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About the Author

Lisa Catherine Cohen

Books by this Author
R.E.A.L., from the Edge of the Rock

R.E.A.L., from the Edge of the Rock

... a Newfoundland Memoir (2nd Printing)
by Rita Mary Stamp
editor-in-chief francis Mitchell
cover design or artwork by Virginia Houston
foreword by Lisa Catherine Cohen
tagged : historical
More Info

My First Breath

It was late in the fall. The heat of summer was gone and the air had taken on a cool. Dawn was at least an hour or two before breaking. Like every other good day in St. Vincent’s, the sun would peek over the horizon at the Big Head, a landmark of densely populated trees on the other side of Holyrood Pond. The Stamp family’s little two-storey wooden-framed home sat near the edge of a cliff overlooking the magnificent Atlantic Ocean and Holyrood Pond. A long, narrow beach separated the two.

From their bedroom, Nellie and Val Stamp couldn’t help but hear the tumultuous roar of the waves as they splashed day and night up on the shore, but on this very early morning, louder - and a lot closer than the waves - were the excruciating screams of Nellie, between calling out to her husband, and second-time-father-to-be, Val, and Jesus, Mary and - ahhh, ohhh - St. Joseph! “Get up and get yourself ready, Val, while I look after ‘meself’. I need to get ready to go to the hospital. I just know it. It’s time we better start ‘movin’ quick!”

Val sprung out of bed and jumped into his trousers in one heck of a hurry. It was usually a very peaceful and quiet time of the day, but not at this wee hour of the morning. Val felt around on the night table with his big weather-wrinkled hands until he finally found the oil lamp. “Now where are those god-darn Eddy matches to light it with?” Val scowled. Nellie, did you move my matches? Where are they? I gotta find them!”

“Shhh....! Be quiet,” Nellie demanded, “Don’t talk so loud. You’re going to wake up the youngster. She’s still fast asleep.”

“Well, I gotta get some light to find my way downstairs.”

Maybe they - aghhh - fell down on the floor by the night table,” Nellie strained to say, “Look on the floor, will you? And don’t knock over the pail!” (Neither the Stamp family, nor most of the families in this outport Newfoundland community, had running water then - no sinks or bathtubs with faucets; having an indoor, modern flush toilet was a remote fantasy). The “pail” was the repository for the unfortunate side effect of humanness - human waste. Yes, it had a lid on it, although not as tight fitting as one might have wished, especially when you knocked it over, or worse, missed, in the dark of night.

Val scuffled his feet around in the pitch dark and finally heard the scrape of the matches moving and the thin crack-crack of them spilling onto the linoleum floor. He stooped down and scooped up one of them, and with it, lit the oil lamp. A trail of sooty smoke followed him as he carried the lamp across the landing and headed for the stairs. He began to count each step…one…two…three… stepping down each one cautiously in the pale, fluttery lamp light in the still-pitch dark…twelve, thirteen…all the way down until he reached the fourteenth step. Val knew then he had made it to the bottom. He couldn’t afford to trip and fall - not at this stage of things - perhaps hurt himself, or even set the house on fire! What, with Nellie about to pop!

When he reached the kitchen, he lit the Aladdin, (Fig. 1) the kitchen lamp that illumined the room with a lot more light. There, that makes more sense, he thought, pleased with his accomplishment and, like most men, unable to fully grasp the vastness of the task his wife is about to take on. Val then carried the oil lamp back upstairs for Nellie, who needed the light to get herself ready, and then holding onto him, her tiny, weighted-down body would lumber her way down all fourteen stairs.

When Val reached the top step, he saw that by now, Nellie was deep into labour. This is no false alarm, she was thinking. And so was he. Nellie gasped and cried, squeezing her eyes in pain, and managed to tell him that the contractions were becoming more unbearable with each passing minute. She couldn’t deny it any longer; it was her time all right! She was too deep in pain to be able to time her contractions. Val filled the old Waterloo stove (See Fig. 2: Waterloo stove) with an armful of splits - dried wood, shaved with curls for easy igniting - to light the fire, so he could at least warm the house up before Nellie came downstairs. Again Val misplaced his Eddys (matches). Where did they go this time? he wondered. I could have sworn I put them on the kitchen table, or on top of the Waterloo. Val looked in the most likely places, but still couldn’t find them, excusing his foggy-brain with his wife’s labour. Finally, he glanced toward the windowsill…and there they were, sitting innocently the whole time. “Ah, St. Anthony musta bin ’round here again! He always seems to hear our prayers when somethin’ goes missin’. “

