The heart of Nova Scotia is tucked among the purple lupine, the swaying beach grass and the sweet salt air. It’s in the fog that cools skin and curls hair. It resides in the ebb and flow of the tide, its silent predictability a reassuring presence. I know it is there because I have seen its beauty, heard its whispers and felt its strength.
For me, the heart of Nova Scotia lives in a tiny seaside community called Sebim, where the streets have names like Bayview Street and Cherry Street and all roads lead to the beach.
It was at Sebim that I spent my childhood summers, walking barefoot with my sisters along the gravel laneways. We’d tiptoe gingerly at first and then, as our feet toughened up, we’d boldly run along the rocky paths feeling invincible.
It was sweet freedom.
The cottage belonged to Enid Johnson, my great-aunt. She was a strong, independent woman who taught school, travelled the globe and played a wicked game of bridge. Without children of her own, Auntie Enid surrounded herself with her family and friends, welcoming them to the place she loved above all else.
In the early 70s, the drive from Halifax to Sebim, near Barrington, Shelburne County, would take six hours. To amuse ourselves in the stifling car, my two sisters and I would bet whether the tide would be in or out when we arrived. Either way - high tide or low - after the long drive we’d jump out of the car, race into the cottage to change into our bathing suits before dashing across the lane and down the weathered staircase to the beach. Our poor mom would be left to unpack the car, unroll our sleeping bags in the tiny attic bedroom and greet family properly.
We didn’t care about those social niceties; we had more important things to do. After all, we needed to see if winter storms had swept the beach bare and check if our beloved Chicken Rock - so named because it looked like a roast chicken waiting to be carved - was still there.
The beach changed every year but never really changed at all.
When our bellies growled with hunger, we’d run back to the cottage, racing past the wild rose bushes that buzzed with bees. We’d dip our feet in the wash basin at the back door in a vain attempt to get all the sand off, the water lovely and warm after standing in the sun all day.
The tiny kitchen - with its blue Formica countertop and white enamelled cast iron sink - was hot and crowded with my aunts, great-aunts, grandmother and mom all bustling to get supper on the table. We’d weave in and out of the traffic, inching closer to the shelf where the mismatched collection of milk glass mugs were kept, standing on tiptoe to find our favourite one.
Supper was often Hodge Podge - a mixture of the season’s freshest vegetables simmered in a soup-like mixture of cream, butter, salt and pepper. For dessert? Sebim cookies, lovingly made by my Great-Aunt Vivian Cook. Not known as the greatest of cooks, Auntie Bee had nevertheless perfected these cookies and would, when pressed, offer up the recipe. It seemed, however, that she had a secret ingredient she didn't disclose as the cookies my mom would bake never quite measured up to Auntie Bee’s.
The first morning of every visit started the same way: we’d pile into cars for the 20-minute drive into Barrington Passage for groceries and errands. As youngsters, we’d check out the top floor of Wilson’s Hardware, scouring its narrow aisles for beach toys, cap guns and Archie comics, the old wooden floor squeaking beneath our feet. Later, when we were far more interested in clothes than toys, we’d head next store to the ladies store (The Shoppe, we’d called it), where our nanny would buy us fine wool sweaters for the coming school year.
Life at Sebim would slowly settle into a routine, dictated by the tides. At low tide, we’d head out over the miles of sand flats, old golf clubs in hand for a few practice shots. For an athletic kid, I was shockingly horrible at golf and the excursion would usually end in laughter (my sisters’) and tears (mine). On hot days, when the tide would flow in across sun-kissed sand, the water was warm enough to actually swim in - not just dash in and out - and we’d haul out our blow-up rowboat, a grading gift from mom one year. Over and over we’d fall out only to stand up in the chest-high water and clamber in again.
Tropical storms would sometimes move in during late evening and we’d convince mom to let us go swimming in the bath-like water, jumping the waves that rolled into shore. When we were finally driven back to the cottage by the cold air, we’d be wrapped mummy-like in towels and told to stand close to the fireplace where the warmth of its dancing orange flames would quiet our chattering teeth and dry our seaweed-strewn hair.
It was there in that tiny cottage, where the sound of the ocean permeates every room and the view changes daily but never really changes at all, that my Great-Aunt Enid spent her last full day on Earth. Where her family took her one last time, knowing that in spirit, Enid would always remain.
The heart of Nova Scotia is tucked among the purple lupine, the swaying beach grass and the sweet salt air. My heart is there too, cradled between the memories of idyllic childhood summers and the loving embrace of beloved family members who have gone before.©