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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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All Hands On Deck

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“What were we thinking?” Kate Doucette asked her mother, who was peeling potatoes in the kitchen of their eatery as they geared up for the second week of their new restaurant’s first season the summer before last.

“I know, we need fish-n-chips on the menu,” said Joanne Doucette.

On the Dock is at the far end of Harbourview Drive in North Rustico, around the bend of the harbor up from the lighthouse, catty-corner to Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing, on the north central coast of Prince Edward Island. The dining room is literally on the dock. More than two-thirds of the tables and chairs are outside, spread out over a big deck, on the edge of a square wharf on the ocean.

“I’ll go over to Doiron’s and get some,” said Kate.

She walked down the street and got five pounds of fish.

Doiron Fisheries, a fish market on the Inner Harbour, chock full of shellfish, lobsters, and fresh Atlantic seafood, is about a half-mile away, by way of a boardwalk, at the other end of the street.

“It wasn’t that much,” said Kate. “But mom wondered, what are we going to do with all this fish? Maybe we should freeze some of it, she thought, just to be safe. By the time she put it in the freezer, though, she had to take it out, since we were selling so much of it.”

When they sold out the fish-n-chips, Kate Doucette took another walk back down the street to Doiron’s, this time for more than just five pounds.

“It’s a simple menu, chowder, fish cakes, but it works,” she said. “We had lobster rolls from the beginning, because dad catches all of our lobster. After working here, me and mom go home and shell lobsters a couple of hours every night.”

The fish cakes are chips off the old block from her father’s handcrafted cakes. “On Boxer Day, Christmastime, parties, the whole family would come over for dad’s fish cakes. He served them with homemade mustard pickles.”

Joanne Doucette has made mustard pickles for a long time. “It’s a recipe that’s known around here,” said Kate. Every week is National Pickle Month when it has to be. “We make batches of them for the restaurant.”

“It’s hearty home-style cooking with the freshest seafood,” said Megan Miller, sitting outside in the sun on the seaside, pushing back from her table and empty plate of fish and pickles.

Kate’s father, Robert Doucette, is Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing. He ties his 45-foot fiberglas boat up at the end of the dock outside the restaurant. He harvests lobster in season and takes tourists out to catch cod and mackerel in July and August. His brother Barry and he bait hooks for tuna in September.

“His boat used to be called the ‘Jillian Marie’, who is my older sister,” said Kate. “But, when I got old enough to realize my name wasn’t on the boat, I got a little ticked off. When he got his next boat he called it ‘My Two Girls’.”

Bob Doucette has been working out of the North Rustico harbor for more than 40 years. “He grew up in a little white house right here,” said Kate. “He hasn’t gone far. Their house used to be up Lantern Hill, but it was moved down here, on the back of a big truck.”

Joanne and Bob Doucette met when they were 14-years-old. “They’re both from here, North Rustico, born and raised.”

Kate and her sister grew up in a house in a thicket of trees a mile-or-so up the road, behind her Uncle Ronnie’s Route 6 Fish-n-Chips “We were so lucky to grow up where we were in the woods all the time,” she said.

There’s something about woods that you can’t find in books, at school, or on the infobahn. Moss grass shrubs insects birds trees will teach you what you can never learn from flatscreens. Trees wise you up to being grounded from the trunk down and limber on top from the branches out.

North Rustico is a community of about 600 residents. The bay is sheltered by Robinsons Island and houses a fleet of forty-some lobster boats. Fishing is the town’s main focus, although, since it has direct access to Prince Edward Island National Park, it has long been popular with vacationers.

All summer long kayakers launch their boats from Outside Expeditions at the mouth of the harbor, paddling up and down the north coast. It’s a way to get focused on the wide-open water. When you’re tucked into a kayak and paddling, there’s literally nothing else you can do.

“Dad used to bring me down here when I was a kid,” said Kate. “I was a huge little tomboy. He bought me a kit with a saw and hammer for my seventh birthday. He made me a miniature lobster trap to work on while he was repairing his traps.”

By the late 1990s the wharf was rotting. “Dad still had a slip for his boat, but you could hardly walk anywhere, it was just run down.” The wharf was rebuilt and a new red-roofed building, the front half housing the Fisheries Museum and the back half housing the Skipper’s Café, was built with provincial and town funding, built on the spot where Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing shanty had stood.

“They moved all the shanties to the side when they built this,” said Kate.

“We grew up down on the harbor. My sister Jill and I worked in the canteen from the time I was 12-years-old, in the shanty, where reservations were made. We sold chips and chocolate bars and soda, except Jill and I ate all the chips and chocolate until dad finally ended up only selling ice cream.”

Kate Doucette’s grandmother opened the first restaurant in North Rustico in the 1940s. It was the Cozy Corner, at the convergence of Route 6, Church Hill Road, the gas station, the post office, and the road down the harbor. Her grandparents later opened the Isles, a sizable seafood restaurant, up the road.

