Dispatches

Everything Is Perfect

Stephen Osborne

In 1946, a young bride writes home about her month-long sea voyage to her new home on Baffin Island.

Late last year I received an email from Pangnirtung on Baffin Island with news that brought strongly to mind an image of my mother as I had never known her, but as I had tried many times to imagine her: in Winnipeg, at the end of World War II, when she was a tap dancer with the Victory Dance Troupe and a clerk at the Manitoba Wheat Pool. Three weeks after her twenty-first birthday she married a medical student interning at Winnipeg General Hospital; they moved into a one-room apartment nearby and shared an extension cord with fellow interns rooming down the hall, who were often drunk on grain alcohol acquired from the hospital dispensary. Nine months later, in August 1946, she flew north with her husband to the port of Churchill on the coast of Hudson’s Bay to board the supply ship Nascopie, on the first leg of a journey across Hudson Bay and around Baffin Island to the mouth of the Northwest Passage, and eventually to Pangnirtung, where her husband had been assigned a post at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Pangnirtung, my mother once told me, was as far away from her parents, especially her mother, as she could hope to imagine; “it was like the other side of the moon,” she said. She filled out her husband’s application form and sent it to Ottawa herself. “A housewife can take her skills anywhere in the world,” she said. On her first day in Churchill she began keeping a diary in a clear hand trained in the MacLean’s handwriting method; in the next few years the diary grew into a series of notebooks in black covers that she bundled into packages and shipped home at intervals to her domineering parents, who would have no other way to communicate with her except by leaving messages on the Northern Messenger, the shortwave service of the CBC. “The plane ride was really perfect,” says the diary on the first page, but Churchill is disappointing: “rocky and irregular and altogether quite depressing (we saw it all in half an hour!).” Most of the diary is upbeat (“more darned fun!” is a frequent aside) and tends to conceal the introspection or doubt that a young person might wish to conceal from domineering parents.

The contingent of passengers in Churchill waiting for the Nascopie to sail numbered more than forty; they were assigned bunk beds in separate men’s and women’s quarters, and included “two doctors, a dentist, a Film Board Man, a Mountie, lots of Americans, H.B.C. men, a pair of newly-weds, a couple of nurses” and an Inuit baby boy being returned to his family in Chesterfield Inlet. Within hours of arriving in Churchill, my mother and an equally young nurse assigned to the hospital in Pangnirtung had taken charge of him, “feeding the baby and changing his pants!” Soon they are buying baby clothes, bathing and powdering the baby, and feeding him “pablum and soup and vegetables, orange juice and vitamins. I don’t see how that kid could have been in a hospital,” she tells the diary. “He was practically starved! Now he’s really thriving, and he’s so darned cute—we’re getting quite attached to him.”

On their first night in Churchill the diary records a visit to the “local cinema” in a Jeep belonging to “a sergeant-major Macklen” to see A Close Call for Boston Blackie, one of a series of popular movies based on the character of a handsome jewel thief turned detective. “The reel only broke twice, so all in all it wasn’t bad, but the ride in the Jeep was freezing.” When they got back to the Nascopie they were met by an American sailor whose forehead had been torn open in an accident; he was bleeding heavily and his face was covered in blood. (“I never in my life saw such a gash. His whole eyebrow seemed to be gone.”) He had been sent over by his own ship’s doctor, who was too drunk (“stewed” says the diary) to treat him. The Nascopie doctor had disappeared with the keys to the medical cabinet, so my mother was assigned to the galley to boil up a darning needle and some black silk thread; and then her husband, with the aid of the nurse, pulled the sailor’s brow together and put in a dozen stitches. At some point the Nascopie doctor appeared and tried to intervene, but as the diary reports, “he was so drunk that he had to be thrown out! What a performance! What a day!” Five days later the Nascopie, fully loaded with coal and supplies for a dozen outposts, and overloaded with passengers, set out to sea.

The voyage to Pangnirtung took thirty-one days; at Chesterfield Inlet the Nascopie sat at anchor for several days in a pattern that would become routine: the doctors and the dentist went ashore to examine the inhabitants for TB, and to administer vaccines and perform other medical and dental work. Here, the diary notes, “we saw our first real Eskimos. Gosh, it’s almost unbelievable. They are exactly like the pictures in the geography books.” The children are rosy-cheeked, mothers carry their infants in the deep hoods of their parkas. The water along the shore is “livid” with the blood of three whales that were taken that morning and butchered at low tide.

Then it was back to the vast rolling sea, where Henry Hudson perished with his teenaged son in 161: “We stayed up on deck quite late just talking about the wonder of it all, to be so far out on the water, and no land on either side!” Organ-playing, singsongs, bridge tournaments and frequent parties provided diversion in the evenings, with dancing to jazz records (“another swell time!”); on Sundays there were hymn sings in the dining room: “I asked for ‘Take me to the lord in prayer,’ and even felt a bit homesick for our little services at Gull Lake.” Most of the passengers eventually fell sick from the terrific unending roll of the ship. My mother remained strapped in her bunk for three days, as noted in the diary by rare strong language: “another damned dawn!”; her husband never succumbed. She recovered and ironed five shirts in an afternoon (“good practise!”) for her husband and the other doctors. In Davis Bay she saw an iceberg up close and wrote that it “resembles an airplane crashed into the sea.”

