“When Sun-rays cown the pine-clad hills,
And Summer spreads her hand,
When silvern voices tune thy rills,
We love thee smiling land.”
“When blinding storm gusts fret thy shore,
And wild waves lash thy strand,
Thro’ sprindrift swirl and tempest roar,
We love thee, wind-swept land,
We love thee, we love,
We love thee, wind-swept land.
We love thee, we love thee,
We love thee wind-swept land.”
“When spreads thy cloak of simmm’ring white,
At Winter’s stern command,
Thro’ shortened day and starlit night,
We love thee frozen land.”
“As loved our fathers, so we love
Where once they stood we stand,
Their prayer we raise to Heaven above,
God guard thee, Newfoundland
God guard thee, God guard thee
God guard thee Newfoundland
God guard, God guard thee
God guard thee Newfoundland.”
- “Ode to Newfoundland” by Sir Cavendish Boyle
The questions about my mother that I’d gone to bed with had safely tucked themselves into memory during the night. I didn’t know if I’d ever get answers to those questions, but I knew they wouldn’t go away.
Morning broke, unlike most Newfoundland mornings I remember, bright and sunny. As I made myself ready for the day, the bedroom’s frosty window pane caught my eye. There was an occasional whistle of the ever present wind against the house that, combined with the sun, painted a series of images on the glass. By the time I was finished dressing I was transfixed by the sights. One gust of wind would bring up images of lumberjacks, axes and saws in tow, marching through Newfoundland’s great pines. As that image passed another gust would bring a succeeding vision – dories bobbing up and down in the cove beyond the window. As that image faded it was replaced by fishing boats silhouetted against the sun, making their way to the Grand Banks. At one point I was tempted to get close to the glass, to breathe my hot breath on it. But, some inner wisdom overtook me and I decided it would be much better to view these wonderful ice paintings from a distance. “Better,” I thought to myself, “to let the images create themselves than to make a flimsy attempt at creating them my own.”
I sat like this for about a half an hour, my imagination swept up by the small window. The wind howled and the images danced on the frosty pane before me. Leprechauns, with eyes twinkling, smiled. An occasional whale would break the surface of the deep blue water, swim lazily around, then make its way back down under the water to find more Northern Krill.
I would have stayed there forever if I could, but the smell of food cooking in the adjacent kitchen crept under the bedroom door, reminding me that one must feed my body as well as my imagination.
Mabel was furiously working on breakfast on a large black wood stove as I made my way out of the bedroom. While she seemed too engrossed in the work to notice anyone around her, she acknowledged my presence without looking up. “Mornin’, Philip. Did ya’ sleep well?”
“I did indeed, Aunt Mabel…thanks.”
“Brackfast be ready in a bit. Why don’t you go have a smoke with your Uncle Billy…He’s out in the livin’ room.”
The living room was small, with an oversized sofa, two oversized chairs, a coffee table, and a couple of floor lamps taking what little empty space was left. There wasn’t much room to maneuver, but I think that was by design. Conversation, not comfort was the watchword of Billy and Mabel’s home. Billy was sitting in one of the chairs, a piece of cigarette paper in his left hand and a small pouch of tobacco in the other. He sat, sprinkling the tobacco as I entered the room. “Good morning, Uncle Billy. How’d you sleep?” I asked. “Didn’t sleep at all, my son,” he said as he licked the edge of the paper. “I’m a night watchman up at the mill in Corner Brook. It’ll be a while ‘fore I take my rest.” I felt a bit foolish for having asked the question. I’d assumed that all the Park men were fishermen, whalers, or lumberjacks. If Billy thought it was a foolish question he didn’t let on. He lit up his cigarette, took a long puff and asked, “Can I roll you one of these, my son?” “No thanks,” I said. “I’ve got a pack of Camels.”
Billy’s eyes seemed to light up at the mention of an American made cigarette. “Camels, ya’ say?”
“I’ve been smoking them since I was twelve.”
“Ooh,” he said. I’d love one of ‘em. Could you spare one for a long lost uncle?”
I took a couple of cigarettes out of my pack, lit one for myself and offered the other to Billy. He crushed his home made special out in a saucer that was sitting on the coffee table and lit up the cigarette I’d given him. As he took the first puff and exhaled I could see the look of pleasure on his face. For the next five minutes or so we sat there enjoying our morning smoke without saying a word.
We finished our smokes about the same time Mabel came into the living room and announced, “Fi (pronounced fye) and Phil oughta’ be here directly.”
“Philip goin’ up to the camp with the boys?” Billy asked.
“That he is,” said Mabel
Mabel laughed. “Fi’ll be doin’ as he always does, gadaboutin’, I guess.”
“Maybe young Philip ‘ere can do some gadaboutin’ with him.”
Mabel nodded. “He will for sure. We already sent word up to him that Susie’s boy is here. He’ll be coming with a bit of spring in his step this morning, I’ll wager.”
