Time travelling in Winnipeg

A couple stand in front of a large billboard that reads Centre of Canada

All through high school and university, I was desperate for one thing – to leave my home in Winnipeg, Canada, and explore the world. I’d never travelled outside the country, beyond the few American states across the border.

But I had neighbours who’d lived all over the world.

When I was 22 and on the verge of moving out of my parents’ house and out of Canada for the first time, I wrote this story, which is really a piece of creative nonfiction. It was published in juice vol 5, the University of Winnipeg student anthology. Visiting Canada in September, I found a bunch of copies of the anthology, so I tore the story out of one, so I could bring it back to Sydney with me.

Reading the story, when I was back in Winnipeg for the first time in six years thanks to a combination of chronic fatigue syndrome and the pandemic preventing me from visiting, the last line haunted me.

The anthology only came out in print, so I’m sharing the story with you here, 17 years later, along with photos from the trip. So you can get a sense of Winnipeg for yourself.

PS. Take a look at the table of contents below – award-winning Canadian author Katherena Vermette also has work published in this anthology!

Such a Winter’s Day

“Most people leave because they’re choking to death. One day, when everything else has been tried, you’re forced to do something that breaks the mould. Why would anyone do that? The sea, mountains, beautiful places, a white ocean, the sun dropping through the sky into an empty desert. And we thought, ‘maybe there’s something out there.’ It was the sixties, heading into the summer of love. You end up doing things not because of a single direct motion but because of a hundred small things that together end up tipping the scales of sanity and you realise you can never go back. Suddenly things don’t make sense anymore. One day you’re delivering papers in an honours class and you realise nobody cares. Dropping out was like leaping out of a plane before it left the ground.”

Sometimes when he talks I lose track of what he’s saying and just listen to his voice, the power and the excitement. I watch his hands his hands dart into the air, reaching out to grasp some idea and then holding it out in front of him, examining it carefully before letting it drift away, already leading up to something new. But it’s his eyes that intrigue me the most, make me forget to listen to his words. They take in the whole kitchen and I know they are not seeing the green fridge door covered in photos of his Mustang or the pot of curry simmering on the stove top; instead, he sees the mountains of Tibet, the open highway of Route 66, the dimly lit booth of some London pub.

“Jane was everything 1960s. She wore Mary Quant miniskirts, orange nail polish, and bought every pair of giant earrings she came across. And her hair was always done in Justin de Villeneuve’s latest style. He was a famous hairdresser who dated Twiggy. You know Twiggy. Skinny, boyish, not very attractive but totally sixties.”

“My mother didn’t want me to go. Her Firebird had a flat tire that morning and she wanted me to change it. Of course I wouldn’t; she only wanted me to do it to keep me there longer, to prevent me from leaving that morning. It was March 1967. A Saturday. I was three weeks away from completing my honours degree in political science at United College. It was cold, the kind of cold that sinks its teeth into your throat as soon as you open the front door. Jane hated it. Of course, she was from Toronto and couldn’t stand anything about Winnipeg. I remember the first time she came here. I picked her up at the airport and she stood there, hands on her hips, looking around in disbelief. Where’s the city?’ she said, just like that. I felt the same way. She came to Winnipeg to live near me and get away from her parents.

This is my favourite part of the week, when I make the walk across my front lawn to spend time in the small brown bungalow next door, with its subtle smell of mothballs, to visit Finlay and Jane Chemerika. They’ve been married thirty-seven years, and during that time have never been apart for more than a few hours. They’ve never even held separate jobs, instead always working together doing freelance writing and media consulting. They are mythical creatures who spent their lives travelling the globe and somehow ended up next door to me.

Tonight, Jane is in the study, working. I’ve come to tell Finlay that my boyfriend and I have booked our plane tickets to London. We are leaving this summer to teach English in Prague, but first we plan to travel across Europe. Finlay couldn’t be more excited for us. Now, over our usual cup of evening tea, he is telling me about the day he left Winnipeg, thirty-eight years ago.

“God, Winnipeg. What was it like then? Dirty, dingy, dull. There were no job opportunities in 1967. Are there any job opportunities here today? I don’t know. That didn’t concern me back then. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and what can you do with a BA in political science anyway? I had no plans that involved getting a job. I was a writer. Actually, I had a lot of friends at United College who were writers, wanted to be writers. Some of them actually had talent. Of course, none of them had the ambition, the courage. Or the intelligence. I don’t know how many of my friends ended up getting their girlfriends pregnant, suddenly having to support them, support a brand new miniature human, and all of a sudden, that was their life, and they spent the rest of it being horribly miserable. Not one of them wrote anything after that, as far as I know.

