Geography is Destiny

March 18th, 2010 by Emma Durand-Wood

Among all the lovely scenes in Carol Shields’ novel The Republic of Love, one of my favourites is where the female protagonist, Fay, describes what a small world it is when you live in this city:

“The population of Winnipeg is six hundred thousand, a fairly large city, with people who tend to stay put. Families overlap with families, neighborhoods with neighborhoods. You can’t escape it. Generations interweave so that your mother’s friends … formed sort of a squadron of secondary aunts. You were always running into someone you’d gone to school with or someone whose uncle worked with someone else’s father. The tentacles of connection were long, complex, and full of bitter or amusing ironies that characterize blood families. …

Some days, she can wait anonymously in the bus shelter at River and Osborne and speak to no one, and the next day she’ll run into any number of acquaintances. These surprises used to drive Peter crazy, the oppressive clannishness they implied and the embarrassments, but Fay again and again is reassured and comforted to be a part of a knowable network.”

This very passage is one I read ten years ago and decided that Winnipeg was a place I’d like very much to live. And although when I moved here I had only one close friend in the city, I had behind me many generations of Manitobans: a vast array of aunts, uncles, cousins and a couple surviving grandparents.  Once I started dating my future husband, Michel, there would be many more opportunities for our families’ stories to intersect. The connections started presenting themselves at a somewhat alarmingly frequent rate.  For instance, we discovered that my sister-in-law’s brother had taught my cousins at Collège Jeanne-Sauvé. It also turned out those same cousins had once visited Michel’s family farm on a school field trip, and indeed eaten a meal with his parents! Another two sets of crossed paths are detailed in Aaron’s post “All Roads Lead to Portage and Main“.

Although a little less tangible, perhaps my favourite Winnipeg coincidence involves my late  maternal grandfather, who owned a successful Winnipeg dance school back in the day. When I happened to mention his name to Michel, he couldn’t believe it — he’d grown up seeing commercials for his dance studio on TV. In fact, he said, he was sure he’d written about Ken Mathews in a short story in school. A few weeks later, we happened to be cleaning his apartment and amazingly, came across the story he’d written some fifteen years earlier. And sure enough, he described his protagonist as being able to “play hockey like Wayne Gretzky, play tennis like Pete Sampras, and dance like Ken Mathews.” I found it incredibly endearing. (More recently, he found out that one of my uncles used to play for the Jets, and pronounced that he didn’t know he’d married “Winnipeg Royalty”. Ha!)

I’ve never really been able to explain why I felt that Winnipeg was home. I don’t know what it was that made me think this city — a city that I had no real adult experience with — was where I was meant to be. The prairies part was easy enough to figure out – I grew up on them, and had been away too long, I guess. But as for the city itself? My parents had met and married here, my brothers were born here, but neither of those facts really have much to do with me. Or do they? Maybe it was the fact that every major roadtrip my family took when I was growing up was to Manitoba.  Maybe it was the constant backdrop of Winnipeg references: the house on Lenore, or Marshall Crescent. The Christmas tree at King’s Drive. Or my personal favourite: The Fort Richmond Zellers cafeteria, where, in the 70s, my mum and her best friend would smoke cigarettes and get French fries for the kids.

But it worked out. All these funny coincidences, these random connections, they seem to serve as some sort of proof that I was here even when I wasn’t here. And I like that feeling a lot. Perhaps it’s as simple as what Carol Shields wrote: geography is destiny.  In The Republic of Love, when Fay and Tom finally meet, they realise there’s actually an intricate web of connections between them. That’s how I think of my life here: not just because of the connections my husband and I had before we knew each other, but because how else explain my decision to move here?

Anyway, what got me to thinking about all this was was Kyla Roma’s recent post, “Moments from a Prairie Winter“. Kyla writes:

“I know why people choose to leave here, because you don’t get a big city life. You don’t have hundreds of clubs to choose from, the big artists don’t come through, and the big stores tend to pass us by. You don’t have the mountains of Vancouver or the city chic of Toronto. And it can be claustrophobic. Live here for a while, and when you talk to almost anyone long enough you will find a connection to them through ex-employers, friends, hockey teams, or distant aunts and uncles. Sometimes that can be hard, and people want to define themselves without having to run into their entire graduating class when they’re grocery shopping.

But the wonderful thing is that if you choose to stay, you can be known. You can run into friends everywhere and meet people easily. You can take the time that you are sealed in under sheets of ice to get your passions off the ground and into flight. You can go to underground shows, and know who’s who. You can line dry your clothes and have raspberry bushes in the middle of the city.”

I think this is the blessing and the curse of Winnipeg. I didn’t go to school here, so there’s no risk of me running into my entire graduating class while I’m grocery shopping. In fact, the very idea of that is probably what motivated me to leave my hometown eight years ago.  Now, bumping into someone I know is a pleasure, a small reminder of this little big city and my place within it. No matter how I wound up here, I’m glad I did.

7 Responses to “Geography is Destiny”

  1. B Wong says:

    I must read or re-read Republic of Love. I joke that I was only Asian with orange toque on my block as the Fed Ex driver recognized me from work when I was at home…Ah da Peg.

  2. Kyla Roma says:

    Wow! Thank you for the shout out Emma, I’m glad you liked my thoughts on what it’s like to live here. I think that for most people there’s a really strong common mythology of stories and events, like what you talk about here, and I love that yours drew you all the way to the prairies =)

  3. Courtney says:

    I need to re-read that book. 🙂

    My only connection’s with Winnipeg (and Manitoba) are a second cousin that played for the Bluebombers and a great-grandfather that immigrated to Bruxelles. Oh, and I’ve been to Winkler with my grandparents for a Triple E convention.

    But now we have you. Hopefully we can make a trip out your way soon.

  4. Norman says:

    Hey Emma – just wanted you to know that this was probably my favourite post so far! It was a very enjoyable read (partly because I could learn about a few more family connections just by reading it) – hopefully Rosanna will read it and realize that my own Dutch community is just like Winnipeg (only it’s spread out over the entirety of the continent instead of in a specific city)
    Keep up the great work 🙂

  5. Joanna says:

    Love this post, Emma. Drawn to home though you are (and for so many great reasons), we miss you in Vancouver!

  6. Silvester says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s been a challenge for this Torontonian to get used to the “city” itself. But you are so right that it is the people that make this place special!

  7. […] I shared one of my favourite passages from The Republic of Love in a post from a few years ago, Geography is Destiny. I first read these books when I was probably only 18 or 19 years old, but it took me ten years to […]

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