I think I was about thirteen the year Mum decided we needed to "better our lot" and convinced Daddy to sell the Russell Place and buy a hotel.
We bought the 35-room Tatamagouche Inn, on the Sunrise Trail, from the government for back-taxes. A year after we were there, I remember Mum muttering that we should have called it "The White Elephant".
I remember trips with her to Halifax to visit warehouses filled with wholesale linens and
dishes. I still have a pile of heavy white dinner plates, edged with a leafy acorn pattern,
that go back to the Hotel days. if I'd ever doubted the power of genes and the Scottish background,
just looking around at the stuff I've saved through thick and thin should be enough to
validate all the gene-pool theories!
The name, "Tatamagouche" means "meeting of the waters" in some indian dialect (today my Inuit/Aboriginal friends wouldn't
think that was politically correct terminology, but they'd forgive me!). The version I like best is the
one that claims there were two indians hunting and both shot a goose; neither knew which one had actually killed the
bird, so they both shouted "Thatta my goose, thatta my goose" and so the village was named.
The Tatamagouche Inn had been an old stagecoach stop in the early 1800s and there were still remnants of those days to be found. The hitching post
was still out in front and down in the basement, under tons of ashes that had been packed down to an almost concrete-like consistency,
hundreds of old empty liquor bottles were buried. I remember how disappointed we all were that it didn't turn out to be any kind of buried treasure.
The villagers claimed that the hotel was haunted and none of the locals who came to work for us would spend the night. I'm not sure they weren't right about
the haunted part. There were certainly strange things that happened while we lived there. We found a little red and gold statue of a Buddha in
the back pantry. It looked as if it had been there for a long time. It was a little fat, rounded figure, but instead
of the benevolent face that most Buddha figures have, it always seemed to be sneering at you. Its eyes would follow
you around the room, no matter where you put it. It probably wasn't responsible
for the run of bad luck we had while it was sitting in the pantry, but in the end it made
us all so nervous, we literally smashed it to smithereens and buried it out behind the well-house.
I swear to this day that one afternoon while I was in the dim of the pantry, I thought I heard a voice calling my name. I
still get goose-bumps remembering. It was probably just fourteen-year-old hormones at work, don't you think?
Only problem was, it called me by my full name: Patricia Jean...over and over again, until I ran
out of range into the sunshine of the back yard.
I loved the Hotel. I loved the pile of thirty-plus old mattresses that were stored on the unfinished top floor, where I
could climb to the top of Mattress Mountain and look out the windows to the Bay (or down the hill
to the little pond behind the stores where the kids were skating in the winter). There were boxes of books, too, their
pages yellowed with age, smelling that wonderful musty "old-book" smell. I loved the
garish red and green parrots on the wallpaper in the dining room ...before my Mother declared it was
"tacky" and tore it all off.
I was fascinated by all the strange and in-bred people who lived there. Perhaps
it's unwise to go into too much detail? Who knows, there may be relatives of the tribe they called the "corncrackers"
still out there somewhere. I met a sea captain who had bought and lived in his own lighthouse. Years later,
when I was desperately homesick for the ocean, writing dreadful long poems about the sea, we
corresponded and he sent me pictures of phantom ships and copies of stories about them.
Because of all the old stories, we had to recruit "out-of-towners" to help staff the Hotel. The last person to own the Inn had been (to put it kindly) rather unstable and
there were deep grooves scratched in the windows where he wrote nasty things with the aid of a diamond (grafetti for the wealthy). The Hotel was perched atop a hill, overlooking the village and the Bay and he used to sit on the porch on a Saturday night
and fire a shotgun at the passing pedestrians. I don't know if he ever actually hit anyone.
The villagers were also reluctant to be very forthcoming.
There were actually blood stains embedded in the hardwood floor of the main dining room. I believe the story was that the same fellow had hung himself there.
(Now, I wonder to myself, would that leave blood stains?). It took a lot of work and a lot of money to bring the Inn back to life...only to discover a couple of years later that we were too far off the beaten track to attract tourists. Our clientele consisted of travelling salesmen and people who came once every summer for the Tatamagouche Festival of the Arts.
The good part of it for me was that Mum and Dad were so busy with the hotel, and my Grandmother Jean was so
busy looking after my younger brothers in the little house next door, that I had free rein to explore
and be gone for hours on end without anyone worrying about where I was or what I was up to.
We were up to our ears re-doing floors and spraying the rooms with DDT to kill the hoardes
of houseflies that had lived there undisturbed for generations. I'm amazed I'm
still alive to tell the story! (Years later when I worked with NRC, we did in-depth
studies on the adverse effects of DDT. Yipes!)
Unfortunately, during this period of time, Dad had a nervous breakdown. He was a quiet, gentle, soft-spoken auburn-haired man, who just couldn't cope
with what must have been for him, a "life in the fast lane". He simply receded into a world of his own, a room of his own, and
wouldn't come out of either. In those days the "cure" was electric shock and for this, he and my Mother drove
over the mountain to Halifax every weekend or so for treatment on an out-patient basis. While they were gone, I was
left "in charge" of the hotel. I registered people, if any turned up, did my homework at the front desk and dutifully locked
the big front door at midnight (often leaving our guests to sleep in their cars or on the big front porch, having been locked out of their rooms).
I was alone the weekend that Hurricane Hazel ripped through the Maritimes and uprooted all our trees. Our
lone salesman/guest had a heart-attack in the phone booth in the lobby and because the power was out, I ran down the hill
to the doctor's place to bring him back with me. That was the same weekend that one of our cats
had her litter of kittens between the walls on the unfinished top floor of the hotel (you'll be happy to know all of us survived: the
salesman, the kittens, and me). I think the powers that be were just getting me readied for the rest of my life.
Mike & Bill (at the Hotel after Hurricane Hazel)
Down the hill and up the main street a piece lived Will McQueen. Will had two horses, Mae and June,
and in the summer stabled a wild black stallion called Peter. Mae could do tricks, June was a sweet tempered jumper,
and Peter was a devil. I learned to ride on Mae, jump ditches on June, and how to stay on when that big, black beauty tried to dump me in Will's manure pile!
Will McQueen on June
Funny story connected to that big black devil...in Sunday school one day, one of my brothers was asked who Peter was. Another little boy quickly piped up and said, "Peter is a rabbit", and everyone laughed. Bill put up his hand and said scornfully "Peter's not a rabbit!" and the teacher smiled 'cause she thought he was going to say he was one of the disciples....nope..Bill pipes up: "Everybody knows Peter's a horse!".
I guess it was here that my intense attachment to the ocean (for that matter to any body of water larger than, but not excluding, a bathtub) was formed. I spent long afternoons wandering along the rocks, singing to myself, making up stories in which I was always the heroine. This was my "musical comedy" phase, I guess you'd say. I had a rather good singing voice, sang in both church choirs, won prizes at music festivals. I learned all the words to almost every musical comedy song that had ever been produced (I can still almost remember all the words). Later, I went to Mount Allison in New Brunswick to study music for a bit, only to discover that if I was going to make a living as a songstress, I'd better take a business course!