June 18, 2018 by Darren Clarke
“There’s a part of me that thinks perhaps we go on existing in a place even after we’ve left it.”
― Colum McCann,
It begins at 5 AM one Saturday in August. It begins with me sleepily stumbling around my house, rummaging for my favourite travelling t-shirt (an old school, cheap, tourist-blue “P.E.I” shirt), shorts, sandals and luggage, before I finally amble out into the warm, dark, summertime, world of chirping crickets.
It begins while the whole world sleeps.
Well, almost the whole world.
Thankfully I have been provided with two people fundamental to the early success of my travels: first, a woman at Tim Hortons’ drive-thru who is kind enough to make me a tea, “single milk, both bags in,” and second, a mildly friendly guard at the American border who, after asking me a few easy questions (i.e. “Where are you headed?”) provides me with access to his country.
Once over the border the Drive to Nova Scotia really begins. I open my tea and plug in my iPod. The music starts with the first of twelve Summer Cassette mixes, “When the Joy Comes Easy.” The opening track is by Rotary Connection, Want You to Know–
“Want you to know you made me happy, want you to know you made me sad but you were the best thing that I ever had.”
“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive”
― Robert M. Pirsig,
The I-190 South is empty of cars as I glide through Buffalo’s mid-century, brick and mortar, city-scape, briefly blurred this morning by a torrential downpour. Blue skies emerge freshly clean, brand-spanking-new, in time for sunrise but rain will continue to punctuate my trip out east. I will never be able to stay tuned into sunny skies for long on the opening day of my trip but when they do arrive they are spectacular, they are gentle, they are infinite.
Soon I am wherever my GPS says I am and my automated guide, set to faux Australian female accent, never feels the need to give me any information beyond the particulars of my next turn. City, State, Country, History, unknown. And that’s all I really need. The reassurance that my GPS knows where its’ going, an iPod full of music and long stretches of time where I can quite comfortably drive with the window down.
What I am driving at is my parents place of birth, Nova Scotia. I am driving at a potent mix of the deeply personal, the profound, the endless, the ending, the ever evolving. I am driving at the Ocean.
What I am driving at the rest of my family is also driving at. My brother, my two sisters, their kids and my mother (my wife flying in later).
It’s been over thirty years since the whole family traveled to Nova Scotia and the passage of time means we are doing so without many of the figures who shaped those original vacations. My father, my grandparents, many uncles and aunts, one particularly amazing cousin. There will be no family home for us to stay in, no quick trips to pick wild blueberries so my Grandmother can bake a pie (that I call a pie because that was what it looked like but it was pure magic, it was glorious, warm, weightless, sweet, true), there would no lounging in lawn chairs beneath the tree in my grandparents’ back yard listening to my grandfather regale me, indeed educate me, with war stories and tales of his time as a magistrate- good decisions, bad decisions, funny decisions, in his endeavour to provide justice, the people he met, the ones that surprised him, the ones he respected, the ones that let him down and beyond that his stories of long lost World War I battlefields, former boxing champions (Tommy Burns), and a so much more. There would not be a central post for the family to gravitate to in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. There would not be any late night drives along lost gravel roads with my father telling us to be on the lookout for cougars. And mostly, where we were once passengers fighting in the backseat on the drive we now drove, where we once followed, we now navigated ourselves.
It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed in nostalgia and forget some little truths about the past like the fact that every summer in the weeks leading up to our annual pilgrimage out East I hated the idea of going. Hated. I preferred to hang out with my friends and continue our daily adventures of riding our bikes around Thorold, trying to build a fort in Rob Van Moorsel’s back yard, looking for pickup baseball games, playing hide and seek and simply exploring the endless space that seemed to be afforded by Summer Vacation. But once we got to Nova Scotia, once I was immersed in the charisma and joy of my extended family, I fell quickly, deeply, in love. The final morning of our Nova Scotia vacation was always ripe with sadness, a melancholy that grew every year as I began to sense the fundamental nature of life in that, things start and things end.
Every year it was the same: I was reluctantly pulled from my cherished every day everydayness to a place, a people, a feeling, whose beauty and importance had somehow become abstract in the intervening 12-months of attending to childhood immediacies. The reminder of that magic though began with the Drive.
The trip, the Drive, was an undertaking in itself. A tiny world filled with drama, boredom, cheap laughs, daydreaming, and the profound intertwining of time languidly stretching itself out over a canvas big enough to hint at its’ infinite possibilities. My parents would pack up the station wagon: the four kids, our dog Whiskey, and off to Nova Scotia we would go.
It was a long drive then, it’s a long drive now. My mom would pack the metal cooler with ice, ginger ale, orange soda-pop, salmon sandwiches and egg sandwiches. The ice would begin the trip as a solid frigid blocks and gradually be undone by the heat in much the same way, at much the same pace, as my father’s dwindling patience for things like road maps and Montreal traffic.
But man, those cool sweating cans of no-name Ginger Ale were precious on that long hot drive.
