Sunday, July 20, 2014


Charlie Simpson's house in Manchester
In posting that blog entry about my grandmother’s house in North Ogden yesterday, I made mention of the house my grandmother’s brother Harold built, not far up the road from the house he was born and raised in.  I was not aiming for historical accuracy or completeness, but allowing myself to wallow in a bittersweet memory of my childhood.  I have little nostalgia for that time. 

Pleasant memories, yes, for the most part.  But I don’t live in the past, and I don’t even visit it all that often.  When I do, Nova Scotia is a place I go to, but so are my home town in Connecticut, my college town in Vermont, my first experience in a big city in Munich and the explosive excitement of beginning my adult life in the cities of Berlin and Tokyo and San Francisco.  I remember Berlin before the wall went up, and knew it all through the years of the Cold War.  I remember Tokyo when many of the houses still didn’t have flush toilets.  And I remember San Francisco before the Manhattanization, when it was a Mediterranean city of white houses on hills.  If I were to get all sloppy and sentimental, it would be for Berlin and San Francisco in the 1960s, Berlin because I once determined to make it my home, and San Francisco because it stole my heart away from Berlin.

I have been thinking all morning about the gap that exists between me and my sister. Not bad feelings, although I do resent her failure to recognize my marriage. Simply recognition that we live on separate planets.  That was brought home to me by her e-mail complaining that I got some facts wrong in that North Ogden blog. She and her husband are the owners of Uncle Harold’s house, and I had no business suggesting that it might be heading for ruin as the Johnston house clearly is. Au contraire. It has a satellite dish, and is in excellent repair, thank you very much.

I owe her an apology. My brother-in-law is hard-working and a great handyman. Not many people would have looked at Uncle Harold’s house and seen the potential. Never mind a refrigerator going through a kitchen floor. Uncle Harold’s roof was sitting on the floor of the living room when we inherited it from my father. The house had collapsed ahead of the Johnston house. It took years of hard work, but my younger sibling-in-law deserves credit for putting it back together.  I had no business assuming, simply because it sits empty most of the year, that it is in disrepair.

I began wondering how it was I went so quickly to an assumption it must be in ill repair like the Johnston house, rather than check it out or assume something else entirely. The problem, I have concluded, is that North Ogden is stored in my head under “past.” In my sister’s head it is stored under “present and future.” For me, it is represented by the derelict Johnston house; for my sister North Ogden is Uncle Harold’s house, now their house, a place they have worked on for years as an inheritance to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

I realize that my little indulgence in tying the decay of the North Ogden house with the failure of the two main industries of fishing and logging and the halving of the population now gone to the cities sells not just North Ogden, but all of Nova Scotia short. Not only Halifax and other thriving parts of the province, but Guysborough County as well.  

In the blog yesterday, I mentioned that my early years in Nova Scotia were actually spent not with my grandmother in North Ogden but with my Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie and cousin Betty in Manchester, on the other side of Guysborough, and I noted that the town of Boylston, which has equal resonance in my childhood memory seems to be up-and-coming these days as a retirement location. There are no addresses and I never did learn the names of any of the roads. We called them the “road to town” or the “road to Mulgrave.” 

The pleasures of the computer age continue to unfold. On a hunch, I went to Google Maps and typed in Boylston. What came up was the intersection between “the road to Guysborough” (Route 16 from Monastery) and “the road to Uncle Charlie’s” (Route NS344).  It wasn’t rocket science. When coming down from Monastery and Antigonish, there is a turn-off when you get to Boylston. You either continue on to Guysborough or you go to Uncle Charlie’s. So I clicked on that intersection and followed the arrow step by step along that road I first came down in 1947 after a three day drive up the coast of Maine, along the coast of New Brunswick and across the full breadth of Nova Scotia.  

