Toward the end of my father-in-law’s life, his stories started to grow branches. He would start by telling you about someone he bumped into that day at a funeral, but then he’d have to branch off to explain that it was the funeral of the guy that he worked with a long time ago. “That guy, he could roll a cigarette while riding a bike no hands. He used to live right next to Patterson’s barn, you know, where they had the livestock auctions every Saturday and we used to go sit on the fence and watch them break the mustangs. He married the daughter of that shop teacher we had at Cecil Rhodes School who if he caught you chewing gum would squash it right into your hair with a piece of a two-by-four.” The funny thing was he always managed to land back at the original story if you listened long enough. You’d be back at the funeral and he’d tell you whatever it was he started out to tell you, but you’d been to fifty other places in the meantime.
I miss that old poop. At first glance, you wouldn’t think he and I would get along. He was staunchly religious, and a snappy dresser. He thought ladies should be ladies, and that anywhere north of downtown was no place to raise his grandchildren. He could be blunt, to say the extreme least. But I provided him with plenty of time with his grandkids, and the occasional pie. I make lemon pie from scratch, what he would call “properly.” He and I were in complete agreement that if you are going to use that pie filling powder, you may as well not have pie. Also I like stories, and he had a couple billion of them. Our kids called him Opi instead of Opa. He liked that because he liked being different from all those regular Opas. This story is one I asked him to tell more than once, and it only seems right to tell it like I’m telling it to the grandkids, which I don’t have any but here goes:
When Opi was a boy, there was a thing called the Depression, and that meant that there were a lot of people who didn’t have jobs. Many people were very poor and it was hard for parents to feed their families. There wasn’t any extra money for toys or games or trips to the zoo or ice cream cones. When Opi’s family got to Canada from Russia they found a house in a part of Winnipeg called Brooklands. Lots of tough little houses with families from all over. Nobody had anything. That part of town was still a number of years away from having running water or sewers.
Opi’s mother cleaned houses for rich ladies. Opi’s Dad was a carpenter so they were lucky because a carpenter could usually find a little work. He could at least keep their own house fixed up. One time Opi helped his Dad lift their whole house and dig a basement underneath and then put the house back down again.
Opi wasn’t called Opi then of course. His real name was Hermann, but he didn’t like that name. Maybe he wanted to sound more “Canadian,” or maybe Hermann sounded like an old man’s name to him. So he told people to call him Hank, and even back then people tended to fall in line and do what Hank said, so they called him Hank. Once I was expecting a baby, and the due date was March 24. Hank said, “have it on my birthday.” I said “April 9th? No way!” Go ahead: guess my daughter’s birthday.
This story has started to grow branches.
Hank and his friends liked to do all sorts of things. They liked to play cops and robbers. For a bunch of pacifist Mennonites they were highly skilled at making fake rifles that shot rubber bands cut from inner tubes. They played a lot of pranks: the wallet on the string, and knock-on-ginger, and some very dangerous ones involving streetcars. Best of all they liked to play soccer. They would have called it football most likely. So when I say “football” in this story, picture a soccer ball. I don’t know what they called a football. “Hank,” probably. They got to play football at recess at school because the school had a football, but after school and on weekends and all summer they couldn’t play because none of them had a football. But one winter they had a great idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Hank’s.
“Let’s get all our money together, and then find some ways we could earn some, and get enough to buy one football we can share. If we start now we can have our own football by summer vacation.” Some of them had a few pennies stashed away at home. If your family was doing pretty well you might get a quarter for a report card with all A’s. Once in a while, maybe someone would find a nickel. You could earn a bit of money painting fences or cutting grass or shovelling snow, but trouble was, none of the families in Brooklands had money to pay anybody to do anything. In winter, Dave earned a few cents every Saturday stoking the furnace of Boxer’s Dry Goods on Logan. Mr. Boxer, being Orthodox, couldn’t work on the Sabbath.
You could run after the wagon on garbage day and pick up tin cans and scrap metal. You could scratch around in the dump for more but you had to get there early, before the men got there. The men would look for Libby’s cans. When you got enough labels you sent them in for boy scout uniforms. That was one way to get a good wool sweater if you were really hard up. If you found some scraps and cans and stuff you took what you had to the junk man, and he might buy your whole pile for a dime, but that would be a lot of tin cans..
Those hard days in Brooklands travelled with Hank his whole life. He grew up to be a snappy dresser, a guy with a sharp car who enjoyed the finer things in life. At age 16 he started a real job with Monarch Machinery. General labour for sixteen cents an hour. He worked his way up to Vice President. He gave his kids everything he never had. He also gave them lots of the important things he did have. Those boys know how to work. They could lift your house for you if you needed them to. They know what a dollar’s worth. They know how to haggle, because it never hurts to ask and you might get a couple bucks off. They also know how to sell, because he used to make them go door to door with a wagon full of rhubarb. The sales pitch rehearsals are family legend: “Hello sir, don’t you want to buy some nice fresh rhubarb? So your wife could make you a delicious rhubarb pie?”
They took long trips and saw the world. After a visit to a petrified forest, which I am pretty sure had signs in it saying “DO NOT TAKE ANY OF THE PETRIFIED WOOD,” Hank came home with a whole box of it in the trunk and made the boys sit at a card table in Polo Park Mall and sell it. He didn’t ask permission from Polo Park, either. Capitalism and entrepreneurship were a boy’s best friends, and they were not to be stopped by anybody’s silly rules.
It was almost summer. Hank and his buddies got together to count up.
“That’s gotta be enough, let’s go.”
So they walked to Eaton’s. Eaton’s was a department store downtown. That was a long way. It took about two hours to get there. Eaton’s was big. It was fancy. It had everything. They went up to the third floor where the Sporting Goods Department was. They looked at all that good shiny new stuff: hockey sticks and boxing gloves and skates, fishing poles and baseball bats and camping stoves and golf clubs.
The Floorwalker came over to them. Floorwalkers walked all around the store all day helping customers find the things they wanted to buy, and telling them where the washrooms were. I suppose they also prevented a certain amount of shoplifting while they were at it. If you were a raggedy group of boys, a Floorwalker might assume you had no money and therefore had no business in Eaton’s, with its glossy floors and unreachable, magical things. He might demand that you keep your grubby Brooklands hands off the merchandise and get out.
“Can I help you boys?” They told him the whole story about how they saved their money up all winter and he said he’d be happy to show them the footballs. He took them right over to the display and showed them a good one, just about the best one in the catalogue. They paid the cashier and then they walked all that long way home, happy and proud. It didn’t seem to take as long.
Every spare minute that summer they played football. They had argued on that long walk home about who would get to keep the ball at their house. They decided that each boy would take the ball home and keep it for one week at a time, taking turns in strict rotation. After a while, a couple of the guys moved away and sold their share to someone who then got the ball for two weeks.
It’s sort of hard to believe they never had any more arguments about it after the first one but if they did, that wasn’t what Opi remembered. He remembered the Floorwalker, and what a funny coincidence it was that the football cost exactly the same amount as they had saved.
©2017 By Ellen Peterson