Post # 3 Crossroads
Around the time of the panic attack four memorable experiences came together at a crossroads that led to a challenging and gifted inner journey; on roads hidden in caverns only she could access and bring light into accompanied by her childhood friend Jesus.
From HER journal; at fifteen, I’ve said my goodbyes and am leaving home for the first time. I can’t hide my excitement. Mom had her back to me; I hugged her anyway and told her I loved her. Grampa held me close; with tears in his eyes saying; “I don’t suppose I’ll see you again my love, you’ll be all grown up when you come back. Good Luck and take care of yourself”.
On the wharf dad walked me on board the ship and held me so tight I could barely breathe; I will miss you and I love you. I held on to him, reassuring him I would be all right. “Be sure to write now” he said. He was still waving as we sailed out of sight.
As we pull into Francois early evening; I am standing at the rail caught up in the majestic cliffs ahead and the gentle roll of the ocean bringing us closer and closer to the wharf…it’s like being held inside a lullaby.
My thoughts wander to home and pleasant Memories surface; sitting on the counter, my feet on a chair, I move the radio dial ever so slightly. On the marine band I pick up radio stations from all over the world. Dad once told me it was because of where we lived geographically. I catch the intriguing sound of a beautiful voice, singing in an unknown language and put my ear closer. The music, especially the drumbeat has me tapping my feet while the rhythm lifts my spirit. I never tire of listening to music or of singing while I work; and there’s always work to do. I hear the echo of mom’s voice; “It’s best to be seen and not heard young lady you’ll never get your work done that way”.
Still, I quietly sing through everything. It makes me feel good, especially at church, where I can sing as loud as I want and no one scolds, teases, or laughs at me. I love
reading also but the only books on hand are my new school books. In point of fact I have already gone through those and September isn’t even over yet. I usually read my older sister and brother’s books as well, when they’re not around. I learned early on that it was best to wait until I was alone to do my favorite things or I would be in trouble for wasting time.
From where in the world is this beautiful music coming anyway, I wonder. I really like the beat of that drum. Its unusual rhythm speaks to the music I often feel deep in my soul, especially out on the Bellknap on a windy day. If only I could understand the words. My friend Barb and I love to learn old and new songs and hymns. I’ve always been able to learn the tune right away and the lyrics the second time around. We take turns on the swings in each other’s basement, but right now dad is building a boat in ours so my swings are off limits for awhile. Barb’s basement has big windows and doors and I feel safe there. I don’t feel safe going into my basement alone, but I keep that to myself. My older sister and I have a lot of fun on the swings there though and I feel safe when she’s with me.
At my friends house we can sing songs on Sundays; whereas at home we are only allowed to sing hymns that day. If we did and Dad caught us we would be in trouble.
We aren’t allowed to play cards on Sundays either. I can’t help but smile now as I remember how my sister and I came up with what we thought an ingenious method of making a deck of cards when we couldn’t afford to buy them, which was most of the time. Mom and dad always used black loose Tea packed tight in foil with a square white card inside, on the top and bottom, to hold the tea in place. We saved those cards and drew the four card suits on them with pencils and crayons. It’s hard to describe the fun we had doing that…and we never ran out of cards.
We played cards on Saturday nights while listening to Foster Hewitt’s play by play on the radio…Go Leafs. One of my brothers was the only Montreal fan in the house. He got teased a lot. Those were golden years for the leafs.
Mom went to bed early on Saturdays and left us girls in charge of the bread in the oven. Nothing like hot bread crust with butter and molasses ….we cut off all the crust of one mouth watering hot loaf and ate it first …then respectful of mom we ate the rest. When the song is over I turn off the Radio off to save the battery. Dad would be disappointed if he couldn’t listen to the evening news and Don Messer. Dad loves music and I have always felt that I got my love of it from him. Also if the battery is too low, mom will be upset with me. But then, Mom is often upset with me. She acts like she knows everything, even when she doesn’t and she’s always unhappy. I remember looking out my bedroom window at my Cousin in her wedding gown and mom, in a nasty voice, remarking “Humph, She’ll have a baby born early. You just wait and see. I’ll mark it on the calendar and we’ll see how proud her mother will be then!”
