Pandora’s Box

It never occurred to me when I hurried through the library doors that the myth of Pandora’s Box could be anything but a myth, but as sure as the legend of Pandora exists, what happened at the Edmonton library surprised me—especially me—even if I am from the city.

According to Greek myth, Pandora was the first mortal woman.  One day, she was given a small box as a gift from the Greek Gods—as a wedding gift—but was told never to open it.  However, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her and she succumbed to temptation.  She was horrified when all the evils of the world—hate, anger, sickness, poverty, and every bad thing you could imagine—flew out of the box.  Realizing her mistake, she shut the box before Hope, the final endowment, was released.

*****

I enjoy the library and everything it represents: it’s a place for study and research, with codes of etiquette that people are expected to obey, such as preserving a serene environment within its walls.

At the St. Anthony town library, I can walk in, greet the lady behind the counter, and search the shelves for books and movies, often becoming so absorbed that I overlook anything else happening around me.  But I can’t say the same for the Edmonton library, which is a beehive of activity with people of all ages passing through its doors at all times of the day.  So, with that in mind, I waited at the library door at opening time, thinking surely that most of the patrons would scramble for the computers, which they did.  My idea was to get to the DVDs, choose one or two, and skedaddle before anyone else moved in.

009

The DVD section is downstairs, with movies neatly cataloged on shelves, divided into sections and running more than half the length of the library, with hundreds of DVDs to choose from.

But, just as I began to sort through one particular section, unbeknownst to me, the lid of Pandora’s Box was creaking open.

I heard her before I saw her.  Her approach was not unlike the approach of a thundercloud passing in front of the sun, or like the chill one feels when a cellar door opens.  A death-rattle cough and loud sniffles broke the silence as she rounded the corner.  I flinched as she moved right towards the Classics section of DVDs where I stood.  Without a by-your-leave, she muscled her way in and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me, and then started pulling handfuls of movies off the shelves and looking them over.  Annoyed, I looked pointedly at her and said, “There are plenty of DVD movies on all the other shelves.”

Judging from her height and weight, she might have grabbed me and shelved me with the same force she was demonstrating with the DVDs, but I hadn’t finished looking through that particular section, and I decided to stand my ground.

“I’m sick!” she barked, obviously assuming the best defense was an offence.

“Then you should be home in bed,” I suggested, still attempting to search the movies.

She grabbed another handful of DVDs and shuffled through them like a card shark.  “I can’t lie in bed all weekend without some movies!” she hurled at me between coughs and sniffles.

“But I’m looking through this section,” I argued, “Why don’t you try that section over there,” pointing to long rows of DVDs stretching all the way to the end of the wall.

010

“You’re rude!” she shrilled loudly, “This isn’t some grocery store line-up, you know!  I don’t have to wait my turn!”

“Can’t you wait just five minutes while I choose my DVDs?” I challenged, noting that a male librarian, shelving books a little further down, was retreating to a safer distance.

“You’re not polite!” she cried, jabbing a finger in my direction. The force of her voice notched up the lid on this particular Pandora’s Box of accusations.

I pulled out Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park, clasping them to my chest like armor and delivered my final argument.  “So, even though I was here first, and asked you to kindly wait, I’m supposed to step aside and let you take over, is that it?”

She was summoning another breath to deliver her final tirade—very likely chock-full of spite, not to mention spit—as I brushed past her and the male librarian–and hurried up the stairs and out of the library.

*****

If Hope was the only thing that remained when Pandora snapped the lid shut on the box— then my dearest hope is that I never meet that woman again!

*****

You can take the girl out of the city but, when it comes to standing your ground at the library, you can’t always take the city out of the girl.

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Don’t spill the coffee

During March and April it’s Roll Up the Rim to Win time and, as I watch local people going into Tim Horton’s and coming out with bright red cups in their hands, it takes me back to a time when I nearly wrote off a minivan—and my family—just for the sake of a cup of coffee.

Roll up the Rim to Win (1) Roll up the Rim to Win (2)

We were visiting family in Southport, near Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, in the spring of 1990.  Our three boys, Paul, James and Ryan, were six, five and three respectively.  My mom had come from Winnipeg to visit with the boys and Dan’s infant daughter, Katie.

