Mary Menduk

I grew up in Fernie believing all men danced, sang, recited poetry, and acted in plays. These men were miners, businessmen, teachers. It goes without saying all the women joined in too. Fernie of the late 40’s and 50’s was a very cosmopolitan place filled with immigrant families who were not willing to live without music and drama. Resourceful individuals took charge and provided direction answering the needs of the community. This tradition carries on today where ordinary citizens and emerging artists enjoy creative endeavours with skilled artists.

Enthusiasts become participants. Choirs and drama groups were prominent, organized by community, church, school and ethnic groups. Local musicians formed dance bands with piano, violin, guitar, stand up bass, accordion and a unique instrument, the mirimba. The Sister’s of St. Joseph and other music teachers taught Royal Conservatory piano and violin and the local secondary music teacher gave voice lessons for 50 cents an hour.

Life for a teenager was filled with opportunities in choirs, plays and bands. Whistles reminded us of the time of day. The Fernie Brewery whistle at 4:30pm reminded us to hurry home to help with supper preparation. At 5pm the M F and M (Morrissey, Fernie, Michel) train whistle blew announcing the arrival of day shift miners from Coal Creek. After a miner’s supper, our other life started. Because we were not allowed to attend movies in the middle of the week, the only way to get out of the house was to be in a choir or play. I sang in a four-part church and another Slavic choir, along with a school choir. Spring was a fun time participating in the annual St. Patrick Concert with singing ensembles and plays.

By the 1960’s the choir and drama directors had retired and not planned for succession. That life disappeared, even the school music programs were gone and children denied the rich life of their parents. Realizing the emptiness, Rose Watson organized the Arts Council that fosters music, art and drama to this day.

In the 80’s I joined the art group established in 1953 by the secondary school art teacher. I enjoy painting with elusive, unpredictable watercolour and acrylic, have taken local courses offered at the Arts Station, and travelled to work with prominent artists. Each week I paint with a vibrant group of fellow artists, witnessing the evolving magic of their pieces.

In my senior years, it is great to find something that excites me. In this small community the opportunity to write came my way. Writing was a gap that has been filled for the last five years with local writing sessions and the Fernie Writers’ Conference. My pieces come to life with my memories of family and early life in Fernie.

Rich offerings are constantly presented in this community by observant individuals willing to expend energy and attention, keeping our lives whole and healthy. These opportunities are for all skill levels - all that is needed is desire. A small town is not large enough to have spectators.

Not Even a Ghost of a Town

No sign left
no sign of family
no sign left.

A company town
no miner owned his house or land
defiantly each tried
to make it his own.

The miner’s women
the commanding presence of garden
lovingly reverently
knelt and planted
flower gardens
vegetable gardens
and spirits evolved.

Orange floppy poppies
draped like ruffled petticoats
mauve iris
translucent and stained glass
always perennials that say
“I am here to stay”
and spirits evolved.

In cottages armed
by notes of a solitary violin
or chorus harmony
of voices from
Ireland Wales Scotland England
France Italy Slavic countries
spirit evolved.

At the swimming hole
on moonless nights
as innocent skinny dippers
silently floated
in tangled suspension
water sprites evolved.

Then came a time
when the company
invited miners to leave
and build homes of their own
in Fernie.

The exodus began
as each family and person left
sacredness of place

First windows and doors were taken
exposing secrets of rooms
where babies were born
in love beds.

Some miners bought their houses
using the lumber to rebuild
in the city
others “borrowed” boards
even nails were scavenged
straightened and reused.

With cottages gone
city folk dug up the perennials
poppies columbine lilac caragana
markers reminding the newly exiled
of particular gardens of home.

At first only a few roots were taken
full removal
was too immense a transgression
for grave robbers
gradually all were gone
now city gardens are graced
with the forgiveness of flowers.

Person by person
board by board
nail by nail
flower by flower
this place died
by what was sent away
or taken away.

Now grasses wild with life
cover yards
between Bosses Row and French Camp
no evidence of boundaries.

Through it all
Coal Creek
absorbing the hopeless wails
and mournful silence.

Only evolved plant spirits
wood nymphs and water sprites remain
whispering in quiet voices
to those who hear.