“My Uncle Ronnie was a big part of it and mom served there for years. The whole family worked there. They had a bakery in the basement and I’d run over every afternoon and get fresh rolls.”

One day the restaurant burned to the ground.

“It was a pretty big upset,” said Kate. “We were lucky there wasn’t any wind and none of it got into our woods.”

Towards the snowy front end of 2016 Kate Doucette was living in Charlottetown, the capital and largest city on Prince Edward Island, taking business classes part-time at UPEI and working full-time, while her boyfriend Sam roughnecked oil rigs more than three thousand miles away in Grande Prairie, Alberta. One evening her mother paid her a visit. Joanne Doucette had a proposal for her daughter.

Kate was surprised by what her mother stumped for that night.

“I wasn’t thinking of doing a restaurant, for sure,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that was going to be our conversation.”

The Skipper’s Café on the ocean side of the Fisheries Museum in North Rustico was closing. The Port Authority was leasing out the space. She was being offered first crack at it.

Kate Doucette called her boyfriend in Alberta.

“Go for it,” said Sam MacLeod. “You’ve got to take a risk sometime.” Even though it was going out on a limb, it wasn’t necessarily risky, since most risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

“It’s in our blood,” said Kate. “I’ve been serving since I was 16-years-old. I’ve had a hell of a lot of other jobs, but I’ve always had a serving position on the side.”

Her family and she began making plans.

“The guy who owned Skipper’s Café, he was closing since he wasn’t feeling wellish,” said Kate. “Then he told us, ‘Oh, I might run it for another year,’ but by the first of May he closed and took absolutely everything out of the place.”

Many of the restaurants on the north shore of Prince Edward Island are seasonal, opening roughly at the first sign of summer and closing more or less at the start of fall. From a business point-of-view, there are two seasons, June July August and winter.

“We started from fresh, but it was a crazy month. We had to get all our licensing, buy all our equipment, and design our menu. Our tables were made by a local carpenter. We rebuilt the kitchen, which is very small, and the first summer we worked with table fryers. It was insane. I don’t know how we did it.“

The difference in fryers is that the oil capacity of tabletop models might be seven or eight pounds. The capacity of commercial deep fryers, which can have two tanks, is often 50 to 85 pounds.

“The first thing we did when we closed in October was get a commercial fryer, a grill, and a seven-foot range hood,” said Kate. “We still peel all of our potatoes with a little hand cutter. There’s a machine that can do it, if we could find the space to put it. Right now, Sam does it. He calls it his corner office.”

The reason Sam MacLeod gives a leg up at the potato peeler back in the corner is that Kate Doucette called him one day in the middle of their second summer, when he was working in Alberta. He is on rigs twenty days in the oil fields northwest of Calgary, and then off ten days, which he often spends having flown back to PEI.

“I was crying,” said Kate. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either I’m going to kill my mother with all the work she’s doing or I’m going to have to close down.” After working all day, and after closing everything down at night, her mother was spending two more hours peeling potatoes for the next day, every day.

“It was just too much,” said Kate.

“I’m going to take August off and come back and help you guys,” said Sam.

Sam MacLeod and Kate Doucette met in a Subway on the eastern end of the island at the moment Kate knocked over her young niece. She and her sister, Jill, were distributing Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing fliers at tourist cottages. They stopped for lunch. She and Mila, Jill’s daughter, were walking across the dining room to the soda fountain.

“I had my hand on top of her head and I accidentally pushed her over,” explained Kate. “She fell down.”

Sam MacLeod, who had just pulled into the parking lot and walked in the door, stopped where Mila was lying on the floor in front of him.

“Is she all right?” he asked.

“I hadn’t even noticed it happened.” Kate looked down at her niece. “Oh, she’s fine, she just kind of fell over.” Sam gave Mila a helping hand up.

“He’s nice, he’s cute,” said Jill as they watched Sam drive away in his white knight white pick-up truck.

Six months later, on a Friday night, while in a bar and grill in Charlottetown with friends, she recognized a young man wearing a red hat at the bar. She walked up to him

“Do you remember me?” she asked.

“You’re the girl who pushed that kid down on the floor,” he said.

“She survived,” said Kate, grasping at straws.

They exchanged phone numbers. Twenty days later, a few days after Christmas, Kate and Jill were loafing in their apartment in Charlottetown. “Jill and I were going to hang out, have a chill night.” But then, out of the blue, she got a text from Sam.

“Do you want to go out to dinner?”

“I told him to give me a second. He took me to Cuba the next month. We’ve never spent a night apart since then, except when he’s out west.”

The couple built a house in Stratford, outside Charlottetown, but then rented it out on Airbnb. They planned on building something in North Rustico, but in the meantime realized they needed somewhere to live. They considered buying a camper and parking it in her mom and dad’s backyard.