Winter doesn’t hang on in southern Manitoba the way it does in northern Newfoundland, mainly because the prairies are flat and there’s really nowhere for the snow to collect.  So, once winter has blown herself out and the mercury has eased up above the zero mark the sun gains strength and the snow melts in record time.  Snow gives way to crocuses, breezes blow softly across the prairie sands, and fragile blades of grass begin to brighten the colourless landscape.

Coffee-drinking is in our family’s DNA.  I don’t know if it comes down through my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors or through the English ancestors on my dad’s side, but it is certainly well-established.  We also like tea, but coffee is the beverage of choice, especially if there’s a Tim Hortons nearby.

One Saturday morning we all piled into the van: Len, Mom, my brother Dan, Paul, James, Ryan, Katie, and me.  We drove from Southport to Portage La Prairie to do a little grocery shopping.  On the return trip we stopped at Tim Hortons to pick up a tray of three large coffees, a tea for Len, and a box of donuts, and I got behind the wheel to drive.  Dan got in the front passenger seat while Len and Mom sat in the back seat to keep an eye on the squiggly-wiggly children.  I carefully placed the tray of beverages on the console between the seats and buckled my seatbelt.

It takes about ten minutes to drive from Portage to Southport, and as we drove along we all chatted and laughed and looked out the windows at the farmland scrolling by on either side of the road.  As we approached Southport, row-on-row of military housing emerged from a mirage of heat waves.

One of the boys began to whine, “I have to pee.  I have to pee now!” and began kicking the back of the driver’s seat in desperation.  Simultaneously, a bumblebee drifted in through an open window and made for the back of the van, where the children began to scream and flail their arms and legs in panic.

And that’s when I made the decision that nearly cost us our lives.

With only a minute to go till we reached the house, I pressed down on the accelerator and sped up, thinking it would be quicker and safer to get home and get the kids out of the van rather than stop on the side of the road.  I thought surely the child in need of a potty could hold it for one more minute and surely the bumblebee couldn’t inflict that much damage in a matter of a few seconds.  Then I remembered that my brother Dan was dangerously allergic to bee stings.

Down went the gas pedal as the screams in the back grew louder.

I took the next turn a little fast—on two wheels I think—and the bright roll up the rim to win cups in the tray slid towards the floor.  I guess you could say everything tipped at that moment and, in a flash, I reached over and grabbed at the tray of coffee, hoping to save it.  Dan yelled, “Watch the ditch!”  I let go of the coffee tray and spun the wheel so that the van righted itself, barely staying on the road.  I lurched to a halt in the driveway, shut off the ignition, and drew in deep breaths.

Dan looked across at me, deadpan, and said, “You grabbed at the tray of coffee—willing to sacrifice a $20,000 minivan, your mother, your brother, your husband, your children, and my daughter—for four Tim Horton drinks?”

I suppose there is something to be said for the Newfoundland tradition of having tea at the kitchen table, even if you don’t win a prize.

It could save your life.

Batten down the hatches, a nor’easter is coming

I’m hoping the people at NorPen Waste Management in St. Anthony don’t think we’re intentionally littering the landscape with non-biodegradable products, because we’re not.  It’s just that my husband, for all his knowledge about the wind, can’t seem to keep his snow blower covered longer than a week or two.

Here in Newfoundland the direction and velocity of the wind can generate some interesting discussions, but where I grew up, surrounded most of my life by tall buildings, there was no need to understand the weather at all.  There, the most damage the wind ever did was whip my hair into disarray or turn a lawn chair upside down.

Len grew up hearing about the wind on a daily basis; his family relied on the weather for their livelihood.  So, when we moved to Ship Cove a few years ago, he’d say things like, “The wind is westerly today; that means cold, clear weather.”  On another day he’d say, “Batten down the hatches, a nor’easter is coming.”  Wind from the east would likely bring a storm, and a southerly wind would bring mild, wet weather.  No sooner were the words out of his mouth than I had forgotten them; after all, what did the wind have to do with me?

