Category Archives: Red Island

Six Oysters Ahoy

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“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

Somebody’s got to have a steady hand on the ladle that stirs the soup.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Tyne Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls,” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered, as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

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Soul Music

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“I’ve always been obsessed by weddings,” said Marsha Weeks. “I used to buy wedding magazines when I was 7-years-old and dream about planning a wedding.”

Most kids don’t grow up to be the firemen and rock stars, much less heroes and explorers, they dreamt about becoming. It’s less than 1 out of 30. It’s a long shot when it comes to becoming a hero, or even a wedding planner. The rest of children, because of ups and downs, twists and turns, turn out becoming and doing something else, mechanics, working in stores, teachers, and doctors.

Marsha Weeks grew up in Fredericton, a small rural community in western Queens County on Prince Edward Island. The province is Canada’s smallest, made up of only three counties, as well as the most rural. It is the only province without a metropolis. Most islanders live in country and small town areas.

After graduating from high school she moved west, almost three thousand miles west, enrolling at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She stayed for ten years. “I did hospitality management, managed restaurants,” she said. When she moved back to PEI she worked in hotels in Charlottetown, the capital, then went into sales and marketing at the Stanley Bridge Resort, not far from where she grew up.

“I now work for the Children’s Wish Foundation,” she said. She is a wish coordinator. “We grant wishes to children from the ages of 3 to 17 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.” Founded in 1983, the charitable organization has chapters in every province and territory of Canada. It has granted more than 25,000 wishes. The most popular ones include travel and meeting celebrities.

Super heroes are splashed across the pages of comic books and IMAX screens, battling super villains and saving the world. Real heroes are usually real people helping another real person. She helps kids hitch their wagons to a shooting star.

She also helps grown-ups get hitched to their sweethearts. Since returning to Prince Edward Island, she has become a licensed marriage commissioner and officiant. Dreaming about weddings and watching re-runs of “Say Yes to the Dress” has finally paid off.

“The provincial government started licensing it in 2006, because there was a demand for same-sex marriages,” said Marsha. “There was the church, too, which doesn’t allow marriages outside of the church. A priest wouldn’t be allowed to marry somebody on the beach.”

When 90 people flew to the island last summer for the wedding of Matthew MacDonald, a PEI native, and Katie Shaver, they landed at a wedding officiated by Marsha Weeks staged on a red cliff overlooking the Northumberland Straight.

“It was important to us to showcase the island and have a real east coast feel,” said Katie. “We were blessed with perfect weather, a quintessential late summer PEI day!”

Although you have to take the birds and bees into consideration, as well as inclement weather and the buffet table surviving the wind, nothing beats getting married outdoors. Unless you mistake the lay of the land and your car gets marooned. “Someone from Ontario coming to a wedding here decided to drive over the dunes on to Cavendish Beach,” said Marsha. “They got stuck in the sand and had to be towed out.”

In any event, the flowers are already there – pink and purple lupins line the fields, roads, and ditches in June and July – and your photos will look great.

Almost 900 marriage certificates were issued in the province in 2018, according to PEI Vital Statistics, nearly 400 of them going to couples with a relationship to the island, but not necessarily living there. The Marriage Act was simplified in 2016, allowing people off-island to marry with passports, doing away with the need for birth certificates. There are almost one hundred marriage commissioners licensed to conduct a legal marriage ceremony.

Marsha Weeks is one of the busiest of them. On a summer day last year she officiated five weddings on a Saturday. She didn’t wait for all the traffic lights in all directions to go green before getting going.

“I started at Cavendish, a destination wedding, went to Fox Meadows Golf Course, a farmer’s field in Brookfield, to the woods at Clinton Hills, and ended up on a back road on the Trout River, at a private residence.”

For once, she hired somebody to drive her. “I didn’t want to risk being late, and I wanted to be able to give them as much attention as I could,’ she said. “I didn’t want to just jump out in time for their ‘I do’s’”

It isn’t only traditional wedding season bells, either.

“I recently officiated a large wedding in western PEI,” she said. “The bride and groom chose to incorporate their children with a sand ceremony to symbolize the blending of their two families into one, and presented the children with necklaces as their own special gifts. It was a reflection on how important one big happy family meant to the couple.

“That same day I officiated a small intimate wedding in Charlottetown. The bride and groom couldn’t keep their eyes off of each other for even a second, and as they exchanged their vows, their love for each other radiated. It was honestly beautiful.”

Most people, as recently as ten years ago, used to get married in a church. Nowadays most people get married in a civil ceremony. “I think it’s going to continue that way,” said fellow commissioner Marlo Dodge. “You can get married wherever you want, whenever you want. You can tailor the ceremony to the way you want.”

As long as you include the legal parts, you can write your own ceremony.

Not many people, however, write their own music. There are scores of wedding ceremony songs, from the traditional to the modern. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles is still popular, as are Josh Groban’s “The Prayer” and “Fairytale” by Enya. “The Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn has stayed a Top 10 on the soul music charts since it was first played in 1858 as a recessional for a royal wedding.

Marsha started making soul music on her own when she moved back to Prince Edward Island.

She had gotten the hang of the pump organ as a tot sitting at her grandmother’s side. “One of the fondest memories I have growing up is of her playing hymns. She loved playing for herself. I’m like that. I get something out of it on the inside.” She started taking fiddle lessons six years ago from Gary Chipman.

“Someone recommended him,” she said.

She couldn’t have tied the bowstring knot with anybody better. Gary Chipman learned to play the fiddle when he was 5-years-old. His father, a well-known Charlottetown-area fiddler, taught him his first tunes. By the 1960s he was often featured at local dance halls. He toured with Stompin’ Tom Connors and is well known for his down east Don Messer style of fiddling.

“The Cape Breton style is rhythmic, with Scottish cuts,” said Marsha. ”The down east style is melodic, it flows, it’s a lot faster.”

If Don Messer played with little ornamentation and great assurance, Gary Chipman plays with expressiveness and great assurance.

“I was taking lessons from him, but I had not heard him play,” said Marsha. She heard him one afternoon at Remembrance Day. “I couldn’t see the stage, but I could hear a person playing. That is amazing, I thought. Who is playing that fiddle?”

It was her music teacher. She had only ever heard him play scales. She didn’t know he had played on the folk musical TV variety show “Don Messer’s Jubilee” when he was still a lad. “My chest swelled so much I thought it would burst, it was so exciting,” said Gary. The half-hour show at the time was second in viewership only to “Hockey Night in Canada.”

“These are the good old days, today,” said Gary. “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

“Musicians don’t retire,” said Louis Armstrong. “They only stop when there’s no more music in them.”

“The Don Messer show was near and dear to a lot of people in Atlantic Canada,” said Marsha. ”When they cancelled it, there was a huge protest. Not riots, but a huge uproar.”

Since brainstorming is the marriage of ideas, Marsha put on her thinking cap. She went to the beach on the national seashore. She went for a walk by herself. She went home and took a hot shower. It’s where some people do their best thinking. Warm water helps increase dopamine flow to the brain. She let her thoughts take center stage.

“I’ve always had an element of promotions and event planning in my career. His natural ability to play music, my entrepreneurial spirit, it was a kind of natural fusion, and I decided I wanted to organize a show.”

They put together a performance, and then did another, and then ”it kind of blossomed after that.” They spent two seasons doing shows at Avonlea Village and two seasons after that at Stanley Bridge. In between they took a Don Messer show on the road.

Avonlea Village is in Cavendish, on the north-central coast, the small town Lucy Maud Montgomery called Avonlea in “Anne of Green Gables.” It is a re-creation of the 19thcentury town, merging purpose-built with heritage buildings. The Women’s Institute in Stanley Bridge is 4 miles up the main drag on Route 6. There are ceilidhs at the community hall six days a week in the summer.

“The Stanley Bridge hall has such a soul,” said Marsha.

