the dark deeds of monks and
Small towns can be hotbeds for sex. One accountant preferred married ladies, but in a pinch he’d settle for a hired girl
The town had its share of characters, too. People who belonged, properly, in books — the drunk whose hobby was throwing whole sets of dishes down the stairs and into the street, the man who could divine water and stop hemorrhages, the gentleman who claimed a title on the Island of Corfu, the boy who leaped out of poplar trees on top of girls after dark.
My grandfather was such a punctual man that the operator of the local movie house began the evening show the moment he had taken his seat. And my father had his whimsies — among them a passion for digging tunnels.
Nobody can equal an English eccentric. They have fantastic reserves of invention. When they are rich they may choose to dye their cows blue and spend a lifetime moving mountains around the back lot as the Sitwells’ father is said to have done. When they are poor they may go in for tunnel-digging like my father. It was years before I realized that everybody’s backyard wasn’t riddled with burrows. Perhaps it was a hangover from his years in the trenches during World War I.
My father was an intellectual bricklayer, concerned about starvation in India before it was fashionable, and a passionate advocate of Mahatma Gandhi. My mother, a more practical soul, sent him one morning to buy soap flakes for the family wash. He was gone two hours and she was furious. When he finally appeared she asked him what took so damned long.
“My dear woman,” he said patiently, “I’ve been to India and back since I last saw you.”
Small towns can be hotbeds of sex and we had our share, I guess. When I was in public school a juicy tale went around about wife-swapping in high places and at a nearby lake, too. Later there was a well-known menage a trois though it was never dignified by that elegant phrase. As for the eclectic tastes of a handsome accountant I knew in my youth, he had a penchant for other men’s wives but in a pinch he was not above a hired girl.
Melfort & Unit Comprehensive Collegiate, a $3.5 million spread with the latest in shop equipment, business machines, laboratories and a fine auditorium, now has 500 students. When I attended Melfort High School it consisted of two dilapidated buildings and there were 150 of us on a good day. Shop for boys was conducted in a wooden hut, and the commercial school was located in a small yellow cottage once lived in by a boy named Shelby, who had adenoidal problems. The typing class was run by a super-efficient doyen who gave us exactly three seconds to change our typewriter ribbons. In the expectation, I assume, that we would all be secretaries and employed by workaholics. “And don’t ever type without extra paper as a pad,” she intoned daily. “It ruins the platen.” I heed her words to this day.
In those days we held our literary meetings and school plays in the old Town Hall, where the uneven floor baffled the inner ear and where the painted cloth curtain was so heavy it took two sturdy boys to roll it up and down. My brother was once pulled right up to the ceiling with the curtain and dangled there for 20 minutes, twisting and panting while the audience rolled in the aisles. He simply wasn’t heavy enough to be a curtain raiser.
I was a good student but I was not popular with boys. Trying to see myself now as the native swains must have seen me then, I think I know what went wrong. I mistook a sullen stare for the seductive look then being touted by the likes of Hedy Lamarr and Rita Hayworth. The boys could make nothing of it except that I was obviously a nut case. I was thin to the point of boniness and had mud-brown hair over which I poured potsful of cold tea in the hope that it would turn red. No doubt being stranded on a variety of wooden chairs at countless school dances and never being asked to the in parties by the in boys left a mark upon my psyche. The only boys who ever seemed to notice me were oddballs with thin necks who salivated too much. They always had names like Butch or Dutch. My adolescent days were quite unsatisfactory and I prefer to dwell on happier, earlier days when I was truly young and gay.
By far the palmiest days of-my life were spent in Winnipeg. Every summer I was passed around like a plate of sandwiches from aunt to aunt, from cousin to cousin. Winnipeg, where I had three separate aunts and numerous cousins, had all the necessities of a true paradise. An indoor swimming pool called Sherbrook Baths, Toonerville Trolleys careening out into the suburban wilderness, Winnipeg Beach close by with its giant ferris wheel and genuine poison ivy. Lucky Mondaes (a sundae you ate on Monday in the hope that you would be the lucky customer to get it free) and movie houses with sky-blue ceilings illuminated by silver stars.
My Winnipeg aunts were big on family picnics, making a weekly ritual out of lugging heavy hampers of egg sandwiches and eight-cent bottles of Kik to public parks. I loved picnics. In Melfort, my family didn’t have a car and if we wanted to go out of town to picnic we were entirely dependent on a Model T Ford driven by a skeletal old man or a yellow Chev coupe with a rumble seat driven by a myopic young bride. In either case we always had soggy tomato sandwiches (which I love to this day) and ate by the dusty roadside. But that wasn’t quite as pleasurable as sitting on green grass beside a fountain, or a river, or a bed of scarlet cannas as we did in Winnipeg.
