What's Your Story

How a fishing trip helped me understand my grandpa — and small town Canada

Lauren Byrne grew up hearing her grandfather's stories of cod fishing in Newfoundland. It wasn't until she stepped on a fishing boat as an adult that she truly understood that part of his life.

'It was a story I grew up listening to that I finally understood.'

(Lauren Byrne)

When you grow up hearing your grandparent's stories, what does it take to truly understand them? Throughout 2017, we're asking Canadians, "What's your story?" Lauren Byrne of Clarenville, N.L., shares hers. 

I grew up in St. John's.

My maternal grandparents, however, came from two tiny little sister towns in Newfoundland: Champney's East and Champney's West. These were part of a handful of communities that made up a picturesque bay known as Trinity Bight.

My entire childhood, I would spend Saturday nights at my grandparents's house. In the evenings before bed, I would sit in the living room with my pop and he would tell me stories about growing up "around the bay."

Champney's, N.L., 'where my family is from.' (Lauren Byrne)

Once upon a time, and even still for some areas, outport Newfoundland survived on fish. Cod was the lifeblood of the economy. It was the entire reason colourful saltbox houses were built haphazardly along the hillsides. It was also the reason why my pop at 14-years-old left school to fish in 1946. He was the only son in the family, the youngest child, and was suddenly thrust into the responsibility of breadwinner.

By the time I moved out of the city of Clarenville, a community just 45-minutes from where my pop grew up, I had heard so many stories about cod jigging that when the opportunity to fish presented itself to me, I could not turn it down.

The sounds of the sea splashing on the side of the aluminum boat made me feel closer to my history than I ever had before.- Lauren Byrne

At this point, my pop was well into his diagnosis of vascular dementia and his lucid moments were becoming fewer and farther between.

'Don't tell me you've never been out in boat'

'At the tender age of 28, with a lifetime of stories about Pop living off the water since his childhood buzzing through my head, I caught my first fish.' (Lauren Byrne)

I will never forget the day that my friends took me to fish. I showed up at the dock in my Hunter boots, my Under Armour leggings and my thick Lulu Lemon zip-up hooded sweatshirt. My balayage hair was in a long side braid and my aviator sunglasses protected my lash extensions from the typical Newfoundland drizzle.

Uncle Clifford, who is not my uncle but was the owner of the boat and who I was introduced to as such, took one look at me and said, "Well Lord Jesus, don't tell me you've never been out in boat."

Sadly, he was correct.

After I struggled to get down into the boat, we set off to find a good spot to fish. Searching consisted of Uncle Clifford dropping his jigger into the water, waiting a minute or two, shaking his head and moving on. But soon we struck gold, and shortly after his line was dropped, there was a tug. A few minutes after that, at the tender age of 28, with a lifetime of stories about Pop living off the water since his childhood buzzing through my head, I caught my first fish. A sculpin. The ugliest thing you will ever see. But I caught it.

If Lucid Pop were there, I knew he would get a grand laugh out of watching his Townie Granddaughter in a little fishing vessel off the coast of Butter Cove.

This is a way of life

Over the next couple of hours, I jigged five cod under the apprenticeship of Uncle Cliff. I loved watching his calloused hands as he would drop the jigger and then wind the line around them, pulling the hook to attract the fish. I would squeal at any hint of a bite. Clifford calmly, quietly, and efficiently would pull his line up, a great flopping cod on the end of it, and drop the fish into a container at our feet. He would expertly slice the fish from tail to gills and clean it in the water so rapidly that there was no time for me to think about it, let alone him.

This was instinctual. This was in his bones. I required four stitches once, leveling a cake. Clifford filleted fifteen fish while telling stories, barely breaking eye contact and remaining uninjured. To this townie girl, it was all but witchcraft. I drove home that afternoon with frizzed hair, salt water stains on my clothes and spatters of fish blood across my face. I was a mess, but my heart was full.

To so many, this is a way of life. To me, it was a story I grew up listening to that I finally understood. The smell of the salt water and the sounds of the sea splashing on the side of the aluminum boat made me feel closer to my history than I ever had before.

Byrne's grandfather as a young man and Champney's West, N.L., where he was from. (Lauren Byrne)

'You've got the bay in you now'

That night I called my pop. And by some miracle there he was — Lucid Pop. Old Pop. And we talked and laughed about the day like we used to before he entered his fog. He laughed his infectious belly laugh at the thought of fish blood sprayed over my makeup. 

"Well now, sweetheart, you're baptized," he said. "You'll always be a townie, but you've got the bay in you now too."

Now that he's been gone a year, I hold tight to the pride he had knowing his great grandchildren are growing up where he came from. And a tiny piece of me can feel him with me — on the water, on the unpaved roads of his home town and when I tell his stories.

Byrne's grandmother's family built this house in the 1700's — currently it's unoccupied and Byrne takes her kids to the land a few times in the summer to run and play there. (Lauren Byrne)


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