Volume 23, Number 133, June/July 2020 Abundance of the Simple Kind by Shirley Daly Robichaud
As a child, growing up post World War II in outport Newfoundland, I thought I lived in luxury. I was never hungry or cold, I needed no money, I was loved and disciplined fairly. I was excited to get hand-knit socks and mittens and my older sister’s hand-me-downs. My first new dress came from Simpson’s catalogue when I was 14 years old. I distinctly remember that dress. It was green candy-striped, with a big flared skirt and a belt and I wore it to my first garden party that summer. When I danced the Lancers and the boys swung me round and round, I felt like a princess in a Fairy Tale. One Sunday that summer, I ruined that dress when I teased a squid and it squirted its ink all over it. I knew it had cost my mother more money than we could afford.
We were a contented lot in our family, and never asked for much. My father came home one weekend with an old bicycle for my brother. We girls were happy for him, and on school days he would, in turn, take our school bags the two miles to school, a bag over each of his skinny shoulders. And as each girl got to an age where she wanted to learn to ride the bicycle, he would lend it to us.
On my 13th birthday I finally learned to ride.
We all learned to row the dory when we were strong enough to hold the oars. The dory was our main mode of transportation, next to shank’s mare, and we were anxious to learn. When my younger sister was only 11 years old, she would row the 15 minutes across the Arm and pick up me, my sister and brother, who were in High School and got out later than she did. She had already walked the two miles home before doing this.
My father was a kind and caring man and this was again manifested to me one day after school when I was 16. As I climbed out of the old jeep that had transported the Grade Elevens to a school six miles away, I knew I had another two miles to walk. There was thunder and lightning and the rain was coming down in sheets. I had no raincoat with me. As I put my head down and began to walk, I heard someone calling my name. There was Dad standing by the side of the road, wearing his oilskins and long rubber boots to the hips.
“I’ve come to take you home,” he said. I looked to the sea and saw that he had anchored his small fishing boat with the make and break engine just off-shore. It was blowing so hard and he couldn’t take the chance of the boat beating on the rocks.
“But how will I get out to it?” I said.
“You’ll see,” he responded.
When we got to the shore, he picked up in his arms this big girl, schoolbag and all, and waded to the boat.
“Get in the engine-house, quick now,” he said, and I bent over and crawled into the small space as the lightning flashed around us. Dad pulled up the anchor and with one spin, started up the old make and break engine. We putt-putted our way across the Arm with Dad, despite the storm, having no problem finding the way home. This is a memory that has remained close to my heart all through my life.
In Spring, we saw and gathered fish aplenty. First, there was the caplin that ran upon the landwash in droves and were gathered in screaming merriment by young and old alike. These little fish were eaten fresh or dried, but most were thrown, as fertilizer, on the recently-planted vegetable gardens. Then, about a month later the herring came, turning the whole Arm white with their spawn. Such excitement as men came from far and wide to harvest them. They were worth money and were harvested first with dories and then, in later years, with motorboats. It was exciting, as children, to watch as the seines encircled the schools of herring and brought them to shallow water. They were then put into the dories with dip nets and rowed to The Point where the trucks could back down to the water’s edge. We, as a family, gathered as much herring as we needed to eat fresh, to salt for winter, and to fertilize the gardens.
Early summer was sheep-shearing time, and a spectator event for all the children. We watched the sheep as the men held them down, bawling their hearts out, as their heavy, woolen winter coats were shed. Then, there they stood, all white and pink, looking ridiculously funny, before realizing their newfound freedom. Our mother stood waiting and watching, and then gathered the wool and brought it to the house where all our work began. The wool was washed and laid to dry outside on the grass, then picked clean and carded on two hand carders. These rectangular brush-like tools made the wool smooth and clean before being spun into yarn on the old spinning wheel. Some of the raw wool was used to fill quilts and the yarn was used to knit socks, sweaters, mittens and cuffs, also called “nippers” in Newfoundland. These were circular woolen palm protectors that men used for trawl fishing. In later years, my mother would put all of the wool into old flour sacks and send it off to Condon’s Woolen Mills in PEI, where it came back as blankets and yarn of every colour. A lot less work for a woman with five children.
