My mother had prayed for a little girl.
Every day during her fourth pregnancy, Marion Murray entreated Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, to deliver a girl to join her three young sons. This was not an idle request. Mom took her prayers-and her Catholicism-very seriously. She lit candles, said novenas and promised Saint Anne that if she were to be blessed with a girl, she would call her Anne. In the end, when I was delivered by Dr. Harold Simpson on the morning of June 20, 1945, at All Saints Hospital in Springhill, Nova Scotia, I was named Morna Anne-Morna after my paternal grandmother. Morna came first because Morna Anne Murray flowed a lot better than Anne Morna Murray-my first lesson, perhaps, in the importance of rhythm. My mother had no doubt that it was prayer alone that had been responsible for my arrival. Such was her gratitude that virtually until the day she died, she stayed in touch with priests at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré shrine in Quebec, sending regular donations.
With three older brothers-David, Daniel and Harold-and later two younger ones-Stewart and Bruce-my childhood fate was largely predetermined. I didn't have a chance. Even before I could walk they had laced a pair of boxing gloves onto my hands for a family photograph. I never actually donned them for a fight, but they are an apt metaphor. I was a tomboy and relished the role, wanting to do everything my brothers did, stubbornly resisting the repeated well-intentioned efforts of my mother to transform me into a model of junior femininity. I did have dolls and I did play with them, but they were never a major part of my childhood. Only years later, long after I had left home, did my mother succeed in decorating my bedroom as she had long envisaged it, with frilly pinks and whites replacing my posters of Hollywood heartthrob James Dean and Tony Dow (Leave It to Beaver
's older brother, Wally). I had it bad for Tony Dow.
Taught by my older brothers, I learned to catch, throw and hit a baseball with proficiency. Along with them I rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, though my loyalties shifted from time to time to Dad's favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens. The boys owned a vast baseball card collection that we stored in gallon ice-cream pails. In time I memorized the batting and earned-run averages of every major-league player. My brothers liked to quiz me-they would cover up most of the card and, from the portion that remained visible, I had to identify the player and what team he played for and recite all his relevant numbers.
Outdoors I was recruited for neighbourhood games and, because I had a good arm, later played centre field for our girls' softball team, the Top Hats. We won the town cham pionship, but my contribution to our victory was minimal. Despite my training, I was never a confident player, either at bat or in the field. I rarely swung at pitches and in the field I was often thinking, Please, don't hit it to me
I would never be able to compete seriously with my brothers on the sports field, and I knew it. This is just a theory, but it's possible that when I discovered in my early teens that I could sing reasonably well, I worked hard at it precisely because it was one thing that I could do better than they could. I couldn't get enough of singing; it was a tonic for my otherwise deflated sense of self-esteem. But that was later. In my early years we were a sports-mad family. We swam, played baseball and hockey (Dad would rent the local skating rink for an hour on Sundays after church), and on Saturday nights during the winter and all through the Stanley Cup playoffs, watched hockey games religiously around the family TV. It was a nineteen-inch black-and-white Westinghouse with chrome legs that sat in my parents' bedroom; all eight of us and assorted friends sprawled in awkward configurations on the bed or the floor to watch it. (In his later years, whenever the Canadiens were playing, Dad would don his official Guy Lafleur number ten jersey.)
They were an active bunch, my brothers; they loved to box and wrestle with each other, and often roughhoused with me as well. Until Harold went off to college, I don't think he ever missed an opportunity to slug me in the arm if I was within his considerable range. He was merciless with all of us-on the day he left, Stewart, Bruce and I cheered lustily from the back porch of our big Main Street home. On my sixteenth birthday two of the older boys administered the traditional sixteen slaps to my butt with such enthusiasm that I was brought to tears. I would fight back-writhing, wriggling, flailing, screaming and complaining frequently to Mom, but usually without results. The precise circumstances of one incident are lost in the mists of memory, but Harold had pushed me a little too far, and in a moment of anger I picked up a small rock and hurled it at him, nicking his ear (I think I was eight or nine at the time). He put his hand to his ear, felt the blood trickling down and flashed me a big, wicked grin-not because he was proud of me for fighting back, but because he knew he would need a few stitches to sew it up. And, since I had drawn blood, he knew that some form of parental wrath would be expressed and that I, for once, would be its recipient. He was going to savour that moment.
Much of the time, I'm sure, I was either a nuisance or a burden to my brothers-or both. Once when I was an infant, the boys wheeled me down the street in my pram and left me while they went inside a store. One small problem: they had neglected to put on the brake-and Springhill is built on a cluster of steep hills. So down the hill I went, gathering speed, until an alert neighbour spotted the careening carriage and raced out to save me. But for that timely intervention, my music career might have been aborted very early. On another occasion, while I was still a toddler, I was again consigned to the less-than-scrupulous care of the older boys. They wanted to play baseball. These two imperatives-play and supervision-conflicted, so they cleverly arrived at a solution that would keep me from wandering off: they thoughtfully tied me to a nearby tree and the game continued. At other times I was a victim of their pranks. Walking home at night from movies at the community hall in Northport, where we spent our summers, they would run ahead and hide in ditches and behind trees, leaving me alone in complete darkness. Then they'd jump out and scare me half to death.
