Have you ever had the chance to reach behind and grab on to the past? No, I am not talking about fumbling into the back seat to find an old Manitoba Co-operator. I do mean finding unexpected history, and enjoying it.
Several years ago, younger brother Tim mused about an old National Film Board movie, which told of the closing of a small-town restaurant in Manitoba’s Interlake region. He knew it mentioned Dad’s oldest brother, Martin, who lived and farmed at Eriksdale. However, Tim’s internet discovery didn’t register. I soon dismissed it before it used up too much of my brain’s hard drive.
A few months ago, I was sifting through my mom’s old papers at her nursing home. I came across part of a calendar from years gone by. The calendar was headlined “Havakeen Lunch” of Eriksdale, Manitoba. It sparked my memory.
Through the marvel of the internet, I soon had the film on the computer screen. I excitedly hit the “Play” icon. A snippet of family history unfolded.
Uncle Martin’s wife, Aunt Ellen, had run this restaurant for 18 years. In summer, 1977 they had sold it and prepared to hand it over. The film, produced out of Winnipeg, but filmed on site, documented those last few days of their ownership.
Martin was Dad’s oldest brother out of seven boys (and four girls) who were born and raised on a Steinbach farm. Their last name is spelled “Kihn” (mine too!), but is pronounced “keen” hence, “Havakeen Lunch.”
The film begins with Martin and Ellen having breakfast, together with Martin’s cousin and friend, Henry Braun. Uncle Martin lets the porridge pot boil over, but no harm done. They sit at the counter where they serve their customers. Aunt Ellen rushes outside to pump gas for an early sale, and that debuts the procession of customers.
The people are just what you’d expect in a small town. The young mechanic type comes in with terribly greasy fingers. He pays up on his $98.19 bill, credit extended to him by Ellen.
A tie-wearing life insurance salesman stops to meet a client, and for coffee and pie. Surprisingly, he doesn’t try to sell Ellen anything as they chat. He is curious, though, as to who bought the place.
An Interlake philosopher king holds court as he sermonizes as to why area farms were economically depressed in those later ’70s. Poorer soil, he correctly assessed. “It’s tough to grow a good crop here,” he added.
A local couple arrives. She bemoans a late government subsidy cheque. Her husband lingers, curses, and munches on a hard-boiled egg while having a cigarette. Only one hand needed — extra dexterity. Ellen listens to their woes.
And the parade of customers, who are also friends, continued. They offered their best wishes, and veiled condolences. It’s clear they’ll miss the Kihns. And with many small-town stops, they’ll miss that chatter as much as they’ll miss the snacks, coffee, and lunch.
Norval Sanders, who later gets introduced to the new owner, drops in. “We’re gonna kinda miss ya – nobody to B.S. with,” he theorizes to Ellen. “Think of all the memories here.”
Meanwhile, Martin and Henry are cleaning up at the back of the store. They load Martin’s half-ton and head off. They must have gone to a local auction barn because later Henry recounted the great prices they obtained for a “hair catcher” bowl ($25 or $30) and also for an Aladdin lamp ($90).
Henry, who has a terrible hobble, works while on his knees as he hands Uncle Martin more “treasures” for another load.
I kept checking Uncle Martin’s on-film words, nuances, and persona to catch any hint of my late father, Alfred. They were 12 years and four brothers apart in age. They looked quite alike with medium height and dark hair.
As for nuances, they laughed the same, and they pretty much walked the same. I had to wait until the very end until I had indisputable evidence of brotherhood.
Uncle Martin and Aunt Ellen had just loaded a dryer onto the pickup. Uncle closed the tailgate and mentioned “Takin’ off for the bush.” Now there was a “Dad” saying. Dad was always figuratively “throwing things in the bush.” That bush must be full.
I don’t remember much about this uncle. I maybe met him at a family wedding in the early ’70s, but I would have been 10. I recall him delivering a truckload of barley to our Basswood farm to pay a small debt he owed to Dad.
Perhaps on that trip, my sister Linda recalls Uncle Martin giving out black licorice pipes to us children. He may have raided Aunt Ellen’s candy inventory. Brother Tim remembers Uncle and Dad talking late night with their rumbling deep voices. Dad quite enjoyed the time spent with his oldest brother, Tim said.
Uncle Martin passed away in May 1982 at age 68. I’m not sure about Ellen.
The film’s director, Elise Swerhone of Winnipeg, emailed back to Tim a few weeks ago, that she loves the old film. “I loved Martin and Ellen. Both of them were salt of the earth. I think of them often.”
The movie remains popular at film festivals, she added. “It’s still one of my favourite films that I have made.”
Havakeen Lunch lives on in Eriksdale. Perhaps the same people still patronize it, and grab a pie and coffee at the lunch counter — and listen for a memory and an echo of a familiar voice.
To view the 27-minute film, search: Havakeen Lunch Vimeo
Mark Kihn writes of his Manitoba roots from his home in Calgary.