By TRACY MERRILL
Nellie (Hatch) Elms first opened her eyes upon this world little more than one hundred years ago. One hundred years is an impossible amount of time to fathom. When looking backwards to the span of a century, time can seem to unravel like a spool of delicate, meandering thread. It stretches infinitely, beyond line of sight, journeying through periods of joy, laughter and loss, directly into a smaller, simpler time when the world was much less complex.
The term ‘village’ is not one used often here in Newfoundland. Yet it is the truest word to describe Stone’s Cove, Fortune Bay. Nellie was proud that visitors to this teeny settlement declared it a “pretty” place. It was, for Nellie, just that, and no grander words were needed to demonstrate her pride. That was Nellie, soft spoken and direct.
There exists a black and white photo of Stone’s Cove from this time. It proudly hung in Nellie and Cecil Elms’ home for the entirety of their lives, long after resettlement changed the face of Newfoundland shorelines. It shows a jumble of houses along a hilly escarpment, huddled together like a tangle of mismatched mittens tossed willy-nilly into a drawer. These dwellings face a deep, bottlenecked harbour, a place of safety and repose from unpredictable Atlantic seas.
It was this tiny fishing settlement perched on the sea, that welcomed Nellie Hatch on June 8, 1920. We cannot know if the moon greeted her, or the sun. If the sky were a tumult of clouds or if it were blue. If the winds raged and whitecaps danced upon the water or if the world settled into calm and echoed with seagulls’ cry. We cannot know if her mother laboured long or if her infant came easily into this place.
There is no record of Nellie’s birth weight or if she were graced with a full head of the downy hair that she declared to be a plague upon her in later years. Nor do we know her birth order – was Nellie the first daughter or the middle girl after her sister, Maggie? This we do know: Her birth made this world an infinitely more gentle place and ensured later blessings would rain down upon the life of her grandchildren.
Nellie’s family consisted of six children. Her father, George Hatch, died during his wife’s sixth pregnancy with his final daughter, Sadie. Nellie was a mere slip of a girl at his death but she talked of a long, bedridden illness.
The only picture George’s descendants own portrays a sombre, fair-haired man, unsmiling as was the fashion of photos from that time. He looks impossibly young in his crooked bowtie, but a kind softness seems to hide in his features, peeking out like a sleep-tousled child from behind a bedtime door. One can easily imagine his face broken by a wide smile on this day, one hundred years ago, and envision a mischievous pride that delights in Nellie’s arrival.
His death left a widow and six small children in a time when survival necessitated the arduous work of both wife and husband. No doubt certain gut-wrenching decisions were made because of this hardship. For example, Nellie adored her brothers, Alan, Jordan, and Thomas, and spoke with quivering sadness of watching them leave for a Boys’ Home when times were especially tough.
Nellie’s mother, ironically named Charity, accepted none. Instead, she raised vegetable gardens, coaxing potatoes and carrots from rock-strewn hilltops, and goats for milk and flesh. Many the Stone’s Cove baby was feed with the milk raised by Charity. She also housed the community’s teachers and visiting doctors in order to feed her brood of children. Like other women of the era, she likely had a sun- speckled face and a proud, strong back, of necessity indomitable and no-nonsense – firm and unbending, like the sinkers along the shore.
Nellie, like her mother, was no stranger to hard work. In early settlements all hands contributed to ensure the world kept turning. Nellie kneaded bread from the age that she could “just reach the chair”. Her bread was divine, although on at least one occasion she declared it had over-risen, and there were “holes big enough to lie down in” throughout the dough. Her laughter still echoes from that day.
Nellie learned early that you must “wring out your rag until it was almost dry” before wiping up the floor on hands and knees. As a small child, she heaved water to thirsty animals, drank goats’ milk and turned the fish with the women at the flake. Nellie was never one to complain – instead she shared these stories with pride and happiness. She sometimes wondered, though, if her mom were not just a little hard on her and if perhaps the lion’s share of the work fell to her instead of her sisters.
Nellie Hatch and Cecil Elms were paired from a very tender age. While essentially children, they both knew, and the village knew, that they were destined for each other, the way sun is for sky and fish is for water. That knowing sustained them both – she the fatherless girl, and he, the motherless boy. It provided sustenance for the entirety of their lives. For nearly seventy years they loved each other and the family that they created with a bottomless and joyful love, unfathomable as the deepest abyss of sea.
There are several things about Nellie that we know with surety. She loved Stone’s Cove. She knew its every path and rock and tree. Her grandfather had a long white beard. She was proud of her mother because her family was never hungry. She made the most incredible apple pies. She called each of her grandchildren “my pretty” on some occasion or another. Her flower garden was a riot of vivid colour. When she laughed, she threw her head back and laid her open palm upon the listener’s arm or leg, whatever she could reach. She hated to miss “All My Children”. She also hated her soft, downy hair and loved her husband, heart and soul.
More than any of this, we know that Nellie was wonderful – everything that a mother and grandmother should be. Her heart held a quiet, gentle strength and her memory is treasured to this day.
Nellie Elms left this world on a May day filled with sunshine. Again, like sun is to sky and fish is to water, her husband, Cecil, followed her three days later.