Red Island: PEI Profiles
Red Island: PEI Profiles
It is roughly 700 miles from Montreal, Quebec, an island at the confluence of the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers, to Prince Edward Island, on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The way most people get off Montreal is by bridge or tunnel. There are twenty-five bridges and three tunnels. The longest passage is slightly more than a mile.
Most transit gets to Prince Edward Island by way of the Confederation Bridge, the only bridge that connects the island to the rest of Canada. Until the span was built coming and going was by boat or ferry. When the Northumberland Strait froze solid you might strap chains onto your tires and drive across it. After four years of construction the bridge opened in 1997. It is the longest overpass in the world traversing ice-covered water.
It is 8 miles long. It is illegal to stop on the bridge and there is a curve to it whose only purpose is to keep drivers alert.
“It’s weird, it’s long, you’re on it for 5 minutes, at least.” said Tanner Patterson.
“It’s more of a 12-minute trip,” Amanda Patterson pointed out, fine-tuning.
“I did a project on it at school, actually, although I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “My teacher told me, you’re doing the Confederation Bridge. There was a referendum about building it. It was close because lots of people wanted the island to stay secluded.” There were even those who preferred the concept of a moat. “Local workers built it and it’s sturdy. It’s probably never going to fall down.”
More than a million-and-a-quarter people travel to PEI for a week-or-two in the summer, almost nine times as many people as live on the island. Some of them cross by ferry, some of them fly into Charlottetown, but most of them drive over on the bridge.
“It’s very impressive,” said Cathy Patterson.
“Crossing it is anti-climactic because of the concrete parapet. You can’t see anything,” said Mark Patterson, Tanner’s uncle, Amanda’s father, and Cathy’s husband. “But there’s a church you can pull into after you cross, up the approach towards Victoria, and from the parking lot you can see the bridge going all the way back into New Brunswick. It’s an incredible view.”
The Patterson’s live in the West Island, on the west side of Montreal, a laidback community-oriented green space small town feel in the big city kind of neighborhood. One of Montreal’s last large remaining spots of wilderness is in West Island. The region was a summer retreat into the 20th century.
Cathy Patterson first visited Prince Edward Island with a group of fellow potters in 2014. “We did the circuit of the pottery studios,” she said. Throwing, firing, and glazing mud and clay is a cottage industry on the island. “Several teachers showed us their methods.”
The small troop of ceramic artists stayed in the town of North Rustico, at the Coastline Cottages, on the seashore. “Kelly Doyle opened a cabin for us. It was very nice, but it was cold.” By the end of March 2014 more snow had fallen that winter than had in more than 40 years. Blizzards swept the island. “The landscape was stunning, but really, really cold. We all had three layers on.”
“I was here when I was a kid, thirty-five years ago,” said Mark. “We went to Nova Scotia, did the Cabot Trail, and came here. I saw “Anne of Green Gables” at the Confederation Centre. My mom told me we stayed near North Rustico.”
One afternoon when his nephew, daughter, and wife had gone deep-sea fishing, he went for a drive, exploring the north central coast. At the intersection of Route 6 and South Rustico he spotted an old-school style roadhouse. He pulled the car over.
“It was the original motel with green paint,” he said. “That’s where we stayed.”
The Patterson’s piled into their car on a Saturday at 6 o’clock in the morning in late June and left West Island for the eastern seaboard. The drive is circuitous, north to Quebec City, south to Fredericton, east to Monkton, and finally across the bridge. It takes close to 15 hours.
“We played the letter game in the car,” said Cathy.
The alphabet game is played on long car rides. The players try to find the letters of the alphabet on license plates, road signs, and nearby buildings, in order, starting with “A”. If any player spots a graveyard on the side of the road and declares it, the other players have to go back to the beginning. There is a shout out for the winner after they have reached “Z” if they can remember all the different things for each letter of the alphabet.
When he wasn’t playing the letter game, Tanner was downloading podcasts on his phone. “They saved my life,” he said. “Our Fake History and Night Vale are good ones.” Night Vale is about a small desert town, mysterious lights in the night sky, and dark hooded figures with unknowable powers.
“I like to sleep,” said Amanda. “When I get bored I start rambling, talking nonsense.”
“It’s annoying,” Tanner groused about Amanda bunking in the back seat, who didn’t lose any sleep over it. “I can’t sleep in cars. She’s out for at least half the trip.”
“I drive,” said Mark. “I’m no good being a passenger.”
“I can drive all day or I can sleep,” said Cathy. “Put me in the passenger seat and I’m out like a light.”
Three years after Cathy had gone to Prince Edward Island, bundled up against the cold, they were on the way there in the summertime. They were in shorts and t-shirts because her friend, Sue Cameron, a fellow potter, had booked two weeks at Coastline Cottages earlier in the year. Cathy got wind of the vacation while at lunch with her friend one day.
“Is there another cabin?” asked Cathy.
“I don’t know, we can find out,” said Sue.
“I called Kelly, he had an open cottage, I said fine, and booked it on the spot,” said Cathy.
“Our first week we went to beaches five days in a row,” said Mark.
There are almost 700 miles of PEI coastline, cliffs, sand dunes, and long sandy beaches. There are about 90 of them. Most of them are located in provincial or national parks. The beaches on the north coast are white sand while those on the south coast are red sand. The sand at Basin Head is called singing sand because it squeaks when you walk on it.
“I was so excited for the beaches,” said Tanner. “We went all over, to Cavendish, Brackley, Thunder Cove.”
“He just sits there listening to music,” said Amanda.
“Or I listen to podcasts,” said Tanner. “Then I go in the water.”
“Thunder Cove is a secret beach,” said Amanda.
“The kids took a walk to the Teacup,” said Cathy.
“The way the rock there has eroded you can walk underneath it,” explained Mark.
“It’s a cliff, so you can be on the beach and behind you the water flows into the cliff, and you can go inside it,” said Tanner.
“It was cool,” said Amanda. “But, there were little crabs that bit your feet, especially this one part where they kept snapping at you.”
