Pictou Island settles in for solemn winter without beloved matriarch
Lorraine MacMillan grew up on Pictou Island in the Northumberland Strait — and hardly ever left
The church on Pictou Island wasn't big enough for everyone who wanted to pay tribute to the island matriarch.
So, on a late-September afternoon, a crowd of more than 100 people spilled out the door and into the sunshine.
It was a large gathering for the isolated community that's a 40-minute boat ride from mainland Nova Scotia, but it was hardly surprising.
People always showed up for Lorraine MacMillan.
"She just loved this island and she loved its people, whether she knew them or not," says Nancy MacDonald, her friend of 40 years. "If they wanted to come here that was the most important thing to her, was that this island go on."
MacMillan spent 92 years on the island. One of the few times she left was in June to receive treatment for pancreatic cancer in New Glasgow.
But after one week, she asked her son to take her home.
"She wanted to come home because she didn't want to go to Halifax and people to pry, she said, on her, make her a guinea pig," says Billy MacMillan. "I guess when you live some place all your life that's where you want to have your remaining days, too."
A palliative care doctor travelled to the island this summer, but MacMillan's end-of-life care was largely carried out by her son and her friends and family.
She died at her home on Sept. 19. Now the island community she quietly shepherded through many changing decades is left wondering what Pictou Island will be like without her.
I'm the 'old antique'
People who live on Pictou Island really want to live on Pictou Island because, as MacDonald says, "it takes an effort to live here."
The roughly 25-square-kilometre island is located in the Northumberland Strait, about six kilometres off the coast.
In the winter, the only connection to the rest of the province is by a mail plane. Every fall, the four or five families who live there year-round spend weeks preparing and stocking up on fuel and food.
There are no restaurants, gas stations or doctors.
The island is entirely off the grid, just as it was when MacMillan was born there in January 1927, only back then islanders relied on gas lamps instead of solar panels and generators.
When MacMillan was growing up, the island was home to about 200 people who attended the island church and sent their kids to the island school. There was a grocery store, too, although most people survived on what they grew or caught themselves.
MacMillan and her sister spent many years working at the cookhouse, packing lunches and preparing meals for the lobster fishermen. She was a Sunday school teacher, a member of the auxiliary and sang in the church choir.
She was also blind.
MacMillan lost her sight to a congenital eye disease when she was in her mid-30s. But she moved around her island home with such ease that MacDonald's father, who had met MacMillan many times, at first didn't realize she couldn't see.
"She was very satisfied, fulfilled with what could be viewed as a very simple lot in life, and it could be viewed as difficult," says John Ross, who moved to the island full time 14 years ago.
In an interview in March 2018, MacMillan joked that she was Pictou Island's "old antique."
"It's just like one big happy family," she said.
When MacMillan married her husband, Arnold, the couple moved across the road from where she was born. Nearly anyone who has ever been to Pictou Island has visited that house to meet MacMillan.
"There was an aura around Lorraine, so I was almost intimidated to go meet 'the Lorraine,' and when I went in, I was just taken aback by how warm she was and how welcome I always felt," says Brenda Spence-MacLeod, who has been visiting the island for 25 years and now owns a cottage there.
Folk musician Valdy, who performed on the island in 2017, got word that MacMillan, who loved music, wanted to meet him after the concert.
"I've never had an audience with with any kind of royalty or monarchy anywhere but that was the feeling I got, that there was a certain reverence that came down through history that was reflected through her," says Valdy, who wrote a message that was read at her funeral service.
I've never had an audience with with any kind of royalty or monarchy anywhere but that was the feeling I got. - Valdy, folk musician
That reverence meant that MacMillan guided the community without ever having to ask for things. When there were plans to bring the historic ice boat to the island from the Northumberland Fisheries Museum in Pictou, some worried it would get damaged.
But Spence-MacLeod says when MacMillan gave her blessing, the issue was settled.
Everyone seems to have a story about a contentious piece of island trivia that was settled with one visit to MacMillan's. What year did the old dance hall burn down? Is Ottawa right that the island lighthouse was built in 1965?
Billy MacMillan said his mother's ability to recall even the smallest details was remarkable right until the end.
"And everybody she met she seemed to remember them and remember their family and she could ask about their kids, their grandkids," he says.
The Pictou Island Heritage Society formed in large part to preserve some of the history that MacMillan had stored in her memory. Last year, a student sat down with her to hear her stories and recollections of the island.
But as much as MacMillan loved to share the history of the island, the conversation never stayed on her for too long.
"Lorraine was always interested in people, and she would want you to describe how people looked, or say I was doing something to my kitchen … she would want to know what colour paint or if you're putting up wallpaper," says MacDonald.
Preparing for winter without Lorraine
The ferry that runs between mainland Nova Scotia and Pictou Island made its last trip of the season at the end of November.
That means the handful of year-round residents are settling in for another winter.
A favourite winter pastime was a weekly card game of auction 45s at MacMillan's. She had a set of special braille playing cards made by another islander, and excelled at the game.
MacDonald says the fact that MacMillan won't be there this winter hasn't really sunk in yet. But she hopes those left behind carry on her tradition of bringing people together.
People have long been drawn to the remote island that was first settled in the 1800s. They come for all kinds of reasons — some want peace and quiet, others want community.
"Everybody is very, very different," says Spence-MacLeod, "but the one thing that everyone had in common was Lorraine."
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