The idea seemed to please Billy. “Philip, my son, you’ll see Mcivers and more before this day is done. Your uncle Fi loved your mum as much as a brother can love a sister. The sight of you will truly warm his heart.”
My uncle Philip was the first of the two to arrive. In the light of day he seemed even burlier, stronger than he had the night before. Looking at him I could understand how easy it had been for him to swing me around like a child’s toy. His face was round, very round, and craggy. His legs were short, as were his arms. But they were massive, products of the years working in the lumber camps. He took his coat off, exposing a red and black flannel shirt that matched his complexion. “Well, young Philip, ‘tis good to see you this mahrnin’,” he said greeting me.
“It’s good to see you too, Uncle Philip.”
“Brackfast ready, Mabel?” he asked.
“It is,” she said. “All that’s lacking now is Fi.”
Billy and Philip went over to a window looking out at the Mcivers’s main road. “Hurry, young Philip,” Billy shouted. “Come ‘ere and look at this.” I got up quickly and got to the window, placing myself between my two uncles. There, coming down the road was a tall man, about six foot three I guessed. He was wearing an old, worn tweed golf cap and a wine colored cardigan, which was buttoned in uneven fashion. In appearance he appeared to be a bit ungainly and the clothing only added to the appearance. He was neither thin nor fat, but just about in between. He didn’t have his brother Philip’s look of brute strength, nor the finer facial features of his brother Billy. His gait was strange. It was part hop, part run, and part walk. As he made his way down the road his long arms would swing back and forth, pumping desperately in order to keep in tune with his gait.
Mabel went to the door, opened it and yelled, “Hurry, Fi. Brackfast is ready and Susie’s boy’s here. Don’t delay now.” “I’m comin’, maid,” the tall figure said, arms and legs now moving even faster. Mabel motioned for me to come to the door. I got to the threshold at about the same time as my uncle Fiander. He was even taller than I’d first thought. His face was worn, but not in the same manner as Philip’s. Fi’s was worn and weather-beaten from long walks up and down Mcivers' main road, walks to breakfast and evening tea, gadaboutin’ as Mabel had said. “My dear, my dear,” he said as he approached. “You’re Susie’s boy for sure. You’ve got her appearance.” There was a look of unencumbered joy on his face as he looked me up and down. He smiled and as he did his mouth opened wide, exposing the one tooth he had left in his mouth, a bottom left incisor. The emptiness of his mouth belied the quality of his tenor voice, which would, I learned later, rise and fall with rhythmic, musical quality as he spoke. I’ve often wondered since those days what Fi’s life might have been like with some education, a little refinement, and a full set of teeth. Who knows, he might have been the Prime Minister of all Canada.
“Dear God in heaven,” he said as we stood at the entrance, caught up in the moment. “It’s been so long since our Susie’s been gone now and now her Philip is here to see us.” Mabel impatiently pulled us through the threshold. “No need for you two to bring the cold in. Come, let’s have brackfast,” she ordered. You’ll time o’ plenty to talk over some good food.”
As an American breakfast had always meant a pancake or two, ham and eggs, or a bowl of oatmeal to me. I was now about to learn what breakfast meant to a Newfoundlander. Mabel would go back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, bringing more and more food as she did. There were meats (moose meat, beef, and pork), fish (haddock and salmon), vegetables (boiled potatoes, pickled beets, cabbage, carrots, and turnips), assorted breads and biscuits, jams, jellies, porridge, and eggs. And, the meal didn’t end there. At one end of the table Mabel had placed desserts, two pies and a large plate of cookies. “This ‘n a nice cuppa’ hot tea be enough for you, young Philip?” she asked as the meal began. Fi laughed, once again exposing his last tooth. He picked up the bowl of potatoes and handed them to me. “Here, my son, take plenty of these.” He patted me on the shoulder, then looked across the table at Mabel. “From his look, Mabel,” we need to fatten this lad up. He’s some thin.”
For the next forty-five minutes or so the room was filled with conversation and the sound of silverware clanging against the plates and bowls set before us. I was more than done at the fifteen minute mark, but Fi and Philip kept passing food to me. I pleaded that I was full, but they kept insisting. “It’ll be a long day,” Fi said. “And this’ll be it till evening tea.”
The meal ended with Billy going his way, to sleep after a long night of guarding the lumber mill in Corner Brook, Philip going off to the camp with the younger men to cut wood, the ones who couldn’t hold a candle to him. Mabel went on with here day, and Fi and I headed out, I assumed to do some gadaboutin.’