Val lit the splits and got the old Waterloo firing hot. He half filled the old, cast-iron kettle and began to make a pot of hot Red Rose, Orange Pekoe tea - always the loose tea, never the bags - for himself and Nellie; likely in that order. Ah, he thought, maybe she might like a mug-up (that’s Newfie for having a cup of tea with a piece of toast and a dab of bake-apple jam, or just plain old bread and butter, or a tea biscuit). Mug-up time is any time of the day or night. The hallway door opened and in waddled little Nellie huffing and moaning. By gosh, perfect timing! she thought, smiling bravely through the next stabbing pain.

“The kettle is ready now,” Val announced. He poured her a cup of hot tea and placed the chipped, lilac-patterned cup on the saucer. It wobbled into place. “There you are! That should fix you up. Maybe the pains will go away, at least for a while. I bet it’ll do wonders for you.” Nellie took a few slurps of the tea and had just begun eating her piece of toast, when she let out another awful scream, “Jeeeezus, Mary and St. Joseph!” Val, startled, spilled his own tea and winced from the burn of the liquid on his leg.

“Oh, Sacred Heart of Jesus, help me! God forgive me for saying so! I think I am going to have this baby right now, right here.” Nellie did not swear; no, she never used a single profanity in her entire life! However, calling out for this or that saint - often as the need arose - took its place. She was totally incapable of uttering the curse words that other people say aloud all the time without a shred of guilt. God, she knew for certain, would never forgive her - or anyone else, for that matter - for using His name in vain. “Of course, you know perfectly well, Val, that good Catholics - ow-w-w-w-w - don’t swear!” Nellie declared to Val, “Please go find out and see if the taxi driver has left yet for St. John’s! And ple-e-e-ease hurry!”

In St. Vincent’s, telephones had not yet been introduced in people’s homes; only the post office had one that the residents could use, but only in emergencies. And this was an emergency! And it is where Val (and Nell - the mare) would momentarily gallop off, to use the phone and call Stefan to come and fetch Nellie because she was about to have her baby. Stefan, the only taxi driver in the village, lived about ten miles away. It could take him quite a while to get to the Stamp home. Maybe too long a while… Nellie was taking tiny sips of her tea, between gasping for breath. Val was, however, being his slow-moving, charming self. “Hurry up, Val,” she heaved “I’ve got to get out of here real soon. You’d better make it fast! Also, Val, call Bridget, because I think I will need her to come with me, just in case”.

Bridget Hayward was the only midwife in the community. She was 80 years or maybe older; she didn’t know herself. There had been others who were either dead or too old to practice anymore. Bridget was also the community healer. She must have delivered hundreds of babies in her time. Bridget, like the midwives before her, had no medical training, yet never encountered a single problem with any delivery that she couldn’t remedy in her own, natural way. Her deliveries were all success stories.

Her house was only about a fifteen-minute walk from Nellie and Val’s. Bridget was always dramatically draped in a long, loose-fitting, black dress with a white pinafore over it. She always wore old-fashioned, high-cut, laced-up black boots. Her long, pure white hair was always braided and pinned up in a bun on the top of her head. A gentle, wise old crone, she was always calm and relaxed, a necessary component of being able to soothe people in such stressful situations as baby birthing. Of course, someone had to be in control, and Bridget definitely was. “Stefan can pick her up along the way,” Nellie added, but Val felt chided, because he already knew that.

I hope Nellie doesn’t have this youngster here, Val privately pleaded with God. Either way, I’ll be all alone with the youngster we’ve got. Another blood-curdling scream… I surely wouldn’t make a good doctor. Ginny is still sleeping; thank God for that! Val grumbled to himself as he threw on his bare-at-the-seams windbreaker. The other youngster he was referring to was Virginia (Ginny) who was just a year old.