I should mention that this was a pre-air conditioning world, at least as far as any our stationwagons were concerned, so the windows were down on those July to August drives. The windows were down and once we left Southern Ontario the music was hard to come by. To compensate for the lack of available radio stations my dad brought 8-track tapes for the drive. Music he and he alone, liked. One year he brought a grand total of two 8-Tracks- Crystal Gale and the Outlaws.
Given it’s pretty much a 24-hour drive to Nova Scotia from Thorold, Ontario we would usually stop overnight somewhere along the way. If we had a camper we would stop at some random place in New Brunswick, a valley or a field and camp there. I have a vivid memory of waking up in the camper on a trip when I was about eight. The camper’s canvas tent was wet with the morning mist as I left the warmth of my sleeping bag and stumbled out into the morning cold. The air was crisp, the first rays of the sunrise beginning to rub light into the grey fog in the valley. My mother was cooking bacon and eggs on the portable gas stove, the bacon popping and spitting in the pan.
It’s amazing the things that I remember. Often, it’s the stuff I would have least suspected at the time.
- Sitting in the front seat of the station wagon beside my dad having been placed in charge of keeping him awake while he drove. My Mother had vacated the front seat to sit with my younger siblings but not before directing me, “Darren talk to your father, he’s getting tired…” At the time it felt like a big responsibility, a big honour. We drove through the darkness, wind chucking through the window, as I babbled on about whatever came into my head and tried to spot a Motel that didn’t have the NO on their NO VACANCY sign lit. I always loved those old hotel/motel signs, their red vacancy lights toasting into the summer night.
- New Brunswick and space. SPACE. New Brunswick when I was a kid (not much changed now) was absolutely nowhere. It was like somebody named the province and immediately left for someplace that had a radio station. But that time sticks with me. Staring out the window at the vast emptiness- continents of clouds traversing oceans of blue sky above the vast expanse of undulating forest. It’s a kind of spectacular that sticks with you, the impact defying any kind of trite explanation.
- My grandfather’s pipes. My dad’s dad had tons of smoking pipes varying from simple corn cob pipes to straightforward wood pipes with plastic ends to crazy cool carved wood ones, some with improbably intricate metal ends. We loved them. He had an entire room dedicated to his pipes and invariably we would get permission to walk around with our favourite one, unlit, pretending we were smoking. Just sitting here remembering I can taste that sour tobacco that would be on the end of the pipe.
- Random Travelling Sounds– Motorcycles and rubber wheels on gravel roads. I eat that stuff up. That’s the kind of stuff that effortlessly greases the wheels of nostalgia, shuttling my memory through the years with ease. The sound of a motorcycle engine and its’ exhaust rippling along the highway, the crackling hum rising as you near, crescendoing as you are parallel, then ebbing as you pull away, remains pretty much unchanged since I did the drive as a kid. In a world where change is such a constant the sound of a motorcycle remains the same. Likewise the sound of car tires chewing up gravel road. My dad was king of the gravel roads drive when I was a kid. There’s not a lot of them in Southern Ontario anymore but whenever I find myself on one I always equate that staticky sound of tires rumbling through gravel to my father’s desire to find no place. The lost. The forgotten. The undeveloped. And if you are looking for gravel roads Nova Scotia still has plenty of them. Given my GPS’s struggles with Nova Scotia I would find a few gravel roads on this trip.
- Sitting on my grandparents sun porch in a rain storm. Pugwash, Nova Scotia is a tiny little town of 784 that sits on the Northumberland Strait at the mouth of the Pugwash River. My grandparents’ house sat on the corner of the town’s main street, Water street and Victoria Street. The sunporch overlooked Water Street and wrapped around half of the length of the house that ran parallel Victoria. The windows were weathered, vaguely distorting the outside world. If you were sitting in the front of the house you could look across Water Street and see Pugwash bay, its’ clay coloured beach just steps away. As a kid to me the porch smelled of the ocean, my grandfather’s pipe (which was a great smell), and time, capital “t’- Time, time before me. I wish I could remember more of what was on that porch. The guns I remember really, rifles which appeared to be circa World War One. There was tons of random stuff there: Almanacs, nic nacs, magazines, pins, old metal lighters that didn’t work. In any event, my memory is of simply sitting there on a bleak overcast day as the rain began pelting the windows in front of me, like liquid bullets, these massive drops ticked off the panes gradually picking up their pace until they coated the windows in sheets of rain making the world outside a glossy blur.
Like the opening day of my drive this year, rain has always been a part of the summer vacation drive.
My favourite memory of rain would be when I was probably ten or eleven. We were in some kind of traffic jam on the two-lane highway in New Brunswick, one lane going west, one lane going east. Cars were barely moving beneath a low hung, heavy, black and grey sky. The memory begins at that moment when you can sense the inevitability of the clouds being unable to carry the rain any further. The highway always seems to sense rain first, foreshadowing a storm by emitting the pungent scent of moist, melting, tar.
Traffic came to a standstill.