When berry-picking season came, we children did not have to be told to pick raspberries. Usually, we would go twice a day, as the groves were close by. Besides an abundance of berries, I also got an abundance of hives. By evening, after the first picking day, I would be covered. It was “scratch, scratch” for the rest of the season. I loved them so much and ate as much as I could, despite the discomfort and the smell of Calamine lotion that was used to treat the itch. Then it was on to the blueberries, which grew in abundance on what the old people called “The Burnt Ground” where, at sometime, there had been a huge fire caused by lightning. This was an allday trek through the woods and back with my father or brother leading the way. August was also when the bakeapples ripened, and reflecting back, I know now why they sell for $50 a gallon. It was hard work traipsing over rivers, marshes, rugged, tangled paths and the scary, shaky bogs. Despite our fear, we always took a jump on these bogs, which are like a living trampoline. As a child, I thought at any time, I would go through it, to the end of the earth. Some years, if we had a May frost that killed the blossoms, there would be few bakeapples. You could not lie down or even kneel while picking these. They grew only in bogs or marshes, one berry to a stalk. Back-breaking work it was, but the reward was great. To see and smell the orange jam as it cooked on the stove was mouth-watering. When I visit Newfoundland and am given bakeapple jam, I feel I’ve found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. September brought another berry, the staple of our winter jam, the partridgeberry. This small red berry grew on dry, windswept, browsy ground and we, as a family, picked all day to fill the flour sacks to carry them home. It was like a family outing. At lunch, a fire was built, a billy can filled with water and boiled for tea. This we drank with whatever sandwiches my mother had made. It was a pleasure to pick these as the mosquitoes were almost gone, the air was cooler and we could lie on our bellies or sides to pick them. To keep them for winter, my father would fill a wooden tub with the berries and cover them with water from the nearby river. The tubwas kept on the top floor of the root cellar where, occassionally, we would have to break a skim of ice when we were sent to fill a pot for our mother.
The harvest season is a time of joy for anyone who gardens. Along with the big green cabbages, the turnips, carrots and beets, what stands out in my memory is the potatoes. Beds and beds of them everywhere. When we were small we were allowed to pull stalks, but nothing beat digging them. Watching heaps and heaps of them pouring out of the ground is a sight to behold. They were spread to dry before being put into a homemade wooden shute and put into bins in the bottom of the cellar. I loved being sent to get vegetables from the cellar and to this day, can still recall the wonderful smell of “earth”.
August was haying time. Alot of fun and a lot of work. If our father was fishing, my mother would call us children all together after breakfast, and if the sun was shining, we would go to the meadow to spread the hay. Then, every few hours, we’d turn it again until evening came when we put it up into stacks against the damp night air. If we had a rainy summer, it would take forever to get the hay dry. At the end of haying time, my father needed the help of all five children and my mother. He would lay two thick ropes on the ground about a foot or so apart. Then, all of us gathered the hay and stacked it high over the ropes. Then Dad tied the ropes tightly over the load and then around his shoulders. As he started to pull the load, all of us put our hay forks to the hay and pushed with all our might. Every now and then my father stopped, pulling out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat rolling off his brow. We could see the ropes cutting into his shoulders as he continued to pull the hay to the stable. Thankfully, we had a fairly small crop of hay and a small flock of sheep to feed. When I think back to that picture of my father, and those ropes around his shoulders, tears come to my eyes.
Abundance comes in many forms and its meaning can change throughout a lifetime, depending on time and circumstance.
Reflecting back on this Newfoundland childhood I realize we were poor in a financial sense, but rich in the abundance of land and sea, and rich in the joy of selfsufficiency and love.