Before he could finish buttoning his coat, and raise its collar against the chilly fall wind, and before he could hurry, as ordered, out the front door, Nellie kept adding instructions, and Val valiantly tried to remember them all. “I’d better tell you what you should know so you can look after Ginny properly when you come back.” Nellie laid herself down on the stool - the long, narrow, wooden bench in the kitchen. It was used solely by the head of the household for resting at the end of the day. Nellie’s stretching out on it was a brazen, and rather brave act that under the circumstances Val did not disallow. She sat down in that awkward, arms first pregnant way, then swung her feet up, grunting as she sat, secretly keeping her fingers crossed the whole time.

The storm door slammed a couple of times. “Got to fix that hinge,” Val muttered aloud to no one in particular…. With not another moment to spare, he ran up to the stable to saddle the family transportation - the old mare, whose name was also Nell, and Val had to be careful not to call his wife the horse’s name, or vice versa, the first being most important. Val tackled Nell, put the collar on and harnessed her. “Ready, Nell? Let’s go, ol’ pal.” He mounted her gently, held those reins tightly and grabbed the whip. He whacked old Nell on the arse a few times to get her to top speed. “Giddy-up! Go Nell, as fast as you can. Don’t let me down this time. I know you can do it. You’ll get lots of hay, oats, and a good drink when we get back here, I promise!”

The sun was well above the horizon by now, but hiding behind the usual thick curtain of fog and haze, like an actress with stage fright, afraid to come out and shine on this nerve-wracking drama. Val rode Nell down the road spurring her to yet greater speed and holding on for dear life to get to the post office to use the old-fashioned telephone in which you hold the handset to the ear and speak into the base. He prayed he’d be able to catch Stefan before he left for St. John’s, because he usually had a carload of passengers every morning, all in their own rush to do some kind of business, or buy something in the city. Val hoped against hope that Stefan didn’t have any customers this morning.

Val dismounted Nell, and tied her to the wooden fence outside the post office, huffing and sweating from the ride. “What in tarnation is going on with you?” demanded Viola, the hefty and jovial postmistress.

“I need to use - puff, huff - the phone, Viola; Nellie’s in labour!” Without another word, Viola dialed to connect to the operator and handed Val the phone. In an audible and single breath, while trying with great effort to compose himself, he whispered, “Stefan, I need you to come down quick and pick up the wife and take her to the hospital in St. John’s. This is an emergency situation, you see. The wife is going to have a youngster and she just woke me up with one hell of a scream. She’s in labour. Did I already say that? Yes, I did, that’s true!”

“Are you sure, Val?” Stefan replied, ever the realist. There were hollers of “Yes! Yes! Ye….ssss!” coming from Val. “And you need to pick up Bridget after Nellie, okay?”

“By God, you’re not kidding! I’ll be there right a…” Stefan promised. His last word was cut off as Val banged the phone down.

Val untied Nell, mounted her and galloped, as if the lumbering run of Nell could be called galloping. We, I mean, we’re not finished yet, Val whispered to the mare. We have to go up to the Point to wake Bridget and tell her to get ready to go to the hospital with Nell…the wife I mean. Another few minutes on Nell’s back, Val arrived at the midwife, Bridget’s house. Fighting a losing battle with time, he knocked less than politely on Bridget’s unlocked storm door and to his relief, found she was up and dressed already. She was happy to hear the good news, and assured Val she would be ready when Stefan and Nellie would be coming by.

Once more, Val and old Nell galloped back to the house. Out of breath, Val stood in the porch, bent over, hands on his knees, breathing even harder than Nellie. Between grunts of pain, as if no time had passed, except now, still on the stool, and hunched over her pregnant belly, Nellie began explaining to Val all the things he needed to do while she was gone to have the baby. Pointing to a pile, she began her litany: “Those diapers over there are all wash-and-wear.” Nellie was always prepared for any turn of events. She had sewn a new batch of flannelette diapers in preparation for the new baby. She knew she could never have too many of these things around. “Val, listen. You have to be very careful putting these diapers on because you’re not very experienced. Those danged safety pins; they’re enough to really get your goat! When you’re changing her diaper, make sure you put your finger on the inside first, and be very careful not to let the pin stick her. You hear me?” Men don’t always listen to their wives, and Nellie knew it, so she reiterated, louder this time, allowing the volume of the words here and there to replace the screams “Watch out for those safety pins!” That bout of labour pains subsided long enough to continue instructing at a normal volume. “Now, after the diaper is changed, be sure to soak it, ‘poop and all’ in the pail reserved for this purpose only. Remember, the pail is out there in the porch behind you.” Val recovered from his ride enough to hop out of the pail’s way. The porch was enclosed and there the wood was stored, as well as other nasty items, like pails of poopy diapers and, although not a great conjoining, some food was kept directly above the pail on the shelves. “That’s where I always keep it”, Nellie resumed, “so I will know where to find it. So, that’s it! That’s all you need to know for now. Oh, don’t forget to feed Ginny, too.”