They crossed the Arctic Circle and entered the icefields of Baffin Bay, riding the foredeck for hours at a time, rising and falling, crashing slowly through the ice. At Fort Ross on Somerset Island, seventeen husky dogs were taken on and lashed to the deck (“they are already raising Cain”); an Italian cook named Tiny—“an all round good fellow,” says the diary—who weighed 25 pounds and “speaks Inuktitut with an Italian accent,” guided my mother and a few other passengers up the mountain to the cairn erected by Leopold McClintock in 1859 during his search for the Franklin expedition. My mother added a note to a bottle inside the cairn: “we the undersigned, passengers on the Nascopie, passed here on September 1th, 1946” and signed it with her new married name (the note is now in the Archives of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife). “From where I was standing,” she said many years later, with fresh excitement, “I could see right into the Northwest Passage.” By now she was studying the Eskimo Phrasebook every day, but none of the natives could understand a word she said.

When Pangnirtung was ten days away, my mother and her husband were assigned a cabin to themselves: “we’re almost overcome!” says the diary. The sea was placid and the evenings glowed in the afterlight of the midnight sun. Volume One of the diary concludes in a rush after the arrival in Pangnirtung, in time to send it back with the Nascopie, which lingered in the fiord for a few days before disappearing early one morning. Now the doctor’s house is seen for the first time: “the cutest little place I’ve ever seen!” and described in detail (kerosene lamps; checkerboard curtains; a fold-up bathtub); the hospital staff, the church family, the HBC family, the Mounties—all are introduced. The family of Eetowanga and his wife Newkinga, hired to support my mother and her husband, remain at this stage on the periphery of her field of vision. “Everything is perfect and I know we’ll be very happy,” says the diary at the bottom of the last page.

Happiness, and its promise of lasting ever after, comes at the end of stories we tell ourselves and stories we tell to children. The day the Nascopie left Pangnirtung Fiord with her diary, my mother looked out her new kitchen window and saw nothing where the once-so-solid ship had been. Years later she said that she felt then that her world, which had been filled with motion, had come to a halt. In the second volume of the diary, she becomes practised at cooking a hundred doughnuts at a time, for her husband to take on long komatik journeys over the ice, guided by Eetowanga, who with Newkinga and their family begin to occupy the centre of her new world; on Valentine’s Day she saw sunlight for the first time “reflecting out on the fiord,” and she walked with her husband over the ice until they could feel the sun on their faces. That week the diary reports that one of the nurses has married one of the Mounties; a week later, the Mountie is to be court-martialled (for getting married) and the nurse is in the hospital with pleurisy. The entry for March 11 is written “in an igloo in the middle of no-man’s land” after a long day crossing the ice, running, falling, climbing and riding the komatik behind the huskies spread out at the ends of their long traces. In further entries, Eetowanga guides the dogs with a long whip and drags the equipage with rope on the downhill; her husband helps build the snow houses that they sleep in each night; they are on the trail for nine days. On the return journey the dogs plunge over a rise down onto a frozen waterfall; the two men manage to jump clear, but my mother is thrown over and slides down the waterfall on her stomach. At the bottom, “we all sat there laughing our heads off—at what, I can’t imagine.” On the ninth day, in a “howling storm,” she is picked up by the wind and blown onto the ice. Once home again, she confides to the diary in a PS: “I’m three months pregnant, but Eetowanga didn’t know that!” This is the first mention of her pregnancy.

In June my mother and her husband take in a nine-pound Inuit boy named Jessie, who has been in the hospital and whose family will come in for him after freeze-up; the diary contains a full account of the fostering. At the same time, the nurse with pleurisy goes into labour, which lasts five days; the baby is born dead and the diary notes that “it makes me apprehensive about my own.” The mother requires blood transfusions and stays for several weeks in the hospital. Years later my mother tells me that this was the one time she saw her husband weep. On July 14 she discovers that her own baby has turned over “and was now in breech—that is, buttocks first and legs outstretched.” Line drawings in the margin illustrate the problem. A week later the Nascopie, on its return voyage, hits a reef in Hudson’s Bay and sinks. A year’s supplies gone to the bottom, but the mail is saved. One of the nurses has a vision of an American aircraft carrier coming to rescue them.

The news from Pangnirtung that I received late last year was that Rosie Veevee, step-daughter of Eetowanga and Newkinga, had just died. She was seventy-nine years old. At the age of fourteen, in 1947, Rosie appears in my mother’s diary for the first time on the day that she began caring for my mother’s new baby for a few hours a day. He was a boy, born right side up. Rosie and my mother became good friends, and their friendship, over a great distance of culture and language, lasted a lifetime.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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