In Winnipeg, we were told, white slavers lurked in certain theatres, ready to pounce on young girls and cart them off
In Winnipeg you could live dangerously. Parents in the 1930s were obsessed with the idea that white slavers flooded the theatres in foreign districts, jabbing young girls in the arm with an infected hypodermic needle and carting them off to the Middle East where some slavering sheikh with dark skin and dirty robes would have his way with them day and night. In the north end of Winnipeg was the Beacon Theatre where they had live vaudeville shows. My cousin Evelyn and I were forbidden to go to the Beacon but we tramped over miles of pavement to get there, feeling extremely rebellious and wicked. Afterward we ate pseudo chop suey in a dubious Chinese restaurant. No white slaver approached us, but if my uncle had got wind of the expedition we’d have been confined to barracks for the rest of the summer.
Once I had sampled the joys of Winnipeg (at the age of six) I lived for my return. I schemed and saved all year so that in July I could follow my star to the east, some 400 miles away. My mother, always finely tuned to the winds of chance, often found a free car ride to save train fare. Once I accompanied an unmarried couple who must have been furious when they found I had to share a hotel room with the woman. On another occasion I traveled with a pretty young thing in a Chinese coolie hat and on still another, with a solitary cattleman.
The truth is, I would have done almost anything to get to Winnipeg, a place where I suddenly won foot races, could buy white enamel nail polish and had a second cousin who sunbathed in the nude on the roof of a school. Everything had a glamorous patina for me, even Eaton’s chicken pies (15 cents), the cage-like store elevators and the free cartons of Thrills (a scented gum) my uncle gave me because he was peddling them at the time.
The only thing we children never did was visit St. Boniface, that French-Canadian city across the Red river. For us, St. Boniface simply wasn’t on the map. In our Wasp-centred world, foreigners might be tolerated but there was no way you could understand or explain them. As a child, people around me were quite capable of saying in complete innocence, “He’s very clean. For a German.” Or “She’s a foreigner but she’s as honest as the day.” The Message of Empire had filtered down from the top and come solidly to rest in the working classes.
When I come back to the west, I usually visit Prince Albert, famous now because of John Diefenbaker, and the place where I held my first important job as Women’s Editor of the daily Prince Albert Herald. I count myself lucky that while my editor had his idiosyncrasies, he was a perfectionist about prose style. He cleaned up my copy but he firmly believed that he lived at the very heart of Dante’s Inferno.
It was wartime and his entire staff was female. This, he told us, lay at the root of his problems. He dwelt at length on the extravagant sins he must have committed in some former life to make him suffer so much in this one. His name was Ted and he regularly fired the whole staff, usually on a Friday afternoon. Sometimes he rehired us before we could empty our desks. Sometimes he fled to the hotel across the street and locked himself in a room until suitably wooed with hours of pleading and crazy promises of good behavior from the editorial entourage.
When I think of it, I suppose he had reason to be slightly neurotic. The sports editor often brought her terrier to work and tied him to her typewriter. The dog had a distressing habit of fetching dead kittens and depositing them on reporters’ desks. Ted hated that dog. He also hated the tricks we played on him. Like wallpapering his office with nude pinups just before he brought in the Moderator of the United Church of Canada. Or our complete disappearance from the office so that the place looked as if a plague had struck when, in fact, we were scrunched into the tiny ladies’ washroom so we could hear his expletives undeleted. Or the solemn assurance he got that, while he had been out drinking his lunch, Churchill had had a stroke and England had surrendered and the managing editor would show him a mock-up of the special edition she was preparing. He hated our habitual lateness, that all the staff smoked too much, that none of the staff drank anything but Coke. He especially hated the fact that we women were allowed into the press room but that he wasn’t. I don’t know what gross act he had committed or if he had committed one at all, but Percy the Foreman wouldn’t let Ted the Editor past the press room door.
It is paradoxical that while some things have changed somewhat many things about the past remain constant. In Melfort, the red brick post office looks the same, clock tower and all, but its innards have been revamped to accommodate a larger number of boxholders. All Saints Anglican Church where I once played the organ has had a comfortable facelift, but when I attended services there on this visit I could still fantasize on the colored glass windows as I did 40 years ago. Melfort’s water tower still dominates the skyline but I am told that children can no longer climb up the inside column because the door is locked.
A fresh coat of sophistication brightens town life; there is a cocktail lounge wrapping its intimate darkness around late afternoon drinkers, the new curling rink has a plushy eatery-drinkery, there are vendors of takeout chicken, a law office on Main Street is computerized and ornamented with meaningful paintings and ruled by a woman who sparkles simultaneously from teeth, eyes and fingers, and a fancy restaurant called The Station in the town of Naicam, 30 miles to the south, has a poet-chef who dispenses flaming dishes and imported wines (one winter, long ago, I used to wait at this same station one night a week after teaching a class of piano students and, while I peered down the icy track looking for the evening train, a boy called Francis unwound his musical dreams to help me pass the time).
My father is dead now and my brother works on the west coast, but my mother and two aunts are here, and going back to Melfort still seems to work for me. It is better than a psychiatrist’s couch, better than Valium, better than Being Saved. It is still, in many ways, my home. & £>