Flour sack underwear and the Bow Building

Yesterday, Aritha van Herk came to my home library, Memorial Park, to talk about her book Mavericks:  An Incorrigible History of Alberta.  Because she was addressing the Women’s Literary Society, a group that has been here since Calgary’s beginnings, Aritha focused on our city. She’s a wonderful speaker – warm, knowledgeable, funny, respectful of her audience and absolutely in love with her subject.  Aritha’s eyes danced as she talked not just about this city’s history but about its two great gifts of beauty and resources and of how Calgary’s citizens are charged with the obligation to be responsible stewards of what they have inherited and of what they will pass down to their children and their children’s children.

Ted and I cherish our copy of Mavericks.  Aritha recommended reading it in small bites – the way you would eat truffles or a fine cheese, because Alberta history is rich and some of it takes a while to digest.  But I had read and loved the chapter “Ladies, Women and Broads” before I came yesterday, and it was a delight for me to hear Aritha read it . Without her permission (but I know she would give it because she’s a generous person), I’m going to quote 2 sections from the chapter’s opening.            

This was the way to be a woman in the West.

Figure out how to harness the horse by using the illustrations of harnesses in the Timothy Eaton’s catalogue.  Read the catalogue and dream about what you do not have. When the new one arrives, cup up the old one for pictures, paper dolls.  Flour sacks make durable sheets and pillowcases, tea towels and underwear.  The trick is to soak them, then bleach them, then boil them to erase their shameful letters. No one will ever know you’re not wearing silk….

Stuff mattresses with straw, stitch feather and woolen quilts.  Pray for Chinooks.  Pray for a post office, a party line, a midwife, a neighbour with a sense of humour.  Pray that soon you’ll leave this sod shack and live in a two-story frame house with three bedrooms upstairs, front and back parlours, a dining room, a pantry and a kitchen –and a cellar to keep carrots and potatoes firm enough to eat in February. Pray that your grandmother will send you a barrel of apples from Ontario.”

Last week on our way back from Edmonton, Ted and I stopped at CrossIron Mills, “Calgary’s newest shopping, dining and entertainment Centre” – just north of Calgary – 150,000 square feet of anything anyone anywhere could ever possibly want to buy and own.  A veritable pleasure palace.  Yesterday when Aritha was reading from “Ladies, Women and Broads,” I found myself wondering what those women in their bleached, boiled, flour sack underwear would made of CrossIron Mills.  Probably, like me they would have been struck dumb by the sheer number of choices available to them. 

But as superficially different as the lives of these sod-hut dwellers are from the lives of the Calgarians in 2010 who live in the sprawling prosperous suburbs or in the equally prosperous older neighbourhoods like Bankview where Ted and I are renting a condo, I think in many essential ways the people themselves are the same.  Today’s Calgarians, like their ancestors, are proud dreamers who don’t fear hard work and don’t apologize for wanting more.  Like the men and women who lived in the sod huts, today’s Calgarians put in long hours without complaint because they believe in the potential of their shining city.  

Two and a half months is not long enough to come to understand a city, but after two and a half months in Calgary, Ted and I feel the buzz.   This is a city that has only just begun.  Watching the tallest office tower outside Toronto take shape is a thrill.  Love it or hate it (and people do both, sometimes simultaneously), the Bow, named for its distinctive crescent shape and its view of the Bow River, is building that makes the blood rush.  Driving through the lightshow that night after night is downtown Calgary after dark is another pulse quickener.  Simply put, living in Calgary is pretty much like water-skiing behind a really powerful boat – it’s great as long as you remember to hang on tight. 

In a few weeks, Ted and I will go back to our very happy, slow paced life in Regina.  Once again, we’ll be paddling our canoe in familiar placid waters.  It’ll be great to be home, but I’ve already tucked away a calendar filled with pictures of Calgary. When we need a jolt of adrenalin, Ted and I will look at those photos and we’ll smile at our memories.

©2019 Gail Bowen.  All Rights Reserved.