Sure enough. There’s the house. Uncle Charlie Simpson’s house, where I took over the task of operating the cream separator as soon as I could turn the handle, and where the telephone man grew up in the generation after mine. There it is, like a shot out of the past. How did my father know the roads, I wonder. How on earth did it make it onto Google maps, this Ultima Thule place with all the memories - of the time I spilled ink on the parlour floor when I was not supposed to be in the parlour at all.  Of the time I discovered the secret room over the kitchen. The portrait of Queen Victoria hanging on my bedroom wall. Of the time my great-grandmother Mary spent in her rocking chair before she got senile and kept lighting fires all the time and enabled me to tell my friends back home I had somebody in my family who was alive during the time of the American Civil War.

The house looks to be in great shape. The big barns are gone and there is grass where the cows once went in and out. It doesn't look like a place where people rise before dawn, hitch a horse to a plow and put in five hours of hard labour before lunch, and four or five more after. The power lines are new. The vine is still missing. It went missing when Cousin Betty climbed out the window and down the vine and broke it when she ran away with Doug Imlay.  

We were forbidden ever to speak her name again, a command I refused to follow, since she was my main reason for looking forward to summer and nobody would ever persuade me she had done wrong.   But more than forty years would go by before I flew into Halifax Airport to visit my sister one day and found Betty standing next to her.  We re-established our childhood tie and I now try my best to keep up with her dozens of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 34 on her family tree, counting spouses, so far, and it’s not up to date.  I suspect this picture of the house will not carry the same pleasant memories for her it does for me.  She went to live with Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie Simpson when her mother died and they worked her pretty hard.

But the Simpson house, in contrast to the Johnston house, is a reminder that my inclination to see the Nova Scotia of my youth as a relic of the past, diminished and decaying, was very much subjective history.  

I may not be a part of it anymore. 

But it thrives, and moves on.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

North Ogden

The Johnston house, North Ogden, Nova Scotia
Cousin Betty just sent me pictures of the house my grandmother was born in in 1892. It sent shivers down my spine.  I have memories of sleeping in the attic with the bats - before the bats took over so totally that sleeping up there became no longer an option.  I remember looking out the window in the middle of the night at the pitch black field and hearing animal noises, but because the house stood alone at the end of a long dirt road off the highway, with absolutely no urban lights, on a cloudy night, the sky was pitch black.  I have never experienced such blackness like that before or since.

The memories flooded back.  Of my father’s mother - we called her Nannie - and my mother and an aunt peeling potatoes and snapping beans in preparation for the fish fry we would have when the men came back from the pond in the pasture. There was water in the house from a hand pump at the kitchen sink, but no indoor plumbing. The outhouse was a two-seater, so you could share the experience if you didn't want to use the thunder jug but were afraid to go out alone at night.

The floor in the kitchen was rotten and my mother worried the weight of the refrigerator would send it through into the root cellar at any moment.  We were told to stay away from the refrigerator.

That was in the 1940s and 1950s.  The fact that the house is still standing is nothing short of a miracle.  I assume the refrigerator must have gone through the floor as much as half a century ago.

My grandmother Mabel and her sisters Carrie and Lola and her brothers Clarence and Cliff and Austin and Harold and Rollie and Everett were all raised in this house. Lola and Everett didn’t survive, but I knew all the others well as a kid.  I spent the summers with my Great Aunt Carrie, and Uncle Harold used to entertain us kids time and again with a recitation of The Cremation of Sam McGee.  It wasn’t unusual for people like Uncle Harold, who grew up in rural Nova Scotia before radio, television and stereos - or the money to buy them if they had had them -  to spend his childhood hours memorizing poetry.

We went “down East,” as my family referred to Nova Scotia, every summer.  The connection is still strong.  Although my grandmother Mabel and Carrie went to Boston as young girls for work, and my grandmother married and raised my father and his brothers in Connecticut, Carrie went back to marry Charlie Simpson.  And so did my grandmother – to this house, in fact – once she and my grandfather retired in the 1950s.  When they died, the house was inherited by their three boys, my father, my Uncle Tom and my Uncle Bill.  Uncle Tom had no interest in it, so it fell to my father and his younger brother Bill to figure out what to do with it.   Bill quickly got the upper hand, because he had more time to spend there, and my father, not wanting to fight with his brother, gave way. That upset my Uncle Harold, who then left his house, the next one up the road, to my father when he died. Whereupon Bill’s wife guilted my father into ceding half interest in Harold’s house. That meant that Bill and my father each owned half of two houses, neither of which approached livability. And my sister and I then would each inherit a quarter.  The other two quarters belonged to a cousin nobody was speaking to, so the signs were clear - to me, at least - what to do.  Turn my part over to my sister and ride off into the California sunset.  It was 1965, I was just starting my life in San Francisco after getting out of the army, and choosing between the flower children of the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury and two pieces of derelict real estate in North Ogden, Nova Scotia, was not a contest.

Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie lived about thirty kilometers away in Manchester, a place so small that for years I didn’t even know it had a name of its own.   I thought it was part of Boylston, which is just outside Guysborough, the county seat.   I’ve looked and looked in vain for information on the current population of these places, but they appear to be too small to register.   Boylston is apparently growing again due to the influx of retirees after its economy went belly up.   But Manchester lives in my memory as a place with sheep, and cows and to be taken out to pasture in the morning and back to the barn at night, where you could jump from the beams into the hay and infuriate the adults - Aunt Carrie because the hay was to be eaten by the cattle and not played in, and my mother because she was convinced I was on the path to breaking my neck.

The best memory of all was cousin Betty - my father’s cousin, actually, but only six years older than me.  I met her for the first time when I was seven and she was thirteen, and I decided she was a goddess.  She even knew how to milk cows. And how to keep them on the right side of the road as we walked to the pasture.

Many years later I drove to Nova Scotia one time with my friends Tom and Warren and we stayed in the North Ogden house.  Bill and his wife Helen hated the idea, but I still had grandson rights, and besides, they weren’t there to keep me from the door. Tom was horrified at the bats and the ever-growing hole in the kitchen floor and it took an entire day of cleaning to get the house in shape to spend the night in. And then the phone went dead. This was now the 70s and there was a phone line to the house, but it wasn't working.

Soon after we arrived, I could see Tom and Warren were beginning to think of me as an inbred. Virtually everybody we met was somehow related.  And even when you met a stranger and names were exchanged, it only took a minute to establish a blood connection.  Everybody was named Horton or Chisholm or Hart or Johnston or Sangster or Smith or MacDonald or Worth.  Or so it seemed.

The telephone man came out and went right to work on the wires to the house.  “You related to these people?” he asks.  “Actually, I grew up here part of the time as a kid," I said.  "This was my grandmother’s house.”  

“That right?” he said, with the usual Nova Scotia non-committal response.  

“But I actually spent more time over in Manchester,” I said.  

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.  I spent every summer at Charlie Simpson’s house as a kid.”

“That’s the house where I grew up,” he says.

Turns out when Charlie died, the house went to his brother, who was the grandfather of the telephone repairman.  

Tom and Warren decided it was time to head back south of the border, away from people with such iffy bloodlines.  But I decided to see what else I might uncover, and asked him his name.  

Simpson, he said.  “Same as Uncle Charlie,” as if I needed the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, and the reminder his Uncle Charlie was my Uncle Charlie.

He was about done and said he had another job to do along the North Ogden road. At Minnie Chisholm’s house.

Tom and Warren looked at me to see if the name would register.

Oh really? I asked.   Minnie was a lovely lady.  She had lost her husband some years before and for a while the locals had decided she should marry my father, after my mother died.  “Yes, he said.”  “She’s my wife’s grandmother.”

The entire county of Guysborough has barely 8000 people, and the towns I knew as a kid were little more than a highway and a few scattered houses.  As I was finishing high school somebody asked me if I wouldn’t like to take some time off before college and come teach at the local one-room school in Boylston.  The teacher had left and the kids were facing a year with no schooling.  I turned them down and wonder to this day how things could have gotten that bad. And what my life would have been like if I had had the patience to postpone college a year.

Today, there are only distant memories.  All the old folk are gone. Not surprising when you consider I’ve reached my mid-70s myself, of course.  My grandparents are buried in Guysborough, my father's ashes we scattered by the resting rock by the pond in the pasture, and the Johnstons - our branch of them - are scattered far and wide.  Betty lives in Halifax now and I have corresponded with two of her daughters. One of her grandsons and I share the same birthday, but we have never met.  My sister’s two children both married Nova Scotians, and my niece is raising her four kids there.  I correspond with one of them, but I have not maintained close ties.