In turn, when I was charged with their care, I often regarded my younger brothers as an unwelcome responsibility. I was three years older than Stewart and six years older than Bruce, and I could be as inattentive as my older brothers had been. Once when I was ostensibly babysitting four-year-old Bruce, he decided he wanted to use the record player. To do so he had to move a lamp, which he laid down on a foam pillow, which then caught fire-while I was busy playing cards downstairs with a boyfriend. I smelled burning rubber and, Dad being at work and Mom out, my boyfriend ran to get his father. The local newspaper, the Record
, reported the story of menacing Master Murray, the four-year-old arsonist, but no serious damage was done.
My brother Daniel was the family tease. He enjoyed pinning me to the floor, his knees firmly pressing down on my shoulders so that I was immobilized, and then threatening to lick my face, inching ever closer. He denies these accusations today, but his memory is clearly flawed. Daniel had other idiosyncratic methods of torture as well. With a doctor for a father and a nurse for a mother, their six germ-carrying kids were repeatedly instructed never to drink from each other's glass or eat food the others might have touched. Daniel exploited these instructions ruthlessly. Typically Mom would have us all sit at the kitchen table while she rushed back and forth with plates of food. Even before we'd finished the main course, she'd set out the dessert as well. One of our favourites was date squares. She'd be fussing with something, her back turned, and Daniel, slowly and methodically, would take each square and carefully lick both sides, effectively claiming them as his own. After that we couldn't and wouldn't touch them. But, if we knew what was good for us, we also couldn't snitch on him to Mom. So Mom would ask, "How come no one but Daniel is eating the squares?" and we could say nothing-Daniel's withering glare warning us of dire consequences if we dared. That kitchen table, incidentally, contained a small drawer in which Bruce and I hid bread crusts, which we hated. I'd been told they put hair on your chest, and I didn't want any part of that.
To be completely candid, I should confess that my treatment of my younger siblings occasionally reflected the treatment I had been accorded by the others. I once teased Bruce to the point where he threw a pair of scissors at me. At other times I had a tendency to treat both him and Stewart as living dolls, dressing them and coiffing their schoolboy hair as I-and sometimes my friends-pleased. (Hair, in fact, became something of an avocation. I used to cut Dad's hair at our cottage at Northport in the summer, and at university I ran a virtual salon, offering trims and dye jobs to my dorm-mates.) Later my attentions to Bruce and Stewart became more practical and well-intentioned: I taught them both to dance.
Afraid of being ridiculed by the others, no one really expressed their fears. I certainly didn't. I vividly recall hearing, either through some fundamentalist proselytizers at our door or on the radio, that the world was coming to an end on a given day. Somehow I took this warning very seriously, but instead of articulating my mounting fear, I took refuge under my bed on the appointed day. Only when it became clear to me that the forecast had failed did I reappear.
Having five brothers, I should add, was not without its benefits. They taught me far more than just how to read a box score. I had to learn self-reliance because they had better things to do than cater to me. They taught me by example how to recognize and cut through spin and bullshit, a skill that would come in handy more than once during my life in the music industry. And they made sure that whatever success I might achieve, in school or elsewhere, wasn't going to swell my little head. I wasn't inclined that way in any event, selfconfidence being in short supply, but they'd have cut me down to size quickly if I had been. When, years later, I walked onstage at Radio City Music Hall to a rousing standing ovation, my brother Harold looked around in some astonishment, as if to say, "What's going on? It's just Anne."
My parents' marriage was, first to last, a script lifted from a fable. My mother, Marion Burke, was a nurse in training at All Saints Springhill Hospital when, in 1934, James Carson Murray arrived. He was a handsome young Dalhousie medical school grad who had just completed a year of surgical training at St. Luke's Hospital in Cleveland (later the Cleveland Clinic) and a year's practice with his father, a country doctor in nearby Tatamagouche. The nursing corps of Springhill Hospital was then administered by a group of strict and sober Church of England nuns, and they ranked doctors as not far below the angels. More importantly, perhaps, they were advised by Dr. Simpson, the chief of staff, to turn a blind eye to the courtship developing in front of them, between the handsome Presbyterian from Tatamagouche and the comely young Catholic coal miner's daughter with deep Acadian roots from nearby Joggins. In a sense, you might say that Dr. Simpson twice facilitated my birth.
