Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Women of The Magdalens

The Women of The Magdalens
W. Lacey Amy
MacLean’s, JULY 1 1911
Photos by the Author

 MANLIKE I concluded that I thoroughly understood the women of those lonely islands in the centre of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, right after my first experience with one of them. I had promised a frankly-requesting Frenchman to take a picture of his new house, with his wife and family in front of it, in order that he might be able to show his wandering brother on the mainland that things were prospering with him. It was, of course, no surprise to me that the wife should not be ready when I called; so that, after I had arranged the husband and one child with all the solemnity of a gallery effort, I waited patiently for the woman to appear. Finally I asked for her.
“She’s not coming,” he replied in his broken English.
“That’s too bad,” I answered indefinitely.
“She hasn’t her best dress on.”
“Oh, I’ll wait for her,” I offered, stooping down to pick the wild strawberries, just then ripe, a month after they had disappeared from Ontario tables.
“But it is not finished yet,” he protested.
That ended it. Nothing short of her best dress, which was not yet finished, was going to appear in the picture he would send to his brother on the mainland. But just then she hurried from the back door and I snapped the shutter.
Later another side of the Magdalen feminine was revealed.
“Follow the beach road,” was the direction I had received from the woman who served me with milk, cream and buttermilk, in large jugs at each meal. The direction was to lead me to the captain of the Government tug, which plies around the islands.
The injunction was specific enough, so I followed the first road that led to the beach. In fact, I followed, but with waning zeal, half a dozen of those uncertain tracks that ended in the sea. At last I discovered two women, and an uncounted number of children pulling weeds in a small garden patch, and, remembering the shyness of the first woman, I approached with most reassuring manner, and asked for something sufficiently definite in directions to prevent my covering the whole island like a census-taker.
These women did not shrink. Instead, they looked up, rose to their feet, ignored my question, and turned to each other to discuss in French the latest gossip. I thought I saw my mistake, and tried French, but after a moment’s splutter I found myself staring idiotically into eyes which looked me up and down with the calmness of women at a costume exhibition. My coat collar was turned down, that I knew—for I had parted from the Woman-who-worries in the best of feeling; and my tie was of that loose, summery kind, which is most effective when misplaced. Yet I felt, however, as if I should turn myself around, as the owner does in selling a horse.
A few yards further a woman attempted to give me directions in English. I had still a quarter of a mile to go, she said. A mile further another woman made the same estimate. By the time I had reached the captain three miles further along I had come to the conclusion that I had been too hasty in forming my conclusions when a Magdalen Islands woman kept me waiting until she was dressed in her best. To be sure, she was shy and proud, but she was also frankly interested and bold, garrulous, critical and able to make the other sex feel like mere men; and there was nothing under the sun she could not guess at if she did not know it. And as I pulled the peg from the captain’s gate it came to me with a great burst of radiance, that the woman of the Magdalens was just a woman, after all. There was some relief in understanding that one could never understand her.
The only fact about the Magdalen women which is certain of support on all occasions is the size of her family. Le Bourdais, the legless telegraph operator on the Islands, turned up his nose at the size of families; but then he was prejudiced. “Pooh!” he sneered between puffs. “Seventeen is the largest family we have, and” —he reflected a moment to add the weight of thoughtful consideration—“there are not very many of them more than fifteen. I took off my hat surreptitiously to the fifteen. Le Bourdais had come from the mainland of Quebec. “Friend of mine over there,” he resumed, by way of explanation of his contempt for seventeen, “one of a family of twenty-two, married a woman from a family of twenty-seven. They have nineteen themselves already.” Then he came hastily to the defence of his friend: “And he’s a young man, yet.”
I went out humbly and counted a nearby pile of lobster traps to get an idea of twenty-seven in one group.
