The calloused old hand lovingly caressed the granite stone as he bent down to brush away the dead leaves from this hallowed piece of ground. His son never made it into his teenage years before an infection ended his young life, an infection that is easily remedied today. Who would die of appendicitis in this marvellous age of medical science? But in the days following the Second World War, antibiotics didn't come easily to the tiny village of Small Point, Newfoundland. As a result, every Sunday after church he would have to go by the grave just to be near his boy once more.
Nearly half a century has slipped by since I first held my grandfather’s hand as he led me to this spot. I had come back to the land of my birth this Easter weekend for no other reason than to heed the tug of my heartstrings. Now as I read the epitaph of an uncle I never knew, the memories came flooding back.
I was born in my grandparents’ bedroom, the fourth child in a family that would eventually swell to nine kids. Shortly after my birth, my parents moved me five miles north to the larger town of Western Bay. I spent most of my formative years there, but each summer during school break, I returned to stay with my grandparents. It was during those months that I came to love the man the neighbours called “Uncle Louis” and I called “Pap.”
After our regular Sunday visit to “the yard,” as he called it, we would stroll down the narrow, gravelled lane towards the ocean. On the bank high above Small Point beach we would stop awhile and gaze down at the tiny fishing boats pulled up on the shore. Except for the rhythmic roll of the waves, nothing moved on this day. This was the Lord’s day, a day of rest. Folks had respect for their Maker back then and nobody worked.
Pap never talked much about the countless days he toiled to eke out a living from these waters or the hardships he must have endured. He was a man of very few words; his courage, kindness and love only showed through in his daily activities. It’s only now, many years later, that I try to comprehend the rigours of his life: the days of sailing ships, blinding fog, numbing cold, plus the uncertainty of living through two raging world wars. The only subtle hint I ever received from him was when he would rebuke me for being wasteful with food. “You might need that in March,” he would say, but never explained any further. He took life as God gave it, thanked him for it and never complained.
On one Sunday walk we deviated from our usual routine and he led me down a path worn deep by the wheels of box-carts and the hooves of many Newfoundland ponies. As we passed an old weather-beaten rail fence, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“I have something to show you,” he replied.
A few yards on he stopped and let go of my hand as he stepped off the path into an overgrown garden. A tiny sparrow began to scold him as he poked around a while, but I knew this gentlest of men was not there to disturb her nest. Just then he stopped, turned and signed for me to come to him. As I reached his side, he pointed downward where his Sunday shoe had parted the tall grass, revealing a large, flat stone.
“This was the front step of the house I lived in when I was your age,” he said.
We stood in silence for a moment or so, as I am sure he tried to visualize the old homestead and the many memories it held. With our backs to the North Atlantic and a summer sky threatening rain, I just wanted to move on, but I just stayed silent and let him dream a little longer.
The best years of his life were behind him now. He had given up fishing some years before. He just kept a few chickens and an old brown mare, which he used to haul wood for the stove. One day he came out of the woods with several bent pieces of wood. He didn’t say why, but in the next day or so I figured out he was going to use them as a keel and some ribs for a dory he set about to build. What I didn’t understand was why he would want to; he knew he would never use it. It wasn’t until later that I came to realize it was his last kick at the can. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the old life just yet.
So for days on end I watched him toil away at that boat; boiling water to pour over the wood he sawed by hand, then using stones as weights to bend the wood to just the right shape. After many months of labour and perseverance, the boat was finished. I can see him now, standing in the doorway of his house and looking out at this masterpiece. He didn’t speak; he was not one to brag. I only caught the subtle hint of a smile as he turned, went inside and closed the door. I never saw that boat again. I don’t know if he sold it or gave it away, but I do know that boat had a profound effect on me.
Whenever I would get down on life or my work ethic would falter, I’d think of Pap and that boat. I am surrounded with every modern convenience, every power tool I need to make my work easier. I have no right to complain. I like to think I have learned a helluva lot from this man who spoke very little, so I’ve tried to be like him. Southern Ontario has no call for fishing dories, but as I putter away in my workshop working on my model boats, I think of him a lot and wish he were here.
An English gentleman, Charles Kingsley, once wrote, “Thank God every morning when you wake up that you have something to do that day which must get done, whether you like it or not. Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and contentment, and a hundred virtues which the idle never know.”
Pap had all of those virtues. - Written by Kevin Sellars; submitted by his brother, Bryce