Two years ago Gary Chipman spent summer nights there playing with Keelin Wedge, a hairpin turns wizard on the fiddle, and Kevin Chaisson. Last year he played Mondays with the Chaisson Family Trio and Wednesdays with the Arsenault Trio. Jordan Chowden, a world-class step-dancer, made the stage boards go percussive. The Chaisson’s from Bear River have deep roots in PEI’s music scene They are part of the spearhead keeping traditional fiddling alive and well on the island.

Marsha hosted the shows, joining in when the opportunity arose, although keeping up with the Arsenault’s was no mean feat.

“Their liveliness is amazing,” she said. “If we were playing ‘St Anne’s Reel,’ they definitely add more notes to it. They put their own spin on everything. It’s their Acadian style and it’s fast.”

Before the shows Marsha does all of the social media, organizes the schedule, takes notes during rehearsals, and types up the play list in capital letters. She makes sure the doors of the hall are open, the lights are on, and the soundboard is right on.  “I’m always so proud to hand them their play list, although by the end of the night they might have done a few songs on the page,” she said. “It’s just the way it is. Most of the time it works.”

During the shows Marsha is the emcee and stage manager. “Everybody likes the sound of their instruments through the monitors a certain way. They’ve got to have water. Gary has to have his guitar on his right side, or else he gets all tangled up.”

She is also the timekeeper. “It seems like I’m the boss of it, but that’s only because they never think to look at the clock. They would keep going all night. Gary is the biggest offender. I don’t necessarily want the music to stop, either, but I’m the one who knows the show has to end at 9:30.”

Marsha’s own fiddle has become an extension of herself. “I understand now what I was missing,” she said. “It’s a part of me, a part of who I am. It’s a part of what makes myself me. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to feel it.”

It’s her own soul music.

“I don’t think of it as a genre. It’s more of a feeling,” explained Louis Kevin Celestin, a Montreal DJ and partner in the hip hop duo the Celestics, explaining soul music.

“Don Messer was my idol when I was a kid,” said Gary. “I thought his band was the best type in the world.  I had the dream of doing my own tribute show.”

The dream came true in 2015 when he did a tribute show at Winsloe United Church, on the road between Oyster Bed Bridge and Charlottetown. Gary’s daughter was in the band and the Charlotte Twirlers, a square dance group, hoofed it up.

Two years later Marsha and Gary took “A PEI Salute to the Music of Don Messer and His Islanders” farther down the road. They took the Messer-style toe-tapping jigs and reels to National Fiddling Day in Charlottetown and the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. They took the show to Harvey, New Brunswick, Don Messer’s hometown.

“It’s of real sentimental importance to me, having tried to emulate the sounds of Don Messer for my entire fiddling career,” said Gary.

“The older the fiddle, the sweeter the sound,” is what they say.

In September 2017 they took the show to Walter’s Dinner Theatre in Bright, Ontario. “I don’t even know where Bright is, but we’ll find it,” said Gary. When they found it they sold out all the nine shows they did during their week’s run at the watering hole and show hall.

“Gary plays old tunes in new ways,” said Marsha. “He’s the real deal. He puts his own twist on things.”

Sometimes Marsha puts her own twist on weddings. Sometimes stepping up to the altar and step dancing happen all on the same day. Sometimes somebody’s first dance is in the center aisle at the Stanley Bridge community hall, to the soul music of three or four island fiddlers serenading you.

“There were the two moms, the couple, their son, and me,” said Marsha. “It was an intimate wedding.”

The couple from Alberta had come especially to PEI the middle of last summer to get married. “I try to personalize it. I want them to have an amazing experience when they’re making their forever promises to each other.” There’s a forever kind of happiness in making a commitment. The first event many couples plan together is their wedding. There’s nothing unfun about it, either.

“Marsha brought a genuine joyful vibe that is priceless. We felt she was truly happy for us. We are so glad we chose her to officiate our ceremony. That joy is something one can’t pay for.“

Even though the climate is more mild than it should be thanks to the warm water out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, summer is short and winter is long on Prince Edward Island. It starts to snow in November and lasts until April. Harbors can be frozen solid into May.

“I’m a bit of an old soul,” she said. “I work full-time, but in the winter I slow down, recharge. I write, do projects, and plan for the spring. I practice my fiddle. I practice every day.”

Winter is when wishes get organized and saved up for the heyday of springtime.

“If I could just do weddings and fiddles all the time, it would be my perfect life,” said Marsha Weeks, springing a smile.

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Rachel Gets a Ring

Rachel and Doug

Although it may be there are either no coincidences or everything is a coincidence, it is certainly the case that everyone in some small or large way is shaped by happenstance. One thing doesn’t work out while the other one does.

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous” is how Albert Einstein put it.

“I was out with a group of friends,” said Doug McKinney. “Another friend that I played basketball with back in the day texted me he was at Baba’s Lounge. Although I never went there, I went that one time, and connected with Rachel.”

Baba is a word that comes from Persian. It is a Middle Eastern expression of fondness, like darling. It’s like “My Darling Clementine” in a pahlavi instead of a cowboy hat.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question, darlin’?”

“Where I come from, that’s a term of endearment, partner.”

“We’re on the same page, then.”

“No, we connected at the game,” said Rachel.

Doug McKinney was a power forward for the Island Storm of the Canadian National Basketball League for four years, once on the All-Star team, and to this day holds the playoff record for most points scored in the fewest minutes, when he couldn’t miss in the seventh game of the 2014 NBL Finals.

“I didn’t see you at the game,” said Doug.

“I thought you were just skipping over me, but I saw you, and I wrote you.”

“OK, technically we can start there.”

“I wrote him, I haven’t seen you in years, I hope you’re OK.”

“When I saw her at Baba’s she gave me a big hug, we hung out for a little bit, and when I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about her afterwards.”

They had first met more than ten years earlier, when Doug was playing for the University of Prince Edward Panthers, and Rachel was dating one of his teammates, even though Doug was Best Male Athlete of the Year at the school in 2007.

“I was always a big fan of Doug’s, a great guy, sweet,” said Rachel.

In the years since Doug had finished his college career, played internationally, and was in his third season with the Island Storm. Rachel had gone to school in Toronto, lived in Hawaii, and moved back to Prince Edward Island. In the meantime, she traveled, to the USA, the Caribbean, and Europe.

She and her friend Emma, whose family operates the Chocolate Factory across the street from the Landmark Café, in Victoria, their hometown on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, piled into a 1992 Buick with Emma’s nearly 200-pound Newfoundland dog, Rupert, and drove across and back the range of Canada.

Newfies are black dogs who don’t necessarily eat too much, don’t necessarily need large houses to live in, but do sprawl across back seats, and do, by necessity, often drool. They are dogs who save babies from drowning and need baby wipes.

“It took months, a crazy road trip, came home, moved to Ontario, came back, did some more traveling, and every summer worked at the Landmark,” said Rachel.

The popular eatery, featured in the guidebook ‘Where to Eat in Canada,’ is seasonal, opening in May and closing in October. The Landmark Café was her father and mother’s brainchild 29 years ago. Rachel and her brother have worked there nearly every summer since they came of age, and even before that.

Doug went the length and breadth of Prince Edward Island during his walk of life with the Island Storm.

“I got to see more of the island on that team than living here my whole life,” he said. “Going to schools, all these little communities, we’re talking to kids, promoting literacy, all kinds of community stuff.” Even though PEI is the smallest of the Canadian provinces, there are more than 70 municipalities spread out over 2200 square miles, most of them separated by big tracts of farmland. There are only two pocket-sized cities on the island. It is mainly a rural landscape.

It wasn’t long after their chance encounter at Babas’s Lounge that Rachel and Doug became a twosome.

“I don’t think either of us were looking for a relationship, but we didn’t want to pass it up,” said Rachel.

“There was something special about our energy together,” said Doug. “I never felt that energy before.”

