Philomène Surette's Dishes
I have some dishes that belonged to my great grandmère DeViller, my mother's mother, Anne Philomène Surette. I don’t know what she used the dishes for. I only know that my mom had them for as long as I can remember.
Philomène, as she was known, lived her whole life in Pinkney's Point, Nova Scotia, a fishing village in a flat, massive network of salt marshes near Yarmouth. She lived in the house that had been in her family since 1858. By the time Philomène was born in 1867, the house was already 100 years old.
Philomène, married Norman DeViller and had 12 children with him. Ten lived to adulthood, including my grandmère, Linda Lucy DeViller. Philomène was the village postmistress for 51 years, sorting and handing over the mail to the people of Pinkney's Point from her dining room.
When my mom talks of Philomène, she always says “I don't think she was very happy”. She speculates that Philomène didn’t love Norman. Norman, it turns out, was not her first husband. I do not know what year Philomène and Norman married, but we do know their first child, (also Norman), was born in 1894.
Just six years prior, in 1888, Philomène married her first husband Étienne Thibodeau. He was a fisherman from Salmon River, about 50 kilometres away from Pinkney’s Point. I know from Grandmère that Étienne died at sea in the first year of their marriage, presumably drowned. I should say that when Grandmère told me this, she used ‘Étienne’ (French for ‘Stephen’), but in his marriage record he is listed as Stephen.
I never asked Grandmère how she knew this, but now I wonder if Philomène had told her directly or if it was village gossip that Philomène’s children all eventually came to know. When Philomène married Norman, he moved into the Surette family home where they raised their family. I can only guess that Étienne had previously done the same thing before his untimely passing.
I can’t help but imagine Philomène standing on the cliff near the house, overlooking the Atlantic, watching for Étienne to return, even years later when she had one of Norman’s babies on her hip. I see her standing there staring out at the sea that swallowed her true love. It’s possible. I’ll never know, but this is where my mind goes.
"The man is the boss of the barn and the woman is the boss of the house". This solid gold nugget was relayed to me by Grandmère. Her father used to say this. How annoying would that be to hear if you were Philomène?
Maybe that statement didn’t sit well with her, or maybe it didn’t bother her at all. Maybe she pined for Étienne until the end of her days. Maybe not. I do know she ran a clean house, so maybe she revelled in the ‘boss of the house’ designation. My mom remembers there was always a fire in the wood stove in the kitchen, clean sheets on the beds, delicious food and fresh cream from the cow. That house, now 255 years old, still sits in Pinkney's Point but it's not in our family anymore.
Philomène died in 1958 at 90 years old. After her death her adult children Mildred and Elie lived in the house. Tante Mildred gave my mom the dishes I have now. The story is that Philomène bought them for 10 cents each from the little store she ran along with the post office.
Mom used the little glass dishes at every Christmas dinner with us to serve carrot pudding. This was not an old family recipe but one that Mom pulled out of her beloved Purity cookbook. This dessert was made palatable to us kids only by the boozy ‘hard sauce’ that went with it and was really just butter frosting laced with rum.
There are only five of the dishes left. I won’t say who broke the sixth one, but it wasn’t me. The glass of each dish is thick and has a thistle design engraved in it. At the Pinkney’s Point house, the dishes were kept in a little built-in cabinet in the sitting room. I remember the room well, visiting with Mildred and Elie there and clambering down to the rocky beach by the house, slippery with seaweed, with my little brothers when we were let outside.
Philomène is long gone and I never knew her, but maybe she has left me something besides the dishes. Maybe it's some of her longing I feel when I look out at the sea, searching the horizon, not for Étienne, but for something. Some kind of longing or belonging that used to be and is no more except in the ones she left behind.
Elizabeth Carter's Dish
I have one thing that belonged to the great grandmother I was named after. It’s a small, delicate, porcelain dish. I don’t know anything about it other than it belonged to her, at least according to my Nan’s cousin Jean.
Elizabeth Carter lived in Canso, Nova Scotia. She married Henry Nickerson, had four babies and raised three to adulthood. One of Elizabeth’s children was my Nan, my Dad’s mom, Dorothy Nickerson. According to Nan, she and her mom, Elizabeth were very close. Elizabeth died in 1943 at the age of 45 of cancer. Nan looked after her until the end. Like many Maritimers of my Nan’s vintage, she’d say ‘cancer’ in a whisper, and then suck in her breath while saying ya, ya, ya.
The story from my parents of how and why I was named after Elizabeth goes like this:
We were sure you were going to be a boy so we didn’t have any girl’s names picked out. We both liked the name Elizabeth and it was your great grandmother’s name.
That’s it. Full stop. My parents didn’t pause to consider the many nicknames for Elizabeth, such as 'Betty' and how that might pair with my last name. Which is fine now because I do like to bake, but in my early days the name did cause me some consternation.
The way Jean gave me this dish belonging to Elizabeth was a little like the way I got my name. It felt like an almost-accident. I was with Nan visiting Jean at her home in Canso and she remembered that she had a dish that belonged to Nan’s mom. I don’t think she had saved it for me in particular. She fished it out of a cluttered cabinet and handed it to me. Nan remembered the dish and was happy for me to have it. I don’t remember her saying much about it. If Nan owned anything else of her mother’s I never knew of it. There was just this dish.
