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A Giant Among Men
My grandfather's heart was bigger than he.
The night my grandfather died, I couldnât get to sleep. I drank warm milk, which I detest, counted sheep and practiced relaxation techniques learned when my children were months from being born. At ten-thirty, midnight, two a.m., although I was exhausted, sleep eluded me. I lay on my bed, next to my snoring partner, and marveled at how wide is the gulf between the two shores of a king-sized mattress. Tree toads and crickets mumbled and chirped outside my window, boasting about the early Niagara summer. Ordinarily, these gentle night sounds would have lulled me into doziness. Not that night. That long, interminable May night, I kept a deathwatch. There was no sadness streaming from my eyes, no heart being held together by will power glue. My grandfatherâs death was a celebration: He had long since made his peace with his impending end.
âI donât know why God is keeping me alive, sure, darling,â he told me as I sat on the edge of the crisply sheeted hospital bed in April. âIâm ready to go, more than ready. Your grandmother, your Aunt Ida, all my friends my age are gone already. What reason do I have to stick around?â
I stood up, allowing Mr. John Jones to take my place of honour at his feet.
âYou may be ready to go,â I assured him, âbut weâre not ready to see you leave.â
âIâve had a long life,â he said, nodding his head. The wisps of hair grew like frosty grass at the base of his bald head. âA good life.â
âWeâre heading back to Toronto tonight, sweetie,â I said, kissing the top of his head as I had so many thousands of times before. âNeil, Jennifer, give Great-grandpoppie a big kiss.â
He hugged my children. When he shook my hand as he kissed me goodbye, I visibly winced. He may have been almost ninety-three years old and knocking at deathâs door, but his grip was as strong as ever. It was a grip befitting the grandson of The Fortune Bay Giant.
I always knew my grandfather was a giant among men, long before he related the story of his ancestry. Towering above his son, my father, and every other male human in our community, he stood six feet five and never weighed less than three hundred pounds. His motherâs father hadnât stopped growing till he was taller than most Newfoundlanders; Iâm certain great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke harboured fears her youngest son would take after her father. Life isnât always easy for a giant among men.
Death, it appears, is far easier.
My grandfather stepped lightly for such a big man. And he cried like a baby, even as a strapping thirty-year-old, even as an over-the-hill pilot of the Toronto Island ferry, every time he had to leave his loved ones behind while he traveled elsewhere to earn a living. He was a tough seagoing sailor on the outside; on the inside, he was a bowl of mush with a heart of gold!
Not just his family and friends benefited from my grandfatherâs largesse. Over the years, I discovered he had been a veritable bank. I spoke with Anglican ministers whom he had helped financially. I talked with young men whom he had hired as able-bodied seamen when no one else would give them a job. I heard how he had almost single-handedly harassed the government into building a seniorsâ centre in his small Newfoundland village.
When I was ten, my grandfather was the captain of the East Star. The ship headed to Cuba carrying various supply goods and a Russian circus, bound for Havana where they were to take on a cargo of salt. It was a disturbing time. Relations between Cuba and the United States were at an all-time low. My grandfatherâs ship unloaded, took on the salt and the necessary fuel for the return journey, and left Havana. We always tuned in to the ship-to-shore radio transmissions, waiting to hear Poppieâs familiar voice, chatting with his captain pals. A few days after we knew the East Star had leftHavana, we heard a disquieting conversation between two other shipsâ captains.
âAnyone heard from Ned Clark?â
âNo. Should have been able to raise him by now.â
One by one, his captain friends called my grandfatherâs ship. No answers.
A couple of nights later, we heard one captain remark that the East Star was overdue back in her home port of Souris, Prince Edward Island. Shortly thereafter, that news was confirmed by the shipâs owners. Poppie was officially missing. I cannot recreate the pain, the anguish of not knowing, the empty loss warring with the blooming hope, the tears and the prayers, but I can still feel all the same feelings when my mind wanders to those days. I canât remember how we finally discovered that the East Starâs captain and crew had been rescued. I can, however, recall the joy I felt when my Poppie stepped out of my uncleâs skiff and I flew into his enormous embrace.
