If Lesley Choyce was not a surfer, he would not have dropped out of graduate school in Manhattan in 1978 and moved to Nova Scotia—a decision that made all the difference.
Saltwater Chronicles follows the adventures of the ambitious, idealistic, and brash young man (still alive and kicking inside Choyce) while the older man ahead beckons him forward with a mischievous grin. In many ways, this book celebrates the ordinary: the everyday disasters and discoveries that shape a life. Along the way Choyce has adapted to the crisis of becoming a respectable citizen. He has experienced the death of his father and of his family dog. He has helped guide his wife through cancer as they rode the North Atlantic waves and recorded a most human range of sorrows and joys.
In this, his one hundredth book, Lesley Choyce takes readers along as he writes about nearly everything under the sun from his home by the sea on the North Atlantic coast of Canada—all of it most ordinary and yet extraordinary at the same time.
About the author
No one has a clearer view of Atlantic Canada's literary endeavours over the past twenty years than Lesley Choyce. He is the founder of the literary journal Pottersfield Portfolio, and the publisher of Pottersfield Press. He has edited several fiction anthologies and has been the in-house editor of many books from Pottersfield Press including Making Waves, a collection of stories by emerging authors from Atlantic Canada. He is the author of more than fifty books in genres ranging from poetry and essays to autobiography, history and fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Among his recent books are the novels The Republic of Nothing, World Enough, and Cold Clear Morning, and the story collection Dance the Rocks Ashore. Choyce is the writer, host, and co-producer of the popular literary show television program, Off the Page with Lesley Choyce, which is broadcast across the country on Vision TV. He also teaches in the English department of Dalhousie University in Halifax and is leader of the rock band The Surf Poets.
Excerpt: Saltwater Chronicles: Notes on Everything Under the Nova Scotia Sun (by (author) Lesley Choyce)
The Death of a Father
My father never hesitated to make it clear that he had had enough of hospitals and wasn't going back to one, no matter what. These days, when anyone came into the house, he showed them the notice he had put on the fridge. "Do No Resuscitate," it read ominously, but he always would smile when he pointed it out. Not that it was a joke—it was just the way things should be.
After a bit, we got talking, so we gave up on a crash course in sorghum fertilizers and I picked out an old photo album from nearby. I had not seen this one before. The photos were from 1942 and my father looked impossibly young. He had a "new" car—an old Plymouth, I think. In the photo, he leaned against the car and smiled at the camera—so youthful and cocky and, I suppose, preparing to go off to war. But this was one happy young dude.
He pointed out people in the photos that I could not recognize, and he knew every name and detail about who they were. Page after page of smiling young men and women of the 1940s gazed out at me: brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends, and my father's own parents. There were photos of a young Norma Willis, the beautiful woman who would be his wife. It was a black-and-white world, but it was not short on glamour and optimism, and it was a place where a young couple could start a family and build a home. We looked at some other photos from the early 1950s when they had started building the house. He reminded me that he had begun to dig the basement one shovelful at a time, sometimes with the help of a brother or two kind enough to assist with the task, until they discovered that a bulldozer could do the whole job in about an hour.
He told me some stories that evening—some new, some familiar, all with the happy inflection of a man who had lived a good life, a happy life—a man who had no regrets and was at peace with the world.
Somewhere around 2:30 in the morning I woke to the sound of my brother Gordy's voice in the living room where my father lay in his borrowed hospital bed. I got up to see if I could help and found Gordy had helped Dad sit upright in a chair as he had requested. Margaret, Gordy's wife, came in as well. Within minutes, Dad said there was a pain in his chest, and that he just wanted to be held. While Gordy gave our dad a small dose of prescribed morphine under his tongue, I held my father for a few short minutes, until his body relaxed and he slumped forward in my arms.
It's a tough thing to watch a father die, but his sons were there with him. He was in his own home, and he was most certainly looking forward to his reunion with his wife. In so many respects, a death doesn't get much better than that.
Some would have considered Sonny a fairly simple man. He was most certainly humble, modest and unpretentious. He had not finished high school because he'd needed to go to work in the farm fields to help feed the large family he grew up in. He had gone to war but never fired a shot. Instead, he'd driven military trucks without headlights down the dark, narrow roads near Cambridge, England, and hauled airplane parts to Land's End, where a bomber had crash-landed. He'd returned home after the war, married, had two kids, and gone to work. He became a truck mechanic, often going off to work before dawn to get a fleet of diesel trucks on the road. He did road calls and changed truck tires on the Jersey Turnpike in the middle of snowstorms. He worked long and he worked hard.
