Mother’s Day is difficult, and has been for the last ten years. I lost my Mom to ALS in 2009. She’s no longer here to thank and to spoil every second Sunday in May.
Truth be told, I would probably put a card in the mail and call her. Unless she made the effort to come to town, we probably wouldn’t be together for Mother’s Day.
Memories become rosy over time. We tend to gloss over our short comings and remember the good more often than the not-so-good. It’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with that. It helps to keep memories light in our hearts and any guilty feelings at bay.
I am lucky to be able to say that I had a great Mom. She loved me like no one else could – she was my biggest cheerleader, especially when I couldn’t be. Every morning of my teenage years my day started with a drowsy hug. Bleary-eyed, I would stumble to the kitchen and plop my head on her shoulder. She did the hugging.
We spoke regularly on the phone after I moved out of my childhood home and into adulthood. I can say we visited often, but I know that was because she came to me. I didn’t travel to her as often as I could have – until she was facing her illness. I regret that now but there’s no way to change the past. I’ve had almost ten years to adapt to the loss of her in my life, to reflect on the lessons she taught me. Some times a death is what forces us to grow.
If I could sit with her one more time, I would thank her for teaching me that everything happens for a reason, especially when the reason isn’t obvious.
I would thank her for teaching me to stop and appreciate the little things – Canada Geese high in the sky in the spring. The first Morning Glory blossom on the neighbour’s trellis. The magic of a Hummingbird.
I would thank her for modelling appreciation and gratitude. It was there my whole life, but I only truly understood the power of it at the end of her life. She didn’t just say look on the bright side to cheer me up when times were tough. She truly believed that every situation had a silver lining.
Mom, where ever your soul is now, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. So many lessons have taken hold these last ten years. I’m sorry I didn’t learn them while we could share them. I wish you were here.
It’s not yet seven o’clock in the morning. A clump of us are walking from the bus stop to our respective offices to start the week, our heads down. I see the feet of a man standing on the sidewalk in the cold rain, asking for food.
“Can you buy me a meal…for a change. Can you buy me a meal… for a change.” It is a statement more than a question.
My heart tells me to look up. Look him in the eye and acknowledge him as a fellow human being. I don’t, again. Feeling ashamed and intimidated, I walk past him in my clean, warm clothes on my way to a good job.
I am embarrassed to stop. Embarrassed that I have everything I need and he is begging for food. Ashamed that our worlds are so different while our lives cross on the same sidewalk. Ashamed that we all walked past like he is invisible.
The details of his story are unknown to me. What I do know is in this moment that I am not hungry enough to ask strangers on the street for food. That doesn’t make one of us more than and one of us less than.
I wish I had turned my head to look him in the eye and said good morning. Asked if I could buy him a coffee. Asked if he was OK. I didn’t. I chickened out again.
Will someone break their morning routine and stop? Will they look directly at him, smile and say good morning? Offer to buy him something to eat?
Why didn’t I?
I close my eyes as the first notes of the song come through my headphones. “Me and my friends, we’re all misunderstood. They say we stand for nothing but there’s no way we ever could…”
John Mayer’s Waiting on the World to Change – the song my nephew had to have playing at bed time as a young boy. It played on repeat for hours of his life.
The melody, the sounds, the movement of the music take me back 15 years. I picture my sister as a mom to toddlers, my mother as a grand mother and my little nephew who knew that song spoke to him. He enjoyed age appropriate music as well (hello, Wiggles!) but this was his song.
The twang of a guitar chord in almost any old country song – Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Senior, or Waylon Jennings – brings memories of my dad and his truck rushing back.
Easy Listening was Mom’s style. My sister called it butterfly music. For most of my teenage years, she listened to a local radio station in the evening. I realize now that this was her down time. Every night at ten o’clock, the host would sign off the same way. “This is Bill. I leave you chasing a dream.” The beautiful instrumental song by Hagood Hardy would then play.
I can still picture Mom in the living room. She would sit on the carpeted floor and flip through the newspaper that was stretched out in front of her, her music playing in the background. After she died, I reached out to the music director of the now defunct station. We put the pieces together and I was able to track down the song online. Every time I hear the comforting, floating notes I think of her. I call it her soul music.
The Lady in Red takes me back to my high school prom, and the drama of not having a date. Neil Diamond’s All I Really Need is You to my first dance with my husband at our wedding twenty years ago, surrounded by the love of family and friends.
Music is a powerful force that can instantly take us back to specific moments in our lives. It gives us the gift of remembering people and places or reliving moments and emotions – sometimes when we least expect it.
I lost my Mom almost ten years ago. She lived with ALS for three years and taught me how to face life and its challenges with gratitude, humility and grace. During Mom’s illness I promised myself that if I could help it, I would not have regrets after she died.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, affects the nerve pathways in the brain, spinal cord and muscles of the body. Those afflicted with ALS progressively lose their mobility. Many also lose their speech. I remember Mom explaining that her body felt normal, so it was hard to understand why her arms and legs wouldn’t ‘listen’ to her brain.
