Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Flower of Mcivers

“To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists round about him - simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him - simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by other things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organization can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes.”

Martin Buber – from “I and Thou”

My mother was cut from hardy stock. She was born in 1910, in a little Newfound fishing village called Mcivers, pictured above. She was the youngest of Fannie Rose Morgan and Rueben Park’s nine children.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, what seemed to be a bad staffing assignment on the part of the U.S. Air Force in 1963 turned out to be on of the greatest blessings in my life. I’d been at Travis Air Force Base for about two years when the orders came. I was going to Ernest Harmon, which was located in Stephenville, Newfoundland.

My first recollection of life at Harmon was that it was cold, damned cold. I’d arrived in early December and by that time the snow was already piled up higher than anything I’d ever seen. And, the wind was almost always blowing at thirty miles an hour, with snow squalls descending in the late afternoons, dropping three or four inches of snow. After that, the nights would clear, the winds continue, and the temperature drop to about ten below.

My daily routine was about as predictable as the weather. There was work in a communications relay center, dressing to endure the walk from the barracks to work, chow, and about two or three hours a day in the airman’s club, drinking. Like most GI’s stationed there, the drink was the real center of my life. I rationalized it by calling it anti-freeze, claiming I needed it to survive the Newfoundland winter.

I knew that my mother had been born in Newfoundland, but once stationed there I never gave much thought to contacting my mother’s family. There were two reasons I used to justify my thinking. First, it was just too cold to move far from Ernest Harmon. I assumed that my mother’s family would be hunkered down just like me. But, fundamentally, I was really afraid to meet them. I was afraid they might be like her. After my father died in 1948 she’d had a complete nervous breakdown and been hospitalized for a year or so. The “healing regimen” included all sorts of medications and went so far as to also include shock treatments. My brother has a picture of her taken not long after she got out of the hospital. She weighed about eighty pounds. Every time I look at that picture I have to stifle my emotions. Her face looked empty, as if almost all the life had been shocked and electrified out of her. There was a body there, to be sure, but the sullen, downcast look on her face has always spoken volumes to me. It’s as though the forty pounds missing from her were the soul. Her cheekbones, mirrored against the gaunt face, the sunken, hollow eyes, were the most prominent features. As I occasionally look at the picture I see the weight of the world collapsing down on her. With shoulders slumped, face weighed down, she has become to me the epitome of a tortured soul.

It took me years to see my mother’s life in the proper light. Until that happened she remained a great embarrassment to me. Her neuroses, born of circumstances beyond her control, dominated her life from the time she left that hospital. The weight of those “quirks” often fell on me and I recoiled against them. As I think back on it now I believe it’s the reason I was the first in my family to go far from home. I’d decided at a young age that when the opportunity came I was going to escape the things that dominated her. I determined they were not going to dominate me.

That brings me back to Newfoundland. I was content to stay around the people I felt most comfortable with. If I was going to be around neurotic people, I reasoned, I was going to share my time with people whose neuroses I shared. So, like my buddies, I clung to drink, fast women, and as much fancy clothing I could afford.

It was, as I recall, about four months into my tour, in early March, 1964, when I got a letter from home, encouraging me to visit the Parks, my mother’s family. I ignored that letter, but a second letter came two weeks later with an even stronger encouragement. I decided to go ahead and make the pilgrimage, only to stop the barrage of letters.

Mcivers is about twenty miles or so from Corner Brook, in Newfoundland’s Bay of Islands area. It’s rugged country, made for rugged men and women, the hardy stock my mother came from.

The trip from Stephenville to Mcivers was uneventful. By this time I was getting used to the snow, wind, and cold, so much so that it seemed quite natural to me. A ride in a sixties version of a micro-bus going sixty five miles an hour on snow packed roads would bother me today. It didn’t back then. I just figured that if we went off the road we’d just wind up in a snow bank, crawl out of the vehicle and dig out, then go on our way. I believe the bus driver was thinking the same way.

