Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sepia Saturday 200: On Itchiness

For the "best of Sepia Saturday" compilation celebrating the 200th post I'm re-posting number 159 - my memories of happy days spent at Grand Beach, Manitoba, Canada.

"Stop scratching." my mother said emphatically. "You're just going to make those bites worse!"

My itchy sister Eilleen and I exchanged looks. Mother's attention meant that serious scratching had to be reserved for after bedtime, when, hidden from her view under the covers, we could claw to our heart's content.  "Eaten alive" as the saying went, we'd scratch until we bled.

Nothing in my experience is quite as itchy as a bite delivered by the legendary Manitoba mosquito at Grand Beach. Referred to sarcastically as the provincial bird of Manitoba, there's a statue erected in it's honor nearby in Komarno, Manitoba. Komarno means mosquito in Ukrainian. Mosquitoes are a serious matter up north; the chief entomologist for the city of Winnipeg is called the "Mosquito Wizard" and he's reputedly paid only slightly less than the mayor.

Photo from of mosquito statue, Komarno, Manitoba.
The only relief remedy we had in those days was a paste made of baking soda and water then slathered over the bites. I can remember the odd feeling of the paste as it dried. It was astringent and probably served to divert our attention momentarily from the itch to the puckering.

Funny when you're a kid, you just accept your surroundings as a fact of life. I actually thought it was fun to sit on our stoop, counting the scabbed-over bites on my legs! Who knew there were places in the world where you could actually walk around in the summer and not be swarmed by mosquitoes? For me, the torture of itching and the joys of warm weather went together hand in hand.

While mosquitoes were the worst of the lot, there was plenty more entomological fun to be had with the sticky-footed fishflies we pulled off the telephone poles and screen doors; and the annual invasion of dragonflies which fed off the fishflies.

This photo of my sister and me, circa 1948 at Grand Beach, Manitoba, Canada, shows us strolling merrily along the shore. Eilleen has her red bathing cap fastened to her swimming suit strap. We were blissfully without sunglasses, sun screen, water wings, insect repellent or too much adult supervision, happily ignorant of the risks of such an unprotected stroll. We even had a break from the daily agony of the Cod Liver Oil dose, the idea being that we were storing up sufficient Vitamin D with all the sunshine. Mom, throwing caution to the wind, let us skip "Beef, Iron and Wine" the other foul tasting dietary supplement we were forced to take because we were too skinny.

Just the girls, we spent two glorious weeks at the rented Walt's cottage. My father stayed in the city and took the "Daddy train" up on the weekends. With no Dad around, proper meals weren't necessary and Mom made our food into terrific fun: fried eggs for dinner; spam sandwiches sitting on the rocks lakeside; toast cooked on the wood stove and exotica such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner, which remained a special treat of my sisters for her entire life. Even bedtime was fun as mother made us go to sleep when the lamp lighter came around with his tall ladder to light the coal oil street lamps. We loved to watch this and sat by the window waiting for his arrival. Once the inside lights went out, our serious scratching started. In the background, always, there were mosquitoes buzzing.

Normal routine was forgotten on these holidays as we spent hours paddling around in the water, building sand castles, playing with a beach ball and burying anyone who would allow us the honor. At lunch we'd sometimes get chips in a paper bag, soaked with vinegar and liberally dosed with salt. No one cared about greasy fingers or faces - we'd run into the water (no two hour wait) and splash it all off.

Dance Pavilion Grand Beach from archive

There was a famous dance pavilion on the boardwalk, the anchor attraction at the beach; some claim it was the largest dance hall in the commonwealth at one time.  I have vague memories of going there in the evening with my Mom and sister on those endless northern summer evenings, the light in June lasting until 10 pm.  Mother would dance in the cavernous hall with anybody who asked - I'm sure she enjoyed the male attention and it was all part of the vacation from her normal life. Burned to the ground in 1950, it was never re-built and the beach was never quite the same.

I was deliriously happy on those holidays, maybe as happy as I've ever been. The resort was built by the railway and there was excellent train service all summer.  I would have been 5 or so in my first memory of going to the train station. My sister and I held hands tightly, shadowing my mother who was preoccupied with the business of our suitcase and the tickets. In those days we didn't own a car and world exploration was limited to the single block up and down our street. As you can imagine that first train trip was unbelievably exciting, full of new and different experiences. Between the swaying cars, we watched the train tracks speeding by underneath; drank out of triangular folding paper cups from a spigot in the wall; lurched along the aisles peering at the other passengers; nestled into the plush seats and watched the scenery rushing by. Of all my travels since, those one-hour rides may have been the most thrilling of all, infecting me forever with the travel bug.

