Whim­sey as well as his­tory in ‘Sea­sons’

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Joan Sul­li­van Joan Sul­li­van is ed­i­tor of New­found­land Quar­terly mag­a­zine. She re­views both fic­tion and non-fic­tion for The Tele­gram.

Sea­sons Be­fore the War By Ber­nice Mor­gan, il­lus­trated by Brita Granström

Run­ning the Goat Books & Broad­sides

$29.95 44 pages

This story be­gins in the best way, “Once upon a time …”

Ber­nice Mor­gan has writ­ten sev­eral nov­els, in­clud­ing “Ran­dom Pas­sage,” and short story col­lec­tions; she’s also pub­lished shorter non-fic­tion pieces, of­ten on cul­ture and place. “Sea­sons Be­fore the War,” which was orig­i­nally com­mis­sioned by Shall­away Youth Choir as nar­ra­tive text thread­ing through a Christ­mas con­cert, fits nicely in that last niche, “in a world where the First World War was his­tory and the Sec­ond World War unimag­in­able … “

“Sea­sons,” Mor­gan’s me­moir of her early child­hood, is di­vided into those parts of the year. In “Spring … ev­ery field be­longed to a dif­fer­ent crowd. Our crowd was made up of me and my brother Char­lie … The boys played ball and rolled hoops; we girls played hop-scotch and skip­ping and house – out­lin­ing rooms with stones, order­ing in­vis­i­ble chil­dren about, and serv­ing seeds and flow­ers to our dolls on bits of bro­ken china. But more of­ten than not younger boys and girls played to­gether; games of ‘Hoist your sails and run …”

It was a time of great phys­i­cal free­dom for kids. “Un­less you had un­nat­u­rally pro­tec­tive par­ents, around the age of five or six you were judged old enough to leave the field and roam nearby streets, usu­ally in tow with an older brother, sis­ter, or neigh­bour child.”

Although they were still cau­tioned to stick close to home. “Our fam­ily in­cluded Nanny and my Aunt So­phie … Aunt So­phie went to movies, used lip­stick, knew all the ra­dio songs, and had un­con­di­tion­ally em­braced town life. The other adults, in­clud­ing my Trin­ity Bay-born fa­ther, were more leery of St. John’s.

“From in­fancy our lit­tle heads were filled to the brim with blood-chill­ing sto­ries about the hor­rors that be­fell dis­obe­di­ent chil­dren … chil­dren who left the higher lev­els to play around coves and wharfs and were never seen again.”

Far from be­ing cod­dled, chil­dren were also privy to the news and knowl­edge of the adult sphere. “The sup­per ta­ble was where we learned ev­ery­thing about the known world … Our fa­ther was a car­pen­ter. He wor­ried con­stantly about money, and was given to do­ing sums on the table­cloth with the stub of a pen­cil … ‘Paid,’ our fa­ther would say, cir­cling the word with his pen­cil. ‘Paid is the best word in the English lan­guage.’”

In “Sum­mer … There were more horses than trucks back then, horses hauled coal and lum­ber, de­liv­ered gro­ceries, and brought milk ev­ery morn­ing be­fore dawn. Shiny black horses pulled flower-cov­ered cas­kets to grave­yards and farm­ers’ horses came door-to-door ev­ery Satur­day … The farm­ers, thin wiry men with brown crum­pled faces, seemed happy but didn’t say much.”

Reg­u­lar house­hold chores in­cluded gro­cery shop­ping. “In our neigh­bour­hood there were two big gro­cery stores — each about the size of to­day’s twocar garage … Fam­i­lies were very faith­ful to their cho­sen gro­cer; it was con­sid­ered un­der­handed to deal at more than one store, rather like be­long­ing to two re­li­gions.” But there was lit­tle money for treats from the candy store: “we just looked through the candy shop win­dow at glass jars filled with choco­late mice, le­mon jaw-break­ers, Mary Janes, and co­conut snow­balls.”

Ev­ery­thing do­mes­tic was crafted by some in­di­vid­ual. “There was a man who made clothes pins from scraps of wood; one who fixed bikes; and an­other who sharp­ened knives and scis­sors, and mended pots — or per­haps it was the same man. Th­ese work­shops were in front porches or sheds, where men worked all alone, usu­ally with the door open, never seem­ing to no­tice a line of watch­ing chil­dren.”

Then came the fall when

“Un­less you had un­nat­u­rally pro­tec­tive par­ents, around the age of five or six you were judged old enough to leave the field and roam nearby streets, usu­ally in tow with an older brother, sis­ter, or neigh­bour child.” — Ex­cerpt from “Sea­sons Be­fore the War”

Mor­gan be­gan for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. “That year, near the end of Au­gust, our mother be­gan talk­ing about new shoes and school uni­forms — about my be­gin­ning Kinder­garten. Un­til then I’d wanted to start school, was ea­ger to show the world that I knew my let­ters and colours. Sud­denly I changed my mind and in­formed my par­ents that I had de­cided not to go.”

In the Win­ter, “Mostly I would sit on the floor in the warm­est cor­ner of the kitchen, mak­ing but­ton pat­terns on the flow­ered can­vas, or kneel be­side the sewing ma­chine ar­rang­ing glass al­leys in the lit­tle holes of the foot ped­als.” But she and her sib­lings would also help out: “watch­ing the women bake, make jam, pa­per walls, knit, or pin pat­terns onto beau­ti­ful cloth to make dresses, pa­ja­mas, and even coats. Un­like scrub­bing floors or wash­ing clothes, th­ese were in­ter­est­ing jobs that a young­ster could help with. Hold­ing skeins of wool, stir­ring bat­ter, lick­ing spoons clean, pass­ing tacks, hold­ing down flimsy pat­terns, care­fully cut­ting the edge off wall­pa­per, even pick­ing up scraps of leather or cloth, made a child feel im­por­tant.”

A gor­geous lay­out and de­sign ac­com­pa­nies Mor­gan’s com­pelling words. Brita Granström’s art­work suits the tale, re­al­is­tic yet whim­si­cal, lively and lovely on the thick, tex­tured pages.

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