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True Winter Tales

The Trailer by Barbara Stewart

To celebrate the holidays and give you inspiration for our current creative nonfiction competition, we are presenting seven of our favourite stories from last year's True Winter Tales challenge. 

In today's story, Barbara Stewart looks back at a particularly cold winter night.

For two years after my bankruptcy in 2001, I skittered around the edge of homelessness in Victoria, B.C., the best Canadian city to face the worst of personal disasters. Winter pansies still blossomed in December and spring snowdrops poked through the mud in January. Yet these mercies of latitude failed to cheer me.

I was 48 years old, divorced, depressed, earning barely above welfare. Finally in October 2002, I called family in Quesnel for help. Three weeks later, I followed Uncle Rob's packed horse trailer on a 650 kilometre drive north through the Fraser Canyon to Quesnel and the promise of a new life. Various relatives took turns housing me while I searched for work, until December, when Aunty Madge found a friend who was willing to let me live in his travel trailer. I was elated. They had parked it alongside her mobile home with an extension cord for heat and light.

My joy was short-lived. The trailer was an old 14 footer from the 70s. A leak in the roof had rotted the bed mattress. There was no bathroom. The furnace didn't work. Even with the windows shut, the curtains blew in the wind. Power to anything more than one small cube heater overloaded and tripped the circuit breakers in the mobile home. Outside, it was 20 below and snowing.

But Aunty Madge was a northerner, a woman who had raised four kids in places often without electricity or running water. She had memories of treacherous ice roads and kitchens so cold that baby bottles were kept in coat sleeves to keep the milk from freezing. Now in her sixties, she wasn't going to take any guff from winter.

"We'll throw a tarp over the roof and pull out that mattress. You can use the foam mattress from our boat," Aunty Madge said. "And I've got a sleeping bag that's good to 40 below. Your Uncle Cliff used it for years hunting."

That night I crawled into the trailer bed fully dressed. The sleeping bag was ripe and the mattress reeked of boat diesel. Twice I moved the heater closer to the bed. The cold overcame it. And then in a suicidal fit of rage and self-pity, I pulled the heater inside the sleeping bag and cradled it between my belly and my knees with the hope of starting a fire. It was the longest night of my life. In the morning my hair was frozen to the pillow.

The northern winter exposed the fight to survive, tore the season from my heart and mind. I had to get up, put my shoulder to the day and go look for a job. The car was low on gas. Behind the trailer, towering cedar and birch boughs were etched to a mere twig in fresh snow. Nothing moved. A frozen clothesline crossed the yard, an exquisite white suspension. I wanted to cry for the grace of it.

Find out more about our creative nonfiction competition.

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