“We found a reasonably-priced one on-line. It wasn’t the nicest, though, kind of shitty, and I was thinking, at the same time, do I want to shower in a camper all summer?”

She showed a picture of the camper to her parents. They took a close look at it, retreating to the other end of the room to compare notes. “I could see them kind of talking. They knew we were trying to save money.”

“Just stay with us,” said her mom. “We’ll fix you up a room. We’ll make it work.”

What she meant was, since they were already all working together, if they were all living together, it would make seeing one another all the time sticky. It might be too close for comfort. That’s why, since God has given us our relatives, many thank God they can pick their friends.

It would take some sufferance, fifty-fifty payoffs. They made it work.

“We’re only there to sleep, anyways,” said Kate. “We don’t cook there, we don’t hang out there, we don’t do anything, really. We’re always working. You give up your whole life half the year when you work at the restaurant.“

On the other hand, if you’re doing what you want need and enjoy doing, you’re never actually  clocking in to the daily grind rat race any day of your life.

“The one place I’d rather be in the world is down at the harbor,” said Kate. “It’s hard, you see everyone working so hard, but to be with the people you love the most, my mom and my dad, my sister, my boyfriend, I can’t think of anywhere’s else I’d want to be.”

Joanne Doucette runs the show in the kitchen. “You’re not going to have anyone in the kitchen who cares more about you than your mom.” Kate is the hostess server business manager, Jill busses serves odd jobs, while Sam and Bob run errands deliver seafood peel potatoes and take out the trash.

Kate’s niece Mila is in training.

One evening at closing time, looking for something to do, her Crocs at the ready, Mila asked if she could clear the outside tables.

“You can take the salt and pepper shakers and candles in, but leave the flowers,” Kate instructed her.

When Mila was done, two men were still at the last occupied table on the far side of the deck, their plates pushed to the side, kicking back at the edge of the ocean. “She went right up and took their empty plates off the table. They ended up giving her five dollars.”

“Kiki, Kiki!” Mila whooped, running up to the front counter, waving her five-dollar bill.

“She calls me Kiki. It just happened. She just one day decided,” said Kate. Since no one is allowed to give themselves a nickname, it might as well be your six-year-old niece. Catching a break, Kiki is better than, say, having to answer to Pickles.

“I don’t work here, but I help out all the time,” said Mila on a warm breezy sparkly afternoon, a broom a head taller than her in her hands, sweeping up around the chairs and under the tables on the deck, in the interval between lunch and dinner.

When you’re helping out it’s all hands on deck.

There’s no keeping Mila down.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

Gone Gros Morne

Leah Pritchard

“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up about joining the Mounties.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald gathered up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends said. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur”. Todd Hennessey directed the two-person spooky sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which was only two hours from her family in Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard lived and studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming laugh guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a weird place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock’, as the province is sometimes known, at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps”, accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theater Festival.”

She worked in a candy store.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy.”

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break. ”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.” In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur”. He has directed more that thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.

When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing on at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and as the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park”.

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs”, a children’s book true story about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional skills, language, land, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory the past three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another generation, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, for the coming summer, as well, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She will be touring again in the fall with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs”.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not in Toronto desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 27. How wise can a 27-year-old be?”

It’s the sharp-eyed 27-year-old on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey

Island Hopping

PNP

It is roughly 700 miles from Montreal, Quebec, an island at the confluence of the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers, to Prince Edward Island, on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The way most people get off Montreal is by bridge or tunnel. There are twenty-five bridges and three tunnels. The longest passage is slightly more than a mile.

Most transit gets to Prince Edward Island by way of the Confederation Bridge, the only bridge that connects the island to the rest of Canada. Until the span was built coming and going was largely by boat or ferry. When the Northumberland Strait froze solid you might strap chains onto your tires and drive across it. After four years of construction the bridge opened in 1997.

It is the longest overpass in the world traversing ice-covered water. The concrete arc is 8 miles long. It is illegal to stop on the bridge and there is a curve to it whose only purpose is to keep drivers alert.

“It’s weird, it’s long, you’re on it for 5 minutes, at least.” said Tanner Patterson.

“It’s more of a 12-minute trip,” Amanda Patterson pointed out, fine-tuning.

“I did a project on it at school, actually, although I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “My teacher told me, you’re doing the Confederation Bridge. There was a referendum about building it. It was really close because lots of people wanted the island to stay secluded.”

There were even some who preferred the concept of a moat.

“Local workers built it and it’s sturdy. It’s probably never going to fall down,” said Amanda, putting the moat idea to rest.

More than a million-and-a-quarter people travel to PEI for a week-or-two in the summer, almost nine times as many people as live on the red island. Some of them cross by ferry, some of them fly into Charlottetown, but most of them drive over on the bridge.

“It’s very impressive,” said Cathy Patterson.