Of course I wanted to go to the wedding, but Mom simply wouldn’t allow it. They lived next door and mom often fought with our aunt. Sometimes she would send my sister or me to deliver nasty notes to someone she was angry with. I hate that because I really like all my family and neighbours. My aunt next door is very good to me but when mom is angry, and it seems Mom is often angry about something; its best to go along with her. As it turned out Mom was wrong about the baby! I was happy about that but I didn’t say it out loud.
Shaking off the direction my thoughts had taken and reminding myself that I have finally left it all behind, I focus on where I am as the ship pulls up alongside the wharf. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to leave home, and it had finally happened: I was on the steamer, tying up for the night in Francois and I’m on my way to work for my aunt in Nova Scotia.
Filled with a sense of warmth and strange security beside the mountain cliffs towering above the ship and the small wharf at the base; I notice the summer evening sky is slowly changing colors. Folks have eaten and are out on deck enjoying the magnificent view of the granite cliffs; rising majestically; almost threateningly out of the ocean to form a home for those not afraid to be isolated. Not afraid to live a life dependent on the sea for not only their livelihood, but for mail, furniture, horses, coal, clothing, food and just about everything really.
Drawn by laughter, I turn to enjoy youngsters on the wharf playing fetch with a black lab who would jump overboard time after time to retrieve the sticks from the cool Atlantic waters; shaking himself off while his wet tail begged for more.
Men on the wharf are busy working with nets for tomorrows fishing, etc. They work until the work is done, unnoticed by the crowd caught up in the dogs at play. Some are busy loading and unloading freight. Some lift heavy bags of coal and other cargo on their backs. Others use wheelbarrows, while still others roll large Puncheons of dried codfish, along handmade wooden tracks on the wharf, relying on a method used for hundreds of years. They take the same pride in their work as their fathers and grandfathers before them. The people here as in every out port on the island, rely on the CN Steamers weekly visit to survive. When they need a doctor they often travel many miles on the same ship to reach the nearest hospital. Sometimes it was a crippling matter of life or death to get medical help. I consider it a brave and daring way to live.
My thoughts are interrupted as the sun begins it’s descent. The people who had come to the wharf to welcome a homecoming family or to say goodbye to those leaving, are making their way home carrying suitcases and boxes along narrow paths carved naturally in the side of the rock; paths that look like they might give mountain goats some difficulty to navigate. Yet these folks move with a sure step, and like their homes built on the side of the steep mountain, they seemingly defy gravity, challenging the powerful forces of nature that surround them. I am caught by their dignity, the rhythm in their labours of life, love and necessity. I notice a woman carrying water, balanced by a square hoop that she had stepped into, resting a bucket on each side. A little girl walks beside her, holding on tightly to the woman’s dress.
The beauty of these folks evokes a deep moving energy within in me. Emotion erupts from somewhere deep inside, surprising me and I sense it making a home in me somehow.
I have relived this moment many times over the years and each time the experience is as strong as it was at that moment; resting my arms on the rail of the ship, caught by a moment in time. An old man wanders over to check the ship’s ropes are tight on the grump, his bent back, a revelation of his life. Watching him I am once again aware of a deep connection with these folks.
Intuiting that the people at the rail are watching the dog at play, I glance around and sure enough. Can they feel, as I do I wonder, the pulsing energy of the ageless, extraordinary beauty in the ordinary, right in front of us? The strength and acceptance, the love of life and commitment it takes to live here. The pride that is part of and revealed in their dedication and commitment to the life they share here in this tiny community; so much like my home. Here we experience awe in moments of life and death that just sneak up and demand everything one has in its intensity of the moment. Life, while not easy, creates community, daily perseverance and a sharing of both laughter and tears. The beauty of it sinks into my bones!
Yet, the dignity of these folks, I realize, can still be upstaged by a playful
dog. Deep in my reverie, I jump when a voice beside me says “Hello…first trip”?
Turning to my left I look into the face of an older gentleman and his wife. “Is this your first trip”? Blue eyes twinkle in a round cheerful face, surrounded with pure white hair and full beard.
“Yes” I smile.
“All finished school I suppose” he says.
I hope not I think to myself painfully before responding.
“Yes” I say because it’s easier than the truth.
“What are you going to do with your life now on this new adventure” he asks.
