Today’s my dad’s birthday. He died in 1998, a few days after I turned 17.
I have a distinct memory of sitting in the computer lab at the community college in Lethbridge around 2000, looking at Craiglist ads for apartments in Winnipeg. There were photos of apartments or suites for rent in the West End, I guess in close proximity to the U of W campus, where I yearned to go but did not (yet) have the guts to do on my own. It looked like a dreamland: canopied streets, cool old houses, a little bohemian and shabby… right up my alley.
I had been to Winnipeg many times at that point but it wasn’t anything about those visits that was appealing to me. It was a romantic idea of the place my parents had lived as a young couple, where my brothers were born. Winnipeg was an almost mythical place steeped in family memory and lore. (Carol Shields didn’t help either.)
My Winnipeg training began young.
As I’m sure was the case for many Canadian kids, Fred Penner was a constant in my childhood. I knew he was from Manitoba, because my uncle had once mentioned that he walked to school with Fred (trying to impress his young nieces, I guess? Seems funny now… and like exactly the kind of thing I would pull out to try to impress my own kids. Yikes!)
Once when Fred came through southern Alberta, we went and saw his show. Upon meeting him afterwards, I excitedly informed Fred that he used to walk to school with my uncle… only Fred had no recollection of my uncle at all…embarrassing!
I recently asked my mum why we had so many Fred Penner albums but only one Raffi album (many other kids my age seemed to be all Raffi, all the time). Her response was part offended, part baffled: Well, we just didn’t need Raffi. We had Fred! It was like he belonged to Winnipeg, and therefore to us, even though our family now lived two provinces away. And now, I have Fred too; he’s a living legend, Winnipeg omnipresent in a way that’s always charming and never grating. (A new favourite Fred memory is hearing him do Pete Seeger’s “Garbage” at the David Suzuki Blue Dot tour.
I grew up hearing frequent references to the various streets and places where my parents and various family members lived and worked. Lenore (the frozen pipes), Kings Drive (Grandpa designed the house so you could see the river from every side), and how could I forget Univillage student housing (with milk delivery from a dairy on St Mary’s). And Great Waste of Life, of course.
Items around the house also held their own connections to Winnipeg, like the bikes that were procured at my Granddad’s sporting goods store. I recently discovered that a partial ghost sign for River East Sportsland exists, it turns out, just a short piece (as my Grandma would say) up the road from where I live now.
I’d look at my dad’s old yearbooks and say the name of his high school over and over, Vincent Massey, Vincent Massey. I’d pore over the town history books for Minnedosa and Neepawa and look for all the references to my family. When I moved here there were so many familiar place names that it already seemed like home.
And people, too: Reg Skene’s name was mentioned often enough that I took note of it; when he died in 2016, my first instinct was to call home, even though my dad had been gone for twenty years. My parents met, I think, through the theatre program at the U of W – my mum doing costumes and my dad doing music. To this day, I have an impossible-to-shake impression of the U of W as infinitely cooler than the U of M.
The Fort Richmond Zellers, RIP. One of my all-time favourite family stories is my mum’s description of the good(?) old days in the Zellers cafeteria smoking cigarettes with another young mum, while the kids ate fries. 30 years later, my husband and I bought a set of patio furniture at that same Zellers shortly before the chain went under.
As a teen, I loved the story about my dad and his bandmates jamming (along with other almost certainly illegal activities) with Pink Floyd after a chance post-concert encounter in a downtown Winnipeg diner. (I’m now sheepishly thinking about how heavily I traded that story as social currency, and for how long!)
The thing that brought me to Winnipeg was my roots.
Although I’ve built my Winnipeg life here in Elmwood, the stories and references to places throughout the city that I grew up with have no doubt given me a deeper appreciation (if not understanding!) of my new hometown as a complex, enduringly interesting and special place.
Happy birthday, Dad. I’m grateful for giving me half of my Winnipeg roots. Thanks for helping me find my home.