And if I’m going to write about Nanna and Nonno, I have to write about Nanny and Grampy too.
You had two sets of maternal great-grandparents, though I knew my mother’s parents better than my father’s because they lived a mere mile away. My father’s parents lived in Nova Scotia. Or rather, I should say my father’s mother and stepfather lived in Nova Scotia, because Grampy Vic, as I called him, was not the man who raised Papa. That man, Doug Smith, died when Papa was halfway to seventeen, in 1955. It was a terrible trauma for my father, but I didn’t even know it had happened because he never talked about it. He was taciturn and tight-lipped, which meant that I suspected he was always a hair’s breadth away from anger. Still, when I got old enough—nine or ten—I realized that I could get him to talk if he was doing something—painting, plastering, spackling, that sort of thing. I sit cross-legged on the floor and send out a question, then wait for the answer that came in short clips.
“How did you learn to fix things?”
He had learned in school, in carpentry and auto-shop classes.
“But why didn’t you become a fisherman like Grampy Vic?”
How the hell was he going to become a fisherman when he got seasick every time he set foot on the boat? “I used to get sick as a dog.”
“Don’t you miss Nova Scotia?”
I’m not sure when he gave the answer that stuck—whether it was when I was nine, or much later.
“I wouldn’t give you ten cents for that place.”
“That place” was my destination for two weeks of most summers. I took you there when you were not yet two. We stood in my grandmother’s driveway and I looked out over the familiar brown hayfield that rolled down to the shore. In the years since I had visited Nanny as a child, little had changed, but everything had changed. I was the newly divorced mother of a bright button of a boy, but the red and green fishing shacks a mile away—including the shack that had once belonged to Doug Smith—were exactly as I remembered them. It is strange to remember how, on that particular day, even with a bubbling boy-bundle running delightedly around on the grass, I thought I had so little to hope for. I hadn’t yet gone back to graduate school, bought my own house, or found true love. I hadn’t yet become a teacher or unearthed my father’s adoption history. I hadn’t done the arduous eighteen years in therapy that would force me to face not only old pains but also my own unrecognized intellect. I had begun to write, but I hadn’t shared any of my work because I didn’t believe in it or in myself. Writing was a fuzzy dream.
I have what I wrote about Nova Scotia back then. I used to get up early, before you woke up, so I could write. It’s good to able to share it, here, this other part of your heritage:
“Sandford, Nova Scotia is a tiny, hardscrabble fishing village about ten miles north of Yarmouth, the port from which the Prince of Fundy ferries travelers to and from Maine. A horizontal row of tiny houses neat and uniform as baby teeth sit up high on the horizon, broken in each of two places by a clean white steeple; this is the backdrop for a cluster of red fishing shacks nestled by the shore. Tourist literature boasts that Sandford is home to the world’s smallest drawbridge, a red wooden structure that straddles the mouth of an inlet where the boats are docked. It is odd to read that one of the main reasons that people like to visit here is to see what is noted to be the smallest drawbridge…from here you can stand in the evening and watch as the sun sets beyond the Bay of Fundy. It is strange to think of Sandford’s shanties as a tourist destination and of its fisherman as a tourist attraction. To me it was the village in which my father grew up and the place that told me—even as a child—what he could not say himself. In my mind, Sandford was my father: simple, traditional, and pastoral, qualities that enabled me to connect with and love the man who came home each night now spent, angry and uncommunicative. Somewhere in him must be that clean, bright place with blue skies, a sea-salt breeze, and the shrill cries of gulls that circled the shore…the waves, thousands of points of sparkling light so fierce under the sun, it hurt your eyes to look. Somehow he must carry inside him the memory of this place, a landscape almost painfully magnificent in its stark and elemental beauty.
“To get to Sanford, we drove to Portland, Maine, and then onto a ferry that carried us, car and all, across the Bay of Fundy. The journey was a mix of seasickness and wonder: I hated the stuffy, cramped sleeping cabin but delighted in standing on the moonlit deck–we always crossed at night–to watch dolphins jump and dive in the white froth of the ferry’s wake. After the crossing to Yarmouth, came a ten-mile drive over Rural Route 1—the Evangeline Trail after Longfellow’s poem—up through Hebron and Chegoggin, through gently rolling hills dotted with weathered cottages and herds of cows, onto the ramrod straight dirt portion of the road that ran through Sandford. Nanny’s house always seemed fantastically tiny when we finally arrived, a button-sized, green-blue cottage overlooking a half-mile-wide expanse of brambly, rutted fields that sloped between it and the sea. The first owner dug a crude cellar and over it erected three rooms, and after that my father’s father added on. As a result the house had a cobbled-together feel, older parts preserved within newer parts, like the space where an ironing board had once folded up into the wall now a shelf sprinkled with porcelain knick-knacks, or a shaving mirror and medicine cabinet intact on a kitchen wall. A door in the dining room opened to a narrow staircase that led to three perennially chilly bedrooms, heated only by open floor-grates that let up the warm air from the floor below. In the basement my grandmother kept an old-fashioned roller washing machine that she still used to do laundry, her red, rough hands feeding wet clothes through the wringers and then toting a heavy basketful outside to the line. Down behind the house was the outhouse stacked with pages from old catalogs and a fenced-in frog pond where my father had raised chickens and ducks as a boy.