“Crossing it is anti-climactic, though, because of the concrete parapet. You can’t see anything,” said Mark Patterson, Tanner’s uncle, Amanda’s father, and Cathy’s husband. “But there’s a church you can pull into after you cross, up the approach towards Victoria, and from the parking lot you can see the bridge going all the way back into New Brunswick. It’s an incredible view.”

The Patterson’s live in the West Island, on the west side of Montreal, a laidback community-oriented green space small town feel in the big city kind of neighborhood. One of Montreal’s last large remaining spots of wilderness is in West Island. The region was a summer retreat into the 20th century.

Cathy Patterson first visited Prince Edward Island with a group of fellow potters in 2014. “We did the circuit of the pottery studios,” she said. Throwing, firing, and glazing mud and clay is a cottage industry on the island. “Several teachers showed us their methods.”

The small troop of ceramic artists stayed in the town of North Rustico, at the Coastline Cottages, on the seashore. “Kelly Doyle opened a cabin for us. It was very nice, but it was cold.” By the end of March 2014 more snow had fallen that winter than had in more than 40 years. Blizzards swept the island. “The landscape was stunning, but really, really cold. We all had three layers on.”

“I was here when I was a kid, thirty-five years ago,” said Mark. “We went to Nova Scotia, did the Cabot Trail, and came here. I saw “Anne of Green Gables” at the Confederation Centre. My mom told me we stayed near North Rustico.”

One afternoon when his nephew, daughter, and wife had gone deep-sea fishing, he went for a drive, exploring the north central coast. At the intersection of Route 6 and South Rustico he spotted an old-school style roadhouse. He pulled the car over.

“It was the original motel with green paint,” he said. “That’s where we stayed.”

The Patterson’s piled into their car on a Saturday at 6 o’clock in the morning in late June and left West Island for the eastern seaboard. The drive is circuitous, north to Quebec City, south to Fredericton, east to Monkton, and finally across the bridge. It takes close to 15 hours.

“We played the letter game in the car,” said Cathy.

The alphabet game is played on long car rides. The players try to find the letters of the alphabet on license plates, road signs, and nearby buildings, in order, starting with “A”. If any player spots a graveyard on the side of the road and declares it, the other players have to go back to the beginning. There is a shout out for the winner after they have reached “Z” if they can remember all the different things for each letter of the alphabet.

When he wasn’t playing the letter game, Tanner was downloading podcasts on his phone. “They saved my life,” he said. “’Our Fake History’ and ‘Night Vale’ are good ones.” ‘Night Vale’ is about a small desert town, mysterious lights in the night sky, and dark hooded figures with dark unknowable powers.

“I like to sleep,” said Amanda. “When I get bored I start rambling, talking nonsense.”

“It’s annoying,” Tanner groused about Amanda bunking in the back seat, who didn’t lose any sleep over it. “I can’t sleep in cars. She’s out for at least half the trip.”

“I drive,” said Mark. “I’m no good being a passenger.”

“I can drive all day or I can sleep,” said Cathy. “Put me in the passenger seat and I’m out like a light.”

Three years after Cathy had gone to Prince Edward Island, bundled up against the cold, they were on the way there in the summertime. They were in shorts and t-shirts because Sue Cameron, a fellow potter, had booked two weeks at Coastline Cottages earlier in the year. Cathy got wind of the vacation while at lunch with her friend one day.

“Is there another cabin?” asked Cathy.

“I don’t know, we can find out,” said Sue.

“I called Kelly, he had an open cottage, I said fine, and booked it on the spot,” said Cathy.

“Our first week we went to beaches five days in a row,” said Mark.

There are almost 700 miles of PEI coastline, cliffs, sand dunes, and long sandy beaches. There are about 90 of them. Most of them are located in provincial or national parks. The beaches on the north coast are white sand while those on the south coast are red sand. The sand at Basin Head is called singing sand because it squeaks when you walk on it.

“I was so excited for the beaches,” said Tanner. “We went all over, to Cavendish, Brackley, Thunder Cove.”

“He just sits there listening to music,” said Amanda.

“Or I listen to podcasts,” said Tanner. “Then I go in the water.”

“Thunder Cove is a secret beach,” said Amanda.

“The kids took a walk to the Teacup,” said Cathy.

“The way the rock there has eroded you can walk underneath it,” explained Mark.

“It’s a cliff, so you can be on the beach and behind you the water flows into the cliff, and you can go inside it,” said Tanner.

“It was cool,” said Amanda. “But, there were little crabs that bit your feet, especially this one part where they kept snapping at you.”

The day Mark Patterson went solo exploring was the same day the rest of the family boarded Papa’s Gem, one of two 45-foot Aiden’s Deep Sea Fishing boats sailing out of the North Rustico harbor. The fishing charter supplies rods, tackle, and bait, cleans the cod and mackerel you’ve caught, and you get to take it all with you.

