THURSDAY: Clam Harbour

BY KAREN HARDING

Copyright is held by the author.

SOMETIMES in life you wish you could take words back. I just never thought it would be with Grammie.

For the last three summers, my older sister, Ellie went alone to stay with Grammie for a week. It was my turn now, since Ellie is in university and has a summer job. Thing is, Clam Harbour is so lame. It may be great for Ellie but it is definitely not for me. She always came back feeling relaxed and looking like a million bucks. Ellie and Mom would laugh and talk for hours about Grammie — about this story and that story. Did all that sea air get to her brain? You’d swear Grammie was some sort of celebrity. Mom insisted I had to visit on this particular week. I didn’t get why. I had a whole month off from synchro swimming, so what’s the rush? She knew I would miss my friend Rachel’s birthday party, but she obviously didn’t care.

I loaded up my iPod with tons of songs and brought my laptop and a few movies. Grammie doesn’t have internet so I also brought lots of books. At least I had my music for the three-hour drive from the city to Clam Harbour. That would help me endure the agonizing three hours with Mom and her lectures. I could see Mom’s lips moving and her hands gesturing so I knew she was talking. She still hadn’t figured out that with ear buds in, I heard nothing but music. My way of escaping. Between songs I thought I heard something about respect. She was gesturing for me to take my ear buds out. I only get to enjoy freedom for so long. Why is it that when we are in the car for a few hours, with nowhere to run and hide, I get regurgitation of the same lectures? Usually it’s about “choices” and the idea that “if anything’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Oh, and there’s the one about dressing appropriately and not trusting boys. Blah. Blah. Blah. Heard it all before. She would be shocked if she had any idea what really went on every day at high school.

I violently wrapped the cord from my ear buds around my iPod, making sure Mom saw my efforts. My friends all knew that Clam Harbour would bore me to death. No cable TV, no Starbuck’s and sketchy cell phone service that works only on occasion. They are so right. The only good thing is that I won’t have to listen to my friend Sarah obsessing over Ryan. I was getting to the point that if I heard the name Ryan again, I would strangle someone.

Mom had written a list of things to get at the grocery store and some simple recipes. She thought it was important for me to help out and to try not to create more work for Grammie. I get that. For a 15-year-old, I’m a pretty good cook. Mom has always wondered how well Grammie is eating since she’s by herself. My grandfather died when I was two. If you ask me, I think Grammie’s doing fine.

When we were driving along the coast, I found the sunshine off the water blinding. As my mother would say, it twinkled and sparkled to welcome me to Clam Harbour. Bullshit. Even the air had a disgusting smell. Mom took a deep breath and almost seemed to enjoy it. I’d rather take the smell of the city smog over rotting seaweed any day.

We passed a road sign that said “Clam Harbour Population 1663.” No kidding. There  would probably be more people if it weren’t for all the fishermen getting lost at sea. And I thought city life was supposed to be dangerous! Not many drownings on Main Street last I checked.

“Grammie will probably send me to a jamboree at some barn somewhere. Should have practiced up on my line dancing,” I grumbled.

Mom laughed out loud. “Now, Claire. You’re just being dramatic.”

A few more twists and turns in the road and we were only a short distance away from Grammie’s house. There was no turning back now.

The wheels crunched on the gravel driveway. My uncle had a home at the top of the lane and Grammie’s is just in front on the right. Her house is a small bungalow with three bedrooms but only one bathroom. She had the additional two bedrooms built years ago for her older sister and her elderly mother. She has a well in the middle of her backyard. No city water here. The driveway belongs to my uncle so she parks her little powder blue Ford Focus on the grass beside her house. She is 88 but still drives a car. Gotta give her that.

Even from outside, I could smell molasses cookies. I had forgotten how much I loved her homemade cookies.

“Get the bags later,” mom barked as she bounded onto the back porch and yanked the door open. She was like a giddy child going to a parade. I took my time heading into the house. I knew it would be a long time before they would get around to acknowledging me. I should contact the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest hug between mother and daughter.

Finally. There she was. Grammie was just as I pictured her. Except shorter, if that’s possible. She wore a floral dress that had been washed and worn so many times, it was almost impossible to see the flowers. She had on an apron that was tied high around her middle. I don’t remember her having a waist — only a middle. Her slippers looked like they were made from upholstery. They were mostly black with red and pink roses on them, trimmed in gold around the bottom. They were so small they could fit a seven-year-old.

