The click-clack of the train echoed rhythmic, childhood trips down memory lane, to my father’s Maritime roots.
The wind-swept prairie was my home—wide blue skies, puffy clouds, golden wheat sheaves, train tracks, buffalo beans, tractors and Chinooks. Yet, I grew up knowing I had a Maritime heritage.
Following the First World War, my father left his childhood home in Nova Scotia to work with the CPR in Alberta. He had lived a third of his life in the West when I arrived on the scene, yet I knew my father was a Nova Scotian.
The Maritimes formed the warp of my growing up years, Alberta the woof. Weekly letters arrived from aunts and grandparents in Kings County, and on the South Shore, from Truro and Advocate Harbour. Packages of dulse, pine needle pillows, grandmother’s “trit-trats,” and rolls of newspapers telling of the camp meeting, the Apple Blossom Festival and the Fundy tides came in the CPR mail car that stopped outside our station door.
Then, in time, came the Nova Scotia trips on our CPR pass. The family would all be outfitted in new clothes (even in the Depression) and mother would pack picnic lunches to last the five nights and four days on the tourist sleeping car. The biennial trip was as rhythmic as the click-clack of the train wheels on steel—change your watch at Broadview, run down the platform to stretch your legs at Winnipeg, play cards on the long haul around Lake Superior, put on sweaters for the cold 20 minutes at Chapleau. At Toronto we dressed up for the stop and would walk through the rotunda of the Royal York Hotel, the most beautiful building we’d seen in our lives. On to Montreal where lunch was always at Murrays and where once, between trains, we had a ride in a horsedrawn calèche. Then we would speed through the green river valley of the St. John and finally set foot on the hallowed soil.
Arrival was always the same. Bert Skinner, my uncle, drove us over the twisty road to Mahone Bay where he was a country doctor. He would go out and soon return with lobsters fresh from the trap (often his pay for a house call to a fisherman’s home). He would have the lobsters run across the kitchen floor to the delight of our prairie eyes, and then later they would be served with Aunt Cas’s Maritime dressing, to the delight of our prairie palates.
Black Rock, Blue Rocks, the Gaspereau, Blomidon, Citadel Hill, Grand-Pré, seafood dinners and Annapolis apples, Baptist hymns and the slap of the waves on my uncle’s boat as we watched the famous three churches of Mahone Bay huddle close on the shoreline—the days would be filled with salt air and downeast hospitality. Then the time would come for tearful farewells and we would return, click-clacking across the land again, to our prairie home.
Dad’s love for the Maritimes had become a part of the fibre of our lives.
The years ebbed and flowed. Proud white stones standing in the little cemetery in Cambridge Station told the times and the names of the relatives who passed with the passing years.
Then came the year when I made the Nova Scotia pilgrimage again, but not with my parents; this time with my own children and my husband, who was guest preacher at St. Andrew’s Church, in Halifax. Though we travelled by car, not train, each signpost stirred memories.
But the memories were blurred. The details had gone with the years. Parrsboro, Middleton, Digby Gut, Bridgewater, Hubbards, Yarmouth, Truro—all familiar names, but what were the stories that went with the names? Without the storyteller I felt lost, cut off from the heritage so carefully shared over the years.
I sat in the car outside the church and wrote, half in panic, to my father in Alberta.
“Dad, I’m here without you. I know I should remember the Nova Scotia stories, but so many are gone. Please write them for us.”
At 79 years old, my dad was incensed that anyone should suggest it was time for him to write his memoirs. He did not reply—at least not in the way I had expected, not at first.
But then he took a pad of foolscap, like those on which, as secretary for countless committees, he had transcribed countless minutes, all of his life, and ours. He told the tales of the early years, he recorded the names, the dates, and the places we longed to know about.
Then he called a big party. He summoned his children and his grandchildren from all across Canada to meet half way, in Ontario: he celebrated his 80th birthday by presenting each with a bound copy of our history, which he had entitled My First Eighty Years. The dedication read, “To my grandchildren in order that they may have an account of my life, for reference, with the hope that it will bring them some useful information.”
Dad and Mother are both gone. The families are scattered from one Canadian coast to another, with some between. Some still call the wind-swept prairies home, some enjoy the sunshine and arbutus of Canada’s other coast, some live in the metropolises of Upper Canada, and some have returned downeast. It matters not. Each family member knows how firmly our family roots are planted in the soil and rock of Nova Scotia.
Gwynneth Wallace now lives in Wolfville, NS.