I forgot how dark the night could be. Except for the flickers from the flashlight Ryan turns on from time to time, there is no light around us. Mostly what I am experiencing on this Manitoba gravel road is the sounds of voices. My mother is talking to the man who lives down the lane. The next voice I hear is from a second man who stopped when he saw our car on the side of the road. Eventually the two men begin talking between themselves, and the conversation weaves to what they have in common.
What they have in common, we discover, is a lack of ability to fix vehicles that die on the road. Each one had looked under the hood when they first approached us, and shrugged their shoulders. “I don’t know anything about cars,” they said in turn. What else they share, it appears, is wanting to keep us company. Not exactly the kind of help we need.
My mother digs out her roadside assistance card and makes the second call to them today; we have an hour to wait.
I have been in Manitoba just over 24 hours, after crossing three provinces to attend the family reunion. A lot has happened in 24 hours. My son, Ryan, has been here for even less time. Because of a delayed plane, his luggage was on a later flight. So, the next day, instead of following our carefully arranged schedule to get to the reunion, we had waited for the luggage to arrive.
Not wanting to hold up the other family members, we sent my brother Dale and his son Josh ahead to the campground in Treherne. With them, we sent the pasta and potato salads, a bag of fresh cucumbers, and most of the rest of the food in my mother’s fridge.
The luggage had finally arrived in the late afternoon. We had set out for the hour and a half journey west of Winnipeg to the Morriseau-Gosselin family reunion. Once we left the house, we realized we were hungry so had a brief discussion where to stop. Ryan chose his favourite. Subway. Subway was definitely not my first choice, but I was feeling desperate. It fit the criteria – fast and now.
Ryan was the appointed driver. We were in Penny’s Dodge as Penny had a previous engagement in a canoe on the Bloodvein River and would not be attending the reunion. Come to think about it, the plan wasn’t to be in Penny’s car either. Originally, my mother had her own car in mind.
The very car my mother used to pick me up from the airport, just over 24 hours ago. Coming back from the airport, my mother suggested that we stop at my sister’s apartment to feed the cat and find the coupon book for our evening restaurant meal. When we pulled up to Penny’s apartment, we met the mechanic my sister and my mother shared. He had just brought Penny’s car back from doing work on it. On the street, my mother had a chat with him. After saying farewell, we got back into my mother’s car. Silence. The second time, I watched her turn the key in the ignition. Nothing.
“Is this a usual problem?” This was the first time I had been in this particular car, but I had heard stories about quirky tricks of previous ones.
“No,” she said, “I haven’t had this problem before.”
“What now?” I asked.
“Why don’t we take Penny’s car? I have the keys.” That’s how Ryan ended up driving Penny’s car to the reunion. Not quite.
After our car change, my mother and I had gone for a lovely dinner, prepared for the reunion the next day and picked up Ryan. With Ryan’s late arrival, and my mother arranging a tow truck to bring her own car back to her parking lot, we were up well past midnight.
As we had been getting ready for sleep, Ryan’s annoyance towards airlines was renewed when he realized the implications of his clothes and toothbrush being in the suitcase between Vancouver and Winnipeg. He was in the middle of a rant about the deplorable conditions of our air transportation system, when I remembered.
“I brought that toothbrush you left at my house.” I rooted it out of my luggage. With his faith in humanity restored, he had brushed his teeth and we all had collapsed into our beds.
That was only 18 hours ago, I thought, as I look up at the impressive Manitoba night sky. Now here we are, about four and a half miles from the reunion site. So very close, considering how far we had come.
My mother dials her cell phone, trying Dale’s number, again. She had already tried several times along our journey. When she gets the voice mail, she hangs up and then digs in her purse for her address book. She finds the number for the farm where the reunion is being held, and dials. A cousin answers the phone. I can hear the music, laughter and voices from where I am standing. He doesn’t know who Dale is. My mother persists. He doesn’t know where Floyd is. “Sorry, can’t help you.” Click.
I am imagining changing the license plate to Helpful Manitoba. That has a ring to it.
We wait and wait. Finally, we see the tow truck turn off the highway and head towards us. What a glorious sight! We are eager to be somewhere other than on the side of a road. The sooner that we get moving, we figure, the sooner we will be joining our family at the reunion.
Penny’s car is secured to the tow truck when the driver tells us we have a problem. There is only room in the truck for two people, and there are three of us. “If you want, one can ride in the car,” offers the driver. I wonder about safety and legality, can’t even imagine any other options. We had better stick together, I conclude. I volunteer.
