WRITERS SERIES

Agnes Bardal Comack

Published On:
November 23, 2020

When Agnes Bardal Comack was just 10 or 11, her mother purchased greeting cards from a local Icelandic woman for Agnes and her sister Margret and had them inscribed with their names. It was the 1930s and the height of the Depression, and Agnes’s mother wanted to support a fellow Icelander trying to make some extra money. Those greeting cards were the catalyst for Agnes’s lifelong practice of letter writing, from cards and notes at holidays and birthdays to letters home from nurses’ training, to the now nearly 400 Christmas cards she sends out every year. At age 99, Agnes truly appreciates the value of staying connected and documenting your stories through the written word.

A collection of Agnes' letters from her siblings and parents

“I started when I was a kid, a little kid,” Agnes said. “In the Winnipeg Free Press they had a page in Saturday’s paper for kids and you had pen pals. I had a pen pal that lived over in the North End in Winnipeg. I never did see her and eventually she stopped writing, but she was my first pen pal. I’ve always been a letter writer and I’ve always kept letters. I’ve got letters from everyone of my siblings, from my mother and dad.” Both of Agnes’s parents were avid letter writers, as were many people at the time. Without the benefit of electronic communication, letters were the way to stay in touch. Handwritten letters are also so much more personal than emails or text-based communication. “With letters you’ve got their handwriting, which is significant. Now it’s all typewritten and you lose that character,” she explains. “When I look at all my siblings’ handwriting, it’s just nice to look at — you can see them, you know?”

"With letters you’ve got their handwriting, which is significant. Now it’s all typewritten and you lose that character."

Agnes started nurses’ training in September 1940, a month after she turned 19. She graduated in 1943 and spent a number of years nursing at military hospitals in Vancouver, BC and Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC and then back in Winnipeg at the Deer Lodge Hospital, where she met her husband, Hugh Comack, who had served overseas. It was during her time nursing that she wrote letters to her parents and siblings — she had eleven brothers and sisters — detailing her experiences.

Agnes Bardal Comack

One letter in particular details the experience in treating POWs: “I’m so happy that I wrote that letter to my Dad, describing these boys coming home from overseas. And I think that letter is so important because young people today see old vets, and they can’t picture them as kids,” she said. “I remember sitting on the streetcar during the War and thinking, ‘Oh all the guys are gone, there are no young guys around’. I remember that was so shocking to me, realizing they had all gone.” Agnes nursed in hospitals for men who had come back from the horrors of the Second World War. “They were kids, some were 18 with an arm and a leg off. Others were paralyzed from the waist down with bullet wounds in their spine. It was the most remarkable thing I did in nursing. I’m so glad I did it.”

The letter Agnes wrote home to her father, August 30, 1944

Excerpts from Agnes's letter to her father while nursing at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC:

"It's surprising the number of young fellows we have in here. Practically all of them are back from England. Most are in their early 20s and a few are just 19. I guess they got [tuberculosis] from the dampness in England - having poor food and being too tired all the time. ... This week they are starting to operate on them - removing ribs. When they're finished eighteen of them will have a permanently collapsed lung."
"Most of the cases are Pulmonary TB but we have about six young French kids with TB spines. They have to stay flat on their backs in body casts for about a year or more. But they are about the nicest kids on the ward. They always managed to have their own good time. One has a violin and plays old time music and French songs - all by ear and flat on his back. He sure is good. Another has a ukulele, so they do alright."
"We have a couple of veterans who are dying and two young fellows who hemorrhage every so often. We also have a German prisoner of war and are getting another one tomorrow a.m. The one we have now is a really good fellow. He's about 48 so I don't think he's much of a Nazi or he wouldn't get along with us so well. ... Evidently the younger fellows are the ones who are really nasty. They are the ones who have been born and brought up as Nazis."
"A good many of the cases here are neural cases. A lot are from the last war - still trying to figure out who they are and where they came from. But evidently there are many more neural cases from this war than from the last one. I've seen a lot of boys from both here and Vancouver who are just a bundle of nerves. Some were off torpedoed ships and some from the battle areas. ... The boys from the battle areas are really a sorry sight. Some that just came back were shell shocked. One fellow was saying practically all his outfit were shell shocked. They were under siege in Italy and the guns had been going for days so their brains had become accustomed to the noise but suddenly the guns all stopped at once and the sudden quiet was almost more than they could stand."
"Well it almost brings a lump in your throat to see all these young kids coming over to the dining room on their crutches. And yet they're all so cheerful. They crack jokes and laugh about their stumps. One guy was telling me coming back on the boat they used to play games and stuff to keep them amused. One big event was a race - the left legged kids against the right legged kids. Well anyway it's kind of nice to see how well they're able to take it."