Aiden Doiron started fishing when he was 15-years-old, started his own deep-sea fishing excursions in 1957, and started up Doiron’s Fish Market on the near side of the harbor. His family still operates the charter and the fishery.

“I caught one cod and two mackerel,” said Tanner.

“I caught two cod and mom got sick,” said Amanda.

“This guy on board was smoking a cigarette,” said Cathy.

“You’re not supposed to smoke,” said Amanda. “The captain got mad when he found out.”

“It was the way the wind came up and the smoke hit me full throttle. I had to sit down, but when the engines started up and we started moving, going back, it was too much. The next minute I was feeding the fish. It was quite embarrassing.”

Mark fired up the grill at Coastline Cottages the next day.

“I had never had mackerel,” he said. “We didn’t have any spices, no nothing, maybe a little parsley, but Tanner and I pan-fried the fish, and it might have been our best meal on the island.”

“No, dad, it was ice cream at Cows,” said Amanda.

By all accounts dinner at the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers was a big hit.

“It was a high point for me,” said Tanner.

The restaurant, on the Hunter River, not far from North Rustico, got its start in 1957 when the New Glasgow and District Junior Farmers Organization, looking for a permanent meeting place, bought and moved a canteen to the eatery’s current location. The first lobster supper, priced at $1.50, was served on improvised plank tables as a fundraiser in 1958. The dinner was followed by a dance.

Today the all-you-can-eat feast starts with fresh rolls seafood chowder coleslaw salad and Island Blue mussels.. The main course is lobster. Dessert is buffet-style. The restaurant is still owned by the Nicholson’s and MacRae’s, two of the original founding couples. It was showcased on TV’s Food Network in 2012, on a program called “You Gotta Eat Here”.

“You sit at a long picnic-style table. It’s like clockwork, so well run,” said Cathy.

“Tanner and I ate a whole bucket of mussels,” said Mark.

“You can have one, two, three buckets, all you want,” said Cathy.

“I ate them all,” said Tanner proudly.

“I never had fresh mussels like that,” said Mark.

PEI mussels, sweet and tender, are widely available at seafood counters in many countries, and are often considered the best in the world. Some gourmands say the best mussels are harvested on lonely rocky outcrops along cold-water tidal inlets, but since few people haul themselves, their rubber boots and gloves, and 5-gallon plastic pails to isolated shorelines, the island’s rope-grown mussels are the next best. They are super tasty nutritious sustainable and even help purify water by clearing nitrogen.

Nothing beats sitting down to PEI mussels on PEI.

“Amanda tried a mussel, but she wasn’t crazy about it,” said Tanner.

“Hey, I ate a lot of them!” she protested.

After a week of lolling on beaches the Patterson’s got into their car and went touring. The Tip-to-Tip Tour is about driving the length of the province on the rolling coastal roads. It’s a way to see the meeting of the tides at one end of the island at East Point and North America’s longest natural rock reef at the other end at North Cape.

“You go to one side, they give you a ribbon, and when you get to the other side, and show them the ribbon, they give you a certificate,” said Mark. “It’s a long drive. We were all tired by the time we got to North Cape.”

When they pulled into Tignish, a small town on the far northwestern tip of the island, they were ready for their daily bread. When they asked, someone recommended the Very Best Restaurant, which turned out to be part of the Tignish Co-op. A small sit-down, it has a big name for its Acadian meat pies.

“At first I thought they were bragging,” said Mark. “But, it’s got to be good if they say that. When we got there, there were all kinds of different tables and chairs.”

“It looked pretty sketchy,” said Amanda.

“After we sat down we could tell it was going to be good because all the local farmers and fishermen were there, in work clothes and Chevy caps,” said Mark. “We fed the whole family for thirty-five dollars.”

“It’s like a PEI secret place,” said Tanner.

“The name comes from living in the north,” said Amanda. “If you ask anybody how their day has been, they always say, the very best day.”

Closer to home, one day Cathy told the 12-year-old Tanner and the 13-year-old Amanda that the next day would be their day. They could pick whatever activity they wanted to do.

“We got one day, no, one morning, out of two weeks,” said Tanner.

“No, we went to all those beaches,” said Cathy.

“Oh, yeah,” said Tanner.

The next morning they went to Cavendish.

The resort town is the next town over from North Rustico, known for its numerous cottages and campgrounds, Green Gables attractions, golf courses, boardwalk, and amusement parks. The first place they went to was the Route 6 Motel, a haunted house nestled in a spruce grove, crawling, walking, and running through the winding corridors where disturbing obstacles lurk.

“It was great, but I couldn’t. I was fine, but I don’t like getting squished,” said Amanda. “When they yelled to get ready for the airbags, I hate that. I told them I needed to check out and they opened a side door for me.”

Tanner had already checked out.

