Terry's grave-digging initiation
I am so lucky that my brother in Labrador City loves to relate stories of his growing up years in Branch. I have fourteen years on Terry so his nostalgic yarns come from the 70s. Here, as closely as I can remember, is Terry’s story in his own words.
“I was probably only 15 years old and it was a cold damp day with an easterly wind blowing in from the cove. I am thinking that the season was late winter or early spring. My great-aunt Aggie English had passed away and it was time to dig her grave. My cousin Frankie Rielly, who was a seasoned pro at opening burial ground, requested that I help out. ‘Come on boy, you and Donny Power are big and ugly enough to swing a pick axe and a shovel.’ Keep in mind that all this transpired before backhoes and mechanical shovels had made life easier for outport people.
“Contrary to what you might think, I was delighted. To be invited up on the Knapp to help with the digging was like getting asked to some kind of a ‘coming of age’ party, an initiation of sorts. With my best buddy Donny, I had sometimes stood on the periphery when graves were being dug and I knew the score. The brown bags and cardboard cases that the older fellows carted up the Rocky Lane didn’t contain holy water and in those days almost every male had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. The prospects looked good for a bottle or two of Dominion and a few Export A smokes. ‘If they let us get down in that hole,’ said Donny, ‘We’ll show ‘em. We’ll kill ourselves digging.’ Lofty aspirations we had.
“A few details stick out about that day that I helped to give Aunt Aggie her customary six feet. I knew that she and Frankie had never seen eye-to-eye so I wasn’t really surprised when Frankie ranted, ‘Why couldn’t the old so and so pick a better time of the year to kick the bucket?’ I also remember being a little bit disappointed when some responsible fellow suggested, ‘Okay, no beer until the grave is dug.’ That ordinance lasted as long as it took someone to pop a stopper with the sharp end of the shovel. The more stoppers that got popped, the more bantering and arguing and laughing and jesting floated through the cold air of the Knapp. Some fellow, in an attempt to be somewhat reliable, would say, ‘Come on now, boys, or Miss Aggie is never going to get buried.’
“By the time the good deed was completed, the majority of the diggers were half cut, and every muscle of mine and Donny’s was throbbing, not to mention the effects of a few fermented potables and a half dozen cigarettes. It took every bit of endurance we had left in us to hoist the shovels up on our shoulders. In order to mislead our suspecting mothers, we chewed our Juicy Fruit or Spearmint or whatever we had on hand. All this being said, we were two of the happiest lads that ever came off the Knapp. We realized we could now look forward to taking part in the interment of a few more unfortunate souls sometime down the road. Not that we wished any harm on anyone, because we knew that dying was a grave affair. And as Marina would say, ‘no pun intended.’”