Last week I spent a few days in the small fishing village of about 300 people where my grandmother grew up. Neil's Harbour has changed a bit since I first visited in 2001. There are some newer homes and the village school has been turned into a pharmacy. But the house where my grandmother was raised is still there, sitting on a hill overlooking Back Cove.
The villagers continue to fish but they no longer make their living off the sea. They are allowed limited catches of lobster, crab and halibut each year. After that, they must court tourists. We were those tourists and we were lucky to arrive during the hottest part of the summer. We ate fresh seafood every day, swam in the beaches and drove the Cabot Trail...in relative solitude. I marveled again and again at the lack of traffic. Many times we had an expanse of the trail to ourselves.
Perhaps due to its remoteness or the very clever plan back in the 1930s to designate the area as a national park, the beauty and splendour of the Cape Breton Highlands has been left intact. So it was not hard to imagine my grandmother as a teenager, walking the dirt road from her house to the harbour, standing by the dories on a calm summer night and watching a shaft of moonlight dance across the waves. It was not hard to understand why she left her picturesque little village for the bright lights of the city and then missed its shores and people for the rest of her days.
Near the end, when Alzheimer's robbed her of her sense of humour, her caring and loving nature and her attachment to us, all that was left were her memories of being a child in this fishing village. She heard the voices of her dead relatives, tasted the salty air and saw in each of us a shadow of someone she'd once known.
For me, the area holds more than beauty and history. The spot where John Cabot landed hundreds of years ago, where Alexander Graham Bell summered and died, where countless immigrants from many far lands settled and made a fresh start in the New World. This little fishing village, this quiet corner of Canada, is an anchor on the other side of the country, reminding me that no matter how far we may travel, we never forget where we come from.
Many thanks to Greg and Jackie Organ for their hospitality during our stay. Hilltop Haven provided everything we needed to make our stay fun, carefree and memorable. We were especially grateful for the boat ride, where we spotted a blue fin shark, dolphins and many whales.
A writer's journey