My Aching Back

One of my first paid gigs was shoveling the walks at St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church in Kamsack for Father George. It was a big job, a wide sidewalk leading up to the main doors, one that ran parallel to third street and comprised the frontage of both the church and rectory -- probably 200 feet of so, and a sidewalk that ran down the side of the building along fourth avenue -- an additional 100 feet. Add to that myriad meandering sidewalks leading hither and thither on the church property and you can see the size of the task.

I had acquired several pieces of clothing from my grandfather that year, dressing in a 1940's retro look as part of an ongoing campaign to differentiate myself. For shoveling at the church I wore a pair of heavy wool World War II vintage olive green flight pants with suspenders and a black winter dress coat that extended just below my knees. With a warm toque and scarf, I kept warm no matter the depth of the cold.

The magic of Christmas for me was contained in the mystery and wonder of midnight mass. As far back as I can remember, wrapping ourselves up and trudging the three blocks to church in the waning hours of Christmas eve was the anchor of our holiday traditions. It was the piece that provided meaning to everything else. As a youngster, I was one of many altar boys who adorned the front of the overflowing church, filled beyond capacity with many once-a-year worshippers. Incredibly warm from the mass of humanity contained in the church's finite space, I vaguely recall passing out and coming to in the sacristy, the little room where the priest got dressed, with my mom hovering over me ensuring that I was OK. That was probably 35 years ago, but I still can feel the refreshing cool breeze as I watched the remainder of the service from behind the scenes.

Christmas eve in the year of my shoveling job was bitter cold, and the snow had been falling all day. So, after concluding our other Christmas eve tradition of going up to my grandma and grandpa's house to open one gift each, I wrapped my neck in a scarf, pulled on my black winter dress coat and headed to the church, several hours before everyone else.

The wind was piercing as I turned the corner at the TD Bank and crossed main street, barren of vehicles and snow blowing horizontally from the east. Cutting through the side of the old post office building into the back alley behind the RCMP depot, I swooped into the church yard from the back to discover six inches of heavy snow and a tremendous task ahead.

Starting with the driveway in front of the garage that contained the priest's car and working my way toward the church, I was able to get all the sidewalks and pathways cleared in time for the arrival of the early birds. More importantly, the older parishioners would have no trouble traversing the distance from their parking spots to the doors of the church. My cheeks were frosty and red, but my heart was full, and Christmas eve was its most magical.

Shoveling the driveway, sidewalk and myriad pathways running hither and thither is not quite the gargantuan task today that I faced in 1984 earning $5 an hour, but its physical impacts are much greater. Leaning over the heavy steel shovel, effective yet unforgiving, my discs in my back shimmer and shudder, eloquently reminding me that I'm not in Kamsack any more.

December 30, 2009 - 2006 pounds (oops)


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