The summer after retiring from pro ball he got involved with skills training at several basketball camps. He helped out at the Landmark Café, too. “Doug was finishing up with the Storm and it was time to start work at the restaurant,” said Rachel. He bussed tables, later on learning to serve. Seasonal work on PEI means being busy as a bee.

“You could have a day off, but you felt guilty because everyone else was there working so hard,” said Rachel.

“We didn’t see each other a whole lot, but then it just came together,” said Doug.

“It evolved into us realizing we worked well with one another,” said Rachel. ”It’s been almost five years working at different things together, and so we’re at a spot where we’re trying to figure out our next life.”

“Our next play,” said Doug.

“Our next thing,” said Rachel.

“Working side by side,” said Doug.

“We do well together,” said Rachel. ”We’re very open with each other. Even if I feel embarrassed, I know I can go talk to Doug about anything. When we worked at the restaurant, I was almost his boss. He can take it.”

There’s no needing to take it when you’re on the same wavelength.

Getting in sync at the Landmark Café was one thing. Hiking the Camino was another.

“That definitely brought us closer together,” said Rachel.

The Camino de Santiago, sometimes known as the Way of Saint James, is a network of paths passages roads in northwestern Spain all leading to the shrine of the saint. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Even today hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela. Some do it for penance or as a spiritual retreat from modern life. Some hikers walk the route for the challenge. The full length of the trek takes about a month.

If things go haywire there’s always the traditional queimada, which is a local ritual used to fight off evil spirits by drinking a smoking concoction brewed somewhere out of sight, although planning on a day of R & R after the cultural experience is advisable.

“Doing the 800 kilometers of the Camino brought us closer,” said Doug. “There’s the physical stress, dealing with it, of the two of you walking 30 kilometers a day with backpacks, side by side.”

It’s one day at a time on the Camino. It can get hot dusty tiresome. Your partner can start getting on your nerves.

“There are a lot of couples, they say, I can’t imagine working with him,” said Rachel.

“I can’t imagine going to two separate jobs, being separate forty hours a week,” said Doug.

“It gives me anxiety,” said Rachel.

“I just wouldn’t be comfortable,” said Doug.

“I definitely feel safe when Doug’s around,” said Rachel. “In many ways, the more the years go on, the more you want to be together. We can look at each other and we know what the look means. It’s just fun to have, if you’re in that fun busy relationship. It can be great.”

A fun busy loving relationship may not make the world go around, but it makes the ride worthwhile.

After three years working elbow-to-elbow at the family restaurant, in the past year they both found a new path, going to work for Fairholm Properties, which operates high-end inns and lodgings in Charlottetown. They rent an apartment downtown in the capitol city, a few minutes from their jobs. “In the wintertime, it’s storming outside, you can walk just about anywhere,” said Doug.

The next step was walking to the jewelry store.

Like Socrates said, “If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy. If not, you’ll become a philosopher.” Who wants to be a down at the mouth philosopher? After all, Socrates ended up drinking hemlock. Better to ask your better half to pop the top of a Ghahan Sir John A’s honey wheat ale. It pours a refreshing golden color with a white head and it’s not poisonous.

“I know my future is something colorful, something hands-on, something bright, with Doug next to me,” said Rachel.

When you’re hands-on you’re a big part of whatever you’re doing, jumping right in, not taking it for granted, seeing it through from beginning to end. It’s taking the present into your own hands, getting your hands dirty, not handing anything off to anybody else. It’s a show of hands.

Doug showed his hand the October before last.

“I didn’t know where we were going to get engaged, although I knew it was going to be in St. Andrews,” he said.

St. Andrews, at the far western end of New Brunswick, is a small town on the southern tip of a triangle-shaped peninsula in the Passamaquoddy Bay. Many of the original buildings from the 18th century have been restored and are still in place. It is a National Historic Site, although whose history is open to question. Many of the homes were dismantled and floated across the border to the town by disgruntled Loyalists from Maine at the end of the American Revolutionary War, where they were reassembled.

“It’s literally on the USA border,” said Doug.

Crossing borders was more seat-of-your-pants once upon a time. Nobody asked for your passport. Everybody wasn’t forever talking about another brick in the wall. You could bring your whole house with you, not just your RV.

“It is beautiful there,” said Rachel. “Whenever we see a botanical garden, we go to it. When we visit family in New York City, we always go.” Although born and reared on PEI, Rachel’s mother is from NYC and her father is from Montreal.

They had lunch in the café at the Kingsbrae Garden.

“The chef happened to be from PEI,” said Rachel.

The Kingsbrae Garden is a 27-acre former family estate turned horticultural oasis of nearly three thousand perennials, shrubs, and trees. It is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. There are peacocks, pygmy goats, and ponds, a cedar maze, and a trail through an old-growth forest. Doug and Rachel walked the gardens after lunch.

They spotted a giant Adirondack chair, the kind of oversized chair that makes grown-ups look like kids. They stopped in front of the great big chair.

“Oh, yeah,” said Rachel. “Whenever we see one of those big chairs, we get a picture of us sitting on it.”

When they slid off the seat, Doug asked her if she had dropped something when she got off the chair.

“She didn’t actually drop anything,” said Doug. He didn’t tell her it had fallen far. Rather, it was right there. You don’t want to cast your chance too far when you have the chance.

“It was all just a ploy to get her to turn around.”

“I looked and looked, and when I looked back at him he was on his knee.”

Doug was on his knee next to a giant pumpkin beside the chair on a sunny October afternoon, the day after Columbus Day, proposing a new world, proposing marriage.

”It made us at eye level,” said Rachel.

“How long do you want to be loved? Is forever enough?” is how the Dixie Chicks sing it.

She said yes when she saw the ring, the two of them seeing eye-to-eye in the garden.

“I’m pumped for the rest of our adventures,” said Rachel.

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Feet to the Fire

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The first summer Doug McKinney joined the staff at the Landmark Café in Victoria, on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, he joined at the bottom. He was a busboy. One of the first times he cleaned a table in the newer back dining room of the restaurant, he miscalculated the ceiling.

“I was clearing a mussel dish off a table, stood straight up, and hit my head,” he said. “It was like somebody hitting you right on the top of your head. I blacked out for a second.”

Doug is slightly taller than six feet eight inches. The ceiling is slightly shorter than six feet six inches. Something had to give.

He didn’t make the same mistake twice, although there were several more close calls. Almost knocking yourself out one time is often the charm, never mind any more times.

“I’ve always been the kind of person, if I don’t know how to do something, I’m going to ask, or I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Maybe I do it right. Maybe I do it wrong. If I do it wrong, I’ll probably only do it wrong once.”

An only child, Doug grew up on the eastern end of the island, near Montague. The small town is known as “Montague the Beautiful” for its river, tree-lined streets, and heritage homes. His father was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. In 1993 his dad was struck by a fatal heart attack. The boy was 7-years-old.

The 33-year-old man has a tattoo on his chest honoring his father.

The following year his mother and he moved to Charlottetown, the capitol city of the province.

“The RCMP relocated them, bought them a house,” said Rachel Sauve, Doug’s fiancée.

“They are good for that,” said Doug. “I went from living in a rural community to a brand new suburb. My mom spoiled me a lot, for sure. There were lots of kids my own age. I was playing sports, basketball, and we had more than two TV channels.”

By the time he was 15 he was growing more and playing more basketball. He spent early mornings and late evenings at hoops. You can’t do it by loafing around. Practice makes it happen, not just wanting it to happen, and his growth spurt, which can’t be taught, took him up a notch.

As much as basketball was becoming his life, life and death came knocking.

“I was playing in the Canada Games in 2001 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I came back home, and even though she had only been given until Christmas, she made it until April.”

An inking honoring his mother joined his father’s tattoo on his chest.

“When I lost her, I put more emphasis on basketball.” Not yet grown up, he had to grow up on his own. It was get up stand up for yourself on your own two feet. He treated every day on the hardwood like every day was his last day draining a jump shot.