The day Mark Patterson went solo exploring was the same day the rest of the family boarded Papa’s Gem, one of two 45-foot Aiden’s Deep Sea Fishing boats sailing out of the North Rustico harbor. The fishing charter supplies rods, tackle, and bait, cleans the cod and mackerel you’ve caught, and you get to take it all with you.
Aiden Doiron started fishing when he was 15-years-old, started his own deep-sea fishing excursions in 1957, and started up Doiron’s Fish Market on the near side of the harbor. His family still operates the charter and the fishery.
“I caught one cod and two mackerel,” said Tanner.
“I caught two cod and mom got sick,” said Amanda.
“This guy on board was smoking a cigarette,” said Cathy.
“You’re not supposed to smoke,” said Amanda. “The captain got mad when he found out.”
“It was the way the wind came up and the smoke hit me full throttle. I had to sit down, but when the engines started up and we started moving, going back, it was too much. The next minute I was feeding the fish. It was quite embarrassing.”
Mark fired up the grill at Coastline Cottages the next day.
“I had never had mackerel,” he said. “We didn’t have any spices, no nothing, maybe a little parsley, but Tanner and I pan-fried the fish, and it might have been our best meal on the island.”
“No, dad, it was ice cream at Cows,” said Amanda.
By all accounts dinner at the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers was a big hit.
“It was a high point for me,” said Tanner.
The restaurant, on the Hunter River, not far from North Rustico, got its start in 1957 when the New Glasgow and District Junior Farmers Organization, looking for a permanent meeting place, bought and moved a canteen to the eatery’s current location. The first lobster supper, priced at $1.50, was served on improvised plank tables as a fundraiser in 1958. The dinner was followed by a dance.
Today the all-you-can-eat feast starts with fresh rolls seafood chowder coleslaw salad and Island Blue mussels.. The main course is lobster. Dessert is buffet-style. The restaurant is still owned by the Nicholson’s and MacRae’s, two of the original founding couples. It was showcased on TV’s Food Network in 2012, on a program called “You Gotta Eat Here”.
“You sit at a long picnic-style table. It’s like clockwork, so well run,” said Cathy.
“Tanner and I ate a whole bucket of mussels,” said Mark.
“You can have one, two, three buckets, all you want,” said Cathy.
“I ate them all,” said Tanner proudly.
“I never had fresh mussels like that,” said Mark.
PEI mussels, sweet and tender, are widely available at seafood counters in many countries, and are often considered the best in the world. Some gourmands say the best mussels are harvested on lonely rocky outcrops along cold-water tidal inlets, but since few people haul themselves, their rubber boots and gloves, and 5-gallon plastic pails to isolated shorelines, the island’s rope-grown mussels are the next best. They are super tasty nutritious sustainable and even help purify water by clearing nitrogen.
Nothing beats sitting down to PEI mussels on PEI.
“Amanda tried a mussel, but she wasn’t crazy about it,” said Tanner.
“Hey, I ate a lot of them!” she protested.
After a week of lolling on beaches the Patterson’s got into their car and went touring. The Tip-to-Tip Tour is about driving the length of the province on the rolling coastal roads. It’s a way to see the meeting of the tides at one end of the island at East Point and North America’s longest natural rock reef at the other end at North Cape.
“You go to one side, they give you a ribbon, and when you get to the other side, and show them the ribbon, they give you a certificate,” said Mark. “It’s a long drive. We were all tired by the time we got to North Cape.”
When they pulled into Tignish, a small town on the far northwestern tip of the island, they were ready for their daily bread. When they asked, someone recommended the Very Best Restaurant, which turned out to be part of the Tignish Co-op. A small sit-down, it has a big name for its Acadian meat pies.
“At first I thought they were bragging,” said Mark. “But, it’s got to be good if they say that. When we got there, there were all kinds of different tables and chairs.”
“It looked pretty sketchy,” said Amanda.
“After we sat down we could tell it was going to be good because all the local farmers and fishermen were there, in work clothes and Chevy caps. We fed the whole family for thirty-five dollars.”
“It’s like a PEI secret place,” said Tanner.
“The name comes from living in the north,” said Amanda. “If you ask anybody how their day has been, they always say, the very best day.”
Closer to home, one day Cathy told the 12-year-old Tanner and the 13-year-old Amanda that the next day would be their day. They could pick whatever activity they wanted to do.
“We got one day, no, one morning, out of two weeks,” said Tanner.
“No, we went to all those beaches,” said Cathy.
“Oh, yeah,” said Tanner.
The next morning they went to Cavendish.
The resort town is the next town over from North Rustico, known for its numerous cottages and campgrounds, Green Gables attractions, golf courses, boardwalk, and amusement parks. The first place they went to was the Route 6 Motel, a haunted house nestled in a spruce grove, crawling, walking, and running through the winding corridors where disturbing obstacles lurk.
“It was great, but I couldn’t. I was fine, but I don’t like getting squished,” said Amanda. “When they yelled to get ready for the airbags, I hate that. I told them I needed to check out and they opened a side door for me.”
Tanner had already checked out.
“I’m good at scary movies,” he said. “I can predict everything. I just use my brain, but haunted houses, I don’t like it when it’s super dark and super loud.”
Cathy was waiting outside, catching some fresh air, reading a paperback. A young mother walked out of the haunted house with a 7-year-old in hand. The boy was crying.
“Is he OK?” asked Cathy.
“The haunted house did him in,” said the woman.
“I’m waiting for my kids,” said Cathy.
“Is one of them wearing a pink sweatshirt?”
“They’re out already.”
Cathy found Big Pink and PJ at the side of the Route 6 Motel.
“Sure enough, neither of them finished the haunted house,” she said.
Within the first few days of arriving on Prince Edward Island, Tanner was known as Big Pink, since he was a large boy and wore his favorite pink sweatshirt whenever he could, and Amanda was known as PJ for wearing her pajamas over her bathing suit going to and from the Coastline Cottage’s kidney-shaped saltwater pool overlooking the ocean.
Their next stop was the Hangar, a black-lit, fog filled, state-of-the-art laser tag arena. Strapped into special vests, Tanner and Amanda were released into the 3000-square-foot space, firing infrared beams with Uzi-style ray guns.