I arrived in Mcivers right around dusk. The first thing I noticed was that the wind was as prominent there in Mcivers as it was at Ernest Harmon. My African-American buddies back at the base used to listen to the wind howling and say that the “hawk was talking.” The bus stopped and I thanked the driver for the ride. “Hawk’s really talkin’ out there, ain’t he?” I said, as I got up from my seat. “What’s that, my son?” the driver asked. Realizing that there was a language barrier, I replied, “Nothing...Just GI talk, that’s all.”

As I got off the bus I pulled the hood of the parka over my head to protect myself from the wind, looked up at the sky, which was beginning to reveal the stars that ruled the cold Newfoundland night. The bus pulled away and as it did the driver rolled his window down and barked out, “Sonny Jim, if was you I’d be gittin’ myself inside quick like. Otherwise you’s gonna’ freeze solid fore the mornin’ comes.” I waved, acknowledging his wise counsel, and headed off to the closest house I could find.

The door opened even before I got to the threshold. There to greet me was a woman. She was fairly tall, with a strong appearance, a round pleasant face. Her voice spoke of an inner calm. As I moved forward to announce myself she said, “Lionel, my son, you’ve got some thin.” It took me a moment to realize that I’d been mistaken for someone else. Once I did I announced myself. “Ma’am, I’m not Lionel, I’m Susie Park’s son from America.” Her face lit up as soon as she heard my words. “Oh, God’s goodness, my son, I’m your aunt Mabel.” She motioned me forward and hugged me, pulling me past the threshold as she did. “Billy, Billy, come ‘ere,” she shouted. “Your sister Susie’s boy’s here from America.” My uncle came dashing from a back room as we were entering what appeared to be a dining room. There was a long table in the middle covered with an oil cloth, with neatly arranged chairs surrounding it. The room was warm and inviting. My uncle, who was a fairly short man (as I recall he appeared to be shorter than my aunt), with thinning hair, and a very pronounced smile, stood erect, beaming at the sight before him. “Well, Lord stone the crows.” He looked me over for a few moments, then, beaming again, went on. “Mabel, you’re right maid, he’s some thin. I think we need to get this boy some food, they don’t feed ‘em too well in America.” With that he motioned me to sit down. It wasn’t long till the table was filled with cookies, biscuits, bread, jams, and tea. We sat for hours and talked. To this day I remember the ambience much more than the subjects covered. As the conversation went on the room seemed to warm with each word spoken. I received the hospitality and listened, realizing that my fears about the Parks, based on my history with my mother, were unfounded. These were good people, the salt of the earth.

The conversation went on for some time and then there was a knock at the door. Mabel smiled at me as she got up to answer the door. “’Tis your uncle Philip. He’s over every evening about this time. Susie named you after him. I’m sure he’ll love these moments with ya’.” As the door opened I saw a short man. He was barrel-chested and appeared to be quite strong. From what my mother had told me I knew he’d been a lumberjack and could “cut more cord o’ wood than any man in the Bay of Islands.” I stood up and he gazed at me for a moment. Then he asked Mabel, “What’s this, then, Mabel, a stranger in our midst?” Mabel laughed. “’Tis no stranger, Philip, ‘tis your namesake from America. This is your sister Susie’s boy from America.” With that Philip rushed up to me and hugged me. He held me for quite some time, then let go. “It’s him for sure, is it, Mabel?” he asked, looking for reassurance. “He’s not a phantom, is he?” Billy and Mabel, in unison, reassured him. “Oh, no, my son, he’s Susie’s boy for sure.” “This is wonderful,” he beamed as he hugged me once more. As he did I could feel tears from his cheeks touching mine. This, for my uncle Philip, was a great day. He let go of me for a moment, holding me by my shoulders, looking me over. After that he did something that amazes me to this day. My uncle, seventy-seven years old, past his prime, picked me up and twirled me around seven or eight times. “It’s a glad day for Philip Park, it is,” He said as he did. When he was done he plunked me down like a small toy and we all sat down for more conversation and remembrance.