Nan was not the least bit sentimental about things from Canso or her family. She loved them, but there was no need to make a fuss. Just like my parents loved me, but there was no need to make more out of naming me than was there. They liked the name and it belonged to my great grandmother. That was enough.
I’m happy to have the dish and I’m happy enough with my name. I never liked it as a kid. I always felt more like my nicknames. I was definitely more of a Lib and a Libby. These days I mostly go as Liz, but family and old friends still call me by my nicknames.
I don’t know what the dish was used for. I have never used it. I don’t know enough about what would have been served on the supper tables in Canso at that time. Fish for sure and Maritimers like pickles with their fish, so maybe it was for pickles. That’s my theory anyway. I might serve pickles in it next time I make fish. In the meantime, I have a daughter I adore, probably as much as Elizabeth loved her Dorothy, and my daughter gets to hold a dish in her hands that belonged to her great, great grandmother. It’s not much, but it’s something.
I don’t have an ancestral home to go to in Canso, but there is still the house my dad was raised in, that I can peer at from the outside. I can walk the hills Nan roamed as a girl. I can visit the place Elizabeth was buried. There are probably traits Elizabeth Carter and I share, physical or otherwise. I may never know what she has really passed onto me, other than the dish and existence, but that's probably enough.
Caption from an undated newspaper clipping, likely the Yarmouth Vangaurd in 1956: FIRST ON BLUENOSE First motorcyclists from here to make a trip on the MV. Bluenose are these two machines of the Yarmouth Motorcycle Club. Pictured above talking with Chief Officer W. H. Crocker at the entrance to the car ramp are, left, Seth Campbell, son of Mr. and Mrs. S.R. Campbell; and at right, Fraser Macdonald, son of Dr. and Mrs. D.F. Macdonald. The boys are currently on a tour of the New England states. Campbell is president of the local cycle club which has about 25 members. (Photo by Bob Brooks).
That's my grandfather, Captain William Crocker in the photograph. There he is, perfectly framed by young supposed scallywags on motorcycles (the one on the right became a doctor). His authority is so bad-ass he's blocking the bikers with his mere arms. The photo was taken for the Yarmouth paper by photographer Bob Brooks, with the headline: FIRST TWO WHEELERS ABOARD. It's 1956 and Canadian National's (CN) Marine's M.V. Bluenose, is making her inaugural sailing from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Bar Harbor, Maine. Gramps is not yet captain as the two stripes on his cuffs reveal.
Gramps started with the M.V. Bluenose (yes, named for the historic schooner) by first helping to oversee its construction in Quebec. In 1955, he brought his family with him to live in a cabin in Lévis Quebec, on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, across from Quebec City. The Bluenose was built in the shipyards of the Davie Shipbuilding Company in Lauzon, Quebec. My dad, Bill, was 13, his sister Melda was 14 and their brother Len 11.
Three decades later, in a rented Lincoln Town Car, my dad drove me, my mother and my brothers to Quebec to see where they had lived that year. I remember him gesturing across the Saint Lawrence at where the ship had been built. I also remember him mispronouncing 'sans plomb' at every gas station we stopped at in Quebec.
When the Bluenose was ready, the family all moved permanently from their home in Canso Nova Scotia to Yarmouth. An undated newspaper clipping, with the newspaper name also cut off, provides a tidy synopsis of Gramp's career around the time the was made captain, which was about 1964:
Capt. William H. Crocker has been relieving master of the Canadian National’s Bay of Fundy ferry, Bluenose since 1956, has been appointed master of the vessel. Capt. Crocker first went to sea in Newfoundland in fishing vessels before joining the Nova Scotia Shipping Company as a seaman in 1930. He served as second and first mate and later as master on vessels operating out of East coast Canadian and U.S. ports until the Second World War, when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy serving in command of navy minesweepers. After the war he was master of vessels sailing to ports along the Atlantic seaboard and to the Great Lakes before joining Canadian National as master of the ferry Scotia I at Mulgrave, N. S. in 1952. In 1955 he transferred to the Northumberland Strait ferry service at Borden, P.E. I. The same year he became second officer aboard the Bluenose. He was promoted chief officer and later relieving master in 1956.
Gramps was from Trout River, Newfoundland but had met and married my grandmother, Dorothy Nickerson in Canso, Nova Scotia. Canso is about an hour and a half drive from where the Canso Causeway now joins mainland Nova Scotia with the island of Cape Breton. Before the Causeway, there was a CN ferry, the Scotia, that connected the two. Gramps worked on that ferry before being appointed to work on the new M.V. Bluenose.
In Yarmouth, the opening of the Bluenose ferry run was a big deal. My mom remembers getting the day off school. The run itself between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor was six hours long. The ship had plenty of amenities including a casino, bar observation lounge, sun deck, duty-free shop, cafeteria and cabins.