What they do in the families of respectable size I can not see. The parents of the seventeens and fifteens on the Magdalens are now overtaxed for names. So there may happen to be a trifle like a score of youngsters of the same name in the one village, and to make sure of washing the faces of the right ones at night, distinction is made by throwing in the father’s name somewhere with the son’s. Joe Anizim Burke is Joe Burke, the son of Anizim Burke. Joe Burke P. is the tag attached to Joe, the son of Peter; and he was not Joe Peter Burke, nor even Joe Burke Peter. But the mothers are too busy raising them to stop to think of new names—and if it were left to the father he would be working in “Cod,” or “Mackerel,” or “Haddock,” or “Herring,” or some such name descriptive of the limits of his imagination.
With all these family cares, the women find time to attend to their work—which means more than washing dishes, hunting bargains and studying the hair-dressers’ windows. They do not know what bargains and hairdressers are. It is an unwritten law that man was made to fish, and woman to do the rest. Coming in from the sea in the fish boat—the man’s home—the woman clutches the sides, fixes her eyes on the cross-bar in front of her, and prays quietly until the bottom grates on the pebbles. Then she goes to the farm, plows, reaps, gardens, does the housework, spanks those of the fifteen who are not away fishing, and in her spare time hitches up the little French pony to the “charette” and digs clams for the next day’s fishing. At night she walks down to the fish-house on the sandbar, where her lord lives through the summer, and has the meal prepared for him on his return from the fishing grounds.
These fish-houses are a sort of two-storey stable. In the ground apartment is a miscellaneous collection of bait, decaying fish heads, lobster traps, nets, salt, and other odoriferous necessities of the profession. Above the single board ceiling is the drawing-room, which is also kitchen, diningroom and bedroom. The sitting-room is the steps leading on the outside to this second story. Sometimes it serves as the bathroom as well, as I discovered when batches of the fifteen, unembarassed, were lined up for cleansing operations.
Even the turning of the cod on the flakes is the work of the women. Groups of men delight to stand around these flakes on a day too stormy to fish, and watch the girls and women staggering under the heaped carriers. They even allow their wives to dig the bait while they smoke and lazily clean up their boats.
But some of the younger women retain the feminine instinct. With the Woman-who-worries I had walked to Etang du Nord, on the north side of Grindstone Island, to secure some fishing scenes. In that village there was no striking inducement for a woman who was not broken in, to wander further along the shore than the edge of the houses. The Norder has the uncomfortable habit of cleaning his fish on the shore and trusting to the tide to scavenge. But its scavenger corps evidently lacks organization and system, judging from the two-foot bank of fish cleanings that maintains a permanent division between the high and the low-tide driveways.
To the Woman-who-worries, remaining alone beyond the fish-cleaning lines, there came tripping down with feminine pride a young woman, conspicuously arrayed for the occasion in striking waist and huge lace collar. Only a few minutes previously she had been visible at a door in typical fish-wife garb. But now she approached with all the confidence of her distinctive attire, and calmly surveyed the mainland costume. A young man rose from the steps of a bait-house and walked briskly across to the two women.
“That your man?” he asked, pointing along the shore to me.
The Woman-who-worries was forced under the circumstances to acknowledge me.
“That’s my girl!” he said proudly, nodding at the gay waist. And the girl preened herself and turned to expose a new elevation.
But there are other women on the Islands. Over at Amherst live four sisters, the only English women on that Island. For years unknown in number to ordinary knowledge, they and their parents have dwelt on the same point of land—Shea’s Point, it is called, after them. All around the Point the four sisters can look down upon the remnants of wrecks that have blown ashore before their eyes for many years, in the wild storms of the Gulf. For forty years, and more, they and their mother have provided the only accommodation for visitors; and in token of it they show with pride an ancient, velvet-backed autograph album that has been the only register of kind words left them. They are not young, but their hospitality remains fresher than their faces. It never grows stiff, or weak, or weary, as their old bones shall some day.
