Roots

Kamsack, Canada

I was born in Kamsack, a small but pretty town in eastern Saskatchewan in the Assiniboine River Valley, and lived here for the first 10 years of my life. My mother’s father’s family had been farming just south of Kamsack since the late 1900s and the cemetery is full of headstones bearing the name “MacLellan”.

My mother’s mother’s family, the MacNeills, came to Kamsack as adults. My grandmother, Angela Florence Mae MacNeill arrived here in 1917 as a bride, having married Hugh MacLellan. Her brothers Jim & Jack came to work on the railroad. Jim MacNeilll married Violet MacLellan, creating a second bond between the two families. Seems that happened a lot back in the day when potential suitors were limited and travel between towns was slow.

The house on 2nd Street, where my parents lived with my grandmother for the first two years of my life, is gone now, but the ghosts lurk, down the alley and around the little houses across the street that still stand.

The 1950s were the best years for Kamsack. The railroad provided good jobs, the surrounding farms were productive, the war was over, the baby boom on. The town’s population peaked at about 3,000. In 1962 the CNR abandoned Kamsack as a divisional point and in anticipation of less work my father, a railroad engineer, made plans to move to Melville.

Today the town is like so many prairie towns: fewer people, boarded storefronts, empty parks and playgrounds. Nothing like when I lived here and town buzzed with life. Or so it seemed to my small self.

Runnymede, where my aunt and uncle – my father’s younger brother Laurie and his wife Myrna – live is even more deserted. But the old cemetery is being tidily kept by my Uncle Laurie. A few graves have fresh flowers, the result of Thanksgiving weekend visits from relatives who have moved to the city. My mom puts a few red carnations by the plaque marking my father’s ashes. Judy pulls weeds. I take photos. We pay homage to the dead in different ways.

Rhein, where my father was born, does not merit a drive down mainstreet. Nothing there, according to my mother. The church were my Propp and Pister relatives were married, baptized and buried still stands. These hardy farmers came from Germany early in the 20th century, winning the pioneer lottery by settling in Rhein. I don’t know much about soil, but can see that the tilled earth by the road is black and rich. And the farm equipment I see attests to significant wealth.

A story about an eye injury I incurred the Sunday after my father’s father died in 1962 and we all gathered in Rhein is remembered. The doctors were on strike because of Tommy Douglas’ proposed medical care plan, making the crisis all the worse for my family. I came away with a few stitches and a small scar to the side of my left eye. Everyone was so worried you’d lose your eye, my mother recalls. I’m wishing I had a tape recorder to capture her memories. At 82 she is as sharp as ever and I assume I have a lot of time yet to gather the many stories she has to tell.

Judy and my mom shriek as I wheel Jake’s brand new Hyundai Santa Fe around on the narrow gravel road and pull off to the side, the vehicle tilting a bit precariously. A mother moose and her yearling are feeding in a ditch. Magnificent! Craig will be so envious, I tell them.

We end the day in Preeceville. Another opportunity to fawn over Blake. He is just starting to laugh and we have all kinds of fun tickling him and making faces. A four generation photo is taken. Apropos for the kind of day it has been.

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