Zoomer Nation

Cross-Canada Zoomer Nation Part Four


“I learned so much about my country and my people,” Naomi Harris says of her cross-country photographic exploration.

Her sojourn ends in Atlantic Canada, where it’s not uncommon to hear look-you-straight-in-the-eye queries like, “Where are you from?” and “Who’s your father?” It’s the unabashed way of finding out if you are part of the club: Easterners who’ve left to find work yet who forever yearn for “home.” But, as Harris, whose grandmother entered Canada through Pier 21 in Halifax in 1928, discovered, the welcome here is just as warm for anyone “from away.”

At Cape Spear, Nfld., the most easterly edge of our North American world, Cris Boyd, 63, Larry McGregor, 61, and their motorcycles caught our photographer’s eye – without her camera. They waited while she retrieved it from her hotel. They were kindred spirits of a sort – they’d just
completed their own cross-Canada tour, launched
from their home in White Rock, B.C. “Road trips are great,” Harris concedes. “And it’s good for the economy. Keep the money here.” Near Perth, N.B., Ed Sullivan, 58, Chris DeMerchant, 58, and “Alley” Smith, 63, of a department of transportation road crew, took a brief break for Harris’s lens. Smith’s beard is really what made her pull over. “He looked like he was part of rock band ZZ Top,” she says.

Music here is the soundtrack to generations of kitchen parties well-soaked in the local “hooch,” Newfoundland Screech, where somebody either hums a tune or plays a fiddle, drum – or as in the case of the Cape Shore Boys’ Wilson Hayward, 85, plays an ugly stick (basically a duded-up broom handle). A lifelong resident of Bonavista, Nfld., Hayward began fishing for inshore cod at the age of 10 and later worked in the forest industry. His late wife, Doris Mae, taught him to bake so he could make bread in lumber camps.

But perhaps more than a natural propensity for cordiality, it’s the siren call of the sea – the steely rawness of the cold waters of the Atlantic – that defines Maritimers and Newfoundlanders alike. History laid down a mélange of Mi’kmaq, Scots, English, Irish, French – and blacks, who arrived in Nova Scotia during the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and, later, by way of the Underground Railway. Hard and frequently dangerous work harvesting the riches of the ocean and the forests and a not-always-rewarding life of farming bred a hardy and tenacious people who turned to family and community for strength and amusement.

Harris met Tommy Gallant, 89, fishing off a dock at Stanley Bridge, P.E.I. The retired commercial fisher once caught a bluefin tuna weighing 1,070 pounds. “I couldn’t stay away from her, for God’s sake,” he says of his lady love, fishing. Henry Vokey, 82, of Trinity, Nfld., is another who can’t quit. After building more than 1,000 wooden boats, for which he was awarded the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, he decided to make one more. The Leah Caroline, a 43-foot schooner named for his late wife, Caroline, and his great-granddaughter, Leah, should be ready to launch in June 2012. During the winter, Vokey builds model ships.

In Twillingate, Nfld., Irene Pardy, 77, a retired public health nurse who had been the nurse on the Bonnie Nell II, which brought health care to outport communities in the late 1950s, regaled Harris with tales of the demanding but rewarding struggle to reach ill or injured patients.  Often, there was no doctor aboard. Once in a while,
Pardy encounters people whose teeth she had pulled or grown-up babies she had delivered.

Before retiring from teaching, Cecil Stockley, 62, started a local summer industry in 1984 by taking people out to see the icebergs off Twillingate. Stockley, known as the Iceberg Man, also sponsors the Iceberg Cup, the coveted trophy for the Female Invitational Hockey Tournament he founded.

Harris also discovered that Down East can look to the Far East; these are not an insular people as their gaze is not just local but global. At Gampo Abbey, Pleasant Bay, N.S., Migme Chodron, 87, told her how she’d been an organic chemist but had started meditating in 1969, due to an interest in “going to different levels of reality – in my reality and the world itself.” She took her vows to become a Buddhist nun in 1989. Kalsang (Aaron Klokeid), 59, started to learn transcendental meditation at 19 and moved to the abbey after he became a monk seven years ago. Similarly, tai chi has captivated Gary Irwin-Kenyon, 62, and wife, Liz Irwin-Kenyon 59. They teach the martial art form twice a week in her hometown of St. Andrews by-the-Sea, N.B. But, typical of our multi-tasking Zoomer Nation, she also runs an organic B&B; he chairs the gerontology department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton and uses tai chi in workshops on meaningful aging.

For some, meaningful aging is about staying the course and remembering who you are and where you’ve come from. Dulcie Toms, 76, can’t give up running the general store in Rattling Brook, Nfld. She’d miss people she’s served there since marrying the owners’ son at 19; customers would miss an old-fashioned social hub. In Halifax, Mary Murphy, 96, was a two-year-old in a crib when the 1917 Halifax Explosion wrecked her house. She still lives in the re-built home. “Mary worked for the [then] department of lands and forests for 48 years, with much of her career as chief administrator to the deputy minister,” Harris says. “They came and went, but Mary stayed.”

On the other hand, Ruth May Kells, 86, of Dartmouth, N.S., finished wartime service on the East Coast as a wireless operator in the RCAF and headed to Prince Rupert, B.C., where $300 bought her a 1930 Chev coupe with a rumble seat. During the Cold War, she intercepted coded signals for Canada’s most secret intelligence establishment. But she’s back. “I’m not ready to pack it in,” she told Harris, “but I’d say I was lucky. I don’t think I would have changed
anything.”  —Jayne MacAulay