To the end Jimmy Corrigan’s gentle kindness was his trademark.
People help others but not all of them are kind. Some do it expecting the same in return. Some do things for others expecting even better things in return. Some like to ‘lord it over’ others and reminders of a favour done, however small, are one way to do it.
And then there are people like Jimmy. People who are comfortable inside their skin as-is and who just want others to succeed as well.
I know this. Jimmy and I are both from Red Island, Placentia Bay. At least 5 generations of Barrys made Red Island their home. My Dad was the schoolmaster there for most of his teaching career. Near the end of that career, though, in the mid 60’s it was decided that the islands in Placentia Bay were to be resettled so that the people who lived there could live what the government figured was a better life on the mainland (and, yes, Newfoundland is an Island but to us, who lived out on the small islands, it may as well be the mainland). Dad, then in his sixties, had to leave his ancestral home—the one his father built in the late 1800’s–and start anew in Southern Harbour. I was about 6 at the time.
It was very hard for him moving his family away from the community he loved and had served so well. Our big old house, a three storey affair with a mansard roof, was just too large to move, put on the barge and float to the new place the way so many others did. It had to be left behind and we built a new one in Southern Harbour.
But Dad left a big piece of his heart in the old home. We didn’t take the money offered by the government so, I suppose, we never really did officially leave at all. But the house, like others before it, would surely be vandalized, robbed, maybe even destroyed once the people moved away.
Dad turned to Jimmy for help. Jimmy had no intention of moving away. He loved his life on Red Island. He made a living through fishing in his own open boat. Day after day he would putt putt out through the harbour in his skiff and jig fish. These he would sell, maybe fresh or maybe salted and dried. He grew his own vegetables the traditional way, fertilizing the land with kelp and capelin. He also kept sheep–same as people always did. Jimmy agreed to keep an eye on the house and Dad gave him the keys to the house, the stage and the store for safekeeping.
And that wonderful, gentle man was true to his word. Our home was safe, thanks to the kindness of Jimmy Corrigan.
The drive out to Placentia is slower than normal. Tropical storm Gabrielle has not even reached us but it is windy and rainy nonetheless with lots of standing water on the highway. Thankfully most of the drivers had chosen to reduce their speed—most had not even engaged the warp drive as would be the norm had hydroplaning not been an issue. I fall in with a line of west-bound traffic doing around 90; fast enough for a day like this. The tourist brochures tend to only show images of the coast, and only on days when the sun is shining. The vast interior is almost completely uninhabited by people. The landscape is rolling, covered mostly with bogs interspersed with stands of mostly conifers but with some leafy trees too: dogberry, alder and, of course, birch. This time of the year the land is brownish-green. The grasses are becoming hay. The deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves. Grey, foggy days like this one, though, tend to accentuate the greens.
It’s still gloomy.
Placentia is an old community. Old by Newfoundland standards, that is. To the Portuguese and then the French it was Plaisance, “pleasant place.” The town, which was the French capital until 1713 when, according to the terms of the treaty of Utrecht, it was ceded to the British, is sheltered from the worst winds that blow right up Placentia Bay. Fetch is the mariners’ term that refers to the distance over which the wind can blow on the water. For any given wind speed a longer fetch means the wind has more time and distance over which to stir up the waves. In most of Placentia Bay the fetch is all the way to South America so even moderate winds can create choppy seas. Not here, though. Most the surrounding area is built at the edge of a long arm of water than cuts right in through the steep hills that surround it. Even out by the beach things are relatively calm even when the wind is blowing hard.
Down on the ‘beach,’ the oldest part of the community, the road runs right by the houses. There’s not much frontage at all.
This beautifully berry-laden dogberry sends a mixed message. The luscious berries signal we’ve just had good growing season.
But the old-timers like Jimmy—he was born in 1933—always say that a good crop of dogberries means a hard winter.
The church is just up the road. The wooden building is almost 125 years old and in need of repair on the outside. Placentia is not a rich town. Once the French capital, it was, for around 200 years, the heart of a vibrant French fishery pursued throughout the bay. After the British took control, in 1713 however, it lost much of its original importance. Harbour Grace and St. John’s were assumed to be the main areas. That didn’t dampen things in the community, though, and it continued to be the unofficial capital, at least of the bay.
Around the time of the second world war the US built a naval base in nearby Argentia. The construction and operation of the base gave extra employment to the area as well as an economic boost. The end of the cold war led to the decommissioning of the base but, by that time the Phosphorous refining plant in Long Harbour helped offset, somewhat, the loss of economic viability. That, too, is gone now. New plants from Vale-Inco, first at Argentia and now the new one under construction at Long Harbour bring new found hope to supplement the dwindling fishery. The hope is apparent—repairs are underway.
Wayne, one of two local priests, greets me at the door. I met him while still in second year at University. We shared many laughs in the past but that’s not why we’re here today. I see the other priest, my cousin Jerome. He’s dressed in lay-clothes today and sitting with the choir. He smiles and shakes my hand. I don’t see my extended family nearly enough these days.
Inside, the church is in good repair. Despite the fact that it’s only a Thursday morning there’s a good-sized crowd here. I take a seat in one of the few empty pews. I look and listen. The mood is somber; people are talking in hushed tones.
Wayne invites people to face the back and the service begins. The rituals play out and people respond through words and gestures that, for many, are almost autonomous; made so by many, many repetitions.
It’s now time for Wayne to give his homily. In the Catholic Church eulogies are not given during the mass of burial—if needed they can happen at some other time. After the gospel is read it is customary, though, for the celebrant to give a short homily; a 10 minute (or so) talk on how the readings can be interpreted for everyday life. I don’t always appreciate homilies. Frequently the words exhort me to suspend my judgment and to use modes of thought that I find flawed in many ways. Sometimes the words harp far too much on what divides us as people and not on what should bring us together.