âOh, Poppie,â I cried as he hefted me high in his arms, âI was afraid you were dead!â
âYou should know better than that,â he teased. âWhy, if I had died, Iâd have come back the same night and pulled your big toe!â
My children know this story as well as they knew and loved my grandfather. Heâd retell the story to my daughter as she sat in his lap, playing with his wispy hair, much as I had at her age.
âTell me again, Great-grand-poppie,â Jennifer would beg. âTell me again.â
And he would relate once more how his engines suddenly began taking on water instead of fuel; how the engines stopped and with them, the radios; how the salt cargo shifted till the ship was keeled over almost parallel with the sea, how they abandoned ship in a near-hurricane. He told her of the days floating in the lifeboats and the sharks circling the lifeboats. He recounted his frustration at seeing ships passing by and not being able to hail them. Eventually, he said, they were picked up by a British freighter. They were helped most, Captain Ned (a staunch Anglican) said, by the Salvation Army; they had provided clothes and comfort.
He didnât tell her how he, a big older man, had had to tutor his young, inexperienced crew into the lifeboats. No, no. One of his crew told me that.
âCaptain Clarke saved us, saved all our lives,â the seaman declared.
Not a chance my Poppie would take the credit.
When he entered the hospital for the last time, his roommate was a man of his age. Whenever we visited, the room overflowed with peopleâ"as young as fourteen, as old as ninety: my grandfatherâs visitors. Relatives there were, but there were also teenagers whose lives he had touched in some unknown-to-us way. I will always remember the old gentleman who came in a wheelchair guided by his daughter. This man couldnât speak because of a recent stroke and my grandfather was deaf as a post. Didnât matter. Ned lay on his hospital bed and Bill sat in his wheelchair, holding each otherâs hand, tears creeping down their cheeks. There were so many visitors, on many occasions the nurse on duty kicked out a few of us because we were too many at one time. Everyone paid some attention to the old man in the next bed, who never seemed to have anyone around. We all marveled at how blessed Poppie was.
A couple of days after his ninety-third birthday, Ned Clarke succumbed to the rigours of old age. I called my children to tell them. We were sad for us without him, but happy for him because it had been his wish to join his old friend.
âI didnât sleep very well all last night,â I laughingly told Jennifer. âI kept waking up, wondering if heâd keep his promise and come pull my big toe. But he didnât.â
âReally?â said Jennifer. âAnd what do you suppose kept waking you?â
Sheâs probably right.
Time has passed now. I donât think of my Poppie every day. But every Christmas, when I pass Salvation Army officers, I fold a bill into the kettles. âFor a giant among men,â I say. They understand.
A Gift From the Heart
Christmas has always been my favourite time of year. Sitting at the kitchen table taking a break from preparing dinner, I removed my photo album of Christmas seasons gone by from the shelf inside the pantry door. As I opened it and gazed at the pictures one by one, a warm and wonderful feeling embraced me. I saw the special people who were no longer here to share their happiness and joy, but whose radiant smiles surpass time. One picture caught my attention and I could see that it was clearly dated 1958. My mind immediately went back to a time when money was scarce but love was plentiful.
My parents, along with the four of us children, were living in a very small house in the disadvantaged section of St. John's. My father was a painter and there was never much work for him after September, until spring. My mother's old winter coat had seen many winters and didn't have any warmth left. She had gotten a job cleaning offices at night and both she and Dad would go out at 7 p.m. and walk to the bus stop. They were so thankful when the bus arrived and they could get inside in the heat. Many nights when they arrived at their stop and stepped off the bus into the cold night air, it was difficult for them to walk against the strong winds blowing the falling snow on them. Mom would pull her old coat closer around her trying to keep herself warm, but she never complained. They would have to go through the same difficulties getting home at 10:30 p.m., tired and very cold. This continued for three nights each week. The one thing that kept Mom positive was the fact that she had been putting away a few pennies a week for two years and now had enough saved to buy a warm winter coat. She would tell me about one she saw downtown in Woolworth's store and how she would be able to buy it at the end of November. With times so difficult, there wasn't much to be happy about, but when mom talked about buying this coat her face would light up with happiness.
