Portapique, Nova Scotia. April 18-19, 2020. We won’t forget the place or the date, where the worst mass murder in Canada’s history took place during an already anxiety-ridden pandemic.
Portapique, where there is also great natural beauty, and cottagers, those seeking peace and quiet in rural life. Where a woman slowly walks the beach at sunset with her dog, a chilled glass of wine in her hand. Down the road from Great Village, where poet Elizabeth Bishop spent her childhood years. Just past (pre-COVID) an ever-packed highway market, mandatory stopping point for all road trips heading towards New Brunswick. Fresh produce, ice cream, home-cooked meals, mustard pickles. A pitstop everyone knows, from RCMP officers to truckers. A place to park your trailer, go fishing and smell the hay.
Portapique is close to the Economys (Lower, Middle, Upper, as Bishop noted), where my great-grandmother Annie was born, close to what would become her married home on a farm in Pugwash. I have Annie’s beautiful photo album, full of sepia images of childhood friends, some whose names I will never know, but photos that we treasure, nonetheless. A tranquil place of cow-filled fields, roadside lupins and quiet white churches now repurposed as antique stores. A place where a girl can learn to play the fiddle and do a goofy dance, and will get encouraged by older and more experienced players to learn more of the well-worn tunes. Portapique – the name sounds like just the place Anne of Green Gables would have gone for a summer picnic amongst the Queen Anne’s lace. Where women can walk in safety and no-one bothers to lock their door.
I really didn’t want to write about this, but I can’t seem to help it.
This past Sunday, I did something I have not been able to do for a month. It wasn’t going back to my favourite sushi place, or getting a much-needed haircut. It wasn’t hugging my Mum or holding the tiny new one-month old baby next door, all things I’ve been longing to experience. Like many things these days, it was something so banal that I didn’t think about doing it until I realized I couldn’t. But this was different from the other COVID-related stuff. I made myself drive through my hometown (Dartmouth) on Portland Street.
Before, I loved driving down Portland Street on my way home from a visit across the harbour to my mother. My husband thinks this is kind of crazy when I could take the faster route back to Halifax via the highway, the route we take on the way over, being impatient to see her, I suppose. Taking the more leisurely route through downtown Dartmouth and crossing the “Old Bridge” means skedaddling down what feels like a fun slalom route from the higher elevation of Westphal, where my Mum lives, on a road where there is usually little traffic at the time of day I’m on it. If I hit a green light at the start of this “course,” I can drive without stopping for about ten minutes (5.5 kms. or so), almost all the way to the bridge. I don’t speed. It’s mostly downhill, and it’s a fun thing to do, a pretend NYC taxi driver route, feeling like I’m ten again on a downhill toboggan, the beautiful harbour opening up ahead at the “bottom”. Not that I look too much, or take photos of beautiful sunsets of course, although I always wish I could.
Right before the lovely harbour vista there’s a Tim’s coffee shop where I had too many stops late at night on the way home from visiting Mum in the hospital when she was there for a month. I don’t know how to describe this Tim’s, except to say it feels a bit secluded and that usually I’m happy to get in and get out of there at night.
A month ago I realized it’s next door to something I’ve been avoiding: I couldn’t bear to see that brown-siding building that for years had an enormous pair of teeth and a pink smile hanging on its Portland Street side. That one. If you live in Dartmouth, you know where I mean. I used to think it must be a sign of a happy person who loved his denture business.
Like many people here, I was glad –not the right word – relieved – when police, or someone with a conscience, removed what now felt like gross large lips and that mocking smile, after the tragic events of April 18-19.
I didn’t want to drive by the denture business that belonged to the killer. I didn’t want to look, or write or speak his name. The twenty-two beautiful souls, these, we will remember.
But I grimly made myself drive by that brown building, now looking so ordinary, and I thought how good it would be if it were razed. Why not?
On Portland Street, I passed Nova Scotia flags fluttering proudly in front of the solid historic homes, proud symbols, but of what? Our solidarity? Defiance? Or an acknowledgement that not only had twenty-two beautiful lives been senselessly taken, but there was in this terror also a violation of our safe place, our beloved Nova Scotia.