We spoke on the phone every day from the point of her diagnosis – her voice was strong and familiar – to the time that a voice simulator ‘spoke’ the words she typed in to it ahead of time. One of the most difficult stages of her illness was realizing that she was unable to speak any longer.
We take so many things for granted in this life. The familiar voice of a parent. The safety and warmth of a hug. A grandparent playing with their toddler grandchild. The presence of those we love.
I remember when she told me that her days passed by so much more quickly as her mobility declined. When I asked her to explain what she meant, she said “everyday things take so much longer now.” She wasn’t complaining or feeling sorry for herself, it was more that she was making an interesting observation about how her life was changing.
We spent time together while she was still independent and mobile; then at her home when she required help to eat and drink; to the end of her life in hospice care. We watched her move from foot braces to cane, from cane to walker, from walker to wheelchair. Those times were difficult for our entire family, but I don’t regret a moment.
What I do regret is not making a point of sitting down together and talking to her. Not as my mom, but as an individual, a fellow human being. What where her highlights, her adventures? Her regrets in life? Ask her to tell me the story of her and Dad’s romance, one more time. And about the day I was born. To ask her if she was frightened of dying.
My biggest regret is not recording her voice, my mother’s voice, so I could play it back when I miss her the most.
(My second biggest regret is not taking more photos of Mom. This is not my favourite photo, but it’s one of the few I have of her and I together. Don’t make the same mistake as we did. Take photos of the people you care about!)
Our cleaning lady has vacuumed my office for the last time. After a life of hard work, her retirement starts today. She always has a smile and a kind word for all.
“Laaaasst daaay!” I sing as she enters my cubicle. Her smile says it all. “Are you excited?”
Her eyes are shining. “Oh, yes!” she quickly replies, “but I’m going to miss everyone. They are like my family.”
My mind jumps back to a chance encounter I had a few months ago. A group of people was gathered outside the conference room for a meeting. One of the men, upon seeing her, burst into a smile. “Mona – how are you? It’s so nice to see you!” They carried on a short conversation that made the warmth between them obvious.
She has worked in this building for the past six years and has crossed paths with many. Folks move on to other jobs or change buildings but still remember her fondly.
This woman leaves her mark on others. Mona’s kindness, work ethic and pride in what she does endears her to the people who see her every day.
Her husband died this time last year. Knowing how hard she worked, and having lost their father, her children encouraged her to retire. I suspect that they wanted her to slow down and enjoy what life has to offer after years of hard physical work.
Later this afternoon we will gather in the conference room. The organization I work for has staff on three floors of the building. Retirement cards were passed around each floor this week, giving us the chance to write a little note for Mona, wishing her well. I know many folks on the floor I work on are contributing financially as well.
This sweet lady will be missed by many. Her replacement has big shoes to fill.
As I root through my bedside table – the place where I keep sentimental things – familiar handwriting catches my eye. Dad’s printing. I know it is a letter by the way it is folded, the yellow foolscap is wrinkled and bent. I unfold it carefully, unexpectedly missing him. He died in 2012 after a six-month battle with cancer.
The date at the top of the page reads October 17th, 1984. I notice the period after the year, and I smile. There were always random periods in text he wrote. Visual proof of where he stopped to gather his thoughts.
I continue reading. “Dear Girls” – this is a letter to my sister and I during the time Dad worked and lived in Trinidad. In the first paragraph he congratulates my sister for doing well on a test. He acknowledges my interest in the basketball team I joined that year – my only year on the team. He tells us where he has displayed the maple tree leaves that we mailed to him. “Got 1 on bathroom door & 1 on your bedroom door the other one is in my bedroom with your pictures.” “Your bedroom” refers to the room my sister and I stayed in the only time we visited him in Port of Spain the previous summer. That makes me smile too.
The bulk of his letter tells us the story of a perpetual flat tire on his car and the resulting challenge of getting it fixed. His writing style is such that I can hear his voice as I read his writing. It is comforting and familiar. He recounts the adventure he had with a local family who invited him for dinner and sent him home with a week’s worth of food.
The letter continues, telling us about a local holiday – “something about the festival of lites” – where residents line their driveways, balconies and front stairs with oil lamps. He promises to take a few photos to send to us so we can see how pretty it is.
Handwriting is powerful. It is instantly recognizable when it belongs to someone you care about. It holds so much between the letters – love, memories, and connection to those we love.
I am sitting at a patio table staring at the ocean. The waves crash and break relentlessly, foaming against the sand and shells on the beach. The sound is strong, and the water unfriendly. The horizon holds nothing but the line where sky and water meet. Not a bird, boat or person as far as the eye can see. It is humbling.
I am in Florida at a business workshop. Behind me, I can hear the voices of the other women who have come here to support each other with business plans and strategy. They are professionals, creatives, health experts and wellness advocates.
This is the second year I have come together with the same small group of women. Once again, I feel valued and appreciated for who I am.
Some have built successful businesses from the ground up, others have sold their businesses, still others have grown established companies to be more than they once were. They are all kind, generous and successful.
These women have helped me see sensitivity as something to be proud of. It is the lens through which I see the world in a way that no one else does. That my perspective on this life we live is unique and valuable. That empathy is needed in this world, maybe now more than ever.
