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Born on the Barachois

Barachois

“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.

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Down the Bay Boys

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“I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go…”  Canned Heat

“We’re always around here,” said Denver McCabe, casting a glance over the chairs and tables on the deck on the sparkling dark water.

Carr’s Oyster Bar is on the New London Bay, in Stanley Bridge, on Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Canada province where Canada happened about 150 years ago. Opened in 1999, from the deck, kicking back with a pint on a summer day, you can see the wharf across the bay where oysters are landed.

They’re shucked when you order them, served with a fresh lemon slice, or you can order clams, mussels, quahogs. Last year the restaurant won the Restaurants Canada Shellfish Excellence Award. “I’m happy to showcase the best shellfish in the world,” said Phyllis Carr.

When she slides a sharp knife into an oyster and pries it apart at the hinge it’s “hoping that it’s the best one ever.”

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said Jonathan Swift. Life is too short to not have oysters. But, they are best eaten with friends family anybody somebody else. Although oysters keep themselves to themselves, they’re a weird thing to eat by yourself.

Native North Americans harvested them for thousands of years. In the 19th century New York City was filled with oyster saloons. Today no oysters anywhere taste as good as those found on the north shore of PEI.

Denver McCabe and Brenden Carr are ten-year-old boys born and bred on Prince Edward Island. Until recently both lived in Stanley Bridge, a small town of fewer than 300 on the north central coast of the island on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “He swarms me when I come home from Edmonton,” said Denver. “I go to his house every day.”

They have spent all of their summers on the New London Bay, along the Stanley River, and making the scene daily on the deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar. ”We grew up together,” said Brenden. “He’s my best friend.”

You can’t make anybody be your best friend. Denver and Brenden have known each other since they were tykes. What do you do with your best friend when you’re both ten-years-old? A good time doing a whole lot of nothing, eyeing and gabbing about everything, cruising doing me, making fish faces, making mischief, making your summer jump, and jumping rocks.

“Most of the time we go on the rocks,” said Denver. “That’s how I get my energy up.”

The riverbank and along the shoreline are protected by piled rocks, riprap revetments.

“We go to my house and play on the trampoline, too,” said Brenden.

“I do flips,” said Denver. “I know how.”

“On the rocks we do hard core technical stuff. We jump rock to rock. He challenges me,” said Brenden.

“Sometimes I jump from one rock to the third one,” said Denver.

“So do I. I never fall down.”

“Me neither,” said Denver. “The other day I fell. Did I fall?”

“Unless you were faking me,” said Brenden.

Even though they are not yet preteens, they talk like old friends, which is the same as thinking out loud. Sometimes their thoughts are like toppings that can’t always be fathomed into a pizza.

“I fell once or twice, probably. It was because I jumped from one rock to a far, far one. I just got back up.”

Many people do all their playing when they’re children, all their working when they’re grown up, and all their retiring and regretting when they reach old age. When you play, no matter how old you are, you can be a kid as long as you want. Just watch out for the rocks.

“He jumps off the bridge,” said Brenden.

The Route 6 main street bridge crosses the Stanley River at the New London Bay. On one side of the bridge is Carr’s Oyster Bar and on the other side of the bridge is the Race Trac gas station and Sterling Women’s Institute community hall. Jumping off the bridge thirty feet into the bay is summertime chill in Stanley Bridge.

“We go to the bridge and tell them to jump, hurry up, don’t be scared,” said Denver. “I did it when I was eight. They’re teenagers, but they’re scared.”

“They never jump when we tell them,” said Brenden.

“I jump with my crush, Jess,” said Denver. “She’s a waitress here at Carr’s.”

“She’s my crush, too.”

“I got engaged to her,” said Denver.

“Me, too,” said Brenden.

“Whenever we tap our cheeks she has to come over and give us a kiss on the cheek.”

They tapped with their index fingers, the both of them. Jessica Gillis, twice their age and more than a foot taller than the boys, walked over to where they were warming seats at a table on the deck on the bay eating nachos and sipping from childproof Shirley Temples.

They looked up. “Oh, my God, now what?” said Jessica, looking down at them. It was like The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

They tapped their cheeks again.

“No,” she said.

Even though both boys are in love with Jess, they don’t actually hang out with her. It’s not complicated. Most boys don’t like girls hanging around when they’re doing their own boy things.

“I never jump the bridge,” said Brenden. “I can’t swim.”

“I learned when I was four,” said Denver.

“I took lessons for a year,” said Brenden. “But, I don’t like people bossing me around.”

“It’s kind of weird because he lives right beside the water,” said Denver.

“I almost floated away,” said Brenden.

“It was a windy day and it blew his splash meter away,” said Denver. “He was trying to get it, but the wind blew him away, too.”

“I went to where it was just to my cheeks.”

“He needed my help, but I couldn’t swim fast because there were oyster traps everywhere.”

