Getting out of the car in North Sydney

“This is different from what we’re used to,” I told Paddy, who was sitting next to me.” In Seattle, we get out of our cars for a concert!” He just laughed good-naturedly.

We’d arrived in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, with 12 hours to kill before the scheduled departure of our ferry for Newfoundland. So we strolled — slowly — up and down the main street, taking in the aging, mismatched store fronts. We bought ice cream cones, licking them carefully to make them last as long as possible. We drove, leisurely, to a farmer’s market to buy fruit, selecting a handful of apples from the piles of potatoes, turnips, and cabbages. At a yard sale, I spent a loonie (a Canadian dollar coin) on a couple of hair scrunchies in UW colors. The woman who sold them to me was returning to North Sydney after ten years in Spokane, Washington. She didn’t say why.

Our slow, deliberate pace made everything seem a bit surreal. And then we ended up in this park, where things were surreal for a different reason.

It was a concert, the band playing in a small, temporary bandshell, well-amplified. Not Cape Breton’s Irish music, but “cryin’ in your beer” country music with a twang. Though the instrumentals were fine, many of the vocals were off key, like karaoke.

The band seemed a bit lonely, because the audience wasn’t very close. About 50 feet from the bandshell, a handful of people sat on benches. Further out was the real audience: Dozens of cars, with about a hundred people in them, were parked in the gravel lot that surrounded the picnic area. I wanted to ask someone why they were sitting in their cars, but they had their windows rolled up!

My curiosity about this strange breed of entertainment led me to Paddy, a cheerful older fellow sitting by himself on a bench. We struck up a conversation, chatting during the songs. I noticed Paddy occasionally looking over his shoulder, and he explained, “I’m waiting for my girlfriend.” There was a twinkle in his eye, and I found myself looking around for some matronly older lady who might be heading our way.

But Mary was both younger and more vivacious than I expected. She arrived with her father, 84-year-old Clarence, and we all moved over to make room on the bench. Despite the music, it was a delightful evening, and the five of us chatted and laughed and watched the people. Between songs, the cacaphony of appreciative honking from the cars was deafening, drowning out both our conversation and our polite applause.

There was a great deal of teasing going on, and I teased Paddy about his young girlfriend. Mary protested, “I’m a senior citizen!” She told us she’d had her first child at 15, and then went on to have 7 by the time she was 22. She was the youngest great-grandmother I’d ever seen.

It was apparent that she enjoys spending time with her father, the only great-great-grandfather I’d ever met. Clarence is short but spry, describing himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” He has lived his whole life in North Sydney, but he’s never taken the ferry to Newfoundland. Clarence showed us the watch he wears that his now-deceased wife of 53 years gave him; when it stopped working, he had the face replaced with her portrait. You can tell that he misses her.

Mary and Clarence had come late to the concert because they were at St. Mary’s Catholic cemetary, attending a mass for the dead. They told us that the red candles placed on the graves would burn all night, and that it was a sight to see. They each had a spouse buried in that cemetary, along with Clarence’s father. One of Mary’s daughters was murdered 13 years ago in the neighboring community of Sydney Mines. She’s in the cemetary, too.

Sipping hot tea, we huddled closer on the bench as it got dark and started getting cold. But we all stayed until the end to hear the band play Clarence’s request of “Fallen Leaves.” Then we exchanged hugs with our new friends and went on our way, buoyed up by the encounter.

With a few more hours to kill, we drove to the cemetary, where tiny red candles flickered every few feet across the hillside. We parked the van and strolled among the tombstones, our way lit only by the stars and those tiny red candles. A loon called from the darkness, making the hair on my neck stand up. Nobody else was walking through the cemetary. In true North Sydney fashion, they came to see the candles, but they all stayed in their cars.