For a moment I was not fighting with my brothers or sisters and simply absently looking out the window when I saw in the car nearest us a girl my age. She smiled at me.
She smiled at me.
And the rain crashed down.
The cars began to move. She placed her hand up against the window. Her open palm again the curve of the window now coated by the stream of rain.
And she was gone.
I could have floated at that point. Simple joy provided by a simple smile.
“It’s well known that he who returns never left”
― Pablo Neruda
Back to the Drive.
I had decided to go through the States to avoid those most horrible of Canadian things- Toronto and Montreal traffic. My wife would be flying in later to meet me so I was doing the drive accompanied by my iPod, my GPS and assorted snacks.
Nothing was more important than the iPod which I had packed with brilliant stuff, the funny, the engaging, the gifted, to listen to. Music, podcasts, baseball broadcasts.
“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances. ”
― Maya Angelou
For me music catches what words can’t. When I struggle to remember the details of points in my life I can always locate the spirit of that time in what made my heart beat fast and swoon deepest, what made my blood flow a little warmer. Music somehow preserves the complexity of past feeling and can serve up layers of yesterday’s cake until, immersed in its’ bittersweet glory you deliciously float back in time immersed in cumulative beauty and angst of days gone by.
The music on my iPod was a combination of albums and Summer mixes I had made. The late sixties and seventies were a recurring theme and while I had lots of current stuff as well including some of the East Coast’s finest in Sloan and Joel Plaskett, I found myself gravitating particularly to the Beatles and Supertramp.
Abbey Road and Revolver from the Beatles, Even in the Quietest Moments and Breakfast in America from Supertramp. This stuff heals. This stuff mends things you didn’t even know were broken but definitely were. It sows its’ seeds via sweet, tender, harmonies and nurtures with the ebb and flow of sunlight, rain and good, rich, earth. This stuff weaves together morning light on barely rippling water, big, fluffy clouds floating through endless sky, the first sip of Coca Cola after downing a slice of gloriously greasy pizza at your friends’ birthday party when you were ten, memories of collecting bottle caps out front of the same corner store in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, you bought the little packages of seaweed to eat. It weaves it all together and delivers it deliciously to melt in your soul.
My iPod also had the good natured absurdity of Ricky Gervais’s Guide To… series, starting with his Guide to Philosophy which featured Karl Pilkington and his fantastic deadpan Manchester accent at his, off kilter, yet somehow bang on, best-
Ricky– (while considering Descartes musings on existence) “Karl how do you know this isn’t a dream?”
Karl– “Ahhhh… just because I haven’t been sleeping that well…”
The iPod also had some baseball broadcasts I dug up that involved such distant places and people as Ebbets Field, the Astrodome, the Alou brothers, 1950. Nothing gets you out there, out there, into recognizing your place as a fleeting thing moving within a fleeting thing, like the voice of Red Barber crackling to life to start a broadcast, his great Jimmy-cracked-corn-and-I-don’t-care Americana voice at once welcoming and selling, “Hello everybody, join us now for another Brooklyn ball game brought to you by your favourite Post Cereals and their terrific new teammate Post Sugar Crisp. Yes sir, Post is back to bring you the Dodgers again as they take on the New York Giants in the second of a three game series here at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, USA. This is the old red head, Red Barber and Connie Desmond will be along in the middle of the game and between us we’ll take care of the play-by-play assignment… and your seat behind home plate today no matter where in the United States you are, your seat is reserved thanks to Post Cereals…”
Finally, my iPod carried all twelve of my mixcloud Summer Cassette mixes. These were designed as twelve 90-minute cassette mixes, like the kind I started making as a kid by taping off the radio to cheap cassettes I bought with my allowance at Steadman’s department store in downtown Thorold. The kind of cassettes that I would make for friends, family and girls I was attracted to, until the cassettes became too hard to find and I started making CD’s. Now CD’s are hard to find. So I make digital mixes. Mostly for me. The Summer Cassette series is largely laid back and chill but they wander everywhere with little regard for consistency. My motto for them was, “The more I love the more there is to love” So there’s shoe gaze and more shoe gaze, there’s electronica, there’s organic instrumentals, there’s Spanish folk, Italian ballads, “Russian Space Disco,” mariachi, there’s punk, there is hip hop, there’s funk, there’s good old fashioned rock’n roll. But it’s not about impressing anybody, it’s not eclecticism for eclecticism sake, it’s about great tunes, it’s about being amazed.
Never forgetting to be amazed. Never forgetting to find more things to love.
The first time I went back to Nova Scotia as an adult was four years ago, making it twenty-five years in between trips. But it all came back real easy. The sights, the sounds, the aromas. The East Coast is a veritable olfactory smorgasbord of memories beginning with its’ most prominent features: The Ocean. The Forests.
The Ocean and the Forests with their raw, pungent, aroma of unvarnished truth are what provide much of the context for what I loved about driving to and arriving in the East Coast. Growing up in the continually more paved and concreted expanse of Southern Ontario the muscular assertion of nature is humbling, even a bit unsettling, but man is it refreshing. Science is wonderful but for all our inventions, for all our miracles of technology, for all the tamed spaces within which we move, nothing invokes awe and wonder like the wilderness, like the Ocean. They offer nothing to me by way of explanation. They do not try and qualify themselves. They simply are.
