Author Archives: Thelma

Forever

I am slowly reading Wilding by Isabella Tree, an account of her family’s revolutionary transformation of the grounds of their English stately home from intensive farming to a wild natural landscape. The chapter I just finished saw them visit the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands to see how grazing animals were used to manage and improve the nature reserve.

Cattle, ponies and deer are allowed to graze freely at the Oostvaardersplassen, and the original idea was for the animals to be allowed to live and die as they would without human intervention. Some people were appalled at the sight of sick and dying animals, so a compromise was made that ailing cattle and ponies would be euthanized and their bodies incinerated, but the deer would be allowed to die naturally, their carcasses feeding foxes, birds and rodents, insects and bacteria, and the bones breaking down to release valuable nutrients into the soil.

When I think of my impact on the planet in my 54 years of being a consumer, the thoughtless way I have bought and discarded endless things, I am overwhelmed with the notion that in my infinitesimal amount of time on the planet, I have probably left behind more garbage than all the animals and birds and fish and insects that ever lived combined. Those creatures created nothing that would last forever, whereas I have purchased and tossed away thousands of pounds of plastic and metal that will probably never really disappear. I am simultaneously the most power creature in hundreds of millions of years and the most foolish.

I had the option to do good things with my life, to make good choices, and I chose to spend part of it creating a lasting legacy of greed and thoughtlessness, the sleepwalking loop of shopping and discarding, over and over. I think about this a lot. I wonder how I can do better now that I know better, and how can I make up for my past.

I can hear birds chirping their goodnight songs right now, the robins telling me about their day and their wishes for tomorrow, free of possessions beyond a temporary nest that will eventually dissolve back into the ground, and free of the shame of leaving behind things that never really mattered in the first place. Free to sing.

Trap smasher

I took my mother to visit a friend of ours on an extremely windy day last week, and our journey allowed us a brief glimpse of the ocean surf pounding against the Sandhills, the barrier sand dunes the protect our coastline at this end of PEI. It was a dramatic sight, and my mother said, “That’s what they used to call a trap smasher.”

I didn’t remember hearing that phrase before, but it makes sense, as those kinds of roiling seas will tangle lobster gear and can certainly end up smashing lobster traps. T.K. Pratt’s Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English includes “trap smasher”, saying it’s a noun frequent in Egmont (the federal electoral riding where we live) and is:

In lobster fishing, a severe wind storm during the fishing season.

So, technically, trap smashers can only occur along our section of the north side of PEI between May 1 and June 30, the spring lobster fishing season here. We, of course, ignore and never discuss the weather the other 10 months of the year (lol!).

My father and I bringing in unsmashed lobster traps circa 1980.

Freeland WI

My mother attended her Women’s Institute’s annual meeting last evening, and they decided to disband after 99 years of continuous service. My mother joined in 1942 when she was 20, right before she enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division for service during the Second World War. She has loved being a WI member.

I think at one time almost every school district on PEI had a Women’s Institute to support the school and community, and pretty much every rural community had a one-room school, so that was a lot of WI groups. They were both a fundraising group and a social outing at a time when most rural woman were working at home. They would fundraise to keep their school in tip-top shape, and when consolidation in the 1960s and 70s closed small rural schools, many WIs bought the buildings from the government for a dollar and turned them into community halls. There were at least 22 WIs in our area, but that number has slowly dwindled and now 2 remain, Poplar Grove/McNeills Mills and Port Hill.

I never joined the WI. I was too young when I left for university, and when I moved back 20 years ago, there were no members my age, so I just didn’t join. I now feel like I have missed out on something important.

But I fondly remember the WI meetings that were held in our home when I was a child. I would sit in the corner and watch and listen to it all, the reports from the different committees, the education program on different topics of interest to country women, the discussions on what fundraiser they would hold next: a goose supper, a variety concert, make a quilt and sell raffle tickets on it, a bake sale. There was always tea and sandwiches and sweets and lots of chitchat after the meeting ended. It was up to the hostess to make “the lunch”, and my mother was a generous and excellent cook, so it was always a good feed! I would pass the plates of sandwiches from great aunt to great aunt to neighbour to cousin, all of them calling me “Thelma dear”, smiling, laughing. They would discuss who was sick and who had died and who was taking a trip, the price of things nowadays, wasn’t it hot/cold/mild/windy/dry/rainy.