Through conversations and feedback, they have shown me that it can be difficult to see our skills and value our own strengths. What we may see as a weakness in ourselves can be reflected back to us through other people’s eyes as a gift.
Each of us experiences life in a special way. Our perspective, skills and gifts are unique to each of us. We each fill a space in the world that no one else can.
I will be forever grateful to this group of special people. They will never know how much they have helped me see who I truly am.
It has been hard to get excited about the new year. We are surrounded by reminders to plan our goals, make resolutions, to change and do better. The pressure can be overwhelming if we let it. I tend to let it.
I don’t think I am alone when I say that it’s easier to see where we’ve missed the mark than it is to see how we have grown and progressed. To see how things have changed in positive ways.
This time last year things were very different. Someone dear to me spent Christmas 2017 waiting for biopsy results. Another was in hospital, fighting the cancer she didn’t yet know she had. Yet another was reeling from her father’s sudden loss of vision that doctors could not figure out.
I am happy to say that all three are still with us. The biopsy revealed cancer that is being fought hard, and she is winning. My friend is out of hospital after a three month stay – rocking her super short silver hair. She looks amazing – happy and healthy. Dad’s health is stable. He is a strong man who is adjusting to his new normal. I know he will keep fighting for his health and his quality of life.
So much can change in a year, in so many ways. Health can improve or decline. So can wealth. Social circles shift and change. Job opportunities present themselves, or lay offs can catch us off guard.
Change can be a gift. Unexpected challenges give us an opportunity to grow. Even if we push away that chance, we are still forever changed by the experience. Change is a practice in patience, acceptance, resilience, resistance. We find strength we didn’t know we had.
As time goes on, I realize that the pressure to set goals and behave differently without anything changing but the calendar is self-imposed. Every day is a new opportunity, a chance to do better than we did yesterday.
Christmas is two days away. Many of us are busy picking up last minute gifts, baking, wrapping or travelling to see loved ones. Some in our communities aren’t as lucky and won’t be with people they love this holiday season. The reasons why don’t matter, the fact that they will be alone does.
Some years, even surrounded by friends and family, we feel alone. Every year is different. If your heart is full this year, consider sharing that abundance and love with someone who can’t say the same.
Ways to Connect this Season
I’ve pulled a few ideas together. If you find yourself interested in supporting others this season, I hope they inspire you.
Take a quiet moment and ask a friend or family member to share their favourite holiday memory. It can be from childhood or adulthood – or both. People enjoy sharing beloved memories. Make it extra special by recording their voice as they tell you the story.
Ask the children in your life what is important to them. They may surprise you. Share a story you remember from their formative years. My niece and nephews are teenagers now. They still get a kick out of hearing the fun things they did as toddlers.
Support a holiday supper for those less fortunate. Put a few hours aside to help at a local shelter or church, or drop off a contribution to a meal. A quick internet search will let you know what is planned in your city, and what kind of help is needed. Serving a meal to someone who appreciates it will make your day. Theirs too.
Even better, consider applying to become a volunteer for the new year. Many not-for-profit organizations need volunteers year-round, and not just at Christmas.
Say Thank You
If you take public transport and are working over the holidays, surprise your driver with a small token of appreciation. A coffee shop gift card or a short note will make their day. If it’s too late to do this before Christmas, do it after! Appreciation doesn’t have a due date.
Start a holiday gratitude journal. Ask everyone celebrating with you to write down one thing, person or event that they are grateful for in 2018. Pack the book away with your decorations and add to it in future years.
This a short list of suggestions to start the ideas flowing. We get so caught up in the ‘have-tos’ and ‘shoulds’ that sometimes we loose sight of the most important things about the holidays, and indeed, every day. Connect to those you love and enjoy being with. Share quality time with them without your phone as a distraction. Take time to get to know what is going on in their lives.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from me to you, with so much gratitude for following my corner of the writing world. The support you have shown in response to my writing is humbling and very appreciated. Thank you.
Today, December 16th, would have been my Mom’s birthday. She died on Christmas Eve, 2009 – nine days after she turned sixty-eight. I don’t say that for sympathy. It is our family’s truth, and it forever changed Christmas.
She lived with ALS for over three years and her last week was difficult for everyone. I believe with all my heart that she hung on until she knew we would be together at my sister’s house on December 24th.
It had been our family tradition for over 15 years that my sister, myself and our husbands spent Christmas Eve with our family in our childhood home, and Christmas Day with our husbands’ families. We would enjoy our meal and then open our stockings. We still talk and laugh about the long process that was. The small gifts were wrapped before they were put into the stockings. We would work our way around our circle of five, each person opening one gift at a time until the stockings were empty. It took forever and I remember it fondly.
As our family grew with the birth of my sister’s three children, so did our traditions. Our Christmas Eve shifted to my sister and brother-in-law’s house. When the children were small, it was easier for everyone. We were able to help them write their letters to Santa and prepare his snack of cookies and milk, put on their new pyjamas, and watch them hang their stockings.