The end of November came and mom didn't buy her coat, and I just thought she was going to buy it for Christmas instead.
Christmas morning came and we were so excited to see what gifts were under the tree for us. Mom and dad sat watching us as we each found our own special treasures. My older sister, who was 16 years old at the time, found a large parcel with her name on it. She hadn't asked for anything special because she knew that Mom and Dad didn't have money for things other than necessities. My sister, with shaking hands, picked up the parcel and it felt soft. She opened it slowly until all of the paper had been taken off. Looking back at my sister from behind the paper was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen. Tears of joy rolled down my sister's face as she tried the dress up to herself. She ran over and gave Mom and Dad a big hug, they were teary eyed also.
My sister had gotten her first boyfriend during the summer and this was their first Christmas together. He was from a well-to-do family and had invited my sister to a New Year's Eve party that his parents were having at their home. She had told Mom and Dad about this before Christmas and how much she had wanted to go, but she didn't have anything to wear that would be good enough for a special occasion like this.
Years later I learned that Mom had taken the money she had saved for her warm winter coat and bought a very special dress for my sister. She had bought much more than a beautiful dress for my sister that Christmas, she had bought joy and happiness and a wonderful memory that would last forever. My sister would always remember the love that was behind the sacrifice our Mom made for her. This was going to be a festive evening for my sister and Mom and Dad wanted her to feel very special. Mom was always thinking of others before herself and I know the joy and pleasure that she got from seeing the happiness in my sister's eyes was worth much more than any coat could offer her.
When my sister finished school and got a job, the very first thing she bought from her earnings was a beautiful burgundy winter coat with an imitation fur collar and a heavy hat, scarf and mitts for my mom. At last Mom had her lovely warm coat.
I am a faithful reader of your magazine. I look forward to receiving my copy each month. I love the stories, poems, puzzles, photo scenes and everything else. I have been meaning to submit a ghost story for a long time and I finally got the courage to do it. I hope youll publish it for me.
In my mother's middle-aged years she did some travelling to be with her granddaughter in Nova Scotia. On this particular occasion (I think it was Febuary month) she and her granddaughter were driving down a lonely road when all of a sudden through icy road conditions, their car skidded off the road. Being two women there all alone, they started to panic. All of a sudden they seen a light from a nearby house. Me neice told my mom to stay in the car and wait for her while she went to get help.
Through the snow she slowly made her way to the house and said a silent prayer that she would get an answer to her knock. Her prayer was certainly answered when the gentleman came out. She told him that her grandmother and her were stranded just down the road because her car had skidded. He told her to wait while he got his hat and coat and he would go out to help them.
They slowly made their way back down to the highway. He looked all around the car and shook his head saying, I'm sorry but I dont see your problem. She looked at him, feeling very puzzled (and quite foolish) and said, I dont see my problem either - but I swear my car had skidded off the road you can even ask my grandmother! The man said, That wont be necessary. I believe your car had skidded off the road but you have been pushed back onto the highway. If you look closely you will see the tire marks where your car had skidded.
My neice said, I just dont understand how this could be.
The man said Lady, this is no big surprise to me, we get this all the time. Ten years ago today our daughter was accidently killed when a school bus went off the highway to avoid hitting a moose. This is her way of reaching out. My mother and my neice thanked the man for all his kindness and started on their way.
As my mother took one last look from the back window, she swears she seen a little girl dressed in white with her hands folded in prayer and her head looking toward the sky. This was an adventure that lived on through my mother's life (she is now deceased) and my neice still tells this story. It was a once in a lifetime experience.
My mother, Mary Pretty, was a woman of great faith. That faith was rooted in her upbringing, as I got to see when I spent summers with my grandparents. If Mom said one prayer, she said millions and the Rosary was one of her favourites. Her grandfather, Edward was from Ireland and he was deeply religious as well. The heritage of devout Catholicism was well established in the OBrien family by the time I was old enough to spend summers with my grandparents.