My grandparents, on the other hand, took a decidedly more jaundiced view of this romance. Both sides were initially opposed to the union on religious grounds, such were the entrenched prejudices of the day. It was probably family pressure that led my mother, after they had been dating for a while, to ask for a time out. Three weeks went by; then Dad, who was always very quiet and shy, turned up at the nurses' dorm and asked my mother whether she might be interested in buying a set of encyclopedias. Mom declined the books but accepted his proposal. Not long after, they were married, although even then they could not be married in a church. In 1937 they exchanged their vows before Monsignor Currie in what was known as the Glebe, an annex of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Joggins. None of their parents was present; Mom's sister, Erma, and John Burbine, Mom's first boyfriend, stood as witnesses. Although the laws of the Church kept them from the ceremony, Mom's parents did host a luncheon reception at their home. The honeymoon was a weekend in Saint John, New Brunswick, at the Admiral Beatty Hotel. The parental frostiness did not linger; in fact, it melted as soon as the first grandson, David, arrived about a year later.
Growing up, we didn't see much of Dad. His work ethic was legendary. On a typical day he'd be up at dawn to start surgery, delivering babies (4,500 over the decades) or tending to the dislocated or broken limbs routinely sustained by the city's two thousand coal miners, the mainstay of Springhill's principal industry. Then he'd do rounds at the hospital and return home for lunch. He took lunch, as he took breakfast and dinner, in bed; the only times the family gathered all together for a meal were Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. After lunch he'd take a short power nap, then go to his office above Wardrope's drugstore and see patients for three or four hours. Then he'd come home for dinner-again in bed (we kids would have eaten already)-take another twenty-minute nap, and then set off to see more patients at his office and make final rounds at the hospital. Dad did this every day except Saturday and Sunday, although he was always on call and worked one Sunday in four in rotation with other doctors. He also made house calls. In the summers, when we were at the family cottage at Northport, it was not unusual for people to pull up to announce that he was needed (we had no phone). He'd then drive to the nearest telephone office for a consultation or back into town for an emergency procedure.
Dad kept up professionally by reading exhaustively, often late into the night, from medical journals he kept stacked beside the bed. And his dedication was matched by his extraordinary surgical skills. To cite just one example, I received a letter a few years ago about a man who, as a child of two or three, had managed to get his forearm stuck in the rollers of an old wringer washing machine. Muscle and bone had been badly damaged, and the medical consensus was that amputation would be the best and most efficient course. Dad had disagreed, saying there was no way he was going to allow the little boy to lose an arm without trying to save it-which is exactly what he proceeded to do. The surgery was successful and the little boy grew up to become a welder, a profession that would have been virtually unthinkable with one arm. When Dad died in 1980, dozens of people came forward with stories like this, about how he had saved this or that part of them. And, quite frequently, I think, he refused to charge poorer families for his services.
Dad didn't waste a lot of time on religion-that was Mom's domain-and so we were raised Catholic; in fact, his consent on that point had been a condition of the Church's sanction of their marriage. Four out of five brothers served as altar boys, and Bruce played the church organ from the time he was eleven. We said the rosary every night on our knees, attended Mass during the week and on Sundays, gave up candy for Lent, and I went to catechism on Friday night, right through Grade 10. I sang in the church choir and, as a girl, said my prayers every night, kneeling beside my bed while a crucified Jesus (and Tony Dow) gazed down at me. On my dressing table was a glow-in-the-dark miniature chapel with the Virgin Mary standing behind a gate.
But it wasn't long before a certain doubt and disillusionment began to set in. In Springhill the Protestants outnumbered the Catholics ten to one, and our local priest, Father Buchanan, regularly and confidently informed us that all Protestants were going to hell. Now, my father was a Protestant, and in my eyes at least, he was a veritable saint. It wasn't possible that he could be going to hell. And I had any number of Protestant friends, none of whom seemed like wastrels destined for the fiery furnace. So there was something about this dogma that began to strike my adolescent brain as terribly wrong. The narrow-mindedness extended even to extra-liturgical matters-we were not allowed to sing in non-Catholic churches. In fact, I often had to turn down invitations to sing at non-Catholic weddings.
I never really warmed to the ritual part of Catholicism either, the elaborate vestments and the incense. It just seemed over the top. Nor could I ever really get a handle on confession. At his first confession, Bruce, who must have been about seven, spent what seemed like an hour in the confessional booth, clutching his copy of something called the Baltimore Catechism
. Notwithstanding his accidental flirtation with arson, I couldn't imagine how his little seven-year-old life could have been so terribly warped and misspent as to require so much atonement. Nevertheless, I continued to sing in church and attended Sunday Mass all through my college years, and even later, while I was living in Halifax.
By my early teens I was no longer very comfortable in church, for reasons that had nothing to do with spiritual misgivings. As a family we were almost always late for services-getting six kids scrubbed, brushed and dressed took forever-and by the time we walked down the aisle to our pew I was already anxious, feeling like I was going to faint or throw up. I could feel people watching me, and that made me uncomfortable to the point of panic. After about five minutes I'd get up and go outside, just for some fresh air. Around that time I was something of a nervous wreck, riddled with an assortment of strange neck tics and bad habits. I bit my nails and gnawed a few of my knuckles until they were raw. I never talked about it, and Mom, who must have noticed, never said a word. Eventually the tics and habits went away, as these things generally do.