And the impact is just so overwhelming, very much the stuff of Bruce Cockburn’s reminisce, “In front of all this beauty, understanding nothing.”
So I continued to drive deeper into nature, deeper into this animate, alive, nuanced world of the raw and the wild. Mind you, I was doing it with the help of the aforementioned GPS system, my iPod and my road trip snack of choice, Real Fruit Ju-Jubes, featuring everybody’s favourite ingredient, “Natural Flavour.”
Real Fruit Ju-Jubes became my road trip snack of choice years ago when I became enamored with their recuperative abilities. Recuperative abilities which I would learn years later when I actually looked at the ingredients to be largely based on the galvanizing qualities of good old fashioned corn syrup.
The roadside stops are plentiful through New York State and whatever State I immediately entered after that (feel free to ask the Australian lady who lives in my GPS which State that was, as mentioned I felt no need to know). These stops are a innocuously dated slice of transient America, with odd collections of fast food places like Roy Rogers, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, along with the odd Starbucks. The washrooms are for the most part strangely painted black with with what appear to be constellations on them. Like the night sky.
At any rate these rest stops are important breaks from driving as well as an opportunity to stretch, to move freely, to lean back against your car, breathe in, breathe out and think, “I am on vacation.” And maybe, if you’re lucky, like I was at one of the stops in New York, you find yourself holding the door to the service centre entrance open for a beautiful young woman in a peach summer dress and wide brimmed hat who doesn’t so much walk as float back to her car against a horizon slick with the promise of incoming rain.
The drive through the States was many things, some of which I will get into in a moment but it bears mentioning that it is a wonderful country to travel through. Particularly if you have the chance to get off the highways. The people, the places, are far more charming than we Canadians generally give them credit for.
One of my favourite interactions would take place at the Diner attached to the hotel I stayed at in New Hampshire. I had tried to avoid eating at the Diner but after a long drive to get to the hotel and some furtive, flailing, bounding around town trying to find an alternative place to eat I conceded to the simple, greasy, smelling, 50’s style restaurant at the bottom of my Holiday Inn.
The food ended up being mediocre which, when travelling, is upgraded to good. The waiters I dealt with were from Ireland and South Africa which wasn’t what I was suspecting from a Diner in New Hampshire but nonetheless made for some interesting conversation. I sat at the bar in my red Toronto Blue Jays hat with a Maple Leaf on the front when the young man from Ireland stopped for a moment to chat, “Are you from Toronto?”
“More Niagara Falls but yeah, pretty much, an hour away.”
“Are you a Leaf fan?”
“For better or worse, yep.”
“Do you remember the Game 7 against the Bruins a few years ago?”
“Horrible, horrible, night…”
“Best night of my life. I was there.”
“Wow. I was at a bar with a ton of people and you could feel that loss coming… just getting more and more painful…”
“My dad got us tickets, my brother and I, at the last second. I called in to work sick and met them in Boston. It was going so badly… At 4-1 fans were screaming at Bergeron and Chara, telling them they were old and crappy, that they should retire.”
“I was worried at Horton’s goal, the second goal. There was something in the air, some kind of tragic Leaf-ness…”
“We went nuts. We celebrated all night…”
“I cried all night…”
We continued to chat, he asked about my trip, I asked about living in New Hampshire (which happened to be in the news that day due to President Donald Trump claiming he had won the state in the election due to it being a, “Drug infested den,” that had been hit hard by the opioid crisis), he attended to his tables, came back, chatted some more, he apparently lost track of hundreds of dollars at one point but while all the other waiters and waitresses panicked he stayed entirely calm. Soon the money was found and having not exerted any energy worrying about the money being lost he didn’t have to exert any energy being relieved.
I finished up my mediocre Shepherd’s Pie, thanked everybody for being so nice and went back to my hotel room.
Back at the hotel room I flipped on the TV and was immediately greeted by The Lawrence Welk Show. Lawrence Welk with that great German accent that would never have suggested being born and raised in North Dakota. Lawrence Welk whose Wiki page begins, “… was an American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted the television program The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982.”
I immediately thought, “How the hell is The Lawrence Welk Show still on TV anyplace in the world?”
But I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Here’s the thing that surprised me about paying attention to the Lawrence Welk show for the first time in my life- It was awesome. A lost world of musical kitsch and people dressed like matadors, tubes of lipstick and rare African foliage that had me sitting there transfixed. The music itself I actually found quite gorgeous. So gorgeous that when the show ended (and wasn’t followed by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) I knew I shouldn’t be watching TV.
I needed to kick back and read a book. A book to explore something foreign so I could explore something domestic. I love the relationship a person has with a book in that you so often discover as much about yourself as you do the subject matter at hand. It’s a trip, it’s a Drive.