Some itches are easier to scratch than others. After college, I moved out of the insect cloud to mosquito-free California. No more sitting around counting bites! Now my metaphorical "itchy"footed condition is the one I've dedicated my lifetime trying to alleviate. The only temporary relief I've found so far is the sound of those beautiful words, music to my ears, "Let's Go!".
Grand Beach today (same view as the photo of the girls above)


  1. There's just something about a beach and a cabin or a tent and simple food for dinner like mac & cheese and hot dogs and Tater Tots and even peanut butter sandwiches that bring back some wonderful memories. (And I still love mac & cheese and hot dogs and Tater Tots and peanut butter sandwiches!)

  2. I guess all those mosquito sores helped everyone at The Dance Pavilion move a lot faster?!? Childhood Beaches are places where happy memories are born.a Lovely Post Helen.

  3. You conveyed your "happy memories" so well.

  4. An excellent essay. I love the way you came full circle at the end with the "itch" reference.
    Incidentally, I still like fried eggs for supper.
    I miss those carefree days with no rules. Mind you, I'm usually the one enforcing them now with my family.

  5. That was wonderful, Helen. I vividly remember mosquito bites in the Chicago of my youth. Another memory I share with you is of the lamplighter and his big ladder coming to light our street lights. That makes me feel really old. I thought lamplighters should have been long gone before our day!
    Thanks for the memories- even the not-so-good ones.

  6. HA -- from mosquitoes to travel bug -- love that!

  7. We spent some time living in Baie Comeau Quebec and it was the black flies!!!
    Thanks so much for this great post!

    1. Those black flies were terrible! The bites were worse than the mosquitos pricks but mosquitos are the itchiest.

  8. Great essay - brilliant theme!

  9. Oh, Helen, I love this post. What a fun visit to your childhood memories and experiences at Grand Beach and of bugs and train rides and all the rest. You were a positively adorable little girl. Somehow the photo brings to mind the young Margaret O'Brien in "Meet Me in St. Louis."

  10. This post reminds me again that you should write a book. Your writing is just so great. I love it. I felt as if I was walking along the beach scratching away with you and your sister.
    Ladies of the Grove

  11. A super post and excellent choice. Last year on a spring roadtrip through South Carolina, my wife and I stopped to walk into an inviting dry swamp forest along the Savannah river. We lasted less then 5 minutes before we fled from the assault of hordes of mosquitoes. Maybe not as large as Manitoba 'skeets, but more blood thirsty than any pirate.

  12. I don't know about Manitoba but the mosquitoes in Michigan are quite enough for me whenever we visit in the summer. Great piece.

  13. The inside joke in Maine is the state "bird" is the mosquito. Great post for Sepia Saturday 200!

  14. I just reminded myself of my comment last time you posted this and I thoroughly endorse it. I’m so glad this is going in the book.

  15. That's a journey from Manitoba to CA..MN has tremendous mosquitos too, or, the state bird. The statue reminds me of several we saw in Alaska this summer where the skeeters are wild and bigger than here...The beach is iconic but the itching almost had me scratching.

  16. Great story indeed. Funny how we in Minnesota always jokingly add that the mosquitos is our state bird too. Guess we're not the only ones!

  17. Happy memories. Loved the bit about the lack of 'proper food' when dad wasn't around :)

  18. "...happily ignorant of the risks of such an unprotected stroll." Says it all, Helen. Lovely photographs and precious memories. But ouch, those mosquitoes!

  19. The beach looks wonderful as you and your sister stroll along. It all sounds perfect for a vacation, both for you and for your mother. So often mother's try and stick to the at home routine and make themselves miserable on vacation. At least in the olden days. The modern day beach doesn't look so fun at all.

  20. Australia has many mosquitoes too and my brothers always joked they didn't need repellent - they had me! I seemed to attract them from everywhere. Thank goodness there are not so many in NSW as there was in Victoria.

  21. The "provincial bird of Manitoba." Love it. Some great memories, too.

  22. This is such a wonderful posting. I liked your sharing of the holiday traditions and the things you and your sister with mom. We spent a lot of time in Minnesota with mosquitoes on beaches and it is refreshing to get away from them. I will have to look up your beach on the net to see where it is.

  23. When I was 3 and/or 4 I spent vacation time with my mother while my father stayed home with my baby sisters. I didn't take the train to get there, but I loved to go watch the train that came by in the evening.

  24. I remember this from before, and I loved reading it all over again. Thanks for choosing it for the book!

    Kathy M.

  25. Indeed fine memories of a carefree time.
    It would be wonderful if this state remained with us throughout life.
    Great post, once more!!