My grandparents, Monica and Gus O'Brien, walked the mile to church or hitched the horse and cart to go to Petty Harbour for Mass before they ever had a car. While attendance at Mass was important, I think the part of the faith that entered everyday life was the Rosary. Every evening after supper, when everything was cleared away, Nan, Granda, Uncle France and I knelt in the kitchen. Granda or Nan would start and each of us in turn would lead a decade of the Rosary. Periodically Granda, a tall, big man, would break wind while he leaned over the chair. Uncle France and I did our best not to laugh, but depending on the sound or sometimes chorus out of Granda, it was hard not to laugh. Nan laughed too, but silently. Any time I looked over at her, she'd have her head down, shaking. The thing was, the Rosary went on, regardless. It was common for people to drop-by in those days and anyone who came by during Rosary time just picked a spot and knelt with the rest of us to pray.
I remember when I first started to say the Rosary with my grandparents, I couldn't figure out what they were saying. I knew the Hail Mary of course, but in the repetition of the prayer and the speed with which it was said, I couldn't figure out what was being said. Was this some new version I didn't know? The first two words, Hail Mary, were always loudly spoken; then the rest of the verse rapidly trailed off until . . .Holy Mary (loudly) and the same thing happened. There were always intentions with the praying too. Many a soul was ushered into heaven (we hoped), or the sick remembered, and always there were prayers for the family. When the Rosary was done, I could go out to play. Usually I went down to the Martin family; they'd be at the Rosary too and I'd join in with them. If I was lucky, they'd almost be finished. At least that's what I thought then.
Years later, as my father, Samuel Pretty, lay dying, one of the last things we heard him say was the 'Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,' part of the Rosary. He was saying it spontaneously when he could barely speak. Years of praying came down to that one simple prayer in the end. I think he was comforted by it.
It's Mummering Time Once Again
MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN
THE SNOW IS FALLING GENTLY DOWN,
CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS DO ABOUND
GAIETY IS IN THE AIR,
ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE COME SHRIEKS AND SQUEALS
AS CLOTHING IS PICKED THROUGH AND CHOICES REVEALED
AS MEN DRESS AS WOMEN AND WOMEN AS MEN
OH, ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
SOME WEAR OLD LONGJOHNS WITH FLAPS OPEN WIDE
WHILE OTHERS WEAR DRESSES WHICH ZIPPER UP THE SIDE
SOME HAVE HUMPS ON THEIR BACKS
OR MAKE OVERSIZED BOOBS,
OH ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
THEY COVER THEIR FACES WITH CURTAINS OR CLOTH
TO MAKE PEOPLE BELIEVE THEY ARE NOT WHO THEY THOUGHT.
SUCH FUN AND EXCITEMENT THIS CUSTOM EXTENDS
OH ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
THEN 'TIS KNOCK ON THE DOOR OF A NEIGHBOUR OR FRIEND
AND CALL OUT THE PHRASE "ANY MUMMERS 'LOWED IN"!
THEY TROOP IN THE DOOR AND THEY DANCE AND THEY SING
OH ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
THEY'LL BE OFFERED A TASTE OF SPIRITS OR BEER
TO SHOW THEY ARE WELCOME AS THEY SPREAD THEIR GOOD CHEER
THEN ITS ON TO THE NEXT HOUSE WITH MORE OF THE SAME
OH ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
I'LL NOW END MY DITTY WHICH I HOPE YOU ENJOYED
MUMMERING , YOU SEE, IS PART OF NEWFOUNDLAND'S PRIDE
IT WILL START OVER AGAIN 'ROUND THE SAME TIME NEXT YEAR
WHEN ITS MUMMERING TIME ONCE AGAIN.