We were able to get them into bed a little more easily by checking in with the NORAD Santa tracker. If he was in North America it was time for bed! The adults would continue their stocking tradition after the kids were tucked in. Most years, this took longer than expected due to little faces peeking downstairs, too excited to sleep.
Mom and Dad would stay overnight at my sister’s, anxious to watch the children open their gifts on Christmas morning.
Our traditions didn’t change much over the three Christmases that Mom wasn’t well. I think we needed those rituals and traditions to help us feel that life was still predictable and that all was well, especially when it wasn’t. As we sat down to eat, we would each share what we were grateful for.
The two Christmases after Mom passed were drastically different for the adults, but annual traditions continued for the children. We purposefully made different choices around our Christmas dinners – going out to a restaurant the first year, and ordering in the second year. We added the tradition of lighting a candle at my sister’s in memory of Mom.
Christmas 2012 was our first Christmas without both of our parents. Dad passed in September of that year, six months after being diagnosed with cancer. Funny, but I think if you asked any of us that Christmas is one we all hold dear in our hearts, regardless of the sadness. We celebrated together at Mom and Dad’s house– a wonderful spot on a lake, twenty minutes away from the closest town.
Our meals were planned and prepped ahead of time so all we had to do was enjoy being together. The tree was set up during an earlier visit to the house and we decorated it together on December 23rd. A fire burned in the stove, the lights on the tree shone in the corner of the living room, gifts waiting under it. After supper on Christmas Eve we went for a walk on the frozen lake. The night was cold, the sky was dark and clear, the moon was bright. As we walked, we met dear family friends doing the same. Our outing turned into a lovely Christmas Eve visit in their home, something we had not done before. After our gift opening on Christmas Day, we went tobogganing on a familiar hill. Our dear friends joined us.
Six years have now passed since Dad died. Our Christmases have been comforting in their similarities as well as their differences. I can only speak for myself when I say that the differences serve to make the holiday a little less sad. A new tradition has a life of its own and isn’t heavy with memories of ‘remember when’. We hold on to key traditions in honour of Mom and Dad, and others who have passed – beautiful pillar candles as our centre piece, a special memorial ornament carefully hung on the tree. These changes create new rituals that are blended with the old. They are celebrated by the family members who remain, those who love and miss them throughout the year, not just at Christmas.
I sit cross-legged, staring through the blurry window of the wood stove, feeling the heat on my cheeks. Traveling down my body, it warms me like nothing else. The house is dark and quiet. I lay back on the floor and stare up at the ceiling, watching the flame shadows dance.
Thoughts slowly drift through my mind. I remember Auntie Kathy, who taught me how to see images in the dancing flames. Dad, who taught me how to build a fire, and how to make sticks spark and burn. Mom, who was wary of the wood stove but kept it stoked regardless, keeping the house warm. Grandma and Grandpa’s house, where life in the kitchen centered around the cook stove. I remember how intriguing the front burner was with its special handle, giving us direct access to the blazing flames.
I stare at the burning logs, mesmerized. Fire has been a constant in my life, a part of home. Providing heat and warmth to the house and the people in it. Chopping and piling wood was an annual family chore. Roaring bonfires in the yard warming my friends and I as we talk and tease, our faces glowing in the heat. The victory of a perfectly roasted marshmallow.
This was never my home but that of my parents. They moved at the same time as their children – we began our adult lives as they simplified theirs. Fifteen years of memories before we lost them both. The house has sold, the keys change hands tomorrow.
I sit until my pyjamas are hot to the touch, happy that the scent of wood smoke will follow me to bed. This is the last time I will do this, I think. I sit up and move closer to the heat, willing myself to remember this moment, this heat, this warmth.
As we drive through communities on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, country music streams through the speakers in the truck. The view out the window is trees as far as the eye can see. It is a province of rural communities and few towns. Labrador is a ferry ride across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Rugged terrain and beautiful views. I can’t help but think about my dad.
He was born on a farm in 1937. His father was a lumberman and farmer, his mother was a teacher before she had her children. He was the oldest of seven children – six boys and one girl.
It’s funny what I remember about his childhood stories. He had a dog named Lucky and called his grandfather Papu. I remember a story he would tell my sister and I about playing in the yard while Grandma worked in the garden. He was upset because the baby chicks he put in the water barrel wouldn’t swim. I think I got mad at him for that one.
His hair was light blonde when he was young. That has always amazed me, because he had a full head of brown hair as long as I can remember.
Dad was most comfortable outside. He loved to hunt and fish, chop firewood. He had all the toys – ATV, ski-doo, and fishing boat. He loved to putter in his shed. His face was weather-beaten from years spent outdoors, both for work and for pleasure.
The lines beside his eyes grew deeper when he laughed. His fingers were crooked with arthritis and years of working bare-handed out in the cold. When he came in the house from working in the shed, he smelled of wood and grease. Sometimes it was WD-40.
In the late 1960’s, his work with Bell Canada took him to Labrador. This part of the country left its mark on him for the remainder of his life. I have so many questions for him now that I have witnessed the land and people first hand.