Their father was a fish merchant, the squire of the Island, but at his death, his daughters could not continue the fish business, and so the eldest has taken for her special care the old store, where she makes her share of the expenses by dealing out candy, spools and groceries. Her stock is not large, but the other stores see that she never runs out of supplies.
When the ill-fated Lunenburg, the predecessor of the present steamship, left Amherst on the trip that was unwillingly changed from the second last one of the season to its last for all time, Mary Shea enquired anxiously of the owner of the boat what she would do if the boat was unable to get back from the mainland before winter.
“Rest assured, we’ll get back,” he answered lightly.
But Mary was not satisfied. She had seen many Magdalen winters.
And Leslie, to relieve her anxiety, turned to the manager of his store. “If we should not get back, give Mary all she wants,” he ordered. Thus the old store was not closed that winter.
“And,” concluded Mary, as she told me of that terrible wreck off West Point lighthouse, “you could travel the four globes and not find a nicer man.”
The sisters have erected a new three storey house just above the old one, but nothing would induce them to tear down the squatty old affair their father built and their mother adorned. In imitation of the prints they have seen of modern summer hotels, the new one has a verandah across the entire front, approached by imposing steps and backed by a glass surrounded door. It is the largest house on the Islands, as befits the dignity of its use; and within its parlor is one of the two or three organs that have been the marvel of the Islanders. Even before I looked at the titles of the sheets of music on the rack, I knew what I would find: “Sweet Marie,” “He Never Smiled Again,” “Break the News to Mother,” “My Sweetheart Went Down With the Maine,” “After the Ball,” “In the Gloaming,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” and the “Maiden’s Prayer.” The organ was never heard during my visit, but the tone it gave the surroundings was considered sufficient to justify its presence.
On every piece of furniture was a “tidy,” on the floors were thick, variegated, hooked rugs, on the rugs were handworked foot-stools, and on the wall a design of roses worked out in sea shells. One of the sisters attended to the wants of her few guests; the others cooked in a small detached shanty, weeded vegetables and carried the water from the old pump in the older house.
It was a pleasant place to rest, from the eight o’clock breakfast bell to the golden sunset, and on into the gleaming moonlight. Just before the sun set behind the low sandbar far away across Pleasant Bay, one of the sisters would scurry around after a few gadabout turkeys, reluctant to leave the evening peace. A lamb bleated plaintively from its rope fastening near the edge of the cliff, and another sister ran to calm it with a tin of water. That lamb was destined to supply the winter’s meat, and its inmortant position in the household economy could not be neglected. A cow stood hopelessly gazing from the only unfenced side of its field, down, down, sixty feet to the ocean’s edge, where the ugly ribs of the wrecked hulls lay waiting for the storm to tear away a few more planks.
Later, we sat on the verandah, in a moonlight that rivalled the day. The large, yellow orb looked down on the sleeping Island from the southeast, casting a lonesome radiance full of shadows over the anchored fishing fleet. Below us the fishhouses were wrapped in early slumber. A charette rattled clumsily down the road, the little pony lazily responding to the woman returning over-late from the farm work. One of the Shea sisters crept quietly out of the shadows by the gate on her way back from the Catholic church where she had been preparing for the next day’s services; her “nice, fine evening,” and “good night” were what we had been waiting for before retiring.
A wind blew, strong, through the bedroom window, but its mildness enticed to one last look over Pleasant Bay in the wonderful moonlight. Just a stone’s throw distant two old masts protruded from the water, silent reminders of other conditions, when the moon did not shine, and the water was rippling to more than a summer breeze. Out there, a dark shadow glided slowly along in the moonlight and stopped. For a moment it swung; and then the side-lights of an anchored boat told of the fisherman who had wandered to over-distant fishing grounds, and was willing to risk his boat under the cliffs to save the time of tacking into the fishing harbor further over.

Four hours later, at one in the morning, the fish-houses would be alive again with fishermen preparing for the day’s fishing. And the women would hurriedly clean up the breakfast dishes, hitch the ponies and hasten to their tasks on the farms.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.