We used to "hitch" outside her home. It had nothing to do with her but everything to do with the intersection of Minerva and Centre streets. In winter, cars had to come to a full halt at the stop signs on Minerva before pulling out onto Centre and gunning the engine to make it up the steep hill heading toward the town line. In winter, this meant spinning tires, even if they had chains on, and since this was in the days before the streets were salted, a fresh snowfall would leave the backstreets smooth, hard and slippery until the sander got around to them.
My two best friends, Eric Ruby and Brent Munroe - my accomplices in the paper bag caper - would hide with me in the bushes and wait until a car slowed at the corner. Fresh snow also meant snow-covered windows, something that drivers rarely bothered to brush off apart from a large enough peephole in the windshield. We would hurry to the back of the car and crouch down, holding fast to the back bumpers. We wore mukluks (grey leather winter moccasins with no tread), and they slipped effortlessly over the smooth surface as the cars - especially those with jangling chains wrapped around the rear tires - picked up speed. We'd hitch up the hill to Florence Street and then catch rides back down on cars that had to slow for the stop signs on Florence. Halfway down the hill, we'd let go and see who could skid the farthest, sometimes covering several blocks on the long hill - three kids sitting happily back on their heels as they flew down the hill at 40 kilometres an hour or more. If another car was coming fast up the hill, the wise thing to do was bail out into the opposite snowbank.
Brent and I bailed just this way one dark evening, and when I crawled back out of the snowbank I was struck right across the side of my head by Winnie Trainor's umbrella. She'd been watching from her kitchen window and had dressed and come out to put an end to such "nonsense." She hit me once, twice, and as I crouched, continued to beat on my back with the big, black, still-furled umbrella, pausing only to whack Brent a couple of times as he dived and slid on his mukluks out of reach and quickly slipped away into the dark night. "Your mother is going to hear about this, young man!"
But I was smarter than Winnie. I raced home, in tears, and immediately confessed everything before Miss Winnifred Trainor could call, naturally blaming most of the sorry episode on Brent.
But Miss Trainor proved to be even smarter.
The phone never rang.
I have spent half a century trying to square the Winnie I knew slightly with the Winnie I could know even less - the young Winnie who fell in love with Tom Thomson and, I have to believe, with whom Tom Thomson fell in love. That the two Winnies seem so different should come as no surprise, as I myself am much different from who I was as a boy, when she died. I carry this image of her as dark, large, sharp-tongued eccentric, to be feared, yet capable of great charm and surprising humour when she chose to deploy those characteristics. I have sought out the few available photographs of her as a young woman: tall, slim of waist; perfectly erect; a smile teasing her lips; high cheekbones; soft, dark eyes that seem to challenge and welcome the world at the same time, the barely tamed dark hair.
There is no hurt yet in those eyes: These photographs were all taken before the summer of 1917. Yet in knowing what was to come, it is impossible look at the pictures of young Winnie and not feel great sadness for her.
Adapted from Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson. Copyright © 2010 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.