Maple Ridge accordion makes long trip to Arctic

In his final days, music restored Emil Gustafson’s life

Kristi Gustafson says the accordion made all the difference in her dad's last days.

Emil Gustafson played the accordion his entire life.

When the Maple Ridge man passed away in April this year, his daughter wanted to honour his memory by having his music live on.

“I didn’t want to just sell it for money, it doesn’t mean anything. But, it’s hard to find someone who plays the button accordion,” said Kristi Gustafson.

But after watching a program on CBC, she found the perfect person; the only problem was he lived in Arviat, Nunavut, 200 kilometres north of Churchill, Man.

Gustafson could hardly remember a time her father was not playing the accordion.

As a child growing up in Kitimat, she remembers him playing the accordion almost every night and at every family gathering.

He returned home at the end of the day, had dinner, watched a bit of TV and then pulled out the accordion.

“I just remember pretty much every weekend people would be over. Dad would be playing his accordion, my brother would be playing his accordion and then there was a couple of people with a banjo or a guitar,” Gustafson said.

Emil was born on June 20, 1920 and learned to play the button accordion as a child. He grew up on a farm in the Qu’Appelle Valley, in Saskatchewan.

His parents had emigrated to Canada from Sweden.

“On the Prairies, back in the day, they used to make their own music and their own fun,” said Gustafson.

Her mother used to tell Gustafson about when they were teenagers, how they would gather at the one-room school house for impromptu dances.

“They would ride their horses there and dad would play his harmonica or the accordion,” she said of her mother’s favourite memory.

Emil loved to play Swedish folk music.

Over time, Emil moved from Saskatchewan to Kitimat and then to Maple Ridge with his wife when he was 65 years old.

By that time he had acquired three button accordions, including one that had belonged to his own great-grandfather.

“Even as he got older, as a senior citizen, he used to take the accordion when the kids would come over and when it got too much, he would go in the bedroom and play,” said Gustafson.

But when he was 85-years-old, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia and a year later he gave up playing.

“He couldn’t remember how to play the old songs that he always played,” explained his daughter.

“He didn’t want to play anymore because he didn’t remember. He could play the beginning of a song maybe or the middle and then he would get fed up,” said Gustafson.

He gave away all of his accordions.

When Emil was 92, he joined his wife at Holyrood Manor which provided a higher level of care.

After a couple of years, Gustafson decided to buy her father, first a harmonica. Then, three weeks before he passed away, she bought him a new accordion.

“When I strapped it on him, he just glowed from head to toe,” said Gustafson.

“And he just could play all of a sudden again. He remembered the music,” she said.

He started entertaining everyone at the home.

If he was playing in his room, residents would congregate there.

“People would come down the hall with their walkers and wheelchairs. Everyone would just be in the hallway doing nothing and all of a sudden there was this beautiful music and they would all come with smiles. A couple of them would be dancing with their walkers. It was so neat to see,” said his daughter.

When Emil passed away, Gustafson decided she wanted to give it to someone who would play it and appreciate it.

That’s when she saw Gunther Kablutsiak on a CBC newscast.

Kablutsiak talked about how he enjoyed listening to the elders play the accordion at the square dance and how he wanted to play like they did.

In October, Gustafson phoned the reporter who put her in touch and he was “just stoked.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever mailed anything to Nunavut,” laughed Gustafson, who had to fly it to Arviat through two airline companies because Canada Post does not deliver there.

She is happy the accordion will be making music again.

Kablutsiak told her he is playing a concert in northern Quebec for Christmas and is bringing her father’s accordion.

“It’s going to be so nice to know that when we sit down to Christmas dinner we know that dad’s accordion is still making music,” said Gustafson.




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