The WIs in our district banded together to prepare and serve the suppers at the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival for many years, working out of a less-than-ideal kitchen attached to the old rink. They turned out beautiful lobster suppers, complete with salads, rolls, pies and sweets. It was thrilling to be in the midst of this cyclone of competence and energy, each woman knowing exactly what to do, working quickly as if they were line cooks every day of their life (which in some cases, with the large families that were once the norm here, they were), but almost always in good cheer and with a buzzing sense of unity and camaraderie. I feel fortunate to have learned so much from these resourceful, powerful women.

I texted a friend who is a member of one of the two remaining WIs in our area and asked if my mother could join them, even if just in an honorary way. “In a heartbeat,” she texted back.

Report on a WI meeting held at my great-grandparents’ lobster cannery from The Charlottetown Guardian, September 3, 1927. My mother went to live with her grandparents in the spring of 1927, and would have turned 5 that August, so she was likely present for this meeting, lurking at the edge of it like I used to do.

Hog Wild

The Steven Mayoff Film Festival opened with Steven’s second film, Happy Birthday to Me, so it had to end with his first and only other film appearance to date, Hog Wild. It stars Tony Rosato of SCTV fame. It is a terrible movie. And although he appears in the credits as “Chubby Cadet”, Steven was actually nowhere to be seen! It could have been him in a bathrobe in a hallway near the beginning, but he can’t remember, and it was such a brief shot it was difficult to tell. I watched the whole thing to see if he would appear, but no Steven.

Real Professional Actor Matt Craven was also in both of those illustrious movies, so that’s something, I guess. Craven was also in the single-season TV series L.A. Doctors with my NTS classmate, Rick Roberts. I wouldn’t have dreamed that I had at least two tenuous connections to Matt Craven.

Life is precious, so do not watch Hog Wild.

Pituamkek

A beautiful new video from L’neuy about plans to create a National Park Reserve on Pituamkek/Hog Island and the Sandhills that are just a couple of miles from my house. This initiative is important for the Miꞌkmaq and all Epekwitkewaq, because the Miꞌkmaq have lived and gathered food there for millennia and deserve the right to determine their future use. The Sandhills protect the shoreline and are important resting spots for migrating birds and nesting areas for the endangered piping plover.

Those sand dunes are the wildest place I’ve ever been on PEI, raw, stunningly gorgeous and powerful. I was lucky to visit with my parents many times as a child, and rarely would you see another person, miles and miles of beach and dunes and pounding surf. Such vivid memories of long summer days over there having picnics, playing in the cold water, beachcombing to find shells and starfish. I would always fall asleep on the boat ride home, through Cascumpec Bay and Foxley Bay, right up to the shore in front of our house, cradled on the waves, epekwitk.

My father and I in the water on the Sandhills, 1968
My father and I beachcombing on the Sandhills, 1968
Heading home with Toronto visitors after a long day on the Sandhills, 1970
Asleep in the speedboat, 1969

Favourite day

In late spring, we watch the different deciduous trees around our house slowly come into leaf, each type emerging when it is best for them. The first is always the willow, and the last is the red oak, which often still retains some leathery leaves from last year. It must have been explained to me in some biology class how leaves form inside a bud, but it still looks like a trick to me, like flowers coming out of a magician’s wand.

I noticed yesterday that the leaves on the birch and trembling aspen were quite large, but it was today that I was certain they were in perfect full leaf as it was a windy afternoon and I could hear the rustling of the leaves. This is by far my favourite day of the year, when I can once again hear the trees talking to me and to each other, to the birds and the sky, after a long winter of silent meditation.

The Christian God I was taught to both fear and worship has long ago slunk away to sit grumpily on a cloud after I ignored him for so long, while the Spirit of my choosing joyfully speaks to me through trees and birds and rocks and flowers. I am far happier in a forest than I ever was in a church, and the song of the leaves and the trees is the most beautiful sound in the world. How lucky I am to live surrounded by this choir.