“My brother and dad were there, but then they went on their boat,” said Brenden.

“He stayed in the water and it became fine,” said Denver.

Brenden’s father David Carr is an oysterman. “He has his own boat. He catches eels, too. When he goes eel fishing he goes with his brother Stan.”

Eels are nocturnal, hiding during the day. Fishermen hunt them at night. Few fish put up the fight that a good-sized eel does. An eel held by the tail is not necessarily caught, yet. They can swim backwards as well as forwards.

“We went to the sand and I got a bad, bad sunburn,” said Brenden.

“Same with me, on the same day.”

“Yeah, but mine was worse.”

“That’s why you didn’t catch Jacob.”

“He’s sketchy,” said Brenden, making a face.

“He said my friends run away because of my ugly face. That pissed me off. I ran after him and pushed him. He ran to the park where there was a booth set up for Canada Day and got under it. I couldn’t bend down because my back was burnt from the sunburn. I would have given him a big one.”

After his sunburn got better Brenden had a tattoo of a barcode airbrushed across his chest during the Canada Day parade festivities concert fireworks. “It’s because I’m funny talented a good actor good singer good dancer and handsome and beautiful.”

Denver had a red maple leaf airbrush tattooed on his cheek. “I’m hot,” he said, looking out from under the brim of his bright orange Bass Pro Shop baseball cap.

“When I walk into a sauna I make it even hotter.”

“Dreams, Denver, dreams,” said Brenden.

Trying to tag along with the stream of consciousness of ten-year-olds can be like trying to play putt putt during an earthquake.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, who grew up on PEI and wrote Anne of Green Gables a hundred-or-so years ago, wrote that Stanley Bridge “used to seem quite a town to my childish eyes. It was the hub of the universe then – or of our solar system at the very least.”

“Brenden and I are cousins,” said Denver.

“My great-uncle, Granny Phyllis’s husband, is his grandfather,” said Brenden.

“Phyllis was my cousin before she married, so I’m related to Denver both ways.”

“My grandpa is a Carr and Granny Gallant was a Doiron before she changed to Gallant,” said Denver. “Everybody in Granny’s family was a Gallant. My grandfather was Tommy Gallant. He found the Marco Polo. He’s famous on the island. He’s famous in heaven now.”

“He’s my great-uncle,” said Brenden, “I took dancing from him.”

Given enough time and left to their own genealogical devices they would likely conjure everyone on the island a cousin in the 9th degree and discover a common ancestor in steerage on the St. Jehan, one of the first passenger ships sailing to the New World in the 1630s.

“We’re from here,” said Suzanne McCabe, Denver’s mother. “Cory, my husband, is from Rustico. We moved to Edmonton for the work. My grandmother and Brenden’s grandmother are sisters and my dad and his grandfather are brothers.”

The first to land on PEI were the French, who called it Isle St. Jean. They fished for cod and traded for furs. The first settlers were Acadians. After the Seven Years War it was re-named Prince Edward Island. Scots, English, and Irish emigrants sailed to the British colony and built their own close-knit communities. Doirin and Gallant are Acadian surnames. McCabe and Carr are English Irish Scottish surnames.

Some Acadians speak English with a French accent, even though, for one reason or another, they no longer speak French.

“When I wake up I go on my phone, track what time it is, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth,” said Denver.

“I don’t have a phone. Sometimes I have your phone in my pocket,” said Brenden.

“It’s dead,” said Denver.

“I was cranky this morning. My brother woke me up early. I usually get up at six, but there’s no school anymore,” said Brenden.

Denver and Brenden help out at Carr’s Oyster Bar peeling potatoes and washing windows.

“I do everything,” said Denver.

“I help my father get fish,” said Brenden.

“Me and Brenden used to go to the sand dunes and collect hermit crabs,” said Denver. “But, he hasn’t come to his job, the last time was a year ago.”

“Me?”

The most freedom most people ever have is when they misspend most of their free time as children.

“More than a year ago, actually.”

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

“You’ve never come since you handed out menus and got no money.”

“I got paid five dollars and I got another five dollars when you won the 50/50.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Denver. “My aunt is religious and prayed to win the 50/50. When she did she gave me some of it and I gave some to him.”

“Do you remember when I peeled the carrots in the shed?” asked Brenden.

“Look at my muscles,” said Denver, flexing a bicep.

“You don’t have any.”

“I definitely feel something on my arm. What do you think this is?” said Denver, pointing.

“Is that like a pimple?” asked Brenden.

Denver McCabe is an aspiring hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, playing for the Mellwood Icebreakers. “I might go to Double A soon,” he said. “It depends on how good I am. My team wasn’t good. They wouldn’t pass the puck, so I was the one who had to pass the most.”

Brendan Carr has studied judo and plays ball hockey. “On my own time, not with a team,” he said. “I played soccer, too, once.” The kicking heading game is beyond the pale. If God had wanted boys to play soccer he wouldn’t have made them with arms.

