‘Poor Cecil has been drowned’
Perhaps because I’m a writer with a penchant for all things historical, every now and then someone will give me a document of archival interest. Sometime ago, a friend gave me a photocopy of a personal letter he had in his possession. Some of the writing is illegible. However, enough is legible to recreate a scenario which must have brought great sorrow and sadness to all parties concerned.
Postmark: South River, Conception Bay. Date: Oct. 30, 1939.
A woman, who signs her name as Margaret, picks up a pen and begins to write a letter. She addresses her correspondent as “My Dear Marion.” The burden of Margaret’s missive will bring deep sadness to the reader. Which accounts for her hesitation in knowing exactly how to write and what to say. She carefully chooses her words.
“I don’t know how to begin to write you,” she admits somberly. “It’s with a very sad heart that I’ve got to write this news to you.
“ The worst must come, I suppose,” she adds stoically, “or maybe you already know.”
Her next phrase is made up of what are perhaps the weightiest words Margaret will ever write and Marion will ever hear: “poor Cecil has been drowned.” Marion is Cecil’s brother; Margaret is Cecil’s wife. One can only imagine Marion’s initial reaction.
The Cecil in this letter is, according to his baptism certificate, which is attached to the letter my friend gave me, Cecil Ferdinand Smith, son of John Bishop and Mary Jane Smith. Born July 19, 1906, Cecil was baptized at All Saints Church, Salmon Cove. He lived at South River and was a fisherman. He was 33 when he died.
Margaret continues, “I’ve made several attempts to write and tell you.” Not surprisingly, she “couldn’t do it.” Eventually, she committed herself to the solemn task, primarily for one reason: “ Your father has been at me all day to write. So I must.”
In capsule form, the story goes as follows: “ They lost the ‘Nelson’ at Sacred Islands, Quirpon. All the crew got in motorboat, engine failed to work. Cecil sculled” — used an oar to propel the vessel — “ her nearly to land, then they all jumped.”
The story gets worse: “ Father, Cecil & Mr. Tom Bursey fell backwards when they jumped & the undertow took them. Father stayed in boat until she drove ashore, & that’s how he got saved. He is brokenhearted. It happened 17th. Crew didn’t get home until yesterday.”
Margaret is almost at a loss for words. Still, she pushes on: “All I can say is God’s will be done. I wonder how I’ll ever live it down.
“Marion, you’ll never know what I’m going through. No one but myself & God. I’ve prayed (every moment since Mr. Gruchy came with message) that God would take Frankie & I.” Frankie is the son of Marion and Cecil.
Frankie is “ breaking my heart,” his mother says. “ This past month, every day he says, ‘ Mommy, Ce-ce daddy gone fish Labrador for Frankie.’ Cecil often said to me that Frank was thought too much about, & that something would happen (to) him. Oh! how little did Cecil think that this would happen.
“He had a job as manager in the staff house at Lourdes, west coast, to go first week in November. Frank, he & I were going to go, seventy dollars a month. With the Co-operative people.
“ What man appoints, God disappoints.
“ We were so happy to have each other that we often used to say, it was too good to last long. I hope & pray that poor Cecil is better off, & that the time will hurriedly speed along for us to be together again.
“I know he’s your brother & that you will find it more than hard. But, Marion, I’d rather lose all belong to me, & have Cecil, if only for one day more. Yet I’d gladly give my life for it. I’ve been loving Cecil with all my heart & soul since I was 17 & now I’m 26, & I’m confident that he loved me just as much. If his body is recovered, your father is going to have it brought home & buried. It’s a miracle that anyone was saved.
“Please remember Frankie & I in your prayers. It’s only with God’s help that I’ll ever keep up. I wish you were near so I could talk to you. That’s all I can say for now. Your father & all the crew are well & not finding any aftereffects. Your father didn’t have a thing insured. But what difference about that if only the lives weren’t lost. Write me.
“Let’s hope dear Cecil is better off.”