My First Christmas

I was having a hard time realizing I had retired. After all, I was only 30.

It was late summer. Things had not gone particularly well so far. How could I be sure I had made a good decision? Of course, I already knew and loved Fort Norman, with its dusty main street, the Mackenzie beach, the cliff beside our house, the forest of dwarf spruce and the icy Great Bear River beyond. But the University of Winnipeg had offered me a job, and I had turned it down. Perhaps that had been unwise?

By this time Marten and I had invented a bookkeeping system that we continued to use all the rest of the time we were in business. Everything had to be written down 4 times so that when we had neglected to write it down in one place – as I almost always did — it would show up somewhere else. The only good, reliable element was our adding machine.

My father had told us: “Get an adding machine with a tape.”

Marten had come to visit me in my nice little house in Calgary and we had spotted an ad in the Calgary Herald: “antique business machine with tape.” Of course it didn’t say that, but that was what it was.

After negotiating on the phone – the adding machine cost $50, not a trivial amount for us — Marten went out by taxi to get it, neglecting at the same time to take the door key. Luckily, I had already shown him how he could get in the front windows if he ever got locked out – a contingency I myself always had to plan for.

Marten returned home, clutching the adding machine to his bosom and began negotiating the front window. First to remove the screen . . .

It was a nice little Italian district where I lived, and people really cared about the way the neighbourhood was going downhill. A woman across the way came out on her porch and shouted: “Stop thief!!”

And then,

“I’m calling the police!”

Marten put the screen back on and resignedly sat down on the doorstep, the adding machine cradled on his lap. A few minutes later 4 police cars with dogs in them screeched to a halt by the curb.

When I finally came home – knowing nothing of all this – I found Marten sitting beside my timid Polish landlord in his car. The landlord was obviously wondering: where did that delightful man from Nova Scotia go? Now I have this tenant – she says she is professor – but who is the guy then, with the antique business machine he is guarding?

Marten on that occasion had brought with him a large number of presents in the country food category to sustain me over the winter. Ptarmigans, 6 of them. A couple of black ducks. Some whitefish. A large piece of caribou meat.

At the time I still lacked a refrigerator, having recently moved in. The fish we could eat immediately. We kept the meat, thawing, in the cellarway of the house. Later we started washing it with brine daily. It was kind of an emergency, as there was no way that we could deal with 6 ptarmigans and a huge piece of caribou all at once ourselves.

There was only one thing for it. To give a party for my friends in the philosophy department.

It is funny what people travel with. My friend Mary Richardson always took a garlic press. With others it is perhaps a copy of The World As Will and Idea. With us it was the larding needle.

If you are cooking game you need a larding needle. A larding needle, a saw, a hatchet, a boning knife, a carving knife, a meat hammer, a good strong set of hooks, a crock, a sack of rock salt, a jorum of sour wine or vinegar . . .

Anyway, at least we had the larding needle, and so we set about making the large piece of caribou edible by lacing it with pork fat and marinating it for three days in wine. The ptarmigans had actually made themselves edible by turning green. Roasted, they were the best ptarmigans I ever ate, and I decorated them with grapes, as though they were a European dish of quail. Added to this was a huge salad and a set of cream puffs, which I knew how to make at that time.

The philosophers I liked arrived and ate; they lingered, lying on cushions or sitting in my sparse furniture, talking of The World As Will and Idea. Semi Chellas, aged 8, who came with her parents, licked the chocolate off her puff to the admiration of everyone present. Later, an argument broke out over freight rates, but was resolved before anyone actually had to go outside and resort to fisticuffs on the lawn.

Later that year a friend of mine from the early years of graduate school moved in with me. She had become an actress, performing in plays downtown, and her henna-dyed hair stuck out a foot on either side of her head. Every night she would come home and compose a diet food of parsley, canned spinach, yogurt, and brewers’ yeast in the blender to take to the theatre for lunch.

Once Brigid and I had enough money apiece to splurge and go to a French restaurant. We went and had something delicious. Then, considerably lit up on the bottle of wine we had expensively consumed as well, we returned to Bridgeland by bus. In the bus stop we met two young men, decently attired in nice white shirts, ties, grey flannel trousers.

Mormon missionaries!

Women of the night!

To add to it all, we were both smoking cigars.

Brigid introduced us.

“Well, I’m an actress actually.”

Actress. Ah, yes. They could well believe it.

“And my friend here, she’s a philosophy professor.”

I suppose it was on account of this kind of thing that, now, in Fort Norman, I was feeling melancholy. My career was over.

In June, Mary Richardson and I had gone on another canoe trip down the Mackenzie in our canoe, the Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah. Our ambition had been to make it to Tuktoyaktuk. Unfortunately, we had a stretch of bad weather. It took us nearly 10 days to reach Norman Wells. Marten flew overhead, back and forth. Then we were paddling fast to make it to Fort Good Hope. The Dene National Assembly was in Good Hope that summer and we were trying to get there in time for that.

It was an exciting time. The Berger Report had come out by then, recommending against the building of a Norman Wells Pipeline until there was a political and social infractructure of some kind in the Mackenzie Valley. That meant Land Claims. The Government of Canada was trying to get all the interested parties together into one negotiating body: the Metis, the three or four linguistic groups, the different regions . . . It wasn’t working. I had told Mary about how, attending the last summer meeting of the Dene National Assembly in Fort Norman, I had seen the whole process of consensus blown apart by Herb Norwegian. He got up in the slumbrous meeting under the tent roofs and galvanized the old women and the ancient chiefs, saying:

“If we give up our old traditions, our chief and council structure, and join the Metis, what will we have left?”

He was a beautiful and radical young man and he didn’t actually believe in the chief and council structure for one moment, but he had pressed the button. As a result of what he said the natives could come to no agreement with the Metis.