I popped open the massive can of Modello I had purchased at the gas station across the street, sat down and waded into Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential. The section I had turned too embraced his time spent in the summer resort town of Provincetown, Massachussets, as a young man. It was perfect material for a trip that lent itself to nostalgia, to sober reflection, to whimsy-
“I pulled into town, I remember, wearing- God help me- a spanking- new light blue Pierre Cardin Seersucker suit. The shoes, too, were blue. Here I was hitchhiking into a town that for all intents and purposes was down-scale, informal Portuguese fishing village and artists colony, a town where people dressed unpretentiously in work clothes- denims, army surplus, old khakis- and in some deranged, early seventies bout of disco-inspired hubris, I chose to make my entrance in gull-wing shouldered Robert Palmer-wear, just itching to show the local yokels how we did it in New York city.”
I woke up the next morning to overcast skies and tar stained with left over rain. I rummaged through the iPod and selected Summer Cassette Four, The Delicate Art of Filling Shopping Carts with Sunlight, which begins with a couple, morning friendly, piano-centric, voyages into gently waking up, by Neat Beats.
And I was off.
Driving further East through New Hampshire (featuring the bluntly American licence plate slogan, “Live Free or Die”), into Maine, the roadside stops become less frequent. The traffic grows more sparse. I start running out ju-jubes, the English Breakfast tea (because there was no Orange Pekoe) I made at the hotel is long gone and while the music and space are wonderful I look forward to getting back into Canada and a little more tangibly closer to my destination. Chomping up the miles in Maine I start for the first time to really just want to get there, to the cottage, to my family, to the ocean.
The lack of Orange Pekoe tea at the hotel brings up the one horrible thing about driving through the States for me. They have absolutely no clue what the deal with hot tea is. I’m not sure if it has something to do with the Boston Tea Party or a longstanding disdain for perceived British pseudo-aristocratic heirs but man they are horrid at all things tea.
And it’s absurd. It’s tea. Put a bag in the bottom of a cardboard cup, bring hot water to a galloping boil, pour the water in the cup, let the bag (or bags) steep for a brief time then add some milk. It’s a little thing I like to call being a civilized country. If I go to any Tim Hortons in Canada and say, “I’ll have a large tea, both bags in, single milk,” the worst thing that is going to happen is maybe it’s a bit milky. But in Maine I stopped at a Tim Hortons, ordered as I always do, jumped back in my car, opened the lid on my tea a few minutes later only to find they’d used two Apple Cinnamon tea bags instead of Orange Pekoe (and still put in milk). I mean, come on. Who would order that? Who? Why?
It wouldn’t end there. After the Tim Hortons’ debacle I stopped at the first place I came across which was a McDonalds. I refined my order at McDonalds to stress Orange Pekoe. The young man behind the counter put milk in a cup, poured in hot water, put the lid on the cup, then laid the tea bag on top of the lid.
Being welcomed back to Canada at the border was nice but there was no substitute for popping open a competently made tea at the first Tim Hortons I came across.
But I would soon find that Canada was not infallible when it came to adequately providing for my need for food and drink as later that day I found myself sitting in my car at a mall in Fredericton trying to decide between chicken at St. Hubert’s, a steak at Montana’s or Thai food at some nameless Thai place. It was one of those moments where I knew I was going to make a bad decision but couldn’t find a way out its’ gravitational pull. This was one of those occasions where travelling alone was a problem. I needed someone there to say to me, “Thai food. New Brunswick. You sure?” And it would of occurred to me that while the East Coast has certainly changed over my lifetime diversity is still not one of its’ strong suits. St. Huberts’ though, that is in their wheelhouse.
But alas, left to my own devices I wandered into the Thai place and ended up with what was called, “Green Curry.” Unlike the Green Curry I’m familiar with though there were no onions, there was no ginger, in fact the dish seemed bereft of any kind of spice and instead amounted to a gunky, tasteless, sauce, with green peas and canned tomatoes over white rice. I liked their overhead lighting though. Got a picture (see above). I didn’t eat a quarter of my meal but I got a decent picture.
My day was pretty much done. The next day I would hit Nova Scotia.
The Nova Scotia Welcome Center. The bag pipe player, the promise of the ocean, the crooked picture of Anne Murray hung inside.
Welcome to Nova Scotia.
Finally it was wholly sunny. Windy, a little cool in the morning but sunny nonetheless as I returned to my car parked at the Welcome Centre checking my phone for updates from the rest of my family. There was good news and bad news. My brother and his kids had arrived at our cottage, my sister Cheryl and her family were a little behind but on schedule to arrive later that night as they had planned and lastly, and most predictably, my mother and sister Leah were lost and not responding to texts.
