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Friday 30 October 2015

Wash Day

She lights the fire in the wash house. It is a cold November day so the room will be comfortable. She used the hand pump to fill the pots of water on the stove which heat slowly as she goes through the clothes on the table, sorting them into piles. She'll start with the whites. Julia dumps water into the wash tub and adds some of the soap she made last week. Hash for supper she thinks as she adds the bed sheets to the hot water. Julia reaches for the scrub board and begins wash day.

This fictional account could apply to any of our foremothers but is based on the life of Julia Lawrence, my husband's great grandmother, of Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Julia had a wash house attached to the side of her house where she had a stove, table and chairs, and space big enough to work at the clothes. Most women did not have a separate place for washing clothes as Julia did but washed in the kitchen.


Julia's granddaughter Sylvia, gave me a little washboard or scrub board which belonged to her mother, Classie, Julia's eldest daughter. 


The little board was a replica of a larger board used for bigger, heavier items of clothing. This one is called Pearl, and was produced by the Canadian Woodenware Co., Montreal. It is made of textured glass held in place by wood to allow the user to scub items over the rough glass surface.

     Back of the washboard

The days are long gone when women hauled water from wells, brooks and streams to their kitchens where they scrubbed every item of clothing on washboards in wash tubs, items such as long johns, socks, dresses and overalls. Can you imagine the mess and smell from the clothes of a fisherman? A lucky few, like my grandmother O'Brien, had a hand pump connected to a well which eliminated the carrying of water. The women spent all day cleaning clothes.

               Grandmother O'Brien

Washing was just the beginning because clothes were hung on the line to dry, winter and summer, although lines often hung across the kitchen as well to take advantage of the wood stove. In Julia's case, a line across the wash house dried clothes during bad weather.

Ironing was a huge chore as well because clothes were high maintenance so as to look presentable. Women spent hours heating an iron on the stove to give the clothes that well-turned-out look. 

Wash day was Monday and it affected the rest of the woman's day. The kitchen was the center of wash activity so space and time for cooking were unavailable. Women cooked extra food on Sunday so there were leftovers for wash day. The root vegetables from Sunday dinner usually appeared as hash, which meant everything was cut up in a frying pan and reheated. Some Newfoundlanders called the leftovers "couldn'ts" instead of hash, because they were the things you couldn't eat the previous day.

There was a time when our foremothers made soap as well. Sylvia remembers Julia making soap. Women took ashes from the stove and boiled them in water to get lye, which was combined with rendered animal fat. The soap making process was messy but necessary if you wanted soap to clean your clothes.

Today in many families, men and women wash the clothes. Two working adults in a family have made the automation of the washing and drying process essential. In our neighbourhood there are only a few clothes lines. Young parents do not have time to hang clothes outdoors. Nor do they iron much any more as perma press and wrinkle-free clothing are common.

Many families wash clothes every day or do multiple loads of washing and drying in one day as part of numerous other chores. Washing alone does not fill a person's day any more. Maintaining the clothing for a family is a big job for anyone but our foremothers did it without any of the modern conveniences. The little scrub board is a reminder of their hard work on wash day.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Hallowe'en Joy

Hallowe'en spirit arrived at our house

after a recent visit from our granddaughters. 

We scooped the "stuffing" out of pumpkins 

and carved faces in them. 

The roasted seeds made a delicious afternoon snack.

The journey to this Hallowe'en 

has trick or treated its way 

through great joy the last four years, 

first with Sylvie and then with her sister, Caitlin, too.

Hallowe'en through the eyes of a young child is wondrous. 

I wish you such wonder.

Happy Hallowe'en! ...From this girl too.


Tuesday 27 October 2015

Great Grandmother Smith

Sylvia, my mother-in-law, is a widow, having lost her husband of almost sixty-three years just two years ago. The Smiths lived in Corner Brook, Newfoundland but after Melvin died, Sylvia moved to Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Tomorrow, she is returning to her original island home, having spent the last two years on Prince Edward Island, living near family. Though we will miss her, Sylvia takes with her our love and best wishes for a happy return to Corner Brook.

