I drove the Trans Canada Highway to Corner Brook a while ago and passed the entrance to South Brook, as I have passed it so many times in the intervening 60 years, and I spent a few moments reminiscing about that Labour Day Weekend in 1959 when one family in South Brook was so kind to our family.
My late husband, then a young social worker, had been transferred to Corner Brook and I had gotten a job teaching French at a high school there. We packed up our things and our toddler and with our old Escort packed to the roof left St. John's early Saturday morning for the seven-hour drive over the (mostly) dirt road to Gander. It was a long and tiring but uneventful day; we were glad to tumble into our bunks at the barracks hotel, The Saturn, after a brief meal.
On Sunday morning we were off to an early start wanting to make Corner Brook by dark. We planned a stop at the Taiwan restaurant in Grand Falls for lunch. Our little son had been cranky leaving Gander, so I'd given him a bottle (Carnation milk, hot water, and corn syrup in a glass bottle with a rubber top as was the fashion in those days), and he'd slept most of the way to Grand Falls. We were all ready for Chinese food.
I often look at young mothers now in fitted-out changing rooms, with a wide variety of disposable diapers to choose from, a packet of baby wipes at hand, and think of that day in the crowded ladies' room. I'd packed all the baby supplies in a large plaid bag - cloth diapers, bottles, cans of Carnation and corn syrup, wet clothes in a plastic bag, and an extra bag or two for the used diapers. It all got the job done, however. We were soon on our way again anxious to reach Corner Brook.
In those days - and I wonder why I remember the road so fondly - the Halls Bay Line running north from Badger to South Brook was a narrow, winding dirt road that, even though graded frequently, had sharp stones sticking up through the surface. Driving on it was always tense as flat tires were more than likely. We took our time driving it and about three hours after leaving Grand Falls we decided to have a snack (carried with us, of course) and give our son a bottle. I reached for my plaid bag but it wasn't anywhere to be found - I had left it in the ladies' room at the Taiwan! All I had was an empty bottle left over from the early morning and some cans of Carnation and extra diapers in the trunk. My husband wisely refrained from saying anything except "What do we do now?"
We were approaching South Brook and, inspired, I said "stop at the fourth house on the right." He did. Finally he said, "what now?" I explained that this was the first house that had smoke coming out of the chimney and they therefore had a fire in; I was going to knock at the back door and ask if I could wash out the bottle I had and open my can of milk and have some boiling water and a little sugar for the baby. My husband said, "you can't do that, you don't know these people."
I should explain that he came from a small Conception Bay town where everyone knew everyone else and where had such an emergency happened there, he would have had no problem asking at any house. On the other hand, I was a 'townie' from Cochrane Street who would have crawled back to the East End rather than knock on a West End door to ask a favour. (Although from all I know about West Enders they were, and are, just as hospitable as other Newfoundlanders!)
As it turned out, I was right about the people of South Brook. I went up to the back door of the fourth house on the right; I knocked briefly; I went in. In the kitchen were five people - a man and a lady of middle age, an older woman, and two other people. I explained to the lady my problem, and it was a problem no longer. It was "come in, my dear," "no need to open your can of milk we've got one we just opened," "turn up the stove," "the kettle will take a few minutes," "tell your husband to bring the baby in," "give me that bottle I'll wash it out," and so on. They may have been somewhat taken aback at first by this strange young woman at the door, but their natural kindness soon took over and we were offered tea and biscuits, the kettle was boiled, the bottle was filled, and we were on our way.
My great regret is that I did not ask their names so I could have sent a thank you note or a Christmas card. But I never drive by the entrance to South Brook but I remember their kindness and I have always had a warm spot for the town and its people.
The story has another bit attached to it. We stopped for gas at what was then probably the only gas station between South Brook and Deer Lake - somewhere at a road junction (to Springdale or Baie Verte, I think). Even though it was Sunday afternoon, the small confectionery store was open and we went in. I told the man behind the counter about our mishap and the kindness of the people where we'd stopped. He said, "At the Taiwan, you say, a plaid bag; give me an address in Corner Brook where it can be dropped off. I've got a friend who's a trucker from Corner Brook, he'll be through here en route to Grand Falls in a little while. I'll tell him to pick it up and take it over to you." I gave him my cousin's West Street address as we were going to a hotel, and sure enough three days later the plaid bag was dropped off as promised.
Maybe this could have happened anywhere, I don't know. I've certainly met very kind people in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Chicago. Nonetheless, when we talk of the hospitality of our own people it is this story I think of, and the family in South Brook all those years ago that typifies for me the kind of folks we are and the kind of culture we struggle to maintain.