“Feed her what?” asked the clueless Val.

“Well-cooked porridge, scrambled eggs, if the chickens lay any (they haven’t lately) a bottle of warmed milk - not hot, warmed - and for the love of St. Joseph, don’t ya be choking the youngster while I’m gone! Give her tiny pieces of food, okay!”

Distracted, Val heard the sound of an approaching car and looked out the window, hazy from the dampness outside, and saw Stefan speeding up the hill on the dirt road, with a flounce of dust in his wake.

Stefan had wasted no time and arrived within the half hour. He stopped the mud-caked black, late ’40s Dodge cab in front of the house. As he helped Nellie to the cab, Val grabbed a few rag-stuffed pillows from their bed and placed them on the back seat before the grunting, bent-over Nellie manoeuvred her expectant body into a partially lying-down, partially seated position as comfortably as possible. As they prepared to pull away from the house, Val leaned in to Stefan, now back in the driver’s seat, and forgetting his Christian manners in the kerfuffle, almost ordered Stefan to “Don’t forget to stop along the way to pick up Bridget and take her with you. I rode by after I called you; she said she’d be ready. If you don’t get to St. John’s in time, you know, Nellie will need her. You never know what could happen along the way. It’s a heck of a long way from here and certainly no place to have a baby! So long! Good luck, Nell…Nellie I mean.”

As Val waved good-bye from inside a new dust ball, Stefan drove away, but once out of sight, he sped up to the Point to get Bridget. She was wearing one of her black dresses, but hadn’t bothered with the pinafore. A swipe of her toothbrush and a quick twist of the long, white braid into the usual bun, Bridget pranced down her stairs with just enough time to peel an orange and pop three sections at a time into her mouth, dashed outside and was ready and waiting on the second step. In this Catholic community, Bridget was well used to being called at ungodly hours. So, almost before Stefan’s taxi had come to a full stop, she was scurrying around to the front passenger seat. She opened the door, not without some effort, and Stefan, to aid her, reached across to pull the door handle up from the inside. Bridget, spry for her age and weight, jumped in. She twisted around to face the perspiring and pain-etched Nellie, and reached over the seat to gently brush the hair from the forehead of her pregnant patient and whisper soothing words of comfort. She had a way, all right; it mattered not what she said but the way she said it, and Nellie felt immediately soothed. Now, no matter what happened, Nellie knew she was in good, veteran hands.

If you were to look through Val’s kitchen window, you could easily see a horse, car or a buggy go around the Point - a landmark, blind hill and sharp curve in the road near where the first church was built - and where Bridget lived.

After the old Dodge left in a balloon of dust, with Stefan and Nellie in it, Val wasted no time getting back into the kitchen to gobble a fast breakfast before baby Ginny awoke and another busy day began. With his tea and a plate, Val sat down at the dining room table to nibble from the loaf of bread Nellie had baked yesterday. Fresh bread always sat on that painted-green, wooden table in that darkened room where no one ever ate, and where most of the food was stored in cardboard boxes, stacked on the floor. With the knife that always rested beside the loaf, he sliced off another piece of bread and carrying it in his mouth, tip-toed back into the kitchen, trying to keep quiet so the baby remained asleep for as long as possible. Then Val began the process of cooking the porridge in the old, burn-stained saucepan with the bent handle. He lifted up the damper (the round lid that goes over the opening where the wood or coal gets thrown). He placed the slice of Nellie’s bread across the opening to make toast, ready to take it with a poker, fast! Val slathered it with some jam and swallowed it in seconds.