Trembling aspen leaves, all perfect and new.

Take Down The Statues

Gary Younge explains in The Guardian why he thinks all statues erected to honour notable people should come down. I had started to write my thoughts on this last night after Charlottetown City Council voted yesterday to remove a statue of Canada’s first prime minster, Sir John A. MacDonald, after much debate and controversy, but Gary says it all, and far better than I ever could. Take them all down; the future hates our statues.

Caught some trout, but lost my teeth

I’m not sure who was writing the unsigned pieces for the “Summerside and Western Guardian” section of The Charlottetown Guardian during the spring of 1921, but their dispatches from the Western Capital included lots of wry commentary on the social ills of the town, and amusing microfiction like “A Fish Story” below.

The Charlottetown Guardian May 27, 1921 p8

Also in this little clipping under the “Western Personals” (i.e. the reporter met the western train and chatted to those who disembarked!) is the news that a former beau of LM Montgomery, Louis Distant (I think it’s really Dystant), had visited town. If I remember correctly, Louis was more a handy means of transportation for Maud while she lived and taught school in Bideford in 1894-95 than a real love interest, at least in her eyes. And the “AA McAull” who was also in Summerside was my great-grandmother’s brother, Anthony Alexander MacCaull.

That I manage to get anything done most days is a small miracle considering the hole I can fall down from just a small section of an eight-page 100-year-old newspaper.

70 Years

The Stewart Memorial Health Centre officially opened in Tyne Valley on this date in 1951. It rained that Victoria Day Thursday, so people sat in their cars to listen while speakers addressed them from the 7-bed hospital’s verandah. After the official ceremony, hundreds of people toured the building, and no doubt the ladies of the community provided ample and delicious refreshments.

Much of the money to build the little hospital was raised through suppers and bake sales, concerts and fundraising drives. The building was constructed by local contractors, and when we held a 60th anniversary celebration in 2011, a couple of the men who attended told me about working with their fathers to help with the initial build.

My mother tells of going to Stewart Memorial with a friend to help clean the rooms after construction was completed. The Women’s Institutes would answer their roll calls with canned goods that would be given to the hospital to provide food for patients, and they sewed curtains and johnny shirts. Farmers would donate eggs and meat, fishers would drop off trout and cod and lobsters.

Stewart Memorial had its own board until 1995, when amalgamation fever was high on PEI and regional health boards were formed. By that time, two building additions had added 16 more beds for a total of 23.

Over the years the hospital had provided almost every service except for major surgery. Many babies were born and cared for, there was an emergency room (and staff would attend accidents before there was an ambulance service), outpatient services, acute and later long term care. It provide generations of local residents with good jobs. It was the place where members of Lennox Island First Nation would come for medical care, first by boat or on a potentially hazardous trip across ice in winter, and later via the causeway built in the early 1970s.

After the regional health board was established, services at the hospital were gradually decreased until the government announced in 2013 that Stewart Memorial Hospital would close and be turned into a nursing home. Many of us fought to save our little hospital and the valuable services it provided to our area, spending thousands of hours in meetings. I’ve never really gotten over the closure, and trying to save it consumed my life for a couple of years.

Today I spent a couple of hours looking over old documents and thinking about all the people connected to our hospital. My grandmother was the first cook, my father served on the board of directors for many years. I went there to receive medical care, to volunteer, to visit sick relatives, so say goodbye to loved ones. My father lived there for a couple of years while dementia slowly took him from us, in a wing of the hospital he helped to raise the money to have built. He died there, as had his mother, his brothers, his friends and relatives, all cared for by people who knew them.

Soon there will be a generation of people who won’t know that we once had a hospital, that it was a focus of community pride and energy. I suppose it won’t matter, but I’ll never let it go, because it was important, despite what the Capital City bean counters told us. Closing Stewart Memorial didn’t fix the out-of-control health budget, it didn’t solve provincial health care staffing issues, it certainly didn’t improve health outcomes for my friends and neighbours. I’m not sure what closing it achieved, but I know what the hospital achieved while it was open, and that was life, and death, and everything in between.