After retiring from the Bluenose, Gramps was interviewed by author Harry Bruce for Lifeline: The Story of the Atlantic Ferries and Coastal Boats. When asked about the sometimes rough Bluenose crossings on the Yarmouth to Bar Harbor route, Captain Crocker said:
'I guess it's as rough as you'll get anywhere in the world.' When weather reports say 'patches of fog in the Bay of Fundy,' Crocker said, 'they mean 'the whole Bay is one big, fog patch. The fog sets in in June and stays till August ... But from November to February you really get your hard weather. It's the tides that make it so bad. During a northeaster or a southwester, it's really bad. You get the tide going in the Bay, and the storm going out. Or you may get the storm going in, and the tide coming out. You get a confused sea, and this is what makes it rough. One element is fighting the other and the ship's in the middle. Also you get a lot of snow to destroy visibility.'
In the rough weather, Crocker would take the Bluenose well up the bay to Grand Manan Island so that her course was an inverted V between he two ports. He called this 'the scenic route'. It took him fifty miles out of the way, but it enabled the Bluenoses to meet the forces of wind and tide on her bows and quarters rather than on her beam. It was easier on passengers, and prevented automobiles and trucks from rolling loose.
'I remember one morning, it was blowing eighteen from the northwest when we left Bar Harbor,' he said. 'Up the shore of Maine a way, it was blowing thirty. At Grand Manan, it was blowing sixty and, when we got to Yarmouth, it was blowing seventy. When we docked, we did some damage to a plate near the bow.'
Gramps lived his life the way he guided the Bluenose through the Atlantic, with confidence, skill and determination. It was a clear sightedness that I imagine was born from the poverty of his childhood in the outport of Trout River, Newfoundland. He was determined to survive and make a better life for himself.
When Gramps died in 1979, his wife and children carried his ashes back to Trout River as he had requested. He hadn’t lived there in more than 50 years. but Newfoundland was still home. As the joke goes,
How can you tell a Newfoundlander in heaven?
They’re the ones that want to go home.
Gramp's childhood home in Trout River is now a historic site and open as a tourist attraction. His family home has been preserved as a good example of a fisherman’s saltbox home. It’s called the Jacob A. Crocker House and was built by Gramp’s father Jacob.
I've only been lucky enough to visit Trout River twice, but when I have, I can easily feel how the isolation and extreme beauty of that place shaped my grandfather's life and career as a master mariner, and never left him.
Growing up, I was told that my mom's grandfather, Henri Amirault, had been a rumrunner. Annoyingly, that was all the details my family could give. Nothing more. One day in 1997, about a year before she died, I thought to ask Henri's daughter-in-law, my Grandmere, Linda Amirault. I asked her about Henri and the rumrunning rumours. She didn't say much about rumrunning but she did say "Oh, Henri had lots of boats. He named them after all his children. He had the Abel A, the Eddie James, the Nelson A, the Francis Lucy and one called Spindle I think."
I'd heard of the Nelson A, but not the others, and certainly not the Abel A., as that was my Grandpere's name. The Nelson A, was sunk by a German U-boat in WWI . The crew survived, and Henri Amirault later received compensation from the Canadian government for loss of property during a war. But this was the first I'd heard about these other vessels. I figured he maybe a had a few boats, but according to Grandmere, he had a fleet.
Since Grandmere was known to stretch the truth. I needed proof, so I headed to the Yarmouth Archives. Yarmouth is the town in Nova Scotia where my mother is from. Her father's family, the Amiraults are Acadian, first arriving from France, in what is now Nova Scotia in the 1600s.
In the old Acadian way, if she was asked who she was, my mom would reply, Gloria á Abel, á *Henri, á Jacques Amirault'. In this way she named her father's line up to her great grandfather, to distinguish her from other Amirault's (of which there were lots at the time). Henri Amirault was born in Pubnico, about 40 kilometres from Yarmouth, in 1866.
Historical Aside: Jacque Amirault's great, great grandfather (also named Jacque) was hauled off during the Acadian Expulsion by the English. Jacque and family were reportedly captured in their Pubnico beds by English troops in 1756, forced onto the aptly named Vulture, a ship that was used to move many Acadians out of what is now known as the Maritimes.(1) But unlike those who were sent to Louisiana, to become known as Cajuns, these Acadians were sent to Boston, survived in exile there for ten years, then returned to Pubnico. Descendants of these families still live in the area today, and they boast about their tenacity through highway signs that state: Pubnico: Oldest Acadian Village Still Acadian.
Back at the archives, with a little digging on my own and the help of some stalwart archivists, I soon had some solid evidence of Henri Amirault's raging business and evidence of rumrunning during prohibition.
It turned out that Grandmere was mostly right about Henri's ships, though she did get some of the names wrong. He did own many vessels, and he did name some of them after his children. But he also had something else, a large, successful business, the Yarmouth Trading Company.
I suppose it is not surprising that this part of our family history had dropped out of our oral history. I think if this had been a story from Grandmere's side of the family, we would have all known about it in shocking, colourful detail. But because it was Grandpere's side, he being a man of few words and dying 17 years before his wife, there wasn't as much opportunity for storytelling. To illustrate this family dynamic, here's an overheard snippet of dialogue between my grandparents:
Grandmere: Abel, you don't say a word!
Grandpere: Good Lord, woman you don't give me a chance.
Back to our story. Henri Amirault married Louise Duon November 20, 1895, They had seven children:
Compare their names to some of Henri's ships:
You can see that Henri did in fact name some of his vessels after his children. Though it's a bit of a stretch, I like to think 'Mabel A' was a backhanded tribute to Grandpere, Abel U., but that's probably wishful thinking.