Not today, though. The themes are kindness, respect, stewardship and heritage—the things that Jimmy stood for. Yes, there is a reference to the Good Shepherd but that’s entirely appropriate. Jimmy looked after his sheep. He also looked after the graveyard…and more besides. The words are not empty; sterile. They flow, rather, rife with exemplars drawn from knowledge of a life lived well. Yes, his mother was Barry (her name was Mary Barry, same as my sister and cousin) but he was related to the Doheys too. The realization hits me and I look straight at Wayne. I see—as well as hear—sincerity. This is not theatre.
That growing lump in my throat—it signifies that my emotional side is starting to get the better of me. But this is Newfoundland and we don’t grieve in public that way. It’s supposed to be about the gifts that he left us with, not the sadness we feel at the loss. Fortunately this is not my first funeral. There have been too many but I have learned, so I do what I always do. I set my jaw, clench my fists in my jacket pockets and stand into the gale.
After the recessional I talk, at the back of the church, with Berkley. “Will he get his wish?” I ask. “Yes,” is the response, “nine or ten of the guys went up yesterday and got everything ready.” I say, “It couldn’t have been easy, under the circumstances”. I figured it just would not be possible at all, not this time of year, at least.
Outside I see my old friend Ambrose. We talk—for the first time in around forty years. Loss can bring us together again unexpectedly. We’re both grey now. The last time we played—at least in my memory—we tied an old tar bucket to the top rail in Jimmy McCarthy’s store and started it swinging back and forth, pendulum fashion. Ten foot pendulua, though, are hard to control. The chip out of my front tooth is now almost worn smooth…
I get in the car and drive to the wharf. Looks like Jimmy will get his wish after all. I’m still a bit surprised. Even here, in sheltered Placentia, the wind is at about 30 knots. It’s raining too.
But it’s a warm rain. The temperature down here by the wharf is 19 degrees and the rain almost dries off as it lands. Everything—including me—is wet but not soaked through. I talk to Pat, Lucy and Doris as the coffin containing Jimmy’s remains is taken from the hearse and put on board Albert’s boat.
The coffin is laid on some sticks, just in front of the hold. It is draped with a tarp and the flower arrangement is laid above it. These people know what they are doing. The reverence and respect is evident. Though on deck, it is protected and dignified.
I see Patrick, but he does not recognize me. No wonder—it’s been around 40 years and I have changed much in that time. I can still recognize him, though. It’s partly because, at 78, he could pass for someone a decade younger.
But it’s really because of his beaming smile. Funny—he’s just about the same age as Jimmy and he has that exact same gentle loving way about him. A flood of memories: berries, fish, game; Jimmy and Patrick, always coming with something to give. ..and always that beaming smile. When I tell him who I am he immediately begins telling me stories about the past and the present. He’s particularly happy to tell me that the old apple tree that stood in front of our house has made an amazing recovery. It had almost faded to nothing but now it’s producing apples that are better than they ever were—plenty of them.
I think about it for a minute and tell him that maybe the apple tree is a symbol for Red Island. After all, everything comes in cycles and that place has always been well loved. Maybe it, too, is coming back to its glory days. He says, yes, there’s lots of life in the place. Fishers are there just about all the time now. There are loads of houses—seasonal, yes, but still houses—there and parties all the time.
Yes, this is a funeral but I find I’m smiling in spite of myself. Patrick has that effect on people. He jumps–no mean feat for a guy his age–up on the wharf to continue the conversation. We turn and watch as the rest of the crew finishes securing the coffin. Patrick laughs, “Jimmy didn’t use that many knots on the sheep when he brought them across!”
The crew is finished and I take a last look at their work. They have done a good job. Is it just me or does it look like “The Provider” has Jimmy in its embrace?
It’s time to go. Calvin, Gary and Pat’s boats shove off from the wharf and take position about 100 metres out. Albert casts off too. Another boat joins the flotilla a little ways further on.
These are working vessels. They drink diesel and Red Island is at least 90 minutes away. It’s raining, the wind is up and the water is rough. Altogether there are around 130 people in the flotilla. This is no small gesture.
But a life of kindness and love is being recognized. Nobody has anything to gain from this venture. It’s just that Jimmy was worth it and that’s how people are here.
After the boats pass the lift-bridge I drive over to Argentia to see if I can see them when they clear the headlands and get into the open water. It’s no use. The warm, wet, windy conditions mean that Placentia Bay is shrouded in fog.
Normally you’d see the outline of Red Island from here. It’s around 8 km long and 4 km wide and quite high. Constructed from mostly red granite, except for one smaller part, formed from red sandstone the place name is well deserved. The French, not surprisingly, called it Isle Rouge.
It is a place that is loved. Dad always said “Poor Old Red Island” right up until the day he died. Jimmy never left. He may have died in Placentia but he will get his wish.
Euphemisms; how often they are used off-handedly! We say “passed away,” or, simply, “passed” because we just can’t bring ourselves to say “died.” Some might say he’s “going home” in keeping with the age-old hope for everlasting life. Me, I find it much more palatable to just say the words unless I absolutely know that saying them will certainly cause hurt—in which case I generally choose to remain silent.
This time, though, it feels good to say that Jimmy is going home.
Jimmy Corrigan is getting his wish. He is being buried on Red Island right alongside his mother because, as he put it, “she should not be left alone.”
Jimmy was not from Red Island. He is of it.