Shortly thereafter, Val heard little cries coming from upstairs. He dropped the damper into its place and ran up to retrieve his daughter. By the time he reached the bedroom, her chubby arms were outstretched; her cries were so loud, his first instinct was to cover both of his ears. Overly gentle, he picked her up out of her crib he’d fashioned out of junk wood, and carried the still-wailing baby Ginny down the stairs and into the kitchen. The porridge was bubbling in the pot and smelled ready, though it looked a little soupy. He tried valiantly to remember all the instructions Nellie had given him, and luckily did recall the part about making sure that whatever he feeds the baby, it’s well cooled off first. Testing some on his wrist the way he’d seen his wife do it all year, Val managed to feed Ginny the porridge without burning her! Then, turning his face away from the amazingly unpleasant odour of his tiny child’s poopie, he dutifully washed and changed the wiggling, fidgeting, crying baby, and realized in these few hours since Nellie left what a tough stroke of bad luck it is to be born female. It must be really difficult being a woman, wife, and mother, all at the same time! Oh, I’m so glad I’m a man. Women have so much to do! He thought to himself. Val was tasting motherhood, an unfamiliar and most undesirable role he’d be happy to give back the minute Nellie returned with another youngster in her arms.

As Val fed little spoonfuls of porridge to the hungry child, he was muttering to himself and pacing, something expectant fathers universally do; I don’t know why. “They’ve been gone well over an hour. They must be halfway to the hospital by now,” said Val unabashedly aloud to no one, “surely to God.” The reality had finally hit him, and he suddenly realized that this was no toothache Nellie was having. “What am I going to do with this youngster? I gotta get outa here and do some work - something to keep my mind busy.” The truth is, Val was wrestling with a premonition that this was destined to be to be a rough time for all.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread through the community that Nellie was in labour and on her way to the hospital in St. John’s. Nellie and Val’s neighbour and close friend was Maude, a bosomy, salt-of-the-earth kind of woman who had four children, three daughters and one son (Dorothy, Hilda, Dermot, and Theresa, her youngest, who was six years old). Maude and Theresa came in, so close in proximity and friendship that they could just walk in - to check on things; Maude knew Val was going to need some help with baby Ginny. She could see that Val was bungling his way through all Nellie’s chores so she just took over the reins of taking care of Ginny, and did some cooking for Val, too. Her neighbourly, maternal, take-over way gave Val some free time to do his own chores outside.

Val had been working as a carpenter in St. John’s at Newfoundland Hotel when Nellie’s birth date was nigh, and decided to stay at home with his frail, but heavy-with-child wife and baby Ginny until the new youngster was born. Then he planned to go back to work.

It had turned cold in early November and winter was just around the corner. The sun had decided to smile through the morning fog and began to burn it off. “It’s not so dense for a change,” said Val, “but you know, Maude, I went outside last night just before I went to bed, and saw a big circle around the moon. Yes, like you never saw before. You know what that means! There’s a storm brewing somewhere. Not too far away, either… I’m worried….”

“Now don’t you worry your head ‘bout nuthin’, Val; everything’s gonna be jus’ fine; you wait an’ see!” smiled Maude in her usual, calming voice.

“Okay, what if they hit a big bump or wash-out in the road, what with Stefan’s speeding, especially with Nellie screaming at him to hurry up? What if she pops that youngster out on the back seat, Dear God?” Val kept imagining aloud all the catastrophes that might happen if Nellie didn’t make it to the hospital in time. The hospital in St. John’s is approximately ninety miles from the little settlement of St. Vincent’s. It usually takes around two to three hours to get there, because the roads are always in terrible condition. There was only one road from St. Vincent’s to the intersection on the Salmonier Line - a section of the main road leading out to the main roadway straight into the city. In certain areas, the turns are angled at almost ninety degrees, and bumpy to boot. Those damn potholes are everywhere. Parts of the roads get completely washed out after every winter, and to make matters even worse, some parts were so narrow only one car at a time could traverse them. If a car came up too fast, a crash was hard to avoid. “Dear God, let them all make it in one piece; no, three; no, four, with Bridget….” Val prayed aloud in answer to his tortuous musings.

