Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Under the stoic arms of gnarled old trees, a young boy pedals his bike along the footpath, issuing wordless yelps of excitement as he goes, as if spurring on an invisible steed. His mother walks behind him, hand poised an inch from his back, tenderly ready to steady if needed. It’s not; he’s got this. He’s got it.
The bike has red training wheels, and red rims around its tires, and the boy’s baseball cap is also red. I wonder if red is his favourite colour. I wonder if he comes down here often like this, in the company of his mother and also a gaggle of kids of close but varying ages, many with bikes and, judging by diverse ethnicities, not all related.
I wonder if he’ll remember this park when he’s grown.
If you’re waiting for a big reveal to this picture — a headline, a conflict, something to give context to make it worthy of news — well, there won’t be one. These are just scenes from a park on one night in July 2020, when it wasn’t too hot and wasn’t too cold. Just a nice summer night, embraced by old branches and kissed by a breeze.
On the park’s northern edge, it bends down toward the river. Near where it bends, a boy stands in the splash pad in shorts and a T-shirt, face turned up to the fall of water that splashes over his eyes. Nearby, another child kneels in a sandbox. Off to the side, a trio of kids reluctantly come off the swings as their father coaxes them home.
"We’re going," he calls out, and they dutifully fall in line behind him and their mother.
In the heart of the park, a couple is playing a game they’ve set up. Ladder toss, it’s called, as they throw balls tied together with string around horizontal rungs, trying to get them to wrap around. The kids on bikes begin to gather around them, watching intently, intrigued by this new thing in their world.
As the couple finishes one round, the kids hover around the game’s ladder, leaning in to see how it’s done. The kids are an engaged audience: they follow every throw. They cheer each made shot. One by one, more kids come over to watch, until there are six or seven bouncing on their heels as they watch the thrilling scene.
The breeze brings snippets of their conversation, the couple explaining to the kids the game’s points system.
Tucked between River Avenue and the Assiniboine River, this is Fort Rouge Park, one of Winnipeg’s oldest and, perhaps, its most beautiful. Old brick frames old trees, a story of more than a century of urban life. Once, this park had a greenhouse, but that’s long gone. Sometimes people sleep here, camping close to the river and away from prying eyes, but during the day it mostly belongs to children.
Behind me, a tiny bunny with a tail like a wisp of cloud hops cautiously out from the bushes. It watches me for a few moments and, having had its fill of that, darts back under the broad frond of some low-sitting plant. It occurs to me I don’t even know the plant’s name. Then again, neither does the bunny, but it’s not concerned.
The bunny is small, likely a 2020 edition, brand-new to the world but part of a grand Osborne Village bunny tradition. This must be a nice spot for bunnies, at least for now. The apartment blocks to the east are empty, waiting to be torn down to make way for new buildings. The construction will likely send the bunnies scattering to a new home.
Minutes pass slowly, but even slow things pile up. On the other side of the river, the sunset pipes a crescent of red and orange and yellow light along the tops of the trees. The ladder-toss couple starts packing up their game. Another woman, likely one of the kids’ mothers, comes over to greet them; they chat for a while, and then the couple is gone.
The kids get back on their bikes again, wheels squeaking around the park. It’s a nice size, this one, in that it’s small enough that kids can have the run of it without getting too far, without getting out of sight. I’m in awe of their comfort here, the confidence with which they race through the grass, making a game of it, making new friends.
It’s their world, really. They’ve made their own little society here, with its own delights and patterns of engagement. I wonder at what point in time we forget how to do that. At what point we become closed to adventure. At what point we stop recognizing friends as those who are simply out in the world with us, together.
When people say Osborne Village has lost its character, they are forgetting about this. Or maybe they never knew. But what is more important to a city’s blood; a pub, or a place for young joy to take root? A shop, or a space under trees where play structures become castles and and bikes become steeds?
The birds are singing to each other now. Quiet songs, evening songs. The Village is beginning its transformation from day to night. A trio of people in their 20s zoom past on bikes, laughing loudly; the man in front looks over and tips his ballcap at me which, in the moment, seems oddly charming.
On the play structure nearby, a mom readies her son to go home. She turns to a tiny girl, no more than three years old, who has been cavorting with them on the slide. "Nice to meet you," the mom says, bending a little to get closer. The girl runs off to find another adventure, squealing happily in her perfect little dress.
There is nothing special about this, and there is nothing less special.
This is all I know: for a few hours here, at the edge of evening on an otherwise unremarkable day in July 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an ongoing wave of global protest, in the middle of unrest and dysfunction and injustice and dislocation, there is still this. There is always this. A place to remember the reason we try.
On the other side of the river, the piping of yellow sunlight slips at last behind the tops of the trees. A dimness falls over the park, though not yet a darkness, it is still easy to see. The mosquitoes emerge in earnest now, finding the rips in my jeans to eagerly feast on bared knees. I scratch and smack and don’t even begrudge them.
We’re all doing just what we’ve learned how to do. We’re all doing just what we know to get by.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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