Looking back, I think those early adolescent years were very hard for me-the awkward transition from girl to young woman made all the more difficult by living among five brothers. The more like them I could be, the happier I was-so much so that when I first started to develop breasts at twelve or thirteen, I began to carry myself hunched over to avoid drawing attention to this emergent, rather fundamental anatomical difference. Mom was often on my case about that. "For heaven's sake, Anne," I can still hear her saying, "stand up straight!" (In fact, she was still reminding me in her nineties.)
It must have been during that period of terrible selfconsciousness, complicated by the arrival of my first period, that Mom took me to buy my first brassiere. I hated these bumps that I had developed; they made manifest what I was most in denial about-the differences between me and my brothers. Having made the purchase, I actually had to wear it; I had to sit down at lunch with the boys, all of whom were acutely conscious of my dramatically altered form. I remember Bruce turned to stare at me-he would have been about six or seven-and said, "What are those things? What are those bumps?" And bumps they were-bras in those days created a very pointy look. Daniel and Harold, sitting adjacent, were busy elbowing him and saying, "Shut up, Bruce." Of course, all my girlfriends were going through similar trials, but they didn't have to cope with five brothers. I thought it was so unfair that boys were spared the ordeal of protruding breasts and crampy periods. Mom had prepared me for that, but that didn't mean I had to like it.
When he wasn't working, Dad was a keen outdoorsman. He loved to be active, often saying, "Never sit if you can stand" and "Never lie down if you can sit." He was a strong advocate of fitness long before it became fashionable. He loved to snowshoe-sometimes to work. From the house my mother would carefully watch him crossing the fields, because Dad suffered from asthma; if he had an attack she would see him collapse and rush over to him with a hypodermic needle prepared for just that contingency. Dad also cross-country skied. Some of my favourite times alone with him were on ski outings, the sweat dripping from his nose, his layers of clothes discarded and hung on tree branches along the route as his body temperature rose. He taught us to swim, played catch with us in the big field adjacent to our house, and loved to hunt. Occasionally at the cottage my brothers would lure him into a game of bridge, but he was a reluctant player. He always wanted to be outdoors.
Once when I was a young teen, he took me rabbit hunting. It was freezing cold and I was bored and miserable. After about three hours of what seemed like pointless wandering, he said to me, "There's one over there. Shoot there." I couldn't see anything but I fired the gun; to my great surprise and greater regret, I actually hit the rabbit. I heard it whimpering and I felt awful, and felt worse when Dad had to put the poor thing out of its misery. We may have taken it home, but I've repressed the memory. I did tell Dad, "Don't ever ask me to go hunting again."
On occasion he'd take all of us kids fishing, lining us up beside the brook with our rods, while he went off to find some trailing arbutus (mayflower), the wonderfully aromatic provincial flower of Nova Scotia, to take home to Mom. I still remember the fragrance of those pink and white blossoms filling the car, an old Meteor, on the drive home. We never caught any fish, mainly, I think, because Dad was less interested in fish than in the flowers. He took us to where he knew the mayflowers were; fishing was simply a way to distract us while he collected them in peace.
And Dad relished adventure. He loved nothing more than getting himself stuck in some muddy rut on the Casey Road, a prime, unspoiled hunting area about twenty miles away, and then figuring out how to dig himself out. He carried an old beaten-up rucksack in his trunk, filled with hatchets, knives and other survival gear, just for these occasions. Mom hated that bag, especially when we had a station wagon and it was visible in the back. "Carson," she'd exclaim, "you are not taking that rucksack!" But of course he did.
Much to my mother's annoyance, he would also look for opportunities to experience manageable risk. Once he took Stew, Bruce and me on a boat ride when, I am convinced, he knew that a big storm was brewing on the Northumberland Strait. When the storm hit, we were cruising down the Shinimicas River and had to take cover. There just happened to be an overturned lobster boat on the shore, so we pulled over, took refuge under the lobster boat and ate our picnic lunch. When the storm had passed, we were on our way again. We got back to find Mom rooted to the bank, furious, arms folded. "Carson," she bellowed, "what were you thinking?" She always called him "Cars," except when she was angry; then it was "Carson!" And he called her "Mummy the Dummy," affectionately, of course. They adored each other. She was feisty and fun, full of life, a perfect complement to his calm reserve. When he pulled one of his stunts, she'd light into him verbally for a few minutes. When she was finished, he'd just say, with a little grin on his face, "Pardon?"
One day he went duck hunting and, just as dusk approached, he finally shot one. He had to wade out into the water to retrieve it, so he decided to strip down to his shorts, leaving his clothes on the bank. By the time he got back, however, night had fallen and he couldn't find his clothes in the dark. So he found a farmhouse and, in his underwear and freezing cold, knocked on a stranger's door. They kindly lent him some clothes-and a flashlight.
Dad had a dry and wry sense of humour. Once he was summoned to a nursing home where a senior citizen had died.
"She's not dead," he declared, after conducting a brief examination.