Stefan was relieved to turn off his one working windshield wiper as actual sunlight made its appearance through the wet, drizzly fog. He was speeding as fast as he could, within the bounds of safety, of course, up hills and down hills, around corners and over bumps. The trees seemed to fly by in a blur as his wheels were almost hydroplaning around those nasty, sharp turns; the road was still wet from yesterday’s rainfall. Bridget’s calming voice helped Nellie to keep her focus off her pain. There wasn’t much else left to do other than pray, along the way. Nellie always said that God would be there to help you, if you ask for His help sincerely enough. Well, she was asking sincerely enough now! She prayed for Him, with all her might to guide Stefan, herself and Bridget. Besides everything else Stefan had to watch out for, he also had to be on the alert for the possibility of a ‘big mudder f……er’ of a moose running across the road in front of them. Not an unusual sighting almost anywhere in Newfoundland. Under the circumstances, a moose would have looked the size of an elephant. Any animal darting out of the woods onto the road could spell disaster. But no moose put itself in harm’s way that morning. There was enough to deal with!

It was still fairly early in the morning and, fog lifting or not, cars still had their headlights on. The law was years off that would require every driver in Canada to keep them turned on all day long, but people have a sense of what’s prudent, with or without laws. Most people, anyway….

Once they had driven through all the little settlements, there was nothing to be seen except thick brush and evergreens towering above the road and partially hiding oncoming sections of it. Some of the time, the clear blue sky was completely out of Stefan’s view. Bridget’s attention was focused on Nellie, and neither of them was concerned with the scenery nor the hide-and-go-seek blue sky. Stefan’s was on the road ahead. He could only manage a glimpse of that blue sky, when he mounted the crest of some of the hills, and there were many of them to mount. Even if there weren’t a baby inside her wanting out, Nellie, or even any non-pregnant passenger would have felt car sick in the back of this taxi speeding over bumpy hills and screeching around bobby-pin turns! Stefan himself wasn’t sure whether he was driving or flying. Undoubtedly, this was a roller coaster ride all the way. (I must have loved the ride, kicking up a storm in my placenta sea and staying cooperatively inside my mother, at least so far!) Some say a trip along those roads is an experience no one will ever forget, even driving at the posted speed! It was a darn good thing for mom and me that there were so few cars travelling in either direction that morning.

Being a taxi driver and quite familiar with the roads, Stefan knew when he could step on the gas of his old Dodge on a straight stretch of road, because, most often, the Mounties (the RCMP) wouldn’t be patrolling. Certainly not in the early morning. No, not a chance in hell of seeing a Mountie. Most often, people drove in the middle of the road and quickly moved over to the far right side as soon as opposing traffic was approaching. It was somewhat easier at night due to the headlights coming at a driver from the distance; he or she would have more warning to move over. Every few minutes, Stefan would ask Nellie whether she was doing okay. If “okay” meant the baby was still inside her, then the answer was a pain-fractured yes. But despite Bridget’s soothing voice, Nellie really wasn’t okay. Disregarding her weak pleas for help, they continued on. A moment later, he drove over a huge pothole, practically ejecting them all from their seats, and again he asked Nellie how she was doing and declared his genuine concern for everyone, in particular, Nellie and her unborn child. This time she only gave a sigh and kept praying out loud to God and every accessible saint to help them get to St. John’s alive! Nellie’s labour pains soon became so intense and so regular, the baby was so ready to arrive on Earth that all Nellie wanted to do was prepare to meet her Saviour. We’re not going to make it there, she thought, and decided she’d best keep that thought to herself and pushed it away as she tried not to push her unborn child out onto the cold, faded black leather back seat of Stefan’s taxi cab. Stefan’s thought to himself was: beJesus, if she hasn’t had the baby yet, she’s not going to have one. I’ve got news for her if she thinks she is going to make it to St. John’s! Not a chance that we’ll make it there if this continues. The shocks on the car are in shitty condition, because this old Dodge rides the same deplorable road Monday through Friday, but so far, without a hitch. What car could possibly stand up to this kind of abuse every day for all the years I’ve owned this old baby? Oh, Dodgie, oh Nellie’s saints, don’t give up on us now!