“Basketball was developed to meet a need,” said James Naismith, the inventor of the game.

Doug played basketball at university and professionally until he was thirty. A graduate of Charlottetown Rural High School, he played five seasons with the UPEI Panthers. Later he played internationally in Lebanon, and after returning to Prince Edward Island, played four seasons with the Island Storm of Canada’s National Basketball League.

He had his ups and downs fast breaking crashing the boards shooting floaters, like every player, since even the superstars barely shoot 50% for the season, but he knew how to recognize his mistakes, learn from them, and then forget them. He never let an opponent try harder than he did.

”It’s basically grown men who do this for a job,” he said when trying out for the Island Storm in 2011. “Everybody is strong, everybody is athletic. I just try to play hard, sweat as much as I can every day, show that I’m willing to work.” Going nose to nose with grown men means proving yourself every day.

He was named to the NBL All-Star Second Team the 2012 – 2113 season.

When his team needed him to score, he scored. During game seven of the NBL Canada Finals in 2014 he went 7 of 8 from the field, 4 of 4 from the 3-point line, threw in an assist, a steal, and three rebounds, and set a playoff record that still stands for most points scored in the fewest minutes.

Basketball is a team game, to the extent that even the best basketball players, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, could never have won multiple championships without solid teams around them. Doug McKinney’s pro career as a power forward was solid on getting it done.

Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates. Make the extra pass.

After retiring from the pro game he has continued to work with the sport. Last year he was the Minor Basketball Advisor for Basketball Prince Edward Island, helping players and coaches of grassroots programs in PEI communities.

In the meantime, he re-connected with Rachel Sauve.

“We first met in 2002-or-so,” she said. “I was dating one of Doug’s teammates at UPEI.”

Years later they ran into each other at Baba’s Lounge in Charlottetown.

“One of my Storm teammates texted me that he was there, and even though I usually never went there, I went,” said Doug. “I saw her, she gave me a big hug, we hung out for a little bit, and after I left I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

“I don’t think either of us were looking for a relationship, but we didn’t want to pass it up,” said Rachel. ”We both are islanders and want to be here.”

“I think we both knew there was something other than the fact that I’m really tall and she’s definitely shorter, something special about our energy together,” said Doug.

Rachel was working at the Landmark Café, her family’s homemade soup signature quiche traditional meat pies hot-off-the-press seafood all made fresh daily sit-down in the heart of their small town. The produce is local organic and they make their own salad dressings. Her father, Eugene, and mother, Julia, had staked out the restaurant, several times expanded since, excavating a new basement for storage and coolers, building new dining rooms, and adding an outdoor deck, twenty nine years earlier in what had once been Annie Craig’s Grocery Store and Post Office, kitty corner from the Victoria Playhouse.

“As kids my brother and I were always helping, doing stuff at the restaurant, washing dishes, running to the freezers for ice cream,” said Rachel.

Her father’s entrepreneurship rubbed off on her.

“I sat out front at a picnic table and sold stuff,” she said. “ I was 11, 12-years-old.”

She sold wood figurines, creating faces and outfits for them. She sold bootleg Anne of Green Gables straw hats with red braids. She sold wax jewelry that she and a friend designed and molded out of leftover wax from the café.

“We had a problem with it, though, because the wax would melt in the sun. We put it in boxes so it wouldn’t start melting until the tourists had left the village.”

The family has worked together at the Landmark from the word go.

Shortly after Doug and Rachel had gone from an encounter to a thing together, the restaurant posted a “Help Wanted” for the summer season sign.

Once Doug got the parameters of the back dining room’s ceiling right, he went from busboy to server to integral part of the roster, picking up vittles in the morning, working long into the night cleaning up and closing down.

“It goes back to growing up and playing on teams,” he said. “I’ve played on good ones. I’ve played on bad ones. I’ve always prided myself on being a team player. The Landmark is the kind of place, you’re either going to swim or you’re going to sink.”

“You either do the dance or you don’t do the dance,” said Rachel.

Working for a family business is a dynamic unlike other work. Your mom and dad or grandparents started it from scratch and you’re never going to be one of the founding fathers. Sometimes it’s one big happy family at the dinner table, but sometimes it’s like the Mafia. Whatever the big cheese says is what goes, and you have to come to grips with it.

Doug spent four years at the Landmark Café.

“I was actually the tallest server east of Montreal,” said Doug. “I didn’t want to just serve anywhere, except the Landmark.”

Their lives took a turn toward the end of last winter when they came to a fork in the road and took it. They had just come back to Prince Edward Island from several weeks in Cuba. “That was our last hurrah before the summer,” said Rachel. But once at home, instead of going back to work at the Landmark Café, Doug and Rachel took jobs with Fairholm Inn and Properties.

The collection of archetypal inns in downtown Charlottetown, including the eponymous Fairholm Inn, the Hillhurst Inn, and the Cranford House, share the same grounds, gardens, and outdoor fire-pit. The Fairholm Inn is a National Historic Site, originally a large family home built in 1838 for Thomas Haviland, a many times mayor of the capitol city.

Doug and Rachel are the Jack and Jill of all trades at Fairholm.

“I do the front desk, maintenance work, a little bit of everything,” said Doug.

“They wanted me to learn how to edit websites,” sad Rachel. “Now I know how to edit websites.”

“After Rachel got hired, they needed more help on their team, and thought I could help them out,” said Doug.

“He’s been building cabinets there,” said Rachel.

“It’s awesome working together,” said Doug “We’ve found that even when we’re not working, we go golfing together, go places on the island, have adventures.”

Fairholm Properties schedules most of their days off at the same time.

“It’s evolved into us realizing we work well together. After five years we’re at a spot where we’re trying to figure out our next life,” said Rachel.

“Our next play,” said Doug. “I’m adding stuff to my tool belt, but at the same time, we want to work for ourselves.”

“It might be a tabletop, food truck, catering, something,” said Rachel. “We’re lucky on this island. We have the best local seafood and meat. I can’t see myself being out of that line of work. My dad taught me. All my cooking skills are from him. I’ve got his cooking style in my blood.”

Her father and his Landmark Café have long made the list in the independent guide ‘Where to Eat in Canada’. He is known for his fusion of Asian, Cajun, and native PEI foods, and was once known as a pioneer for his never fried and healthy fare. He is still known for his tasty healthy never fried fare.

Doug’s mother had been a manager at Myron’s in Charlottetown, which was one of eastern Canada’s biggest and most popular sports bar restaurant nightclub concert venues of its time.

“I grew up in the industry without even realizing it,” said Doug.

There isn’t much needed to make your life. It’s all within you, in your way of thinking, in knowing what you want. Being an entrepreneur is a mindset. What it takes is taking the plunge, putting everything you’ve got into being your own boss, exploiting your opportunities when you get them.

It’s jumping off the Confederation Bridge to catch a flying fish. You might go splat in the Northumberland Straight. It will test your risk aversion, but it is, at least, one way to start swimming. You might, on the other hand, land in the fish market, show you’re worth your salt, because you saw something and built your wings on the way down.

No risk no reward.

“We have ideas for our own food venue,” said Rachel, “We’re not chefs, but we’re both great cooks.”

“We eat like kings at home,” said Doug.

“I want the lifestyle, the lifestyle I’ve been living all my life,” said Rachel.

“I’ve gotten to love it, too,” said Doug. “Grind all summer and then find summer somewhere else.”

“I’m not going to sit at a desk,” said Rachel. “That’s not going to happen.”

Whatever does happen, the two of them are undeniably hand to the plow. When they were with the Landmark Café they often worked seven days a week, twelve and fourteen hours a day, most of those hours on their feet. Restaurant work is hard enough, but seasonal restaurant work is getting down to business, not a moment to lose.

“We know many people in the food industry on the island, and some of them want us to work for them, but we want to have our own thing,” said Rachel.

Although raising capital is always a problem for new ventures, especially those related to food enterprises, Rachel Sauve and Doug McKinney are willing to work steadfast persevering to achieve their ends.