We live close to the shore on the west side of Sacred Bay.  Across the bay lies L’Anse aux Meadows with its great, towering headland and a sand bar jutting into the ocean called Colbourne’s Point.  Len’s sister Eliza and husband, Winston, live on Colbourne’s Point.  One day Len looked at our flag rippling straight out from the pole and said, “The wind is westerly today.”  He put a bag of garbage on the side of the road and went off to work.  An hour later, I found a bag full of Styrofoam in the basement and put it beside the other bag on the side of the road.   A minute later I looked and it was gone.  I looked up the road, I looked down the road, I scoured the beach, and I searched the fields and ditches alongside our property.  Gone!

Winston found the bag of Styrofoam a day later on Colbourne’s  Point.  It had tumbled across the open water to the other side of the bay!

But that’s nothing, sure, compared to what happened to our tarp last winter.  Len parked our snow blower alongside the house when there was a particularly strong westerly wind.  It was Sunday, just after dinner, and the sun was shining and glinting off the pack-ice on the bay.  Len looked out the window and spotted the same sun shining and glinting off our black-and-silver snow blower tarp as it bounced over the ice like a giant bat, headed for Harbour Island.  With an exclamation he picked up the phone and dialled Guy Hurley, who lived just down the road, and in a matter of minutes Len and Guy were on a snowmobile in hot pursuit of the runaway tarp.  A group of Sunday snowmobilers on top of Graveyard Hill spotted the drama and joined the chase.  Amy and I watched from the shoreline while they snaked across the ice but the ski-doos were no match for the pack-ice, or the tarp which tumbled merrily ahead of them, zigzagging between Cape Bauld and Little Sacred Island as if it couldn’t quite make up its mind where to go.  Guy and Len returned without the tarp.

“The way I see it,” said Len, “there’s a harp seal out there using my tarp as a shelter.”

I can’t say how many times this past year have I heard him mutter, “Some harp has my tarp,” while he looked out at Cape Bauld.

Len ordered a new glossy black tarp this year from Sears and tied it on, but it only lasted a week.  At the first big storm, he untied it, folded it, and laid it down on the bridge while he cleared the driveway.  The nor’ east wind swept in and snatched it away.  When he came into the house it was still blowing a gale and the night was awhirl with snow.  He couldn’t even look me in the eye.  “My tarp’s gone,” he said.

Luckily, a Good Samaritan found the tarp and brought it back a week later, but it leaves me wondering—if you can take the boy out of the outport, can you take the outport out of the boy?  I’m beginning to think it’s entirely possible.

Baby program an effective method of birth control

“Don’t expect any grandchildren from me!” yelled my 16 year-old daughter.

We were parked on the side of the road, wind blowing, rain pelting on the roof, rush-hour traffic whizzing by on route 430.  Amy had the back door of the car open and she was trying to wrestle the baby out of the car seat with no luck, and the baby had just reached the screaming stage.

I think it is safe to say that, at that moment, I really didn’t want a grandchild anyway.

“It’s not scanning!” cried my daughter, waving her hand over the baby and getting no results.  I wasn’t sure what the results were supposed to be, but judging from the look on her face, they weren’t happening.

Never, in all my child-rearing years, had I ever waved my hand over a baby and expected it to stop crying.

“I can’t get the baby out!” she yelled.  “This is going to be a ‘missed care’ and I’m going to fail!”  I elbowed her aside and unfastened the seatbelt and the harness.  The baby’s cries were pitiful, but they were as nothing compared to what would happen next.  I took hold of the baby and lifted it out, handing it to my daughter.  It began to scream and, I must confess, so did she.  “You didn’t support its head!” she yelled.  “Its neck is probably broken!”

Talk about trauma.

The Tories have come up with a plan to encourage Newfoundlanders to have more children.  They are paying $1000 per baby and a parental leave subsidy of $100 per month added to EI insurance to sweeten the deal.  It sounds good, but I’m about to let you in on a little secret; the government’s bid to increase the population may never fly, owing to the Baby Think It Over Program introduced into Newfoundland high schools.  If my daughter’s weekend experience is any indicator, the RealCare Baby II—a realistic infant simulator—is at sixes and sevens with the Tory’s aim to encourage more births.