This poem is for Sylvia's great granddaughters, Sylvie and Caitlin.

Great Grandmother Smith

Part 1
My great gran is Sylvia
And she loved to garden.
She set the seeds,
Then she let the plants harden.

        Sylvia's tomato plants grown from seed
Port aux Basques was her home
When she was small

Where she lived with her brothers
Carl and Dick-oh so tall.
Classie was her mother
And she did a lot,
Like sew, knit and crochet
And cook in a pot.
Richard her father
Was good with amounts.
Like our father Ben
He could keep the accounts.

   Front: Sylvia, Classie, Richard Sr. and Jr., Carl

Part 2
Sylvia met Melvin who worked on a boat.
When they got married he gave up the float

          Melvin Smith

To work at the mill where he worked night and day 
Carrying baskets of leftovers away.

                           Melvin and Sylvia

They had lots of friends and often played cards,
The children were happy and played in the yards.

For sixty years they both enjoyed life,
Stories and jokes, they all kept away strife.

Then Melvin was gone and life it was tough.
Sylvia decided that she'd had enough.
Another isle called her away from the bay,
With family and new friends for two years did stay.

              Eleanor, Sylvia and Angéle

Now as she moves back to her true home
Sylvia's happy n'er more to roam.
Her family wishes her all the best 
As she settles back into her Corner Brook nest.

                                  Marie Pretty Smith

 Will they grow tomatoes too?

Sunday 25 October 2015

A Place by Any Other Name

There are many interesting names of places and locations in Newfoundland. An examination of a map shows lovely names like Heart's Desire or Paradise. Then there are Come by Chance, Tilting, Cow Head and Bay Bulls. 

One of the most famous names is the ancestral home of my father's family, the Prettys of Dildo, Trinity Bay. 

                                Dildo, Trinity Bay

The term "dildo" referred to a post on the gunwale of the boat where an oar attaches.

         Dildo on the gunwale

That meaning has long been lost. The people of the community kept the name which is a draw for tourists who have their pictures taken with the town's sign.

Then there are places like Nickey's Nose Cove. 

Who was Nickey and what was so special about his nose? The headland in that Cove is shaped like a nose.

So, Nickey's nose was prominent?

On Twillingate Island, at Crow Head where the lighthouse is located, 

you will find Devil's Cove with Horney Head and Cuckold Point on a hiking trail. 

You know what they say about the devil and the details.
A mountain in the Bay of Islands is called Blow-Me-Down and a lane in Twillingate has the same name.

 An ill wind may become a place name in my homeland.


Thursday 22 October 2015


When we lived in Newfoundland, we rarely travelled on the Trans Canada Highway at night. The reason, MOOSE. The danger from the huge animals was real. Dusk, dawn, night, day, it didn't matter. The highway was a raceway for moose. Many moose-vehicle accidents occurred all over the island with numerous injuries and deaths every year. Night time on the roads was so dangerous because drivers were upon the moose before they saw the huge animals.

We had a near encounter once on the Buchans highway just after our daughter was born. That night, all my husband, Rick and I saw was the underbelly of the moose above our Volkswagen Rabbit. Our infant daughter, waiting at home, could have been orphaned.

One of our colleagues at school, Sister Amelia Mooney, had a prayer she said every time she was on the highway. Amelia taught me her prayer. She said, "Jesus, keep the moose in the woods." I said that prayer almost constantly when we travelled. There were even times it was not said in prayer!

On one of our picnic excursions in the autumn after we retired, we came upon this young moose on a road in Green Bay. 

We kept our distance and followed the animal up the road, hoping that another vehicle was not coming from the opposite direction. This encounter was uneventful.

Now, this beautiful creature is as close as we get to moose. 