Despite all Nellie’s prayers, as well as Stefan’s and Bridget’s too, the taxi driver had only gone as far as St. Joseph’s on the Salmonier Line when one long, terrifying scream made him realize he had best pull in to the nearest house, hoping the willing residents would welcome them in and help them create a make-shift hospital, where Nellie might take refuge, be more comfortable and a heck of a lot safer, and where she could give birth to her child.

As they neared the attractive, recently painted, homey-looking house with a lawn and a few decayed chrysanthemums planted along its edges, Bridget and Stefan’s tension eased somewhat. Bridget knocked on the bright red door and a tall, thin housewife answered the knock with a cheery “Hello, may I help you?” Then she saw Nellie, as Stefan attempted to extract her from his back seat, buckling under her weight, almost falling out of his arms onto the ground, and trying unsuccessfully to muffle her cries of pain. Mrs. Ryan hurriedly introduced herself and whinnied, “Oh dear me, I guess we had better!” Mrs. Ryan called her neighbour to help carry Nellie inside and gave this haggard bunch a warm welcome. Then she jumped into action.

People were so much less cautious fifty years ago, and in the outports of Newfoundland, they are probably still to this day just as welcoming as Mrs. Ryan was on that fateful morning of my first day on Earth. People in big cities today might even doubt the veracity of a pregnant woman in labour knocking on their door, thinking it to be a ruse to gain entry to commit all manner of terrifying crimes. Not so then, thank God! The Ryan’s were happy to assist and do the best they could for this lady in waiting. Everyone bustled, and Bridget commandeered Stefan and Mrs. Ryan’s neighbour to carry Nellie to the couch. Mrs. Ryan offered them all a cup of tea from the pot of Lipton’s she had steeping on the kitchen stove, almost as if she knew this odd crew would be arriving. Nellie didn’t even get a chance to taste the tea. The labour pains were too intense to even think about tea. “Stefan,” Nellie managed to say, “we’ll be staying here for a while.” Before Stefan, the next door neighbour, and Bridget half-carried, half-walked Nellie to the sofa, Mrs. Ryan, according to Bridget’s sweet-voiced orders, hastily threw some sheets from the laundry pile onto the sofa beneath Nellie as the two gently laid her down on it. As towels were being warmed by the stove to catch me when I was born, Bridget took over, gently but forcefully instructing Nellie to breathe, push, breathe deeper, push, harder, breathe, as she kept apart Nellie’s legs and Mrs. Ryan was alternating dry washcloths to Nellie’s wet forehead….

My head made its entry into this world, while Bridget eased and cajoled the rest of me out. “Congratulations, Mrs. Stamp, you have a...a bouncing baby girr…lll!” cried Bridget, triumphantly. This long ordeal was finally over for my mom and me. I had arrived. A new life had begun.

Mrs. Ryan, being the very fine lady she was, asked Nellie, my mother, to stay with them for a couple of days until she felt strong enough to go home. My mother and I gratefully accepted the invitation. Stefan drank a cup of tea and left by himself to pick up passengers in St. John’s, where he promised to call the post office in St. Vincent’s and ask Viola to send a messenger out to tell Val the good news. Bridget stayed on too, until later that evening when Stefan picked her up on his way back from St. John’s, and dropped her off at her house. When Val heard the news that his wife Nellie and new baby girl were doing fine and would be home in a day or so, his reaction was: “What? Another girl?”

I was and am still so fortunate to have an older sister. She would be my role model, someone who would play with me, someone to confide in, and be my best friend.

Within seven months, my mother was pregnant again. This time, she stayed at home for the birth. Bridget was there for the delivery, and Mom didn’t have to take one step out of her own bedroom. Well, that was the end of the run on girls. My father was especially pleased the new baby was a boy! My brother, named in proper Catholic Newfoundland tradition, was christened with the name of his father, Valentine. It was not an easy moniker to grow up with.

A year later Mom gave birth to yet another chubby baby boy. My brother, Cecil became a companion for his older brother. It was several years later before my youngest brother, Thomas, was born. That made five of us. We were the Stamp family. Mom and Father ran a tight and very restrictive ship. By the time Thomas came, the rest of us were already in school.

This was Chapter 1 of 18 in this memoir !

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