“I’m not too good to wash dishes, to do whatever it takes,“ said Doug. “There are a lot of opportunities to capitalize on the food scene on Prince Edward Island in the summertime.”

“When I do a post-up of something we’re cooking at home at night, and I see the reaction, I know it’s something I should be doing,” said Rachel. “We’re trying to mold our future.”

Rachel and Doug may be on a small team at the moment, since it is only the two of them on the roster, far from first place in the standings, but they are on one another’s side, both of them no ifs buts or maybes, their minds made up to make it happen.

“That’s the difference maker,” said Doug. “When you know what you want, you can make a difference.”

Everything’s on the front burner, pots and pans, the kitchen sink, plans goals around the corner, their feet to the bright side of the fire.

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Let ‘Er Rip

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“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.”  Barachois

The Sterling Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.

A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.

The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.

The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.

“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.

“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.

“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.

Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. In the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.

The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.

“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”

The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.

The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel,’ an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.

“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”

The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.

The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.

“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.

“Massachusetts,” a man called out.

“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”

“Wellington,” another man called out.

Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.

Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.

“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.

“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”

Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.

“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me,’ a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.  

“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.” 

“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.

Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler.’

“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19thcentury, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’

Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown.’ Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.

“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.

“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”

Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.

“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”

She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.

“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”

The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.

“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.

Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.

Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.

Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”

At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.

The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.

The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel.’ The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.

“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”

“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”

“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”

The name stuck.

Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.

Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.

“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.

Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a fledgling in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.

“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”

Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.

“It’s called ‘The Family Song,’” said Helene.

Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.

“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”

“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.

“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”

After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.

“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”

Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.

Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.

“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.

Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.

Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”

A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

They played an arrangement of the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.

“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”

They played a pretty arrangement on four fiddles of the pastoral melody ‘The Rosebud of Allenvale.’

Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special.’

Laisse les aller!

The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.

“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.

“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”

The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.

“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”

It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

Moving Day

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“To live is to keep moving.”  Jerry Seinfeld

“My grandfather had a 16mm camera,” said Julia Sauve. “He walked around taking home movies of everyone, all the family, our real relatives and our adopted relatives, all the kids. Everybody would come, it was like a party house, their house in Brooklyn.”

While visiting New York City recently and at a family reunion, she had a look-see at film footage, transferred to a DVD, of her childhood. “I watched myself as a baby, a toddler, and a little kid.  I was an active child, always running around, very physical. I thought, oh, yeah, that’s why I am the way I am.”

Coming around the corner from her house in the small town of Victoria on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island the block-or-so down Howard Street to the family-owned Landmark Cafe, where in the summer season she works with her son, daughter, and ex-husband, she is the easiest person on her feet on the walk.

She is footloose over the cracks in the pavement.

“I started ballet when I was 7-years-old,” she said. “I took my first modern dance class when I was 16.”

She ‘s been an artist dancer performer choreographer and teacher ever since. Dancing might be the only walk of life whose aim isn’t to get anywhere, but is rather a process of the steps along the way. It’s not a discipline whose ambition is to be better than anyone else, either, but one whose purpose is simply to dance better. It’s a kind of solitary self-mastery nevertheless done in public.

“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made,” said Ted Shawn, one of the pioneers of modern dance. There may be abstract art, but there is no such thing as abstract dance.

Growing up in Spring Valley, just west of the Hudson River and just northwest of New York City, Julia Lachow grew up in a family invested in the arts.

“My parents were both artsy,” she said. Her father Stan was involved with community theaters and was in the original cast of “On Golden Pond” at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway in 1979. Her mother Barbara transitioned from stay-at-home mom to dance teacher to psychologist, still practicing in NYC.

“They were always supportive of my brothers and me in the arts.” One of her brothers is a musician and the other one is a filmmaker. “They never pushed us about how much money we were going to make.” Never mind that Andy Warhol once slyly said, “Making money is art and the best art is good business.” When it comes to Andy Warhol, however, sometimes it’s better to simply believe in his art, not necessarily his bank account.

She was on the swim team at Suffern High School when she saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company, a troupe of 32 dancers founded in 1958, first performed at the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association, otherwise known as the 92nd Street Y. They are credited with popularizing modern dance in the United States. Their signature choreographic work “Revelations” is the best-known and most often seen in contemporary dance.

“The lights went on,” she said. “That was it. That’s what I want to do.”

She started taking modern dance classes at a local studio. She kept it up at a nearby community college. When she transferred to the State College of New York she majored in dance. After graduation she moved to New York City.

“That was where you were going to get the best training.”

For the next nearly four years she got the best training.

She studied with Joyce Trisler, who was keen on the technique of Lester Horton, the West Coast dancer whose demanding style featured fast small steps and spirited ups and downs, combining elements of jazz and ballet and contemporary hoofing. Alvin Alley once described Joyce Trisler as “just a crazy floppy girl from down the street.”

She studied with Milton Myers, who since the early 90s has been the director of the modern program at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. He routinely stole shows in the 70s and 80s coming out of corkscrew actions with quick vertical jumps, always active, always strong. He subscribed to the Horton technique of training, describing it “like physical therapy in its approach to creating a balanced body, training and freeing the body through constant movement.”

She studied with Matthew Diamond, who at the time was with Jennifer Muller and the Works, and went on to become the director of the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”, which has since won seven Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography.

“It was great when he got that gig,” she said. “Dance is hard to film since it’s so fast, and he was a dancer.”

In late 1977, while working with the New Dance Group in Manhattan, she took a few minutes to talk to a fellow dancer

“I just got back from Prince Edward Island,” said Cathy Cahoon. “I danced with a fellow from there.”

“Wow, if you ever go back, I’d love to go with you,” said Julia, even though she barely knew Prince Edward Island from the man in the moon.

The next year the two of them joined Don Burnett and formed the Montage Dance Theatre. They wrangled free space at Trinity United Church in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. They stayed for five weeks. “We danced 25 hours a day, no kidding,” she said. They put on a show at the end of their residency.

“I fell in love with the place when I first came here,” she said. “There was so much space here.”

The next summer she went back for the whole summer. “We danced, gave demonstrations, and did a series of lectures. Don was cast in the Charlottetown Festival and we performed in the Maud Whitmore show.”

In the fall she went back to New York City.

“I was sad.”

The following January she got a call from Don.

“Meet us in Charlottetown,” he said.

“Yay!” she said, happy.

She packed a suitcase and moved to Prince Edward Island in February 1980. When she left New York City she moved from where there were 27,000 people per square mile to where there were fewer than 70 people per square mile.

Artists may starve for their art, but there’s no starving for space on PEI.

She moved to Charlottetown, working with the Montage Dance Theatre, teaching and performing in their studio theater, and soon met her husband-to-be.

Eugene Sauve, recently arrived from Montreal, was helping the troupe as their technical director. Julia and he hit it off. She even got him on stage, dancing, once or twice. “He was so nervous,” she said. “He’s got good rhythm, but I was leading, so all he had to do was rock back and forth.

Two-stepping led to high-stepping. They got married, Julia light on her feet, Gene trying not to rock back and forth. They soon had a son, Olivier. They started looking for something bigger than their cramped apartment in Charlottetown. Gene was working at a new theater in Victoria, on the Northumberland Strait 20 miles away. Julia drove out to the small town.

“I’ve lived here before,” she thought. “There’s something here, a past life regression. It was fun and creepy. I felt like I needed to live here again.” They bought a house across the street from the fire hall and moved in on June 1st. Two weeks later her daughter Rachel was born.

“Everybody tells you never move when you’re about to have a child,” she said.

Some people say, now that you’re eight-and-a-half months pregnant, you’re going to give up the house-moving thing, right? Some women say, I’m not crippled, I’m only having a baby.

“We did it box by box.”

She has lived in Victoria ever since, except for two years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire. “The kids grew up in that house.”