For the next hour or so we all sat and talked. I noticed that Mabel, Philip, and Billy seemed far less concerned with the goings on in America, the progress of the world’s greatest nation than they were with Susie. Philip and Billy would occasionally reminisce across the table, giving me little glimpses into my mother’s real soul. Their remembrance filled the air. One would talk, the other would listen, nodding as he did. “How long’s it been since we seen her?” “Forty year I think.” “Been that long has it?” “Oh my, yes, it’s been that for sure.” “She was the flower of Mcivers, our Susie was.” “Oh my, yes, she was that and more.” This went on for some time and then it got more specific. Billy began, out loud, to remember a sad time. “Do you remember, Philip, the time when she was so young and she wanted to go to a dance? I think she was sixteen, maybe.” Philip nodded, acknowledging the memory. Billy continued – “Mum thought ‘twas alright but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. I remember Mum pleadin’ with him – “Oh Rueben, let her go, the boys will be sure she’s okay.”
“I remember it,” Philip said. “Ruben Park was a hard man, a mean man and he wouldn’t let her go. Said she was too young.”
Billy continued on. “I remember poor Susie pleadin’ with him and us takin’ up for her, but it was no good. We all just got beat for all our pleadin.”
As I looked across the table I saw Philip wipe the tears from his eyes. “She cried by the fireplace all night long. No one could console her…..He was a hard man, was Rueben Park. He was mean to our little Susie”

And so it went late into the night until fatigue set it. Mabel went to prepare a place for me to sleep, a feather bed with a huge down comforter. As she was doing that Billy left me with the night’s parting words. “Your mom’s a good woman, Philip. Our Susie’s was the flower of Mcivers. I think she was the best of us Parks.”

We then all sat quietly for a few minutes, basking in the glow of the conversation and memories of the flower of Mcivers. It was time full of marvellous silence, with Billy and Philip remembering a sister they loved and treasured and me seeing my mother in a light I’d never seen before. I remember that silence to this day as not only being full, but also being filled with wonder.

Mabel came from the bedroom she’d prepared for me and announced that it was fit for American habitation. This way, Philip,” she said, motioning me toward the room. “Bein’ a soldier you’re probably not used to much comfort, but we’ll make you comfortable here. We gotta’ do good by Susie’s boy.” I thanked her, said good night to Billy and Philip, and turned toward the bedroom. Mabel had one last word. “You’re uncle Fiander will be by in the morning for breakfast. He’s always by our place in time for breakfast along with the other Parks. You’ll bring a glad tear to his eye when he sees you, for sure.” With that, the door closed behind me.

It took me a while to get to sleep that night. My mind and heart were filled with thoughts. The goodness of the Parks melted some of the hardness I’d developed over the years. I laid there, rearranging my thinking. There was so much more to Susie Park than the neuroses I’d seen for years. To those who were close to her and loved her she was the flower of Mcivers. As I drifted into slumber I wondered, “How did she get from here in Mcivers to where she is now?” “Who?” I asked, “robbed the flower of all of its beauty in the years it took her to get from here to there?”

It was to take years to get the answers to those questions.


Gone Away said...

Wonderful. And fascinating. You have an incredible eye for detail and an honesty in your writing that is enviable.

Miss Eagle said...

I loved the way you captured the essence and detail and language of that family gathering. I know of Newfoundland only from the novel, The Shipping News by Annie Prioulx which I loved. I live in Melbourne, Australia - a world away from both Newfoundland and Kansas. I think there was one thing, perhaps two behind such beautiful writing - love and respect for these authentic people who were part of you and yours.

Can Do said...

Phil, I don't know what to say! What a beautiful connection you made with Ma. I honestly cried with the deeper awareness of what she went through,the flower of McIvers, for us, her children. What a glorious experience you had. Please keep the memories coming. Brother Bill

Ginger said...

I randomed across you through an amazing entry to come across in the early early morning hours.

I had to read this entry twice to understand that you were not a small boy but a grown man when you visited the Parks. My original thought was, "He has so much clearer memories than I do of my youth."

This entry invited me to a time and place I'd never experienced before. Thank you for letting me journey with you.

Anonymous said...

This an amazing story which is well-told. Being a resident of McIvers, I can appreciate the description of the people mentioned in the story.