(started 08.27.02 | 09.22pm EST) THE FLIGHT INTO HALIFAX always seems less like the beginning of a vacation than the start of a journey into my wife's past. I can't help but look at it this way, though the sensation is a little less acute this time around than on our first trip here, together, for Christmas four years ago, which was my introduction to the whole of K.'s maternal family. Back then, I felt like I was being judged and, to some uncertain degree, I was doing a bit of tentative judging myself, assessing the places and people I was seeing for the first time, comparing them with K.'s descriptions. It was a nervous trip, but I can't remember the last time I survived a Christmas without a knot in my stomach and a sense of relief at the featureless expanse of January ahead.
This trip is different - we're a married couple now, and I've come to feel a healthy measure of acceptance by K.'s family. Whatever anxiety I feel is little more than the low-grade gnaw that comes from being a guest, contemplating a week or so of sleeping in spare rooms, on couches both fold-out and stationary, at the mercy of other people's schedules; I've abandoned myself to whatever K. schedules, having made a three-item short list of things I want to do. They're simple enough: a trip to Lunenberg to shoot the wharves, a visit to the Maritime Museum in Halifax (closed for the holidays when we were there four years ago) and an hour or two at J.W. Doull's on Barrington, one of the best used bookstores I've ever seen. Beyond that, I'm just flotsam to be blown in whatever direction the trip takes.
I've packed light on this trip - only three cameras, two of which are of negligible weight: my Holga plastic camera and a new toy bought the day before we left, an Olympus Stylus Epic, the best pocket-sized snapshot camera I can afford right now, an experiment of sorts to see if I can live without an SLR. I've brought along my Rollei, though, as a sop to professionalism, all the while nursing a dream that, one day, I'll feel confident enough to leave it behind. In any case, I'm loaded for bear, camera-wise.
Jan and Greg are waiting for us at the gate, and we're on the road to the South Shore in a few minutes. It's hot - a muggy late-summer fug squatting over the whole of the province. We'll be glad to spend the next few days by the shore, apparently. K.'s folks home is a menagerie - two cats and two dogs, of which only one of the latter was alive for my previous visit. Joey, Dipstick and Rocky, the cats of K.'s youth, have all passed away, and Scooter would look old and tired even without Raisa the two-year old puppy running around. Diamond Lil is the senior cat these days, and Charlie is the latest arrival, a mad little kitten full of kitten energy who replaced Annie, the other kitten, three weeks ago, after Annie was hit by a car on the road right in front of their house. Lil is only just getting used to Charlie. I'm just grateful to have them around - a house without animals always feels as empty as one without books to me.
There are the chickens and turkeys out back, as well, and there used to be pigs and goats, back in the heyday of Jan and Greg's "back to the land" experiment. This is the country, and K. gets a sly chuckle out of my complete inability to feel at home in it. I'm a dyed-in-wool city kid, and while I can appreciate the country as a kind of monstrous archetype, I can never forget where I am, and the lack of magazine stores and coffee shops always feels like a nagging oversight, a kind of systemic design flaw. Trees, grass, lakes and streams, birds and bugs and beasts - yes, very nice, but don't you think it's all a bit monotonous? Surely there's room for a newspaper kiosk every few miles or so, don't you think? You can see my problem - too much uneven ground, not enough right angles. I'm not a natural here, in nature, and everyone can see it, I'm sure. It's a good thing they finished slaughtering the season's chickens the day before we got here - that kind of spectacle would overwhelm me, a tad too much of the primal for this lad.
Harbourville at low tide.
THE JOURNEY TO HARBOURVILLE takes about an hour, a neat cross-section of the province that takes us from the Atlantic to the Bay of Fundy via the sweltering Annapolis Valley, past orchards and up winding roads and switchbacks, through little towns bisected by the long arc of hard-packed dirt trails that used to be railway lines until a decade or so ago, when nearly every mile of track in the the Maritimes was ripped up, leaving fruit warehouse sidings and country stations suddenly marooned. They're the fainter scars from the trauma that nearly overwhelmed the region when the fisheries died, and whatever outrage might have been inspired by the killing of the railroads here was muted by the greater shock that came with the end of the great cod harvests.
