When I first thought of lighthouses I did not see their beauty. Their allure went no further than their location. As a child, and even now, my strongest focus is the sea. Many of my childhood memories involve a speedboat and trips out on the Atlantic Ocean. The spray of salt water and the sound of seagulls will forever calm me.
I would not swim until I was about nine, but I loved the water. If I was enjoying my time on land as much as my time on the water, it was because I was staring off at the waves. I grew up with the water behind my house. There were no lighthouses in my view but there was the ocean, but no waves in the tiny cove. Still, on days where the wind would pick up, I would stand by my shore completely in love.
My mother loves lighthouses. So much so that one sits right in front of her house. It’s a beautiful lighthouse that was handmade. I never asked her why she loves lighthouses so much. I’m sure someday she’ll tell me. She’ll explain only moments after reading this. I think there’s a magnificence that she cannot put into words. Most of lighthouses on Cape Breton Island are not your typical lighthouses. Unlike those that you see in many of the States, they are made not from cement, but from wood. The lighthouse would be attached to a home, and often times the lighthouse keeper would live inside. My great-grandfather tended to one of these lighthouses. By day, he was a farmer or a laborer, and by night he would light the way for weary travelers.
As I stood by the water behind my house, I could have sworn that I could feel the past touching at my shoulders and whispering to me. I envisioned ships in the small cove that now houses no more than small pleasure boats. I was an only child, so my imagination was often my sanctuary. My favourite games were closely related. In one, I was a new settler to the land. I would stack rocks atop of each other and try to build myself a house along the shore. It was a pitiful pile of rocks that never got over a foot tall, but in my mind, it offered solitude. The second game – or story, was always more emotional. I would stand upon the shore and wait to leave my only home. I would smell the breeze and cry out to the wind as though it was more than a story. I still feel the sadness when I stand there today.
My first interest in lighthouses was not romantic in any way. It was simple. I had to do a heritage project for school and it was an interesting subject because I knew my mother would help me.
My great-grandfather, Alphonse Samson, was a lighthouse keeper. To a child, who could have been no more than eleven at the time, it was an indescribable to be able to ask a person directly about a time so long ago. I wanted to learn. I didn’t expect that the story he told me would forever follow me around. The story is a ghost. I hear the story in the concaves of my mind. I am not haunted as much as I am forever captivated. I hear the crashing of the storm in my sleep. I feel the dampness of the rock. There is a heavy weight where a man lay in my arms, his breath going dim. I have not just heard this story – I have lived it.
Very few of the lighthouses I researched are still standing. At first this was a detail that I thought nothing of. In time things are destroyed. That is the way of the world. Later, I would become discouraged each time I remembered that these buildings were gone. In most cases they were not weather damaged or destroyed by the elements. Many of these lighthouses were simply discarded and torn away from their landscape by men. The Cap la Ronde lighthouse was one of them. Alphonse offered to take care of it. He offered to continue his job diligently and to give the lighthouse many more years. A man who worked hard and believed in earning his keep, he would have treated that lighthouse right. They did not listen. The lighthouse shattered. I know he missed it even in his old age. He spoke of that lighthouse not as a job or a pass time, but as a part of himself.
Alphonse spoke to me about a time when a storm raged against the shores. I cannot remember what had brought the ship to the shores, but a few men were stranded. One man, damaged by the ocean’s cruelty lay in my great-grandfather’s hands. I can still feel the pressure building up in his voice. Like a wave he spoke of the shock, and of the horror. The man died in his arms.
My great-grandparents’ house smelled of dentures. I regarded the smell as both putrid and comforting. It was not the grand house that they lived in before I was born. That house, the one so close to the lighthouse, was sold. It has since burnt down. Perhaps, this house was never grand. Perhaps, it was only my childlike illusions that built it up. Like the lighthouse, I never got to see their home. I remember crying over the bricks of the crumbling basement. Yet another part of my history I had lost without ever touching.
The memory and stories of my family are all that keep these buildings alive. I have a strange nostalgia for homes. To some they are only materialistic in nature. I have mourned the loss of houses time and time again. I cannot explain this tragic affinity I have for nothing more than cement and wood. Later, my mother came across a painting of the house. The beauty and magnificence of the picture are still etched in my brain. I could easily find a copy of the painting but I don’t need to. I see every hue of burnt sienna and yellow ochre. The house still had barns when the picture was taken. There are no barns there now, and there is a new house built upon the spot. To some the new house may seem greater than the old. It is new and I assume that everything inside is modern and perfect. The land will never be the same. The modern palace that sits atop the hill ruins the land. There is no history in that house.
