Poor Boy Rich Man
I was 11 when my mother, my seven-year-old sister, and I moved from
Winnipeg to Richer, Manitoba, a small, mostly French-speaking community
between Winnipeg and the Ontario border. Our new home was a three-bedroom
white stucco house that had no running water, no indoor toilet, a
wood-burning furnace in the basement and a wood- burning stove in the
It was fun to make toast on the old wood stove. We would actually stick
the slice of bread to the side of the hot stove and remove it when it was
toasted. Not having drinking water left us thinking we were going to have
to dig a well. In desperation, my mother asked the neighbors where they
got their water. They told us we could go with them on their next trip to
the Brokenhead River. The water was unbelievably clear. We filled heavy
old milk cans that held five gallons each.
Getting the water was easy in the summer, almost impossible in the
winter. The only way to get through the ice was with a pick and axe.
When we got the water home, we dipped into it with an old metal cup my
mother called the big dipper. Mom loved to dip into the milk cans full of
fresh water. She always said it reminded her of back home on the farm
near Lloydminister, Alberta. Mom told Angel and me lots of stories about
the old days when she was a little girl, how she and her five sisters had
to ride their horses to school in all kinds of weather. I believe, even
with our poverty, she was happy. Mom just wanted us to appreciate the
good things everybody takes for granted.
All this might not seem strange to someone who can remember what it was
like growing up in rural Western Canada half a century ago. But I am not
talking about 60 years ago. The year was 1979. We were surrounded by an acreage of pasture and bush. Swamp land lay on the opposite side of the road. Our landlord also owned the neighboring property 500 feet east of us, and there was nothing but wide open space
between the two rustic homes. Our long winding driveway was not paved, so
it was more like a trail. When Mom drove in you could hear the grass rub
the underside of the car. An outdoor toilet was about 100 feet from the
back of the house, with a few trees to hide it from the Trans-Canada
Just inside our front door was room used for boots, tools and firewood.
The wood stove in the kitchen had four iron elements for cooking that
could be removed for more heat. There was a large handle on the door to
open and add more wood.
We eventually got an electric range. The house was wired for power but
Mom had to wait for the family allowance cheque to arrive before she could
afford to have it hooked up. She also did odd jobs such as picking
vegetables at a local farm. She scorned the idea of taking social
assistance, but we never went hungry. Mom was a very provident woman.
There were two levels to this old house, with two bedrooms up and one
down. Angel and I slept upstairs and Mom had the bigger room downstairs.
This style of living took getting used to. We were from the big city of
Winnipeg where we had lived in a two-bedroom apartment for three years
after Mom divorced Dad. Mom liked the country lifestyle, and whenever she
got stressed blamed it on the city.
So when a friend told her about a house in the country for only $50 rent
a month, Mom did not hesitate to move. She was paying well over $300 for
the apartment, and we had two big dogs, which limited our rental options.
What I liked most about those days in the Richer area were the night
skies. The constellations were so bright it seemed you could reach out
and touch them. The Big Dipper was the constellation I always looked for
and still do to this day. The moon was equally bright and immense. The
winter nights were illuminated because of the snow. The northern lights
were magical to me because they seemed to dance across the black of the
night sky. Those nights when I looked up into the dusky sky and pondered
the meaning of life, I knew in my heart that this beauty was no accident
of nature. The is God's handiwork I said to myself.
The wild animals in Manitoba are among the most beautiful in the world.
I remember on several nights during the coldest winter months, going to
collect snow and hearing the cries of the wolves. We collected snow in
the winter to bathe in and to do laundry. I would go out into the yard at
night with a three-gallon bucket, fill it with snow, then bring it back in
and dump it into a metal wash tub on top of the hot stove. The snow would
melt quickly. When there was enough hot water (after many many trips
outside with the bucket), one of us would bathe. Believe me, bathes were
very well deserved after that much work.
Taking the school bus was another thing to get accustomed to. After
going to school for a while, I noticed that other kids, although they
lived in the same area, did not live the same life style we did. Although
being one of the poorest kids at school may have seemed like a hindrance
at the time, I now believe it was a blessing.
I am happy I had the opportunity to live below the standard I could have
been living had we stayed in the city. It taught me plenty about hard
work and the riches we enjoy today as Canadians. My parents' divorce and
the sudden change of lifestyle taught me how to cope with overcoming
adversity in the midst of change. Modern technology has eliminated the
need for manually retrieving water from a river, or going outside your
house to relieve yourself, or cooking and making toast on a wood burning
stove. I have my mother to thank for inadvertently giving me the chance
to, at the very least, taste what it was like for the people living in
Western Canada 50 or more years ago.
We lived in that old house six more years. Mom married the neighbors'
son about a year later and blessed Angel and me with three more siblings,
Julie in 1981, Thomas Junior in 1982, and Bobby-Joe in 1984.
I now live in beautiful British Columbia with my wife Connie and our five children.
Tonight when I look at the beautiful night sky and see the Big Dipper, I
remember how much Mom loved dipping into the milk cans filled with clear
water from the Brokenhead River and I will thank God for such a wonderful
mother and indoor plumbing.