|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.
“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.
Addendum: Monday, August 8, 2016:
Betty just contacted me and informed me it was Uncle Cliff, not Uncle Harold who built the house next door, which we know as "Uncle Harold's house." Before it came into his possession, it was known (and still is, to Betty) as Joe Worth's house. Joe Worth was the builder, Betty tells me "and Harold never built anything." The Worth house and the Johnston house were both built about the same time, in the late 1880s.