John Lahey was 29 when he met Rita Hayes. The 25 year old woman from Brigus South was working as a maid for a merchant family in Cape Broyle, the same family Lahey worked for as a fishermen, truck driver and jack of all trades. On Tuesday, the couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
“Mrs. Kate was trying to match us up for a while,” Rita recalls of the woman she worked for at the time. “She’d go, ‘You get him now, he’s a fine man.’”
Once they became acquainted, John would walk the four miles to Brigus South to court Rita.
This past Sunday, couple hosted a crowd of relatives and friends at Ruby Manor, where they moved last year after spending all their married lives in Cape Broyle. The party also celebrated each of their respective birthdays. John turned 99 on April 23 while Rita marked her 95th birth two days earlier.
Rita laughs when asked the secret to staying together for 70 years. “We always got along,” she says. “If there was anything to be said, we said it to one another and had it over with. That was it. I don’t know if they (the children) ever heard us arguing.”
“We never did any fighting,” agreed John, who one year shy of a century still has a sharp mind and a razor like sense of humour.
But while their marriage was a solid partnership, life wasn’t always easy for the pair.
“I had like to be a widow woman the first year we were married,” Rita says.
John was manning a line from a cod trap that was bolted into a cliff on shore when a wave swept him off the rock he was on and started spinning him among the boulders in the water. “I had hip rubbers on me and a rubber apron,” John remembers. “They got filled up with water.”
John kept his wits and was strong enough to swim and stop himself from being dragged down or smashed on the rocks. When the sea calmed down he swam out to a dory where the lone fellow fishing it helped him cling on until another boat came over with enough men to haul him aboard.
Rita remembers her new husband coming home soaking wet.
Both John and Rita came from large families and were aware of the rigours of working in rural Newfoundland in the 1940s and ‘50s. As children, they had been used to hard times. The hard times continued after they married in 1945.
“We grew our own vegetables all of the time,” said Rita. “There were two little stores in Cape Broyle, and that was our grocery shopping. That was as far as we got.”
The stores were owned by Johnny O’Brien, known as ‘Old Mr. Johnny,’ and Jim O’Brien. Both had fishermen working for them trapping cod and making fish. John worked for 13 years with Ron Ryan, Jim’s son, fishing in the summer and hauling wood in the winter behind a 1,300 pound horse.
“He’d go Monday morning and come back Saturday,” Rita says of her husband’s wood hauling days.
John still bears the effects of so much hard work. He is tall and straight, and though his fingers are buckled with arthritis, his hands remain as big as baseball gloves and his body still retains a muscular looking physique. He was so big and strong looking that when he was younger some people would ask if he was a policeman, Rita says.
“You worked hard,” John allowed. “And you didn’t get much for it.”
John also drove a truck for the O’Brien’s, picking up split and dried cod from as far away as Portugal Cove South. He can still picture driving into the community while it was still dark, the lights twinkling in the windows of the houses. All the cod was laid out on flakes and the rocks along the beach.
“There was fish straight around everywhere then,” said John, “drying on flakes all along the road.”
Fishing would start with the laying of salmon nets in April, then came the cod trap fishery and hand lining.
John would get up at 3 a.m. on the mornings he set cod traps. Later in the morning he would haul them. “If there was any fish you would stay at it all day,” he says. “And then in the night you’d be splitting fish.”
Rita can remember him coming home for lunch. He would use part of the short break to take a nap sitting up in the chair.
“You were on your feet all the time,” Rita says. “And women worked just as hard. They had the house and the children and everything to look after, in the gardens and everything else.”
A lot changed in 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada. Among the changes was the baby bonus. By then the Laheys had the first three of their five children.
“We were looking forward to the big cheque we were going to get,” says Rita, “six dollars a month. That was what it was. But that was good coming in at that time. Although it was small, it was a help.”
Confederation also meant pensions for old people. Shortly afterwards the road up the shore was paved too. Then came electricity and television.
Trips to St. John’s were still rare. “Nobody would go, they had nothing to spend,” John jokes.