The presiding nurse glared at him. "Well, she was dead five minutes ago!"
"Well, then," said Dad. "I guess it's a good thing for her that I didn't get here earlier."
Even as a disciplinarian, Dad was taciturn. He never lectured or sermonized-he didn't have to. One look, one glance, was enough to tell us kids that we had offended and had better stop, pronto. He spanked me only once, when I was about four. Mom had asked me to go upstairs and fetch the toothpaste and I had refused, more than once, I think because I was afraid of the dark upstairs. She promised punishment when Dad came home, but he'd never hit me before, so when he asked me to get the toothpaste, I said no to him as well. He put me over his knee and probably slapped me about three times. I never said no again, at least not to him. All he had to do was look at us.
However, Dad was usually absent, so it fell to Mom to impose some modicum of discipline on the boys. She did this well for the most part, sometimes carrying a narrow strip of linoleum, a kind of whip that she wielded as an instrument of intimidation. But there were times when she simply closed the bedroom doors and let the lads go at it on their bunk beds, pounding the daylights out of each other, the walls fairly reverberating with the raucous symphony of fraternal warfare. My father's mother, Nanna Murray, once opined that it was unlikely Mom would see her sons as adults; she was sure they would kill each other off in battle before that.
Nanna couldn't have been more wrong. All grew into responsible adults, successful in their chosen fields. David became a nephrologist; Daniel a geologist; Harold a gastroenterologist; Stewart, the only one who stayed in Springhill, a program manager for Corrections Canada; and Bruce a singer and later a teacher. Mom was generally lenient and fair, and none of the boys ever posed a serious behavioural problem. She was equally relaxed with me. She seldom imposed a curfew and it never really occurred to me to rebel. Apart from some experimentation with marijuana in university, neither did the boys. We had an innate sense of what was right-or at least of what was wrong.
My mother doted on my father, and spoiled him. As a couple they never had much of a social life-Dad's work habits didn't allow it-but she seemed untroubled by that. She was with the man she wanted to be with. She baked and cooked; she volunteered with the Catholic Women's League and the hospital auxiliary; and once a week she played bridge with a group of friends. When Dad finally came home at night, she'd already be in bed, sitting up half asleep but dressed to the nines-the best-looking woman in bed. She was happiest when there were people around and mouths to feed, the more the merrier. My brothers would sometimes bring their baseball teams to the cottage and she'd feed them all for an entire day, thinking that was the greatest thing. In Springhill she was aided by Dena Vienneau, a remarkable woman who came to work for us in 1946, when she was sixteen, and stayed fifty-eight years, until Mom's death. Dena had no children of her own, so we were it. Her husband, Alfred, was a great friend of Dad's, and when Dad retired, the two of them (sometimes accompanied by Stewart) went hunting almost every weekend.
More than in most other houses, I suspect, language was important. Both my parents were sticklers for good grammar, but Dad had a particular way of correcting us. If we slipped up on something, he'd stare at us and say, very coolly, "Pardon?" And he'd keep saying "Pardon?" until we got it right. And Dad loved poetry, particularly the English Romantics-Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, as well as Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake
-and among the moderns, Robert Frost and the playful Ogden Nash. He could recite many of their poems and, often without warning and sometimes for no apparent reason, would launch into a recitation. I recite some of those poems today, much to the embarrassment of my children.
Neither of my parents swore. Dad never did, and the worst thing I can recall hearing Mom say was "Oh, damn" after she discovered that her cake in the oven had fallen, likely because the boys had been running around the house. Among the brothers and me, there was frequent invocation of the word frig
-friggin' this and friggin' that. But even now none of us really swears, although our kids, I think, more than compensate.
Having put my father on a substantial pedestal, as a child I was not able to see how hard Mom worked and how much she contributed to the family's cohesion. It was only years later, when I became a mother myself, that I realized how selflessly she had laboured on our behalf. I'm sure I must have disappointed her at times. I was not remotely the girly girl she had wanted. Once, invited to help her at a tea and wearing a new dress, I ended the affair by climbing a tree with the neighbourhood kids. Quite frequently we sparred verbally, usually for the most trivial of reasons, arguments that sometimes descended into yelling matches. Though I regret it now, we argued about everything. I loved her dearly, but the truth is that I was in many ways your classic pain-in-the-ass adolescent. For all that, Mom always made me feel special. When I was fourteen, she took me out of school early and we rode the train across Canada to visit Dad's sister, Ethel Livingstone, and her family in Vernon, B.C. We were gone a month-a great trip that brought us closer.
In addition to his medical practice, Dad owned an equity share in Wardrope's drugstore. But while we were comfortable, we were not particularly affluent and we lived quite modestly. In the heyday of the coal industry, Springhill miners were well paid, and the homes of my friends whose fathers worked in the mine were as well appointed as our own. Our family never ate in restaurants and owned only one car; while the boys were always outfitted with sporting equipment, it was always the hand-me-down variety. After Daniel and David begged for months for bicycles, they got one-to be shared between them. I got my first bike when I was twelve. It was second-hand and cost ten dollars.