Archivist Janice Stelma had pulled out the shipping records to determine what Henri owned. Fittingly, it was her keen eye that finally found proof that Henri was rumrunning. She found two of Henri's ships mentioned in the local rumrunning literature. The Eddie James is linked to rumrunning in, Duty-Free A Prohibition Special by Geoff and Dorothy Robinson and in Rum War at Sea by Malcolm F. Willoughby:
On March , the Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, schooner Eddie James sailed dejectedly into Halifax harbour. Some days earlier, she had left Halifax for the Jersey coast with 600 cases of liquor. She had anchored to dispose of her cargo and some had been delivered. Not long afterward, at dusk, a launch from a large and powerfully built steamer drew alongside, and five sturdy men armed to the teeth came over the side brandishing their pistols. They fired a volley, hitting and wounding the supercargo. Two of the pirates then held the crew at bay while the others removed the entire remaining cargo, and took $8000 in cash for good measure. The pirates then escaped, taking with them the wounded man. Eddie James headed back to Halifax.
While I was digging into all this, Uncle Billy, the baby of the family and last remaining child of Henri and Louise, was still living. Uncle Billy remembered Henri lamenting over ever getting involved with criminals, even chastising himself out loud for letting his vessels be used to move liquor to the United States.
Henri must have seen things were going wrong, that the successful business he built from scratch was in jeopardy. Why he risked his business and his family's well-being, I don't know and may never know. Like anything you start to look into, I'm left with more questions than answers.
One answer I did get was how Henri's business, the Yarmouth Trading Company, ended up in the hands of Laurence Sweeney. (This little nugget of information was told by Kent Sweeney to archivist Janice Stelma). In 1925, Henri declared bankruptcy. He owed $28,000. Bidding started at $5,000, with Austin Nickerson and Laurence Sweeney as the only bidders. Sweeney was the successful bidder at $5,500 because Henri's men backed him. Nickerson had an existing building with workers, and Sweeney did not. Henri's men knew they'd be out of work if Nickerson won the bid. Sweeney won the bid and kept Henri's workers. And that's why the painting of Henri Amirault's Yarmouth Trading Company hangs today in the W. Laurence Sweeney Fisheries Museum.
Henri Amirault died in 1926, a year after he lost the business. His obituary says: "...for several years prominently associated with the fish business of Yarmouth town and county, died at his home, on Second St., ... he had been in poor health for over a year."
1. Seven Centuries of Amirault Family History, The Acadian Corner by Claude Cregheur.
Traffic Cone Christmas Weed
Oh for gawd's sake, eh? The world is falling apart, or so it seems. Although it is November, so my perceptions are probably a little off.
When life gets dark, a walk outside always helps. And if you can do that, if you can get out in a place not overcome with smog and pavement, that can be enough to shake you out of a downward spiral. Soon enough if you are lucky, all bad and Trump related thoughts will be left behind, because: behold the air is fresh and look there, something green is growing.
Today I heard on the Canadian national news that in North Carolina someone has decked out a weed, that is growing out of a traffic cone, in Christmas decorations. This made the Canadian NATIONAL news.
Personally, I've always been the sort of person to stop and marvel when Mother Nature defies human intervention and decides to push through concrete for example. I sigh with relief when I see that on a city street. 'Ah,' I think, 'maybe we shan't ruin the whole bloody planet if that small flower can manage in a wee spot like that.'
So I get where this Traffic-Cone-Weed-Decorator is coming from. They saw a little light in this dark time and thought they'd build on it. This news is delivered in the same breath as Trump lifting a ban on hunters bringing home trophy animal parts. The sacred and the profane, served up side by side.
Look at this photo of my dog!
See I just did the same thing. I was talking about something dark and then I distracted you with my cute dog.
If you are thinking, 'Hey Crocker, that is not November light your dog is basking in,' you'd be correct. That photo was taken in the summer. Now that we're in deepest darkest November, he's taken off the shades.
I'm just messing with you. Or am I?
In the 1990s, I worked in wilderness conservation and I worked with some intense, passionate people. One of those people was Randy Stoltmann. Randy wrote several books before his untimely death in 1994. In Written on the Wind he reminds us to:
Hike the forests, climb the peaks, ski the icefields, walk the beaches, canoe and kayak the rivers, lakes and seashore. Or just lie in a meadow, breathe the clear air and renew yourself. Stop. Think. Listen. Hear the roaring vastness of a great valley or the sigh of wind in the treetops, or the eternal thunder of breakers on the shore. Then go back and speak to the world from your heart.
I think of Randy's words often, but I don't act on them as much as I should. But when I do, when I get outside, I always feel better.
I know those passionate activists I used to work with didn't always get outside enough. There were a lot of sparks flying in those staff meetings. When I say 'sparks' I mean punches. There were also arguments over who was the most committed or in some cases who could pronounce place names correctly. When we were all still struggling with how to say 'Tatshenshini' one veteran reminded a particularly holier-than-thou colleague that when we first started campaigning on Clayoquot (pronounced cla-quot) there were plenty of people wandering around the office saying 'clay-o-quot! clay-o-quot!'
Too much time in the office, not enough time outside.
