My grandmother on my mother's side passed away shortly before Christmas. She was 96, the last of my living grandparents. For the last few years she'd been living in a care home in a prairie township I'll dub Graben der Freude. My aunt and her husband farm there; most of my aunt's kids have taken up the plough as well.
I spent my high school summers there, helping my uncle out. He and my aunt granted the (much) larger favour by having me. I had no head for the work, but remember those summers fondly.
As my brother drove me, our sister and our father to the funeral, my eye drifted over the landscape, nudging my memory over the contours and conversations and looney-toons adventures of adolescence.
There's one final curve in the road into town. If you go straight, you'll get to the outdoor pool, where I'd go with friends on Sunday afternoons, to cool off in the water, meet up with girls (if we were lucky) and fish for giggles and a pinch.
Keep tight to the curve and you encounter the trailer park.
These singles and double-wides are held together with bailer-twine and duct tape. Most of them have a wood-stove chimney-pipe sticking out the top, and in winter you pass through a tarry cloud of poplar smoke. The whole quarter acre looks like something out of The Grapes Of Wrath, with Mexican Mennonites standing in for bitter, disaffected Okies.
It's Graben's slum, really. And because Graben is so small, its presence is inescapable. Step out of one of those trailers, pick up a stone and throw it, and, depending on the direction you're facing, you could strike the village school, the fair grounds, a church, or the care facility my grandmother lived and died in.
We drove past it shortly before noon. We'd agreed to meet the rest of the family for lunch, but since that wasn't going to happen for another half-hour we pulled up to the grocery store, where we bought some cheese curds from the local factory.
As we sat and nibbled on these little knobs of inoffensive cheese, I wondered why Graben wasn't a prettier town. I grew peevish the longer I meditated on it. In fact, why beat around the bush? Graben is butt-ugly. It's a Canadian Prairie farm-town, and most of those are of a piece: cobbled together with materials found, and quickly, so that the real work could get attended to.
This makes the aesthetic explicable, but hardly comforting. The town has been around for a century, if not longer. As farmers, we got the jump on Nature fifty-plus years ago when we embraced petroleum and its manifold gifts. You'd think we'd take that opportunity to address the business of quality of life, before Nature rallied and set us back on our heels. We settled instead for television.
Why the hell is beauty such a distant concern for my people? It isn't like we lack pride. But with us it always has to be practicalities first. Get the barns up, get the crops in, get the canning done. If you've got some spare time, work on the quilt.
The problem is, practicalities ye shall always have with thee — even in prosperous times. Thus are we endowed with a cultural heritage of vibrant four-part harmonies, lavish quilts, and cheap feed.