Both parents had tasted the Depression and had trouble spending money. As recently as the 1990s, Mom had resolved to buy some new juice glasses but, when she discovered they were selling at the inflated price of $1.50 each, decided she could make do with what she had. There were no extravagant family vacations. In the late 1930s Dad had paid $500 for the cottage at Northport, a white, three-bedroom structure with an outhouse (at least for a few years) and a verandah (later screened in). It was right on the water in the best part of Nova Scotia weather-wise, and we spent the better part of every July and August there. It was an idyllic time, the long summer days full of sport and frolic, clam digs and lobster dinners, playing on the broad sand flats that, when the tide was out, stretched for what seemed like miles.
Although my childhood was mostly untroubled, the town of five thousand in which I grew up seemed to have been blighted by some dark curse. Springhill, nestled in the Cobequid Hills, sat over vast deposits of black coal, some of them a mile underground, among the deepest seams in the world. Mining had been not just the main industrial activity for more than eighty years; it had been virtually the only one. In fact, the town was originally known as Springhill Mines.
In Springhill's west end, so-called duff banks (slag heaps) of coal lay exposed. At night, people too poor to afford conventional delivery would come to dig for coal in these banks. The digging stoked smouldering fires that seemed to burn continuously. During the day, when the wind was westerly, the town's air was tinged with sulphurous fumes rising from the mines. Climbing the stairs at high school, I often had to stop to catch my breath. Homes were heated by coal, which left residues of soot. As a result, only the affluent in Springhill could afford to live in a white house, because it had to be repainted every year. And everyone had to wash their walls and ceilings once a year; wallpaper was rubbed down with something called Smokey City, a playdough-like product that absorbed the soot, turning absolutely black.
The work in the mines was dangerous, every trip down a silent roll of the dice. On November 1, 1956, when I was eleven-only a few days after the Soviet invasion of Hungary-there was a powerful explosion 5,500 feet underground at the mines. I was at Elizabeth Calder's house across the street, sitting on a couch reading, I think, when we heard and felt the explosion. I remember being thrown off the couch and then running out to the street to see a cloud of black smoke rising from the mine area a mile away. Several buildings had been flattened and dozens of miners were trapped a mile below the surface. Most were rescued, but there were thirty-nine deaths, many of them the fathers of childhood friends. I could scarcely imagine what that must have been like.
The following December a fire swept through what passed for Springhill's downtown, reducing a row of fifteen businesses and five apartment houses to ashes in slightly more than three hours-a loss representing 20 percent of all tax revenues. That same evening I'd been skating at the rink and had passed those buildings on my way home, only minutes before the fire began. The town's then mayor, Ralph Gilroy-the unlucky thirteenth in its history-said at the time, "Everything's happened now that can."
He was, alas, wrong. Less than a year later, on October 23, 1958, a third disaster struck-a so-called bump, or underground earthquake, at the mine. It was even more lethal than the first one, killing seventy-five men-one of the worst disasters in Canadian history, commemorated in songs, poems and books. On this occasion as well, several girlfriends lost their fathers. I physically remember the shockwaves as they registered in our house, more than a mile away from the pithead. It happened just after 8:00 p.m. I'd been home watching television, again with Elizabeth Calder; my brother Harold and my friend Donna Smith were appearing as part of a singing quartet on High Society
, a high school show broadcast live out of Moncton, New Brunswick. They had done a song Patti Page had made famous that same year, "Left Right Out of Your Heart," written by Mort Garson, a native of Saint John. The show had ended and I was bidding Elizabeth good night at the door; the bump occurred at the precise moment that I closed the door. I heard my mother calling from her room, "Anne, what happened?" She thought I'd fallen down the stairs.
We knew soon enough what had happened, but not the scale of the tragedy. Everyone rushed into the streets and headed towards the mine, then owned by the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation. For a week school was cancelled and, alongside my friends, many of whose fathers were trapped below us, we kept vigil at the pithead for hours every day while frantic rescue efforts proceeded. Mom dusted off her old nursing skills and went to work in the armoury, where they brought the injured initially and which also served as a temporary morgue. Dad worked around the clock and slept at the hospital. We were back in school by the time the first group was rescued-it was announced over the PA system and greeted with jubilation. At the end of the ordeal the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, came to town to offer moral support. Dad, then chief of staff at the hospital, was assigned to lead him through the wards full of injured men. Typically, not wanting to be in the public eye, he deputized a colleague for the honour.
One of the heroes of the day was Maurice Ruddick, a black miner and the father of twelve children, including Sylvia, Valerie and Ellen, three friends who regularly came to our house and taught me gospel songs. Maurice sang too; in fact, singing helped save him. Trapped without food or water four thousand metres underground with seven other men, his own leg broken, he refused to relinquish hope that they would be rescued. Maurice led them in song for the next eight and a half days, singing gospel hymns and folk tunes and, once, "Happy Birthday," because one of the men had turned twenty-nine. When they staggered out, they were hailed as heroes, invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show
, and offered free vacations at luxurious Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia, courtesy of its governor. But a public relations furor ensued: eighteen survivors and their families were white, but Maurice Ruddick was black, and Georgia was then a fiercely segregationist state. The other miners wanted to refuse the gift, but Maurice insisted; he went as well, staying alone at a blacks-only hotel.