“When we went one-on-one, I totally destroyed her,” said Tanner.
“Sure, but when we played that other family, I dominated,” said Amanda.
“She was super good at sneaking around, getting behind you, and shooting, shooting, shooting,” said Tanner. “She would just surprise run up and shoot you in the back the whole time.”
After two weeks on the island, going home to Montreal wasn’t easy, except for leaving the pillows behind. “The beds are comfortable in the cottage, but the pillows aren’t,” said Amanda.
“Bring your own pillow next time,” said Cathy.
“We all went to see “Anne of Green Gables” in Charlottetown. When Matthew dies at the end, I was, oh, crap, I had forgotten that part. That got me,” said Mark.
“The island is beautiful,” he added. “I liked that I wasn’t working for two weeks.” Island hopping is being able to do nothing much and having all day to do it before you have to go back to whatever made you go on vacation in the first place.
“I liked getting up in the morning, taking my cup of tea down to the ocean, sitting on my log down there,” said Cathy.
“The beaches,” said Big Pink. His favorite place was anyplace by the ocean. “Eating mussels and Canada Day were awesome, too.”
When he heard there was pole climbing rubber boot throwing lobster eating contests and a cow bingo, guessing where the cow will do its business at the end of the afternoon, every year at the Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival, he said, “We’re coming back!”
“I’m not chasing pigs!” said Amanda.
When the Patterson’s piled into their car for the return trip to Montreal, they drove from North Rustico to New Glasgow to Hunter River to Kelly’s Cross to Crapaud onto Highway 1 to Borden-Carleton and onto the Confederation Bridge.
By a twist of the turnstile, there’s no cost to cross the bridge for a summer vacation on Prince Edward Island, no ticket takers. But, when you pull back up to the tollbooth, it costs $47.00 to leave. It’s like the candles costing more than the cake. That’s when you might as well make plans to go back, since the entryway back to the red island is always for the asking.
Red Island: Stories about Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island, the smallest Canadian province, is off the Atlantic Canada coast in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, east of New Brunswick and north of Nova Scotia. Its land mass is less than 2200 square miles. Victoria, a village on the southern edge of the island on the Northumberland Straight, isn’t measured in square miles. It is measured in square feet.
Six months of the year, from about the middle of spring to the about the middle of autumn, Olivier Sauve, who was born and bred and lives and works in Victoria, spends almost all of his time inside those square feet.
“I don’t go far,” he said. “I might go to the liquor store once a week, do a pick-up, and if Doug and Rachael need a day off, I’ll do the food run.” Rachael is his sister and Doug is her boyfriend. The pick-ups and runs for food and drink are for the family business.
“I’m working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. I go from the house to the restaurant and from there back to the house. Sometimes I go to the post office.”
Olivier’s parents, Julia, a Manhattanite, and Eugene, a Quebecois, met and married on PEI, opening the Landmark Café catty-corner to the Victoria Theatre 28 years ago, when he was six.
“I grew up in Victoria, played ball hockey, jumped off the wharf, ate dirt all summer. We’ve got everything here, friends, neighbors, home.”
The other six months of the year Olivier goes globetrotting. The earth is 197 million square miles, which is too many square feet to try counting. Over the past 15 years the 34-year-old Olivier Sauve has bussed boated walked the length and breadth of 52 countries. “I know because I can name them all,“ he said.
“I’m a good counter, too.”
In 2015 he hiked from southern to northern Spain and then pivoted west to Portugal. He walked almost a thousand miles in 40 days, averaging close to the equivalent of a marathon every day.
“I’m into walking, hiking, being outside,” he said. “I’ve hiked the Andes, the Himalayas, Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.”
He stopped in San Lorenzo in central Spain for the hot springs and dinner.
“The thermal spring baths in the middle of the town have been flowing out of a mountain for 2000 years,” he said. ”There was a pizzeria around the corner from my hostel. After walking 20, 25 miles, there’s nothing like a big pizza.”
“It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,” said the singing cowgirl Dale Evans.
Although at home Olivier’s days and nights are framed by village life and work, travel is in his blood. “We moved to Montreal when I was two, but then my parents bought a house here when I was three. Every winter we would visit mom’s family in New York City and dad’s family in Vancouver.”
The family went Canadian winters to Florida or Jamaica, too. “I made sure we went somewhere,” said Eugene Sauve.
“We’re not like some PEI families that have a thousand cousins in a 10 mile radius, said Olivier. “It’s just us, no cousins, aunts, or uncles on the island.”
Traveling is getting past what’s in plain sight, becoming alert to the secret strange out-of-the-way parade of the rest of the world. It’s going somewhere else that you find out that nearsightedness isn’t the great again agenda it’s cracked up to be.
“There’s one thing about traveling,” said Olivier. ”You don’t want to give people too much advice. Everybody’s got to make their own trip, their own experiences. You don’t want to go on somebody else’s trip.”
One traditional way of traveling is to make sure you see what you have gone to see. The other way is to see whatever it is you are seeing. The sightseers who circle around journey’s end often see the most because they’re always on the way. It’s not necessarily about stockpiling souvenirs, but about keeping watch, sea to shining sea.
“My parents continually traveled. My father has been all over the world. I remember laying around in Costa Rica when I was ten-years-old, saying to myself, I can’t wait until I turn 18 and can get that little book that says Canada Passport.”
After his parents separated Olivier’s mother moved to New Hampshire with the children. He went to five different schools in five years. “You don’t get to know people well, but you get to know yourself well,” he said. When they moved back to Prince Edward Island they moved back to Victoria. He started working at the Landmark Café no sooner than reaching thirteen.
“He’d get a bench, get up to the sink, and wash dishes,” said Eugene Sauve. “He wanted to do it.”
Like father, like son.
Eugene Sauve left home when he was 16, moving from Montreal to Vancouver “My first job was at a Greek restaurant, washing dishes. The owner was a macho man, always wore a brown jumpsuit and a Santa Claus belt, wife in a fur coat, dripping with jewelry.”
