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Thursday 12 December 2013

The Ralphs

Memories of life in Mount Pearl are intertwined with memories of two special people, Dorothy (Dot) and Harold Ralph.  They were our next door neighbours on Sunrise Avenue and many of the important life events in our family involved them.  However it is in the every day life of Sunrise Avenue that I remember them the most.  While I refer to them as Harold and Dot here, they were always Mr. and Mrs. Ralph to everyone in our family.

The Ralphs had lived on a small island off the north east coast of Newfoundland in Bonavista Bay.  Here they had provided a livelihood for themselves and their son in the fishing industry.  The Ralph name appears in records for Flat Island going back to 1845.  The generations had learned to survive, using all the land and sea had to offer.  Then in 1954, families started to leave Flat Island and move to the mainland of Newfoundland.  The last great exodus happened in 1957, some floating their houses with them, others just moving their possessions.  When we moved to Mount Pearl in 1958, Dot and Harold lived next door to us.

The Ralphs were busy people.  They worked from dawn until dusk and liked it that way.  My mother always said that the only time they ever sat on a chair in the back yard was the day she got a picture of them.  It was unusual to see them relaxing.  They had a vegetable garden in the back yard which they worked very hard to establish.  They had to bring soil to get it going, then seaweed or manure to maintain it.  They hunted rabbits, had seabirds in the fall, trout, fresh fish which they froze or salted, berries which they picked and Dot bottled or froze.  They had moose which was bottled or frozen.  

One of my fondest memories was an experience I had one Saturday when I went looking for Mom.  I found her in the Ralph's basement, helping them pick the feathers off newly killed chicken.  The local hennery sold off the chicken from its recent cull.  The Ralphs were plucking and cleaning them and of course, my mother with her vast experience on the farm, was working with them to pluck the birds efficiently.

Well, if Mom was at it, so was I.  I never had to be coaxed to get involved in things like this.  So they showed me how it was done and the four of us set up an assembly line to make short work of the dozens of chickens.  After we had dispensed with their lovely coats, Harold gutted them.  There were feathers flying that day!  Actually it wasn't really like that because part of the process involved dunking the birds in tubs of hot and cold water.  This kept the feathers from flying around and made plucking relatively easy. However, the down stuck to your hands, and anything you happened to touch as you worked.  We laughed at the sight of us when we finished.

Every autumn, the Ralphs worked to build up the stores of goods in their large basement.  Some of those chicken were frozen but most were bottled, for use the next winter.  Similarly every type of berry was picked and bottled as well.  Harold loved bread and jam.  He ate it at the end of every meal, preferring it to any dessert.  If the Ralphs were at our house for supper and Mom had dessert, when they went home, Harold had bread and jam.  He had a lunch of bread, jam and tea every night before bed time. Therefore every autumn, the Ralphs had enough jam stored in the basement to last until the next summer.  With Harold eating it like he did, you can imagine the berries they had to pick.  This was in the days when you couldn't go to a u-pick and get the berries easily, or get frozen ones at the supermarket.  Every berry was hand picked, wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, partridge berries, bakeapples, cranberries and squash berries for jelly.  There was a small, hard black berry that grew along the shoreline that they picked to put in puddings.  Mom didn't even know about those berries until the Ralphs showed them to her.

They did the same thing with fish, moose or whatever else was available.  Dot always had a huge freezer full of food to get them through the winter, just like they had done on Flat island in their storage rooms.  Today they would probably be perceived as survivalists, and in a way they were, but not in the modern sense.  They learned, through generations of time tested methods, how to survive in an isolated environment.  They didn't leave that lifestyle behind when they left Flat Island.  

This morning Claire commented that her father and I could survive for a year if Canada's food supply was suddenly compromised.  She's probably right!

                                    The Ralphs

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