When the family moved from the capital city to greener pastures in the mid-80s they moved from where there were 15 thousand-some residents to where there were about 150 residents. Even though in the biggest cities everybody still lives in a neighborhood, Victoria is so small the whole town is the neighborhood.

Julia Sauve had moved from the jam-packed Big Apple to a minor-key metropolis to a seaside village.

The next year Montage Dance Theatre’s building burned down. “That changed everything,” she said. In the meantime, she, a modern dancer, met Peggy Reddin, whose background was ballet. They started getting together, “in a secretive way, in coffee shops,” talking about starting a dance school. “It was all just talk.” Several months later the secret was out. They decided to become business partners.

“We just did it.”

Their business venture, dance umbrella, opened its doors in 1989 in a second story rented space above Froggie’s, a used clothing store somewhere in Charlottetown. Since then they have become one of the best and brightest dance schools in the Maritimes.

“We are not a ‘line ‘em up and shuffle ’em through’ school,” said Peggy, while Julia added, “We’re proud of our students. They are getting to be very good dancers.”

In 2006 dance umbrella merged with the Confederation Centre of the Arts, expanding their programming, and last year rounded out their 28thseason with their annual end-of-the-year showcase in the Homburg Theatre. “We had everything from a Tragically Hip tribute to ‘Dance of the Snowflakes,’” said Peggy Reddin.

Juia Sauve has long been involved with Act Community Theatre, helping stage their showcase shows, worked with the Colonel Gray High School for two decades choreographing their school musicals, and has taught at Holland College School of Performing Arts. She founded the Luminosity Black Light Theatre, the only black light performing company in Atlantic Canada.

Many of Luminosity’s themes were environmental. “Water is a life force that is in us and all around us,” she explained. “Water has no sense of itself. It just is. It doesn’t sit still.” You dive into the water, but most of the time you can’t tell how deep it is.

“I used to pretty much take every gig I could get,” she said.

“There’s no escaping it. I was the person in my grandfather’s home movies who had to be a performer and a teacher. That’s not so off from who I am now.” She even attempted the improbable back in the day, trying to teach ballet steps to her two young brothers. It was a daring if doomed effort.

Although she hasn’t settled back into a rocking chair on the back deck of her house, she has recently retrenched.

“When did I stop teaching like a crazy person?” she asked herself. “It was maybe five years ago.” She continues to teach a class at dance umbrella. “But I let the younger dancers do the heavy work.”

Rocking chairs may give you something to do, but they don’t get you anywhere. Where she has gone the past three years is where many stroke survivors have trouble going, which is getting out of their chairs. What she has done is rolled up her sleeves on a project of helping restore some liveliness to lives that have been impacted by a cerebrovascular accident.

“How do you take someone that is so compromised, where maybe one side of the body is just not working, and help people feel better in their bodies,” she asked. “How can I get these people moving?”

A stroke is a brain attack. It happens when blood flow to a part of the brain is cut off. When cells lose oxygen they start to die and whatever the affected parts of the brain control, like memory or muscles, are then bewildered, or lost. It can happen to anyone at any time. It can be catastrophic. Most survivors suffer from some kind of disability.

Some survivors turn the disability to their advantage.

“When you have a stroke you must talk slowly to be understood,” said Kirk Douglas, the actor who appeared in more than 90 movies and won Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Emmys, and who suffered a severe stroke in 1996. “I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen. They think I’m going to say something important.”

He wrote a book about his experiences, calling it “My Stroke of Luck”.

It was a book called “Move Into Life” that got Julia Sauve going. She was volunteering at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an educational retreat center in New York north of Poughkeepsie, when she met the author. Anat Baniel, a former dancer and clinical psychologist, developed her method of treating chronic pain and physical limitations by emphasizing activity and becoming aware of the entire body, how it feels and moves, so that the brain can map the body anew and evolve a person’s ability to feel and move again.

Back home in Victoria her life partner Reg Ballagh suggested she talk to his brother-in-law, the head of the stroke unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. He in turn introduced her to Trish Helm-Neima, the Provincial Stroke Coordinator for Health PEI. They started working together at community centers.

“We did our first session near the end of 2015,” said Julia. “It was just a once-a-week thing.” Once a week clears away the rust of the rest of the week.

“We do 75 minutes, a combination of seated and standing exercises. Everyone spends time in a circle after that integrating what we’ve done. I pass around handouts. It’s when people work at home that you really see results.”

Her goal is to help stroke survivors help themselves rewire their bodies and brains. “It’s about creating plasticity, developing the neural activity in your brain,” she said. “These people had big lives. Stroke just knocked them over the head. Our goal is for them to have success. From a teacher’s standpoint it can be very rewarding.”

Except when it isn’t.

“Some people will give up,” she explained. “One of our participants, she was doing well, and then I heard through the grapevine she succumbed. She succumbed to where she was, succumbed to the idea that she was just going to sit around.”

One of the reasons efforts like Julia Sauve’s efforts are important is because it’s not just about exercise or therapy. Stroke support groups challenge survivors to get past society-imposed doctor-imposed self-imposed limitations. It’s about feeling connected, about being in the same boat with others, about having a can-do attitude, sailing the waves, no matter how storm-tossed.

In time Julia Sauve created a program called “Moving Life Forward with Movement and Music” with funding from a PEI Wellness Strategy grant. One week, while the Festival of Small Halls, a series of music venues, was ongoing on Prince Edward Island, she played jigs and reels during class.

“Wow,” I told them. “You’re doing really good. That is awesome.”

“That’s because the music is so good,” said one man.

“It’s because the music is so familiar,” she thought. “You’ve been going to ceilidhs your whole life. You’ve been listening to fiddle music all your life.”

“In rehab we talk about the repetition of movement and the pattern of movement is what’s going to make you learn that movement,” said Trish Helm-Neima. “So if you can find a fun way to do that you are more likely to continue doing that repetition and gain that function back.”

Getting up in the morning is only the half of it. Having fun is the other half. It’s always fun to do what might seem the impossible.

The next week Julia cued the fiddle music again. “They did it so good,” she said. “I ask our participants all the time, what’s the first part of your body that dances?”

“Legs, arms, feet,” they say.

“No, it’s your ears,” she tells them. “You hear the music you get the beat. I haven’t had a stroke survivor yet who wasn’t able to key the beat to the music.

“Sometimes we have them do a kick line holding onto chairs. They astound me.”

Even though Julia Sauve has slowed down she has no plans of slowing down.

“There’s something you’re put on earth to do,” she said. “That might sound woo-woo, but we’re put here for a purpose. Where I’m coming from now is, I want to learn more and help people more.”

When you’re always coming or going somewhere, at the family’s eatery dishing out some of the best meat pies on the island, on the no-stopping dance studio floor, or unfolding a folding chair helping a stroke survivor get a groove on, every day is moving day.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Born Again (Yellow House)

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The Yellow House on the south side of North Rustico on Prince Edward Island isn’t any different than most houses. It has a front door and back door, two stories, two gables, two chimneys, plenty of windows, and a latter-day addition The only difference is that it’s on a fishing harbor on the ocean, has its own parking lot, and isn’t strictly a family house anymore.

It’s a family restaurant, takeout, and catering house.

On sunny days the Yellow House looks like it is painted in sunlight. On its open to close days, if it’s overcast on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, light streams out of the windows brightening the gloom. On catering days it buzzes with energy and deadlines.

When Marie “Patsy” Gallant died in 2009, the home she had lived in on Harbourview Drive, next to Barry Doucette’s Deep Sea Fishing, went empty and dark.

“She let the town buy the house, but they didn’t have any money to renovate or turn it anything,” said Mike Levy. “They wanted a restaurant, something that would service the community.” Six years later he and his wife, Jennifer, recently become residents on the north-central shore of PEI, decided to give it their best shot.

“We had to fix it up so we started looking for funding. We couldn’t find any. Nobody wants to risk a restaurant, even though we had worked in finance and banking and worked in the food and beverage industry, been servers bartenders cooks managers.”