Yesterday morning I drove out to a beach I'd never walked before with Bixby. He was very happy about the new smells. There was an interesting crop of seaweed that had been delivered on the last tide that the crows were excited about. It was cold. The air was salty. I spotted a loon. A grey cloud followed us. The rain held off. It wasn't a lot but it was enough.
I could also write, it was so much I could hardly stand it.
Chickenman & Bruno Gerussi
Do yourself a favour, go somewhere quiet, slip on some earbuds and listen to archived episodes of Dick Orkin's Chickenman here. Go ahead. I'll wait.
See what I mean? C'mon! Chickenman is the best. You cannot be in a bad mood after listening to Chickenman.
In case you missed out on him, Chickenman was a popular radio series in the 1960s and 70s. I listened to it from Kamloops BC. Little did I know it was produced out of Chicago, Illinois by creator and voice talent Dick Orkin.
When I was a kid, just hearing the opening sequence was enough to send anyone in my house lunging at the radio to turn up the volume. And you had to be quick, they were very short episodes, about two minutes each. Turns out, we weren't the only ones turning up the volume. Chickenman was loved by millions around the world. For me it is Mr. Orkin's dry, earnest delivery of the Winged Warrior that made it so funny. The other voices are great too, the scripts are tight, but it is Chickenman's deep, sincere voice that gets me every time.
After recently listening to a few of these two minute super episodes, it occurred to me that Chickenman influenced my sense of humour more than I realized. I mimicked Chickenman's absurdity in a few stories I wrote in high school. One in particular featured talking chickens. Specifically, a talking chicken with a dream of flying long distances. Sadly, the story ends in tragedy for the chicken, McDonalds had just launched their Chicken McNuggets and I wove that into the story.
In the story, my avian hero heads to the local airport, straps on a parachute and boards a plane to prove that he can fly, really fly. We learn of his quest through the voice of a passionate journalist reporting each step of the journey. On the way down, after leaping from the plane the chicken hits 'the deep fry zone' and lands as a pile of Chicken McNuggets.
I know. Predictable. But it made me and my best friend Sharon laugh, which for me, was most of point of that class. The silly spirit of Chickenman also emerged in another story I wrote about a chocolate Easter bunny factory. One of the bunnies stands up and leads the others in solidarity away from the evil factory owner who is (they have just discovered) making them for people to eat. Sadly, the bunnies' escape-route skirts past the furnace and they melt before freedom is theirs. You get the idea.
Another pop culture influence, though not so comic, was The Beachcombers. If you did not grow up in Canada during the time Beachcombers was on the air it would be hard to understand it. Though Mike Myers describes it perfectly in his recent Mike Myer's Canada,
'[Beachcombers] was set in British Columbia, and it was about a coastal community that had to deal with the scourge of driftwood.'
Myers definition is bang on. As a kid watching the show I remember being mostly confused about the fuss around the massive logs floating in the ocean that Nick Adonidas (Bruno Gerussi) and Relic (Robert Clothier) were constantly fighting over. My dad, who loved the show, I'm sure was annoyed by my incessant questions to understand the motivation behind the driftwood-based plot. Why all the fuss about logs in the water? Why were the logs in the water? How did they get there? Who pays money for logs?
For a few years my family spent summer vacations on tiny Mudge Island in BC's southern Gulf Islands. I recall one visit being so bored, my brothers and cousin and I decided to 'play Beachcombers'. This was not an established game, we just made it up. Today's parenting experts might describe it as 'landscape-induced-imaginary-play'.
We did not have a motor boat, but our 1970s parents had left us alone on the shore with a row boat and a piece of rope and there were massive westcoast logs bobbing in the waves all around us. It was perfect. We quickly assigned roles, tied a log to the back of the row boat and then tried to row away as quickly as Relic's power boat might go when stealing one of Nick Adonidas's coveted logs. We spent days doing this, each of us taking turns being the log-stealing Relic and the indignant hero Nick Adonidas. Clearly we had nothing else to do.
Though to mix things up a bit at night we put on a show. The only remnant of this show I remember is my Uncle Harold doing a ridiculous 'magic' show with just his fingers and a little faux vaudeville exchange number he taught me to do with him that included the infamous: '
Me: Who was that lady I saw you with the other night?
Uncle Harold: That was no lady that was my wife.
From below the stage (a large sandstone rock jutting out over the beach) Auntie Melda enthusiastically cheering us on and chiding us at the same time. Loving the joke at her own expense. That great energetic laugh of hers carrying out over the sea and revving us up. All the adults drinking something out of their plastic camping glasses. The melted-marshmallow-encrusted kids still wearing life jackets. Golden moments came out of that boredom.
The human imagination is an amazing thing. And childhood experiences so impactful. It is often memories of these early influences and childhood play that give me perspective when things get a bit heavy in my adult world. And thank goodness for that. I'm going to go listen to a little Chickenman.
Honour Thy Music
I went to Nashville, Tennessee and all I brought back was this divine spoon-rest. No, that's not quite true. That's an alternative fact. I also bought boots and a T-shirt. But, I digress. But not really. By alluding to the Trump presidency with the term 'alternative facts' I am introducing that I have been wading through my feelings about this new world order we find ourselves in. I've been struggling with how the heck to write lightly when I'm not feeling light. More to the point, how can I tell you about my epic visit to Tennessee earlier this month and express how I feel about the new American president?