“There were some features of the house—the way of life—that seemed quaint relics of a bygone era. The cool, dank basement—a dirt-floor cave scattered with tools and fishing gear—was a refrigerator of sorts: in a low-ceilinged room off to the side, a long shelf was laden with mincemeat pies, coffee cans of boiled puddings, loaves of brown-bread, and tins of gingersnaps, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. A clothesline strung across the other side of the basement bore not laundry but salt-cured pollock hung by the tail with clothespins. My grandfather would tromp down the rickety steps and peel off a chunk of flesh for a snack, or bring up two or three fish for dinner. These were boiled and served with potatoes and beet greens. With a long-tined fork he would flatten his food into a uniformly patterned disk of white, green and gray which he then doused with butter and hot cream from a pitcher. Grampy Vic as we called him was a huge hulking lobsterman with a bulbous nose and red face, enormous hands and a maw of a mouth. He shoveled the cream-drenched fish in great mouthfuls and washed it down with tea. I sat miserably looking at my own eye-level plate teaming with fish, potatoes and greens, the overpowering fish smell making me want to cry. “You can’t get up ‘til you clean your plate,” he announced and I would sit long after his plate had been cleared. But I don’t remember one instance in which I actually cleaned my own.
“The other fixture in my father’s boyhood home was Nan Goodwin, my great-grandmother Annabelle Frost Goodwin, whom we called Big Nanny. Big Nanny passed the better part of each day nested like a massive hen in her crushed-velvet recliner in a well-lit corner of the living room where she pieced fabric squares for assembly into quilt tops. I remember her hands and her eyes: gnarled, arthritic fingers that deftly pushed a needle in and out of swatches of calico while she squinted half-blindly through spectacles that sat low on her nose. Piecing fabric is all she ever did, speaking rarely and then only to allow that “children should be seen and not heard.” The silence in the living room was punctuated by two sounds: the tick-tock of a little cuckoo clock and Big Nanny’s occasional inward sigh. “Yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh,” she would say as she drew breath in, speaking to no one in particular and in response to nothing said. Big Nan scared me. Her physiognomy, her hands, her hair and eyes, bespoke a constitution as enduring as steel wool: she was conservative, utilitarian, plain and sharp-spoken. Once a day I observed her great waddling gait as she made her way, sighing and clucking, to her chair where once plopped down she remained for the duration.
Nova Scotia has a maritime climate; its summer days are hot and humid but nights are cool enough to sleep under quilts. Nan’s backyard was blindingly bright with white sheets snapping on the line against a sunlit line of ocean that melted into the sky. Nan would hang the laundry and go to town, leaving me in the care of Clara Landers, a girl two years older who lived next door. Clara seemed always to be laughing at me as if I were the most unusual creature she had ever met, a pudgy girl from the States who was afraid of bees and brambles. She would lead me through the pasture to the frog pond, giggling as I winced and recoiled at thorns, insects and mud. How she managed to lure me, one summer, to strip to my underwear and wade in the pond to catch tadpoles is a trick I cannot remember. What I do recall is sitting half-naked and crying, covered from top to toe in sludge, on my grandmother’s stoop until she returned from town while Clara snickered nearby. “Land sakes alive,” Nanny exclaimed boisterously when she finally pulled in. Something happened to one’s voice in Sandford: the ever-present shush of wind and waves fuzzed the edges of words and carried off portions of sentences. Nanny adapted by speaking at the same volume inside the house as she did in the backyard.
“Nanny don’t know why a big girl would make such a fuss over a little mud,” she mused hastily as she roughly washed off the mud.
“For reasons I do not understand she always referred to herself in the third person, and this I think is the reason, in part, that I was unable to feel close to her: she never seemed owner of the thoughts she expressed. Inside the house was cool and dim, and smelling of soap and brown bread, and I swallowed my shame with the buttered toast and cookies that she offered.
