About an hour outside of St. John's, Roaches Line frays off the Trans-Canada, connecting to a small two lane highway along the north coast of Conception Bay that ravels through tiny outport communities built on granite headlands or set alongside fields of scrub trees and barrens and marsh: Spaniard's Bay, Blackhead, Broad Cove,
Burnt Point, Caplin Cove. Loose knots of clapboard-sided churches and convenience stores and wharves, a mix of the square, utilitarian saltbox houses built in the “old days” and splitlevel bungalows looking like refugees from the suburbs, with vinyl siding, attached garages, satellite dishes.
My father was born and raised in one of the old saltbox houses, in Western Bay, a half-hour beyond Harbour Grace. By the time I began spending summer vacations there as a child, it was heated by an oil furnace and equipped with indoor plumbing, but even then it felt ancient to me, and slightly alien. A daybed sat beside the stove in the kitchen, the windows above it striated by age, the uneven thickness of the glass panes refracting trees and fences at odd angles. There was a foot-pump organ in the parlour, darkly varnished rails leading upstairs. The tap water was supplied by a well my grandfather dug when he built the house, before he married my grandmother, and it tasted of clay and moss. The uncut meadow grass out back stood nearly as high as my chest. The fish flakes were long gone by then, but the outhouse still tilted in the yard near a windowless storehouse that was padlocked shut, the chain filthy with rust. Next door, Annie Crummey, dads cousin, kept half a dozen animals, grew a winter’s supply of root vegetables in the garden.
I was always touched by the strangeness of the place. Smell of cow shit and salt water. I knew the old house and the community itself as mine somehow, and at the same time, couldn’t escape the feeling that I didn’t belong, that I was little more than a tourist there.
My father began fishing with my grandfather at the age of 9, spending five months of the year down on the Labrador after cod. He left school early in the spring and started late at the end of the season. He quit altogether after my grandfather died, taking over the family fishery at the age of 16. Two years later and $200 in debt, he left Western Bay for a job at a mining operation in central Newfoundland. He intended to work there long enough to pay off the debt and go back to fishing, but stayed on
Michael Crummey is a St. Johns writer whose first novel, River Thieves, will be published by Doubleday Canada in September.
in Buchans until the mine closed down 30 years later.
I don’t know how difficult a decision that was for him, but I can imagine it was hard to be nostalgic about the life he left behind. Fishing was brutally physical work. Crews of four or five men in small open boats on the unpredictable North Atlantic, dipping hundreds of pounds of cod from the traps or hand-lining in deepwater shoals; then splitting and salting the fish on the stagehead, hour upon hour with the cutting knives, their woolen gloves soaked with salt water and blood. At the height of the season, when the cod were running strong, a crew slept only two or three hours a night. As a boy, my father sometimes pissed on his cramped, swollen hands in the mornings, unable to make a fist without the hot salve of the urine to ease the pain.
Hearing him talk about those days, I recognize it as a time and place apart, a vestige of a pre-industrial world that somehow survived well into the 20th century. “You would never have managed it,” he once told me. Meaning, I think, that it was a life people survived partly because they knew nothing different.
IN THE SHORT SPAN OF TIME SINCE MY FATHER MOVED inland to work (more or less since confederation with Canada), the world he grew up in has disappeared completely. I’ve spent my whole life watching him watch it go. I’m just now beginning to see how my sense of Newfoundland has been skewed by my insistence on looking back through that lens of decay and dissolution, of conflicted regret. I recendy moved home, to a small house above the harbour in downtown St. John’s, after spending 13 years—most of my adult life—in Kingston, Ont. Needless to say, it’s not what I expected.
“The Past” is big business in Newfoundland these days. St. John’s: City of Legends is awash in tourist kitsch—“Newfie” stores selling Viking memorabilia and plastic sou’wester hats, faux screech-ins at George Street bars, enough fiddle music to float the Titanic. People have to eat, I guess, and you give tourists what they want or they stop coming. But there’s something about the whole undertaking that feels unhealthy and dishonest somehow. It suggests there’s nothing to the place but good-time nostalgia.
What I’ve found most striking since returning is the now of what’s happening here, the spark and range of the new. Original live theatre and readings, festivals of new dance, of independent film. A mass youth choir of singers from Newfoundland and 14 countries at this year’s Festival 500 opening their performance with an Estonian folk song and closing with a new arrangement of Feller from Fortune. Seventy-two-year-old blues journeyman Eddie Kirkland from Macon, Ga., playing an unrehearsed show with three young St. John’s musicians at a downtown bar, the local guys craning to catch Kirkland’s chord changes as they went, the crowd keeping them onstage until 3:30 in the morning.
Lunch today at a coffee shop on Duckworth Street: tandoori seafood chowder. On the face of it, I thought, staring into the bowl doubtfully, this could go either way. I ended up having seconds.
The Newfoundland I came home to is different from the one I carried with me when I was away. Not less itself, but more varied, more expansive. A culture deep enough to accommodate a world of influences without surrendering what makes it unmistakably of this place. Something alive and leaning towards the future.
is insistence on looking back, a writer realizes, has skewed his sense of Newfoundland
Still, there will always be that ache of loss about Newfoundland for me, a sense of how part of what it was is passing out of our lives for good. And that feeling is most palpable when I drive along the north shore of Conception Bay where my fathers people lived and fished for generations.
The saltbox house in Western Bay is gone now. After my grandmother died in the 1970s, it was rarely occupied, and as the years passed the building required repairs and upkeep no one could justify paying for. Like a lot of the older houses around the bay, it was broken into several times and stripped of handmade furniture and oil lamps and other collectibles, anything that could be sold in upscale antique markets in Ontario or Quebec or one of the northern states. Dad and his brother and sister talked about it a long time before surrendering to the inevitable a couple of years ago. I didn’t think to ask for something from the building when it was torn down—a spindle from the stair rail, a window frame, a cupboard door—and that seems like a callous oversight now.
The contractor who dismanded the house took the salvaged lumber as partial payment. He said the beams were solid and dry, as good as the day my grandfather put them up almost a century ago. 03
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