This one had a place of honour on the mantel of Richard and Classie Mercer, Rick's grandparents. There aren't any moose on Prince Edward Island. We notice the absence of the threat to life and limb when we travel the highway at night. Short trips off island bring us back to reality however. For now though, a glass moose is as close to the real thing as we like to be.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

A Sense of Place

Our street was on the edge of town in those days. The name Sunrise was appropriate because you could look east over the city of St. John's, Newfoundland from the top of the street and watch the sun rise above Signal Hill. Woods bordered our back yard.

Mount Pearl was originally a military base for British troops in the 1800s. In the twentieth century, St. John's residents built their cottages, away from the bustle of city life. Then people started to live there year round. By the time our family moved there in the late 1950s, Mount Pearl was expanding. However, our home on the edge of the town was in a country setting.

My brother, Frank, loved Mount Pearl more than I ever did. We moved there when he was an infant, so he did not have prior knowledge of Maddox Cove where we had lived for two years before his birth. When we moved to Sunrise Avenue, I missed the ocean, the river, and the friends of my two years in the Cove. Our grandparents and uncle lived next door and I also missed them. My brother Frank embraced Mount Pearl like I never did.

                             Home in Mount Pearl

Our house on the edge of the town did have its benefits. The woods provided a great place for forts and camps, and my brother and the other neighbourhood boys enjoyed life there. The frog ponds provided hours of enjoyment. Our garage always harbored buckets of tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis as they became frogs. They were often mauled to death by the grasping hands of curious boys. 

There were teenagers on our street, and lots of children my brother's age or younger, but his four and a half years younger meant that we had different interests and friends. There was no one my age on the street. I missed Maddox Cove, so every summer I stayed there with my grandparents. My family visited on the weekends. Mom did not know what to think when she saw me on Sundays and I just waved and went on with my friends. I loved the Cove and everything about it.

I never really felt like Mount Pearl was my town. Our family lived there so it was home but I belonged to the Cove, that other place, by the ocean. My brother is a true son of Mount Pearl, with lots of friends on the street when he was growing up, creating lots of great memories there.

After I left Mount Pearl, I moved to Buchans, then Grand Falls-Windsor, as far from the ocean as you can get on the island of Newfoundland. It was not until we moved to Summerside, Prince Edward Island, that I truly felt at home again, never more than a few miles from the sea.

For me, the ocean embodies life, friends, family and my sense of place in the world. My mother felt it too and for her, Maddox Cove was inscribed in her DNA. Mom lived there for twenty-one years. I had summers of my youth and a few early years, just enough to make an impact. We were both lucky.

Sunday 18 October 2015


Conditions were perfect. A clear night in September, a super moon and a total lunar eclipse. It was a rare convergence of perfect weather, the moon's closest position to the earth and sun-earth-moon alignment. The next possible such lunar eclipse in this area is eighteen years hence. We may not live to see that event or the weather may not co-operate if we do. The significance of the spectacle was not lost on us.

Covered in a blanket on the patio, we watched the slow progression of shadow over the moon, from left to right. As the celestial spectacle unfolded, I wondered where our granddaughters would be when the next such event occurred. Tonight they are fast asleep, daughters of this flat Prince Edward Island on Canada's east coast. Would they even be able to live on this island by 2033? They have inherited a world in environmental crisis that could submerge their island home. 

My earliest memory of a celestial event happened when I was nine years old. In July of that year, I was staying with my grandparents in Maddox Cove, Newfoundland when there was a partial solar eclipse. I did not look at the spectacle as I was warned. However, I remember walking out the lane from the house, in an eery twilight in the afternoon. The absence of bright daylight brought the birds out in full chorus. The air felt electric. 

That was a simpler time, before the phrase 'global warming' was in common usage. My grandfather was an inshore fisherman of Newfoundland, in a sustainable fishery. He grew vegetables, had chickens and a few other animals to feed his family. My grandparents used the land and sea, knowing that if they were not careful, next year it would be harder to provide for the family. They fertilized the soil with seaweed or manure and did not have the modern conveniences for most of their lives. Their generation did not cause this problem.