Brenden is a step dancer, like soccer got done sans hands. Step dance is a dance style in which footwork is by far the most important part of the performance. At ceilidhs in community halls across Prince Edward Island it is accompanied by toe-tapping fiddle tunes.

“Tommy Gallant taught me,” he said.

“But, I mostly taught myself. I was in a class for a year and then I watched and followed Robbie, who’s my uncle. I dance at all of my Uncle Leon’s music shows at the hall. I don’t dance at every one of his concerts, just every one when I’m there. I’ve never been to one since I was four-years-old that I haven’t danced up on stage.”

“I never get called up on stage,” said Denver.

“That’s because you never ask,” said Brenden.

“I asked Leon once, he said yes, but he didn’t even call me up.”

When they’re not jumping rocks, step dancing, or trying to cadge kisses from waitresses, they spend some of the summer at summer camps. Denver goes to a Bible camp in Malpeque and Brenden goes to a rock-n-roll camp in Charlottetown.

“My first son slept in a surplus Canadian Army tent,” said Suzanne McCabe. “He never went back to camp ever again.”

“Denver doesn’t like rock,” said Brenden.

“We were all at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster, rock lobster, rock lobster…”

“I only like pop and country,” said Denver.

“Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack, it’s early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I’m a country boy…”

Brenden probably wouldn’t mind being the lead guitarist in a wildly successful rock-n-roll band. He has a guitar. But, he doesn’t play it. He sings. “I do like to sing,” he said. “I only get nervous when I have to sing in front of my friends.”

“KISS is the worst band ever,” said Denver.

“I listen to KISS a lot,” said Brenden.

When Canada Day finally got dark on July 1st and they craned their necks to watch fireworks exploding over the harbor in nearby North Rustico, Denver and Brenden had two more months of summer to spend in Stanley Bridge before going back to school.

It’s only when you’re still a kid and the long summer is still stretching out in front of you that doing practically nothing all day becomes respectable.

“Are you going to the barbeque?” Brenden asked the next day.

“I’ll probably go with you,” said Denver. “Where is it?”

“It’s right here. Stanley Bridge is a wonderful place. I can see trees and the church from our kitchen window,” said Brenden.

The hub of the universe, re-mixed.

“I like the water. I like walking in it. Everyone should come to Carr’s Oyster Bar, where we are, sometimes, when we’re around here, if you live close,” said Denver. “It’s beside the main road.”

Water is always trying to get back to where it came from.

“Have fun and love life,” said Brenden, with a chuck of the head over his sleeveless t-shirted shoulder, as he and Denver ran off jumping rocks keeping their energy up for the rest of the summer.

 

Photograph by April Carr

The Second Anne Shirley

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“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-two years the musical ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Eighteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, it is in the way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But, I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, in the 1940s was a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly 500 miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war. She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winter being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted ‘Anne of Green Gables’ headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but hadn’t yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen-years-old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested taking singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived I was deaf in one ear. I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But, the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952, ‘Akage no An’ became a part of the country’s school curriculum, and remains improbably popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married 47 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley Stickings was ready to go.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors often are forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where Barry Stickings was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise ‘Anne of Green Gables’.

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But, she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take awhile for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look.” She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down Barry Stickings was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But, I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once offered the counsel, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to the UK. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old, originally the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.” Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town west of Cavendish on the north shore. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, sitting on the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge the thirty thrill feet down into the bay.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to come back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she said, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was ‘The Shore Field’ by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But, I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straightjacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look backward, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of ‘Anne of Green Gables’, seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

Last year, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockeysticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

This year, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley is playing the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’.

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When women actors reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” said George Bernard Shaw.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft weren’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill up and down the spine, the first time and time in hand until the curtain call.

 

Photograph by Andrea Surich

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.

She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the north side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.

She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.

“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour. I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”

Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.

“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”

Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember.

“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long. “My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”

The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of displacing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.

“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.

“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna Reid about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”

“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.

“I remember seeing people jumping off of it since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”

Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A trim fit young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league. “I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.

She may be a chicken on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.

Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first.

“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Ms. Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”

Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging, pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly meeting the New London Bay is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.

“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”

“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”

The plucky come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends. “Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.

“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”

“OK, I’ll jump,” the woman said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over.

“She jumped off and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”

Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”

Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both the Stanley and Southwest rivers, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.

Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”

Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the seas from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to themselves swim to where they want to go.

Jellyfish never give the crustacean freeloaders a second thought.

“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”

The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper.

In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.

“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.

“It felt like nuthin’.”

The bravery of boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.

“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.

On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna Reid, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”

Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.

“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”

The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.

“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”

Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”

A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.

“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I can jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”

She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards off the Stanley Bridge into the dark water of New London Bay.