My brother asks me to try texting my sister and my mother. I dutifully, albeit, half-heartedly, comply. Here’s the thing: Leah and my mother are to being lost while travelling what the legendarily defensively challenged Lonnie Smith was to playing the outfield. This is an excerpt from Bill James Baseball Abstract circa 1986 to give you an idea-
“Many players can kick a ball behind them without ever knowing it; Lonnie can judge by the pitch of the thud and the subtle pressure through his shoe in which direction and how far he has projected the sphere…. He knows exactly what to do when a ball spins out of his hand and flies crazily into a void on the field, when it is appropriate for him to scamper after a ball and when he needs to back up the man who will have to recover it. He has experience in these matters; when he retires he will be hired to come to spring training and coach defensive recovery and cost containment. This is his specialty, and he is good at it.”
So, yeah, of course my mother and Leah are lost, it’s their gift. They don’t need my amateurish sensibilities getting in the way. (Note– To further bring the point home, once they do arrive we will learn that they spent the night previous in a Wal-Mart parking lot. There’s reasons of course, there always is, but there’s no need for anybody to get bogged down in the particulars of their wayward greatness)
I jumped in the car and drove on chewing into the first miles of the province of my parents birth.
I would spend the bulk of the drive to the finish line with the music in the background and the window down allowing me to savour the sights and sounds and smells of Atlantic Canada.
Soon I ran into a Tim Horton’s to stop at and resume my usual tea ordering ways confident of a positive outcome, “Could I have a large tea, single milk, both bags in please?”
Leaving Tim Hortons I couldn’t help but further admire the beautiful day lounging about me. The morning sunlight was warm, friendly and weightless. Across the street from the Tim Horton’s was a park which contained a river that wound beneath the bridge I would moments later drive over. Parents sat chatting on picnic tables while their kids played in the water, climbing on and jumping off a small, tied down, wooden float in the middle of the water.
I sat down for a moment in some grass beside the coffee shop. I kicked off my sandals, popped open my tea and absently considered the warmth of the light on my skin and the cool of the intermittent breeze.
The contact with my brother had brought about an odd kind of melancholy. As if a spell was being broken. As if all Lawrence Welk, lost rest stops, Beatles and Supertramp had created a portal to selectively chosen, perfect, moments from my past that was was now closing as I was reminded more of the right here, right now.
The Drive was almost over.
And I feel like I haven’t told you that much.
Which reminds me of the letters at my Grandparents house. My Grandmother had letters everywhere. Letters sticking out of books, letters on end tables, letters stacked on shelves. I can see my grandmother with her glasses on the bridge of her nose looking down at a letter laughing a bountiful laugh. My grandmother did all the letter writing and receiving it seemed to me. Letters to and from her kids and nieces and nephews. I glanced at them on a few occasions and can remember my Aunt Marions’ lovely, fluid, handwriting. The letters had a similar format, they were warm, they were funny, they were self-deprecating, they were conversational, they were informative, updating my grandmother on people of interest- where they were, what they were doing, how happy they were or weren’t and/or how likely they were to figure out their level of happiness in the near future.
I wonder where all those letters went?
“Each of us is merely a small instrument; all of us, after accomplishing our mission, will disappear.”
― Mother Teresa,
Nova Scotia is filled with small towns like my father’s place of birth Pugwash. When I brought my wife there for the first time I really didn’t have much to show her beyond the dilapidated remnants of my Grandparents old home (now a part-time antique shop), the small main street and the park on the water. But at the end of the street my wife discovered a newly designated historical site in the form of a modest, empty looking home, with a plaque discreetly placed out side.
Despite its’ outward appearance the site was actually open and populated by a couple earnest employees. Inside we were introduced to The Thinkers Lodge. In all likelihood the home was something that was mentioned to me multiple times when I was a child and either I wasn’t listening or couldn’t see the value in retaining it beyond the next five minutes. But the story is pretty cool.
The Thinkers Lodge was the initial base for the Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs founded in 1957 by Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat and British writer/philosopher/activist Bertrand Russell, following the release of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955. In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, Cyrus Eaton (of former department store Eatons’ fame) hosted the conference wherein scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain met to address the threat of nuclear weapons and what they could do to end that threat. The group continues its’ work to this day. So significant was the work done by the group that in 1995 Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the occasion of our visit the guide was a young man who’d grown up in Pugwash who seemed to like his job exactly the right amount- not too little, not too much. He regaled us with the story of Cyrus Eaton’s desire to deescalate the Cold War, his unlikely friendship with Russian premiers Nikita S. Khurshchev and Alexei N. Kosygin, of Khrushchev’s gifting Eaton with three Russian Orlov stallions and thereby gaining Eaton some unwanted attention from American intelligence agencies.
It was a great story. A great true story. The Cold War, Russian premiers, a wealthy industrialist, the CIA, nuclear weapons, a philosopher, a physicist and Albert Einstein.
While something of such significance happening in Pugwash should have been a surprise to me it really wasn’t. Greatness can happen anywhere and I had been given a lifetimes education on the fact that it tended to happen in Pugwash.
I lingered for some time outside the Tim Hortons revelling in the perfect day before finally undertaking the final leg of my journey to the cottage.
But let’s not get there yet. Let me tell you more about the people that truly make Nova Scotia special for me. These people of Pugwash.