Surprising myself and obviously still caught up in the moment, I reply without breaking a stride; with all the passion, uncompromising confidence and emotional conviction of a fifteen year old, innocent of how big and varied the world actually was.
“I’m going to be a writer of stories; work at as many jobs as I can, gain some experience, get to know the people who work at these jobs, the people who are unnoticed, who labour day after day for very little and then I will write their story, so it doesn’t get lost or fall through the cracks”.
The cracks in the wharf are what I am imagining. The world I knew was only as big as the area around my Island home. Still, in that moment, caught off guard, I unconsciously knew what I was; A writer of people’s stories. The thought of writing had never occurred to me before. Anything that fell through the cracks of the wharf was lost, carried away by the ocean beneath it. A person’s story could suffer the same fate. I feel a deep longing ache inside to write about the lives of folks in out port communities like my own; scattered up and down the coast of Newfoundland; so their unique stories would not be forgotten or fall through the cracks. It did not occur to me that the one whose story I didn’t want to fall through the cracks might be my own and writing my story had not yet birthed a single thought.
A bit startled, the old man gazes at me quietly for a moment, with a look in his eyes I couldn’t quite fathom.
“I believe you may accomplish just that my dear” he replies in a soft voice.
As he and his wife turn to move along the deck he smiles again and says “Bless you child”.
I remain on deck until the light is almost gone before taking one last look at the mountain that is Francois. I know that even though I’m an early riser, the ship would leave before I’m awake. The experience on deck was already gone from my mind as I thought of my aunt and the adventure ahead in Nova Scotia. I would remember it from time to time but would not take hold of it again until twenty seven years later.
When the Ferry William Carson docked in North Sydney, I was both excited and scared. Getting off the Ferry, I was in for the shock of my young life. My aunt was waiting at the terminal, which seemed huge to me. We hugged and then taking my suitcase which was not much bigger than a briefcase, she led me to her car in a parking lot, neither of which I had seen before except in the movies; which was run by a generator at the sail loft on Saturday nights. On my Island home walking was the only means of transportation. I wasn’t even sure how to get into the car. Knowing I was too shy to speak my aunt kept up a one sided conversation. It was early evening and on the way she explained that we would stop at the house long enough to eat before picking my Uncle who was still at work. She thought I would enjoy watching the city lights come on from the highway.
She placed a steak supper in front of me that would feed two or more. Between nerves and excitement I couldn’t possibly take more than a few bites; while trying to get a good look around the kitchen. Everything was completely new to me. When she opened the electric oven to get my supper where it was kept warm was one thing, but when she opened the fridge to get dessert for me I could hardly believe my eyes. “Here, enjoy some strawberry shortcake” she said, placing it in front of me; “I think you’ll like it”.
I’m sure I would have and it looked delicious; but it was huge and I didn’t know how to begin to eat that much. Though it wouldn’t take me long to get used to it.
“I’m too full” I say. She put it back in the fridge for later and we left for Sydney.
She was right; I will never forget my first glimpse of city lights coming on. It was as if the stars came out all at once. At home with no artificial light except lamps the night sky was an amazing sight. The moon used to shine in our bedroom window lighting up the room as if it was day. Gazing out our bedroom window we could the ocean in the distance and all the stars. Outside we would find and name them at night as we played and walked. I loved it especially on winter nights when we went skating in the moonlight, on one of many ponds to choose from.
The night lights in Sydney were beautiful in a whole new way, something I had never seen before and it was magical. When we arrived back home my aunt went to the fridge for my dessert but it was gone. She looked at Roy her youngest, who was nine at the time who quickly said with a half smile; just in case I thought; smiling.“I saw it and thought it was left over”. Looking into his big brown eyes I laughed; he instantly made a home in my heart that still exists today.
I worked six days a week with an afternoon and Sunday off for ten dollars a week with room and board. I thought I had it made.
At home we carried our water from a well year round. We heated it on the stove, washed clothes in a big metal tub with a wash board, and hung them outside or up over the stove or in the hallway to dry. Our only light at night was a lamp. The floors we swept with a broom and washed on our hands and knees.