“Washing dishes should be a perquisite for life,” said Olivier. “If you were in a sweaty dish pit, everybody screaming and throwing greasy pans, that would suck. But, here, we have music playing, JR’s hair is blue this week, and everybody helps out.”
It isn’t possible for anyone to help everyone. At the Landmark Café everyone helps someone. The homegrown menu, meat pies, pasta, salad, down to the salad dressing, has long been recommended by ‘Where to Eat in Canada’.
“The restaurant business is awesome. It’s high-paced, fun, frustrating. It isn’t for everyone, not if you can’t multi-task, aren’t sociable, and don’t appreciate food. Food can be anything. If you’re going to make a cheeseburger, get some awesome meat, throw in some salt and pepper, and make an awesome cheeseburger.”
When he turned 19 Olivier Sauve flew overseas by himself for the first time.
“I took off for six months. Eugene met me in Bangkok, We went down to Vietnam and Cambodia together for a few weeks.” After they separated Eugene Sauve planned on going to Africa. But, a week later, Olivier was crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City when a man crossing in his direction called out.
“Ollie!” he said.
“Dad!” said Olivier.
“After that dad went to Africa and I spent the next five months running around Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.”
The next winter, back on Prince Edward Island, Olivier enrolled at UPEI. “I was in for a couple of weeks, but I said, no, I don’t want to do this.” He and a friend began planning a trip to the far end of South America. Itinerant, rambling, and backpacking, over the course of six months they traversed North and Central America.
While crossing the forest and swampland of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia on foot an army patrol stopped them and sent them both back to Panama. They boarded an old boat. “It took us 18 days to make 150 kilometers.” Back on dry land on foot again they were picked up by an army patrol again, who this time escorted them over a mountain range into Colombia, warning them about rebel FARC forces.
“We had no problem,” said Olivier. “We don’t know if we saw any FARC. We don’t think we did, but if we did, they were the people giving us crackers and coconuts while we walked.” They made it as far as Ecuador.
Four years later Olivier flew back to Ecuador, to the same spot where he had stopped four years earlier, and bussed and backpacked to Tierra de Fuego. “When you take off like that,” he said, “every single day is brand new. I used to run away when I was a kid, for fun, knowing I’d be coming back, just to get lost.”
It’s an unfailing good idea to see more than you can remember.
Setting foot outside your house, even going to the grocery, is always at the crossroads of promise and peril. Anything can happen. You might find something yummy. You might stub your toe on the stairs. Going halfway around the world, suspecting what might and often does happen, some people go right back home.
Other people don’t worry about the potholes in the road. They cut the string on the tin can telephone, kicking the can down the street.
“For me, it’s a mosh pit. I’m going to jump,” said Olivier.
“I’ve been close to being robbed, been in accidents, been in an earthquake. I was taking pictures in Morocco when an old man made a fuss, got all his friends involved, and it turned into a big ordeal The cops came, threw me into a no window unmarked van and took me to a no window concrete building.”
The police went through his camera. “They asked me my story ten times and finally just laughed it off. They let me go. I didn’t know where I was, so when I asked, they dropped me off at the beach. I’m good with orientation whenever I’m in a city on the water.”
When he started taking pictures he wasn’t a good photographer. “I’m still not the best photographer,” he said. What he is, camera-in-hand, is a good street photographer. Street photographers shoot unmediated encounters in public places. Olivier Sauve’s pictures are clean clear straightforward. He specializes in on-the-spot portraits.
“I get right up in there, so I can get the right shot, no holds barred, from prostitutes on a shitty side of town to someone’s face after they’ve just burnt the body of their husband and now want to jump in the fire with him.”
After photographing a festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, back on Prince Edward Island he had large-scale reproductions printed on canvas and installed a show at Victoria’s Lobster Barn. “It’s a big open room and they had all the wall space. It became a gallery. We sold some pictures.”
Many of his photographs have been assembled in a self-published book. “So many people I’ve known for years, they stop at the Landmark to eat, and ask me about my winter, where I went.” But, in the meantime, he has six or seven tables he is waiting, letting everyone know what the specials are, making sure the soup stays hot, mixing Mohito cocktails and tossing Caesar salads.
On top of that something might need to be suddenly washed, JR is doing something else, and the show at the Victoria Theatre across the street starts in an hour. “The book helps. Here’s where I did this, take a look through it.”
Flipping through his pictures of the Kumbh Mela, India’s festival of faith, where he mixed for a week with tens of millions of pilgrims, for whom a colossal temporary city of tents roads hospitals toilets police stations is constructed, diners soon find their drinks and seafood specials delivered and their questions answered.
One of Olivier’s favorite countries in the world is Spain. One of his favorite areas in Spain is northwestern Spain. His favorite aspect of northwestern Spain is the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage routes that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He has hiked the Caminos a half-dozen times over the course of a half-dozen years.
“It’s religious, although some people do it for exercise, to just prove they can do it, or because they’re at a crossroads. It’s a beautiful walk. I make sure to pack light, but I’m still packing smarter than my last time.”
Two years ago a teacher from PEI’s Holland College, where Olivier graduated in 2008, contacted him about the Camino de Santiago. “We’re going on a study tour to Spain. I’d like to pick your brain,” he said. In the end Olivier became the group’s guide translator chaperone. He booked the busses, the hotels, and planned the route. Four teachers and he led a group of thirty students for two weeks from Madrid to Barcelona to Pamplona, and finally on to the Camino.
“No one got into trouble and no one got sick,” he said.
Olivier Sauve has made himself into an expert on the trails, hostels, and eateries of Spain. “I know where to find a chunk of bread, fish, dessert, a bottle of wine, and where to get to sleep by 9 o’clock.” He speaks the language and his two cents are worth their weight in Euros.
He has since started making plans to lead other groups on the Camino, but groups on a smaller scale, four five six people. One of his game plans is corporate team-building, bird-dogging businesspeople on an adventure travel trek. Another is path-finding youth-at-risk. “Kids who are screwed up, getting expelled from school, whose parents are done,” he said. “I would take them for a month and bring them back different, better.”