I’ll start with my grandmother, Chris. My grandmother sitting on the couch, one leg crossed, an elbow on end of the couch, forearm raised, cigarette gingerly held between her fingers, sizing everything up. My Grandmother Clarke was a force, a strong willed, fierce, quick witted force who kind of scared me as a child. But there was more than just quick wit, there was the twinkle in her eyes and that aforementioned laughter rising up and and tumbling recklessly out. She loved to laugh and my grandfather could make her laugh like nobody else.
My mother always lights up when talking about my Grandfather Jophi, who lost an arm in World War I, “Every kid at some point wanted to get him an arm. You guys would ask for it for Christmas when you were kids, “Could Santa bring Grandpa Jophi an arm?” My Grandfather could tell a story and he told me lots of them as a kid. Between his pipes, his electric razor (which he was always threatening to shave us with), his stories and his electric eccentricity he was an easy favourite for all us kids.
My mother continues, “He was funny. He did like to tell his war stories… I remember one time Chris had him go over to get some eggs so she could make breakfast and he came back with these tiny little eggs and she was so mad, “What am I supposed to do with these?”
My dad in Nova Scotia was always a site to behold. Like a weight was lifted off his shoulders, suddenly he was loose, in his element, talking shit with old friends who readily offered up tales of my father as a charismatic young ladies man. We’d sit in front of the local gas station or in shaded back yards and I’d watch my dad smoking his DuMaurier cigarettes and drinking OV laughing easily and often.
This was a different man from the one who felt little love for his job at the factory and struggled at times to find peace with the world around him. And it was good to see. My cousin Heather once commented that as a kid she saw my dad as James Dean and my uncle Joe as Gregory Peck. I can see that.
My Uncle Joe we didn’t see often but he always struck me as such a brilliant soul. He was tall and keen and seemed to be inhabited by boundless and nimble joy. You could see it when he listened, when he talked, when he sang (as he did at my little sister’s wedding), when he laughed. Uncle Joe was a family man, a spiritual man, a man who devoted himself to public service though the Progressive Conservative party in Nova Scotia, he was a creative, charismatic man and if he was here I’m sure he’d want me to add, a man who loved to bowl.
My Uncle Doch and my Aunt Marion.
My father would make me so nervous before we saw Doch. It was all about the handshake. Standing up, looking him in the eye and offering a firm handshake. Doch was always so decent about it, he had that glow. Like a 1950’s leading man, Doch was handsome with dark hair, blue eyes, he was dashing, gracious, thoughtful, earnest, humble always looking to engage his fellow man in conversation about things they loved.
Aunt Marion has the Clarke glimmer in her eye which is so many things all at once- mischief, joy, compassion, hope, caring, love for life. Her brother’s Jim (my dad) and Joe had it as did her sister Eleanor. They had it in spades. Marion met Doch in England when she was modeling there. Aunt Marion told me a story last time I was down about doing a commercial in England around the time she met my uncle. The commercial was for Bachelor cigarettes and amounted to her cooly taking a drag from the cigarette, exhaling, then advising, “I never could resist a good bachelor.”
Last time I went to Nova Scotia with my wife she had to fly to Nicaragua for work leaving me to drive back alone. The morning of my departure I decided to stop by my Aunt Marion’s place near beautiful Halifax Gardens to see her one more time before I went. We went for breakfast, chatted for hours, then went back to her condo where she made me a gift for the ages- Homemade strawberry shortcake. Being Aunt Marion she was self-deprecating about the results as compared to that which her mother would have presented to us as kids but that was crazy. It was amazing. It at once melted in my mouth and broke my heart. Fresh strawberries, creme, and a home made shortcake that could have floated above the table it was so light.
My Aunt Marion’s home is dazzling. It is, much like the woman herself, overflowing with creativity, joy, humour and love. The walls are alive with paintings and pictures which have been furnished in many cases by artists she knew, family, her husband Doch, her father-in-law, herself. I could spend hours drinking in all the art and history she has tasefully arranged in her living room alone. It is a dazzling group of memories from a vivid life spent travelling around the globe with uncle Doch who worked his way up in the Canadian Navy to a Commodore as well as commander of the Canadian Defense Liaison staff and Defense Advisor to the Canadian High Commission in London and her three beautiful girls, Heather, Elizabeth (Bis) and Shannon.
Of my cousins Heather, Bis and Shannon we were in awe. They were beautiful in a way that made me wonder how the hell I could be related to them. They could sing gorgeously, they were funny and they were always supremely nice to us. They were older so I’m sure we tried their patience sometimes but they were always sweet. They would make up scavenger hunts for us with clues hidden mainly around my grandparents house (always placing one clue in the cannon by the bank next door) and go for walks with us. Out of the three girls we saw Shannon the most as she closest in age to us. Shannon had a great earthiness, a sensitivity, about her that made being in her company a charmed existence. One of my favourite memories of Shannon is of her and her boyfriend taking our barefoot gang down Water Street to the break wall to watch the sunset over the harbour. I’d never even considered watching the sunset as a thing to do until then.