The Baby Think It Over program was implemented to help students make educated decisions about child rearing.  It works to a point, but only to a point.  For instance, when I first heard the baby cry, all the old nurturing instincts flooded back, until I took the baby in my arms.  That’s when the reality hit; this ‘baby’ was no more than an intractable doll.  A real baby is soft and flexible and nestles its downy head into the crook of a parent’s shoulder; a real baby interacts with the caregiver; cooing, smiling, and making eye contact.  Amy found this baby to be all drudgery with few rewards.  “It’s just a machine,” she protested, although I’m willing to bet it might have mollified her somewhat if she had received a government cheque in the amount of $1000.   

The baby’s cries were very real; when she arrived there were plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from friends and relatives.  Even the cat was interested; she tried to help the baby by lying down beside it and purring and flexing her claws while it had its bottle, and to be fair,  it sounded exactly like a nursing infant; when it was rocked, it murmured and cooed, reminding us of the sounds our own children made.  We even gave her a name, Annabel Lee, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  “It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel Lee; and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.”

Wherever we went, we took Annabel Lee with us, but never was she more colicky than on Thanksgiving Sunday when we took her to turkey dinner at her uncle and aunt’s.  She wasn’t about to let Amy enjoy the meal.  She cried for her bottle; she cried for a burp; she cried for a diaper change, she cried to be rocked, and, as we were going out the door, she cried even more lustily, forcing Amy’s uncle to remark, “That’s one cross youngster!”  Interestingly enough, though, the baby barely squawked at the church service that followed.

Danny Williams has been heard to protest, “We can’t be in a situation where our population is shrinking,” but I’m thinking Mr. Williams hasn’t heard about this Program; otherwise, he might have consigned Baby Think It Over to the same sad fate as Poe’s Annabel Lee.

As sure as you’re born, this program is probably the most effective form of birth control in Newfoundland today.

Who’s Counting?

Up ahead of me, legs hammering the road like pistons, antlers like tree branches raking the air, the morning sun shining off his burnished coat, his beard swinging back and forth with each toss of his head, and a rogue eye glancing back at me over his shoulder as he trots along the yellow line, Mr. Moose is on the loose, and he has no plans to share the road with me, or to let me drive by.  Could it be that he’s waiting for me to turn on my signal light before he lets me pass?

One of the most common questions directed at me since I moved to the northern peninsula is, “Seen ‘ere moose today?”  It’s not a hard question for me to answer; I just don’t see why it matters how many moose are out there, and I don’t understand the Newfoundlander’s fascination with an animal that can pester the wits out of people by trotting up the center of the road and defying drivers to pass.  Perhaps it has everything to do with something I heard someone say not long ago.  “He’ll be a great one to get in the fall.”  Is it possible that, when people are counting, they’re actually counting moose steaks rather than moose?

I’ve discovered that many Newfoundlanders take their moose sightings very seriously and that the whole tide of a conversation can be diverted in the blink of an eye by calmly stating, “I saw 87 moose today.”  Guaranteed, Buddy saw at least a dozen more than that, even though he was one car-length behind me at the time.

So, when it comes to moose, I know people are counting, but the question that begs to be answered is, why are they counting, and why does it matter?

In the early 1960s, my dad drove a 1952 Chevy 4-door sedan, and every summer our family took a vacation across the prairies.  Back then, the old car seemed as big as a boat; I know, because my parents, plus all six kids, a dog, and two cats fit nicely inside.  My favourite spot in the old blue Chevy was up on the ledge by the back window, where I could lie for hours watching the dust clouds behind us and the clouds of grasshoppers in front.  When boredom struck, as it occasionally did, one of us would ask, “How many more minutes till we get there?” And my dad would say, “There are 300 miles to go, and 26 telephone poles per mile.  Just count the telephone poles and that should give you some idea of how long it will take.”  Dad was just giving us something to divert our attention from the long hours that lay ahead because, other than the occasional sighting of a herd of antelope, there was very little to speculate about while crossing the prairies.

So, we counted telephone poles and became very good at it.