No matter where he has gone global-wide he has come back to Victoria. “I travel all over the world, where no one knows me, but I live in a tight-knit community where everybody knows me. This is home, our own little bubble.”
Olivier Sauve isn’t somebody who sits at home, but home is where everybody feels most at home.
He bought a lot in town last year and plans on building his own house in the next couple of years. “I’m a Victoria villager, finally, after thirty years.” After being by-passed by the Tran-Canada Highway in the 1980s, and slowly but surely downsizing, the community is again growing. “All my friends live here, they’re all having kids, young families.” Although his plans also include starting a family, he admits he has an inherent underlying literal problem.
“I don’t have a girlfriend, not yet, not right now,” he said. “I’m looking, sending out surveys, and it’s going to happen.
“You never know what’s going to walk into your life.”
Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com.
“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”
Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.
There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”
“He means fluent,” said Connie.
“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”
South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.
“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”
“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.
Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.
“Her mother hosted dinner at the Charlottetown Hotel and our party afterwards was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin. “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”
Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.
“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.
Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.
Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.
“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”
The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.
“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”
Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”
“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.
“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.
Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”
“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.
“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.
“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.
Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.
“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.
When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.
In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. During his Christmas leave in 1959 Robin gave Connie a ring. They rarely saw each other the next nine months.
“We were in Lisbon when I got a letter from Connie that she and my mother had decided on October 1st for our marriage,” said Robin.
The executive order said to be ready.
“I went to the radio communications on board and sent a telegraph confirming my agreement.”
Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.
After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”
At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island
One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.
“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”
Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.
“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”
In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.
“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.
After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.
By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.
They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.
“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”
It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.
“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”
It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.
The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.
“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.
Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,
“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.
The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.
“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.
“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.
“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”
That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.
The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.
“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.
“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.
“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”
“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”
Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.
“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”
“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”
In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”
“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”
When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.
Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagged a short way up the north coast from the several Rustico’s, and have lunch. “We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie.
They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.
The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, eddies under the bridge, when it’s a living heritage, is like slipping into the ocean and being able to see how deep it is.
Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com.
When “Bittergirl: The Musical” came back to the cabaret-style Mack Theatre in downtown Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, it came back because it had played to laugh-out-loud crowds during its world premiere there in 2015, and everyone knew the home-grown Canadian merry-go-round about breaking up was worth seeing, or seeing again in 2017.
Based on a 1999 play lived died and written by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, one of them divorced, one dropped like a hot potato, and one in the whirlpool of being dumped, and their later-on best-selling book, “BITTERGIRL: Getting Over Getting Dumped”, the musical is the best of the play and the book and 60s doo-wop mixed with 70s mega-hits.
“When he danced he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.”
The show is a mash up of a live band song dance high emotion low comedy trenchant wisecracking and rip-roaring showcase performances. It’s about the one sure-fire way of hurting somebody’s feelings, which is to break up with them.
“Baby, baby, where did our love go? Ooh, don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?”
Hooking up and heartbreak are as girl group as it gets. Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was still fifty years in the making when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Motown were going strong. The Shirelles were the first to hit number one on the HOT 100 in 1961 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.
When the musical comedy wrapped up its second sold-out run at the end of August, and the last of more than 20,000 theatergoers had left the 200-seat Mack Theatre, the young woman putting away bottles of vodka and rinsing out cocktail glasses behind the bar on the far side of the stage was the one person who had seen the show more times than anyone else, save the cast, crew, and front of the house.
“I love the show,” said Natalia Agon, the Mack’s bar manager. “Sometimes on my nights off I go see it with my mom or my husband or my friends. It’s so fun and I’m so proud of it.” Since starting work at the theatre earlier in the summer she has seen “Bittergirl” close to 40 times.
The 25-year-old traced an improbable path to her first sighting of the show. She almost didn’t make it. A native of Bogota, Colombia, it took a death threat to shove her off Colombian soil and land her on the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. The threat to her family came from terrorists, in the mail, on embossed stationary, declaring them a military target.
“Bogota was good,” she said. “I grew up there. My dad worked hard, and my mom worked hard, to give us what we needed. Starting over from zero was definitely hard.”
Bogota is a 500-year-old city in the middle of Colombia, the capital city and largest city in the country. It sprawls across a high plateau in the Andes. More than 10 million people live in the metro area, the economic, political, and cultural center of northwestern South America. “Most Noble and Most Loyal City” is Bogota’s motto.
Natalia’s parents met in Panama City, Panama. “They were poor when they got together. They would buy clothes or cigarettes in Panama, where they didn’t have taxes, and bring it back to Colombia, and sell it,” she said. “They did every job on the planet.”
By the time she started school her parents had scrimped and saved and purchased and owned and operated a 1,000-acre beef and dairy farm four hours away from Bogota, while still living in the city. “We went there every weekend, my two brothers and me, whether you liked it or not.”
At the same time, “bittergirl” the stage play took off, playing from bliss to breakup and back to full houses in Toronto, traveling to London, England, and laughing its way to off-Broadway in NYC. It was the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and the Colonel’s special.
“I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.”
It was a long way from the little Toronto café where the three writers dreamed up the loving and hurting story, based on themselves and everyone they knew. “We’ve had some adventures together!” said Mary Francis Moore.
“Every night our audiences were waiting for us as we came offstage with their very own stories,” the co-authors have said.
‘I got dumped in the hospital ten minutes after giving birth…’
‘He left me for my little sister and now he sits across from me at Christmas dinner…’
‘My husband worked for CSIS and said ‘You’ll never be able to find me’ and I never have…’
“Swear to God. All true.” Truth is stranger than it used to be. The snag about some hook-ups is that they’re not worth the break-up.
“My parents had a big problem with FARC,” said Natalia Agon. “It was because of the farm, about paying the vaccine.” Besides the coca trade, in other words, cocaine, which sustained the leftist group during Latin America’s longest running war, extortion ran a close second in the financial affairs of the rebels. The money payments were known as vacuna, or the vaccine.