The Scourge of Rural Newfoundland-Potholes in the roads in the forest
We wait,with perimeters very irregular and menacing,as we hear our next "victim"approaching.We are many.Some of us will be successful in bringing undiserable language from our"victims" mouths as they try in vain to avoid us.Wham!!!Too late.Some of us let our "victims"off with just a curse or two,depending on how mature we are .Some of us more senior potholes are wide and deep,and we show no mercy.There is no escaping us we are everywhere.We are most successful at night.Our "victims"have two predators in the darkness.They are the moose and us.We have more success at night because we are the lesser of two evils.As bad as we are,we are not normally life threatening.So, naturally our "victims"focus on trying to avoid contact with the moose,because as the moose steps from the "forest" he is directly in the path of any on coming vehicle.We have an alliance with the moose .We cannot lose.Quite frequently 0ur "victims"rides through the forest cost them big time.After an encounter with us,some bill other than the one they pay for the damage we inflict upon them,may have to go unpaid.Horror stories circulate about the strife we cause.Owners of brand new cars and trucks have had to leave them by garages to be repaired.Damages could range from ruined rims and tires to severe steering problems.When they do become mobile again they drive in constant fear of a re-occurance, because we are relentless.They fill us with material but it doesn't stay.We are sometimes spray-painted so as to be seen from a distance.This is all for naught,because we multiply over-nite.The future looks bright for us potholes.We have our own way for weeks sometimes before they make feeble attemps to stop us.We don't even hear so much as a"rumor"that we may be permenantly covered anytime in the foreseeable future.Life is good.
A Freeman returned to Fogo
My mother never made the journey to Newfoundland to visit the home of her father's birth,but it was always in her heart. As a young boy of 16, Robert Elijah Freeman, a fisherman of Fogo, lied about his age and enlisted into the Royal Newfoundland Regiment to fight in the Great War. He, too, never returned home but made a new life and family in England. And so it was last year as my mother was coming to the end of her life that I made her the promise I would make their journey for them. I resolved that in the summer of 2013 I would be on Fogo to celebrate my mother's life and heritage on her birthday, June 23rd. My mother was a wonderful seamstress and so it seemed fitting to fill her favourite thimble with a little of her ashes to make her long journey home.
At the beginning of June my husband and I set off first to Toronto, then Montreal and finally Halifax as we inched ever closer to that special place on her special day. Hiring an RV we made the ferry journey from North Sydney to Port aux Basques and onward to Farewell to make the final crossing to Fogo. On the evening of June 22nd we stood at the quayside looking across Notre Dame Bay toward the Change Islands and Fogo. Then it was with disbelief that we were told that the ferry to Fogo was out of service and was unlikely to be repaired for several days, to have come so close and to be thwarted at the final step seemed a cruel stroke of fate. We returned the next morning to learn that the service was still not operating and so sadly we resigned ourselves to the fact that it was just not meant to be, so near yet so far. Explaining why we so wanted to be on Fogo that day, everyone at the quayside rallied round and suggested that we took the helicopter that was flying residents to the Change Islands and then see if we could charter a boat to take us the final distance across the bay. We were told the cost of the helicopter trip was " two seventy five".Thinking out loud that two hundred and seventy five dollars would be money well spent to achieve our ambitions you may well imagine our surprise to learn that in fact it was two dollars 75 cents per person, as this was the price of the normal ferry fare. We didn't hesitate and soon found ourselves flying across the bay en route to the Change Islands marvelling at the tricks and turns of life. One of our fellow passengers was a resident returning from a shopping trip the previous day and generously he welcomed us to accompany him to his home on the island whilst he made enquiries about our onward boat trip. Our feet had barely touched the ground before Gary Hoff and his lobster boat had been enveigled to help us complete our journey. Skimming across the bay I was overcome with emotions as it seemed to me as though a circle of more than one life was being perfectly closed in a way no one could ever have conceived. As we passed Brimstone Head I felt that I was seeing it through the young eyes of my grandfather as he left his birthplace for the final time, a corner of my life would forever be firmly planted here. Making the final climb from the swaying boat up the long, ricketty ladder onto the jetty was a fitting challenge for a vertigo sufferer such as me. I didn't want anything to be easy anymore, every emotion was extreme. Yet it was with absolute contentment and peace that I returned a Freeman and her family to Fogo.
RIP Jean Anne 1930-2012 and Robert Elijah 1901-1954, this was for you.
Thank you to all the wonderful people of Newfoundland, Change Islands and Fogo. To all the Freemans, Oakes, Snows and Torravilles out there, we will return in happy times as we know that we belong.