“Of course, she can’t travel in the car alone.” My mother is emphatic. And so we say good-bye to our roadside companions, thank them for their company, and set out to the nearest garage. Treherne. The same town with the campsite we had stopped by earlier; the same campsite where we had dropped off our luggage in Dale’s travel trailer; the same luggage that had been delayed with the airline. My luggage, though, I had decided not to move from the trunk of Penny’s car, just because. It is being hauled with the rest of us to Treherne.
“Treherne?” My mother is full of thought. “This doesn’t make any sense. What if they aren’t able to fix the car? What if they don’t have the parts? Treherne is pretty small. Seeing as this is the last tow on my roadside card, what will happen if they are not able to fix it there? How would it get back to Winnipeg? I think the best idea is to take it Winnipeg now.” Her logic is undisputable.
We have a new problem. How to get this message to our tow truck driver who is heading in the opposite direction? How are we going to get his attention? From the driver’s seat, I honk the horn. No response.
“Flash the headlights,” my mother suggests. The high beams bounce off the chrome. No response. I remember the flashlight.
My mother aims it through the back window. No response.
“I have an idea.” My mother aligns the beam of the flashlight with the tow truck’s rear view mirror. Finally, the vehicle slows down. Once we stop, my mother explains the dilemma to the driver and he agrees to take us to Winnipeg. Since my mother knows the directions, she trades seats with Ryan.
Once the front end is raised, Ryan and I are perched like astronauts headed into space. The tow truck starts accelerating; we have no idea of the actual speed, but it is definitely unsettling. He is a fast driver. I am wishing he was paid by the hour. There is no way to ask him to slow down. On top of that, there is a constant bouncing motion from the joins of the concrete under our wheels. I wrap my arms tight around myself to try to stop the motion, but it is useless. Bounce, bounce, bounce. All the way to Winnipeg. The trip feels like an eternity, though there is a good chance that we are there in record time.
When we get to my mother’s apartment parking lot, the driver wheels Penny’s car beside my mother’s. The mechanic has a lot of job security with these two. I haul my suitcase from Penny’s trunk into the apartment.
“I’m hungry.” Ryan goes to the fridge and opens the door. Other than condiments, the shelves are bare. All the food is in the Treherne campground, with Dale.
“I can make something,” my mother offers.
“No, I just want to sleep.”
Once again, without his suitcase, Ryan is not amused.
“Where’s the toothbrush I gave you last night?”
His face brightens. “In the bathroom.”
We climb into bed. It is 4 am.
The next morning, I wake up to my mother’s voice. She is talking to Dale on the phone, who called wondering where we were.
“Did he notice the suitcases on the floor of the travel trailer? Did he not wonder where we were all night?”
“He thought we were having fun.”
It’s a new day, with a new problem. We need to get to a reunion. Sounds like yesterday’s problem except there are no family cars left. If there was, I am pretty sure of my vote.
“Rent a car,” I suggest. I call rental companies.
“Long weekends are the worst time to look for a rental car,” one relates to me, in a tone that insinuates that I should have better planning.
And keep calling. Finally, at one company, the renter doesn’t show up. Our lucky break. We leave town immediately as we are traveling light. It is late in the afternoon when we leave Winnipeg for the reunion. Again. Not wanting to miss any more of the festivities, Subway is chosen again. Sigh.
When we find our way to the wide-open spaces, I allow myself to get excited. I am looking forward to talking with cousins and aunts and uncles. My grandmother had a family of 12 brothers and sisters; it is their children who are now the elders. Both my mother and I have done family genealogy. We are both longing to hear the stories, and fill in the gaps. With me, I have brought pages showing the family tree, and many questions that have arisen over the last few years. My mother has brought carefully labelled photo albums. How perfect to have everyone together, and meet people whom I only know as names on paper.
When we get close to Haywood, we decide to go straight to Uncle Andrew’s farm, down the same road we attempted the night before. I hold my breath when we pass the memorable spot. We pull into the field that is now a parking lot at Uncle Andrew’s farm and I spring from the car.
The reunion is full of activity. Before me, I see a huge stage with musicians and singers, and tables full of people. I realize that every one of these 400 people is related to me! The buffet dinner is being served, so we take our place at end of the line, chattering all the while. By the time we sit down, many have finished their meals. Steady streams of people approach us as we eat, faces beaming brightly and arms outstretched. “Marie-Louise,” they squeal to my mother. “We wanted to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” we gasp. “We just got here.”