Grammie reached out her arms for a hug and I saw the skin wobbling underneath. Yup, this was Grammie.

“You’ve grown since Christmas.” She stepped back and held me by the elbows. “My, my, I think you’re taller than Ellie.”

Grammie hit the jackpot with that comment. Things were off to an okay start after all.

I settled into my bedroom and left the old folks to catch up on the Clam Harbour news, not to mention all the gossip about relatives I didn’t know I had. With names like Elva, Gertrude and Wilfred, is it any wonder I didn’t want to get to know them? Mom and Grammie talked for about two hours before Mom announced that she was heading back to the city with the promise to return as early as possible next Saturday. That meant I would now be alone with Grammie for an entire week — the longest week of my life.

Grammie and I set the table for a supper of leftover stew, which was de-licious. She knew I loved her homemade rolls and I couldn’t believe she made a batch yesterday just for me. I ate five at dinner. They were so-o-o-o good.

“Maybe we can make some rolls this week while you’re here,” Grammie offered.

“Sweet,” I said. “I could go for that.” One thing Ellie is horrible at is cooking. She still can’t even boil water. Grammie’s cooking obviously didn’t rub off on her.

We cleaned up the supper dishes and settled down at the kitchen table for a few games. My friends wouldn’t be able to appreciate the fine art of Chinese Checkers or Dominoes.

They’ve probably never even heard of them and would think they sucked. I’ve only played these games with Grammie and will probably never play them with anyone else. They are kind of fun, actually, and she had no problem beating me. It’s not like I practiced or anything.

I woke up early the next morning with the sun streaming through the window and the birds in the backyard making a racket. Street noise, I can sleep through. Mother Nature — I can’t.

I left a note for Grammie and pulled the rusty old bike out from under the porch. It was left behind by some nerdy cousin of mine and was fair game as far as I was concerned. I headed to the beach with ear buds intact. The beach was glorious except for the rotting seaweed smell. The air was crisp and the sea breeze would keep me cool for my jog. The sun had not yet warmed the sand and there was not a soul around. I kicked off my flip-flops and stretched before my morning jog. This couldn’t be more perfect. I might be back at Grammie’s and showered before she even got out of bed.

I stumbled in through the unlocked back door to find Grammie dressed and preparing breakfast for us.

“Scrambled or Poached?”

“Scrambled please.” I set my iPod on the counter.

“Grammie, why don’t you come to the beach with me some time?  Mom says you never go anymore.”

“No. You go ahead without me, dear.” She turned back to her cooking. She pursed her lips and stared blankly at the wall in front of her. What was all that about?

Shortly afterward, we headed to Gammon’s Groceries. For a senior citizen, she is quite energetic. She zipped along in her Ford Focus and I think she may have even squealed the tires and laid rubber at some point. Incredible.

In the produce aisle, she trotted over to another grey-haired lady.

“Isabelle, I want you to meet my granddaughter, Claire. She is the baby of the family.” It took all I had to smile and not roll my eyes. At 15, I could hardly be considered a baby.  She introduced me to absolutely everyone at the grocery store, and didn’t struggle with a single name. I hoped she wouldn’t feel the need to talk about anyone I met when we got back home. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep all the names straight.

She squeezed the fruit, chatted with the butcher and joked with the cashier. I just stood back and watched. There was not a single person in that store who did not light up when she spoke to them. Small towns are weird. Wouldn’t get that in the city.

In the afternoon, we prepared dinner together. She surprised me by being such a good sport about trying out a new recipe. I thought old people were supposed to be set in their ways. We had to brown the chicken before putting it in the oven with a cranberry glaze. She fetched the frying pan from the bottom of the stove. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was a cast iron pan and weighed a ton. How did she manage such a heavy pan? I was amazed. I had to use both hands and grunted when I moved it.

While we prepared dinner, the cuckoo clock in the next room nearly drove me insane. A bird would come out and cuckoo the same number of times as the hour and once for every half hour. By four o’clock I thought about chopping its head off and cooking it with the chicken. Grammie didn’t even blink an eye. She had more patience than I did.

