Coastal Lives

by Silver Donald Cameron and Marjorie Simmins

The paddles bite the water, the fat yellow kayaks slide forward in the April sunlight. It feels good to be on the water again, watching Marjorie patrolling the flat beach at Boundary Bay, BC with Leo, the whippet. The kayaks float in three inches of water, but our 13-year-old niece Jocelyne has run aground, and she giggles, paddling backward to free herself.

I grew up here on the West Coast; my parents lie in a cedar-rimmed cemetery two miles away. But the Maritimes have been my home for 30 years and, truthfully, I would never have come back but for Marjorie, to whom the West Coast is as essential as air to a bird. You couldn’t leave the Maritimes, she said, early in our courtship. You wrap your village around you like a cloak. And I couldn’t leave the West Coast. Then don’t, I said. Just add the East Coast.

Just add the East Coast, he said. I hardly knew where it was. Born in Ottawa, raised in Vancouver, my idea of “east” stretched only to Montreal. Yet the home this man described lay 1000 miles beyond Quebec, on a 42.5-square-kilometre island. Isle Madame, population 4300, at the southeast corner of Cape Breton Island.

Look at them out there, laughing together, my mischievous girl and my boy-hearted husband. I take a mental photograph of the two of them in this Pacific world. Tomorrow we go home to Nova Scotia; today I store images of my beloved West Coast. If I could, I’d fit Jocelyne into my suitcase. She’d come, too. She loved her visit to the Maritimes last summer. Even tells my sister, “Mum, we have to move to Nova Scotia.”

We migrate between oceans: three seasons in Nova Scotia, winters in BC. I have learned to love Pacific things again: the towers of downtown Vancouver spiking upward against the snow-sugared mountains, the pink flowering of plum and cherry, the flat channel-seamed delta of the Fraser River, the sense of the Orient lying out beyond the ocean horizon.

Despite its occasional storms, this coast seems dreamy, soft, almost absent-minded. Sailboats here carry tall rigs, light sails and reliable engines, sharing the sounds and fjords with the seine boats I grew up with — white-painted and varnished, snub-nosed, at once muscular and stylish. Out here “fish” means the flashing, leaping varieties of Pacific salmon: chinook, pink, sockeye, coho. At home it means the deep-feeding, slow-moving cod.

The Atlantic coast is hard, blustery, tangy with iodine. Marjorie found the Maritimes more foreign than Europe.

“Tell me when to panic,” I said as we drove for the first time towards his home in the village of D’Escousse, population 250. The road was abundantly lined with silver oaks and apple trees, but the second-and third-growth evergreens behind these looked to me like baby Christmas trees. Most houses were tall rectangles, many with flat roofs. No glass-flecked Vancouver stucco here: houses were either wood-shingled or vinyl-sided. Colours ranged from white to sage green and barn red; facades were either utterly plain or softened by decorative shutters and ornate fretwork — “carpenter’s lace.”

The grounds were plain, too. Few were studded by trees or bushes, and fences were blue-moon rare. Instead I saw clotheslines propped up by poles, the clothes ordered precisely along them from large to small, like colourful handkerchiefs in the breeze.

“All right, time to panic.” We’d already passed through several villages — and I couldn’t tell when we left one and entered another. Nonetheless, three and a half hours from Halifax, we had reached D’Escousse, an ancient French word for “a stopping place.”

And so we stopped. Another tall house, Wedgewood blue with a flat roof. Grateful to reach journey’s end, I walked into a spacious and beautifully-restored home that had its first incarnation over 100 years ago, when the very first trains were pulling into Vancouver. Isle Madame itself has been home to Europeans for almost 300 years.

For me, Maritime history has catapulted out of books and into the land of now, my life. I see this history in the enormous, elaborate Victorian homes of Annapolis Royal, and hear it in the lilting accents of my neighbours. “Yiss, yiss,” said one the other day, “Well, dat man’s right owly. And why? Life’s too short t’ be mean.” Many of them speak Acadian French, which relies mostly on the familiar “tu” form of address. “What’s this about privacy?” laughs a friend. “We’re Acadians.”

Visitors are frequent, and mostly unannounced, and doors are never bolted. “If you lock up,” say neighbours, “how would we get in?” So in they come, sometimes for a cup of tea, often to bring a small gift — a loaf of bread, still warm from the oven, or a bag of “lobster goo,” hideously stinky broken shells to fertilize the garden. “How are you today?” asks the city girl, nervously patting her yet-uncombed hair. Invariably, cheerfully: “Oh good, dear, good. You?”

When we first lived together in BC, I felt abandoned. Marjorie locked the doors, and only couriers came to the house. Marjorie, I said, what’s the matter with people here? Don’t they like each other?

But the difference is partly rural-urban, not merely east-west. I had almost forgotten the pleasures of the city. In Vancouver, we go to the symphony, see first-run films in real theatres, eat superbly in what seem like a million cosmopolitan restaurants. The city means easy access to great libraries, zoos and aquariums, live theatre, a dram of Laphroaig on a sun-dappled deck beside a downtown marina.

