1968. A man and a woman, madly in love, left home and went upalong* to seek their fortune. Those were my parents. And eventually it led to me being born in the heart of Scarborough, the big city, the land of opportunity. But the pull of Newfoundland on the heartstrings was too strong for my parents to bear, and back home they went, back to family and friends, harbours and bogs, and making ends meet no matter the cost.
It was a good childhood. You know, I never knew we were poor until I went to university and was told so by a professor. I mean, I had always had everything I wanted. I was never hungry, never threadbare, never cold. There was good homemade food, new clothes, a wood stove to keep us warm. I can still remember the smell of mom’s homemade bread baking in the oven…waiting for it to come out so we could have thick pieces spread generously with molasses and fresh cow’s cream. If heaven has a smell, I think it must be like that sweet, fresh, hot bread. And waiting for the fresh milk to be scalded was sheer torture. Too hot or too long and all that beautiful, delicious cream would be wasted. It had to be just right. Rhubarb jam, snuck by the tablespoonful when no one was looking, blueberry duffs, bakeapples, salt meat, salt fish dripping in butter and partridgeberry jam. Even now that I am a vegetarian my one yearly bottle of partridgeberry jam is saved for special occasions, and until 2008 it was reserved exclusively for fish. (To a Newfoundlander, whether born or bred, fish means cod. Salt cod.) My men over the years quickly learned that that precious ruby bottle was not to be used for toast, and the biggest argument I remember having with one of them was over my bottle of ‘home’. Smoked caplin, fresh out of the smoking shed, eyes watering as they were stolen from uncles who always seemed to turn their backs when they knew we were skulking nearby. Of course, since we had spent many long, cold, wet hours skivering those caplin on to dry, poking their eye sockets onto nails on the skivers, we felt that we deserved to taste the fruits of our labours. We weren’t so eager to taste the squid that we hung, though. Making sure that their tentacles were wrapped around the flakes was hard business, but putting them in the toaster later made a crispy treat. Fresh potatoes, beet, carrots, cabbage, turnip greens from the garden, berries from the bogs and marshes and patches, moose and rabbit and birds enough to share with extended family. Cakes, cookies, trifles. The Sunday dinners of roasts and vegetables and gravy and canned fruit with Fussell’s cream. Salmon, cod, trout caught with our own hands. Purity syrup and fruitcake at Christmas. We weren’t poor as near as I could tell.
And the clothes! My God, can my mother sew! You know, when I was in high school my class went on a trip to Quebec. I left my mother with three patterns and a bolt of cloth and strict instructions that I wanted the neck of one pattern, the bodice of the second, and the skirt of the third. We got back the day before graduation and my dress fit like a glove. An off the shoulder beautiful salmon pink, with a flowing skirt, and handmade rosettes. Mom made my Sunbeam uniform for church, dozens of dresses, shorts, shirts, and other clothes, too, and quilts both plain and fancy. And give her a ball of yarn and some needles and she can create masterpieces of lacey intricate design, sweaters and afghans and baby blankets like you’ve never seen before. I think I was in grade 3 when she made my “angel shirt”. Everyone had to have one. The sleeves could be thrown back over your shoulders and when you ran it looked like you were wearing wings, angel wings. We used to pretend that we were angels, like my Uncle Derek, who having just drowned, was an angel. We tried to run fast enough with our angel wings so that we could see him again. But we never could. We could just remember him chasing us when the caplin was on, handfuls of slimy fish ready to be shoved down the back of our shirts instead of buried in the potato garden for fertilizer.
My grandmother is talented, too. She made sweaters for each of her living children one year when they were very young. I think we all still have them, passed down from mothers or fathers to daughters and sons and then to grandchildren. Three generations wearing those same hand-knit sweaters, Nan’s loving touch carrying through the years. Mom’s sweater was mustard yellow with a beautiful green and blue and red skater spinning in eternal rounds, worn by mom and me and my daughter, and now put away for my future grand-daughters and step-daughter and perhaps other children. Quilts and blankets for all her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, numbering now in the fifties, hold the evidence of her care for us, each one lovingly stitched with our names and the dates they were given. Nan is in her eighties now, still knitting, still showing her love by the work of her hands. Hats, mitts, vamps, scarfs. And lately, dishrags. Dishrags by the dozens. Sometimes left plain, out of the plainest wool, sometimes fancy in bright jewel-toned reds and greens with silver and gold peeking through, especially for Christmas, sometimes stitched together into drawers with cute sayings. Some people ask for big gifts for Christmas, but not me. Whenever Nan asks me what I want, I tell her I want the same thing I want every year – dishrags. “Haven’t you got some left?”, she says. “Yes,” I reply, “but you can never have enough dishrags,” I tell her. Truth is, I’m saving up. Living away from home for so long and having had such terrible relationships before now, sometimes it’s the little things that remind me of who I am and that I am loved. Doing dishes with Nan’s dishrags, knowing they were made with love just for me, is something I look forward to. Sometimes those dishrags were the only thing that got me through the heartache and the pain and the disappointment. I ask for them every Christmas, every birthday, because I have to save up. With these dishrags in my hands every day, how could I ever forget that I am loved when Nan, and her precious dishrags, are gone?
*upalong: mainland Canada, as opposed to ‘down home’, which for a Newfoundlander always means Newfoundland.