I know that the idea of a peaceful home is an illusion for many. That our picture-postcard Ocean Playground isn’t that for all of us. But how many friends around the world, how many media said a version of: “Not in Nova Scotia. It couldn’t happen there. The people are so kind.”
How do we know who is our neighbour and how are they doing, really? How do we know what rage lies within someone, masquerading as an ordinary woman or man (Bishop again). Our Premier said we must not lose our innocence, but when I see the real estate for sale in Portapique, and think of those who cannot return there ever again, I wonder if it’s too late.
We have grieved. We have cried. We’ve written songs and posted videos and hashtags about our strength. We’ve accepted condolences from around the world, we’ve warmed to the collective arms of our fellow Canadians around our shuddering shoulders. We’ve done the things we do in Nova Scotia, raised money for those who need it, played laments, provided virtual casseroles in this time of self-distancing, until the people left in Portapique said enough, thanks, now we need privacy.
I drove down Portland Street because I needed it to be my ordinary street again, even if it’s not fun like it used to be, before tragedy upon tragedy washed over my poor Nova Scotia like so many shipwrecks in the last month. Murders, plane crashes, a pandemic killing our seniors.
I drove over the glorious harbour and was glad to reach home, where recently the baby crows were born in our backyard pine tree. We didn’t even know, until my husband noticed that the parents weren’t flying into the nest any more. It’s abandoned now, only a remnant of a much-laboured over home. The babies are fending for themselves already, under the watchful far-away eye of mother or father.
We want our Nova Scotia home to feel safe again. Someday, I hope it will.
This past weekend Jews around the world read the Bemidbar Torah portion (parshah) on Shabbat. Bemidbar means “in the desert,” or, it’s also translated as “in the wilderness,” and it got me thinking about the safety of home at this time of self-isolation. How temporary things are, how quickly “home” can be changed forever. G-d tells Moses to put the Levites in charge of caring for the Tabernacle, and how to perform tasks for the Tent of Meeting, the moveable home of the sacred Ark.
There is a focus on numbers (the name of this Book of the Torah is Numbers), and counting for a census that G-d orders in this parashah. Steady as she goes, numbers. But also, sometimes counting is awful: twenty-two souls and an unborn babe, may their memory be for a blessing.
The book of Bemidbar has a sense of uncertainty about what lies ahead. The Israelites are camping in the wilderness of Sinai, and the way forward is unsure, the tents are temporary but they’re the only home they’ve got. The Lord is proving manna, quail and water, but still the people (no longer slaves in Egypt) complain (sound familiar?). G-d’s and Moses’ patience are tried. The commentary in our Etz Chaim Humash (Torah in printed form) says that perhaps we should remember that “life is lived not so much in the grand moments as in uncelebrated ordinary times.” Like the things we are currently unable to do. Like driving down a familiar street.
Bemidbar was our daughter’s bat mitzvah portion. I wrote something for her then, about leaving home and the ocean, our place of safety and beauty for all her thirteen years, just down the road from Portapique. I don’t know why it comes to me now, but here it is, from my home in Nova Scotia.
becoming bat mitzvah
…and what I want to know is this:
is it like crossing over a line drawn on the sandbar –
one step here, now there. then, not counted, now, counting?
or like the wavelet approaching, softly washing over your feet –
you, running forward, laughing, wondering at all around you?
once you held our hands in splashing sunlight,
then one day, swam alone.
(did you think you’d stayed the same; that it was the sea that had changed all around you?)
now you immerse your whole self.
( “hen, rooster, chicken, duck!”)
into the salty sea,
thousands of years in the making.
you can choose:
swim to shore, immerse yourself, tread water,
join hands, watch from the edges, read, plunge in again.
you’re crossing over. it’s only natural.
take a step, dear daughter.
dip your dancer’s toes into the water of your people…
all around you the Covenant, enfolding you with love,
as a towel,
as a tallis,
as the promise made long ago.
become bat mitzvah,
and remember the ocean always.
even when your steps take you far from the sea,
B’midbar, to other shores.
May 19, 2007