Tales from the Welsh Marches

I'm feeling a bit nostalgic this week. Our trip to Canada was over too quickly and I find connections to it in the strangest places.  Like this short observation I wrote many years ago.

Small Town People

By W Hayes

Given that the town had not been in existence before 1910 there were a lot of old people living in Bjorkdale, Saskatchewan in the 1950s.  They seemed old to us who were small children, but maybe it was relative to our youth.  They looked old too, but perhaps that was a signature of the life that had been dealt them.

They had come to that corner of Saskatchewan from all over the world; Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, England, Ireland, Switzerland, Scandinavia - some recently, some driven there by the depression of the 1930s and some had been there forever - well since the earliest times anyway.  But they had all come with very few options having given up heritage and home and, knowing that there was no returning, had made that one-way trip into the unknown.  That fact always amazed us when we heard their stories - they had taken such a leap of faith to step into a land containing only promise.  It made us wonder how terrible their lives had been or how foolishly optimistic their outlooks on the future were.  It was more revealing how few of them every looked back with nostalgia and not one of them ever gave the slightest indication that they wanted to return to the ‘old country’, no matter how bad things got in Saskatchewan.

And things got bad.  The land that they had bought, sight unseen, was usually miles from any settlement and there were only tracks through the bush to get there anyway.  No housing was provided and the first work was to provide their own shelter Then they had to clear the land, plant a crop, harvest it and get it to market over these same roads in the 100 or so days between the end of the last frost and the beginning of the next.  Winter came early, lasted for months, snow was deep and families could be cut off for weeks at a time.  No wonder rabbits became scarce in our part of the country, but there was eternal gratitude that their populations recovered quickly.  Perhaps these folk did just look older than they were.  It would be no wonder if that was the case.

With the exception of a few who had received some modicum of education in one way or another, it seemed that few of the European immigrants had more than the basic abilities in the 3R’s.  But it was unfair of us to judge, since it was usually only the man who spoke any English and then with a limited vocabulary and heavy accent it would have been hard for us to really know.  But we came to know that their skills, through education or not were part of the vital glue that held the community together.  Among the few who had farmed before, few had any experience in agriculture, but their skills as barbers, butchers, loggers and midwives were all necessary and important.

What was not lacking among them all was an enormous sense of hospitality.  There was real joy in their greetings and hugs and ‘darlink, darlink’ from the lovely round ladies in babushkas whenever we saw them.  At their homes, it was impossible to leave without being led in by ‘Come, come,’ for steaming sweet tea, buns, sweet cake and more ‘darlink, darlink’s no matter how wet, snowy or muddy our boots.  We learned happiness and sharing in the midst of poverty from all of them.

Eventually, times became easier and a new generation, now fluent with the language and educated formed the communities we now call prairie towns.

These towns have changed incredibly from those early days and computerized combine harvesters have replaced horse and binder, but the values of community and sharing and caring have not been replaced.  The ability of a community to welcome and comfort has its roots in the true values that the old people brought with them all those years ago.

Bless them all.

Wilma Hayes