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The Wisdom of Chestermere’s Umarells

preston umarells-2-1


My grandfather retired to the small community of Herbert, Saskatchewan where he lived for about 20 years before passing away. He had spent years farming south of Herbert and spent most of his days on a tractor, in the shop, or out tending to cattle. In Herbert, though, he found a new occupation: loitering down at the mechanic’s shop and gas station. There, on most days, you might find my grandpa Walter and a few other retired men sipping on coffee, sharing their thoughts about local politics, telling old farm stories, and leaning over the shoulders of the mechanics to offer their thoughts about repairs. 

In Italy there is a term of endearment for these men: Umarells. It is a bolognese word for a “cute or odd little man,” often retired, who spends their days watching others work. I can picture it easily. They gather at construction sites, often road work projects, with their hands folded behind their backs, caps tilted to one side, commenting on what’s going on. Umarells might offer suggestions to the construction workers, or opinions about how it was once done, or could be done better. They are up early and out the door into their community, and are a special part of Italian culture.

What is true in parts of Italy is true today. My grandpa was a kind of umarell, leaning over the mechanics shoulder, happy to offer his opinion and stories. I remember him telling me about every clutch of every tractor he ever owned, and which ones were truly the best kinds of clutches. You can find a group of retired men at Tim Hortons in Chestermere, many of whom I know and love, who gather to tell their stories, talk about what they know going on at City Hall, and sharing bits of information they’ve gathered over the week. In the park, and near a gas station on nice days I see another group of retired men watching the world go by, no doubt long time friends.

Umarells are a vital part of a community. Their years of experience mean that they have ideas that they hope to share, and a few good stories. While I’m sure construction workers in Italy or the mechanic in Herbert may have sighed under the watchful eyes of the retired men offering their opinions on their labours, even they might understand the value of wisdom passed along. 

The Umarells of Chestermere can shape the culture of our city. Their ideas, complaints, stories, or encouragements, may happen from the sidelines while others are up to their necks in work, but we can listen and learn. Umarells are an active and attentive presence in our city, “passionate pensioners,” as the Italians calls them. They care deeply and see our city from a different perspective. 

Our work is to see and meet again with those who are retired, and care, for our city. I wish I could turn back time and go spend an afternoon with my grandpa drinking black mechanic shop coffee and hearing his stories again. Today I can find ways to meet with my retired neighbours. I can sit on a porch, make a call, or head over to Tim Hortons and pull up a chair. If there’s one thing that’s true about umarells, it’s that all are welcome to join.

We can learn from each other and perhaps especially from the umarells, hands clasped behind their back, leaning over our city with a story to share. Their insights, and friendship, might be the wisdom we need in these challenging days.

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About the author

Preston Pouteaux

Preston Pouteaux

Preston is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere and experiments mostly in the intersection of faith and neighbourhood. Into the Neighbourhood explores how we all contribute to creating a healthy and vibrant community. Preston is also a beekeeper; a reminder that small things make a big difference.

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