When did you come? How long were you here? Where did you work? Where did you visit while you weren’t working? Not earth shattering questions, I just want to hear the story of his experiences in Newfoundland and Labrador. To hear him talk about how it felt to be here. To better understand how his visit shaped him as a person.
It has been six years since he died. The sting and ache of grief for him have faded but in this moment, as we explore this beautiful province, I miss him very much.
I am rooting through the beautiful old desk that was my mother’s, and her father’s before that. It holds things that I can not bear to throw away, because she couldn’t either. Expired passports, bank books and wills. Photographs and hand writing. Physical evidence of lives lived. Stories waiting to be told.
I open a drawer and pull out the top layer. A note from my parent’s dear friends, written before they headed home to Kamloops wishing us love, luck and support through Mom’s last weeks. Grammy’s first husband’s drivers licence issued by the French Republic in 1950. His face stares out from a small photo stapled to the front of the card. A wallet holds obituaries of people Mom knew and loved, carefully cut out of the newspaper.
I read the notices, smiling at the memory of those I knew, wondering about the names I don’t. I will never know the stories behind the unfamiliar names. How did Mom know them? Why were they important to her? As I carefully return them to the wallet, I wonder why I keep them.
A New Life
I open a second drawer and see a Moir’s Chocolate box. It fits perfectly in the desk and I am curious about what it now holds. I wiggle off the lid to faces looking up at me. So many photos! Some people I recognize, others I don’t. As I carefully flip through the pile, I realize there are documents in the box as well. CANADIAN PACIFIC 7025. Norkevicaite Miss – my grandmother’s maiden name is written in pencil in the top right corner. It looks like a ticket for her crossing to Canada from Lithuania over 80 years ago, when she left the life she knew to start over. Where she married her husband, had her daughter, met her son in law, and briefly knew her granddaughters before passing in April, 1972 at the age of 62.
I turn the paper over in my hand. More dates. Preliminary Inspection: “Passed, Doctor, 30th Juin 1930” “Dr. Louis Brees” 1 Juil 1930, Médecin de l’émigration. Final Inspection: Vaccinated, Passed Doctor 1 Juil 1930 C.P.R. Antwerp.
I also find her Carte de Transit / Doorvoerkaart which was stamped by Canadian Pacific on 27 Jun 1930 at Kaunas, Lithuania – her hometown. A third card completes the set – her (Third Class) Immigration Identification Card. It is stamped by the Dominion Government Immigration Office, Quebec, July 13, 1930. That means they were twelve days at sea.
I try to imagine what this experience could have been like for her. Leaving her family, her home and everything familiar behind to start a new life, she was loaded on a ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. She didn’t speak English or French. Before leaving Europe, she had to be ‘inspected’ by a doctor – not examined – and only after she was disinfected. How do you keep your pride and dignity though that? How do you understand what is happening? I hope she knew some of her fellow travelers, and that they could support each other and piece together what was going on.
Realities of War
A tattered, yellowed envelope catches my eye. It is the size of a postcard. METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY stretches across the front, sitting over a sketch of a building, complete with blue sky and white clouds. The very bottom of the envelope reads Form. 50 (Fr.) September 1941. Seventy-seven years ago. It was printed in the middle of World War Two and three months before my mother was born.
I slide a booklet out of the envelope and see my grandfather’s name and address in Montreal. Ration Book 2. Rations? The first seven pages have been used, three pages remain. Each page holds thirteen perforated stamps, to be torn off and exchanged for food. As I slide the booklet carefully back into the envelope, I realize for the first time that my grandparents’ lives in Canada were directly affected by the war.
This desk in my office holds so many stories. Some I have heard, others I will never know. Photographs of people I loved and who loved me, others who will never be named. The people who knew them are no longer living. So many stories, life experiences, lost forever.
November 11, 2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. The Armistice that ended the battle took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Originally known as Armistice Day, Canada officially changed the name to Remembrance Day in 1931. This was an important change that shifted focus from a political event to an act of gratitude and remembrance for those who gave their lives.
On the morning of August 23rd I logged into social media, as I do every day. As I checked to see what was what, a notification caught my eye. The Canadian Armed Forces account was streaming live? That’s strange, I thought, as I clicked on the link.
“You are watching the burial of Private William Del Donegan, Private Henry Edmonds Priddle, Sergeant Archibald Wilson and Private John (Jack) Henry Thomas. These four Canadian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for our country in the First World War.”
My mind flashed back to the news story in May of this year. I checked the internet, searching for information to refresh my memory. Remains were found in 2010 in Northern France and were positively identified through DNA testing and historical research. According to reports, the soldiers were members of the 16th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). They were killed in the Battle of Hill 70 between August 16th and August 19th, 1917 – one hundred and one years ago.
Private Donegan was 20, Private Priddle was 33, Sergeant Wilson was 25, and Private Thomas was 28. I felt a shiver as goosebumps raced up my arms.
Small groups of people are gathered around carefully prepared graves. It is obvious that they are dressed in their best, their ‘special clothes’. Family members, who couldn’t have known these men. Dressed up, half way around the world, to witness the burial of a family member they had never met. Known only through second hand stories and family legend.