When I came here for the first time, years before meeting K., it felt like the whole region was in shock, and sinking into a disconsolate depression. Lunenberg was a ghost town full of empty piers and boats up on pilings, the streets lined with empty storefronts. The sea felt like a great wet desert. As we pull into Harbourville, K. marvels at the changes to the town in the three years since she was last here. Tourism has arrived, and Germans and Americans have snapped up the cottages all around the town, doubling the asking price of even the most cramped little place. There's an art gallery and a gift shop, a restaurant where the general store once was and a seafood shop next to it, right by the breakwater. At low tide the pier inside the harbour shows its rotting timbers; there's a donation jar on the porch of the restaurant where they sell ice cream, and it looks like there's finally enough money to start repairs.
K.'s nana Joyce bought her little cottage years ago, just a couple of hundred feet from her own mother's cottage, at the end of a row modest little places, most of which have been here for decades. Nana Joyce's place might be modest, but the view is worth a fortune. It's been moved back from the cliff once already, but it still feels like the sea is pushing up close, worrying at the loose rock with every tide. When we arrive, the water is hidden by a thick fog that waxes and wanes for the next three days. I won't actually be able to see to the other shore until the last night we're here. It's beautiful, though. "It's God's country," says K. She's never as happy, or as relaxed, as she is in Harbourville.
The next few days pass in a literal haze. According to K., I slept for the better part of one day - nineteen out of twenty-four hours. I must have been tired. I end up finishing off two whole books, though, and taking a couple of lovely walks along the beach with K. and my cameras. I know that there was a lot of very competitive bridge-playing going on in the kitchen while I slept - K., her nana, her mom and her cousin Kari. Very competitive; people were driven to tears more than once. On the whole, I prefer my way of relaxing.
I'M STILL IN AWE OF THE OCEAN. I can't help it. I'd never even come close to it until a decade or so ago, the first time I went to Nova Scotia. K. thinks it's what makes the air at Harbourville special, that the sea "recharges" it. "It's why you're sleeping so well. Everyone does when they're here." Still, there's something wrong with the sea these days; when we walk along the beach at low tide, K. looks in the tidal pools and seems disappointed.
"There used to be so much more life in here when I was little," she says. "There were starfish and mussels and hermit crabs. Now there are just periwinkles." She's right. There are periwinkles everywhere, covering the rocks and the slick flats of undulating, sea-worn lava stone. I can't help but wonder what might have made this happen.
Four years ago, K.'s cousin Ian was fishing full-time. Today he does construction work, and has no takers for the boats he's put up for sale. The fisheries are still settling into the bottom of a slow subsidence; tourism and related industries - building houses for the summer people and retirees who've come "from away", or returnees who made their money in "Upper Canada", for example - is filling the vacuum that fishing has left, but it's an anxious, faintly melancholy time nevertheless. Something important has died, and the grief is still fresh.
K.'s nana, a children's book writer, has a friend who lives year-round on Sable Island, a shifting sandbar off the coast that's famous for two things: the herds of wild ponies that have thrived on the island for centuries, and the "graveyard of the Atlantic" off its shores, where countless ships have foundered in the notorious North Atlantic storms. Everyone who arrives at the cottage this summer gets a pitch from nana Joyce, on behalf of her friend, for a small donation to help set up a fund her friend is setting up. The government is abandoning its installations on the island, which will leave her friend stranded out there, with no way to get supplies. She wants to keep research alive on the island, to study the unique ecosystem, and ocean phenomenon that can only be observed from a place like Sable Island. Nana Joyce is doing her bit to help.
K.'s cousin Ian arrives with his wife, Rachelle, and baby daughter Karlee. He's not receptive to nana's pitch.
"It sounds like a Greenpeacer thing to me," he says. Fishermen out here tend not to be sympathetic to environmentalists, despite what's happened to the fisheries and their livelihoods. Ian, uniquely, has a degree in environtmental technology, and understands just what overfishing and climate change can do in detail, but even he has little time for what he regards as the extreme, interfering, know-nothing, condescending ways of environmentalists. It's a paradox that you have to get near to understand, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to the fishermen.
"There are seals and birds on the island, aren't there?" Ian is warming up to the argument. "I'll tell you what, nana - if your friend clubs a seal to death and cooks it up, I'll give her some money. But only if she clubs the seal herself." Nana's friend is a vegetarian, she explains, shaking her head, and would probably be horrified by the idea. "Well, then she doesn't get a penny," Ian says, and laughs.
