Of swimsuits and knitted socks

The difference between weather in eastern and western Canada was never more evident than in my choice of clothing for a weekend outing.  I pulled on long johns and tucked them into my homemade ‘Nan Tucker’ knitted socks, preparing for my first winter’s excursion on a snowmobile to cabin country.  I packed a knapsack with extra-warm clothes, first-aid kit, and a digital camera.

Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.

In March 1969, our church youth group chartered a bus to Cultus Lake, British Columbia.  I packed an overnight bag with a swimsuit and towel, transistor radio, hairbrush and a Brownie camera for a weekend at the beach.

The trip took us an hour east of Vancouver towards Chilliwack.  Along the Trans Canada highway we passed dairy farms with cattle standing along the fence-lines swishing their tails and chewing their cuds.  Raspberry and strawberry farms with their gridline-pattern rows ran as far as the eye could see, holding out the promise of a harvest of fresh fruit.  Mennonite farmers waved as they stood in the middle of fields of glorious yellow daffodils.  Gradually the farmland gave way to fir-covered hills, and then the hills slid into the background and the mountains reared up, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we followed the highway to our destination.

At the lake, sun gleamed off the water as we scrambled off the bus and changed into swimsuits.  The soft spring air and the clear, cold water were thrilling.  We picnicked by the campfire and sang songs and imagined the legendary ‘Bigfoot’ coming down from the mountains to the campsite.  Cabins, framed by a brilliant riot of daffodils and tulips, stood back from the beach, while playgrounds on lush green lawns were alive with the shouts of children.

Cultus Lake was no stranger to visitors, and fishermen came from afar to fish for Rainbow Trout and Sockeye Salmon.  The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon is an anadromous fish—that is, a fish that lives part of its life in fresh water before migrating to the sea.  That day, I watched fisherman casting their lines, waiting for fish to bite.  I listened to their laughter floating across the water as they traded fish tales.

*****

Now, forty years later, the Newfoundland landscape lay concealed beneath a heavy blanket of snow as a shower of snowflakes fell like eider-duck feathers from the sky.  I followed Route 430 west and found the rendezvous site on the side of the road.  Within minutes I was pulling a heavy helmet over my head and hoisted myself onto the back of a snowmobile, hanging on for dear life and bouncing over the barrens; amazed that there were traffic signs on the trails in the middle of the wilderness.

At Stock Pond, we pulled up to ‘Da Tilt’, a cabin owned by Carl and Millicent Tucker, in the center of a magical wood of moss-hung trees and snow-laden branches.   As he got off the snowmobile, Carl asserted, “I think it’s time for tea!”  Millicent greeted us at the door and, as we took off helmets, mittens, scarves, caps, coats and boots, put a kettle on the cast-iron stove to boil.  In the kitchen, we drank scalding tea and nibbled on buttered buns, watching a grey jay tilt his head and peer through the window, begging for morsels of bread.

After tea, Millicent brought forth a platter of fisherman’s brewis and, while we ate, Carl told stories of fish and fishermen, dog teams, seals on ice, and life on the Northern Peninsula when he was a young man.

After lunch we piled onto snowmobiles and headed to Pistolet Bay to go smelting.  Alyssa, Carl and Millicent’s granddaughter, and Len, lowered their hooks into the icy water.  Alyssa pulled up smelt after smelt, while Len only managed one rock cod, which came up with jaws flapping.  “You can’t have that one, Len,” advised Carl, pulling out the hook and forcing the foot-long cod back down through the ice.  A group of snowmobilers dropped by and one feller in a space-age helmet, noticing Len’s lack of success, insisted on showing Len the way it’s done by hauling in three smelts in the space of a minute.

Back at the cabin, we warmed our toes by the wood stove as other cabin-dwellers and snowmobilers dropped by to visit.

Looking back, I’d say that whether we pack an overnight bag with swimsuit and towel, or long johns and worsted socks, there is something in all of us that yearns to get back to the land; back to simpler ways.

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We should listen to what they have to say

I enjoy reading Agatha Christie mysteries and, if I had a library at home, there would be wall-to-wall mysteries adorning the walls.  I like Agatha Christie’s mysteries because they’re set in England, but it wasn’t until I moved to outport Newfoundland that I noticed something very interesting about her novels.  Some of the dialect spoken in her books is used right here on the Island!

So what does that mean?  Well, it only goes to show that language travels, and it endures.  It is passed down from generation to generation, which is fascinating stuff if you give it any thought at all.