My great grandmother did not go into the barn all the days that the men stayed with them. I can hardly blame her for avoiding the man who lay lifeless just yards away from the house and bed that she slept in. Edna somehow managed to be both strong and caring. I remember the gentle hands that held onto my childhood dolls just as I remember the stories of her bickering with her husband. It was nothing to hear her tell her husband to shut up. It took no guessing to come across what Edna was thinking. If she had a thought, she would tell you.
Edna never let her hair gray. If a visitor was expected her hair immediately needed to be coloured. She loved to shop, and she marveled in every new invention that came into the world. Still, she never forgot her past. This woman read gossip magazines but was a devout catholic. She cooked miraculous meals from nothing. Once, when my mother was dyeing her hair, she was caught watching Jerry Springer. Moments later the channel was changed to the pope.
I imagine her cooking meals and presenting them to the men without any hesitation. Where some may see it a burden to host these survivors, I believe that she did not. It is not easy to face the harshness of a storm washing men ashore. In her age my great-grandmother said little of the experience. Where Alphonse was adamant of the details – Edna was sparse. Their house was so close to the sea that it must have been terrible to live with the faces of those men. They must have looked down the hill, past the cattle that grazed, and saw shadows creeping up on the rock. The tide is fierce in Cap la Ronde. If you were coming from just twenty minutes away on a searing hot day you would pack a jacket for a day at the cape. The water, even on days where it sparkles and shows no malice, “must never be swum in”.
I was never told not to swim there. I wouldn’t have dare asked. I knew better. My mother, who was never one to worry, had told me stories of my great-grandmother warding them away from the water. I wonder now if Edna remembered the faces of those men as she watched her grandchildren play on the banks above the sea.
The men, whose names I never knew, were driven back to the city of Sydney and seemingly became nothing but a memory. I can imagine that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had probably talked of simple affairs when they returned home. Perhaps they had conversed as though they had seen off tourists. So many come and go from small places in Cape Breton that it is nothing to see new friends, who have shared your home, go off and never be heard from again.
When I asked Alphonse to tell me of the lighthouse I had not expected a story that would remain with me. He has rest in his grave for years, but his words still haunt me. I cannot forget the sorrow I saw in his eyes as he spoke. I knew this man my entire life. He had helped me pick out pumpkins on Halloween, and had mesmerized me with his small tool shed, and field of strawberries. In his last years he remained a farmer at heart. An insistent old man convinced me to walk down to his apple trees and bring some back to him. The apples were not yet ready, but he wanted to check their progress. I could feel the necessity in his words. I had no choice but to oblige.
When I was a depressed teenager I began to paint and do oil pastel. While I would do many styles from photographs there was only one thing I would paint from my head: lighthouses. This artwork calmed me. At the time I thought nothing of it. It was only recently I discovered this love. I only know that I must have loved them then. I loved them because they saw storms and watched so diligently. I loved them because they were constant. I did not know this, but I should have. It seems strange that I was infatuated with their presence but only felt a passing glance. I did not cry when I looked at the photos, I just did them. Even when I drew the lighthouse that Alphonse was the lighthouse keeper of, I did not feel anything. The lighthouse was so ingrained in my personality I passed it off as mere coincidence.
Whenever I get the chance I go to Cap la Ronde. The land has been battered by constant tides. If the lighthouse still stood today it would be half in the ocean. There is nothing more than a mound of dirt that resembles of hump. I cannot decide if it is a shame or if it is poetic to see the land so worn. I like to stand on the beach and picture the lighthouse. If I look close enough I can see Alphonse walking down the hill. I remember that the owners before him raised animals from that very lighthouse. These pieces of history have somehow molded with me and become my own memories. I have not lived this life, and yet, I have.
I’m not sure if it was by blood, or by coincidence but somehow lighthouses found me. They helped to guide me from my darkness and give me solitude. The toughest of tides, and the strongest of Cape Breton winds have not been able to tear me down. All who have travelled through a storm of depressed waters know that some journeys do not end with sunny shores. This isn’t any more of a reason not to depart than it is a reason to build a sandcastle. Men are not forever. Lighthouses are not forever. That is not a reason to stop pushing forward. Light does not bow to darkness; it continues to push through the endless night. It is a flicker of hope. It is the comfort of home at the end of a long journey. It is everything.