Those were the days

Juris Graney
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Laura Chambers recalls old-time dances, hard work, love and living off the land

Flower’s Cove — Laura Chambers sits knitting, seemingly hypnotized by the click of her four needles as they turn wool into a pair of shin-high socks — the traditional kind.

Across from the 94-year-old is a chesterfield draped with all manner of samples — long, short, colourful, plain.

It’s what keeps Chambers busy these days as she gently tilts back and forth in a rocking chair.

From sunrise to sunset, six days a week, she sits and knits in the Flower’s Cove home she shares with her nephew Harold, his wife Maggie, and Wyman, the nephew she raised as her own son.

But it wasn’t always this leisurely.

“It was hard work m’ dear,” she says softly, looking up from the white wool that is slowly taking shape.

“Oh yes m’ dear, when we were younger, it was hard work.”

The good ol’ days

Born during the final throes of the First World War on Jan. 7, 1917, to Noah and Muriel Genge in Anchor Point, she lived there until she was 19 years old, at which point she moved to Barr’d Harbour to work as a serving girl for the princely sum of $5 a month.

There was also an ulterior motive to the journey — she wanted to be closer to her beau, Hubert Chambers. They had crossed paths at a school dance.

Talk of the dance brightens Chambers’ face, the fond memories streaming back as she reminisces about the musical accompaniment for those evenings.

“I used to enjoy the dance,” she giggles, leaning across and putting a hand on my arm.

“We used to diddle,” she continued, “diddle the tunes. There were no words, we just diddled.”

She and Hubert rarely saw each other such, was the secrecy surrounding courtship of the day.

“A few times in the summer,” she recalls. “It was not every week.”

Sometimes, he would make the trip to Anchor Point and other times, she would head to Barr’d Harbour.

During the winter, the distance would be covered by a dog team, but most other times of the year, she and others of her generation would simply walk.

When the weather was fit in spring and summer, Hubert might take a boat along the shore.

Wedding bells

She remembers making the trek to a wedding in Green Island Cove along with three friends from Anchor Point.

They carefully packed their homemade frocks in bags and carried them the 40 or more kilometres.

The only problem was the trip took longer than expected, so when they arrived, “the supper was all over, and it was too dark to walk back.”

“So we stayed over and walked back the next morning,” she says.

Her fondest memory of her own wedding was the arrival of a special garment.

In order to prevent anyone, even her parents, from knowing about the upcoming wedding, Hubert brought the special gift to his betrothed in a box that a window had come in. It was her wedding veil, and the memory still brings a smile to Chambers’ face.

They were married for more than 60 years until Hubert passed away at age 85.

The secret to so many years of wedded bliss?

There isn’t one.

“I still wanted a lot more time,” she says. “You have to want to be together. You have to work together. It’s hard work, but people these days give up too easy. If you have a row, one of you has to give in.”

Hard work at love was mirrored by hard work on the land and sea.

Before the sun rose and well after it had nestled behind the horizon, there was work to be done around the house, in one of the large gardens or down at the stages.

There was no such thing as going to the store and buying a chicken — if they wanted one they had to catch and kill their own.

In addition to heating water for the washing tubs, there was work to be done drying fish and cooking.

On Monday it was leftovers from Sunday’s hot dinner and maybe some baked beans. Tuesday was hot dinner, Wednesday was fish, Thursday was stew and on Friday there was fish again.

On Saturday the menu was soup, but that evening was used to prep for Sunday’s supper because it was, after all, a day of rest.

“We’d do all the work on Saturday night,” she says.

“We’d clean the potatoes, get it all ready and if there were cards being played, it’d stop at midnight.”

Even to this day, that rule still applies in the Chambers house.

If she’s playing cards on a Saturday night and the clock strikes midnight, she’ll call it a night no matter what.

“There’d only be work on Sundays if there needed to be,” she recalls. “If the herring nets were out they’d have to come up so they wouldn’t spoil. The cod traps, they could wait.”

At 7 a.m., breakfast would be served, 10 a.m. would be a snack, noon would be lunch, 2 p.m. there would be another snack, 5 p.m. was supper and sometime between 8  and 9 p.m. there would be a bedtime snack.

At 10 p.m. it was lights out, a duty shared between Hubert and his four brothers — Eli, Absalom, George and Clyde — who would take turns starting the generator in the morning and turning it off at night.

Self-sufficiency being the key to surviving in Newfoundland and Labrador back in those days, Chambers’ family farmed large gardens and owned all manner of livestock, including one very lazy ox.

She tells a story of how the young Chambers brothers took the ox out into the woods to gather and haul lumber back to their homestead.

With her father-in-law, Caleb Chambers, waiting for the load back in Barr’d Harbour, and the belligerent ox refusing to move, the lads decided on a simple plan.

They carefully lit a small fire under the stern of the beast.

The timber and the brothers arrived home in record time, but their father was not pleased about the slightly singed ox.

Key to longevity

Is there a strategy for living a long life?

When asked, Chambers falls silent; the clack of the knitting needles absent.

“I don’t know m’ dear,” she says. “My father always told me, ‘Don’t say your prayers in the morning, say your prayers at morning, say your prayers at night.’”

She still faithfully does both.

Having had her fill of telling tales, she watches this reporter pack up pen and notepad.

“That’s enough of that now,” she says, her attention turning back to an almost complete sock.

The clicking of the needles begins again, its tempo steadily rising.

The Northern Pen

Geographic location: Barr, Anchor Point, Green Island Cove Newfoundland and Labrador

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