Wait. I know. I'll just take care of the latter first. I think he's an idiot. The worst kind of idiot, an evil idiot.
The impending inauguration was everywhere when my travelling companion, Vanessa, and I went to Nashville a few weeks ago. We had carefully planned our trip so that we'd be in and out of the States while Obama was still in power. However, we were reminded on a few occassions that we were in a Red state. The most notable occasion during a performance of the Grand Ole Opry at the famous Ryman Auditorium. When one of the male performers introduced his last song, he mentioned he'd be playing it the following week at the inaugural ball. Wait for the cliché: The crowd went wild! They erupted in cheers. Being mild-mannered Canadians we had never been in a crowd of people cheering for an event celebrating a racist, bully, sexual predator. It was chilling. Then at the end of his song, he got a standing ovation. There were only about 100 of us left sitting in the 2000 seat Ryman. That's when Vanessa leaned over to me and commented that this was 'the cool slap of reality' to remind us that we were in the Deep South.
When I started this blog I wrote a bit about the infamous Canada or Bust Tour of 1987. Don't fret if you've not heard of it, the tour loomed large only in my own personal mythology and that of my intrepid friend Vanessa. You will not see it on Heritage Minutes. We did not publish widely about it. In fact, we did not publish at all. We kept a travel journal as we crossed Canada in Vanessa's mothers' Blue Chevy Horizon. We spoke at dinner parties and bars and other social engagements when allowed, but otherwise it was a chapter in Canadian history that has slipped slowly into the past. Thirty years past to be exact.
But Vanessa and I revived the 'Bust' experience when we pulled off our 'Nashville, Memphis or Bust' tour. We have been talking about this trip for years. We like the old country, see. I'm talking about the Carter Family, Cline, Cash, Lynn and all their descendants. We wanted to go the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and go Honky 'Tonkin'. Check, check and check.
We also wanted to drive to Graceland so we could listen to Paul Simon's Graceland all the way there. Apparently we weren't the first ones to think of this. The all Elvis Sirius radio station played on the Graceland song too, catering to music pilgrims like us racing to Elvis Presley Boulevard.
That was all very weird. Graceland itself I mean. We hadn't discussed actually arriving at Graceland, it was all about getting the car and driving to Graceland. And stopping at Loretta's Lynn's ranch on the way, which to our dismay was closed or at least the museum on the ranch was closed.
When Vanessa called the ranch to ask if there was anything else to see and do there when the museum was closed the curt reply was:
Thankfully, Loretta saw fit to place Loretta's Kitchen right off the I-40 at the exit to the ranch. At her café and store we were able to secure the much coveted Loretta Lynn nail clippers that I knew must exist. There was also an excellent assortment of hunting knives, an unfortunate confederate flag section and even a handmade sign that said 'huntin' crafted from empty bullet shells.
By the time we made it to Graceland, it was lunch time. I'm here to tell you that Vanessa dined on Elvis's favourite snack, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches (because how often can you order that off a menu?) I had something else fried. Lots of deep fried choices in Tennessee.
In fact, related story, on our way back to Nashville from Memphis we stopped at a McDonalds out of desperation for road food. When I ordered a Southwest Salad, I kid you not, the front staff and all visible kitchen staff stopped what they were doing and looked at me. It was clear no one had ordered the salad in quite some time. It actually came with fried chicken and had more calories than Vanessa's burger, but still its base was lettuce, and it seemed that was a radical choice at a McDonalds in Tennessee.
Back in Nashville the tagline at the Country Music Hall of Fame is 'Honor Thy Music.' Music is at the heart of Nashville. It is created, nurtured and honoured there in great quantities. All these years that I've longed to go down there and walk where those songwriters walked and listen in the same places where Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash used to sing, I felt like there was something I needed to hear. I listened as carefully as I could. And I did hear a sacred chord. I felt what I hoped I'd feel and not just because I found an awesome pair of red Justins.
I felt bursting full of gratitude to experience that place with Vanessa. The only person in the world who would appreciate going to the exact same places as me. I was received at Graceland, (just like Paul said I would be). I felt received at the end of the tour when I ended up in front of Elvis's grave. I'd forgotten that it was there, but there it was. (As was a wreath of birthday flowers from the Northern Ireland Elvis Presley Fan Club. Established in 2010 (huh?). I sat down on the cold, stone steps and looked around at Graceland and the terminus of Elvis's mortal journey and thought how bizarre it was that I was even there. I remembered being in the shag-carpeted, sunken living room of our house in Kamloops when I heard on the radio that Elvis Presley had died. I was just a kid, but everyone knew who Elvis was. Now here I was a lifetime later at his beloved Graceland.
Just the night before I had watched in awe at the Bluebird Café as a young singer-songwriter, Carly Pearce, announced her dream had come true that very day when she signed a recording contract with Scott Borchetta. He just happens to be the guy that discovered Taylor Swift at the Bluebird Café, and he just happened to be sitting next to us TEXTING TAYLOR SWIFT about Carly Pearce.