“That is the truth,” says Rita.
But they would make a trip in the fall of the year, if there was anything left to spend. Like most places on the island, fishermen in Cape Broyle had an account with one of the local merchants. During the fall, winter and spring, they lived on the account, charging their food and supplies with the merchant deducting the amounts from the fish they caught in the summer. Some years there was very little ‘pay’ left over by fall. Occasionally there was none at all.
“They took every cent you had now mind you, they didn’t want to give you a cent out of the store,” Rita recalls. “You’d beg for it. If you had a hundred dollars coming to you in the fall, you were a lucky person.”
And that’s when you would go to St. John’s to buy winter groceries.
“There was no unemployment then,” Rita adds.
Anyone who couldn’t get work or didn’t have money could ask for welfare, but that wasn’t much, nor guaranteed. Some people, such as Lahey, might make a bit of extra money in the winter by clearing the road with a horse and plow on those occasions when it was covered in snow and someone needed to get to the hospital in St. John’s.
But life still had a magic to it. Rita remembers as a child that each community had its own little schoolhouse and nearly everyone had big families of 11 or 12 children. John came from a family of 11 brothers and sisters. They kept a horse for work and a cow for milk. Like many others, both John’s and Rita’s families kept hens and sheep.
“That was your Christmas Day dinner – mutton,” says Rita. “We’d be some delighted when we’d come home Christmas Eve night. We’d all be fasting then, see, and we’d walk up to Cape Broyle for Midnight Mass – that was four miles from where I lived – and we’d get home at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Mother would have mutton cooked and we’d be some delighted to get the smell of mutton. Then we’d have a feed and go to bed.”
March was known as ‘the hungry month of March,’ Rita explains, because that’s the time of year when groceries would be running out and the boats carrying supplies to the outports would sometimes get trapped in the ice. When you were hungry there was no point in asking for food, you just accepted that you had to do without it, she says.
“We see the good times and we see the bad times,” Rita allows. “We had bad times when we were growing up, but we were all happy, all hands were happy and united.”
For entertainment, there were card games, and the occasional dance. For the dances, people would bring along something to contribute to the cooking pot for a feed of colcannon. In summer time, fishermen from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia would visit the community, often looking to buy homemade spruce beer as their ships loaded up with bait.
Religion played a major role in people’s lives and Christmas and Easter were special occasions.
“Holy Week was a big week in Cape Broyle,” Rita says. People went to Church in the morning and again at night. That included school children, who would attend Mass before walking to school.
Asked what he gave up for Lent, John cracks, “I had nothing to give up.”
Rita says what they did give up was butter, meat and maybe milk for their tea.
There was no sugar. People sweetened their tea with molasses.
Dances ended at midnight, says Rita. “And you had to be in too. After that they’d be out looking for you.”
Things weren’t quite as tough by the time the pair married in 1945. The war was over and the Americans had pumped up the Newfoundland economy a bit thanks to the bases they operated. John got work for a while at the base in Pleasantville. But it still wasn’t what you’d call easy. When the Lahey’s first child, Michael, was born, John gave up smoking the pipe and chewing tobacco because he could no longer afford such luxuries. Michael was followed by Mona, Adrian, Anita and Margie. John never did go back to smoking.
But when he was 58, John had to stop splitting fish and cut back on a lot of his work. He found himself out of breath easily and weak.
“He couldn’t walk up the lane,” Rita says.
A doctor in St. John’s told him the blood flow through the main valve of his heart had narrowed to the size of a pinhole. John was put on medication. He kept active and still worked, though he had to avoid lifting heavy things. By then, the two oldest children were raised and ready for work themselves. When John was 73, his health got bad again and he underwent open heart surgery.
Looking back on it all, the couple are satisfied they did the best they could. “They all got reared up and they were never hungry,” Rita says of their children. “We saw to that. We did without ourselves to give to them… We had the hard times, but we had the good times too… We’re none the worse for it. If you don’t strain yourself, work don’t hurt you.”