by Graham Hookey
My high school English teacher, Miss Stewart, is undoubtedly turning in her grave. I am certain I was her most recalcitrant writer, the first question for every assignment being,"How many words does it have to be?" and the subsequent work production fitting precisely to the requirement. She said, once, that a writer lies in every one of us; we are just waiting for the story to tell. It turns out she was right.
My parents were both born in Newfoundland, left in their early twenties and returned when my father retired. I lived in Port Rexton as a toddler for a couple of years but those fleeting memories were chiselled more from the stories of others than from the clarity of absolute recollection. It wasn't until my parents retired, and I was a father myself, that more regular visits 'home' took place. Still, the visits were short and filled with experiences in the moment. I never asked about the past and my parents never talked about it.
In the summer of 2011, my father was on his last legs and I retired early to offer the palliative care and support of a son. Like most Newfoundlanders, he had no greater desire than to stay in his own home until the end so I vowed I would help him do that, leaving my wife behind for what might be an indeterminate length of time but which I was relatively certain would not be a long one. For the next four months we lived each day, once again, in the moment, enjoying drives to his favourite views in the area, watching Wings Over Canada DVDs, and playing lots of cribbage. Since my father had been a merchant mariner, and thus been away from home for periods of nine months or more, it was actually the longest continuous time we'd been together in our entire lives.
I took the opportunity to talk to him about his life, video recording a few sessions as memories for his grandchildren, but it was not an activity he took much pleasure in. A quiet and humble man, he was not prone to carrying the conversation and he viewed his life as somewhat inconsequential, as if there was nothing worthy of telling. I didn't probe; being an annoyance was not my role at this stage in his life.
On the day before he passed away, he asked me to get out his papers and check that everything was in order and I came across a small, brass pocket compass in the metal box where he kept his valuables. "What's this?" I asked.
"Ah, it's your Grandfather's compass. I found it in the house after your Grandmother passed and I just put it away."
I pulled off the lid and stared at the paper face with the cardinal points on it, still somewhat accurately indicating the direction when I held it perfectly flat. 'So what's the story behind it?" I ventured.
He winced a little, quite uncomfortable at this particular time. "I don't know. Evidently it was quite a bone of contention between them but I never asked why. They didn't talk about the past and we never asked. That's just the way it was.
In that moment, I realized that's pretty much the way it was between my father and me as well. Suddenly, my mind was reeling with questions I wanted to ask him, about his parents, about his life and yet, here we were, hours from his passing and he in no condition for an eleventh-hour interrogation.
Returning home to Ontario after the funeral, with the compass in my pocket, I found it was like a pea under my mattress. Why had my Grandmother kept it for 22 years after my Grandfather's death, especially if it reminded her of some contentious issue between them? I tossed that question out to my mother, and to some more historically informed relatives, but I was consistently met with blank stares. "No one asked them about their life," was the most common response, "and those who knew about it are gone now too." The only written record was a few birth, death and marriage dates in the front of the family bible.
I retired six years later and bought a small place in Champneys Arm, NL, as a summer retreat. From my window I could see both the house in which my father was born and raised and the gravesites of my grandparents. With time on my hands, and the compass burning a hole in my pocket, I ventured out to try and find the truth.
In every community, there are people who document and people who remember. I found a website of family information compiled by local historian, Terry Piercey, and I talked to anyone who knew my parents, my grandparents and any other relations of mine. And while I learned a lot about the area and a lot about my family members, there was not a whisper of understanding about the story behind the compass.
As I said earlier, Miss Stewart was right and, at last, there was a story I felt I had to tell, one for my children and their children and all of the children who found a branch on the family tree that began with my grandparents. In fairness, the story is one of historical fiction. Real events, real settings and real people mixed with fabrications of the conversations and emotional interactions between them. The bone of contention that the compass represented is, in fact, a figment of my imagination. Then again, perhaps it's not; we'll never know.
It took the better part of a year of reading everything I could get my hands on to research the living conditions of early 20th century outport Newfoundland and attempt to accurately reflect what I'd learned about my grandparents as individuals and how they'd lived as a couple and, eventually, as a family. The books, the conversations, the internet searches, the graveyard visits and the walks on paths and trails on which they walked deepened my appreciation for the extraordinary circumstances and coincidences that led to my own opportunity for life. Even more, it dramatically increased my passion for Newfoundland, for its people, for its culture and for the stories it has to tell.
I cannot say for certain how important that compass was to my Grandfather, but I can say with absolute certainty what it means to me, and I've made sure my children have a written record for the time when they, too, wish they'd asked more questions about their heritage.
Graham Hookey is a retired educator who has written two books about Newfoundland, Pop's Compass and Rhymes, Rhythms and Reflections of Outport Newfoundland. Both are available on Amazon.ca.