© 2020 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved.
Southwest Margaree, where we live in Cape Breton, is part of the larger Inverness County, which stretches south to the Canso Strait and north past Cheticamp to the top of the Highlands. In spite of the distances involved among and between communities here, most people know a lot more about their neighbors than we would in the States and even though Bob’s lived here since the mid-90s, locals still know our house by the original owners’ name.
The neighborliness of island residents is very sweet. There’s a fabric of caring that goes beyond what Americans might consider nosiness. Of course people here want to know everything about you. You might be related, after all, and they never stop hoping you might turn out to be Scottish! Their grapevine for communicating with each other about you is also as legendary as their scenery. I think Bob knew this already from his years of living here but in the story I tell today, I was about to encounter this.
My second summer here, I was determined to make more jams. It was early July and I was looking for someone who grew strawberries, asking the Co-op if they knew anyone. We wanted flats, not little punnets.
The previous summer, I had met one of Inverness’s “women of the clan.” A retired nurse, Alice Freeman runs The Bear Paw, a very interesting gift store in downtown Inverness. As much a cultural center as a commercial enterprise, in The Bear Paw, you can explore the island’s cultural and musical heritage and even watch Alice weave throws in authentic island tartans. She doesn’t stop there but also sings in Scots Gaelic and has a fine singing voice. Alice is my senior by some years and she sports a black streak in her otherwise white hairdo. To call her anything but magnificent would be an understatement. Alice and women like her are the lifeblood of the community, running events, raising money, putting on shows, cooking, baking, and chivvying others into helping and doing what they can.
When I met her for the first time, within about three minutes, Alice had gently interrogated me about who I was, where I came from, and what was my mother’s mother’s name? And my father’s? The following summer, we stopped in to ask her if she knew anyone that grew strawberries. The store was closed but the sign said she’d be back soon. Alice keeps a bench outside the front door and we sat there to wait for her return. The view from the bench is of the Inverness beach so it’s no hardship to set awhile.
A good time later, a friend of hers joined us on the bench and proceeded to chat us up like a trained agent, asking where we lived in the Margarees and just kept us talking. Alice didn’t return and we had to leave, but we had left the important snippet of information behind. We were looking for strawberries.
The photo you see above is what greeted us on the kitchen porch the next morning. Bob and I put two and two together, looked at each other, and said, “Alice!” She admitted that her friend had mentioned we were looking for them, confirming what Alice already knew. Where we lived. She also told us the Co-op would have strawberry flats in a week.
I want to be Alice when I grow up.