My big old paw and Karlee's very new, very little one.
THERE HAVE BEEN A LOT OF BABIES in our lives lately. K. can't keep her eyes off Karlee, and nana Joyce is obviously overjoyed with her first great-grandchild. She's one of the great highlights of our trip here for K., along with Adelaide, her best friend Krista's new baby, just a few weeks younger than Karlee. Babies are a looming presence in our lives these days, whether they're real ones, like the ones our friends and family are having, or the theoretical ones we talk about having. I'm frankly grateful for the Karlees and Adelaides I meet - they're getting me used to the idea of being a father, but I still work at a distance from them; I'm afraid to pick up a baby, still. They're tougher than I think, but more fragile than I can imagine. So I smile, and make faces, and put out a finger for them to grab. I marvel at the tiny hands and feet, and the unbelievably clean, sweet smell that seems to pour from the top of their heads. I marvel at the responsibility they bring into the lives of people I've known for years, and the constantly multiplying possibilities their nascent lives suggest. For the moment, they're a fascinating abstraction in the form of a wiggling, drooling little body. That, I know, will change sooner than I think.
THIS IS PENNY. She's a West African Pygmy Goat. Since K.'s cousin Kari and her boyfriend are allergic to cats and dogs, they got a housegoat. I've been fascinated by Penny since I heard about her. I've talked about meeting "the goat" since we began planning this trip. "I think you're a bit too fascinated by the goat," my wife says to me, many times. Penny shows up unexpectedly with Kari and Chris one evening, as the sun is going down by the bottom of the bay. She clops around the deck, ravenously chews the grass by the cottage, and licks everyone with a rapid, soft tongue. Penny is terribly cute.
"Honey, we're not getting a goat." My wife is a very practical woman.
The Berwick Masonic lodge.
I'M NOT A SMALL TOWN PERSON, but I can appreciate the neatness, the stark elegance that small towns can achieve without effort, and which cities can almost never hope to see. I'm lucky to be a photographer - it gives me an excuse to stare at everything around me like I'm shopping. The abandoned railway depots and little masonic halls in nearly every town fascinate me, and I begin a little project of shooting every one I come across. I abandon myself to whatever K. and her mom decide to do, and so we end up three different Frenchy's - a used clothing chain that's an institution all over the province, and where K. has been putting together her wardrobe since her teenage punk rock wannabe days.
I always have a problem with bulk used clothing stores. I can't help it, but whenever I plunge my hand into the drifts of old shirts, sweaters and pants, a voice in my head says "dead people's clothes", and some subtle feeling of revulsion kicks in. K. and her mom are old pros, however, and K. comes away with, among other things, a blue golf skirt with strawberries embroidered on the pocket, and a wrap skirt in a cheerful print patterned with green and pink mice. "It's my new look - late 60s, early 70s preppy," she explains. "Pink and green are classic Lily Pulitzer 'go to hell' colours." I decide that I need a new look, too, and settle on "demobbed airman", a sort of Dana Andrews in The Best Years of our Lives kind of thing. There are, alas, no vintage bomber jackets or olive drab shirts with epaulets at Frenchy's.
It's a good trip for K. and I. Back home, our schedules keep us apart most of the time, and time together is precious. We never get tired of each other during our trip. Just the opposite - we're like a team, in a nice, cozy orbit, grateful for the excuse to wander away for an hour or two. I adore my wife. She's been the making of me, I have no doubt about that. I'm a much better person for knowing her, and you'd have to know just how awful I've been to appreciate the weight, the real, pitiful truth of that statement.
THIS IS FUNDY. Nana had watched a little gray cat wander around in the long grass outside her cottage all summer, and one morning he sits on the lawn outside the sunroom and stares at us, meowing faintly. Jan sends me out into the still-dewey morning with a handful of roast beef, and within twenty minutes I'm sitting on the stairs to the cottage with the little cat in my lap, purring furiously. He's a skinny thing, covered in lice and scars but half-mad with affection. He spends most of the morning on the deck with his empty plate and a glass of water, staring in at the marathon bridge game. He wanders off, but Jan drives off into the next town to pick up a cat carrier from the vet. Late in the afternoon he's back, and I coax him inside with a plate of chicken and lock the door. He claws at it furiously for an hour or so, then settles in for the night mewling softly.
