Syle and Mary Ann

The Compass - - PUZZLERS -

I don’t get all worked up about my neigh­bours. Af­ter all, they are, like the weather, un­pre­dictable and un­con­trol­lable; the wise fella said, now didn’t he — “You can pick your friends, but you CAN’T pick your neigh­bours’’ and you might as well ac­cept that fact of life and make the best of it.

Back in Long Beach - oh, a long time ago, the neigh­bours next door were of­ten the same ones who were there 30-40-50 years be­fore; in­deed, if you so wished, per­chance, you’d be whistling into the wind if you hoped for a change - YOU’D prob­a­bly be long gone, dead and buried be­fore they were.

Syle and Mary Ann were our neigh­bours dur­ing all of my childhood, liv­ing a short ways to the right of us down the Drung lead­ing to our place.

I will tell you about them, but, wait a lit­tle minute, please ... bear with me.

Most of our life in Long Beach was pleas­ant and childhood was a happy time, all con­sid­ered. We didn’t have cen­tral heat­ing or in­door plumb­ing, but we were never hun­gry, and we were clothed well and we were loved “all to pieces.”

True, there was some crowd­ing, we three boys slept in the same bed­room, and the cham­ber pot was of­ten frozen over in the win­ter morn­ing , but we made a game out of it, lin­ing up , one af­ter the other, mak­ing a hole in the ice with welldirected pee. We got up to a warm kitchen, all of us, be­cause our dad was down there, long, long be­fore we woke, with a roar­ing fire in the wood stove and a warm oven we could put our feet into, and a fry­ing pan, siz­zling, filled with baloney and fat back pork, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, fried posies from the bread dough ris­ing all night long wait­ing, very soon, for our mother’s knead­ing hands.

But not every­body had it as good as we did.

Syle and Mary Ann

Syle and Mary Ann lived over there in a small house right next door to us, very close to a big po­tato gar­den that they owned, not far from their root cel­lar. They were old, I sup­pose when you are seven years of age EVERY­BODY is old. They had no chil­dren of their own and lived, to a large de­gree off that po­tato gar­den and what they could col­lect from“relief,” and from scroung­ing the of­fer­ings of the sea brought into Long Beach by the fish­er­men, in­clud­ing that of our fa­ther.

Syle was a big, tall man, and, as big as he was, so was Mary Ann just the op­po­site, tiny and bent over at 4 ft. 10 inches, and she a work horse if there ever was one.

Each day, all sum­mer long, the two trav­elled the short dis­tance to the beach where they gath­ered cod’s heads and sound bones, es­pe­cially the big ones, and salted them, later on dry­ing them on boughs for eat­ing in the win­ter. On very windy days when the fish­er­men were stuck ashore on the land, the two of them would be seen walk­ing to the side of the hill back of Long Beach Pond, a halfmile away, there to col­lect ground ju­niper branches from the bar­rens - the type with the blue coloured berries - and then car­ry­ing a “turn” on their shoul­ders back home to burn in the wood stove, their only source of heat.

They tended that big po­tato gar­den, next door to us; it was their life­line, their main source of food; af­ter all, they ate pota­toes ev­ery day of the year.

In ad­di­tion to that one, they owned a small patch of land up the hill a ways fac­ing Long Beach Pond (close by where they gath­ered the ju­niper). In there, in that small gar­den, they planted a few pota­toes and turnips too, some­times.

An in­ci­dent is worth talk­ing about in re­gard to that par­tic­u­lar gar­den that wel­comes telling, and re­lat­ing a bit about Syle and Mary Ann.

The pota­tio-caplin con­nec­tion

If you grew pota­toes, back then, you HAD to put caplin on them for fer­til­izer; one or two caplin per po­tato plant, and then a shovel full of cov­er­ing clay, and your har­vest was as­sured, guar­an­teed. It was early July that year, and Syle and Mary Ann’s gar­den needed caplin, back there on the side of the hill in there, be­hind Long Beach Pond.

I saw the two of them, strug­gling with a burlap ( brin) bag, on the shoul­der, filled with caplin, cross­ing the brook at the bot­tom of the pond and go­ing up the hill, she car­ry­ing the wet bag, and, then, af­ter a spell, he car­ry­ing it a bit fur­ther. In the mid-morn­ing they reached the gar­den and spread the caplin in long sil­ver shin­ing lines, one or two fish to each plant.

Tired out, they headed home for lunch—bread and tea, and, prob­a­bly, dried salted caplin; the af­ter­noon’s plan was to go back to shovel fresh clay onto the fish.

I don’t know what hap­pened that day, maybe the bil­lions of caplin in the ocean stayed off­shore in the deep wa­ter, pre­vent­ing the gulls from get­ting their rou­tine sum­mer meal, or maybe the gulls got a lik­ing for half rot­ted caplin ly­ing on the ground - what­ever - a ver­i­ta­ble mul­ti­tude of them de­scended upon Syle and Mary Ann’s gar­den. When they re­turned, shov­els in hand, there wasn’t a caplin left.

Far be it from me to tell you what the har­vest of that po­tato field was, when Oc­to­ber came.

But, I will tell you that Mary Ann died that win­ter, of old age, the med­i­cal man said.

And, Syle, now left all alone, di­a­betic, they say, lasted four months longer and died when the sunny days of spring came onto the shore. And, soon the big po­tato gar­den next door, and the one back of Long Beach Pond be­came over­grown with weeds and grass.

But there, each spring, can be seen the shape of the po­tato beds that were cre­ated, long ago, by Syle and Mary Ann, al­most as if the land was wait­ing, once again, for their shov­els and spades.

Dr. Wil­liam O’Fla­herty is au­thor of a best-sell­ing mem­oir en­ti­tled “Tom­cats and House Calls: Mem­oir of a Coun­try Doc­tor.” He worked a 40year ca­reer as a coun­try doc­tor in New­found­land and New Brunswick. He was the coun­try doc­tor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Con­cep­tion Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fish­ing vil­lage of Long Beach, at the lower end North­ern Bay. He writes from Monc­ton, NB.

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