Were their names only whispered so as not to stir up the sadness of their loss? Or were they remembered out loud, stories proudly shared with younger generations? Did Mother and Father share their sadness and grief over the loss of their sons? Did the right words exist?
I watch, mesmerized, at the precise movements of the soldiers. Their uniforms so formal and crisp as they carry the flag-draped caskets and lower them slowly to their places. The cemetery is silent.
The camera zooms in on a white-haired man in a blue suit. His hand rests lovingly on a young boy’s shoulder. I take them to be Grandfather and Grandson. They stand together, quiet witnesses.
Families connected by blood, by memories passed down through generations. These men existed only in story. Relatives old enough to know these stories were children when their loved ones disappeared. Hazy recollections of a distant uncle or great grandfather. Few personal memories, if any, held close.
Soldiers connected by ritual, by history, by chosen brotherhood. Honouring those who paid the ultimate price as they fought for freedom. I am touched by this connection, this duty to remember. To honour the lives of four men that none of the people taking part in this ritual had ever met.
The food court is full of hustle and bustle. It’s overwhelming until I settle in and start to watch the people around me. My mom was the person who first shared her joy of people watching with me. It’s what folks did before they had cell phone screens to distract themselves. Her favourite place to watch people was the airport – the arrivals area in particular. “Everyone is so happy to see each other!”
I notice the man with short salt and pepper hair first. He is holding his hand to his chin, staring into space, cell phone to his ear. Listening rather than speaking, he is deep in concentration. I hope it’s good news. It’s hard to tell from his expression.
A young woman walks by – suede ankle boots and high-waisted jeans. A look that takes me back 30 years. I feel impossibly middle-aged.
The man whose moustache dances as he chews. Wearing glasses and a black ball cap, he looks like a laid-back guy content to eat while he watches other people walk by. I try not to let him see that I am watching him watch others. Our eyes almost meet but I look away – pretending to scan the room. When I look back, he is gone. Why didn’t I smile? No harm in that, though it feels like a risk.
The epitome of a sharp dressed man strolls past. Sockless feet, loafers and plaid pants jump out from under a beige coat. Or is it camel?
A toddler gallops by, pointing and chatting in a language only he understands. He is thrilled with his new skill and the freedom it brings. Mom and Dad barely two steps behind him. Safety.
Then I see the man wearing the white cap. He is pushing his wheeled shopping cart as if it was a walker, casually concentrating on each step. His running shoes keep him stable – his pant legs carefully rolled up just out of the way. I hear his phlegmy cough as he passes my table.
The woman so stooped she is barely taller than the cane that supports her. Is she in pain, or thrilled to be out about under her own steam, I wonder. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
Those seeking attention attract my interest the least. The teen sitting with her feet on the table. The gaggle of girls who are compelled to squeal when they laugh. The group of young men sitting together – confidence in numbers – looking impossibly cool. Not that they care, of course.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been there, desperately trying to fit in, that I don’t pay much attention. The modus operandi hasn’t changed for generations. I remember those feelings of not wanting the mask to slip, to show who I really was. Too risky. Stick together.
Is it because I feel closer to the older folks, both in age and perspective? Showing their imperfections, their ‘weaknesses’, and carrying on despite them. They remind me to be grateful that my body moves on its own. And I can stand tall, my back straight.
Mom also taught me the expression there but for the grace of God go I. I am not a religious person, but these words have stuck with me over the years. A gentle reminder for perspective. Some situations in life are beyond our control. We are not ‘better’ than anyone else. We don’t know know how long what we have will last. There are no guarantees, and we should be grateful for all that we have.
We stand in the entryway of the old building, awkwardly looking at each other. It’s the moment after you hear the price of something and aren’t sure you want to commit. The woman behind the desk waits. We decide to invest in the visit – we have time before our supper reservation, so why not?
We are at the Isles Wooden Boat Museum in Twillingate, Newfoundland. It is housed in St. Peter’s Parish Hall which opened in 1914. Until the 1960’s, school was held on the first floor and church functions on the second. The museum opened in the Hall in July 2017.
Life by the Sea
Following the flow around the room, it is obvious that the exhibits were curated with care. We learn about schooners, dories, punts, trap boats and long liners. Detailed placards explain the physics of travelling under sail. The information is interesting enough and is well displayed, but it doesn’t grab me.
I turned the corner. Yes! The part of the museum that explains the way of life in Newfoundland when these boats were at their peak of popularity. Right up my alley.
The black and white photographs take visitors back in time. It is easy to imagine a life dictated by the sea and the fishing industry. Boats were built by local men to support themselves and others in their villages. They were an essential part of life in many Newfoundland outport communities.
Hearing my name, I move around the room to where my friend is standing. “It’s like a Newfoundland version of Humans of New York!” I see nine placards carefully displayed. Each shows a photograph of a local boat builder and an interview transcript for each. I look up at the faces of white-haired men, eyes twinkling as they smile at the camera. I smile back.
