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Monday, January 05, 2009

Life Lessons - The Price of Progress

This past weekend my last surviving Aunt, my Father’s sister, Rita Dwyer, passed away in the town of Norris Arm at the age of 89. She will be sorely missed.

Aunt Rita (we always called her “Reet”) was a wonderful woman, salt of the earth as they say, and she will not be forgotten.

I bring her passing to your attention not because you may have known her personally but because many of us have known someone just like her over the years. A solid and dependable woman who married (twice in her case having lost her first husband at an early age), raised a family and ended a long and full existence in the same small town in which she was born.

With out-migration, labor mobility and all the other forms of rural exodus we are so used to these days, Rita’s style of life has become somewhat of a rarity, one that most of us will never know.

When I first heard of my Aunt’s passing my thoughts were not of her death so much as about her life. I found myself pondering all the things she must have witnessed in her nearly 90 years in that small town.

Born just after the end of World War I she would have grown up during the great depression and lived through the tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged Newfoundland’s people.

No doubt there were days when most things were in short supply. A time when not living, but survival itself, was the order of the day.

Being raised in a small community there may not have been much, but her family (my family really), grew their own vegetables and had a ready supply of milk from the family goat, both of which could always be supplemented with fish, caribou, rabbit and a variety of other wild game.

As she grew Rita would have had a front row seat to Newfoundland’s era as an independent dominion. She would have seen first hand the financial collapse that led to the commission of government and she knew full well the painful and often corrupt campaigns that brought her once sovereign homeland into confederation with Canada. A campaign that fostered heated battles and life long divides not only among neighbors and friends but even among members of the same family.

Aunt Rita well remembered the trains and how they carried thousands of American service men to the town regularly during World War II. How the soldiers would spend a few days at camp before moving on once again to far off destinations, perhaps never to return.

After having raised a family just mere feet from that railway track, she would later look out her window and witness the dismantling of the rail line in the 1980’s. All that remains running past her house these days is a gravel trail and a near constant cloud of dust kicked up by all terrain vehicles.

Aunt Rita grew up in a time when the fishery was indeed the backbone of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her second husband, Bill Dwyer, who like her first also predeceased her, was a small boat fisherman and as my Father often calls him, “a hard nosed sealer”. Aunt Rita often saw him go out to the ice in the Spring and no doubt she wondered if he would return. He always did.

During her early days the harbor at Norris Arm was alive with boats of every description. Wharves dotted the shore line and the water’s edge, like the local train station, was always a beehive of activity. That was the sort of life she grew up with.

In the 1990’s she, like all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians witnessed the collapse of the cod stocks and along with it saw most of the young people move away leaving only the older generation to continue on.

Today the one remaining wharf in the community is the so called government wharf. All the small family ones are long gone, as are the fishing boats. Now, even the odd pleasure boat entering the harbor is an oddity.

During my Aunt's lifetime nations have risen and fallen. Men have visited the moon and returned to tell about it. Communications technology has advanced from large, crackly radio sets to high speed internet and cell phones. Horses and oxen have given way to trucks and quads.

Cities have grown and prospered yet towns just like the one where my Aunt was born, married, raised a family and died continue to disappear every day.

It makes me wonder if “progress” is the right word under the circumstances and at what price progress simply becomes too expensive.

Thankfully my Aunt, God rest her soul, won’t be around to see how it all turns out.

God speed Aunt Rita.


Anonymous said...

Myles, the life your kind aunt lived appears to be idyllic.

I hope Myles that you had the presence of mind to have interviewed her and have it recorded for posterity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Patriot:

I would like to express my sincere condolences on the recent passing of your Aunt. My wife and the children also send their thoughts and prayers to you and your family at this difficult time.

Although I didn't know your Aunt, on a personal level, I am sure that her life has touched a great number of people including yours .You were truly fortunate to have such a woman as a model in your life.

As you know, it was not that long ago that my own Aunt Marry passed away, so I have some idea of what you and your family are going through. No comfort is quite enough to replace the loss.

Please pass my deepest sympathies on to your mother and your entire family at this time of loss. Our thoughts and love are with you all.

Very sincerely,

A Friend