I enjoyed dinner. Afterwards, Grammie totally entertained me with story after story about her misadventures growing up.

“Let me tell you about the time I had to round up the cows that escaped from Joe Tweety’s barn,” she began. “I was a fisherman’s daughter, so I didn’t know the first thing about farm animals.”

She continued with stories from the one-room schoolhouse, to the scary widow all the neighbourhood children thought was a witch. By the end of the night, my cheeks were sore from laughing. I swore to myself that before the week was over, I would be brave enough to tell her about some of my skiing screw-ups. I hoped she would find my stories as funny as I found hers.

For the next few days, I woke before Grammie and went to the beach for a run. I used to think running on concrete with Nike’s was hard until I discovered running in bare feet on sand. My calf muscles certainly knew the difference. It wasn’t until the fourth day that I took the time to wade in the water and watch the sandpeeps on the shoreline. They were hilarious as they scurried in an attempt to keep away from the tide coming in. I must have been getting used to the smells of the ocean because I wasn’t noticing them anymore. In fact, it wouldn’t seem like a real beach without the rotting seaweed. Funny about that.

“Let’s go for ice cream and take a stroll along the boardwalk,” Grammie announced after lunch on Thursday.

“Sure. Don’t have to ask me twice,” I said with a smile.

“You are so delightful.” She smiled back.

I smirked. People have called me lots of things, but delightful was a first for me.

We headed to a roadside ice cream stand that boasted 33 flavours.

“What’ll it be today, Elsie?” Even the ice cream man knew her by name.

“I can’t decide.”  She looked at me. “You go ahead, dear.”

“I think I’ll go with cotton candy,” I replied.

“Make that two.”

“Grammie, are you sure? It’s pretty sweet, you know. You may not like it.”

Fiddlesticks. You sound like your mother. I didn’t get to be this old by not trying new things. And make that a sugar cone,” she said to the ice cream man.

You Go Girl! I must admit, my five-foot grandmother had spunk.

We walked around the boardwalk as we enjoyed our ice cream. She made short work of hers. When just the cone was left, she threw it to the seagull. I followed her lead.

When we got back in the car she said, “About that bread making. Want to give it a go today? We’ll have to stop at Gammon’s for yeast on our way home.”

“Sure.” I hadn’t forgotton about it, but I figured Mom would be mad if she thought I was the one who asked.

We drove back to the house with Grammie waving at every person she saw. What the heck. I waved too. I am sure the whole community knew by now that Elsie had her granddaughter visiting from the city.

We stopped at Gammon’s and were approached by a large woman with her hair in rollers. Are you kidding me? In public? Only in Clam Harbour, I guess.

“I would like you to meet…”

“I’m Claire, Elsie’s granddaughter. The baby of the family.” I smiled and extended my hand.

On the drive home, Grammie said, “She is such a battle-axe, that one.”

“Why do you bother talking to her then?”

“That’s what we do around here.”

I waited for more, but I guess that was all the explanation I would get.

We started to make the rolls as soon as we got in the door. They were a lot fussier than I realized but so worth the effort. We played cards after they were done and I got brave enough to tell her my silly stories about falling off the ski lift chair last winter and running into the barricade. It felt good to be the one making her laugh for a change.

Friday arrived before I knew it. I would be leaving the next day. The week had flown past and I didn’t get to watch any of the movies I brought with me or break the binding on any books. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind. I woke up later than usual that morning. The sun was nowhere to be seen since the fog had moved in. It was miserable. I’d almost forgotten how the fog managed to make everything dreary and dull. I left the usual note and hurried out the door, stuffing a roll with homemade strawberry rhubarb jam in my mouth. I didn’t even take the time to grab my iPod.

I heard a fog horn in the distance. Even the beach seemed to be mourning the lack of sunshine. After my jog, I sat on a log to catch my breath before I headed back. The fog was so thick that I could hear the gentle roll of the waves onto the beach, but I couldn’t see the ocean. As I turned to leave, I thought I heard the distinct sound of oars slicing through water. I listened and tried to focus on where the sound was coming from. I concentrated and stepped forward to get a better look.

“Anyone there?” I stood still and listened for a response. The fog horn sounded again and the oars sliced through the water at a rhythmic, steady pace.