It was like I was seeing the whole spectrum of the recording industry up close in four days. From the Bluebird Café to Graceland to the small bands in the Honky Tonks to the Mother Church, the Ryman Auditorium. It was epic. I went to the birthplace of the music that I love and it did not disappoint. America has produced some of the world's most powerful music and some of my favourite musicians. Unfortunately, it also hosts an assortment of scary wackos that have power now. But listening to a good song can help. Honour thy music.
I lived in Saint John, New Brunswick for a year when I was a kid (literally a year, to the day). One of the things I remember is that we had a terrible ice storm that year. (A man ice fishing on the Kennebecasis River near our house, stood up and was swept across the river by the wind and froze to death before anyone could find him. It was a brutal storm). The other thing I remember from that year is the Saint John version of 'We Three Kings' that the kids were singing in elementary school.
We three kings of Haymarket Square
Try to sell some cheap underwear
So fantastic, no elastic
25 cents a pair.
Haymarket Square is a place in Saint John. You had to be there. We thought we were hilarious. Saint John was also the place my family enacted a Christmas tradition right out of the storybooks when my dad drove us to a remote forest (so we wouldn't be caught) trundled into the silent, snow-covered woods and picked out a beautiful tree, cut it down and drove it home. It wasn't until the end of the day when the tree was drying out in the back porch that we noticed the smell. Turns out we had carefully selected a Cat Spruce which has the infamous trait of smelling like cat pee. Needless to say we had to abandon that poor tree and chose another.
Ah Christmastime. Some of us are just tryiing to make it through the holidays. Some of us love every minute of it. Some of us glide through on some merging of the two. Whatever your preference and even if you don't celebrate Christmas, if you live in the northern hemisphere, the dark winter months are times for reflection. Last month I wrote about the dark days of November and holding onto my warm, happy memories in the sun. By December, with Christmas lights twinkling all around me, I'm in full reflection mode.
I'm also well past my annual date of personal Christmas reckoning when I have a serious talk with myself and accept that I will have to pare down my expectations and plans once again. I hit that usually about the first week of December. It's a direct result of sometime back in early November having fleeting visions of the dangerous idea 'this year it will be different'.
This year I'll be that person by the fire with a cup of tea and a good book, swaddled in a tidy house, full of Christmas baking. My homemade gifts are wrapped and delivered. You know how the rest of that nonesense goes. A part of me never believes that will happen so it's not a dissapointment that hits hard. It's just always somehow a bit of surprise. It is amazing to me that I can fool myself like that each November. Why can't I use that mind power more effectively elsewhere in my life?
This year again I have dissapointed myself by not producing an epic Christmas form letter. I really think this idea has legs and one year I will get to it. I can't take all the credit, it's something the husband and I have wanted to write and send out for years. A Christmas letter highlighting the lows and banal details of the past year. A snubbing and retort to its brighter cousin, the Christmas letter reporting only the highs and banal victories of the past year. Our letter would tell it like it is and also aim to bore you with descriptions of dull trips and plantings in the garden.
'Well, another year of dissapointment and heartache has come and gone. We tried again to grow cilantro in the backyard and once again met with defeat. We just can't seem to get the hang of it. We bought the expensive soil this year (only to have our debit card declined at the till and forced to add more debt to the VISA) and tried a more southern exposure, but to no avail. The kids are growing like weeds. Speaking of weed ... '
You get the idea. Maybe I'll get to it next year. And there is the problem right there. Next year. At this time of year I am constantly reminded of the passing of time. The speed of it and the blow of it. Time allows for all this, our entire existence, yet it is measured and finite. Each breath really an heroic accomplishment. All of it a double-edged sword of sweetness and sad. Which is why I wanted to put the two photographs above together.
The first picture is of an elf I bought at a Christmas craft fair last year. He's only been with me a year and clearly feeling comfortable as I recently caught him in my kitchen making snow angels with flour, no doubt in ancitipation of Christmas. The second is of my Uncle Brian. My elf reminds me to be silly and so does Brian. Uncle Brian loved Christmas and he also died just before Christmas, which still seems both apt and unfair. Apt because I think of him so much more at Christmas, like he is injecting himself into everything I do, but in a spirited, good way. The man was capable of silliness personified. And silliness is a bright light in a dark world. It's not just for kids. I try to be more silly this time of year, to remember Uncle Brian and to cheer myself up.
My favourite Christmas song is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and I think because it captures the full melancholoy of the season. 'If the fates allow'. We never know if we'll be here next year or who among our beloved will be gone by next. It's a simple line that is not so simple. It captures our existence of never knowing from one minute to the next what is really going to happen. The song holds the joy and the sadness of the season. Forces us to 'hang a shining star among the highest boughs' because what else can we do? But go on and try to live with light and love in our moments here with each other.
And now solstice has come and gone. From the depths of December we're spinning towards spring. More importantly, tonight is Tipsy Eve, a sacred holiday celebrated by some members of my Atlantic family. Christmas is almost here. Whatever you celebrate Dear Reader, tonight I will raise a glass to you and wish you light and silliness wherever you are.
The Dark Days
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend some time in Maui with my family. I wrote about it here. It was an unforgettable trip and believe me I know how privileged I am to have experienced it. While there, we had a particularly stellar day. We'd been there at least a week and were watching yet another beautiful sunset after playing and swimming in the ocean for hours and the light was golden and everything was full and delicious.