My husband is a genealogy buff and knows his Newfoundland ancestors backwards and forwards, but I have an impressive line of ancestors myself, which I can trace back 17 generations.  On my father’s side, the family tree extends back to Somerset, England; my maternal grandmother was an Irish war bride from Wales; and, on my maternal grandfather’s side there were staunch Mennonites from Italy, Germany, and Pennsylvania.  This family tree information was passed down to me two ways: by word of mouth and by the written word.  My parents’ ancestors documented their history by writing everything in family Bibles and books, which have endured to this day.

Driving to town here on the Northern Peninsula, it’s plain to see that autumn has arrived; trees are ablaze with gold, tangerine, crimson and scarlet leaves.  In November, those beautiful leaves will be lashed by rain and swept away by wind until the trees are stripped bare.

In October we celebrate Thanksgiving, when all the bounty is brought in and stored in freezers, jelly jars, and root cellars.  Perhaps though, some of you are only too aware that your fridges and cellars are full of provisions but your communities are losing their young people due to the effects of out-migration.  What, then, can you be thankful for?

I’ve spoken to quite a few people lately and many are saying the same thing…that as the older people are passing away, the customs and traditions of rural Newfoundland are passing, too.  The old ways were passed down by word of mouth, but the newest generation of young adult Newfoundlanders is leaving the province, and there are very few to pass these traditions and stories on to.  It seems as if the Baby Boomer generation is the last to remember, vividly, the way life was before cars, computers and consumerism corrupted the landscape.

Recently I met an elderly gentleman in a store, and we had a pleasant chat while I waited in line.  As he spoke to me, it struck me that the autumn season, with it’s aging leaves, is something like this older generation; full of colour and beauty.  I bet there are plenty of interesting things the old timers could tell us if we’d listen to what they have to say.

The Baby Boomers are telling me the old ways are passing away; that their generation is sandwiched between those who lived the hardships and the glory days of the fishery, and the younger generation as they leave the province to find work.  What, then, is to be done to preserve the past?

I think the answer lies very close at hand: in the hospitals, in the nursing homes, in seniors’ complexes, and in houses and apartments in Newfoundland communities.  If the younger generation has up and left, why not gather another kind of harvest while it’s there for the taking?  Why not sit down with pen and paper, with camera and camcorder, with laptop and listening ear, and document the past before it is gone forever; it’s what my ancestors did when they recorded those births, deaths and marriages so long ago.  If they found the time to do this in a time when families were large and time was scarce, surely we can do the same?

Then, when the younger generation asks about their ancestors, there will be something to show them, to tell them and to teach them about Newfoundland and the people who settled it so long ago.  It’s a provincial treasure worth saving.

Don’t wait until the winds of time strip the leaves from the trees.  Harvest them now, and press them between the pages of your Bible.  Treasure the past; it is the wisdom and hope for the future.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city, or the ancestors, out of the girl.

Look around and see the young people are gone

Ship Cove Wharf on the Great Northern Peninsula --Kathleen Tucker
Ship Cove Wharf on the Great Northern Peninsula –Kathleen Tucker

It’s what I didn’t hear, or see, that troubled me.

The telephone rang.  There was to be a boat launched at the wharf and Len was asked to help.  I went along to watch the dozen or so men roll the boat down over the poles and into the water; it’s a piece of Newfoundland history that’s fading into obscurity.

The morning was crisp, clear, and cool.  The ocean was deepest blue.  Seagulls hovered and swooped and screeched.  Waves splashed against the wharf.  Men’s voices rose and fell on currents of wind.  Sun spilled across the water and spotlighted a pile of lobster traps near the shore, casting vivid shadows.

Ten minutes after the trucks and cars had arrived at the wharf; the men put their shoulders to the boat and it slipped into the waves.  I thought the men might have got back into their trucks and gone home, but most stayed behind to yarn.  I wondered then if the pleasure of launching a boat lay not so much in the launching, as in the gathering that followed.

But something was missing.  It’s true that nobody had sung The Jolly Poker since the days of Reginald Bessey, but that wasn’t what was missing either.  I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

As I sat at the wharf with the car window rolled down, the wind carried the salty smell of the sea and the lush, pungent smell of warm sun on earth and moss and new grass.  Suddenly, the years slipped away like beads falling from a necklace, and I was seven years old again, standing beneath pine and spruce trees on the Sarcee Indian Reservation.

I know I claim to be a city girl, but there was one year in my life when I wasn’t.  My dad was a traveling missionary and when I was seven we lived for a year with the Indians near Calgary.  It was one of the most magical years of my life.  I was one of six children and our playground was the five acres surrounding the church and rectory.  We didn’t need the expensive toys kids seem to need now; we built our own raft and sailed it down Fish Creek; we played endless games in the abandoned school; our ‘baseballs’ were round balls of dried horse dung; we crawled under barbed-wire fences hunting for gophers, and tried to trap squirrels as they skittered along the fence poles.  The fresh, keen smells of pine and spruce and grass were perfume to my soul.  We played cowboys and Indians with real Indians, and rode real horses.  We discovered the dried-up skulls of cattle and buffalo as we roamed the pastures and forests, and we watched for bobcats in the trees.