“I’m good at scary movies,” he said. “I can predict everything. I just use my brain, but haunted houses, I don’t like it when it’s super dark and super loud.”

Cathy was waiting outside, catching some fresh air, reading a paperback. A young mother walked out of the haunted house with a 7-year-old in hand. The boy was crying.

“Is he OK?” asked Cathy.

“The haunted house did him in,” said the woman.

“I’m waiting for my kids,” said Cathy.

“Is one of them wearing a pink sweatshirt?”

“Yes.”

“They’re out already.”

Cathy found Big Pink and PJ at the side of the Route 6 Motel.

“Sure enough, neither of them finished the haunted house,” she said.

Within the first few days of arriving on Prince Edward Island, Tanner was known as Big Pink, since he was a large boy and wore his favorite pink sweatshirt whenever he could, and Amanda was known as PJ for wearing her pajamas over her bathing suit going to and from the Coastline Cottage’s kidney-shaped saltwater pool overlooking the ocean.

Their next stop was the Hangar, a black-lit, fog-filled, state-of-the-art laser tag arena. Strapped into special vests, Tanner and Amanda were released into the 3000-square-foot space, firing infrared beams with Uzi-style ray guns.

“When we went one-on-one, I totally destroyed her,” said Tanner.

“Sure, but when we played that other family, I dominated,” said Amanda.

“She was super good at sneaking around, getting behind you, and shooting, shooting, shooting,” said Tanner. “She would just surprise run up and shoot you in the back the whole time.”

After two weeks on the island, going home to Montreal wasn’t easy, except for leaving the pillows behind. “The beds are comfortable in the cottage, but the pillows aren’t,” said Amanda.

“Bring your own pillow next time,” said Cathy.

“We all went to see “Anne of Green Gables” in Charlottetown. When Matthew dies at the end, I was, oh, crap, I had forgotten that part. That got me,” said Mark.

“The island is beautiful,” he added. “I liked that I wasn’t working for two weeks.” Island hopping is being able to do nothing much and having all day to do it before you have to go back to whatever made you go on vacation in the first place.

“I liked getting up in the morning, taking my cup of tea down to the ocean, sitting on my log down there,” said Cathy.

“The beaches,” said Big Pink. His favorite place was anyplace by the ocean. “Eating mussels and Canada Day were awesome, too.”

When he heard there was pole climbing rubber boot throwing lobster eating contests and a cow bingo, guessing where the cow will do its business at the end of the afternoon, every year at the Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival, he said, “We’re coming back!”

“I’m not chasing pigs!” said Amanda.

When the Patterson’s piled into their car for the return trip to Montreal, they drove from North Rustico to New Glasgow to Hunter River to Kelly’s Cross to Crapaud onto Highway 1 to Borden-Carleton and onto the Confederation Bridge.

By a twist of the turnstile, there’s no cost to cross the bridge for a summer vacation on the red island, no ticket takers. But, when you pull  up to the tollbooth to go home, it costs $47.00 to leave. It’s like the candles costing more than the cake. That’s when you might as well make plans to go back, since the 12-minute way off the mainland over the wide coastal water to Prince Edward Island is always for the asking.

Nine Months of Hebrew

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Anybody with any sense would have thought Mendel was going to help me learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, he had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But, he never helped me, even though we lived together and I was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues.

I met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. We were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards I gave him a ride home. Everybody in that group loved him. He asked me for my phone number. He was a cute guy, but I found out he had no patience.

He was from a Kurd family, had been born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. But, I always thought there was something fishy about him. He never said why he left Israel when everybody else was going to Israel. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but I always drove him. I dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he would walk the rest of the way.

He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

I was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when I started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood was an ethnic neighborhood and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. I thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Sami and Simcha encouraged me. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted me to guide tours to Israel.

They were sisters and both of them were fat, even obese. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. She often fell asleep at her desk, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked Virginia Slims like it was the most important thing in the world, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back.

Even though I wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, I could speak Lithuanian fluently and some Spanish and German. I’m pretty good with languages. At least I thought so until I tried to learn Hebrew. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was like having grown up speaking hip-hop and trying to learn Old English.

Simcha told me about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 20 minutes from where I lived in Cleveland Heights. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. I made sure to get there early my first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.

When the teacher walked in I could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet to everyone. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to.

She was all business.

“Let’s go,” she said at the start of every class. We would stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.

My biggest fear every Tuesday and Thursday was she would call on me and I would have to speak in front of everyone. I tried to keep my nose buried in my notebook, writing, taking notes. I kept my whole head down.

Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for me. We had to tell everyone our names the first day of class. Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony means. We all called him Gil.

“Oh, my name’s Kristina,” I said when it was my turn. Right away somebody asked me, “What’s your Hebrew name?” I wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,“ but I didn’t. I said most people called me Tina.

Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around me knew enough to answer in Hebrew, I realized they all knew at least a little of the language, while I knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but I was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out I didn’t know anything, she eventually took more time with me.

I couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke it sounded like she was clearing her throat. I decided soon enough I wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back. But two days later I was back. I told myself I was taking the class for work’s sake. I wanted to travel overseas. I didn’t want to admit to Mendel I was quitting after one night, either.

I ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew.

You have to remember every symbol of the alphabet. I tried, but it was my downfall for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard, I wrote down in my notebook. I wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. I wrote my name. I wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then I wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, at first for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World. But, there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so it didn’t become history.

The classroom across the hall from us was a conversion class. Everyone in the class was someone converting to being Jewish. My classmates would crane their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like them.

“Oh, they’ll never be Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they would say.

“Take a look at that shiksa.”

I think they thought my mother was Jewish, although I don’t know why. I have shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.”

Bruno, who was an Italian gay agent in our office, and I were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when someone walked in and I said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

Everybody heard me. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.

Bruno and I were outsiders because almost everyone else in the neighborhood was Jewish. Sami and Simcha would sometimes say, “I don’t know why Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s plan.

The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the big one. Everybody in my class was talking about it. One of them asked me, “What synagogue do you go to?”

Most of the class lived on the east side, including me. I lived in Cleveland Heights, up the hill from Little Italy. I thought, “Oh, Jesus,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. When I drove to work I passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so I said, “SInai.” It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.

Everybody was good with that, even though I didn’t wear a wig or have a Hebrew name. I decided I had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. I took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs.

Everyone in class knew I lived with Mendel. He would drop me off at school and pick me up sometimes. He was OK with me saying I was orthodox. Since everyone thought I was Jewish I had to start being careful about my craftiness. I ran into them where I lived and where I worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel.

An old lady, the mother of someone I sat next to in class, called me one day. It was a week before Christmas.

“What did you do today?” she asked.

“I just finished all my shopping,” I said. I almost said Christmas shopping, but I caught myself. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

“But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.

“In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” I pretended. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told me to say donuts if I ever felt I was being called out.

“Oh, I see,” she said.

I don’t know if I ever got a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class I always thought, I’m never going back. One day I didn’t go. I just couldn’t. That night Alaya called me at 11 o’clock, just as I was going to bed.

“Why weren’t you in class?” she asked.

I wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But I told her I was orthodox and because of the holiday coming up, I had to clean my cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast invading my kitchen.

If you’re orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace. Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take the class too seriously, but because I had somehow mistakenly made everyone believe I was more conservative than them, I was expected to be serious about it.

It had never been my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit I wasn’t never came up.

After Alaya called me I had to meet her on Sunday morning, just her and me, to make up the 2-hour class. It was impossible to keep my head down with her breathing down my neck. She said I was making progress.

Mendel’s brother from Israel visited us for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to me in Hebrew, helping me get the sound of it. It sounded somewhere between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped me more in a few minutes than Mendel ever did.

Since Mendel’s brother was visiting, they went to services together on Friday, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in our apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left they left me sitting in the dark.

At the end of the class I got an A, even though I more-or-less staggered through it like I was wandering in the desert. My reading and writing were shaky, but by graduation time I spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, I was glad when it was over.

I started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after.

I stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time we were in Jerusalem. His brother still lived with their mother and he took me to a wedding. He told me how to dress for it. I wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony I sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food.

We were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for me. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall.

The groom wouldn’t say a word to me. He and his bride didn’t dance together. I danced with the other women.

The more often I went to Israel the better my Hebrew got. One day I was walking around Jerusalem by myself. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked me something as he was passing by.

“What?” I asked him.

“Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

Our group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it joined with Jaffa Road.

I pointed over my shoulder

“It’s over there,” I said in spotless sparkling throat-clearing Hebrew.

Up in Smoke

Lighting Up

Not everyone was too big at Time to Travel, but except for me they either were or were on the way there. Bernadette and Shlomit were chunky. Bruno had a tendency toward the beefy side. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago.

The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room and it was a squeeze coming and going to our desks.

Bernie and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno was an Italian man, gay, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even still, he was there before I started working at the agency and he was still there when I quit after the gasoline truck flipped over.

I was the blonde girl who was good for business.

Before I went to work at Time to Travel I worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A small handsome Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put my desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought I would attract waspy people from the college.

“Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

Sami and Simcha were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the light side of Reformed. They had come here when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in Beachwood.

In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. She wore go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 250 pounds later she showed me a picture of herself, thin, in a tight bright mini-skirt, doing the funky chicken dance.

Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of the day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up!

They were supposed to fast during their holidays, but because they were fat they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But, they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sami would immediately go home and make a big batch of potato latkes.

Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was a butcher. He trucked food home. Sami had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state.

All of Sami’s daughters were obese. The youngest one was 22-years-old and more than three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three later had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight.

No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She lied in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks all day.