It is easy for me to sentimentalize Nova Scotia.   We lived in rural New England, but there were factories, and traffic, and busses and trains.  Nova Scotia meant farm animals and fishing for eels and the smell of cows and horses and sheep and goats, and learning to tell a beanstalk from a tomato plant - no mean feat for a "city" boy when it all started out. Aunt Carrie would get up before sunrise, light a fire in the kitchen stove and start the bread.  By the time it had risen she had scrubbed the wooden floor in the kitchen on her hands and knees.  When the bread came out of the oven, the rest of the house got up.  Often I was ahead of the gang, so fascinated was I with this flour-dusted woman of the dawn and her talk of the folk who had come before.  “Your great-grandma Johnston, my mother, was a Nickerson and….”

To this day, I keep teaspoons on the counter in a cup instead of in the drawer with the other utensils because that’s how it was in Aunt Carrie’s kitchen.

My father and his brothers were Republicans.  Their father was a Democrat.  I remember vividly arguments over whether it was appropriate for a general to run for president.  My father said Eisenhower was a proven leader.  My grandfather preferred Adlai Stevenson in 1952.  My interest in politics started at Aunt Carrie’s kitchen table. So did my interest in French. When I enrolled in French in high school, they all said it was so I could read the cereal boxes on Canadian kitchen tables. That's not the way it was, obviously, but it’s part of my memories of the adults poking fun at my bookish ways.

I wrote up some of these memories a couple years ago  and I don’t want to get repetitious. But I did want to stop what I was doing and go back in time a bit, if only to counter with some good memories the fact that the old North Ogden house is looking pretty grim in these, its clearly latter days.

But then, we said that back in the 1950s, when the floors first began to rot.  And again in the 1970s, when they began to give way.  Obviously, they built houses to last in the 1880s.  

Guysborough County, Nova Scotia’s poorest, has been losing population for many years now. There is simply nothing to do there.  The lumber is cut and the fisheries are fished out and there never was much else to bring in an income.   There's the film industry and a growing computer industry in other parts of the province, but Guysborough is largely limited these days to tourism.   This video will show you how hard the entire province is working on that.  Since 1871, when the population was at 16,555, it has been dropping dramatically year after year, down 8.5% in 1991, 10% more in 2001 and another 10% in 2011.  Today it stands at only 8143 souls, less than half of what it was a century ago.

For a time, my sister and her husband tried to run a Christmas tree farm, hauling the trees on the 200 acres that go with the North Ogden house to Connecticut, until they realized there were probably over a million better ways to make a living.  They have a house in another part of the county, about an hour away, but they don’t go there much anymore, either.

For a while their daughter lived in Uncle Harold’s house, just up the road a little closer to the highway.  Because somebody had to, if it wasn’t to fall to ruin.  But in the end, the kids bought a house not far from New Glasgow, where you didn’t have to drive twenty kilometers into town for a cup of sugar.  I haven’t heard, but I suspect it may be headed in the same direction as the old Johnston house pictured here.  I haven’t been there in many years now.

Eastern Nova Scotia has lots of abandoned houses like this one.   It’s the picture that goes with the statistics of a population drop from 16,555 to 8,143 in the past hundred years.

Most of them make you want to avert your eyes.  Who enjoys looking at abandonment and decay?

Unless, of course, you had a happy childhood in one of them.  Then you may find yourself stopping and staring, your mind racing with memories and your heart filled with amazement and respect for its ability to go on standing, with or without a kitchen floor, year after year, generation after generation.

Addendum: Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just got a rather distressed message from my sister, who caught me wallowing in some erroneous memories here.  First off, they did not try to make a living with the Christmas tree farm; they simply tried to recoup some of the money they had to pay in reclaiming the land with back taxes.  Secondly, and far more significantly, Uncle Harold's house is not heading for ruin.  It is in their hands, in good repair, with working telephone.  It even has a satellite dish and good television reception.  It is ready for the next generation to claim it when our generation moves on.  My apologies to her and anybody else whom I might have miffed for the errors.  The old Johnston house itself, she says, cannot be fixed because the family is still feuding over back taxes and ownership rights.