In the Flesh
It is obvious that these men are proud of and passionate about their craft. The shared knowledge they hold has been passed down and through generations. Their knowledge is shared with the world through the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador‘s Boats and Builders Project. One quote in particular catches my eye. “First when I started, it was all done by hand. Hand plane, hand saw, draw knife… All that stuff. There was no electricity then.” Harry Pardy of Little Harbour stares down at me from the display. His face is wonderfully weathered, and his smile is warm.
As I read, I can hear our husbands talking to someone. “I think that’s him – Alf!” my friend whispers to me. We peek around the corner to see a man chatting away to the guys. I look up at the display. His blue eyes give him away. That’s Alf Manuel alright.
We walked over and joined in the conversation. They are standing in front of a beautiful model, Alf describing the intricacies of the ship that would have otherwise gone unseen.
As we move to the next display, Alf explains that the regular guide is off today – he’s taking his daughter to university – and he received the call to come in to cover the shift. We are standing in front of a wonderful hand-built model of a fishing stage. Alf explains that this and another model on display were built by Harry Pardy. Of course they were, I think to myself.
A Personal Tour
After a tour around the boat building displays, Alf invites us upstairs to the workshop. We jump at the opportunity. The last thing we expected was to have the museum to ourselves and a wooden boat expert as our personal tour guide.
I smelled the wood before we entered the room. As it fills my nose, I am surprised by the memories of my father that flood back. I can clearly picture him in his workshop, puttering away at something. In a strange but comforting way, it feels like he is here with us. I know he would have loved talking to Alf.
The workshop is painted a light grey and is carefully arranged. A far wall supports a crude shelving unit, stacked with lumber. A garage door beyond the shelves provides access for lumber and the completed boats. In front of the shelves sits a long workbench. I notice a hand plane or two as well as a variety of chisels. Project plans are tacked up on the wall.
Directly in front of us sits the work in progress. It is beautifully built – a white punt with varnished accents. It is easy to see the love and care that went in to building her. Alf explains that after over a year, she is almost complete. She will be raffled off in November as a fund raiser for the museum.
The project has taken much longer than expected, for a wonderful reason. Visitors to the museum have so many questions about the process, they keep the boat builders from their work.
Alf walks us through the anatomy of the punt, explaining how it is built. Walking over to the work bench, he picks up a handful of what looks like rough hair. Using a set of boards intended for building the boats, he demonstrates how oakum (untwisted rope) is used to waterproof the seams between the boards. We are each invited to give it a go. So simple, yet not easy!
Alf patiently answers our questions and makes us to feel that he has all the time in the world for us. The passion he has for boat building is obvious. He is so generous with his knowledge and time, it was a pleasure spending time with him. Our visit to the Isles Wooden Boat Museum is a unanimous highlight of our tour across Newfoundland, and it’s all thanks to Mr. Alf Manuel and the other passionate men who share their knowledge with everyone who is interested.
“We’re on Fogo Island…” I looked up, not understanding what he meant… then it clicked. The gaff. The four of us stared at each other.
My brain flashed back to the museum we had visited the day before. Set up in an old house, local artifacts were carefully arranged on the main floor while handmade quilts lined the walls upstairs. As I admired the photographs and displays, a framed document caught my eye. In Memoriam. I had quickly taken a photo, intending to read it later that night.
Could it be possible?
In 2015, Canadian songwriter Alan Doyle released his Album So Let’s Go. Laying Down to Perish is a moving song on that album that tells the story of four men from Fogo Island, Newfoundland. They lost their lives at sea after being stranded on the ice. The thick fog and heavy rain held back the searchers. Before the men died, they carved a message into the handle of a gaff (fishing hook) to let their fate be known. The song makes me cry every time I hear it.
I found the photo and zoomed in to read the document. Sure enough “On the seventh of April 1917, four young men from the South Side of Joe Batt’s Arm set off in company with each other to go on the ice in quest of seals.” The hair on my arms stood up.
I continued to read “With the changed wind a heavy sea made, rain fell in torrents and this condition of weather lasted a week or more. The men were driven off, rescue work was impossible, death from exposure and starvation was the result.”
What are the odds? I had no idea that frame held the story of the four men destined to die on the ice. The same men Alan Doyle sings about.
My eyes jumped to the bottom of the page. The men had been members of St. John’s Lodge, No. 11, S.U.F. The gaff had been presented to the Lodge and was “placed in a suitable case as a tribute of respect to the sacred memory” of the men.
We didn’t know how or if we’d find it, but everyone was game to try. Based on a quick internet search, we decided that our first stop should be St. John’s Anglican Church. The twenty-minute drive from Fogo to Joe Batt’s Arm was quiet, except for Pat’s music streaming through the speakers.
He leaned forward and fiddled with his phone. A familiar voice sang –
“Living isn’t easy;
Dying isn’t hard;
The hungriest days of winter;
Plays her wicked cards”
As I looked out the window at the rugged landscape, my eyes filled with tears. It had happened here, I thought to myself. One hundred and one years ago. And we’re going to find the gaff.
We pulled into the parking lot of the church. We had been less than a block away this morning when we had gone for brunch. My friend Megan headed out to check the door. Through the window, I watched her pull on the handle. Locked.