Scottish Border Reivers ran a racket called black mal five hundred years ago, the Sicilian Mafia has always understood the protection trade, and there is little confusion about what the Russian Mafia means when they say krysha up.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was formed in 1964, a peasant army that grew to number almost 20,000 militants controlling close to 40 percent of the country. The 50-year civil war, recently ended, displaced 7 million people from their homes and resulted in 220,000 deaths, among them 11,000 people killed by land mines.
“My dad paid the vaccine for a long time,” said Natalia. “But, once they saw they could use you for other purposes, whether storing drugs or storing guns, it was a yes or no answer, no matter whether you wanted to do it or not.”
Pedro and Maria Agon said no to cocaine and guns.
Soon afterwards, just before Christmas 2007, they got a letter in the mail. “It was on thick white paper, official looking, super fancy, with their FARC logo on it. We just left, our house, the farm, all my friends I had known all my life. One day my mom said, pack a bag, you’re not going to school on Monday.”
She packed pictures and letters from her friends and the blanket she was was swaddled in when she was brought home from the hospital when she was born. “You can’t do that, my mom said. You have to leave everything.”
They left almost everything.
“We got out of there fast.”
The Agon’s were able to transfer property to sisters brothers aunts uncles, as well as convert some assets to cash. They were uncertain about relocating anywhere else in South America. They considered the United States a safe haven, but Natalia’s mother nixed moving there.
“She just didn’t like it, even though she had traveled to the States many times. She never felt welcome. She always felt a racial discrimination, even though she was going there to spend money. So we looked at a map and there was Canada. There was no thought process behind it, we just went.”
“Bittergirl: The Musical” took the Charlottetown Festival by storm when it opened in 2015, a crowd-pleaser bringing the howls and selling out all summer. Bitterness never felt better, nor misery in the hands of singers and dancers belting it out and mansplaining how he’s lost his magic and you’ve got to go.
“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good, he’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should, but just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does, that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”
It went on to become a north of the border success story, having since been produced coast to coast, Edmonton, Manitoba, Vancouver.
Nine months after landing in Toronto, the Agon’s got their Permanent Resident cards. “It was a hard process,” said Natalia. “There was a lot of scrutiny, but it was never the you don’t deserve to be here kind of scrutiny.” The family rented an apartment and Natalia graduated from high school in 2010. She attended Centennial College, majoring in Food and Nutrition Management, and worked part-time in a nursing home.
In 2014 she and her husband-to-be, Miguel Cervantes, moved to Prince Edward Island. “I knew I needed a school that was going to give me a lot of interaction with professors and where there were internships to become a registered dietician.” She has an internship on tap at Humber River Hospital in Toronto when she graduates next year.
Natalia Agon enrolled at UPEI in Charlottetown. Her husband worked his way up to become the executive chef at Mavor’s, a contemporary eatery part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The menu ranges from the Moona Lisa burger, featuring homegrown PEI beef, to four-course dinners paired with Scottish whiskies.
Last year, looking for work, she applied at the Mack Theatre. She got the job. “I run the day-to-day operations and I’m the head bartender,” she said. She trains and schedules the other bartenders, keeps a firm hand on the inventory and cash register, and trims the sails on show days. Above all, all summer long she mixed Cowards, Mounties, and Magic Men.
“Those are the names of the three ex’s of the show, and they’re our three feature cocktails. The definite crowd favorite is the Mountie. I always tell everyone, I think you’re going to like it even more once the show starts.” At the break, however, the strains of ‘Be My Baby’ dying away, most order the drink they can relate to the most. Magic Men and Cowards give the vodka-heavy Mountie a run for his money among the crowd pressing at the bar, no matter that Mounties are renowned for saving damsels in distress.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.”
“Things have changed a lot in Colombia since we left,” said Natalia.
She has since returned several times for visits. Nevertheless, when her father went back to South America, the farm he bought was on the Ecuador border with Colombia. “He’s in love with the land. He can’t get enough of it.” One of her older brothers, a doctor, lives in Mexico and the other older brother lives in Spain. Her mother spends divergent parts of her year with her husband and far-flung children.
The Agon’s are a family of expatriates by necessity, not by choice. “My husband is from Guatemala, but he came to Canada when he was a one-year-old and never went back,” said Natalia. “His Spanish is broken. But I was born in Colombia, raised in Colombia, and most of my values are from being raised there. I loved it. Leaving was an emotional struggle.”
Although it’s true that loss is the same as change, and the world is always going to keep changing, surviving and coping with loss is difficult, especially when a chunk of your childhood goes missing. It leaves a hole in the world. It’s the price everyone pays for everything they’ve ever had, or will have.
“Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye, did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die, oh no not I, I will survive.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or your birthplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played for laughs on stage or it plays out in real life. There’s a thin line between humor and hurt.
“I never get tired of the show,” said Natalia. “The ex and the girls do a great job portraying everyone, our emotions, all we’ve been through. It’s happened to me, when you’re dumped for no reason, or it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve definitely heard that one before, and I’ve totally said it, too.”
Behind the bar she hears what everyone has to say about “Bittergirl”. When a case of nerves orders a cocktail she mixes up a Coward. “The moms, maybe when they’ve had one too many, remember ordering pizza, eating their feelings. It’s just heartbreak.”
One day can be sweet as can be and the next day bitter as all get out. “You don’t know if you should laugh or cry,” said Natalia. Everyone has their share of heartbreak. If you’re singing about it, you’ve lived it. Natalia Agon has lived it and sung along with songs about it, but isn’t recording a full album of it.
Whenever bitterness tries to get in on the act, she offers it a Magic Man. “That’s my favorite,” she said. The Magic Man is a south of the border blend of Kahlua, Pepsi, milk, and crème de cacoa.
Sometimes when husbands and boyfriends are at the bar at the Mack at intermission getting drinks for wives and girlfriends, but can’t remember what they want, she suggests they “go check with the boss.”
She’s not a bitter girl.
Selfie by Natalia Agon.
Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com.
“I’m going up the country, babe, do you wanna go…” Canned Heat
“We’re always around here,” said Denver McCabe, casting a glance over the chairs and tables on the deck on the sparkling dark water.
