Spring runoff gushes excitement: raging whitewater in the brook alongside the steep walk down the hill to the bus. Gloopy red mud swallows rubber boots unexpectedly, tries to suck them back. The snow grows grainy and hard, glares crystalline in the sun. The spruce trees exhale: nature’s breath mint. Buds purpled. The sun feels warmer though the air is cool. The lichens stand out in sharper relief on the bark of trees, somehow. Everything glistens with the sleeking of spring. The gaspereau run the rivers…fiddleheads plump their nubbly homes on the riverbanks. Spruce buds prepare to pop their papery brown hats…which for me has always signalled a spring run – off to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
In the 70s, Spruce Budworm spray included a spicy little ingredient called DDT. So each spring, my parents would pack us up and ship us off to Yarmouth to stay with Lucy and Helen at their studios in Pembroke Dyke. Lucy was my great-aunt, and the reason my mother had come to Canada in the first place. She and Helen, both painters who had met during their art school years in Boston, had been on the way back from a mentorship in Europe and made a pit stop in Paris to paint in a studio there…and met my mother, who was then an art student at l’école des beaux-arts. They invited her to come paint with them in Pembroke Dyke for a year…and she did. Then she married my father. Had us. We bumped around the planet a bit and eventually resettled in New Brunswick. And so Pembroke was where we retreated for two months of school each spring during budworm spraying in New Brunswick.
We stayed in Helen’s studio and had family supper’s in Lucy’s studio. The bus arrived, swirling out of the mists every morning to take us to the local elementary school. Softball was a much bigger deal there than it was in our regular school – and we hadn’t much of a clue how to play. Luckily there were pickup games with the kids who rode the bus with us in a neighbouring field. All the kids knew Lucy and Helen, so accepting us as an extension of them was easy. Lucy’s studio was a key destination for the local kids. There were marionettes, toy soprano saxes, a record player, paints, pastels, paper, papier maché, and two artists working in the north light of a bay window. And they had ducks and dogs. It was a huge draw.
Every visit to Lucy and Helen began and ended with an enthusiastic round of ring around the rosy. Her weathered studio-house was perched on a raised grassy meadow between two beaches – one that arched toward the Overton fishing docks, and another that sloped away towards a neighbouring farm on the next point of land. The duck pond was ringed with reeds, beach roses, and punctuated by a little duck house. Feeding the ducks leftover stale white bread was a favourite.
In the mornings, eggs were fried in cast iron pans on the old wood stove in the kitchen, and the toast was browned over the fire in the studio’s beachstone hearth. The air was fog-fingered dampness ringed with wood smoke, beach roses, rotting bladderwrack, turpentine, oil paints, and salt. There were forbidden sugary indulgences a the studio, too: Pop Shoppe pop – something that never crossed the threshold of our own home – pink wafer cookies and ambrosia salad with coloured marshmallows.
During the day we were sent to the beach with pails, forks, and shovels to dig for clams. Later we would arrange a fire and have a clam bake just meters from where the clams had been sourced. Before bed, water was pumped at the sink, a final trip to the outhouse in the back yard was made (we sisters went together in the dark with a flashlight, and took turns), and then the kerosene lamps were dimmed, blown out, and we all tucked into our cots in the tiny shared space of the garret.