Tic-toc, tic-toc, thirty minutes to the hour. The little yellow bird in the coo-coo clock her son sent from Germany would soon be popping out to serenade her. To some, the bird’s rather shrill chirping might be annoying, but for her it was a welcome intrusion into the deafening silence.
Mary Catherine Veronica sat in her well-worn chair, its deeply indented cushion fitting the shape of her body like a glove, knitting needles busily clickity-clacking with every stitch of the pretty pink afghan she was knitting for her niece falling perfectly into place. In every colour of the rainbow she’d knit the much-appreciated afghans for just about everyone she knew! To her it was a good way for a lonely old woman to pass the time, without any idea how much her gift meant to the recipient.
Her lumpy old chair had been in the same spot in the living room for fifty odd years; it was like a family member. Looking around the room, her gaze took in the old hi-fi with record player and radio that had filled the house with good old Newfoundland music in days gone by. Still in working order, she hadn’t used it in years, but the old Seventy-Eights well preserved in their thick cardboard jackets, were in mint condition.
The chesterfield with three cushions that never really fit properly, although she guessed it was from fifty plus years of use, was never used these days except when the odd visitor dropped by. The antenna atop the first television she ever owned had been held up by a piece of wire attached to the narrow metal venetian blinds for as long as she could remember. On the floor beneath the hi-fi, its paint well worn, spots of rust on the sides, sat the toy car her son had played with when he was a little boy. Having grown up in the Great Depression years, Mary Catherine Veronica never threw anything away!
A sad smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, not quite making it to her eyes. Where had the years gone? The old house, every single ornament in the same place it was when they moved in half a century ago, was once a beehive of activity. She’d been so busy back then, with a son to raise, a husband to look after, and the house to maintain. And of course they always kept a boarder or two for extra income, teachers or RCMP Officers that she ended up spoiling and coddling as if they were her own. In those days, the house had been virtually bulging at the seams!
But the happy sounds of voices engaged in amicable conversation and laughter had long since been replaced with echoes of silence. Sighing deeply she shrugged away tears of loneliness. “Don’t you dare cry Mary Catherine Veronica,” her voice breaking the stillness, “This is your life and it’s a good one. You’ve got a roof over your head, a bite to eat, and your health is all it can be.” Chastising herself out loud usually worked, but today she couldn’t seem to shrug the shawl of loneliness squeezing her shoulders.
A single tear got away from her; dropping into the folds of the afghan she was knitting for her niece. As the tear slipped into the fabric, one by one memories began creeping into her mind. Picking up the stitch she dropped, she remembered the old days as clearly as if they were only yesterday.
She was thirteen, back home in Outer Cove on the east coast of Newfoundland, bent over a washing board and aluminum tub, a thick bar of homemade lye soap in her red-roughened hands. Her mother stood beside her, shoulders hunched over the washtub as she rubbed the collar of a white shirt up and down over its rough surface. When did those lines first begin to appear on her mother’s face? It was the first time Mary Catherine really noticed them. Her poor mother worked tirelessly, and Mary Catherine Veronica didn’t mind one bit helping her out with the laundry she took in to help put food on the table. “Mudder, why don’t you go get a cup of tea,” she said, “I’ve only one more shirt to wash then I’ll take over for you and finish up.”
Slowly standing up, her mother stretched her aching back, “Ah! Mary Catherine, tis a good daughter you are. Sure you have no time for yourself as it is, and here you are tryin’ to take on my work.” But Honora Croke was tired, and since there really wasn’t much left to do, she made her way to the stove, shoving another chunk of wood in before putting the black cast iron kettle on to boil for tea.
Two heavy steel irons sat on racks at the back of the stovetop, heated and ready for the ironing that would begin as soon as the first line of laundry was dry.
They were a poor Newfoundland Irish family and times were tough during the depression in their small outport town of Outer Cove. Mary Catherine Veronica’s father Dennis Croke was a hard working fisherman. But with a family of six children to support and times as bad as they were, he couldn’t provide much. So her mother took in laundry to help make ends meet.