Springhill was never quite the same. The mine closed in 1962 and never reopened; it was converted years later into a geothermal heating facility. Many families moved away, including several of my friends, and never returned.
Both sides of my family carried the musical gene. My maternal great-grandfather, Damien Belliveau, was a natural tenor well known in the region (during the Prohibition era he was also a rum-runner). Mom's mother, Mary, played the piano and was a church organist. Her sister Erma and brother Harry both played the piano for silent movies, playing in sync with the action and sometimes enduring aerial assaults of popcorn and peanuts from patrons. And Mom herself could certainly carry a tune, though she preferred to sing quietly.
On the paternal side, my grandfather sang regularly in the church choir and Dad himself liked to sing while he shaved; he had a big, wide vibrato, much like mine when I started. He had played the clarinet as a young man and had a very discerning musical ear. On Wednesday nights we'd often watch Perry Como's TV show together in his bedroom and he'd point out who was singing sharp and who was singing flat. Soon I found that I could do that too. His brother, Don, was a fine pianist and excellent musician; he wrote "Dalhousie Dream Girl," a university song that is still occasionally performed. Later he won a songwriting contest sponsored by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with a song that the orchestra recorded.
Dad's sister, Betty, made an enormous contribution to choral music in the province and founded the Nova Scotia Festival of the Arts in Tatamagouche. One year my brother Daniel and I went to hear the incomparable Maria Callas sing there. We had no tickets and the event had long since been sold out, so we sat outside, listening to her magnificent voice through the open windows. Later Betty started annual three-week summer music camps at New Annan, near Tatamagouche, where she'd direct Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I was in the chorus of The Gondoliers
the summer I turned nineteen, and doubled as the camp's recreation director. Bruce, who was just thirteen, played one of the leads: Luiz, drummer to the Duke of Plaza-Toro (played by our cousin, John Livingstone) and secretly heir to the throne of Barataria. My God, Bruce could sing. It was shocking to hear that big tenor voice coming out of that little boy.
Aunt Betty was something of a taskmaster. We rehearsed six hours a day-two hours each in the morning, afternoon and evening-although there was also time for swimming and games. She was something of a paradox, at times somewhat reserved, like Dad, at others quite gregarious. And like Dad again, her work ethic was remarkable. But when she conducted, she was transformed, a completely different personality, intense and vibrant, as if she were on the podium of the New York Philharmonic.
In their general outlook and thinking, my parents were both small-l liberals, politically and culturally. They never denigrated the sometimes strange musical and literary choices their children made, however different those might have been from their own. When we watched Elvis Presley gyrating his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show
in September 1956 like no one had ever done before, Dad just smiled. There were no dis missive judgments of rock 'n' roll, the Beatles or any of the other music we brought home. Mom voiced some objections to the longer hair that Stewart and Bruce wore in the seventies, a look inspired by the Beatles, but Dad just shrugged it off. "It's only hair," he'd say. "What difference does it make?"
My father probably learned this tolerance from his father, Dr. Dan Murray. As a medic in the First World War, he'd been the only doctor willing to treat members of Canada's Black Battalion, a group of black non-combatants sent overseas in 1917 to do construction; they would ultimately build 125 hospitals along the Western Front. His best friend in the war was Captain William White, a black Baptist minister and chaplain to the construction corps who kept a journal of their experiences. Coincidentally, I sang with Reverend White's son, Lorne, on Singalong Jubilee
for several years in the late 1960s and cele brated my twenty-first birthday at Lorne's house in Halifax. (Lorne's sister, Portia White, became an internationally acclaimed contralto concert singer.) I knew nothing of this history at the time and Lorne, though he had read his father's journal and had heard all the stories about Dr. Dan, didn't know then that I was Dr. Dan's granddaughter.
It was years before we made the connection. Anthony Sherwood, a cousin of Lorne's, was making a TV documentary about the Black Battalion and wanted to interview me about Goula (the nickname we used for my grandfather). I invited him to my home north of Toronto for the interview and Anthony arranged to bring Lorne in from Halifax the same day. When Lorne arrived at the house, he just about fell over when he saw me, because he had no idea whose house he was coming to. It was only then that we realized our shared history. Sadly, Lorne passed away in April 2008 at the age of seventy-nine, while visiting Texas. They flew his body home to Halifax for the funeral. That same day, as it happened-what were the odds of that?-I was scheduled to perform at the Halifax convention centre as part of my final Canadian tour, so I was able to go to the visitation at the church. The lineup to pay final respects extended down the street, a tribute to the esteem in which Lorne was held. The whole Singalong Jubilee
group held a final singalong in his much-deserved honour. He was one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met, and a fine singer in his own right.
