We are all familiar with the phrase “unprecedented times” used in reference to the social, economic and lifestyle changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has generated. The most unprecedented thing in my world since March’s lockdown, however, wasn’t COVID-19-related at all. It was the appearance, about a month ago, of a “For Sale” on the property of my long-time neighbour Conrad Etmanskie. Above: Conrad Etmanskie on his First Communion day. Photo: Mary Golka.
I was truly saddened by Connie’s death, even if I wasn’t entirely surprised. You see, I had noticed some changes in the previous year. He had slowed down and he had given up his truck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the disappearance of his vehicle was noteworthy since Connie used to drive everywhere even 50 metres down the street to visit his cousin, the late Bob Kulas.
Our last conversation, a week before he died, was about my new car. I was shovelling snow and he shouted to me from his verandah. He thought the car was pretty small given all the driving I do and he didn’t think it would hold-up very well in a collision with a deer (I totalled my vehicle in that manner a few months earlier). “I can’t even see it over the snow banks,” he laughed. Since then, there have been many occasions when I have been working in the yard or garden and I have thought of him and would have welcomed a chat over the fence. Over the years we had some great conversations standing on our respective sides of the chain-link.
Connie passed on local garden wisdom
Our gardens were the usual conversation-starters. I would hear “Gidday” and turn to see Connie standing by the fence. “Your garlic is coming along pretty good,” would start a ten or fifteen-minute conversation that could range from that crop, to the “arseholes” driving around town without mufflers, or the latest local scandal. He was quiet, but he always spoke his mind with a unique vocabulary of expletives. (I have included some of the milder ones.)
Even though it got smaller every year, Connie’s vegetable garden was impressive. He enjoyed working in it and sharing his harvests with his family. He usually had his garden in earlier than mine, so he would share green onions with me before mine were ready. I gave him rhubarb in return and his niece Sharon baked him pies.
My grandparents had been avid gardeners, but after their deaths, during my father’s tenure, the yard had become a lawn-mower’s paradise – a rectangle of green devoid of trees, shrubs, vegetables or flowers. When I first started to re-cultivate the property in 2000, Connie watched with interest. He offered technical advice and gave me some milk crates to shield my first tomato seedlings from the hot sun. Because he always had his garden in first, I watched and followed his cycle of preparation, planting, harvesting and clean-up. He also passed on some local garden wisdom to me: “Plant your peas before the ice is off the lake,” and “Put wood ashes on your onions to prevent worms.” He also told me if I planted my potatoes – he recommended Kennebec – on Victoria Day, I would have new potatoes by time of the pilgrimage to Cormac.
A cat can make a mess of a well-prepared and freshly-seeded bed of carrots, so we often complained and strategized about that. This spring, I would have been keen to show Connie the fresh coyote droppings that appeared daily along a pathway running the length of our properties. That coincided with the cats’ disappearance. However, the wild canine didn’t deter the grackles – Connie called them “those goddamn blackbirds” – that harassed the robins, pulled up our seedlings and made a messy and noisy nuisance of themselves. This spring I declared war. Discovering three nests high in my spruce trees, I assembled the parts of two roof rakes and attacked. Within seconds, I was surrounded by at least twenty angry, swooping birds. I dropped my weapon and high-tailed it to the summer kitchen. They were less defensive on my second and third forays and have since relocated. Had he been out in the garden or leaning on a fence post, I know Connie would have gotten a big kick out of that ridiculous scene.
I am not so naïve to think that Connie approved of all my gardening decisions. He laughed at my inability to control potato bugs by handpicking them. He sprayed his. If he couldn’t eat it, he didn’t grow it, but he never disparaged my evolving “English garden” with its winding paths and fieldstone borders. He actually gave me a bunch of stones once, although our mutual friend, Joe Matusheski, tells me Connie couldn’t understand why I wanted “all those frigging stones.” Several years ago, when my garden became neglected, overgrown and unruly, Connie never voiced a complaint, but when I started to get the garden back on track last fall, he was very encouraging. The past five months have given me ample opportunity to re-design and rehabilitate it. I even purchased a load of fieldstone to finish the borders. I wish Connie could see it now.