“You have to understand the mindset. It’s different now. You get out of high school, you go to university for a few years, take a summer or semester and backpack around Europe or Australia. Everybody does it, no big deal. And when you go, you’re going to love it, trust me. But in the fifties and early sixties, it wasn’t like that. My parent’s generation were Old World thinkers. Remember, the people who emigrated from Europe to America had a hundred or more years of discontent as their motivation. What motivation did young people in North America have to go back there? None. And if you went to a job interview and tried to explain that you spent six months backpacking around Western Europe, you weren’t going to end up with a job. Your stability as an employee would be questioned. My generation started to change that.”

Finlay is always eager to point out to me how much freedom I have. He and Jane are a large part of why Tyler and I are going overseas this summer. Ever since my family moved next door to the Chemerikas five years ago, when I was still in high school, they’ve urged me to travel, to get out of Manitoba for a year or two. Finally, I’ll be able to do it.

“Never forget the words of the great Marshall McLuhan: ‘Canadians are mildewed in caution.’ He also described 1960s Canada as a nineteenth century country and I can’t think of a better description myself. My mother could have, however. If ever Winnipeg had a defender, it was my mother and she did not want me to just leave, especially when we were headed somewhere as vague as ‘California.’ We may as well have said we were driving to Africa.” Finlay shakes his head, smiling. His hair still has some of its original orange, mixed with tufts of white and blond.

“And this house, she bought this little house a few years before. She loved this little house, this neighbourhood. It was just the two of us, me and my mother.”

His mother lived out the rest of her life in this house and died after falling asleep in her favourite chair one night. That was seven years ago, and two years later Finlay and Jane moved back to Winnipeg and took up residence in the house, filling it with exotic items from all the countries they’d travelled to. Turkish rugs hang on the wall, Buddhist gongs and ornaments adorn every room, Jane’s collection of international cookbooks fills the counters.

It’s in the kitchen that used to be his mother’s and is now his that we usually talk, where we are tonight. The wallpaper is dark orange, lined with odd patterned shapes in a lighter shade of orange. A single, small lamp lights the room, and the wallpaper reflects a warm, orange glow off Finlay’s skin.

“My mother was raised in Saskatchewan, but after she was married, she lived in Chicago for several years. I think that’s why Winnipeg was such a haven for her. It was safe; she always said that to me, especially sleepy St. James. There was never any crime in St. James.

“I was twenty-two, what did I care about crime? I had spent all my life in Winnipeg, except for a few months in Europe where I met Jane. And when you’re young, you think you’re invincible. We certainly did. We did all sorts of crazy, crazy things. We were attacked by Kurds twice in Turkey. It was in ‘69. We were driving through Turkey on our way to India.”

More accurately, they were shot at by Kurds while they drove by in a derelict Austin van that had a maximum speed of twenty miles per hour. This is one of the stories I’ve heard many times. As always, Finlay can’t tell a simple, chronological tale, but weaves in moments and events spanning his entire life, his present, my present, and sometimes the future.

“Basically, what it comes down to is that my mother didn’t understand why I had to go. She was like everyone else in St. James. They knew in their hearts they could never meet the challenge of watching everything they love disappear in the rear-view mirror. They were blank people with blank faces. They were satisfied just to sit there. The only interesting people I knew at the time were the professors from the US who were draft dodgers.

“And of course, because it was inevitable, she blamed Jane, which was fine with us. Jane’s parents didn’t like me, either. They wanted Jane to marry a doctor or a lawyer and when I showed up at their door, with my long hair… well, I didn’t stay in Toronto long. Jane came here to be with me, continue going to university. At first, she wanted her BA more than she hated Winnipeg. Come winter that changed, although by the time we actually left in March, she’d survived the worst of it anyway.

“My mother thought Jane was pressuring me to leave. She had convinced herself, I guess, that had Jane not come to Winnipeg, I would be finishing my BA, looking for a good job, maybe going to teacher’s college. I wanted to leave as much as Jane, but I’d also been under the delusion that I should get my degree.

“She had a good career in Chicago,” Finlay continues, bringing his mother back to life. “She taught music there, and sang in the evenings. She liked it for a few years, I think, but she never really talked about it to me. The crime got to her, just the idea of it. My father was from Brandon, so it was natural for them to come to Winnipeg a few years after I was born.”

Finlay’s parents were divorced when he was fourteen and his dad moved to Regina. He’d never gotten along well with his father, who was a typical 1950s businessman, some sort of middle manager, I think, a career path Finlay still has no respect for. Finlay must have always been a dreamer, right from childhood. His mother, as a singer, may have understood him somewhat, but Finlay and his father had no use for each other. It’s only his mother he describes fondly, as a beautiful person with a wonderful talent for music.