Growing up, Agnes journaled sporadically, and even into her adulthood she kept a diary. From 1968 to 1987, she wrote about her daily activities, noting that in reading back on them now, “at the end of every day I write ‘I’m so tired.’” The wife of a Brigadier General and mother of four children, Agnes’s household was the site of a lot of action. “We were entertaining, and when you entertain you make all the hors d’oeuvres, I cleaned the house, and I was working like a dog,” she said. “I entertained two Lieutenant Governors in the house. All military people, I didn’t know many of them, all these strangers coming to the door and trying to remember who they were.” But writing in a diary wasn’t enough for Agnes. A letter or card has a different purpose, one that was more motivating for her: “You’re thinking of communication, a different kind, when you’re writing a letter.”

Agnes and Hugh Comack

Meeting all of these new people through the militia led to the growth of Agnes’s Christmas card list. “I kept in touch with the people Hugh worked with,” she said. “If we were entertained by somebody, I’d write them a thank you note. I always wrote thank you notes. And then they’d respond, and something would just click.” Agnes does more than simply sign a store-bought Christmas card each year, though. She draws the image for her card, has them printed, writes a personal note in each one, and includes a form letter that outlines the goings on of the past year. The whole process takes ten weeks, and she sends out nearly 400 cards each Christmas. “Every one of my cards has a note in it. Some are longer than others, but they’re all personal notes, because I read what they’ve written me last year,” she explains. “I can’t stand people that just sign their name. What’s the sense? All you’re telling me is that you’re still alive.”

“I can’t stand people that just sign their name. What’s the sense? All you’re telling me is that you’re still alive.”

Agnes addressing her Christmas cards

In addition to letter writing, Agnes writes stories about her experiences growing up as an Icelander in Winnipeg in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Her daughter Elizabeth saw a story that a Ukrainian woman had written about her mother in the Manitoba Women’s Newspaper (what is now Herizons Magazine) and suggested that Agnes write about her own mother, Margret Ingibjorg Olafsdottir. She did, and the story was published. She received a call from Dr. P.H.T. Thorlakson, the Chief Surgeon at the Winnipeg General Hospital, who had read her piece and told her, “It’s about time something was written about your mother.” That call motivated her to continue sharing her stories. Her first piece was picked up by the local Icelandic newspaper, the Lögberg-Heimskringla, and the Canadian Icelandic Magazine. Her next piece was the story of her father, Arinbjorn Sigurgeirsson Bardal. “I wrote about my Dad, and they published it. So, I thought, ‘Well, I’d better write about the house I grew up in’, and then on and on it went, and things happened, and I’d write about it.”

Agnes's childhood home in North Kildonan, Winnipeg

Agnes has had over 20 of her pieces published — stories of growing up in North Kildonan, life as the youngest daughter of Icelandic immigrants, getting into mischief with her sister, Margret, and living in a big house on the bank of the Red River. “I feel I’ve had a charmed life. I grew up in that beautiful home,” she said. “They bought it the year I was born and sold it when I was 21 years old. I’m the only one in the family that had that period, from birth to 21, in that house. Others moved in when they were older or moved out when they were teenagers to go to a school in the city. That home was fantastic. Living on the riverbank, I learned to swim in the river.” Agnes even compiled a book of her writing, Knowing Your Connections, that includes biographies of her parents and siblings, to help keep those memories and experiences alive.

A selection of Agnes's clippings and her book, Knowing Your Connections

Up until COVID-19 recently put a stop to visitors, Agnes’s residence was involved in a program that brought young schoolkids to visit. For the past nine years Agnes has met with these kids to chat and play games. She became pen pals with one little boy last year, and both he and his older sister still write Agnes letters, detailing what they do for fun and asking questions about what she’s been knitting or if she’s ever been camping.

Letters from a young pen pal

No matter who she’s writing to, though, it’s in staying in touch with people that helps to keep feelings of loneliness at bay. Agnes is not only mindful of the other residents in her assisted-living residence who may benefit from a note or a card but reminds everyone to reach out to others: “The trick is to think of other people, and people who are worse off than you are. That solves all your problems. If you do that, you forget about yourself.”