|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.