The way I see it, this moose-counting thing has got to be more fiction than fact.  I’ve lived on the island three years, and I have yet to see the sheer numbers of moose that are supposed to be out there along the side of the road.  I’ve traveled along the roads at dawn, at dusk, and times in between, and the most moose I’ve seen on any trip is a couple dozen.  I’m beginning to think people claiming to see large numbers of moose are really counting legs instead of the number of animals, and really, who can blame them?  One moose on a slippery road, propelling itself out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, legs flailing like chunks of wood falling off the back end of a truck, is sure to make a person think he or she is seeing more than one moose; I know; it happened to me.  One second a collision was imminent, the next, Mr. Moose was gone in a mad flurry of hooves and legs and ugly snout, tearing off through the brush like a scalded cat.

So, when it comes to counting, here’s my advice (although I know no self-respecting Newfoundlander will ever heed it).  Count telephone poles.  I guarantee you’ll get the numbers right every time and, because telephone poles ‘stay where they’re to,’ you won’t have to share the road with them, or tell lies to outdo Buddy.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t expect her to swallow all the ‘moose tales’ circulating in outport Newfoundland.  At least, not yet.

Double Line? What double line?

Learning to drive in St. Anthony is a far cry from learning to drive in Toronto.  My son Ryan learned to drive in Toronto, and my daughter Amy, who just got her beginner’s license, is learning to drive in St. Anthony, but regardless of where they learn to drive, the fear-factor of sitting in the passenger seat and yielding control of the car to a teenager takes nerve.

To demonstrate my point, I read in a Toronto newspaper of a teenage girl who traumatized a number of people when she showed up to complete the final portion of her driving test—parking.  But, instead of parking, she accelerated and ploughed into four parked cars.  The vehicle spun out of control and hit two more.  A pedestrian walking nearby was taken to hospital with leg injuries after she was pinned between two cars.  Her driving instructor was treated for shock and stress and sent home to recover.  The young girl failed her test.

When Amy passed her beginner’s test, she was instructed to put a Novice Driver sign in the back window of the vehicle.  That way, other drivers would, hopefully, keep a safe distance, which was not the case in Toronto when Ryan got his beginner’s license.  When he took to the streets to drive, he not only had to learn how to read signs along the way, but to read the signals other drivers were giving him with their fingers, their horns, or their mouths, and none of them were nods or winks, I assure you.

But at least, in the city, there were well-marked signs and freshly-painted lines on the roads and intersections.  And I have to say, since Amy started driving, I’m seeing the local roads with new eyes.

With her beginner’s license in hand, Amy reviewed the manual, memorized the signs, and settled back into the driver’s seat.  It wasn’t until she drove from Ship Cove to St. Anthony that an interesting number of facts came to light.  First of all, the Ship Cove road suffers from so many cracks, fissures, and potholes, one can only hope it will receive some major improvements this summer.  Then, as she puttered along at 60 km/h, she asked, “Can I drive 80 or 90 km/h like everybody else?”

I took the driver’s seat when we hit Route 430 to St. Anthony and discussed some rules of driving.  “When you see the double line on a road, it means nobody can pass on either side.”  I said.

What double line?” she asked.  That’s when I realized the traffic lines mentioned in the manual either couldn’t be seen or were barely visible on Route 430, although they had existed in my imagination.  It occurred to me it might be wiser to paint the lines on the road at winter’s end, rather than in the fall, or use a more durable paint so they might last more than a season.

As we drove through St. Anthony to the Town Hall, she said, “I think the fog is rolling in, it’s hard to see.”

“It’s not fog, Amy, its salt and dust.” I said, rolling up the windows.

We dropped some books at the Library and turned around to go back to the mall.  At the RCMP station she slowed to 30 km/h.

“Okay, Amy, move into the left lane so you can turn into the mall.”  Looking into my side view mirror, I noted there were perhaps half a dozen cars behind us, and clearly they wanted to pass in the right lane.

“Where is the left lane?” asked Amy.

“There!”  I said, pointing.

“Where?” she cried.  “I don’t see it!”

She was right. There were no lines or arrows visible to indicate that there was a left or right lane.  To her, there was only one lane.

“See the sand up ahead on the left?” I pointed to dirt and sand in what appeared to be the middle of the road.  “That’s the left lane.”