Ah yes, family feuding.   That memory remains solid.

No mention in my sister's e-mail about the kitchen floor.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

And that means what, exactly?

Gallup has just published figures on approval ratings for Obama on the basis of religious affiliation. They show that Muslims like him and Mormons don't.

There is something annoying about surveys like this.  More specifically, about the announcement of such findings.  The devil is all in the details and in the interpretation.  If you just read the headlines you come away with one impression; if you read the interpretation you see how the headlines can be deceiving. Gallup points this out, actually, to their credit, and people who read carefully know how to interpret the information, but you just know there are dinner parties around the country where somebody is going to toss out, "I just read that..." and give you just the headlines.

What is missing, I think, behind these figures, is that when people speak of religion, they're not speaking of religious beliefs as established by religious authority as much as they are of group identity as created and maintained by the secular social environment.  Mormons are anti-Obama not because they are Mormons, in other words, but because they are Republicans.  

In that sense, the figures lie.  They suggest there is something in the belief system when it's more about such things as whether you think government is the problem or the solution or whether you think the poor are slackers or victims.

It's similar to the confusion we spread when we speak of things that blacks say and do when what we are actually talking about is what poor or uneducated people say and do.

Blacks got a bad rap in California when Proposition 8 was approved.  Remember that? It removed the right of lesbians and gays to marry. The figures showed African-Americans supported the law in greater numbers than whites did.  But that turned out to be because a higher percentage of blacks were members of churches, the well-spring of homophobia.  It was their religiosity, not their race that was calling the shots.  And because we tend to tiptoe around not wanting to offend anyone's religion, we didn't lay the blame where it actually belonged.  The headlines fired up racist animosity when race had nothing to do with it.   I know it's complicated and you trip over such issues as how being black and religious is different from being white and religious, or how being a religious Baptist may not be the same thing as being a religious Episcopalian.  It's not easy to pull these categories apart.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  

This, in turn, reveals something about the sociology of knowledge.  That is, how “knowledge” (including “belief”) spreads.  You take on the beliefs and the orientation to knowledge of your neighbors.  And that’s true about whether you believe Jesus died and came back to life as much as it is about whether you believe gays should be allowed to marry or whether you believe those little illegal alien Mexican kids should be sent back to Mexico.

The Republicans are more likely to think they should.  The Democrats, less so.

That explains why “Christians” (read: Republicans) are so quick to get tough on immigration.  Not because it’s what Jesus would do but because it’s what their politics dictate.

And while we’re at it, I wish people would stop telling us what “Catholics” believe.  There is a world of difference between the hierarchy of the church and the ordinary folk, between what the supporters of the old-boys network advocate when they get into politics, and what ordinary folks believe who identify as Catholic because they live in Catholic communities.   The bishops get on television and carry on about “religious freedom,” which is a euphemism for removing the right of women to birth control. Meanwhile, the average Catholic practices birth control, approves of same-sex marriage, supports stem-cell research - the works - same as their Protestant and Jewish neighbors do.

For that matter, while the Gallup figures show “Protestants” approve of Obama less than “Catholics” or “Jews”, those labels mask the fact that Republicans are made up of “I’ve got mine” rich folk and the information-challenged “trouble with Kansas” types who vote against their own interests.

And then we get into the problem of how to identify a Jew - by religion or by historical group affiliation.  When we say “Jews” do this and say that, we are talking much of the time about atheists and agnostics, so comparing them with “Christians” can be mixing apples and oranges. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were once Christians but are no longer - today they identify as agnostics.  Mark Zuckerberg identifies as atheist, but he also identifies as Jewish.

Muddy thinking in them there headlines...

Muddy thinking.

When somebody tells you “Catholics are more approving of Obama than Protestants,” the proper response, it seems to me, ought to be, “Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Gallup poll source