By Viola Enns Woelk
It was a frosty Friday evening and I was getting ready to meet my boyfriend’s colleague and his wife. Eric worked with Cornie in a small 6-physician family practice clinic in a rural community called Winkler - population 6500. Eric and Tena were the first “doctor” couple I was meeting and I was nervous. Would I “fit the mould” – whatever that was? Would we hit it off? Now I smile at those silly wonderings. Truthfully though, that evening was a bit (or a lot) of a testing ground for Cornie and I. Along with navigating our nurse/physician relationship, we were also trying to determine where our long-term plans might land us. That was 29 years ago!
We got married in the spring of 1992 and I moved from Winnipeg to Winkler, Manitoba. Winkler is located about 100 km south of Winnipeg. It’s a rural community in the land of the “big sky”. The sunrises and sunsets are massive in their expanses. The colours of cotton candy, oranges and reds, greet us in the morning and send us off into the night. We have few high rises to block the magnificent view of the vast blue sky. Today, Winkler has a population of about 12,000 living in an 11 km radius. It has developed shopping, education and recreation conveniences. Winkler is surrounded by land that is rich for potato, bean, and corn production. Entrepreneurs are emerging, businesses are known nationally and internationally for their excellence and industries are attempting new and innovative practices. It’s an economic hub for our region. These facts, though important as they are, only fill in part of the story.
The bigger picture of why we have called Winkler home lies in the pieces of a puzzle that have fit together beyond the facts you can read about on Wikipedia.
One of those pieces is place. Place is often thought of as a geographical location. Google maps will pin the location of our 96-bed hospital, Boundary Trails Health Centre, ten minutes down the road from anywhere in town. We love the fact that getting groceries, picking up a pour over, getting our mail, and buying summer vegetables at our favourite farm can all be done in under two hours. Place is also described in terms of attachment. In various ways, attachment has been created through our children’s schools and teachers, coaches and parents, the clinic and hospital. The feeling of place didn’t come overnight. Rather, it grew. And as it grew, so did our sense of community.
The medical group has been instrumental in our feeling of belonging. From the start of Cornie’s career, camaraderie and teamwork created a strong community. When I arrived, (and for years after) medical spouses and partners met monthly - our own “Flipside” group of sorts. Supporting each other in our medical-spouse lives became a lifeline. The greater community provided welcome and safety, engagement, and opportunity. Greetings in the supermarket, acknowledgement by name at the clinic, casual conversations in the playground, all fostered a feeling of being at home.
While place and community speak to connectedness, it’s the deeper relationships that have been most influential. These relationships have given us our deepest sense of belonging. Friends, both from within the community and those who have moved in from elsewhere, have become travel partners, guests at the lake, coffee buddies and gym partners. They have been carpool parents, the “kennel” for our dog, our conversation partners, and those who have walked alongside when life has taken a toll.
In a rural community, relationships though, can come with some complexities. Because we live in such close proximity, and all the physicians work in the same clinic and hospital, when health or other difficult situations arise it can be tricky to navigate as a spouse. One such situation took place a few years ago. A good friend of ours’ was diagnosed with cancer. Since Cornie is one of only a few doctors that work with oncology patients in our area, he was one who received our friend’s chart. I struggled to know how to move along in my role as a friend without compromising Cornie’s position and confidentiality. Sometimes there’s been the assumption because Cornie is the physician, that I, his wife, is aware of a particular condition as well. This assumption can lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings. I am grateful for friends who have given space for these conversations and have embraced our friendship.
With the close proximity of the hospital, comes the temptation to “just pop back”, to check in, because it’s that easy. In the early days, it sometimes felt like it was too easy. And while there are many conveniences and opportunities in our town, there are those we miss from Winnipeg – regular contact with our children and parents, a dinner out, a concert or the theatre, and sometimes vocational opportunities for me. Driving provides the chance for Cornie and I to connect and just get out of town. While the community has made us feel at home, at times it feels a little tight. Boundaries can be difficult to establish. Encountering medical questions in the grocery aisle, phone calls at home (thankfully that has changed a great deal over the last 29 years), or thoughts related to the COVID that challenge conventional thinking have sometimes made rural life feel a little stifling. Removing ourselves or hiding from some of these issues are certainly more difficult when one is surrounded by close-ness.
But when I look back on twenty-nine years, I am grateful for the sense of place and community we have in Winkler. It has been our home, our place of belonging. I am so grateful for the “first dinner”. Eric and Tena became the first of our good friends, and represent many friendships that continue to hold our community together.
BIO: Viola Enns Woelk lives with her husband, Cornie, in the growing rural community of Winkler in southern Manitoba. She received a Bachelor of Theology from Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University), and trained as a registered nurse at Grace Hospital School of Nursing. In the 28 years she has lived in Winkler, Viola has been involved in many facets of the community, from piano teaching and choir accompanying, to leadership roles both locally and provincially. Her most recent projects are with the Canadian Virtual Hospice (informally gathering information about experiences regarding professional caregiver grief) and working with the Winkler Community Foundation in the area of supporting young adults in their post secondary education pursuits. Viola’s greatest joys come from spending time with her 3 adult children and their partners, cooking & travelling with Cornie, connecting with friends, a great cup of coffee, quilting, gardening, being active and relaxing at the lake.
Photo Credit: Dr. C. Woelk