“Twenty years later, when I, her only son, was on the verge of leaving, the violence of the States magnified in her mind, became something monstrous and inescapable. She was terrified of the turmoil south of the border, over the Vietnam War especially. Was Vietnam a big deal in Winnipeg? Nothing going on in the world was a big deal to Winnipeg. It was absolutely no deal at all, as if we were frozen in a time capsule. We lived on a mental island of ice and snow and all the events that moved my generation were like echoes from some distant front. There was a global explosion going on, but at United College we weren’t part of it.

“We had to go to India to fully experience that explosion. But first we had to get to California. No, first we had to get out of Winnipeg. We’re still standing in the driveway, on a frozen March morning, the wind blowing snow across the lawn in little drifts, my mother’s Firebird in the garage, my Elan sitting in the driveway. I had – it was absolutely beautiful – I had a 1966 Lotus Elan. It was a green British racing convertible, 38 inches high with four inches of road clearance. It wasn’t a car. It was art, the only good thing to come out of Toronto besides Jane. The Elan wasn’t made for winter. It needed California just as badly as Jane and I did.

“So we packed a few things in the Elan. My mother stood in the driveway, asking why I wasn’t going to finish my degree. How could I explain to her that nobody at the university cared? I remember standing in class two days before, presenting a paper and nobody cared, especially the professor, because what I was presenting didn’t advance the research for his next publication. I didn’t care either by that point. Jane and I knew without discussing it where we were going. There were voices in the air; almost everyone in our generation heard them. And they were strongest in California, so that’s where we headed.

“My mother was never one to get worked up about anything. She stood in the doorway very calmly staring at me as if I’d finally lost my mind. “There are so many wonderful things in Winnipeg, Finlay,’ she said. ‘People come from all over just to hear the acoustics in the Centennial Concert Hall. And I read in the paper the other day that people would rather come to Winnipeg for Folklorama than travel all across the world.’ What could I say to her?” Finlay laughs as he remembers moments that occurred decades before I was born.

“So I hugged my mother and told her I was sorry I didn’t change her flat tire, but she knew our neighbour would help her. I don’t remember what she said. Maybe she didn’t say anything. She followed me outside. Jane was already in the car, and they both watched me scrape the last bit of ice from the windshield. I think, in that final minute, standing in the driveway, her coat wrapped around her as tight as possible, she realised I was going and it wasn’t the end of the world. I know she wished to her dying day that I had waited the three weeks and written my finals, but I had to do something drastic, I had to feel myself really making a change. I made the choice to leave and find out what was out there and at times it was practically impossible but always, always worth it. When I first came back to Winnipeg five years later, I saw people I had known at United College, people who had never left the city. They were slightly older, slightly heavier, but nothing else about them had changed. They were the same dull-eyed, bison-like people they were in college.”

He pauses, searching for any detail he may have left out. I can hear Jane in the study, the keyboard clicking away under her fingertips.

“I remember backing out of the driveway in the Elan, looking at the house and my mother standing there in the snow, wondering what I was embarking on, what was going to happen. I knew whatever it was, it was better than the predictability of Winnipeg. We headed south, straight for the border, Winnipeg fading away in the background.” He looks straight at me, his eyes intense, serious.

“I know, after being alive for sixty years, that wherever you are in life, it’s boring. We were leaving because we had an education to complete, growing up to do, which we could only do by going. The only place worth getting to in life is yourself, and we eventually found that in India years later, when we were seasoned travellers and ready to find ourselves.”

He pauses. “It was, really, ‘Such a Winter’s Day,’ as if the song was written for that moment.” Finlay starts to sing in soft tones. I wonder if he realises he is telling his mother’s story in different words. He left the prairies for other places and found success there, but eventually found reasons to come back and stay, found reasons to appreciate Winnipeg. Finlay may never forgive Winnipeg for not having the feel of London or Paris in the sixties, but now that it’s no longer the sixties and he is no longer a young man, he is here. I wonder if he notices when he defends it, when he tells me it’s peaceful and quiet. I wonder if he realises all his memories of his mother are memories of Winnipeg. I know he stays in her house to be reminded of her, of her beauty and simplicity and goodness, qualities that may have been difficult to appreciate when he was young.

He’s talking about the song now, listening to it on the highway once they’d crossed the border into the US, and how he and Jane ended up living on a beach on the west coast with all sorts of draft dodgers. I’m not listening. I’m thinking of spring, of leaving, of returning, of leaving.

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