What kind of a world are we leaving to our grandchildren today? Is there even the will to address the environmental catastrophe that is headed our way? World leaders must heed the scientific warning and be informed by science to begin measures to slow the coming disaster. Where are our leaders with vision to show us the way?

Today is election day in Canada, an opportunity to express your concern for our country, and choose the person who is our voice in this troubled world. It is easy to be skeptical, to sit back and complain. However, looking into the faces of our own two grand-babies and other island children, there is no room for skepticism.

The promise of a better future begins with your vote today!

     Right, Priviledge, Responsibility

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Cove

My mother, Mary was born in Maddox Cove, Newfoundland. Mom loved the Cove, the setting, the way of life there with her family and the people. She left home when she was twenty-one, to board and work in St. John's. 

However, Mom was rooted in the Cove and, to her last day, she kept alive the stories of her life there. If ever there was a person who was formed by her home, family and friends, it was Mom. Her hard working nature, sense of humour, love of life, family and spirituality were a product of her family and life in the Cove.

This poem is for our granddaughters, Mom's great grandchildren, Sylvie and Caitlin. 

             The Cove
Her name was Mary
She was from Maddox Cove.
And for twenty-one years
She didn't rove.
Mary loved her home town
The people as well.
She had lots of friends
And the stories did tell.
The school house had one room
And kids brought the wood
To stoke up the fire
As all children should.
She played by the ocean
Where her father would fish.
His name was Gus
And grew veggies to dish.
Life there was hard work
And fun, don't you know?
Music and lancers
Were often the go.
Mary spoke fondly
Of her little place.
And even when older
Memories kept apace.

What would she wish
For someone like me?
To find my little cove
Where life is so free.
                        Marie Pretty Smith

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Something Is Watching

We have had some warm weather this month. Yesterday we spent lunch time on the patio again, without a breath of wind, just a comfortable eighteen degrees. Wasps and mosquitos are still making their rounds while the geese honk overhead. Meanwhile, underneath our patio is an ideal habitat for spiders.

There are numerous places for the web spinners to attach to the patio and insect activity is guaranteed. The fact that we can walk under the patio means that many webs are destroyed, by accident or by plan. The crawly creatures are never welcome as passengers on Rick and I. However they would mind their own business if we stayed away from their backyard habitat.

We have spent time watching these arthropods building their webs with precision and industry. They are methodical in their work, setting down a framework and stringers in geometric patterns. If we destroy a web, the spider hides for a time, then gets back to the repair work. They are undaunted. There is much we can learn from them.

When I lived in Buchans, Newfoundland, any time I taught a unit on spiders and insects, I woke in the middle of the night, fighting off creepy crawlies in vivid nightmares. I know I would not require advanced torture techniques to give up any secrets. A few well placed spiders and insects would do the trick. However, in my conscious life I am more curious than afraid of them.

So, here is my friend Spidey, the beautiful garden spider. We took the picture through the glass of the back door, making her underside visible. She could "see" into the family room. 

Something is watching! The stuff of nightmares!

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Frolic

One of my favourite things to do is to talk with people about their family and personal stories. This includes recipes, often family recipes, which are passed down for generations. So it was that on a recent Saturday we spent time with friends learning about their families and culture.

The term frolic in Prince Edward Island is used to denote any occasion when people get together to work on a project. Women had frolics for knitting, crocheting, or quilting as examples. Men had frolics to cut wood or build a shed. Ours was to make rapure, a traditional Acadian dish. We had apples for dessert.

Since moving to Prince Edward Island, my mother-in-law, Sylvia, has become friends with some Acadians. It has been a pleasure for us to get to know this important part of our community. Their kindness and friendliness helped Sylvia during the two years she has lived here. 

Our curiosity about Acadian customs and culture led us to the preparation and sharing of an Acadian meal. There were four women in the kitchen preparing the rapure and baked apples. It was both fun and delicious. My husband, Rick also enjoyed our meal.