Between them they had two university degrees, two degrees from the Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College, and had already gotten a business, the Green Island Catering Company, off the ground. They had been catering the Prince Edward Island Legislature’s “Speaker’s Tartan Tea” for three years.

“It’s easier to get a loan for a food truck, since the truck is an asset,” said Mike.

Lenders are understandably skittish, given that 60% of eatery start-ups go out of business within a year and 80% within five years. Even though many entrepreneurs believe failure isn’t an option so long as their determination to succeed is strong enough, it is more often the case, as Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

No matter what your best shot is, doing almost anything worthwhile carries with it some kind of risk. It’s only when you don’t try, on the other hand, when you don’t play ball with failure as a possibility, you don’t take any risks. But, since Mike Levy getting to the Yellow House was, in the first place, only made possible by playing poker, he stepped up to the plate.

“Some friends and I were playing poker on-line,” he said. “I had written a paper in university about gambling sites. I loved poker because there is a way to play that isn’t just pure luck.”

A native of Unionville, a once-farmland suburb of Toronto, Mike was living and working in Calgary, Alberta, after graduating from nearby Lethbridge College. “The money we won that night didn’t split evenly, so I let my buddies have it so long as they let me have the ticket to get into the next tournament.”

He couldn’t lose.

“I knew enough to know it wasn’t skill. No matter what I did it didn’t matter. I made it up to twenty grand. Anybody tells you gambling isn’t an addiction is full of it. I could feel myself itching to go back to the computer and play more. The only thing that saved me was the thought, in the back of my mind, Jen will kill me.”

Jennifer Johnston, his wife-to-be, was finishing her degree at Leftbridge College. Mike was working at the Dockside Bar & Grill. A meat packing plant squatted next door to the restaurant. Working behind the bar, some of his tips were in lieu of cash.

“I’d come home with a box of steaks.”

After dinner – after watching “After the Sunset” – a movie about a master thief who retires to the archipelago following his last big score, Mike popped the question one night. “There was a song in the movie, the pineapple song, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I finally said, Jen, do you want to try the Caribbean?”

“What? Where?” Jennifer asked.

“I figured she was going to ask.” He had done his research beforehand. “The Grand Cayman Islands fit all of our requirements. The history was British, the laws were similar to what we were used to, and the currency was stable. It was safe and everyone spoke English.”

They parlayed their winnings into moving lock stock and barrel three thousand miles southeast of the Canadian Rockies, from where high temperatures in summer in Cowtown meant the mid-70s, to where low temperatures never fall below the mid-70s, summer or winter.

Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands. Hundreds of offshore banks and tourism drive the economy. Orchids, mahogany and palm trees, and many kinds of fruit trees dot the landscape, as do turtles and racer snakes. They are known as racer snakes because they tend to race away when encountered.

After living in town they found lodgings on the seashore. “A doctor who owned a beach house needed somebody to look after the property,” he said. They lived in the caretaker’s apartment. “It was only rented twice a year, by a nun who was a writer, very active politically. She drank me under the table twice a year.”

Jennifer found work immediately as a server at the Royal Palms on Seven Mile Beach. “She’s a cute blonde girl, she got hired in ten seconds.” The Royal Palms is the closest beach bar to the cruise ship port. She later worked as one of the managers at the Dolphin Swim Club, where tourists paid to swim with fish.  “I’d visit her and a dolphin would go flying by her office window.”

It took Mike a few weeks, but he finally found a job as a junior bartender at the Westin. “You get all the bad shifts at first,” he said. “You get screwed. You make no money. I put in my dues. After a few months I got better shifts.”

Mike and Jennifer worked in Grand Cayman for almost three years. “It’s a very stratified economy,” said Mike. “You’re either very rich or very poor. But it was semi-affordable for us.” On off days they rode their Vespa around the island, taking martial arts and yoga classes on the beach. “Afterwards we’d swim in the ocean, go out for brunch.”

He learned to get along with his boss. “He had been down there for more than thirty years, from Saskatchewan. He was a bald-headed, serious-looking, aggressive-looking guy. Everybody called him Bitter Bob. When I found out why, I felt bad.”

Thirty-or-so years earlier, with his island sweetheart, visiting Miami where he planned to propose, she was killed in an accident in the street, run down by a city bus. He went back to Grand Cayman and never talked about what happened.

Many years later, shortly before Mike and Jennifer’s leave-taking of Grand Cayman, Bitter Bob and his friend Fabio Carletti came out on top.

“Fabio grew up in rural Italy, flamboyantly gay, and his village chased him out,” said Mike. “He and Bob bought a nothing-special plot of land on the west end of the island, except it turned out their little acre had the only deep-water well in the area. They sold it for millions.”

Fabio went back to Italy and bought his mother a car. He bought her a big house. He told off all the villagers, as well.

“Bob sorted himself out, was getting happy, but when I told him we were leaving he held a grudge for months. You get attached to people down there.”

The couple returned to Toronto to get married in order that both of their Ontario families could celebrate the nuptials. It was just in time for Mike’s grandfather to make it to the wedding, too. “He passed away a few months later on the only golf course he ever got a hole-in-one in his entire life.”

He suffered a heart attack walking up the hill to the green of that same hole.

Mike’s family has long been entrepreneurs and business people. They broke ground for Mastermind Toys, a 300-square-foot store, in 1984 in Toronto. It became a chain of toy stores that became Canada’s largest specialty toy and children’s books retailer. “I picked up our first shipment of Beanie Babies,” said Mike Levy, who was then a teenager. “I remember thinking, this is the stupidest thing ever.” By the mid-1990s Beanie Babies had become a craze. In 2010 Andy and Jon Levy collaborated with Birch Hill Equity Partners, masterminding the company’s national expansion.

After high school Mike joined the army. He was 18-years-old when he was sent on his first out-of-country mission. “They sent us to Fort Benning to train with the Rangers.”  The US Army Rangers describe themselves as an agile, flexible, and lethal force. One of their beliefs is “complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.“

The only thing they’re afraid of, it turns out, are snow snakes.

Fort Benning is named after a Civil War-era Confederate States general and is ‘Home of the Infantry’ in the United States. The Canadians marched in the woods all day carrying nearly a hundred pounds of gear and rucksack. They went on simulated search-and-destroy exercises at night. They set up bivouacs in the dark, exhausted, in the middle of nowhere.

When they befriended a troop of American counterparts being posted to the far north, they warned them about Canada’s deadly snow snakes. “Heading up north, eh? The snow snakes are bad this year.” They were met with blank stares.

“What’s a snow snake?”

“They tunnel through the snow. They’ve got long fangs and can bite right through your boots.”

“My God! Are they poisonous?”

“You know the two-step? With those things, they bite you, it’s more like one step.”

The entrepreneurial Canadians offered the Americans their own down-home antidote. It looked like a can of tuna fish with a label that said “Arctic Snow Snake Bite Kit”. The reason it looked like a can of tuna fish was because it was a can of tuna fish with an improvised label the Canadians had designed and printed and stuck on the can.

They sold the antidote like hot cakes for ten dollars a can until they were caught. “Some moron had done it the year before, so they caught us in about twenty minutes.”

“Don’t be idiots,” their commanding officer said.

“They let us go even though they were mad.”

When Mike Levy boarded the plane back to Canada the following month he was told to never come back to Fort Benning. “I’m not sure if the ban is still in place,” he said. In any event, he was leaving the army. “I went off to university the next year.”

After getting married Mike and Jennifer flew to Prince Edward Island for their honeymoon. They stayed at the Inn at St. Peters. “We loved it.” They went to the Provincial Plowing Match and Agricultural Fair in nearby Dundas. Jennifer entered the Wife Hollering Contest.

“You literally had to call your husband to dinner,” said Mike. “I was wandering around a field when I heard my name shrieked out. I stood at attention. The guys around me, I could see them thinking, the poor bastard, I wonder what he did.”

