Hearing Sara Sexton chat about her life, it feels like her family and acquaintances are parading through the house, her telling of them is so rich.
“Level with me now — what are you going to do with this?” she asks, while rocking in her favourite afghan-covered easy chair pulled up to the end of the dining room table. “Is that important enough to go in The Telegram?”
Absolutely it is, because Sexton, besides being the matriarch of a beloved and talented family, is fascinating to listen to. Humour and sadness, insight and suspense course through her stories.
Like her descriptions of son Tommy’s arrivals home from his travels, a delightful tale tainted by the knowledge the renowned actor, musician and Codco comedian will never walk through the door again — a victim of AIDS at just 36 years old.
“He never went anywhere or came back with a suitcase or a decent bit of luggage,” Sexton says, her eyes sparkling with the memory of her son.
“He would always have a big, old bag on his back and he would throw it down on the floor and say, ‘Come on, there’s a bit of makeup for you.’
“He would always bring me a bit of makeup (and say), ‘That’s good for your skin. Don’t go taking anything second-hand.’”
Sexton celebrated her 90th birthday this year at a party attended by 200 relatives and friends from home and away. She asked for no gifts, only donations to the Tommy Sexton Centre.
“Isn’t that something?” she declares, marvelling at the event raising $4,000 for the charity.
Tommy was very much missed.
“Oh my God, yes, everybody wished he could be there,” Sexton says.
“The Christmas before he died he had a gift for everyone. For my Christmas, he wanted me to have a duvet with a special cover — flannel so I would be warm, and the pillow cases and everything flannel. It’s green. He is 20 years dead and I have had it ever since. I clean it every summer and put it down in the trunk and (for winter) take it out and put it on the bed again.”
On this particular day Sexton has graciously agreed to talk about the book she wrote for private distribution, mostly to members of her family.
Initially, Sexton had 50 copies printed of the self-published paperback, “With My Love.”
“I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never get rid of 50,’” she recalls.
But then nieces and nephews lined up to place their orders. And so she had to reorder twice — with 90 copies printed altogether.
She says family friend Helen Peters helped her organize the project and get the blurbs written for the back cover by Andy Jones and Greg Malone. The cover photograph features Sexton as a beautiful bride with her groom and and now late husband, Ned.
But Sexton makes it clear she wrote less of herself into the book, preferring instead to tell stories mostly of family life growing up in
St. Mary’s and her early career teaching on the Cape Shore.
“I wanted to tell my children and grandchildren how we lived as a family and how different it was from anything they will ever experience,” Sexton says of the stories that tell of hard times and good.
Sexton elaborated on some of the details and shared even more tales with The Telegram, beginning with her nuptials to Ned — on a Saturday morning after the two had closed their rural classrooms for the summer just the evening before.
A poem by Sexton details the young couple’s honeymoon journey by boat from St. John’s to his native Fogo Island and the heavy seasickness that hit her as they passed through The Narrows.
In the book, Sexton recalls how they met — Ned was hired as the principal at the school where she taught in Peter’s River. The pastor who informed her of the arrival of the young man from Fogo demanded to know if she knew him and warned her against “hanky-panky.”
Years later, as Sexton elaborates, Ned confided in her that while he was in the audience as she introduced a school concert, he vowed to marry her. She was wearing a red dress with black trim that she’d travelled to
St. John’s to buy for the then substantial sum of $7.
“I said, ‘You’re pretty sure of yourself,’” Sexton says of hearing his confession.
The couple, who spent every day of their retired life doing charity and volunteer work, primarily through their Catholic parish, spent a year in New York as a young couple with first-born daughter Edwina while Ned furthered his university education there.
When Ned had heart surgery in the late 1980s, Sexton decided it was time for her to learn to drive, but while she got her licence, she didn’t really drive until he died in 1999. These days she’s contemplating giving up driving because of the frantic traffic.
“Oh my God, there are too many cars here for the place,” she says. “This is not a big city, but it is filled with cars. It is just filled.”
Around 1997, Sexton wanted to get a computer, but Ned was against it.
“He said, ‘Sara, I really don’t want the computer. You know what a computer is going to do? It is going to stop people talking to each other. There will be no conversations after computer. Everybody will be spelling badly because of the computer,’” she says, adding she made a bargain with him that they would spend a portion of each day by the computer in conversation, because she wanted to hear about Ned’s early life on Fogo Island.