Our friends were Angéle and Eleanor. Angéle is Acadian, raised in Mont Carmel, PEI. Eleanor's husband, Eldon, was Acadian too. Eleanor is from St. Augustine on the lower north shore of Québec. My mother-in-law, Sylvia, helped in the kitchen that day with her friends. 

                           Eleanor, Sylvia and Angéle

Acadians are descendants of the early French settlers to Canada. When the British gained control of what is now the Canadian Maritimes, they drove the Acadians out of their homes. Some island Acadians fled to the woods and hid, later re-establishing themselves in the Evangeline area of western PEI. These families have kept their language and culture alive and they are a vibrant part of our island home. They have a proud heritage and are eager to share it with others.

Angéle's father was a fisherman who also grew vegetables and raised animals. Her mother raised the children and kept the house. She made rapure for her large family as a special meal. It is made with pork and grated potato, so it is labour intensive. With ten children, you can imagine the amount of potato needed for the family and the grating was hard and time consuming work. The family loved the meal but it was not a common item on the menu.


We used 10 pounds of Russet potatoes in this recipe. You must peel and boil at least five medium to large size potatoes in salted water. While the potatoes are boiling, peel and grate the remainder of the potatoes. Keep them in water to prevent the potatoes from darkening. The best rapure is made with potatoes grated on a box grater. Today we use a food processor to hasten the work. Rinse the grated potato well and drain in a colander just before combining with the other ingredients. 

Meanwhile, cut a pork shoulder roast, about two to three pounds, into bite size cubes, trimming the fat. Saute the pork with one large chopped onion in oil on the stove. The meat and onion can be browned in the oven if you prefer.

When the potatoes are boiled, mash them and combine with the drained grated raw potato, pork, onion, salt and pepper to taste. Eleanor's mother-in-law also added summer savoury and coriander to the recipe, though Angéle's family did not. We added a pinch of savoury.

When ready to put the rapure in the oven, Angéle made the sign if the cross over the food saying, "St. Theresa and St. Martha, bless me that I may make a good rapure." Her mother always did this blessing  and Angéle does the same blessing for bread.

Place in greased pan(s) large enough to hold the recipe. We used two pans. Cook on 400 degrees F for one hour, then reduce the heat to 350 for a second hour. Check that the rapure is browning during the second hour and increase the heat if it is not browning as you would like.

Cut the rapure into serving size pieces to plate and add molasses to the serving as you would to a pancake. The rapure is crispy on the outside and tasty, even without the molasses.

Angéle's mother used the fat from the pork as well, not wasting a bit of the roast. The flavour from the fat and its presence in the rapure changed it from the recipe we have today, using only lean meat. However, her Mom's recipe for that time provided needed calories for the hard working family. Today, we are concerned with cutting fat from our diets whatever way we can. 

For dessert, we had a traditional island recipe, with baked apples. We washed and cored the apples and put some brown sugar in them as well as chopped dried cranberries. You can use raisins also. A tablespoon of butter over the top of each apple helps create a nice sauce. Cook on 350 degrees F until the apples are tender, about 70 minutes in our oven.

The two pans of rapure we made were of different thicknesses. Some people prefer the rapure thin, with the crispiness going through the slice. Others prefer it thick with the crispiness on the top only. We made it both ways to see which we preferred.

Prince Edward Island is an ideal place for growing potatoes so the rapure was an ideal recipe for families here. Families grew their own potatoes, enough to carry them through to the next year if they were lucky. Some had animals as well, as did Angéle's family, though the children were not happy to see their named pets on the dinner plate. Apples grow well on this island too and many families had the trees on their property. They were an important part of every family's diet.

Like Newfoundlanders further east in the Atlantic Ocean, Acadians lived off the land and sea. We have so much in common in spite of the difference in our first language. Rapure will become part of our menu in the future and we will remember our friends and their traditions every time we make it.

It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!