Volume 8, Number 43, 2005

By Paul Nyznik (Manitoba)

I am not sure why, exactly, but approaching my 80th Canadian winter, my thoughts keep returning to the North End of Winnipeg - and my life there as a young boy in the midst of the Great Depression - the so-called Dirty Thirties. Perhaps it’s talk of another Depression on the horizon. Nevertheless, the images - though largely unconnected - are clear, like those frigid nights in the middle of a prairie winter, the stars bright as street lamps hanging there against the black velvet sky, the crystallized snow crunching under foot.

Of nine children, I was the last to arrive, with Peter nearest in age at 6, Theresa next at age 8.

At 38, Mother was short and round, a gentle soul who rarely raised her voice. Father (who was never referred to as Dad or Pop) was at 47 a six-foot, ramrod-straight disciplinarian, seldom displaying a sense of humour, though we all suspected its existence.

Father treated with disdain the notion that any person would choose to pursue a career in professional sports, a goal he deemed frivolous, compared to a ‘real’ job as a labourer (if you were lucky enough to find one) at the then splendid rate of 32¢ an hour. He offered no encouragement to Peter who at seventeen was already well-known in Winnipeg sports circles as a champion athlete. Among others from our neighbourhood who went on to gain prominence in the National Hockey League were:

TERRY SAWCHUK, the legendary goalie who stopped pucks for the Detroit Red Wings - and took hundreds of stitches to his face in the process;

BILLY MOSIENKO, Chicago Black Hawks, the only player in NHL history to score three goals within 21 seconds;

WALLY STANOWSKI, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rushing defenceman who, with his outstanding speed and puck-handling skill, had few equals.

In our 1929 neighbourhood, Winnipeg’s poorest in terms of per capita income (what income, you may ask) lived a mix of Germans, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and the odd WASP family, who were treated unfairly I thought, with a measure of suspicion. As children, we didn’t realize that we were poor. On our table, thanks to Mother, there was always plenty of stomach-filling fare - cornmeal, buckwheat, potatoes, home-grown vegetables - and sometimes on Sunday after church there was freshly-prepared noodle soup, courtesy of her backyard chicken coop. I had named and made pets of the chickens and didn’t have the heart to ask which one it was that we were eating.

There were other families, less fortunate. One day, heading home for lunch, I heard a young lad from across the street shouting to his approaching sister, “Molly, Molly, come quick - we’re having GRAVY!!”

On my 12th birthday, as a surprise, Mother had invited a few of my schoolmates over for cake and ice cream. Early in the proceedings I happened to notice Johnny, a recently orphaned lad I knew casually, standing outside our front gate with his younger brother and sister, listening to the party sounds, obviously anxious to be asked in. Instead, I turned my back and left them standing there. Seconds later, realizing what I had done, I raced back to the gate. They were gone.

The next day I apologized for my behaviour; they were quick to forgive, and we became close friends.

Now, almost 70 years later, while I have been to many places, often witnessing disturbing events, the image of those three children I had so coldly dismissed that day haunts me still.

The time came when my unemployed Father was compelled to apply for “Relief”, a term now euphemised as “Social Assistance” because the former carried a stigma among recipients. There was no question of owning a second pair of shoes. In fact, one was required to attend a distribution depot where the old shoes were minutely examined before a replacement pair (not always brand new) would be issued. It was an humiliating experience for my proud Father, especially with me in tow, observing the procedure.

During the heat of a summer afternoon the widow next door was fond of bathing in a round, aluminum tub, placed squarely in the middle of her over-grown, backyard vegetable patch. This distressed my Father. First, as he explained it, because the tub was obviously not large enough to conceal her ample proportions. Second, he felt that, as her neighbour, it was his civic duty to keep watching - but only to ensure that the lady did not drown. Mother was not amused.