St. Bernard’s Memories*
As I think back on all the places I’ve been in my life, those memories that strike the strongest chord often center around my childhood trips to Newfoundland. I was born on The Rock, and moved to the States when very young. Still, my family returned home every other year or so, giving me a cultural heritage almost unique in my adopted world.
Whether heard in the lyrics of a Simani song, or seen in reruns of Pigeon Inlet, Outport Newfoundland is never far from the thoughts of most Newfies. A rich source of folklore and humor, the lives of those hardy fishermen and their families is now almost legend.
My own experiences of Outport Newfoundland were my childhood visits to St. Bernard’s in the late 60’s and early ‘70’s. I apologize if my recall of that time and place, and the faces of those I knew, has faded with the years. Any mistakes I’ve made here, in revisiting those times are, of course, my own.
My Grandmother was a Pope from Stone’s Cove (the Family’s last name, not the Pontiff). Grave markers for generations of Popes can still be seen in Stone’s Cove. It was Grandma’s generation that experienced the Resettlement first hand. I grew up listening to the often confusing arguments about Joey Smallwood and the modernization of Newfoundland.
All we knew as kids was that Grandma’s family lived in St. Bernard’s and that they moved from Stone’s Cove, which was abandoned by the time I went there. We also knew the only way to see Stone’s Cove was to take a dory trip across the bay.
St. Bernard’s in those years was a 3 hour drive from St. John’s, where I was born and where we stayed (with relatives) when we visited Newfoundland. The roads to St. Bernard’s were gravel, full of twists and turns. I remember the rear wheels of our old Ford throwing rooster tails of dust behind us, as we drove to that small Town on the edge of the sea.
After passing through Jacques Fontaine (or Jack’s Fountain as we called it), we knew we were near the end of the trip. It always felt good to shake the dust from the road and settle in with a cup of tea and toasted homemade bread at the end of those long drives.
Once there, we parked in the grass near three clapboard houses at the end of a dirt road. Grandma’s remaining family lived here, the homes roughly surrounding a wood pile of chips and an old sawhorse. Aunts and Uncles, nieces and nephews, and more cousins than I can remember were there to greet us.
Among the first things I noticed were the strange accents of these distant relatives. They thought I talked funny as well. Growing up in the Midwest, I had barely a trace of St. John’s accent. Except in school, when I mispronounced “route” or spelled “grey” wrong, no one would have guessed I was a Newfoundlander.
But here in St. Bernard’s, it was like learning a different language. Words like lamwash and wharf soon became familiar*, sometimes spoken in the high-pitched voice my Uncle Dick would use when he yelled at us. My cousins had trouble with my accent too, and laughed at my pronunciation when we talked about life in the States.
I don’t think it took us too long to work out these differences. Of course, telling my friends back home what my summers were like in Newfoundland was nearly impossible. Even now, how hard it is to convey even a moment of my time spent in that strange and wonderful place.
My Brother, cousins, and I spent our days there wandering along unpaved streets, throwing skippers into the ocean, or catching conners off the wharf using snails for bait. Conner fish were spiny, slimy, and pretty unpleasant to deal with, hence the expression “sly (or slimy) as a conner.”*
One year we dammed the small creek that ran through the open field behind my Uncle’s house, making a pond for our sailboats. Cranky as my old Uncle Dick was, he fashioned some firewood into model boats for us to launch. I remember returning a few years later to find it all gone, with nothing left of the pond but the little creek and a few stones.
I also recall one summer making a sling shot from an old tree branch and some rubber bands I found, and using it to shoot small metal wires I shaped into a Vs. I took it home and kept it for years.
During our visits, my Brother and I waited long days for dory rides from friends or relatives, who still kept their fishing boats in St. Bernard’s. We’d wake each morning and run for a glimpse of the bay. If the sea was heaving with whitecaps, we knew no boat trip would happen that day.
The days we did get out were special. The chugging of the flywheel as the dory made its way from the dock, ocean spray and the taste of salt on my lips, and the chop of even a mild sea as we left the cove, are all part of my love of the Maritimes. We jigged for cod and squid (two completely different ways of fishing), and once stood on an 18’ shark that beached after getting tangled in fishing nets. The smell was really something!
We also went to Stone’s Cove. Even back then, it was mostly abandoned, with only a few fisherman’s cottages maintained for seasonal use. After walking through the old Town, its homes facing the cold sea, we picnicked on salt crackers and butter before heading back out from the small harbor.
Of all those memories, perhaps the most precious are the people I knew back then. My Uncle Dick, a rough seaman who’d survived a night clinging to his overturned boat, during a storm that took the life of his fishing partner. Uncle Tom with his kind eyes, and my Aunts who knitted and made tea. Even during the summer, my Uncles had to get up before sunrise each morning to chop wood that fed the iron stoves, which warmed their houses before we even got out of bed.
Margaret, a cousin of the family, lived in this small enclave, with her fisherman husband Leonard and a load of children (my cousins, although I’m still not certain of the exact relationship). She was part Micmac*, and her oldest son Sam resembled a full blooded Algonkian Indian. Her husband Leonard had a rare saltwater allergy, leaving his eyes constantly red and teary. He drowned years later, walking back home one cold night.
Most of the rest have passed on as well. These proud and independent people didn’t care much for modern medicine. When your time came, you accepted it. Most spent their final days at home among family, not in hospital beds at St. John’s Memorial. I can’t fault them for it, nor for their lives of simple pleasures.
For them, Faith was a matter of concrete belief. The old Catholic Church in town hosted community bingos and picnics, and on Sundays a traveling priest came in his modern outboard motorboat to say Mass. The hymns we sang were familiar, although sometimes the words sounded a bit odd to my ear.
As I grew older, I tired of the monotony of Outport Newfoundland and St. Bernard’s. My cousins were growing up and moving away, and there was little for a teenager to do. Whenever we went, I soon longed to return to the excitement of St. John’s.
Desperate to get a television signal during one particularly long visit, my Brother and I spend a day running bare wire up a tall hill to an old antenna at the top. The view of the ocean from there was spectacular, but in my haste to see if the TV worked, I didn’t linger long. I can’t recall to this day if the picture was much improved.
Any tale of Outport Newfoundland must end on a melancholy note. With little or no work to be found, the younger folks my age mostly moved away. I lost track of all of my cousins, except for Sam, whom I’ve heard still lives in his father’s house.
Yet I can still see the old fishing nets clinging to rough picket fences, fading to strings in the sun, and the lines of little white boats bobbing in the bay. Nothing lasts it’s true, but Outport Newfoundland lives mostly now in the memories of those who had the good fortune to experience it. Like so many other transplanted Newfoundlanders, a large part of my character was formed out of that hard land by the side of the sea.
Pete Murphy May, 2015
* This article originally appeared in the May, 2015 issue of Dowhhome Magazine, page 132.
* A good review of Outport Newfoundland words and usage can be found in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English: www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary