Still Afloat

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Mar 09, 2016 3:30 PM

My grandfather, Reginald Thornhill, had the hands of a workingman - skillful, tough and calloused. He spent his entire lifetime lowering fishing nets into the seawaters off the Grand Banks, off the southeastern shores of the island of Newfoundland, the most easterly point of North America. His skin was that of a workingman, too - tanned, deeply creased and somewhat leathery from a mixture of sun and sea salt supplied generously, with a dash of cold winds and cool breezes, over a lifetime on the Atlantic Ocean. Undeniably soft, though - and running in deep contrast to his rugged appearance - was his smile, warm and affectionate, light-hearted and forever loving. Pop, as we called him, had a happy-to-see-you or happy-to-be-here kind of smile. A smile that wraps you up tightly and never lets you go.   

Pop’s hands untangled, secured and retrieved fishing nets, with all of their deep-sea bounty; and they were the very same hands to knit, weave and entwine them. The hand-blown glass floaters that suspended the nets were also his handiwork. Mostly translucent greens or browns - but also clear, amber and blue - these pieces of glass easily camouflaged against deep ocean waters. Both hand and glass not at all delicate, but precious just the same. Etched by sand, sun and saltwater, the patterns in the glass mesmerize, possessing something of a mystical quality; like a crystal ball, only this glass holds stories of the past. The way a conch shell breathes winds of the ocean when held against the ear, these trinkets tell tales of a fisherman at sea. 

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These hand-blown glass floaters made many years ago by the author's grandfather are now treasured memorabilia.

Well over 40 years ago, Pop relied on these glass floats to suspend his cod-fishing nets in the open Atlantic. Hundreds of kilometres away from shore, past the Cabot Strait, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, from the starboard side of his fishing schooner, Porthole, he cast his fishnets, strung together with rough-textured netting sometimes 80 km long, where the codfish were plentiful then. 

I can imagine Pop Thornhill, his smile stretched ear-to-ear, standing in his bright yellow and green dory, having returned to shallow waters and holding his latest catch - two generous-sized Atlantic codfish - by the gills. Close enough to touch, but separated by land and sea. I, on shore, the ocean spray-painting my skin dry and sticky; the sand and beach pebbles wet, slippery and cool beneath my feet. Every knobby part of me - forehead, nose, chin, shoulders, knees and feet - warmed by sunbeams so kind, as if only meant for this beach and me. Just up the coast, clouds roll in, but nothing can disrupt the way Pop’s face beams with pride, still delighted by a great catch.

Vivid as the image may be, in truth it’s impossible for me to have been there. By the time I met him, his fishing days were long over. I never saw him cast a fishing rod, let alone a net. That image - a grainy photograph my dad took - forever immortalized Pop and his catch. Memories of Pop come naturally to me and it helps that I know Little Bay East, the place where it all started, like the back of my hand. Countless times Dad and I made the eight-hour drive from Summerside (and later Corner Brook) to Little Bay, nestled quietly on the Burin Peninsula. Along the way, we’d list and laugh at the names of Newfoundland communities - Joe Batt’s Arm, Placentia, Dildo and Conception Bay were in high rotation on our list, even before I understood their connotations. The name-game proved a good activity to keep us alert, necessary for carefully scanning the bush along the single-lane TCH for moose.

There, on a bar of land in Little Bay, between the Atlantic Ocean and a pond, is the Thornhill family home. The driveway has as many seashells as pebbles and leads to the house with its white wooden siding and bright green door and porch. The view from that porch is majestic - the ocean to the southeast, the pond to the north, and evergreen-covered rolling hills and mountains to the west. Though beautiful, it’s a place to be respected. 

“A life at sea keeps you honest,” Pop once told me. I didn’t need the explanation. Pop couldn’t swim, had been shipwrecked at least five times in his life and, at the peak of his fishing career, spent more time at sea than on land. The same black waters that drowned the Titanic in 1912 (coincidentally, the year Pop was born) and birthed a tsunami in 1929 (the year Pop took up fishing), were the ones that my grandfather regularly navigated. One shadowed iceberg or one rogue wave could have easily capsized much more than the day’s catch. And so, Pop became accustomed to reciting a prayer (more ritual than religion) before setting sail. 

As a toddler, I remember holding Pop’s creased and weathered hand on the wharf across the road and repeating in angst, “Don’t fall me down, Pop, don’t fall me down.” Pop’s tight grip revealed he, too, was apprehensive, but his hands were strong and able, incapable of letting go. Later, he showed me the nets, which were quick to scratch my amateur skin. Pop checked over my delicate, translucent hands for any wounds and, seeing only grazes and no scrapes, reassured me by placing a glass float - as big as a cantaloupe - in my palms. It was round in shape, but bumpy all over with a knobbed spot, where Pop would have sealed the blown glass, making it airtight. 

Later, his hands flipped the pages of my storybook. His index finger, with its folded, tanned skin tracing the words. When we came across a word we didn’t know, he’d say, “Let’s call it wheelbarrow,” code for we’ll borrow this word until we figure it out. If there were too many wheelbarrows, Pop would fold the book and tell his own stories, always returning to tales at sea. How poetic it was that the waves were audible from any room in his ocean-side house.  

These days, I still study the glass, tracing my fingers over the bumps of those beautiful baubles; souvenirs of a life lived at sea. I imagine how they granted the fishnets buoyancy once released from Pop’s hands. Hands that surely felt the seawater, as thick as blood, course through its veins; and blood that still gushes, if only through these tender hands of mine. - Jennifer Verma (nee Thornhill)