It’s a mystery how sights and sounds and scents can transport us to another place and another time, but they do.

I spent only one year on the reservation, but I still remember the beaded necklaces, moccasins, and jackets the Indian women made for us.  I remember wonderful old surnames like Starlight, Heavenfire, Dodging Horse, One Spot, and Many Moons.  I remember my father preaching in the little clapboard church, Indian powwows and teepees and dances.  My mother had her hands full in the church and the rectory, cooking many meals at the woodstove and hanging countless laundries on the line.

Life as a child in the early 1960s was alive with adventure.

A car door slammed and I was suddenly back at the wharf with the waves slapping on the rocks and the boats silent on the beach and the men gathered around the truck in their green unemployment boots.  It struck me then.  Almost all the men were in their 50s or 60s; there were no young men and there were no children to carry on the customs and traditions of a bygone time.

It leaves me wishing I had lived in this fishing village in its heyday, even for one brief year.  I can imagine the bay full of ships, the men and women working at the fishery, the laughter and tears of children, laundries whipping on clotheslines.

The past is a kaleidoscope of memories that creates a variety of patterns to help us shape the future.  Families are the glue that holds it all together.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.  But memories of a simpler time are like jewels on the necklace of time. 

Enjoying toutons and a good yarn

Queen Elizabeth may think tea and crumpets at the Palace is tasty, but she probably hasn’t tasted tea and toutons, poor dear.  All my life I’ve measured how civilized a social gathering ought to be, by comparing it to Tea with the Queen, but no more!  If Queen Elizabeth hasn’t tasted toutons,  more’s the pity!

My love affair with these delectable morsels began not long ago when a lovely lady by the name of Rose invited me to tea.  As I at down at the table she took the toutons from a sizzling cast iron frying pan and stacked them on a plate.  When the kettle boiled she poured steaming hot cups of tea and placed them on the table along with a tin of Carnation and a bowl of sugar.  On the platter, next to the toutons, were crisp fried pieces of salt pork.

“Just butter the toutons and drizzle molasses over them,” she said, pushing the containers nearer to me.  I helped myself to a touton—buttered it and drizzled the molasses over it—then took a bite.  If there was a heaven on earth, it was in Rose’s kitchen that morning!

When I first set foot in Newfoundland in ‘77, Len took me to see his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Newton in Kelligrews.  Never in my life had I seen anybody just walk into someone’s house without knocking, but that’s what Len did.  Where I grew up—in the city—you phoned ahead to arrange a visit, then you knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened.  Walking into someone’s house without knocking was a culture shock for me!  That evening Aunt Mamie cooked up a scoff of Fish ‘n’ brewis; something I had never heard of.  As I ate, I wondered how someone could take pieces of hard bread—like hockey pucks—and turn them into something so good; but she did, and the scrunchions and onions complimented the delicious meal!

My first sit-down meal at the home of my future in-laws was also a bit of a culture shock. The kitchen was full of visitors, young and old, and the table couldn’t accommodate everybody so the men sat down to eat first.  I was a visitor—and didn’t have a clue what to do in the kitchen anyway—so I was told to sit down with the men.  I didn’t understand much of what they were saying to each other, so I sat quietly and hoped nobody would notice me.  Platters of fish and potatoes, vegetables, salads and soups were passed around, and if I didn’t want something, I passed it along.

Suddenly, Len’s mom handed me a loaf of fresh-baked bread and a knife.  I had been away from my home in Vancouver for a couple of years, and hadn’t seen homemade bread in ages.  I looked at the loaf in my hands, then at my plate heaped with food, and decided I didn’t want any bread.

“No thanks,” I said, and passed the loaf along.  The table of men—and the women standing around the table—erupted into laughter.  I looked at their laughing faces in total confusion.  What had I done?

Len’s mother took the loaf and the knife and held the bread to her bosom, cutting slices skilfully and handing them to the men.  Len explained, “You’re the woman, you’re supposed to cut the bread.”

Fresh from the oven...
Fresh from the oven…

Tea in Newfoundland, especially in the outports, remains a ‘homely’ way for friends to get together.  In the city, having tea with a friend is more of a formal occasion.  When you invite someone over, you arrange a date and time and your friend arrives at the designated hour, and woe betide if you show up early or late.But in the outports, it’s a gentler life, which goes without saying, really.

All things considered, when it comes to having tea, I think Queen Elizabeth and I might agree that tea and toutons in Rose’s kitchen exemplifies the age-old adage, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best.”

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!