I still worked hard at my aunts but the work was easy in comparison; even though my aunt was demanding sometimes and would yell at me a lot I liked my life and loved my family there. Having hot and cold water coming out of taps in the house was something. Taking a bath in a bathtub instead of a washtub, Wow! A washer and dryer…heaven, though we did hang the clothes out on the line on nice days. A vacuum and a floor polisher made the work seem so much easier, and I quickly learned how to use them. Having an electric Iron instead of having to heat the iron on top of the stove? Well, let’s just say; I adjusted to and embraced electricity instantly. Also there were no lamps to trim and fill every day. And ice cream in the freezer. I couldn’t get over it all. I was a girl “fresh off the rock” as we say, and seeing the world for the first time.
My introduction to TV was the Red skeleton Show. It was the one where he and his wife had an argument and drew a line straight down the middle of the bedroom between their beds. The bathroom was on her side and he had to go out a window on his side and climb in a window on her side to get to it. Of course when he crawled in through the window he frightened her and she screamed frightening him and he screamed. It was so funny I couldn’t stop laughing. The boys stared at me. I had never seen a TV before.
Living in Sydney mines was an adventure because everything was new. I loved the sound of the train and the smell of bread at the bakery. Who knew you could buy bread instead of making it? At home we put bread slices on the stove to toast it. My Aunt had a toaster where you put two slices in and walked away. The toaster pulled them down, and popped it back up when it was done. I thought I had seen everything that first morning especially waking up to the aroma of uncle’s fresh perked coffee. It was heaven. That Christmas Eve I learned to love his homemade brandy eggnogs as well. I loved Aunt’s homemade Italian at first bite, especially lasagna, and gnocchi. I still do. She taught me how to make it. At Christmas she made Italian waffles and an Italian pastry filled with some of my favourite things like, chick peas, chocolate, orange, almonds and raisins and grape juice…all grounded into a paste, then wrapped in homemade pastry and deep fried. They were my favourites and she kept them in my bedroom, that, by the way; I had all to myself, which I loved; even though I missed my sisters sometimes at night. I missed us whispering before going to sleep. Later when Roy was a teenager and stayed out later, he would come into my room with a snack and tell me about his adventures before going to bed. I treasured that. I call him my Brocuz.
Anyway my aunt stored the Christmas cooking in my room in large boxes. The aroma drove me crazy and I wanted to get into them …but I didn’t.
I made new friends and we would walk from Sydney Mines to North Sydney on Sunday afternoons listening to the top twenty on our transistor radio. It took all afternoon for us to walk there and back but we had so much fun. I loved going to the movies, went to my first community Exhibition with all the rides, cotton candy, etc. First hockey arena, first wrestling match introducing The Great Antonio, which I didn’t like, the wrestling I mean, and ate my first Pizza. I had a lot of firsts that summer and fall. When they told me about an upcoming exhibition we were sitting around the supper table. Everyone had a story to tell including Uncle who was sitting at the end of the table beside me. He told me about miniature horses that one could ride, explaining exactly how small they were. Uncle was a handsome man, a typical short chubby Italian who always had a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth. I loved him and the aroma of his cigars and still do. As he talked I had a mental image of him on one of those tiny horses; the horse on its belly with all four legs sprawled on the ground and uncle on his back. I couldn’t hold the laughter bubbling up inside and burst out laughing. Uncle wanted to know what I was laughing about and I couldn’t tell him. He grabbed my cheeks and pulled and it hurt. I still laughed. My aunt yelled at him to let me go. Asking if I would explain, I nodded and he let go. Everyone had a good laugh including Uncle when I shared my mental image of him on the tiny horse. I had no choice but to get used to him pulling my cheeks. Next to the dogs, Buddy and Sport whose cheeks he often pulled; my poor cheeks seemed his next favourite. I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with them over the years.
For awhile I provided a source of amusement for my cousins and others for the way I talked and my accent. They meant no harm but to a wounded shy introvert, it made my walls a bit thicker. I became determined to talk like them. I realized later of course that I was in Cape Breton where the accent was not much different than mine, but I didn’t see it that way at that time. And I was used to being picked on.
At home I was often laughed at and because I was shy and introverted, I was an easy target. Too wounded to fight back I decided I would not let them see how much they hurt me. I learned not to trust too easily, hid inside myself, read everything I could get my hands on and listened to everything I could get on the radio.