We weren’t getting to Fort Good Hope. We had had to stop again, by the mouth of the Mountain River and wait out the rain and wind. I sat by the campfire and reread The Pickwick Papers in the drizzle. Mary remained inside the tent. Later, a bear or wolverine showed up while both of us were asleep and deprived us of our food box.

Mary followed its trail into the bushes.

I followed reluctantly, wringing my hands. “Hey, Mary, maybe it’s a grizzly bear!”

“I’m going to get back the food, okay?”

She found the box, which still contained some spaghetti and a bulb of garlic.

In Good Hope we arrived too late for the Assembly. I called Marten and asked him to come and get us. We looked at the angelic church there, with the starry ceiling painted by the priest-explorer Emile Petitot. (I didn’t realize how much I was going to think about that later.) Then Mary went home from Norman Wells.

Now I had actually begun to live in Fort Norman.

All I had was the adding machine. Every night Marten would come home and in our anxiety we would find yet another deficiency in my bookkeeping.

The adding machine, I must add, was in no way electronic. It was one of those that used a mechanical principle only and had to be moved forward, with each logical operation, by the ratcheting of an arm on the side.

I began to write a novel at this point.

Things like that happen all the time nowadays. People sit down at the computer and hammer them out. But then, back in those grisly days, and in that place, it was a matter of a 1000 sheets of looseleaf paper and say, two dozen pens.

Winter arrived. The flying had to cease at 6:00, at 5:00, then at 4:00, because of the dark coming down. Our little house was there, above the cliff. Marten, having taken the plane off floats, was walking to and from the airport on the esker up the road. The neighbours had gone to Willow Lake to pick berries, shoot ducks, fish and hunt and trap till Christmas.

Oddly enough, the novel actually began to come along.

Marten would check in upon me now and then, once again happy in my work. He began doing the bookkeeping himself and his own deficiencies bothered him nearly as much as mine had (I couldn’t help noticing.)

It was December the 23rd. We had one of those huge windstorms that the Mackenzie always has at this time of year. Sometimes they are Chinooks, and possibly this was one of those. The barometer will drop several points within hours.

I meandered up to the airport and plugged in the lights, then hurried back to my novel. Marten landed as darkness was falling. It was already windy. He had a tie-down: two 45 gallon drums of gas, to which he anchored both wings of the plane. Les Roth’s Super Cub was standing there, anchored as well, to two wooden pallets with 10 gallon kegs on them. Marten noticed the kegs rocking in the wind as the wind tore at the pallets, but there was nothing he could do.

Time to walk home. He stumped down the hill. Caribou stew. Me deep in ink. A few hours in the toils of the adding machine.

Later we woke up and heard the wind howling, felt the house rocking. Marten was calm. The tie-downs secured the plane completely.

However, they didn’t secure Les’s plane. Which dumped the gas cans off the pallets, then took off all on its own, flew over our plane and crash-landed on the other side. Taking a few bits of our plane’s wing with it.

The following morning Les and Marten went up to look at the damage. Les’s plane had been totalled; ours was seriously damaged, but – in Marten’s view, it was still flyable. Then Marten returned home, and after packing a few essentials – his log book, of course, money, the book he was reading – Marten said,

“Bye. I’ll be back in a couple of days “

and took off for Yellowknife, regardless of the damage to the wing, while I watched, heart in mouth.

I returned to my novel. I had a Dietrich Fischer-Diskau recording of German lieder at that time and I listened to it over and over, while I was writing.

Marten called.

“I’ll be here over Christmas. No one is working.”

I wrote on, to the resounding refrain of Fischer-Diskau delivering Schubert and Goethe.

Marten called.

“I’m staying with Leo now. The parts haven’t arrived. I’ll be back by New Year.”

The heck with that. It was actually New Year’s Eve, and a big drum dance was being held in the Community Hall. Having missed Christmas completely, I decided to leave Dietrich playing by himself and attend the dance.

I arrived, as usual, hours too early. But by this time I knew about drum dances. It was just a matter of waiting for a certain old woman dressed in flowered skirt and buckskin leggings, Madeleine Karkajie or Georgina Yallee –sometimes it was another one – to start dancing. The drummers would rise, and then the whole hall, which had been sitting shyly on the sidelines, would get up and caper. We danced in a circle. The women danced demurely – but this was harder than you might think, as the action was entirely below the hips – while the men leapt around and hallooed. Sometimes a single dance would go on for half an hour. Fred Gaudet told me once that he had been in a dance circle in Fort Providence that went on for three days.

Meanwhile our little community hall got hotter and hotter, under the influence not only of the gas drum stove, but also of the three hundred bodies pressed into a spiral. We left off that dance at 6:00 a.m. and I staggered home with shin splints.

All the same, it had been a good dance.

Marten (on the phone): “I should be home in a couple of days.”

“Well, that’s good. Happy birthday!” His birthday was January 2.

Many days later I got up from the trance induced by Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and thought: there’s nothing to eat. I should make bread. I had a big bread bowl in which we used to make all the bread. In those days to make bread took most of a day, but it was well worth it, as it was usually the only bread you could get in the sub-arctic, and certainly the only bread you could afford.

Later in the afternoon, just as the bread dough was beginning to swell, I heard Marten coming in, bringing with him a plethora of rye bread and pumpernickel, turkey, mandarin oranges, vintage wines, a bottle of cognac, carrots, potatoes, even lettuce – for heaven’s sake! We made a pile in the kitchen of our house and began to eat our way through it to the other side. On the other side was the bread dough, as I occasionally uneasily remembered.

Finally we made it through all that food. I found the bread dough, sitting in a little pool of alcohol. I added a bit more flour, kneaded it briefly, baked it, and we ate the bread. By then we were back to caribou stew.