Jennifer Levy won first prize.

“Many of the Canadians we knew in Grand Cayman were from Prince Edward Island,” said Mike. “They always said PEI had good people, good food, and was a great place. That is where you want to go.”

In 2011 the Levy’s moved to PEI and enrolled in the two-year program at the Culinary Institute. In the meantime they cut their teeth working in the kitchen at the Inn at St. Peters, the Orange Lunch Box, the province’s first food truck, and the Delta Hotel in downtown Charlottetown. On his first shift his first day at the Delta, the chef, Javier Alarco, asked him if he had ever shucked a lobster.

“A couple, at school,” said Mike.

“Oh, good. There is a dinner party for the Liberal party tonight. We’ve got 600 lobsters. The kitchen’s got three hours to shuck them.”

Shucking a lobster means twisting off the large claws, separating the tail from the body, breaking off the tail flippers, opening the body, and extracting all the meat. “My first thought was, that’s not going to happen. But, we got it done.” The next day a hundred pounds of potatoes, a hundred pounds of carrots, a hundred pounds of celery, and a hundred pounds of turnips were delivered to his work surface.

“Small dice, three hours, go,” said Chef Alarco.

“That hurt!” said Mike.

The politicians wining and dining in the ballroom at the Delta might have wondered, how hard can it be to boil a lobster? The work in a commercial professional kitchen is hard, hard keeping track of all the sharp knives and sharp edges of stainless steel, hard on your arms and shoulders and back from lifting all during your shift, hard on your legs from being on them all the time. There is nothing that requires a chair for the doing. There isn’t any time to sit, anyway.

There isn’t any time for explaining and complaining.

After finishing culinary school the Levy’s had a plan. Their plan was to work on privately owned yachts plying the high seas. “We were going to find a billionaire who wanted a private chef,” said Mike. “We had the connections from working in Grand Cayman. The pay is outrageous.”

Most super-yachts spend winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean. Sometimes they are chartered and other times they are anchored in quiet spots with their owner. Produce has to be bought in port towns, but fishermen often deliver fresh catch to the boat. Although chefs are disconnected from their family and friends for weeks and months, they accrue their wages since there is nowhere to spend it.

“When you’re done they give you a check and away you go,” said Mike. “I thought that was brilliant. That’s what we were preparing to do.” But, sometimes your way of life happens to you, not the other way around, or as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Before Mike and Jennifer could sail away they got a phone call from Ontario’s Child Protective Services. Jennifer’s sister, beset by problems with drugs and drink, and the mother of two children, emotionally neglected and in-and-out of care, was on the threshold of losing her children.

“We are going to adopt the children out, unless you, as eligible family members, take them, and agree to make PEI their home,” they were told.

“You have to declare your intent within 24 hours, yes or no.”

The children, Jacob and Madeline, were 7 and 12-years-old. “They had been moving from shelter to shelter, living in crappy apartments. They weren’t living, just surviving, no opportunities. It’s not that I love kids so much, but it was take it or leave it. I could never say no,” said Mike.

“No cruise, two kids, it was a hell of a change.”

They stayed on Prince Edward Island, buying a house in Rusticoviille, where the North Rustico Harbour meets the Hunter River. “My family strongly supported us, they helped us get our house, and a small allowance to take care of the kids, so that we wouldn’t just be scraping by, so they could lead a normal life.”

The Levy household turned on the lights.

“The kids were a stabilizing factor in our lives, too, even though they cost me years of idyllic luxury.”

Not only had they lost the life of Riley, now they had to support their newfound children. Their fledgling catering company was growing, but it wasn’t enough. “We needed a more solid income,” said Mike. When they found the vacant Yellow House, Jennifer Levy was dead set on getting it. “Ten years from now people are going to look back, how did you get so lucky and find a nice spot like this,” she said.

They still needed funding to bring it to life. They got it when they put the problem on the doorstep of Anne Kirk, the mayor of North Rustico. “She was so pissed, so incensed,” said Mike. “I’ve got three or four businesses like yourself and nobody’s helping them,” she said. “Come back in few days.”

The mayor went to Charlottetown, the capital of the province. “She lambasted everybody about helping small businesses in rural areas,” said Mike. “Sure enough, we got our funding.” They got some from the non-profit Futurepreneur, a loan from the Bank of Canada, and kicked in the balance themselves. They opened in July 2016.

The Yellow House is not a halfway house on the way to a sandwich.

“We had Lester the Lobster Roll for lunch,” said a man with his hands full of a lobster roll. “A wonderful taste of lemon zest on a fresh and flaky roll, yummy.”

“The best ever cod burger with homemade tartar sauce,” said a woman eating a cod burger.

It’s not duck soup, either.

“The service is limited, the menu is limited, but we would go back in a heartbeat,” said a man finishing a bowl of chowder. “The food is outstanding.”

The first year their menu was take-out only. “We didn’t have any indoor seating or a public access washroom,” said Mike. They fried with a small portable unit and lived without a commercial fume hood. Mike and Jennifer did all the work. Mike was the boss and Jennifer was the decision-maker. “We cooked all the food from scratch. It was exhausting.”

The second year they renovated their washroom, added indoor and outdoor seating, and added staff. “Jen and I still do a good chunk of the cooking, but we hired a young guy, Jake, who has the right temperament to work in a hot stressful environment with lots of people yelling around you. He’s ambidextrous, too. When he’s chopping vegetables and his hand gets tired, he flips his knife into the other hand.”

Their adopted family helps out, likewise. “Maddie does a great job maintaining the garden and cleaning up after us.”

They fill their larder locally as much as possible. “We’ve got an intense island focus,” said Mike. They procure garlic from nearby Eureka Garlic. It has a deep earthy sweet flavor. Their gouda cheese comes from nearby Glasgow Glen Farm. Their cured meats come from nearby Mt. Stewart. “They smoke them like they would have a hundred years ago.”

Moving into their third year, the Levy’s continue to cater, working out of the Yellow House, servicing weddings, meet-and-greets, and Buddhist retreats.

Even though fewer than a few hundred natives of the province identify themselves as Buddhists, there are two large religious communities on the southeastern end of Prince Edward Island. The Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society is for monks and the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute is for nuns. Monks and nuns typically study for fourteen years.

“They were having a retreat and Molly Chang, the coordinator, reached out to us. We had no idea about Buddhists. When I asked her how many people would be there, she said, oh, maybe five hundred.”

There was a pause. Mike Levy tried to downplay the numbers. “Oh, we do those all the time, no problem.”

”It’s got to be vegan.”

“Sure, no problem,” repeated Mike.

The problem was how to plan prepare lick into shape that much food in the limited space of the Yellow House, transport it an hour-and-a half away, keeping the hot food hot and the chilled food chilled, get it ready to be served on time, and then serve it. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety,” said Mike. “But they were great. When you watch TV and see the super wise calm thing Buddhists do, the first nun we met did that, and it all went well.”

At the end of the event the organizers showed their gratitude to the vendors and suppliers on hand by asking them to step up on stage and take a bow. “We had taken Jacob, our eleven-year-old, with us, and after the applause, leaving the auditorium, I looked around, where’s Jacob? I looked back to the stage. There he was center stage, alone, bowing to all the Chinese people, thinking he might be the next Buddha.”

He wasn’t the next Buddha, just that day’s Buddha.

“The nuns thought he was cute as anything.”

Buddhists take as gospel that we existed before we were born and we will have another life after we die. They believe the cycle of life and death continues endlessly, or at least until one achieves enlightenment, or liberation, losing the attachment to existence in the first place.

In the meantime, no matter how many times you’re born again, they believe in being mindful of what you say and do, mindful in your livelihood, and having care and concern in your heart for others so you can, in the end, understand yourself.

Once Jacob was coaxed off stage, however, it was back to work, loading up for the road back to North Rustico.

If kitchens are the heart of all houses, the Yellow House is all heart.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.