Remembering Joker Jack and Little Mary of Bowbak’s Cove

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“The day I was born, me mother was gone away, an’ so me sister had me!” Thus spoke Jack from Bowbak’s Cove, his words accompanied by a raucous laugh.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

Jack and Mary were my patients, man and wife, living on the edge of the ocean in a small house on a piece of land that Jack said had been in the family “since Moses was a boy.”

They are dead and gone, but their memory lives on, at least in the mind of this old country doctor.

The original Big Mary

Most of the people in their little cove had the same surname and often there were several with the same first name as well. For that reason, and to distinguish one from another, nicknames were ascribed.

Our man, because of his propensity for comical sayings, became known as Joker Jack. His wife, being of small stature, was called “Little Mary,” to distinguish her from another person of the same name who, noted for her rotundity, was named “Big Mary.”

Joker Jack and his wife had no children, but they had a milch cow housed in their small stable and a cat of unknown vintage. The two animals, as is often the case with a childless couple, became their “children” and were treated to a life of excellent care and affection.

No modern curses

In Bowbak’s Cove, at the time we are talking about, most people owned the home they lived in, without the modern curses of mortgage payments, rent, property taxes and high utility bills.

A small wood lot was used to supply fuel for Jack and Mary’s wood stove — their only source of heat — and a small pasture garden, close by the wood lot, was big enough to keep the cow in hay for the winter. The calf that she produced every spring was always passed over, come the fall, to the local butcher who often added the animal to his own herd, rather than killing it.

There was in place, of course, a handshake agreement that fresh meat was supplied all year long, whenever it was requested.

They lived frugally, not because they had to do so, but because they had lived that way all their lives, and knew nothing different; indeed, all the neighbours lived much the same way as they did.

Their cow was certainly not of purebred stock; she was rather of the mixed breed variety, her genes stretching back, possibly, to the first seasick bovines that survived the long journey across the North Atlantic 350 years before. She was dun coloured, with an udder that was nothing to brag about, but which supplied milk enough for the two elderly people and her calf.

A hearty diet

Jack supplied the brawn — he cut the hay with a scythe, harvested the firewood, and grew potatoes in the kitchen garden close by the cliff that fronted onto the beach.

Mary looked after the cow. It was her responsibility to do the milking, and, usually — other than the few times when she was ill — feeding the animal as well.

She visited the creature several times each day, all winter long, often bringing her a gallon of small potatoes boiled on the back dampers of the wood stove, mashed with the fingers and mixed with a small amount of bran; the cow flourished on this regimen.

In the summer months the animal was let loose to roam free range and feed on the abandoned pastureland and barrens situated to the north of the community, always returning daily to her calf.

Sometimes, indeed often, Mary went to the same general area (as the cow did) in the late summer and early fall for the purpose of picking blueberries and partridgeberries.

A unique walking stick

When the two — human and animal — encountered each other, the cow waited until Mary was ready to go home. People will remember — as I can — seeing the two walking out from the barrens, together, with no tethering needed, Mary guiding the cow along, her hand on one of the horns.

If truth be known, Mary steadied herself on the rough ground in that way; Joker Jack often said that Mary had a “four legged walking stick.”

The years passed by, and eventually the cow stopped producing a yearly calf. She developed a persistent limp in one hind leg and appeared to have significant difficulty rising from a lying position in her bail. The local veterinarian was called and advised that the time had come wherein he could offer no help, and advised that she be put down.

Mary resisted that advice for several months, but when she realized that the animal could no longer walk to the pastureland north of the community, she relented.

A sad day for Little Mary

The butcher, accompanied by a couple of men with restraining ropes, arrived in the early morning of a sunny day in July; a halter was placed on the cow, a rope attached, and attempts were made to get the animal to walk up a ramp into the back of a stake bodied truck.

All attempts were fruitless. The terrified animal, never having encountered rough treatment previously, especially from strange individuals, was completely uncontrollable, refusing to go anywhere near the loading ramp.

Mary, meanwhile, quite upset about the imminent loss of her cow, had gone into her bedroom, vowing to have nothing to do with the whole affair.

Finally, Jack came to her and asked her to help out, “else they’re talkin’ about killin’ her right there in the yard.”

Mary walked outside; on seeing her the terrified creature calmed down.

“Take off the halter,” she ordered.

Placing her hand on the cow’s horn the two took their last walk together, up the ramp into the butcher’s truck.

I saw Mary several times in the weeks following; she was tearful each time, recognizing the necessity of what had occurred but guilty about her part in the whole affair.

“Doctor, she trusted me to look out for her; she would have followed me out to the breakwater if I had held onto her horn. I wish it hadn’t happened the way it did; she was my pet, you know.”

They never did get another cow; or another cat. That creature lived for a year after that, and disappeared one night when let outside, just before bedtime; her crushed body was found on the highway the next day.

When I returned on a locum, years later, Joker Jack and Little Mary were both dead.

A review of the office notes, written by another physician after my departure revealed her sorrow persisting long after the death of her bovine friend.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty 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.

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

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  • Dolf
    March 31, 2014 - 15:52

    Another delightfully poignant recollection of the doctor's tenure "around the bay" in Newfoundland. Times were hard but uncomplicated compared to the rigors of today. Thanks o'l man.