But there we were watching the sun ease down behind the horizon in layers of tangerine and raspberry, there we sat quietly in front of the still, grey mirrored water reflecting the dying light, there we watched in awe as the world moved gracefully through its’ gorgeous paces.
When we got back to my grandparents Shannon’s boyfriend offered to do the dishes, causing my grandmother to begrudgingly admit afterwards that she was impressed by him.
I got lost on my final leg to the cottage in Canning but only mildly so. Soon we would populate two cottages in the Annapolis valley. We would drive down to Pictou one lavish summer day to see my Mom’s brother Bob. The kids and adults would similarly get ice cream and walk along the dock, sun spiking off rippling water, my four-year-old nephew Shane seeming intent on telling my mother everything that he sees, everything that is happening, and my Mom, would listen intently, giving each thought the deepest consideration, my sisters kids would linger by the water trying to find shells and rocks, would bustle about in curiosity as we watched in awe. My brothers kids, older, would be a little more reserved, a little more in their own worlds, cell phones at their side, but they would be similarly sweet, particularly to their grandmother- Hudson putting his arm around my Mom for a great late summer, supper time light, shot, his smile as always honest and engaging. My brother talked about wanting one of the boats we passed and I could imagine us as kids in the same spot with him saying the same thing in much the same way. I got an ice cream with way too much ice cream in the cone and spent a few furtive minutes trying to avoid disaster. Some things change some things don’t.
At the restaurant I asked my mother and her brother Bob for a picture. They turn towards me seated three feet from each other, I sigh, “You could sit actually close to each other…” And they laughed. This is my mom with everything. It’s low key. It meant the world to her to see her brother but the outside observer would never know. In a world of extroverts it’s refreshing to see people who still keep most of the action below the water with only smooth movement above.
This is my mother’s family. There was no greater example of humility and the understated than my mother’s father who my mother refers to reverentially as, “… such a decent man.” My Grandfather MacDonald died while walking along a beach in Nova Scotia. There was no long bought of illness or disease he simply stopped ticking while walking along the ocean shore. My mother thought that a fitting gift for, “A man who took care of two women who passed away from terrible diseases.”
My Mother’s family though had almost all moved to Ontario by the time I was born and got in on the Nova Scotia summer vacations. Thus the Clarke family tended to provide the greater context for the trips.
But we’re still driving.
My father’s sister Eleanor and her daughters Lisa and Valerie were always a big part of those past trips as well. My father adored his sisters and they brought out the very best in him. Eleanor would come visit us in Thorold from time to time when I was very young, my mother was a fan of her panache, “Oh Eleanor had a way about her. I remember we went to get you a stroller in downtown St. Catharines and she talked with the gentleman at the store until we pretty much got it for nothing… she had this way about her. She was just charming and unafraid.”
Of her daughters Lisa was the closest in age and the owing to the fact she lived with my Grandparents for some time as a child she in many ways defined those summer vacations for me.
And when we get to Lisa we truly get to the very heart of the magic of Pugwash because she was the most beautiful soul I ever met. Truly.
I wish I remembered more about Lisa and those vacations. It frustrates me to no end that I can’t recall more specifics but I do recall how much time she spent with us and how wonderful it felt to be around her, the ease with which she loved those around her. She was sweet and smart, a truly enchanting, spirit. I can clearly recall the pure joy we would feel when my Mom would tell us Lisa would be at the house in Pugwash when we got there.
My mother, never one for hyperbole, nonetheless always responds the same when Lisa’s name comes up, “She was so beautiful. Really lovely. She saved Jophi’s life you know? After he had his heart attack he was in really rough shape and they didn’t know if he was going to make it. But there she was. Lisa was staying at the house at that time, she was just a little girl but she knew he had to walk every day to get better so she’d go over to him and put her hand in his and say, “Come on Grandpa,” and the two of them would go for a walk… He loved her so much she saved his life.”
Imagining the two of them strolling hand in hand through the tiny town of Pugwash is beautiful stuff. So much so I set my mother up to tell this story as often as possible. It just does my heart so much good.
At the end of this year’s trip I will stop again by the graves of Aunt Eleanor, Lisa and my Grandfather and Grandmother. They all lay in the side by side near a rose bush planted by Aunt Marion overlooking the Pugwash River.
Sometimes I try to understand why I love to travel to Nova Scotia given there are few relatives left there. I wonder if it is all just wayward nostalgia. But the moment the trip begins I know it is something more than that. It is an act of love.
This trip is an act of love.
“And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking.”
― Bob Dylan
I pull in the driveway of the cottage.
Once inside I chat with my brother and his kids, drop my bags in my room before taking my sandals off and walking the length of the long back yard to lean on the ranch style fence which overlooks the ocean.
The tide is out. Way out. The wet, exposed, bottom of the ocean appears almost clay coloured in the late afternoon light.
Sooner or later, you arrive. Sooner or later it begins, sooner or later it ends but it always keeps going.