The story of Syle and Mary Ann of Long Beach, Northern Bay

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Dr. William O'Flaherty recounts Long Beach couple

I don’t get all worked up about my neighbours. After all, they are, like the weather, unpredictable and uncontrollable; the wise fella said, now didn’t he-- “You can pick your friends, but you CAN’T pick your neighbours’’ and you might as well accept that fact of life and make the best of it.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

Back in Long Beach — oh, a long time ago, the neighbours next door were often the same ones who were there 30-40-50 years before; indeed, if you so wished, perchance, you’d be whistling into the wind if you hoped for a change — YOU’D probably be long gone, dead and buried before they were.

Syle and Mary Ann were our neighbours during all of my childhood, living a short ways to the right of us down the Drung leading to our place.

I will tell you about them, but, wait a little minute, please ... bear with me.

Most of our life in Long Beach was pleasant and childhood was a happy time, all considered. We didn’t have central heating or indoor plumbing, but we were never hungry, and we were clothed well and we were loved “all to pieces.”

True, there was some crowding — we three boys slept in the same bedroom, and the chamber pot was often frozen over in the winter morning , but we made a game out of it, lining up , one after the other, making a hole in the ice with well-directed pee. We got up to a warm kitchen, all of us, because our dad was down there, long, long before we woke, with a roaring fire in the wood stove and a warm oven we could put our feet into, and a frying pan, sizzling, filled with baloney and fat back pork, and, occasionally, fried posies from the bread dough rising all night long waiting, very soon, for our mother’s kneading hands.

But not everybody had it as good as we did.

Syle and Mary Ann

Syle and Mary Ann lived over there in a small house right next door to us, very close to a big potato garden that they owned, not far from their root cellar. They were old, I suppose when you are seven years of age EVERYBODY is old. They had no children of their own and lived, to a large degree off that potato garden and what they could collect from“relief,” and from scrounging the offerings of the sea brought into Long Beach by the fishermen, including that of our father.

Syle was a big, tall man, and, as big as he was, so was Mary Ann just the opposite, tiny and bent over at 4 ft. 10 inches, and she a work horse if there ever was one.

Each day, all summer long, the two travelled the short distance to the beach where they gathered cod’s heads and sound bones, especially the big ones, and salted them, later on drying them on boughs for eating in the winter. On very windy days when the fishermen were stuck ashore on the land, the two of them would be seen walking to the side of the hill back of Long Beach Pond, a half-mile away, there to collect ground juniper branches from the barrens — the type with the blue coloured berries — and then carrying a “turn” on their shoulders back home to burn in the wood stove, their only source of heat.

They tended that big potato garden, next door to us; it was their lifeline, their main source of food; after all, they ate potatoes every day of the year.

In addition to that one, they owned a small patch of land up the hill a ways facing Long Beach Pond (close by where they gathered the juniper). In there, in that small garden, they planted a few potatoes and turnips too, sometimes.

An incident is worth talking about in regard to that particular garden that welcomes telling, and relating a bit about Syle and Mary Ann.

The potatio-caplin connection

If you grew potatoes, back then, you HAD to put caplin on them for fertilizer; one or two caplin per potato plant, and then a shovel full of covering clay, and your harvest was assured, guaranteed. It was early July that year, and Syle and Mary Ann’s garden needed caplin, back there on the side of the hill in there, behind Long Beach Pond.

I saw the two of them, struggling with a burlap (brin) bag, on the shoulder, filled with caplin, crossing the brook at the bottom of the pond and going up the hill, she carrying the wet bag, and, then, after a spell, he carrying it a bit further. In the mid-morning they reached the garden and spread the caplin in long silver shining lines, one or two fish to each plant.

Tired out, they headed home for lunch--bread and tea, and, probably, dried salted caplin; the afternoon’s plan was to go back to shovel fresh clay onto the fish.

I don’t know what happened that day, maybe the billions of caplin in the ocean stayed offshore in the deep water, preventing the gulls from getting their routine summer meal, or maybe the gulls got a liking for half rotted caplin lying on the ground — whatever — a veritable multitude of them descended upon Syle and Mary Ann’s garden. When they returned, shovels in hand, there wasn’t a caplin left.

Far be it from me to tell you what the harvest of that potato field was, when October came.

But, I will tell you that Mary Ann died that winter, of old age, the medical man said.

And, Syle, now left all alone, diabetic, they say, lasted four months longer and died when the sunny days of spring came onto the shore. And, soon the big potato garden next door, and the one back of Long Beach Pond became overgrown with weeds and grass.

But there, each spring, can be seen the shape of the potato beds that were created, long ago, by Syle and Mary Ann, almost as if the land was waiting, once again, for their shovels and spades.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Organizations: Tomcats and House Calls

Geographic location: Long Beach, Newfoundland, New Brunswick Western Bay Conception Bay Northern Bay Moncton

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