Sonny was a farmer at heart and, in his teenage years, had done every dirty job imaginable on a farm, including dousing cabbages with insecticide—pure arsenic—all day long until he returned home at night, covered head-to-toe in that pure white poison. After he'd built that legendary home, he had always had a garden in front of the house in a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Church and Lenola Roads in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. He grew the best corn, peppers, green beans, lima beans, onions, eggplant, and squash any man could. And the tomatoes! He grew tomatoes the size of softballs that tasted better than any store-bought tomato ever had.
When he retired, he worked his garden, he grew Christmas trees, he tore down old buildings for wood to build garages and he collected scrap metal to haul to the junkyard for spare change. All of this was his idea of a good time.
But the sum total of the man was far more than the basic parts. My father's legacy was his sense of giving. More than anyone I can think of, he was selfless man. He helped others, he did good, and he did not do so out of a sense of duty, but because he wanted to. In his sixties, he helped look after some older friends who were in their eighties. In his seventies, he helped look after other friends who were in their nineties. By the time he hit his mid-eighties there just weren't any folks much older than him around that he could help out.
He had grown up in poverty and yet he claimed he had not felt much deprived of anything. As a result, he rejoiced in his good fortune at having a home, a wife, a job, sometimes some chickens to raise for eggs, and a well-appointed garden.
He showed compassion for others and, even though there were a lot of things about the more modern world he did not understand, I believe he appreciated people who were different from him. He had an innate tolerance of his fellow men and women. In his own way, he lived large and he lived well.
Gordy and I were supremely privileged to have been raised by two such fine parents. More than ever, I can appreciate that I get to go about my daily life as an adult without any real emotional scarring or baggage from my youth. Sonny and Norma gave my brother and me a good start, particularly when it came to homemade meals. We always had homemade sandwiches—liverwurst (my favourite), ham and homegrown tomatoes, or meatloaf. Yep, even as recently as the year 2000 my mom was packing me one-and-a-half meatloaf sandwiches, made with homemade relish, for the flight back to Nova Scotia.
As a kid, our meals had almost always included food grown by my father and preserved by my mother: stewed tomatoes (not my favourite), but also frozen corn, lima beans, potatoes grown by my grandfather, and homemade tomato juice that included four kinds of vegetables and was so thick you could float a quarter on it.
It seemed odd that, as my mom was fading, and after she was gone, my dad ate mostly prepared food from plastic containers or fast food that been purchased by Gordy from McDonald's or Wendy's. But at that point it was, for him, a matter of keeping things simple. He seemed to approve of any dish that involved ground beef, but he was also a fan of a good breakfast—especially a Spanish omelette on a Sunday morning at the Penn Queen Diner in Pennsauken, New Jersey.
Of course, there is much, much more to his life than that, and the details will come back to me in the weeks and months ahead through small images and fragments of memory.
It's safe to say my dad was always there for me. He accepted his son as a hitchhiking hippie, an overly opinionated young man, and a restless soul in his late twenties who believed he needed to leave the US for a new life in Nova Scotia. He always treated me fairly and was never harsh to judge. I knew he was always my dad and my source of strength.
Sonny loved people and he loved to talk. I doubt many would call him a philosopher, but I would. He taught me patience and persistence and compassion and optimism. He taught me to be fair and to be understanding. He taught me not to expect too much from the world but to work hard and accept whatever small rewards the world gave back with humility and gratitude.
It's a bit of a cliché, but his passing is truly the end of an era. You won't see another Sonny Choyce in this new century.
Not long after he died, I found myself fixing a flat tire on a rental car by the side of the road in a small town in Italy. Linda and I had pulled off near the wall of an imposing granite church. I discovered I didn't have all the tools I needed, so I walked back to the cottage we had rented and brought back a knife to pry off the plastic wheel cap. On the way back to the car, I picked up a brick. If there was one thing my dad had taught me, it was to always block one of the wheels of a car when you change a tire so the car wouldn't roll. I guess I felt he was there with me in Italy, changing that tire with a spindly jack on the sloping pavement. That brick kept the car steady as we removed the lug nuts and mounted the spare.
And I guess that's the final thing I have to say about him: he was steady. He was reliable. He kept us safe. He was dependable and always there—in Italy or anywhere else—whenever I needed him.
Other titles by Lesley Choyce
Around England with a Dog
Around England with a Dog
Closing Down Heaven
Face the Music
Down Home for Christmas - Holiday Stories from Atlantic Canada
The Amazing History of a Coastal Village, Second Edition
The Trouble With Everything
The Rules Have Changed
Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea
A Living History