She fondly recalls how Ned’s declaration of, “You’re all right,” was the grandest compliment to her and their crowd. Though he wasn’t overly demonstrative, Sexton says, he fiercely loved his family.
As a young family in St. John’s the Sextons rented a three-storey house downtown on Gower Street, where her brothers — “heavy equipment men” — filed in and out from
St. Mary’s en route to work in Labrador and up North.
One day, Sexton, then 24, was on her way back from the corner store when a neighbour, Mrs. Levitt, called out to her, referencing another woman across from Sexton who never missed a trick.
“Mrs. Levitt, in that great Jewish voice, said, ‘Mrs. Delaney is worried about all the people who are going into your place, Mrs. Sexton. I don’t know what to be saying to her.’
“I said, ‘Oh, when you see her again tell her I had nine brothers. I had one for every day of the week and two left over. And they are all coming. They are just coming to stay with me because they got no money till they go North.’ She laughed so much.”
Sexton writes in her book of the hard work her family and others endured to keep going during the Depression that began in 1929 and stretched through much of the 1930s. She is the youngest of only two girls in the family. One of her nine brothers died at age three of polio.
Her mother made clothes for all of them on an old sewing machine, and they lived on vegetables they planted and animals they tended.
But, as Sexton touches on in her book, widespread suffering was evident in the barefoot children in her classroom and the journeys by foot that people would make to get relief, or the dole, which enabled them to buy a bit of food for their starving families.
Sexton’s mother, Anastasia Molloy, who married Billy Joe Yetman of
St. Mary’s, was originally from Trepassey. People knew she welcomed passersby in for a cup of tea, a bit of bread and jam or whatever she had, as respite on their arduous walks from St. Vincent’s to the dole office in St. Mary’s — 10 or more miles each way to pick up a slip and bring it back to a store in their community.
“They would leave a family with not a thing to eat or drink,” Sexton recalls. “And they would all stop to my mother’s.
“She saved their lives, girl — if not they would have had to walk (hungry) right back the 12 miles again.
“One crippled guy who always came, said when she died, ‘That woman is going to float into heaven on her cups of tea.’”
But when the American military base at Argentia was commissioned in 1941 and local people got work there, things improved drastically, Sexton says.
“They were a godsend,” she says.
“Confederation might have done its job, but (the base) rose people up out of gloom and destitution. These were hungry people.”
Each of her siblings is given a tribute in the book, and so are her children. Her remembrances of the protective brothers who grew to men courting brides and going to sea, the woods, the U.S., up North or abroad to earn a living are etched with pride as well as pain.
One brother, Gus, died suddenly while helping a neighbour in Goose Bay in 1968. Two weeks later, Sylvester Yetman was killed while working on the Churchill Falls project. While he was an able driver, Sexton says, he backed his loaded truck too close to the edge and went over the falls.
“That nearly killed me,” she says.
“He was only 58. They offered him 25 cents more if he went on nights and he accepted it.”
While Sexton raised her boisterous “crowd,” and Ned was eventually retired as a school supervisor, she held a variety of teaching jobs over the years, including at St. Bon’s, and teaching English to immigrants in night school.
She also taught day school for 11 years at Mount Cashel, beginning around 1968, and was unaware of the abuse boys suffered at the Christian Brothers-run orphanage.
“Oh my God, until the day I die I will always feel, was I stupid? Was it my training that I didn’t learn anything about that? Or was it my own life so sheltered?” she says.
These days Sexton has given up a lot of her charity work, but still does church duties. And she knits, mostly socks for church sales. Her east-end St. John’s home is shared by her eldest daughter, Edwina, who has been with her all her life.
Two of Sexton’s siblings survive — her sister Mary, 95, is in Baltimore, Md., and her brother Edward, 88, is in St. Mary’s.
She gets up the shore to play cards with Edward when she can and talks to her sister each week on the phone.
After Mary’s husband died, Sexton says she “foolishly” inquired in one call if her sister, who uses a cane, would be selling her house.
“I could see the look on her face,” Sexton says. “She said, ‘Sell my house? Sure I can get my own meals and I have my own bed. ’ I said, ‘Sure I forgot that.’”