Carr’s Oyster Bar is on the New London Bay, in Stanley Bridge, on Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Canada province where Canada happened about 150 years ago. Opened in 1999, from the deck, kicking back with a pint on a summer day, you can see the wharf across the bay where oysters are landed.
They’re shucked when you order them, served with a fresh lemon slice, or you can order clams, mussels, quahogs. Last year the restaurant won the Restaurants Canada Shellfish Excellence Award. “I’m happy to showcase the best shellfish in the world,” said Phyllis Carr.
When she slides a sharp knife into an oyster and pries it apart at the hinge it’s “hoping that it’s the best one ever.”
“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said Jonathan Swift. Life is too short to not have oysters. But, they are best eaten with friends family anybody somebody else. Although oysters keep themselves to themselves, they’re a weird thing to eat by yourself.
Native North Americans harvested them for thousands of years. In the 19th century New York City was filled with oyster saloons. Today no oysters, fresh and briny, taste as good as those found on the north shore of PEI.
Denver McCabe and Brenden Carr are ten-year-old boys born and bred on Prince Edward Island. Until recently both lived in Stanley Bridge, a small town of fewer than 300 on the north central coast of the island on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “He swarms me when I come home from Edmonton,” said Denver. “I go to his house every day.”
They have spent all of their summers on the New London Bay, along the Stanley River, and making the scene daily on the deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar. ”We grew up together,” said Brenden. “He’s my best friend.”
You can’t make anybody be your best friend. Denver and Brenden have known each other since they were tykes. What do you do with your best friend when you’re both ten-years-old? A good time doing a whole lot of nothing, eyeing and gabbing about everything, cruising doing me, making fish faces, making mischief, making your summer jump, and jumping rocks.
“Most of the time we go on the rocks,” said Denver. “That’s how I get my energy up.”
The riverbank and along the shoreline are protected by piled rocks, riprap revetments.
“We go to my house and play on the trampoline, too,” said Brenden.
“I do flips,” said Denver. “I know how.”
“On the rocks we do hard core technical stuff. We jump rock to rock. He challenges me,” said Brenden.
“Sometimes I jump from one rock to the third one,” said Denver.
“So do I. I never fall down.”
“Me neither,” said Denver. “The other day I fell. Did I fall?”
“Unless you were faking me,” said Brenden.
Even though they are not yet preteens, they talk like old friends, which is the same as thinking out loud. Sometimes their thoughts are like toppings that can’t always be fathomed into a pizza.
“I fell once or twice, probably. It was because I jumped from one rock to a far, far one. I just got back up.”
Many people do all their playing when they’re children, all their working when they’re grown up, and all their retiring and regretting when they reach old age. When you play, no matter how old you are, you can be a kid as long as you want. Just watch out for the rocks.
“He jumps off the bridge,” said Brenden.
The Route 6 main street bridge crosses the Stanley River at the New London Bay. On one side of the bridge is Carr’s Oyster Bar and on the other side of the bridge is the Race Trac gas station and Sterling Women’s Institute community hall. Jumping off the bridge thirty feet into the bay is summertime chill in Stanley Bridge.
“We go to the bridge and tell them to jump, hurry up, don’t be scared,” said Denver. “I did it when I was eight. They’re teenagers, but they’re scared.”
“They never jump when we tell them,” said Brenden.
“I jump with my crush, Jess,” said Denver. “She’s a waitress here at Carr’s.”
“She’s my crush, too.”
“I got engaged to her,” said Denver.
“Me, too,” said Brenden.
“Whenever we tap our cheeks she has to come over and give us a kiss on the cheek.”
They tapped with their index fingers, the both of them. Jessica Gillis, twice their age and more than a foot taller than the boys, walked over to where they were warming seats at a table on the deck on the bay eating nachos and sipping from childproof Shirley Temples.
They looked up. “Oh, my God, now what?” said Jessica, looking down at them. It was like ‘The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’.
They tapped their cheeks again.
“No,” she said.
Even though both boys are in love with Jess, they don’t actually hang out with her. It’s not complicated. Most boys don’t like girls hanging around when they’re doing their own boy things.
“I never jump the bridge,” said Brenden. “I can’t swim.”
“I learned when I was four,” said Denver.
“I took lessons for a year,” said Brenden. “But, I don’t like people bossing me around.”
“It’s kind of weird because he lives right beside the water,” said Denver.
“I almost floated away,” said Brenden.
“It was a windy day and it blew his splash meter away,” said Denver. “He was trying to get it, but the wind blew him away, too.”
“I went to where it was just to my cheeks.”
“He needed my help, but I couldn’t swim fast because there were oyster traps everywhere.”
“My brother and dad were there, but then they went on their boat,” said Brenden.
“He stayed in the water and it became fine,” said Denver.
Brenden’s father David Carr is an oysterman. “He has his own boat. He catches eels, too. When he goes eel fishing he goes with his brother Stan.”
Eels are nocturnal, hiding during the day. Fishermen hunt them at night. Few fish put up the fight that a good-sized eel does. An eel held by the tail is not necessarily caught, yet. They can swim backwards as well as forwards.
“We went to the sand and I got a bad, bad sunburn,” said Brenden.
“Same with me, on the same day.”
“Yeah, but mine was worse.”
“That’s why you didn’t catch Jacob.”
“He’s sketchy,” said Brenden, making a face.
“He said my friends run away because of my ugly face. That pissed me off. I ran after him and pushed him. He ran to the park where there was a booth set up for Canada Day and got under it. I couldn’t bend down because my back was burnt from the sunburn. I would have given him a big one.”
After his sunburn got better Brenden had a tattoo of a barcode airbrushed across his chest during the Canada Day parade festivities concert fireworks. “It’s because I’m funny talented a good actor good singer good dancer and handsome and beautiful.”
Denver had a red maple leaf airbrush tattooed on his cheek. “I’m hot,” he said, looking out from under the brim of his bright orange Bass Pro Shop baseball cap.
“When I walk into a sauna I make it even hotter.”
“Dreams, Denver, dreams,” said Brenden.