Marjorie loves food; me, I always thought of it as fuel. But on Valentine’s Day she organized a feast. We went to the farmer’s market and the seafood shops on Granville Island and came home with live oysters and fresh shrimp, crusty Italian bread, crisp raddichio and yellow peppers and red onions — and a succulent, operatic German chocolate dessert. Marjorie feasts us in D’Escousse, too, but she drives 30 miles to pick through a far skimpier array of ingredients.

In my youth Granville Island was an industrial district. I drove a truck down there to pick up galvanized metal for a heating company. Now it’s a chic oasis of boutiques, boats, food shops, theatres, bookstores and galleries. One gallery is devoted to the bold art of British Columbia’s 200 native bands. There I bought Marjorie a ring to mark our happy first year of marriage. It was made by Derek Wilson, of the Haisla tribal nation, an elegant engraving of a gold hummingbird on silver.

I didn’t know that Nova Scotia has just one aboriginal nation, the Mi’kmaq, with whom I shared tea and talk last July at the annual Ste. Anne’s Mission celebration on the Bras d’Or Lakes. In BC, the various First Nations people I’ve schooled and worked with all seemed to share a common genetic gift: humour as richly contoured as the west coast itself. The Mi’kmaq are like that, too. But I didn’t know of their long-standing commitment to the Roman Catholic church, a result of 500 years of European contact. I want to learn how Mi’kmaq traditional spirituality meshes with Christianity.

I’d also never heard the term “kitchen racket” until I came to Cape Breton. Last summer we had our very own kitchen racket to celebrate our marriage, a party that brought more than 200 guests to our home. Fifty pounds of mussels, bowls of pickled herring or “Solomon Gundy.” The skin of an Irish bodhran drum warmed against the steady strike of palm and fist; its Celtic heartbeat blended with guitar, piano and a full chorus of voice. Three days passed before the final guests left. The freezer bulged with party offerings, fed us for weeks afterwards. Never in my life have I experienced so much sustained good will and merriment. Or had so many willing hands to help with a clean-up.

Free again, Jocelyne paddles by. When she visited us last summer, I organized a tour to places new to both Marjorie and Jocelyne — to the golden beaches of Prince Edward Island, and to a friend’s homestead in the Island woods where the loudest sound was the drumming whir of hummingbirds in the hollyhocks and morning glory. We prowled Charlottetown, bought ice cream at the original Cows outlet, saw Anne of Green Gables at the Confederation Centre.

We crossed the 13-km Confederation Bridge and drove on to Bouctouche, NB, home of the tycoon K.C. Irving and the Acadian novelist Antonine Maillet, whose works inspired a theme park on pilings out in the sluggish river. We went to the salty old German town of Lunenburg, a World Heritage site, all curlicues and gargoyles, where the Folk Harbour Festival gave Jocelyne a taste of East Coast music. We breakfasted on a balcony overlooking Lunenburg’s waterfront with its fish plants, warehouses and schooners, and photographed Jocelyne aboard Bluenose II.

When I think of Jocelyne’s visit, I remember the natural way she moved aboard Silversark, our red-sailed, black-hulled cutter, which resembles a saucy pirate vessel. No less saucy and confident was Jocelyne, when we went for an overnight sail through the island-peppered waters of Lennox Passage. Sailing came to her as if by osmosis. “That’s my west coast marine girl,” I thought proudly. I’d have given a lot for her mother, a former commercial fisherman, to have seen her daughter’s sure, soft tread on deck.

Or to have heard her explosion of giggles when we saw a yellow and red highway sign advertising “McLobster” sandwiches. “St — stop the car!” she sputtered, “I have to take a photo.” She has the photo, but we didn’t try the sandwich.

I miss that girl.

I know some things that Marjorie misses: the fishing ports of Steveston and Ladner, the sea-girdled campus of the University of British Columbia, where both of us have studied and worked. She misses the taste of sushi and golden battered prawns, the smell of the horse barns in Southlands, the riverside trails where she rode and walked Leo. Above all she misses her easy visits with friends and family, just as I miss my own Vancouver family — and, increasingly, Marjorie’s as well.

I love the East Coast — its water-dappled landscapes, its architecture, its music, its savory language, its general snugness. I marvel at its casual assimilation of its dark and bloody history, and revel in the intimate web of family and place which cradles its people so that they are never truly at home anywhere else. After three decades, I am like that myself.

Yet though the flowering branches of my life are Atlantic, its roots are Pacific. Vancouver is a spectacular kaleidoscope, with its pagodas and minarets and geodesic domes, its log booms and exotic restaurants, its freighters clustered in the outer harbour, its sprawling air of sybaritic luxury. But beneath that kaleidoscopic splendour, Vancouver is a disconcertingly ductile place, so young and volatile that it is always becoming something else. Nova Scotia, after 400 years, has condensed into something stable and unique, deeply rooted in the Old World and yet ineluctably situated in the New.

Marriage came with one lover, two lives. And yet they balance each other, these coasts — old and new, city and village. I smile at the man in the kayak, laughing again with the girl. For us, home is always salt water, and one another.

— 30 —

Copyright, Silver Donald Cameron and Marjorie Simmins. This article was published in En Route magazine, 1997.