I remember one winter at home; sitting on a rail beside the general store wearing my sisters hand me down pants. Since I was as tall as she was even though she was older, the pants were too short. About three inches of my legs were bare when I sat. It was enough for one of the boys to throw a snowball and their fun began. I sat without a word as if they didn’t exist. It hurt and my legs ached but I wouldn’t speak or move. A neighbour came along and yelled at them and they stopped. One of them looked back at me as if puzzled. Some boys would also chase us girls try to put their hands where they shouldn’t. Then they would let us go. It seemed to amuse them.
Amazingly I did well in school. My secret dream was to escape when I was old enough and go live in the real world beyond the harbour, make lots of money, become somebody and return home to show “them”: my tormentors, and my mother, what I could really do. Smile.
I wanted to stay in school and I loved studying. Remembering a particular teacher telling me I was smart and could be anything I wanted to beif I studied and worked hard; I began night school; secretarial and bookkeeping; (twice). Both times in the middle of my courses Mom called me home to help her. I wept a lot and gave up a lot and couldn’t wait to be sixteen and say no to my mother who didn’t want me home she just wanted me to be her servant. If she could have me do the work without me living at home she would have done it. Somewhere along the way I gave up trying to make something of myself. It would take other five years years to finish my high school education.
I learned people can be cruel no matter where you live. I learned there was such a thing as prejudice and my first experience was personal…that somehow I was less of a person for being a Newfoundlander and I have many memories both verbal and physical to remind me of this truth in their eyes and mind. I also learned that most people did not feel the same and were very kind. An experience both funny and profound gift happened though during this time. I had become friends with a black girl who was dating the cousin of my then boyfriend. We went to Halifax for an overnight and stayed with their family. As we were getting ready for bed that night I was very shy about getting into my Pj’s. I had only ever shared a room with my sisters, before this. While I was standing with my back to my new friend and wondering how to undress in front of someone other than my sisters she suddenly said “It doesn’t rub off you know”.
“What doesn’t rub off? I turn around.
“The colour” she replies.
“The colour of what” I ask confused.
“My skin” she said.
“Neither does mine” I respond in complete ignorance.
She stared at me for the longest time before breaking into laughter.
“You’re serious” she said. “Sarah you and I will become great friends” she laughed coming towards me, giving me a hug. We did indeed become very good friends. I made more new friends and enjoyed exploring this whole new world.
Every Sunday morning my Aunt who had married into the Catholic Church, would drop me off at the Church of England and pick me up after Mass was over. I loved everything about our little Church at home. I felt quieter while there and afterwards; better and stronger. I could sing my heart out and listen quietly and pray. There wasn’t much quiet in a home with ten kids, a kitchen and three bedrooms.
Feeling a bit lonely going alone and curious about her church, I convinced my aunt to take me with her one Sunday morning. There I experienced something life changing, had no words for and couldn’t fully explain; and to this day have no words for. I couldn’t wait to ask her what I had to do to become a catholic. I didn’t understand but I knew in the very core of me that God had touched my heart and called me to live my faith in a new way, a new community.
“What do I have to do to make this happen” I ask.
“Why do you want to do this? she wanted to know.
“I can’t say” I cried, realizing I had no answer other than; “I just need to”.
I knew it didn’t have much to do with what I had heard because it was all in Latin and even though I usually got a hundred percent on Latin tests at school I couldn’t get a lot of what was being said at church. I couldn’t explain my inner conviction that it was meant to be for me. I knew only that God had spoken something in my heart and called me to this. I am reminded of a similar experience at my confirmation.
From HER Journal:
Oh! To be so free again, I smile as I recall my confirmation. The understanding given to me as a child is that up to the day of confirmation my parents and Godparents shared responsibility for the person I would become. At confirmation and first communion I would receive new life and begin fresh “as a baby” from that moment on as a new person, responsible for myself; starting with a clean slate so to speak.
Starting over was very important to me. God would forgive, make me clean and I would be new again. As many children do, I believed I must have done something wrong for bad things to happen to me as they did. Oh! How I had longed for this day to come, eager to receive Communion and be a new person.
