By John W Prince
The unexpected and marvelous usually comes when we least expect it. And often, from the most unlikely sources. This one happened in the tiny village of Salvage, a fishing community on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Bay, in the early 1970’s.
Two items to remember.
One: rural Newfoundlanders back then still had a strong Irish accent. Instead of pronouncing the village name as “SAL-vage,” they pronounced it “sal-VAGE.” No doubt the name came from the old business of salvaging anything they could from shipwrecks on the nearby rocks.
Two: Even in the 1970s, Newfoundland’s outport villages were dwindling rapidly as people moved into the towns and cities. But some residents, particularly the older ones, clung tenaciously to the rocks and wind and comfortable meagerness of their homes.
It was Spring, which means May or even June in Newfoundland. I was in Gander for some meetings with a client and found myself with a day off. So, I rented a car and drove along the TransCanada Highway, through Terra Nova National Park, and along the rugged coast to Bonavista Bay. There are villages with great names: Sandringham, Happy Adventure, and Hare Bay. Newfoundland is a land of spruce bogs, rocky coves, and a few remote villages of bright, multicolored buildings on stilts clinging to the waters’ edge, fishing boats, and springtime icebergs. Salvage met all of the requirements.
On my left there was a massive blue-white growler in Salvage cove—an iceberg perhaps fifteen stories high and just as wide which had run aground on the rocks and would make a low growling noise as it wore itself to death over the next month or so. On the right was the village and a tiny, red, storm-battered house perched on a gigantic, flat rock with a sign out front: Salvage Fishermen’s Museum.
How could I not stop?
I was greeted by an elderly couple who seemed delighted to meet me. They probably do not get many visitors, I thought. The woman was raw-boned and chatty, dressed in a patterned housedress, and thoroughly delightful. The sort of person you just knew had a pot of soup simmering on the back of the stove and soda biscuits in the oven. Her husband was small and wiry and wrinkled with sparkling eyes. I could imagine him spending years hauling a trawl line in a small boat on a foggy, tossing sea.
The Newfoundland government, they informed me, had bought their home—this building and everything in it—to be a museum; and built them a brand-new bungalow nearby. So, the artifacts in the Museum had belonged to the couple and their family. They were immensely proud of every item. I was the only visitor that afternoon, so I had their full attention.
Built over 100 years before my visit, the house was tiny, but they had raised a bunch of children here, all sleeping in a couple of low, minuscule upstairs rooms under the slope of the peaked roof. It was cozy and warm and snug and had that peculiar aura from the many strong people who had been born, lived and died here.
There was fishing equipment, household paraphernalia, a spinning wheel made from the lid of a fish barrel, clothing, and old photos. I was intrigued and fascinated and settling in for the afternoon.
The woman was smiling and talking and bringing out more things for me to see when, beaming brightly, she suddenly said, “Would you like to see me stroud?”
I was not sure what a “stroud” was, but I had spent enough time in Newfoundland to know that great things often have strange names in this part of the world.
“Yes, please,” I answered immediately in anticipation, smiling back at her.
Picking up a small wooden chest, she set it gently on the table and opening the lid, lifted out a carefully folded white, cotton garment, and held it up for me. “This is me stroud,” she announced with great pride.
It was, I realized with a shock, her burial shroud. My mouth was open in awe. It was beautiful.
I have told this story before, and I always struggle with just how to describe this elaborately intricate piece of practical art.
You know how you can fold up a piece of paper and cut a hole here and another there and so on until, when the paper is unfolded, you have a complex snowflake? The talented woman had used this technique for an entire dress—her last earthly dress—so that the garment, just ordinary cotton cloth like a sheet, appeared to be an expanse of delicate white lace.
I was transfixed and examined the shroud carefully—not daring to touch it, lest I mark or ruin it. The holes were tiny and subtle and slightly frayed around their inside edges. I realized that every time she unfolded and showed her “stroud,” the material would fray just a little bit more. Enough showings and it would eventually be reduced to a mass of random white threads.
I was honored and touched and, I have to admit, my eyes were not totally dry. “It’s beautiful,” I told her truthfully over and over. She carefully folded it back up while telling me how she had made it with great care over many weeks; making the crafting sound simple—almost like anyone could do it. I knew better.
The gloom of evening was settling over the cove as we parted, after tea and slices of homemade bread and jelly, with hugs and handshakes. I never saw them or Salvage again. But I often think of them. I know that a New York or Miami gallery owner would pay a huge amount to get her “stroud” as an incredible example of folk art. They might, I suspect, think it a great loss for it to be buried and molder away, never to be seen again.
Almost 50 years have passed since that miraculous afternoon in Salvage. The woman and her husband have long since passed on and are no doubt buried side by side in the rocky Newfoundland earth close to the home and the iceberg growlers and sea they loved. I hope that her mourners looked upon her, beautifully at repose in her “stroud,” and realized the enormous measure of work and history and pride that had gone into its creation.
I feel very blessed that, for a brief moment, she had invited me into her world to see the dress she would be wearing in heaven.
9 thoughts on “The Stroud”
Wonderful story, well-told! Thanks!
What a absolutely beautiful slice of life, both from the perspective of the museum couple and the traveller.
Thanks for posting this beautiful story. Spontaneity at its best. Please call me about it. Thanks.
What a wonderful and well written short story. I will be sure to share this one.
Finally got time to read this wonderful story from a marvelous story-teller.
Thanks for sharing a past experience with your readers.
Thanks for sharing this lovely story.
What a lovely piece, John. I am fortunate indeed to call a sensitive person/writer like you a friend and colleague.
Awww. You took me there. I have a weakness for folk art (as you know) and good story telling. This piece is a lovely combination of both.
And it brought back a memory from the first time a friend—who was obsessed with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—and I, visited her home in Cross Creek. We were the only guests that day. The docent spent hours with us, answering and explaining as he took us back in time.
So thanks for the smile —and the memory.
The delicate shroud is described in such detail that I feel as if I too was able to see it. Comparing its pure creation to how children make paper snow flakes added to the miracle of the shroud.