Mary Catherine Veronica dreamed of one day meeting a handsome young man, maybe a military man, and getting married. She swore to herself she’d never marry a fisherman and she’d never be poor again! A fisherman’s life was a hard one; up every morning before dawn, returning just as the sun was setting to a hot meal and much-needed sleep, all for a meagre living at best.
“Mary Catherine! Sure you’re going to rub the collar right off that shirt if you don’t mind what you’re doing.” Her mother’s gentle voice shook her out of her reverie. Laughing, she rang the soapy water out of the shirt, putting it on top of the pile waiting to be rinsed, “Sure I don’t know where I was, Mudder,” she said, not daring to tell her mother she’d been daydreaming about getting married one day!
Lifting the heavy metal tub, she carried it outside across the backyard, dumping it beside the old rundown barn a short distance from the back porch. It was a bright sunny day and the line of clothes she and her mother had hung out earlier that morning were nearly dry, white shirts and sheets billowing in the brisk salty breeze off the ocean beyond the cliffs down the road.
Closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, Mary Catherine let the fresh air cleanse her lungs and her thoughts. She tended to daydream quite a lot about better times to come, however life was what it was for now so she’d best get on with her work. Shrugging her tired shoulders, she picked up the empty tub and carried it over to the well, filling it up with fresh cold water for rinsing the laundry before bringing it back into the house.
That summer day blended into the next and the next and before she knew it, winter had descended upon them once again. It was a cold day in February, two weeks before her fourteenth birthday and Mary Catherine awoke with a terrible headache. The pain in her head was so severe, she didn’t think she could get out of bed on her own. Shivering in the chilly morning air, her skin was on fire!
“Sure Mary Catherine is going to be late for school if she doesn’t hurry up. Tis not like her to sleep late.” Honora Croke dished up another bowl of porridge for her husband, “I’ll go and make sure she’s awake then.”
Approaching the bed, Honora heard the pitiful moans coming from her daughter buried beneath a pile of quilts. Pulling back the blankets she was shocked by the child’s flushed, fevered face. Touching her forehead, she spoke softly, “There, there now darlin’, what’s the matter? Have you gone and caught yourself a cold then?”
But there was no response from Mary Catherine, just muddled ramblings, and the whites of her eyes were bloodshot. Her mother suddenly noticed the angry red rash erupting all over her daughter’s skin. She’d seen this fever recently, severe pain in the head and neck while in fevered delirium.
Hurrying into the kitchen, “Dennis, you’d better hitch up the horse and wagon, we’ve got to get Mary Catherine to the doctor in town right away. I’m afraid tis gravely ill she is.” Dennis raced into the bedroom, Honora on his heels, placing his big calloused hand on his daughter’s forehead, “Sure she’s burnin’ up! I’ll get the wagon ready. You bundle her up as best you can, Honora; tis a long ride into St. John’s and there’s a storm brewin’.”
Leaving their oldest son, Willie, in charge of the other children, Honora and Dennis Croke bundled Mary Catherine into the back of the wagon, covering her with layers of warm blankets. The wind was picking up and the snow coming down harder by the minute. Honora was terrified they wouldn’t make it in time. Dennis was worried they wouldn’t make it at all.
It took hours in a blinding snowstorm, and Honora couldn’t count how many rosaries for her daughter’s life to be spared, before they finally reached St. John’s. By the time they pulled up to the doctor’s office, Mary Catherine was making a weak whimpering sound, her body soaked in a fevered sweat. A long while later, the doctor came to see them in the waiting room. By some great miracle, and the doctor assured them it was exactly that, Mary Catherine Veronica had survived the dreaded meningitis! Her fever had broken, and although recovery would be slow, the doctor said she’d be fine in no time. “God works in mysterious ways Mrs. Croke. Rest assured He has other plans for Mary Catherine.”