I dreamed of wearing the dress my sister had worn at her confirmation and first communion; and I could hardly wait to put it on. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, all white with silver threads woven throughout the lace bodice.
I feel like a bride as I walk to church in my beautiful dress, veil and white gloves. I can hardly contain my excitement at being able to begin fresh and new, responsible for myself. Though I had some sense of being innocent again; at twelve I didn’t understand all that it might mean. Still the thought of it made me feel free inside. I promised myself no one would hurt me that way ever again.
I stand with my friends listening and praying. A quiet, hurting and curious child I often talk to Jesus and ask him to help. I listen to the prayers as always but really enjoy just talking to Jesus like a friend. When called to kneel before the bishop for a blessing and then to kiss the big ring on his finger, I think to myself that I would be better served kissing Gods feet than the Bishops ring. To this day I do not remember my lips touching the ring.
I feel as if I am wrapped in light as I go to stand beside my friends and prepare to receive Holy Communion for the first time; the body and blood of Christ that would make me new again. The sense of being filled with what I now know is the Spirit of God; remains with me throughout the day. Later as I walk home alone, I begin to dance. Stretching my arms to the wind and sky, I turn round and round on the dusty road. Feeling as free as flying might be I think to myself; Oh! If only I could feel new like this forever, there is nothing more I would want or ask of life!
Fifty plus years later, the memory of that experience is as clear and real to me as it was then and I wonder to myself; since by grace, I was made aware of being better served to kiss his feet; then did I perhaps, in my heart truly kiss the feet of God? Thank You for the gift Father. Thank you. A twelve year old would not have that kind of insight on her own. Thank you for always being there for me. Although the images given to me as a child were not of a loving God, I never questioned and just seemed to know, that Jesus was always my friend. My head was full with what being a new person in God meant.
Now as at fifteen…I feel the same conviction in my heart about God’s call to me at St. Pius X in Sydney Mines NS… as I did in responding to the old man’s question on the Steamer in Francois…when I said I would be a writer.
Of course my Aunt talked me out of it using an argument I knew only too well. It was drilled into me at every opportunity at home. Us girls were trained to be good housekeepers first of all, then to be mothers by being responsible for our younger brothers and sisters from the time they were born. Then we were told that our lot in life was to be married and know how to care of our homes, our husbands and our children; in that order. We were to take on our husband’s religion and bring our children up according to it no matter what it was. Mom’s opinion of me she stressed often was that she hoped I would marry a rich man who could afford a maid because I was a good for nothing too dirty and lazy to take care of a home or family. Anyone who came to my house, she said, would need to bring a shovel to dig their way in through the dirt. She said this to me from the time I was old enough to do the dishes while kneeling on a chair. She said it to me while I was working my tiny fingers to the bone and she was out talking to an unwitting neighbour telling them how lazy and dirty and good for nothing her girls were. How she had no help and had to do everything herself. I think there must have been moments when I hated her, but I didn’t feel like I did.
At Aunt’s I attempted getting an education three times which were all interrupted by my mother calling me home because she needed me. I gave up for awhile.
Trying to find my way I did work at many different jobs, absorbed the beauty around me, and listened to the unique stories of many I met along the way.
I had worked at home, cleaned other people’s homes, packed fish, cared for children, worked in a family restaurant and a dry cleaner…spent a few months in Grand Bank with my sweet cousin and her family while recovering from an engagement I walked away from. I refused a beautiful generous offer from aunt next door, to stay with her and finish my education. Knowing mom would make her life a living hell I could not do that to her.
It would take twenty seven years and a Panic attack before I would begin living my fifteen year old call to live my faith in the Catholic community…where my story begins to unfold. Led by faith and coming face to face with the challenge of embracing my own unique story, the call to write that I had forgotten for so long finally became stronger than my fear and doubt; so I begin! My life palette, my story unfolds as I learn to paint with words that give life to each unique story I carry within me including my own. The fifteen year old on the coastal boat in François who knew who she was in a moment of enlightenment and clarity; the fifteen year old who recognized a call during a spiritual experience at Mass with her Aunt; And my twelve year old self at my confirmation and first communion. All connected at a crossroad with my seven year old self on the Bellknap one sunny morning …in a life saving, shimmering Blue Experience. I feel brave enough to begin the journey. I am forty two.