“I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.

“They’re not going to be checking up on you,” I said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

None of us believed she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight.

Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon everyday. She brought it to the office in the morning. We had a microwave in the fax machine room. Sami was so excited about her diet. She piled her slices of bacon inside the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon until lunch.

“I don’t know about all that bacon,” I said.

“I’m on the Adkins Diet,” she said. “I’m allowed to eat as much bacon as I want.”

“She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight, either, the same as Simcha.

Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom she would hoist herself up from her chair. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in the chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.

Every year, two and three times a year, Sami and Simcha went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, as long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos.

The nightlife didn’t matter. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

I went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old and rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. I got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit out at the pool after that. The rest of the trip I had to sit on the shady side of the ship with all the 90-year-olds.

I was bitter about every minute of it.

When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played games at her desk on her computer and made Simcha do all the work. She bossed Simcha around most of the time, anyway. Sami was the older of the two, but Simcha was the harder worker of the two, so Sami could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at the department stores. Catalogs came to the office in the mail every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

Sami and Simcha were both top-heavy, but both of them had skinny legs. Sami talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down.

It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy food and not enough brushing and flossing. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and she barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy, but she lost weight for a while.

She didn’t like having to buy new clothes and new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out she would buy another pair just like it. She always had the same flat black shoes on.

Sami wasn’t happy, either. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever her sister leapt out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smoke,” whenever Sami lit up. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was better than the other.

Everybody in the office smoked, except for me. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. We were in a non-smoking building, but they didn’t care. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of those things that supposedly suck smoke out of the air. One was next to my desk, although I’m not sure it did much good.

One night right after work I met one of my friends for dinner. When we got to the restaurant she said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

“Have you ever seen me smoke?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I always smelled like smoke, since I sat in the office all day, an office where everybody else smoked. Bruno’s desk faced mine, which made it worse. I had a cloud of smoke over my head half the day. It wasn’t just all of them, either. It seemed like most of our clients had the same bad habit, as though we specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

If Sami wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Simcha was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing.

Sami’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked her butt into it instead of crushing it out in her ashtray. We had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by that time the fire burned the underside of her desk and all the wires to her computer.

She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to us. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t do it purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement from the insurance agent in the end

One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, as it turned off too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside our office building. The road slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the broken tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of us knew anything had happened until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

“Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

I grabbed my coat.

Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

“Nobody take your car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start their car, you’re going to get arrested.”

Sami finally got to her feet.

We all went out into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting our turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami took out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

The fireman came running over to us.

“Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He pulled the cigarette out from Sami’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sami gave it to him. She wasn’t happy, but she didn’t say anything. I thought she going to say something to him, but she gave him the stink eye, instead. He didn’t care.

When we got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sami and Simcha turned the other way. We followed them.

As we walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, I realized why we were walking in the opposite direction from everyone else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. We were also going towards the stretch of fast food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

We stopped at McDonald’s and everybody had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated us. We had to move on. We stopped at Taco Bell and everybody had tacos. The next thing we knew firemen were evacuating us again. We stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

I never pulled my wallet out from the bottom of my purse. The gas smelled like more gas than I had ever smelled in my life. I didn’t have an appetite. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger.

Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he finally came and picked us up in his Dodge Caravan minivan. He deposited Sami and Simcha at their house, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove me home to Cleveland Heights.

In my driveway he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty movies?”

He flashed me a warm smile.

“No,” I said.

“You could make a lot of money,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said.

He looked sad for a minute.

Walking up the sidewalk to my front door, as Sami’s hubby drove away in their family van, I thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. All those butts burning down to the filter tips in the fingertips of Sami and Simcha can’t be good for me.

That’s what I did, finally, the week after Thanksgiving.

Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke in my face. They never asked me, ”Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” I was just the blonde girl in the window. They were living large, Virginia Slimming, lighting it up.

I didn’t care if they were living it up anymore, or not.

Born on the Barachois

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“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”

Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.

There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”

“He means fluent,” said Connie.

“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.

“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”

“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.

Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.

“Our wedding party was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”

Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.

Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.

Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.

“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”

Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.

“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.

Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”

“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.

“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.

“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.

Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.

“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.

When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. “We were off the coast of Portugal when my mother telegraphed me that she and Connie had decided I was going to get married,” said Robin.

The executive order said to be ready in October.

Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”

At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island

One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.

“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”

Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.

“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”

In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.

By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.

They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.

“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”

It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.

“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”

It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.

The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.

“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.

Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,

“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.

The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.

“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.

“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.

“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”

That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.

The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.

“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.

“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.

“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”

“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”

Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.

“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”

“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”

In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”

“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”

When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.

Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagging up the coast to the other side of the Rustico lands, and have lunch on the ocean.

“We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie. They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.

The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, when it’s a living heritage, is like slipping into the ocean and being able to see how deep it is.