My heart sank. What were we thinking?? We’re never going to find it. A needle in a haystack.
The siding on the building across the street matched that of the church. We figured that was as good a reason as any to give it a try. My husband volunteered to check the door.
After a short wait that felt much longer, he waved us in. We found it! To my surprise, my stomach felt jittery.
We entered the building and climbed the stairs where a petite woman waited for us, happy we were there. “You’re here to see the gaff.” It wasn’t a question so much as a statement. “It’s right here.” She led us to a rectangular case fronted by a glass door at the top of the stairs.
“Would you like to hold it?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Hold it? Of course we would!! She carefully took the gaff from its case, removed the hook from the end and showed us the carved letters. We read the words that brought us here. The initials JJ for Joseph Jacobs, one of the three brothers lost. Closer to the end of the handle read DOWN PERISH APRIL 11. Four days after they went missing.
We passed it around our little group so each of us could hold it in our hands. One hundred and one years later, five people stood together for a few moments remembering four strangers.
The wood was smooth, and the gaff was very light. As I held it, I tried to imagine how they had felt. How difficult it must have been to carve those letters into the wood. I thought of how cold they must have been. How scared. I wondered how, in the midst of everything, did they decide to send a message to their families about their fate. The goosebumps were back.
Our host pointed out the bible carefully stored in the display case. She explained that it had belonged to Mrs. Jacobs, mother of the three brothers. The grief she must have felt. I wondered how she and her husband had made it through the early days after their boys’ disappearance and the years that followed.
My focus shifted back to the case. There it was, taped to the glass. “In Memoriam”. A copy of the document I had photographed the day before.
My husband and I recently returned home from a vacation with friends. We traveled across the province of Newfoundland in Atlantic Canada, starting on the west coast in Corner Brook before driving up the Northern Peninsula.
We stayed in Gros Morne Park where we hiked and soaked up the scenery. We then headed north to St. Anthony, the location of the L’Anse au Meadows Viking settlement and the Grenfell Properties. Sir Wilfred Grenfell was a British doctor and missionary who changed health care for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. L’Anse aux Meadows dates back much further to over one thousand years ago. It is a National Historic Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The second leg of the trip took us into the central part of the province. We visited Twillingate and Fogo Island where we explored the communities of Fogo and Joe Batt’s Arm. More hiking, a visit to the Fogo Island Inn, and an up close and personal encounter with a tragic story made famous by Newfoundland musician Alan Doyle.
A long day of driving brought us back to the east coast. We took a break in St. John’s before heading out on the last leg of our trip – two nights in Bonavista. For the last stretch in St. John’s we took in live music, hiked Signal Hill, picked wild blueberries and checked out some great restaurants.
There are so many experiences and memories from our trip to file away in my mind and heart. Newfoundland is a rugged, beautiful place full of stories. We hiked many trails and enjoyed many delicious meals. I’ll be sharing a few of our most memorable experiences with you over the next few weeks. I hope you enjoy them!
Have you met a person for the first time and instantly felt a connection? Or stepped into a building or onto a beach and sensed you had been there before? Have you heard a story and felt the goosebumps rise on your arms?
I have come to realize that this blog is about the power of stories. Tales of people and places and how they connect us. Stories about where people come from, what they have experienced, the trials they have endured, the joy and sadness they have shared.
In our society, many of us are quick to make assumptions. We judge others for their choices and decisions without taking the time to consider their situations or perspectives. Often, we are well off the mark. Things are rarely as they seem.
I hope the stories you find here encourage you to take the time to talk with others, to ask questions, listen to their answers and learn their stories. To practice compassion for others. To see how alike we are instead of how different. How, more often than not, we share similar fears and hopes for ourselves and those we love. That though we have different backgrounds and beliefs, we are doing the best we can.
There is strength in connection. Hearing our experience in a friend’s story can validate what we thought and felt. Hearing our experience in the story of someone who lived generations before links us to the past. Sharing our experience with our youth links us to the future. Stories join us together – in the day to day, from past to present, and from present to future.
The wind howls as it cuts around the corner of the house. It’s relentless and constant. We don’t have wind like this at home. The air sneaks in through the window frames. I feel a chill. I’m glad I packed my long johns. And twelve pairs of socks.
This place is beautiful. Rugged and rocky. Humbling. Living at the mercy of the land and weather gives perspective. I wish it was like that at home. Enjoy the sunny day, not sure when it will return. Visit the sights, always near the ocean.
The next stop across all of that water is Portugal. Three years ago, we stood in Portugal and said the same thing about this place – Newfoundland.
So much rock, but it’s smooth and soft to the eye. Not sharp and harsh. Blue-green and purple-pink rocks colour the ground. Low shrubby growth. So much moss. And the waves.
Those waves. Relentless and gorgeous. Pounding, foaming, never stopping. Reminding me that I am small in the big scheme of things. The pull of the tides and the strength of the wind will carry on, regardless. It’s comforting. This too shall pass… what ever ‘this’ might be.
Happily I realize that there is no ‘this’ for me in this moment. The sun is shining, the waves are pounding. I am with people I care about, sharing this day. I am happy. My heart is full.