Updated: Oct 12, 2019
I was born in 1968, and lived the first four years of my life in an old rambling farmhouse south of Ste. Agathe on St. Mary's Road. The only running water came from a single kitchen faucet. The toilet was an empty ten-gallon bucket with a toilet seat on it, in a re-purposed closet at the top of the stairs. I felt loved and protected, and was too young to realize how rustic our lifestyle must have seemed to many.
When I was four, my dad hired two local carpenters and together, they built us a new three bedroom house, with all the modern conveniences. I was four when we moved into our new home in the fall of 1972. My parents must have felt like royalty. I know I did.
My parents’ timing was good, because they had a bumper crop the next summer, and so they bought the things that were still missing or which needed replacing: a large freezer, a colour TV, curtains, etc.
For the summer of 1974, my parents planned a road trip, one they would make without their three kids. They would be driving to the North-West Territories to visit relatives. My two-year-old baby brother would stay with an aunt and uncle in Winnipeg, while my older sister and I would stay at home with two teenage babysitters. Just before my parents left, by dad went to see the local insurance salesman to top up the insurance on the house, as the coverage we had was not sufficient to cover its contents. The salesman was just closing up when my dad arrived, and asked him to come back another time. That other time never came, and I’m sure that both men would remember this remorsefully for years to come.
One Sunday in July, a week or two after my parents’ departure, my Uncle Claude and Aunt Adèle who lived nearby came to get the four of us and brought us to the beach in St. Malo. That evening, instead of driving us home, they decided that we would stay at their place for the night and that they'd drive us home in the morning. Thank God. That night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and our new house was struck by lightning. A neighbour a few miles away spotted flames the next morning as he was going out to milk his cows. He drove to our farm only to find the charred remains of our home, and no sign of life. He must have been in a frenzy as he sped home to make some phone calls, but in a community where everyone knew their neighbours, he quickly reached Aunt Adèle, shared the news, and learned that no one had been in the house.
My parents were soon reached by phone, and they flew back in a panic, not believing that we were safe. I was six that summer, and only wish I could remember the hugs and kisses I must have gotten from my parents the moment they laid their eyes on my sister and me. However, all I remember of those few days is seeing the ashes which used to be our house, where a few flames still burned, and feeling like I was living a great adventure. I was incredibly oblivious to what must have felt like a horrible tragedy to my parents.
We were all safe and sound and the farm buildings and equipment were fine, but all we had left for living were a few items of summer clothing, camping equipment, and our car. But we only stayed at Uncle Claude’s and Aunt Adèle’s for a few days, however, thanks to members of our community who acted quickly and selflessly. Louis Palud from Aubigny gave us an old mobile home which he and his family had lived in while they’d built their new house. This was soon set up in our yard, and we moved into a home which my six-year-old eyes perceived as awesome: a funny-shaped house on wheels, in which my sister and I got to sleep in our very own bunkbeds, something which I'd only ever seen on TV! They even had built-in steps! To me, that small bedroom was the epitomy of luxury.
The mobile home was only one of many gifts we received. Some helpful neighbours (God bless them, whoever they were!) took it upon themselves to canvas everyone in the area surrounding Aubigny and Ste. Agathe. We started receiving regular donations of toys, clothing, furniture, dishes, tools, money, and so much more. I’m sure that this is why I never felt the loss of our home and our things: we quickly moved into a neat “new” home, where it felt like Christmas came around at least once a week. I remember my sister and I hanging around hopefully as my mother would go through endless boxes of donations. With many large families living all around us, there was nary a box which didn’t contain a pretty dress or an exciting toy.
The help and support of our neighbours made such a difference given the insurance shortfall. So many times since then, I heard my parents speaking of the gratitude they felt towards the neighbours who helped us get through what could have been a devastating ordeal. It certainly wasn’t an easy chapter of my parents’ lives, but they got through it thanks to the help of the surrounding community, knowing that they weren’t alone.
For the longest time, I took this for granted. But I’ve owned a home in Winnipeg now for over fifteen years, and I’ve never felt the same sort of connection to my neighbours. Yes, we talk over the fence and do the other an occasional favour. Would my neighbours help me out if I was in a bind ? Some of them probably would. Would I do the same for them ? I like to think so. But I hardly know most of them, despite the fact that I’ve been living in the same house for over twelve years. That’s the unfortunate reality of city living nowadays, where fences keep people apart. This is why I so want to see Prairie Rivers Cohousing become a reality. I look forward to living in a close-knit community where neighbours know and help each other. Community-building is one of our goals, something to be valued and developed over time. We will design our space in such a way as to bring people together. And when lightning strikes in someone’s life, be it in the form of sickness, accident, or some other hardship, they’ll know that they’re not alone, that they can count on the help and support of their cohousing neighbours.
Have you witnessed a community coming together when hardship struck? If so, please share your story below. This type of story builds us up and gives us hope in humanity. And our society needs hope.