As we walked down the road Fi would occasionally ask questions. I don’t remember many of them, but there were one or two that seemed really important to him. “How’s our Susie then?” seemed the most paramount. I didn’t know how much he knew about my mother’s nervous breakdown, the shock treatments, or the alcoholic husband she’d left Newfoundland for. I suppose I should have told him the truth, but I couldn’t find it in my heart to do it. All I said was, “She’s fine, Uncle Fi. She’s fine.” There were times as we walked that I thought the answer satisfied him, but he would occasionally bring the question up again, leading me to believe he felt there was something in his question that he sensed remained unanswered. He asked me how long I’d be staying in Mcivers. “Another day is all I have, uncle Fi. I just have a short leave and then it’s back to Ernest Harmon.” He asked about my brother and sister back home and the fact that I was Susie’s baby. “She was the little one of our family,” he said. “She was mum’s little baby.” I told him that Billy and Philip called her the flower of Mcivers and he smiled broadly. “That she was, my son. That she was.”
Our walk would occasionally find us in someone’s house, with Fi proudly announcing me as “our Susie’s boy.” The hosts, one by one, would acknowledge Fi’s family pride. Then they would offer us “tea.” I would look over at Fi, hoping that he would gracefully decline for us. But he never did. His answer was almost always the same. “Just a spot and a biscuit’s more’n enough for us.” Each time the host would fill their table with assorted breads, butter, jams, and cookies to go with the hot tea. We would sit for an hour or so, then go on our way. This, I deduced, was Fi’s daily routine. This was what Mabel meant when she talked about gadaboutin’.
Toward the end of the day Fi took me to a point overlooking the cove. We stopped and he pointed out into the distance. “I’ll take you out in a dory one of these mornings, if you’d like,” he said as he did. “I’ll take you out along the arms, maybe go so far as Goose Arm.” I felt that same feeling that had overcome me as I watched the frost dance on the window pane before breakfast come over me again. I stood there, looking down at the water, once again transfixed, once again feeling that, if I could, I’d hold this moment in place and never leave. I just wanted to stay there, lost in my thoughts. I don’t remember how long the feeling lasted. It was probably only a minute or two, but it seemed like an eternity. It was a long enough time that Fi had to bring me back to reality. “Would you like that, my son?” he asked as he tapped me on the shoulder.
“What, uncle Fi? Would I like what?”
“A long ride in a dory out around the arms.”
“I’d like that a lot, uncle Fi. Maybe I can get some more leave and come back soon. I’d really like that.”
Fi smiled. “Maybe you could stay with me in my cabin when you do. We could go down to Mabel and Billy’s for brackfast and then go out in a dory. Mabel might frown upon it, worryin’ that there’s not as much comfort in my place for you as there is at hers. But if you’d really like, you could stay with me. We could talk her into it. It’d be alright.”
By now the thought of having to leave Mcivers the next day, with its peace and acceptance, had really overtaken me. I sighed and looked down at the water, then back at Fi. “I’d like that, Fi, I really would.”
We got back to Mabel and Billy’s place as the sun was going down. For the next few hours I sat quietly in the living room, taking in as much of the peace and acceptance as I could. Fi stayed for an hour or so of that time, sitting on the couch humming what I believe was some old fisherman’s tune. He’d rock back and forth slowly and hum, occasionally looking over at me. Toward the end of that hour he pulled an old pipe and some tobacco from his pocket, tapped the pipe against the palm of his hand, and filled the bowl with the tobacco. Once the pipe was lit he sat back, with a look of great satisfaction on his weathered face. He closed his eyes and said, “Well, Philip, this has been a good day for Fiander Park. I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes, trying to hold as many of the memories of the day as I could. “It has for me, too, Fi.”
Fi left over Mabel’s insistence that he stay for tea. “No, maid,” he pleaded. “Philip and I have had our portion today. I need no more.” With that he hugged Mabel and me, shook Billy’s hand, and left. I peered out the window, watching him as he moved up the road, making sure that I would always remember his gangly gait and the wonders he’d shown me during our day together.
After Fi had gone, I sat with Billy and Mabel for what remained of the evening. I sat, quietly like I had with Fi in the living room. Mabel must have recognized what was going on. She interrupted the silence by asking me, “Gonna’ be hard to go back to Stephenville, Philip?”
I nodded. “It is Aunt Mabel.”
“Well, then, you’ll be back. There’s always a place for you here in Mcivers, Philip. No need for sadness. You’ll be returnin’.”
I nodded, then said in hopeful agreement - “I will.”
I slept fitfully that night. In the morning I looked over at the frosty window like I had the day before, but I couldn’t recreate the moments that had transfixed me. The wind was whistling outside the window as it was the day before, but the morning was gray and overcast. I’m not sure whether it was the lack of sun or my preoccupation with having to leave. It may have been both. Whatever it was, I found myself unable to recapture the wonder of that day.
I left Mcivers right after having breakfast with Mabel and Billy. Philip was still out at the camp, showing the younger men what being a lumberjack was all about. Fi never came. I think he sensed that I didn’t need another reason to stay past my allotted time.
As the microbus pulled away from Micivers I looked back. I’d only just left and already I felt lonely. “It was only one day,” I thought, as we passed the last house in Mcivers. “I’ll be back,” I promised myself.
It wasn’t till November, some eight months later, that the promise was kept.