They stayed in town with relatives for two nights, while the doctor kept an eye on Mary Catherine. By the time they started the long trip back home, she was still very weak but on the road to recovery.
That was a lifetime ago Mary Catherine thought, and yet a little pang of panic still niggled at her, reminding her how close she’d come to death that cold winter’s day so long ago.
She remembered the headaches she’d had for a few days before she got really sick, but couldn’t recall anything about the trip to St. John’s in the snowstorm or the two days she’d spent at the doctor’s office. What she did know was that she’d been extremely lucky. That year a number of people in the Outer Cove area had died from Meningitis, the terrible disease that had stricken her.
Clickity-clack the knitting needles worked their magic, the pale pink afghan growing steadily. Oddly enough, she thought, she didn’t have a lot of happy memories from her childhood. But then, she supposed, there probably weren’t many people her age that’d survived the depression and could remember much more than the hardships.
“Coo-coo, coo-coo”, the shrill sound of the little yellow bird’s voice shook her from her reverie, startling her. Laughing out loud, she reprimanded herself, “You old fool! Sure tis just the clock.” She’d put on the teapot in a few minutes, but for now she was reluctant to leave the comfort of her old chair.
Inhaling deeply, the aroma of the turkey neck soup simmering on the stove brought back warm memories of her husband. She used to make that soup for him as often as she could; it was Steve’s favourite.
She was nineteen years old when she met Steve. A tall, somewhat portly woman, Mary Catherine had been instantly attracted to the tall, handsome, blond haired, blue-eyed serviceman from Stephenville, on the west coast of the island. He asked for her hand in marriage, and although her heart belonged to her beloved Outer Cove, she followed him to the west coast.
And their life together had been a good one. Over the years, like everyone else, the Good Lord sent them trials, but overall they’d done all right. Steve was a fireman at the Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, so he had a steady income. He was also an avid fisherman and hunter and their freezer was always well stocked. They grew their own potatoes, turnips and carrots, planted apple trees, and picked every kind of berry there was. Mary Catherine made preserves that kept them going all winter long. Memories of the poverty she’d endured growing up during the Great Depression gave her a deep appreciation for everything they had.
They raised their only son to be a fine man, and she couldn’t have been prouder of him. For so many years life was all she could ask for, until her beloved Steve died suddenly of a heart attack at only fifty-two years of age. Though she’d always been a very strong woman, she didn’t know if she had the courage to go on without him.
Choking back tears, she remembered that awful day when Steve’s brother came to her door late one afternoon with the news her husband had died while at his camp back up in the woods near Whales Back Mountain. In a strange way she felt oddly comforted that he’d died in the place where his heart and soul were most at peace – in the forest, cradled in the arms of Mother Nature.
Loneliness had become a way of life for her after that, and although initially her son wanted her to move to the mainland and live with him and his new wife, Mary Catherine couldn’t bear to be away from the little house she and Steve had built together. It held a wealth of memories within its walls, and she’d rather be there alone, than anywhere else!
Wiping another errant tear from her cheek, putting her knitting aside, Mary Catherine pushed herself out of her old chair. “Now girl, what you need is a nice hot bowl of turkey neck soup and a grand drop of tea. Tis a grand life you have.”
And slowly making her way to the kitchen, tired old joints stiff and sore, eyes blurred from cataracts, she silently thanked God for his bounty.
A few short years later, angels came to lead Mary Catherine Veronica home, freed from the loneliness at last. But she left behind a trail of beautiful afghans knit from special yarn interwoven with golden memories, rare gifts from a lonely heart!
I still have the beautiful pink afghan Aunt Mary Catherine Veronica knit for me. On many occasions I sat with her while she knit, recanting stories about her past that could both send me into gales of laughter and reduce me to tears. Precious memories of her are woven into the stitches of that special pink afghan, and when it’s draped across my shoulders, it’s like her arms around me once again.