“Some days we went berry picking so Nan could make jam. The fields were hot and dry and the bushes prickly. Nan could pick for hours. On other days when I was left in Clara’s care, she and I and her sisters Emma and Ida, and other stray village children would walk a mile down the road “to the Island Pond,” to a secluded spot between two cottages where you could swim. You had to wade out through the shallow part, the bottom of which was slimy with rotting leaves. The other children splashed and swam while I sat on the rocks and watched, self-conscious of my plump pale legs. The return walk back was hot and dusty; sunlight glittered on the road and the village of Sandford was a watery mirage in the distance. On the way back we passed two churches: the Methodist church on one side of the road where the Landers went, and the Baptist church on the other side that Nanny attended. Every Sunday the church bells rang and the Sandford villagers, mostly women in hats, walked half a mile to church, the Methodists on one side of the road and the Baptists on the other. Our church was a simple white-washed structure with a steeple visible from the shore that was said to have been built with timbers that washed ashore when a fishing boat sank. The building was weathered and the pews hard, worn and narrow. “I was glad when they said let us come to the House of the Lord,” the parishioners intoned. I was glad when it was time for the children to leave the service for Sunday school in the basement, where I colored pictures of Jesus and shepherds with broken crayons from a biscuit tin.
“On occasion Grampy Vic took us out on the fishing boat to pull in the lobster traps. We drove down the Shore Road to the fishing shanties in his pickup truck then walked out to the pier where he anchored the boat. Getting onto the boat was the stuff of nightmares for a suburban school child. You reached the boat by climbing down a ladder and then jumping over three feet of dank, gray-green brine to the safety of the boat’s deck. In low tide the boat would bob and sway while the seawater clunked and lapped at the pier’s pilings. Grampy would descend first, then stand with open arms shouting for me to “climb down and jump!” while I stood frozen in terror. At last I was scooped under his arm and carried down like a rag doll, certain that when he leaped over that dark water we would drop into its cold depths and drown. Nothing of the kind happened. The boat soon chugged out past the point where the land was visible and we were afloat in an endless expanse of inky-gray, no obvious reference points beyond an occasional red and white buoy, and the sun.
“How will we find our way back?” I asked him anxiously, and he only laughed and spun the wheel. I clung to side as the vessel churned and coughed to hone in on the trap markers, terrified we would capsize and be swallowed up. On one occasion we entered a pod of right whales, sleek, stone-colored mounds that bobbed to the surface and sprayed. So far out did Grampy go that Nanny kept, on a sill in the kitchen, a pair of worn-out binoculars to scan for the fishing boat at day’s end.
“There’s Grampy, coming in now,” she would say, and know how long until dinner.
“Summers in Sandford are now a series of snapshots relegated to memory, never to be revisited, not even by my own child. The old folks have passed on, the young ones have moved away, and the cottage has burned to the ground. My recollections of the place are the kind children want to hear when they ask parents to “tell me a story about the old-fashioned days.” They are the kind I too wanted but never did hear from my own father until childhood was long gone, and I was grown enough to understand how much of a true story is never told.”
I hated Nova Scotia when I was a kid: I hated the outhouse swarming with flies and having to wipe with an old catalogue. I hated the smell of fish and the scratchy feeling of clothing pulled in from the line. But in the years since I spent summers there, I have learned Papa’s true parentage, secured my dual citizenship papers, and returned to hike the hills of Cape Breton Isle and spend a week living in the house of the acclaimed American-Canadian poet, Elizabeth Bishop. When I was a kid, my father and mother often packed us into the car for long drives into New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont—trips that lacked a destination, which is why we not infrequently found ourselves stuck on dirt roads that led deep into the woods. Often they were hunting roads, and more than once the likelihood that we would emerge unscathed was dubious. But I now think of those drives as a kind of wanderlust on my father’s part, a yearning to outrun or run toward something significant; I am not sure which. But I understand it, because that same urge has compelled me to go back, again and again, as if I am looking for something I’ve lost but will only know it’s mine when I find it.
Does that make sense?
It turns out that my father was running from the same thing I’ve been running toward, and that is the story of family, which is to say, the stories that make us. Legacy, the lives of those who preceded us, which have as much or maybe more impact on who we become than the coincident factors—where we live, go to school, befriend. I guess, now that I think of it, that’s partly what I’m doing here, telling you what came before. That’s something worth your knowing and something worth my doing, though I need to stop for today.