Emily: Song of a Newfoundland Life
When Newfoundlanders meet they immediately attempt to identify each other, to locate each other’s roots in the history of ‘The Rock’. “Who are your people?” they ask. Denise Batten, author of ‘Emily: Song of a Newfoundland Life’ (Killick Press) is a Davis from Colinet. Her grandmother – the Emily of the title – was a Marrie from Mount Carmel.
It is Emily’s story Denise Batten tells, both in the versified text of the book and in the ballad that you can listen to her sing online at ‘www.denisebatten.wordpress.com’
As well as being told in song, Emily’s story is illustrated by a series of hooked rugs Batten’s mother-in- law, Kaaren Batten, especially designed and crafted for this book.
At first, I read Emily’s song. Then I barred myself in a room, clamped on my headphones, plugged into iTunes and listened to Denise sing. Something magical happened. With music as ethereal and clear as tapped crystal streaming into my ears, and while eyeballing the hooked rug illustrations, I was transported to someplace mythical where the Sister Fates weave human destiny into tapestries.
Emily was born in “This marvellous terrible place.”
These words, hooked in yarn that has been steeped in heart’s blood, border the rug depicting Emily’s outport home.
Emily “could berry pick, could bake a pie.”
There’s a rug showing berry pickers with children stooped in a godawful harvester’s hunch plucking fruit to fill their buckets.
As it was a thread of Emily’s destiny to pick berries, so it was a thread of mine. I bet a loonie, Emily – as most children did – enjoyed berry picking.
However, I curse the Sister Fates for stringing me off to the berry barren. Perhaps I was a sour boy but to this day – to this very moment – I feel the pain of that characteristic berry picking squat and feel like chucking rocks at the Fates if they were handy. Back to the magic. Here’s my favourite image from the song: ‘Silver thaw’s response to sun – tears of sorrow, Emily’.
At 16, Emily was required to leave home and go to work in St. John’s, to go ‘in service’ in the home of wealthier people, as did many other outport maidens of the time.
The rug ‘Leaving Home’ shows Emily, dressed in grey, bordered in grey, sitting back on, her posture – even though her shoulders are no bowed – suggesting sorrow.
The night before she leaves home, I s’pose, Emily lies on her narrow bed, her heels kicked up in what might be the last innocent moment of childhood, like a Louisa May Alcott heroine.
Look at the windowpanes in the rug. Are those the shapes of fairies in the frost (?) or am I interpreting them as if I were the subject of Rorschach inkblot testing?
They’re fairies I ‘ low, because a “Fairy girl in the moonlight glow” sings songs to comfort Emily.
Don’t hate me for this next bit, Denise.
When I first saw the rug showing Emily, portmanteaux in hand, approaching the row of jellybean houses, I couldn’t suppress thoughts of a forlorn Mary Poppins. But when I let the picture seep deeper into my noggin, I realized Emily is more like Jane Eyre trudging across the moorlands to Rochester’s house.
And like Jane she perseveres despite the knots and tangles those horrid Sisters tie into her tapestry … or something.
Emily found true love with Simon, became a mother, “worked the land with strength and courage,” and like Maurya in Synges’ play ‘Riders to the Sea’ worried herself sick when her men folk were on the saltwater.
I fear rocks from Kaaren Batten for what I’m about to scribble.
Many of the clouds shown in the rugs have paisley shapes – kinda. Some remind me of amebae; others, with thorny tails, remind me of scorpions.
Are there symbols at work? Amebae suggesting a world teaming with life; scorpions suggesting perils a’ plenty?
Or am I just an aged, former schoolmaster with a skull full of misfiring synapses?
Denise Batten’s book and song are testaments to Emily, and that’s the main thing. They are testaments to a strong, inspirational woman who was liberated long before any latter day feminists stripped-off and set fire to their foundation garments.
In a frontispiece grandmother Emily smiles, all rosy-cheeked, from a sepia snap like so many of the grandmothers of those of us with entwined Newfoundland roots.
Denise Batten is a Davis from Colinet.
I’m a Walters from Random Island.
Thank you for reading.