An evening with Sam and Judy: My 1976 Christmas Writing Assignment

Sam White was a hardy Newfoundlander. He made his living first as a fisherman and then as a logger. These days he is enjoying his retirement. Growing up in rural Newfoundland, Sam did what he had to do to make ends meet. His long-time companion, Judy, sits by his side as I gather information of what life was like for the old couple back in the ‘old days’.

“Christmas was such a special time” Judy recalled. “We didn’t have Santa and all the commercial crap that comes with the old guy. Instead, we had family get-togethers, kitchen parties, and good food. Christmas was a time to take a break from the hard work and take it easy for a day or so.”

“Take it easy, she says! Judy, you have no idea! With eight kids how does a guy take it easy? They all want something for Christmas, and with the little money we had, it was very hard to manage!” added Sam, who sat on the hardwood chair that he made. He was drinking a glass of his favorite soda pop, Pineapple Crush.  When I asked him about his beverage choice, he explained that the stuff was only available to Newfoundlanders. Upon checking it out, he was right. Nowadays, Pineapple Crush is available in parts of Ontario and Alberta, where thousands of Newfoundlanders now make their home.

On the table beside his chair, I notice a few other ‘Newfoundland specific foods’ such as Maple Leaf Vienna Sausage, ‘Jam Jams’, a bag of Hard Bread, and on the cabinet next to the stove, a bottle of Newfoundland Screech. Screech rum has been on  the island for years. Brewed in Jamaica, early settlers traded cod for the brew. Sam offered me a swiq of the stuff, and I readily (and foolishly) accepted. The stuff smelled like turpentine, and tasted much worst (not that I ever drank turpentine, but I could only imagine how it tasted). Sam and Judy laughed as I nearly choked on the bitter rum. I turned down the next few shots, but Sam didn’t let them go to waste.

“Judy, get this boy a plate of your special Salt Beef soup. That will soothe his stomach.” My head spun from the tiny shot I managed to keep down, but I have to tell  you, Judy’s Salt Beef soup was something to die for. With a hint of salt (a taste quite popular in ALL Newfoundland cooking) and a tasty broth, it was delicious.

While I spoke  to the elderly couple, I noticed a fiddle hanging on the wall above the door. “Do you play?” I asked. “Used to, broke three fingers, pretty hard to hit the strings with crooked fingers. If you want a tune or two, I can take out the mouth organ, I don’t need the fingers for that!” Sam said. Judy rolled her eyes and looked  on. “Not the mouth organ, that damn thing drives me crazy!” she complained.

“What you like to hear? I know all the popular songs of the day. “I’se da Bye”, ‘Squid Jiggin’ Ground’, Mussels in da corner’, what will it be me laddie?”

Being fairly well ‘tuned’ in traditional Newfie music, I knew all those tunes. Back in the day, fishermen and their wives used to sing sea chanteys as they worked. The songs became part of our heritage.

“Judy, you sing a few, I back you up on the mouth organ (also known as the harmonica).”

Judy reached behind her and pulled out a button accordion. A loud “Wraaaap” sound rung from  the instrument as she prepared to play it. “I used to play that thing, but you know, the fingers. I taught my lovely Judy to play so I wouldn’t forget the melodies. She plays guitar and fiddle as well. I has me one talented lassie” Sam added.

“Oh shut up old man” she said, as she commenced with the music.

The two of them  put on quite a show. First a medley of traditional tunes, then a mix of a few I never heard before. Sam said that he and Judy made them up one stormy winter night. I was in awe. Who would have thought that these two old timers were so talented?

When Judy got tired playing, she asked if I was hungry. “We don’t get many visitors these days, especially with the kids gone and all.” I said that I was fine, that I was enjoying myself way too much to be hungry. Besides, look at all the info I was gathering. Sam offered me a few sweets, again traditional Newfoundland food.  “Have a few peppermint knobs, they make your mouth feel like a cold winter’s morning”. I took one of the candy, with it’s pink and white stripes and cool mint taste, it quickly became one of my favorite candies.

As I wrote notes in my scribbler, Sam and Judy looked on. “Our boy Thomas used to like writing as well. I still have some  of the stories he wrote.” said Judy, with a tear in her eye.

“Where is Thomas now?” I asked.

“Thomas is with the angels. He is a hero you know.” Sam said proudly. “Tommy went off to war when he was just sixteen. He fought bravely against the Germans. They say that our boy went down fighting. A true Newfoundlander for sure.  Don’t mess with us; we may seem generous and kind, but threaten our freedom and our safety, and you  will pay. Them damn Germans paid, didn’t they, Judy?”

“They did indeed. I can’t talk much about that anymore. It seems like a dream, like it couldn’t have happened.” Judy said, tears on her face. I changed the subject. “So do you go to town often?” I asked.

“Town? Why should we? We grow our own vegetables, raise our own cattle, hens and pigs. Sam still hunts for rabbit and moose and the occasional partridge. We live like kings in our own home.” Judy said.

I looked at my watch. 8:25. I had to leave soon. My dad would be by soon waiting to bring me back home.

“I have to finish my report soon, got school in the morning.” I said. The old couple seemed to sadden with my ever word. “Can’t you stay just a while longer? We don’t get much company. Why not give Judy a hand decorating the Christmas tree. The old girl has a difficult time reaching the higher branches.” Sam asked.

“Old Girl? I will give you Old girl!” Judy said. “But yes, I could use some help.”

How could I disagree? I helped the old couple decorate their fine tree, putting their beautiful homemade ornaments on the tree. When we finished, Judy took out her guitar and played ‘Silent Night’ as Sam and I watched. My dad had arrived and sang along as well.

The next morning I was quick to wake. I grabbed my notebook and hurried downstairs for breakfast. When I got to school, I was first to present my assignment. I didn’t even use my notes, as I recalled the wonderful visit I had with Sam and Judy White. My teacher was so impressed with my report that she gave me 100% and suggested that I continue to write  stories. Good advice, as writing later became such an important part of my life.

Sam and Judy? They are gone  now. The old house is but a wooden frame down an old woods path.  Many of the residents in the community have long  forgotten the old couple, but not me. They remain in my heart as a wonderful memory of Newfoundland past. With its Sugar cookies, peppermint knobs and Newfoundland Screech, memories that I will never forget. Merry Christmas to one  and all, and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all.

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