I suppose my city friends would say “Neighbours come and neighbours go.” That hasn’t been my experience in the village of Barry’s Bay, and it may not be the experience of my rural and small-town readers. While the property to one side of me has changed hands eight times in my lifetime, the Etmanskie land which abuts mine on two sides has been occupied by four generations of that family since 1904. The property directly across the street has been occupied by Hildebrandt descendants since 1901. I’m a newcomer. My grandparents bought this place in 1944.
The first people to welcome them were Connie’s parents, Pete and Bella Etmanskie. Bella and my grandmother soon became close friends and in the seventy-six years that have passed, their children and grandchildren have remained friendly neighbours.
The “neighbour gate”
When my Grandpa Woermke said, “Good fences make good neighbours,” I doubt he imagined the fortress-like privacy fences that have appeared around town. He was referring to the livestock, decorative-wire or chain-link fences that were ubiquitous in the Bay back then. The posts and chain-link that currently demarcate the Woermke-Etmanskie line were installed and stretched by my father, Connie and his brother Howard in the late 1970s or early 80s. It is still solid because the posts are old creosote poles my dad was able to obtain through some railroad connection. It is a great fence, but its construction eliminated the “neighbour’s gate” that formerly linked our two properties.
That gate saw a lot of traffic. Much of it involved eggs and bread travelling from one kitchen door to the other. My grandma, who raised laying hens, kept Bella in eggs in exchange for loaves of her excellent homemade bread. Bella and Pete’s daughter, Mary Golka remembers passing through that gate with bread or with her sister Isabelle to play my grandmother’s piano when they were children. When I was a boy, I ran through it with my new puppy in a water pail to show him to Bella. Sometimes, on long, hot summer evenings, my parents and I would walk over to visit Pete and Bella on their old-fashioned swing.
Not all of the traffic was happy. In 1947 when Bella and Pete’s infant son died, food was sent and my grandparents passed through the gate to pay their respects. In 1970, when Grandma collapsed, Grandpa ran for Bella. She was with Grandma when she died.
There were funny moments in our neighbour-lives too, like the night the Etmanskies mistook my grandparents for chicken rustlers. Grandma and Grandpa had returned late from a family visit to Golden Lake and were clipping the wings of some pullets they had picked up, when Pete and the boys arrived with a rifle. Another time, my grandfather got “feeling good” at Leo and Irene’s wedding and fell while dancing the polka with Mrs. “Bull” Burchat. And then there was the year of the poor harvest – the year Bella took my grandma’s seeds to church for a blessing. Only a few seeds germinated. My grandfather laughed, “What else could Protestants expect?”
I witnessed a humorous incident between Howard and my dad. Howard, who was well-known for his short-fuse was installing storm windows on the second storey. When one didn’t fit, he turned it one way and then another without success. “Howard,” my father shouted from the verandah, “I think you have the wrong window.” Howard practically jumped off the ladder muttering something about “friggin’ square-heads” and stormed away. My dad who knew Howard was good-natured, as well as hotheaded, thought that was hilarious. A number of years later, when I was in a cribbage tournament at the Legion, Howard bought me a beer. “You people are the best goddamned neighbours anyone could ever have,” he said. I said the same and we clinked our glasses.
The best goddamned neighbours
Pete, Bella, Conrad and Howard and the Etmanskie family were great neighbours. We rarely visited beyond the fence or kitchen door and we didn’t have dinner parties or barbecues. We respected each other’s privacy yet kept an eye on each other and on each other’s properties. To a respectful degree, we shared in each other’s joys and sorrows for over three-quarters of a century. Connie’s death and the sale of his home signify the end of that era in my life and have given me an opportunity to reminisce and reflect on the nature of neighbour-relationships. I wonder what kinds of chats, if any, I will have over the fence with the new neighbours.
Now, back to work. I have to get those “frigging stones” off the driveway.