I don't know at what point we named him Fundy, but that was his name by the time he was in the carrier, and it was what we called him when we took him to the Berwick vet. He was in rough shape. His mouth was bleeding and left his fur stained with dried blood as he cleaned himself after what was, I suppose, the best meal he'd had in ages. He was cockeyed and snaggle-toothed, with a head tilt, partial facial paralysis, no teeth, and a fresh burn on the roof of his mouth from biting electrical cable. The vet warned us that if he had either feline leukemia or FIV - of which there was apparently an epidemic in Harbourville - he'd be euthanized. We drove back across the peninsula to Clearland waiting for the call. I felt terrible, a meddling soft touch setting out to save a cat only to give him a likely death sentence, but everyone said that it would be better than dying in the wild, in the cold winter by the shore.
Miraculously, Fundy was fine, so Jan said that she'd pay to have him fixed, flea-bathed and deloused. She'd pay for his food and vet bills if someone, anyone, would give him a home, sure that Greg wouldn't welcome another cat in the house. But the shelters and foster homes were all full and no one wanted a cat, so Fundy arrived at Clearland on the morning we packed to leave for Halifax. He's still eating like a horse, and spends most of his day following Jan around the house. That rarest of things: A happy ending.
Jan, K. and Adelaide.
KRISTA AND JEFF ARRIVE WITH ADELAIDE while Fundy gets locked in an upstairs room, away from the other cats and dogs. It's the first time K.'s seen Adelaide, and she can't keep her hands off her. It's the first time we meet Jeff, as well, since most of Krista's life over the last few years was spent in New York, San Francisco, London, New Orleans - where she met Jeff - and South America, where Adelaide was conceived. Krista is like a lot of things K. values - somewhere else, but always in contact. It's a very different life from my own, where everything and everyone I know is in Toronto, usually within walking distance. She and Krista are almost giddy around each other, caught up in the thrill of being married, having a child, of having made it, somehow, past the insecurities of girlhood and youth.
The two Ks in Adelaide's room.
Krista, like K., has always been drawn to a kind of fantasy of mid-century womanhood, a New Frontier fabulousness of jazz, clear skies, neat homes and big skirts, and for a few hours after they arrive at Clearland, it almost feels like we've entered that world through an unguarded back door. The sky is bright and blue as we pile our luggage into the trunk of their car, the girls squeezing into the back with Adelaide, Jeff and I in the front. The men talk politics, the women catch up with each other, play with the baby, and monitor the men. It should feel like an awful cliche - something we should have escaped with gratitude - but we're having a great time.
We have lunch in a little place in Mahone Bay, and rush up the highway back to Halifax in time for Jeff to start his shift at the restaurant. Krista and Adelaide have a nap, and K. and I head out to buy groceries. Later, at J.W. Doull's, I buy a collection of Irwin Shaw short stories as a kind of tribute to the little historical/social/personal time warp we passed through that day.
HALIFAX DOES FUNNY THINGS to K., and the fact that we always spend our last night in the maritimes here acts as a kind of spur, a final push that makes her grateful to leave. I've had it explained to me more than once that it's a lousy town for young people; an incubator of small, incestuous, scenes or, rather, a continuous scene that just renews itself every year with new arrivals. Everyone sleeps with everyone and no one gets anything done. After dreaming of coming here in some small town down the coast, the next step is to dream of leaving, but too many of the ones who do come back, fed back into the scene, grateful for the familiarity of it all, ashamed to be repeating old mistakes.
Or at least that's how it's been explained to me.
This time around, K. doesn't want to see anyone she knows but Krista, and when the five of us - Adelaide strapped to Jeff's chest - go for a walk through the Public Gardens to kill time before our plane, I can only see a pretty, well-kept little city, whose considerable history has been left sitting around like absentminded clutter. K.'s doing her best to keep her wary snarl in check, but I know she'll be glad to leave, much as she'll miss her best friend and her new baby, her nana, Jan and Greg, the Barkhouse cousins and the little cottage on the bay.
WE FLY BACK to three irritated cats and the reeking pee stain on the landing they've left to indicate their displeasure. I've somehow lost my plastic camera between here and the security desk at Halifax airport. There's no food in the house and I go back to work tomorrow. I couldn't feel happier. (finished 02:22am | 09.06.02)
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