“Hello.” No answer. The rowing went on and on but didn’t get any closer or any further away. It seemed to stay in the same spot. The person obviously wasn’t making any progress.

“Hello!” I raised my voice and once again got no answer. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see far. I waded into the cool water to get a better look, but still couldn’t see any sign of a boat or a person. Just fog. Whoever it was, they chose to ignore me. The fog horn moaned again as if mocking me.

“Hey. This isn’t funny, you know.” Who goes out on the water in this kind of weather?

I was baffled. What the hell! My heart was racing faster than when I was jogging. I was truly spooked now. I splashed my way out of the water and left the beach. I raced back to Grammie’s.

I found her sitting at the kitchen table, still in her bath robe. The kitchen was a dull grey with no lights turned on. Her hair was messy, which was not like her at all. For the first time this week, she was not wearing her slippers.

“Did you enjoy your run at the beach today?” Grammie spoke in a hushed voice.

I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if I should tell her about the strange incident on the beach or not.  But then again, maybe she could shed some light. She seemed to know everyone and everything there was to know about Clam Harbour.

“It was the strangest thing,” I began. I told her about the sound of the oars. “I had the feeling there was someone there, even though I couldn’t see them.”

With what Grammie said next, I knew instantly why Mom had insisted that I visit her this week — not last week, not the following week, but this week.

Grammie’s voice was so quiet; I had to strain to hear it. She seemed to look right through me.

“This is the anniversary or your grandfather’s death. It was foggy — just like today. Everyone thinks that he lost his way and drifted out to sea.”

All the colour drained from her face. “He wouldn’t have made that mistake. Maybe the oars you heard were his, trying to find his way back to me.”

It felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I didn’t know what to make of it all. I wasn’t one to believe in ghosts but Grammie certainly seemed to. At that point, what I thought didn’t matter. She was on the verge of tears.

“Grammie, I’m so sorry.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and slowly made their way down my cheeks. I gave Grammie a huge hug and didn’t want to let go.

“I honestly didn’t know. Nobody talked about it.”

I sat back down in a kitchen chair across from her. We both cried. We stayed there for what seemed like an eternity. She then reached for my hand and said in a gentle voice, “It’s okay dear. Thank you for being here.”

We sat in silence for another short while. The cuckoo clock struck 10. Grammie took a deep breath and adjusted the ties on her bathrobe.

“But now,” she announced, “it’s time to get on with our day.”

With that, she sprang out of her chair and started to make a pot of tea.

Grammie and I played cards and Chinese Checkers the last night of my visit. I won my first game all week but only because she let me win. Grammie didn’t tell any of her lively stories that night. A couple of times she got very quiet and I could see her staring at me, her eyes getting moist. We both knew what tomorrow would bring but neither of us spoke about it. She packaged up the last of the homemade rolls we made together and insisted I take them back with me. No arguments there.

Mom arrived mid-morning the next day. I was grateful that packing provided me a good excuse to avoid the beach. The thought of it gave me goosebumps, even though it was no longer foggy.

Goodbyes were difficult. I think I rivalled Mom for the longest hug with Grammie and  promised her a visit next summer. We headed to the car and I took a deep breath of the salty sea air. In a strange sort of way, I would miss the smell. Bags were thrown in the trunk of the car with my iPod packed safely away. I wouldn’t need it for the three-hour drive home. After all, I had lots to tell mom and definitely lots of questions to ask.

6 comments

  1. Diane

    Enjoyed your story and all the fitting imagery like the old bike, over friendly locals, and the spunky Grandma.

  2. Suzanne Burchell

    My east coast Nannie Barteaux was a clone of the Grammie in the story — on the go and brimming with love. I am heading back home to the bay of Fundy in four days to the land of homemade rolls, beach, fog and the kind of love in this story. I will walk many mornings on foggy beaches and recall the sound of oars in this story. I hated the eastcoast when I was younger but today at age 67 cannot wait for the spell that it will cast. If you are captured by this story, you might read “Bucket of Clams” I wrote and see the affect an eastcoast connection makes on one’s story telling as well as “Them There Days Are Gone,” which will be posted on Commuterlit this week. As writers we are kindred spirits connected by our Grandmothers and the priceless time we had with them on the eastcoast. Lucky us 🙂

  3. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Clam Harbour |

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