She navigated her way towards the mall parking lot, running right over the large pothole by Tim Horton’s that the town, thankfully, had filled only recently.

“What a harrowing experience!” she sighed.  “I like driving, Mom,” she said, “but these roads are not maintained like they were in Toronto!”

Which just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl, at least, not yet.

Recollections of loading wood and a high speed chase

I’m a city girl.  The day I left home in Vancouver, my mother said, “Don’t marry an easterner.”  I’m sure my mother didn’t have any real prejudice against easterners; she just wanted me to live a little closer to home, but I disobeyed her; I married a boy from Ship Cove.

If you consult a map of Canada you can see that the community of Ship Cove, on Cape Onion, is as far removed from Vancouver as possible, and outport life is as far removed from city life as you can get.  That’s where the culture shock comes in; I just haven’t managed, yet, to cross the cultural bridge from city to rural life.

A view from the front yard at Ship Cove
A view from the front yard at Ship Cove

And that brings to my remembrance a high-speed chase on Route 437 last fall.

That November morning dawned crisp, clear, and cold.  “It’s a perfect day to haul our wood home,” said Len, as he finished his morning tea (he should have had his wood home last summer, but he was away in St. John’s working).

Len doesn’t have a truck, but one of his brothers has a truck and one has a tow-behind.  Both brothers were willing to help, so they picked Len up and drove to the gravel pit near Shoal Arm Hill on Raleigh Road to bring the wood home.  A few hours later, two loads of wood were stacked in our back yard.  Meanwhile, Eliza Colbourne, Len’s sister in L’Anse aux Meadows, put her spyglass to the window, looked across Sacred Bay, and noted that Len and the boys were hauling wood.  “Winston!” she called, “Len’s hauling wood!  Let’s go and help.”

I had some errands to run in St. Anthony and knew nothing of Winston & Eliza’s plans.  Just before I left the house, the phone rang but, before I could pick it up, it disconnected.  I noticed it was the Colbourne’s number and called back, but there was no answer.

A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.
A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.

Minutes later, I was on the road to St. Anthony.  At Pistolet Bay Park I met Len and his brothers returning with a truckload full of wood.  A short while later, I crested Fox Head Hill on Raleigh Road and noticed a vehicle driving ahead of me, and it looked remarkably like the Colbourne’s truck.

“Can’t be,” I said, dismissing the possibility, “they only just phoned me before I left, and there’s no way they’d be driving away from Ship Cove.  If that were Eliza or Winston, they’d be driving toward me.”  (What I didn’t know then, was that they had been up and down the road searching for Len’s pile of wood, and had just made a U-turn)

The truck slowed down right near the gravel pit where Len’s pile of wood lay and, as I drove past, I thought again how much it looked like Winston and Eliza’s truck, but with the afternoon sun in my eyes, I couldn’t see the occupants.  It seemed to me they must be ‘scoping out’ our pile of wood.   Immediately, my ‘city thinking’ kicked in, and I thought, “That might be somebody looking to steal a load of wood; I’d better warn Len as soon as I get to town.”

Moments later, looking in my rear view mirror, I noticed the same truck speeding up behind me, headlights on, four-ways flashing.  “What are those people up to?” I wondered.  “They’re in a powerful hurry; I guess I’d better speed up.”  The faster I drove, the faster they drove.  In Toronto, you wouldn’t stop for people who drove their cars like that; you’d get out of their way as fast as possible.  To my way of thinking, that was the only thing I could do.

At the branch road to St. Anthony, I rounded the corner on two wheels, barely stopping at the sign, and checked my rear-view mirror again.  Ah!  They were doing a U-turn and heading back down the road.  What strange people, I thought.  I’m glad they’re off my back…

Hours later, when I returned to Ship Cove and saw the black and white truck in our back yard, and Eliza and Winston unloading and stacking wood with Len and Rick and Bob—I knew I’d really messed up.

Five faces turned my way, and five people shook their heads in disappointment.

“Mary,” said Winston.  “We chased you down the road to try to get you to stop. We only wanted to ask you which pile of wood was Len’s.”

*****

It just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl; at least not that quickly!