I stopped my daughter and looked her in the eye and said remember this. Remember this day and this moment when we are back home and a bad day comes because it will come. Remember this time so you always know that life can be good and sweet and beautiful.
More recently, this year I had an afternoon that equalled that evening in Maui. I floated down the Penticton Channel in BC's Okanagan with some of my best friends in the entire world. It took hours. I can't remember how long. We had drinks and snacks floating along with us. Our kids were tethered to us on inflatables. The sun was hot and the water was warm and we had each other. For an entire afternoon we did nothing but drift and float and laugh and eat until we came to the end where we had to deflate everything, dry ourselves and drive off into the sunset. It was grand and immensely soul satisfying.
I don't take days like that for granted. I store them away. Banking happiness is as good as meditating or praying. Maybe it's the same thing. For sure it serves the same purpose. Like building up calcium in our bones or a good layer of fat we can live off in lean times. We need to take in goodness to sustain us in times of darkness.
It's November now, which I have insisted for decades to anyone who will listen, "November is a month we can safely do without." Sure there are some pretty great people I know and love who were born in November, but other than that, please.
This November, America elected a crass, misogynist, racist buffoon. In the same week Leonard Cohen died. An abysmal time for humanity.
I used to have a few Leonard Cohen lines posted around my house. In particular in the kitchen I made a large sign with his famous lines:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
When my step-son was a young teen this was entertainment for him and his friends, because of course to them 'crack' was an anatomical reference. They would come into the kitchen, point at Leonard's words and laugh.
Ah, the children are our teachers. I would smile, breathe deeply and resist throwing food at them for mocking Cohen's words.
I don't know what to do with this November yet, but I am drawing deep on the reserves I've banked for this rainy season. This is a bit difficult as I'm practically hibernating.
In the meantime, I made my mother laugh hysterically the other day simply by walking her to her car wearing yellow rubber boots and an ill-fitting jacket over my pajamas. It's the little things.
It's still a few weeks until solstice and the light begins to return. But it will return. Until then I recommend mild hibernation, mixed with reflection on sunnier days. Attempting to make people laugh by your clothing choices is also an option. Whatever works. Do whatever you have to do to get through the dark days. They won't last forever.
Recently a friend posted on social media that she should probably take down the Mother's Day cards that were still on the fireplace mantle. I chuckled until a few days later I glanced at my own fireplace mantle to see that my Mother's Day cards were still there. It was September.
It reminded me of the day I found myself smiling at the tiny old lady across from me on the city bus whose feet did not reach the floor. Then I looked down at my own feet swinging casually above the ground like I was a toddler in a highchair.
Humbling experiences are good for us. I think. I held onto this thought earlier in the fall when I realized I had not switched out the winter gear for summer stuff by our front door. Hats, gloves, scarves etc. sat there through the heat of July and August. No one else in the house seemed to notice. I don't live alone. The good thing of course is now I don't have to switch them out again. Hurray for mayhem and household chaos!
I've been spending more time on the bus lately, for the most part in my small, tidy city, an innocuous experience, Last week a young woman got on the bus with a large, stuffed-to-the-brim backpack, a rain jacket, long black leggings with fuzzy colourful socks pulled up over her ankles, topped off with hiking boots.
People that was me in the 90s. I don't know what it was like in the rest of the world, but on the west coast of Canada in the early 90s black leggings, big socks and boots were all the rage. Throw in a flannel plaid shirt and you were golden. At that time I worked for a science organization teaching environment and energy education in schools. One day at the end of an energy program when the room was littered with turbines, lightbulbs and colourful props, in the midst of more pertinent questions, one young boy switched gears and asked "Do you all wear big boots because you work with wires?"
The other two facilitators and I looked down at the end of our black clad legs. Indeed we all were wearing army boots or Doc Martins. The kid had made an astute observation. We should have said we were victims of fashion, but we smiled and mumbled something clever to cover our surprise at the uniformity.
I took that rough and rugged lumberjack look with me and two friends all the way to Europe. There we represented Canada in numerous countries, always with overstuffed backpacks, black leggings, gortex rain jackets, and while travelling, we mixed it up with hiking boots.
In elegant Italy, balmy Greece, stylish France, lovely Switzerland, Germany and Austria, we tromped into cafés, restaurants, hostels and inns and sometimes peoples' homes, with this bulky backpacking look.
In England we were invited to a slightly posh engagement party of the cousin of one of my travelling companions. They insisted we leave our hiking boots on and not leave them at the door, which of course we wanted to do because we'd had them on all day. They were heavy and everyone else at the party had dainty, urban shoes. It's not easy to carefully cross a fancy English living room to shake hands with someone when you're wearing purple Merrell hiking boots. It wears on one's confidence.
It was at this party where one of the attendants looked us up and down (how foreign we must have seemed) and said in her upper middle class accent, "you girls really are marvellous aren't you with your gortex and your hiking boots?" Yes we were marvellous.
I wanted to tell that young woman on the bus last week that she was marvellous too, but there was no way to do that and make sure she knew I had done it first. My legs were swinging above the bus floor and my shoes were closer to dainty than rugged. She wouldn't have believed me.