Trying to tag along with the stream of consciousness of ten-year-olds can be like trying to play putt putt during an earthquake.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, who grew up on PEI and wrote “Anne of Green Gables” a hundred-or-so years ago, wrote that Stanley Bridge “used to seem quite a town to my childish eyes. It was the hub of the universe then – or of our solar system at the very least.”
“Brenden and I are cousins,” said Denver.
“My great-uncle, Granny Phyllis’s husband, is his grandfather,” said Brenden.
“Phyllis was my cousin before she married, so I’m related to Denver both ways.”
“My grandpa is a Carr and Granny Gallant was a Doiron before she changed to Gallant,” said Denver. “Everybody in Granny’s family was a Gallant. My grandfather was Tommy Gallant. He found the Marco Polo. He’s famous on the island. He’s famous in heaven now.”
“He’s my great-uncle,” said Brenden, “I took dancing from him.”
Given enough time and left to their own genealogical devices they would likely conjure everyone on the island a cousin in the 9th degree and discover a common ancestor in steerage on the St. Jehan, one of the first passenger ships sailing to the New World in the 1630s.
“We’re from here,” said Suzanne McCabe, Denver’s mother. “Cory, my husband, is from Rustico. We moved to Edmonton for the work. My grandmother and Brenden’s grandmother are sisters and my dad and his grandfather are brothers.”
The first to land on PEI were the French, who called it Isle St. Jean. They fished for cod and traded for furs. The first settlers were Acadians. After the Seven Years War it was re-named Prince Edward Island. Scots, English, and Irish emigrants sailed to the British colony and built their own close-knit communities. Doirin and Gallant are Acadian surnames. McCabe and Carr are English Irish Scottish surnames.
Some Acadians speak English with a strong French accent. even though, for one reason or another, they no longer speak French.
“When I wake up I go on my phone, track what time it is, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth,” said Denver.
“I don’t have a phone. Sometimes I have your phone in my pocket,” said Brenden.
“It’s dead,” said Denver.
“I was cranky this morning. My brother woke me up early. I usually get up at six, but there’s no school anymore,” said Brenden.
Denver and Brenden help out at Carr’s Oyster Bar peeling potatoes and washing windows.
“I do everything,” said Denver.
“I help my father get fish,” said Brenden.
“Me and Brenden used to go to the sand dunes and collect hermit crabs,” said Denver. “But, he hasn’t come to his job, the last time was a year ago.”
The most freedom most people ever have is when they misspend most of their free time as children.
“More than a year ago, actually.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Brenden.
“You’ve never come since you handed out menus and got no money.”
“I got paid five dollars and I got another five dollars when you won the 50/50.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Denver. “My aunt is religious and prayed to win the 50/50. When she did she gave me some of it and I gave some to him.”
“Do you remember when I peeled the carrots in the shed?” asked Brenden.
“Look at my muscles,” said Denver, flexing a bicep.
“You don’t have any.”
“I definitely feel something on my arm. What do you think this is?” said Denver, pointing.
“Is that like a pimple?” asked Brenden.
Denver McCabe is an aspiring hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, playing for the Mellwood Icebreakers. “I might go to Double A soon,” he said. “It depends on how good I am. My team wasn’t good. They wouldn’t pass the puck, so I was the one who had to pass the most.”
Brendan Carr has studied judo and plays ball hockey. “On my own time, not with a team,” he said. “I played soccer, too, once.” The kicking heading game is beyond the pale. If God had wanted boys to play soccer he wouldn’t have made them with arms.
Brenden is a step dancer, like soccer got done sans hands. Step dance is a dance style in which footwork is by far the most important part of the performance. At ceilidhs in community halls across Prince Edward Island it is accompanied by toe-tapping fiddle tunes.
“Tommy Gallant taught me,” he said.
“But, I mostly taught myself. I was in a class for a year and then I watched and followed Robbie, who’s my uncle. I dance at all of my Uncle Leon’s music shows at the hall. I don’t dance at every one of his concerts, just every one when I’m there. I’ve never been to one since I was four-years-old that I haven’t danced up on stage.”
“I never get called up on stage,” said Denver.
“That’s because you never ask,” said Brenden.
“I asked Leon once, he said yes, but he didn’t even call me up.”
When they’re not jumping rocks, step dancing, or trying to cadge kisses from waitresses, they spend some of the summer at summer camps. Denver goes to a Bible camp in Malpeque and Brenden goes to a rock-n-roll camp in Charlottetown.
“My first son slept in a surplus Canadian Army tent,” said Suzanne McCabe. “He never went back to camp ever again.”
“Denver doesn’t like rock,” said Brenden.
“We were all at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster, rock lobster, rock lobster…”
“I only like pop and country,” said Denver.
“Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack, it’s early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I’m a country boy…”
Brenden probably wouldn’t mind being the lead guitarist in a wildly successful rock-n-roll band. He has a guitar. But, he doesn’t play it. He sings. “I do like to sing,” he said. “I only get nervous when I have to sing in front of my friends.”
“KISS is the worst band ever,” said Denver.
“I listen to KISS a lot,” said Brenden.
When Canada Day finally got dark on July 1st and they craned their necks to watch fireworks exploding over the harbor in nearby North Rustico, Denver and Brenden had two more months of summer to spend in Stanley Bridge before going back to school.
It’s only when you’re still a kid and the long summer is still stretching out in front of you that doing practically nothing all day becomes respectable.
“Are you going to the barbeque?” Brenden asked the next day.
“I’ll probably go with you,” said Denver. “Where is it?”
“It’s right here. Stanley Bridge is a wonderful place. I can see trees and the church from our kitchen window,” said Brenden.
The hub of the universe, re-mixed.
“I like the water. I like walking in it. Everyone should come to Carr’s Oyster Bar, where we are, sometimes, when we’re around here, if you live close,” said Denver. “It’s beside the main road.”
Water is always trying to get back to where it came from.
“Have fun and love life,” said Brenden, with a chuck of the head over his sleeveless t-shirted shoulder, as he and Denver ran off jumping rocks keeping their energy up for the rest of the summer.
Photograph by April Carr.
Originally posted on http://www.stanleystreet.com.