To get a sense of my father’s childhood, imagine The Shipping News meets Little House on
William David Courtney was born and raised on Woody Island, Newfoundland – a remote, wild island off the coast of another remote, wild island in the Canadian North Atlantic. The area was settled in the early 19th century by English and Irish fishermen drawn to the then-plentiful cod, herring and lobster in surrounding Placentia Bay.
Most communities in the province had running water, paved roads, electricity and – gasp! – store-bought bread but his family was isolated, relying on fishing, hunting, growing and preserving their own food for survival. Nanny sewed or knitted nearly every item of clothing, right down to their woollen briefs (with yarn that she handspun from her own sheep no less). Lobster was so abundant that it was considered a “poor kid’s” lunch, while the “rich” dined on canned ham or the occasional imported orange.
In the absence of television, they watched the regular arrival of whales, moose (which often ended up in stew), bald eagles and the massive icebergs that float down the coast each spring after breaking away from the warming Arctic. The landscape itself was something to behold; Newfoundland is a craggy rock of an island with a fjord-carved coastline covered in coniferous trees and bountiful wild berries. The capital, St John’s, was a rugged harbour city with vast narrows that welcomed ships after being settled as a seasonal fishing camp in the 16th century. Today, the ships still come but the city’s winding streets are now filled with shops, gourmet sea-to-table restaurants, lively pubs and rows of colourful “jellybean” houses.
If weather reports are to be relied upon (and here they usually aren’t), the only sure thing is the snow that comes in winter. For the rest of the year, Mother Nature throws out whatever she chooses: rain, hail, wind, fog... even the occasional ray of sunlight.
I wasn’t born in Newfoundland but, more than anywhere else in the world, it truly feels like home. Every summer during my childhood, I would visit Woody Island, where my father’s family has a small cabin built out of lumber salvaged from the abandoned United church. Life on Woody Island is the same now as it was then: no modern conveniences but lots of rocky tidal beaches, moose sightings, cod-fishing for our supper and berry-picking for our dessert.
We’d also travel to other towns and areas, visiting family and friends and enjoying the bounty. We’d drive out to Cape Spear, North America’s easternmost point, to watch majestic humpback whales jump and splash in an ocean with icebergs as the backdrop. At Long Beach at Trinity Bay, we’d see thousands upon thousands of whirling silvery capelin converge in a thunderous mass for an annual breeding that literally shook the shore; my grandfather, Poppy, would wade out in his “waist-highs” with a big white bucket, ready to scoop up the fish for a feed.
But my favourite time to visit Newfoundland was
– and still is – winter, when you can trade your hiking shoes for snowshoes, cross-country skis or even a snowmobile; when the painted wooden houses peek out from the snow like rainbow sprinkles on an ice-cream sundae; when sitting down with a hot cup of tea and a warm, freshly made touton (fried bread dough) dripping with molasses makes you feel like you’re being hugged from the inside. Winter is also when the uniquely hospitable and lively tradition of “mummering” takes place. During the Mummers Festival (mummersfestival.ca), people disguise themselves then go from door to door, where, completely unrecognisable, they are mandatorily invited in for a full-on kitchen party with an unlimited supply of food, drink and song. The festival kicks off in St John’s at the end of November and continues until mid-December, featuring events and cultural workshops that culminate in a big parade.
It’s difficult to leave a place where you feel so comfortable, relaxed and welcome. It was certainly very hard for me – I cried every time I left Newfoundland. My dad will never let me forget one particular drive to the airport when I sang Somewhere Out There (as originally performed by Fievel the mouse in the 1986 animated classic, An American Tail) through deep sobs, my palm pressed against the fogged-up window. It was a two-hour trip. The only thing that would comfort me was the constant reminder of when we’d be returning. “Don’t worry, sweetie, we’re coming back in July!”
When I moved to Australia, I never knew when I would be back. Busy with work and stretched for time, my husband and I opted for quieter, low-key Christmas festivities closer to home in Sydney. And then came the call. My dad was on a boat, sailing up to Woody Island, when he heard his first grandchild cry from a hospital room 17,000 kilometres away. Dad anchored that night at Marshall’s Point and we named our new son Marshall.
We planned Marshall’s first winter visit to Newfoundland when he was just old enough – two years – to take
it all in. And take it in he did. That first morning, he ran out on his great-grandfather’s deck to discover a light dusting of snow. He literally danced with glee as he noticed his feet creating a trail of prints that followed him. Before this trip, he’d never heard the word “snowmobile” but it instantly became his favourite form of transport after hours of whizzing and bouncing through the cold air, bundled up in
a one-piece suit and clinging to his great-uncle’s back.
He had his first taste of homemade spiced dark Christmas cake. He hated it and spat out all the dried fruit onto his plate (do any kids like Christmas cake?). And he explored St John’s. We drove up to Signal Hill, to catch an aerial view of the city lit up and shimmering white, then walked along the harbourfront, pointing out the huge ships and reading where they came from. At a local café, Rocket Bakery & Fresh Food (rocketfood.ca), we had chocolate-covered nut clusters (he didn’t spit those out) while being serenaded by a fiddler at the next table.
One evening, Marshall sat on my lap and put his little hands on top of mine while we knitted under the light of Nanny’s old lamp, using her needles. He grew weary of the process but was overjoyed when a mini scarf emerged from a jumbled ball of string.
And he really fell in love with Poppy, who has only left Newfoundland a handful of times. While my dad left in his 20s in search of work in Toronto, Poppy spent his life working as a logger then a carpenter building houses across the island. He’ll tell you he has built hundreds and, by all accounts, he isn’t exaggerating.
Poppy’s hands are incredibly strong; Marshall’s fist next to his is like a pebble in the shadow of a boulder. And Poppy is quiet; he speaks in gestures. Before Marshall could ever get cold, Poppy would have an extra layer ready to put on him. Before he could hint at being tired, Poppy would have already scooped him up into his arms. One morning, we woke to find Poppy making us jars of bakeapple jam with frozen berries he’d picked that summer because he overheard me say I couldn’t find any in the shop.
Poppy is now 88. He lives on his own in a bay community on a small peninsula that feels like a dream bubble compared with my city life. He has ocean views from his kitchen window at the back and his living room window at the front. He grows his own vegetables and still gets out with his bucket for the capelin.
Marshall cried when we had to say goodbye to Poppy. But Poppy never cries – he knows we’ll be back.