Growing up with five brothers, I was introduced quite early to our anatomical distinctions. But I had no awareness of what one did with his or her equipment, no idea of what sex was or how babies were made. It was a neighbourhood friend, Paul Merlin, who took it upon himself to put an end to my ignorance. I might have been about nine years old, or perhaps ten; Paul would have been about twelve. We used to play in a loft above his grandfather's garage, right next to our house. His grandfather, Hally Brown, was the town's undertaker, and his garage floor was filled with rough boxes, vertical wooden containers for coffins, in and around which we played hide-and-seek. But somewhere in the loft Paul kept a collection of books and magazines of uncertain provenance that must have contributed to his superior education in this area.
At any rate, one day he proceeded to teach me about the birds and the bees, and I knew immediately that he was lying. He had to be lying. I said, "I'm going home to ask my father. He's a doctor. He'll know the real story."
So off I went to find Dad, who of course was in bed. I said, "Paul Merlin told me this is how babies are made and I don't believe him."
Dad asked, "Well, what exactly did he say?"
I can't remember what words I used, but I found some delicate way to communicate what Paul had described.
And then my father just shook his head and said, "Well . . . Paul is right."
All I could think was, That is so gross, so disgusting
, although I didn't say that. But I was horrified. I hated the idea, and more than anything I hated the idea that Paul had been right. Anyway, the very next day, out came a book I had not seen before, The Stork Didn't Bring You
, by Lois Pemberton, placed conspicuously by Mom next to the telephone in the family den, where I wouldn't miss it.
When, at about twelve or thirteen, I started going on little dates-to the local movie theatre (the Capital) or the skating rink-I was careful never to say or kiss good night anywhere near the house, for fear my brothers would be lying in wait, itching to tease me or the boy mercilessly. My first boyfriend, Brian Fuller, lived across the street. His family had one of the first television sets in Springhill, and I can still remember climbing the dogberry tree in our yard to get a better look inside his house, scarcely believing that you could watch moving pictures on a machine in your living room. My romance with Brian Fuller was adolescent puppy love, but it was intense for its time. We went to the movies, held hands and kissed behind the barn on his property. I had no doubt that I loved him. I'm told that I even helped him carry equipment to his hockey games.
Then one day I was at the movies, and he sat down right in front of me with Donna Smith, who, like Brian, was two years older. (Donna later married my brother Harold-they've been happy together for forty-three years.) At the time I was totally crushed, and it took me a year to get over the hurt. About five years later, in university, we had a few more dates, but the old spark was gone. I never felt the same about Brian, and the truth is I never felt that way about anybody until I met Bill Langstroth, who would become my husband in 1975. These were the two great loves of my life. After Brian's betrayal I became very protective of myself. Although I dated extensively at university-an active social life that took its toll on my grades-I wouldn't let anybody get too close.
My best friend when I was growing up was Sharon Cameron. We did just about everything together-skated, sang in choirs, joined cheerleaders and went to movies. Her grandfather owned the theatre and her uncle Lloyd ran it, so sometimes we'd get in for free. I remember being taken upstairs behind the balcony and seeing the projector and huge 35-millimetre reels.
Sharon and Richard Calder, whom she later married, were at my sixteenth birthday, at Northport. Eight girls stayed overnight; we smoked a thousand cigarettes (putting the butts in the pot-bellied stove-I don't know why we thought Mom wouldn't see them), did each other's hair and danced into the wee hours. The boys we had invited showed up on the next day for a bonfire, and we sang and danced all night.
Until university I was a grade A student. It wasn't that I worked especially hard or I was a particularly keen reader (though as a child I did love Peter Pan
and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series). The work simply came easily to me. And I actually liked it, especially history, English literature and grammar. My main academic competition came from Helen Elizabeth Gilroy, the mayor's daughter. She always got higher grades-sometimes, maddeningly, by mere fractions of percentiles-until the provincial exams in Grade 11, when I placed first.
I had two favourite teachers in high school. One was Lillian Matthews, who taught English in grades 10 and 11. I was fascinated by grammar and Lillian knew her stuff. But she was more than a bit eccentric. For example, she would rap underneath her desk, pretending that someone had knocked at the door, then get up to see who might be there and carry on a conversation with the imaginary visitor. On one occasion she went to an open window and had a conversation with Owen Hartigan, the manager of the coal mines, on whom she was said to have had a crush. We were convinced that the conversation was entirely imagined-that Hartigan was almost certainly not standing in the schoolyard in the middle of the day talking to her. For all that, she was a dedicated professional; in a school with no gymnasium and no resources for drama or other extracurricular clubs, she took it upon herself to organize choirs, in which I always sang, often rehearsing in her home.
The other major influence and by far the best teacher I ever had was Catherine Ward, who taught me both history and geometry in Grade 10. Her class preparation was phenomenal; you could see the hard work that had gone into it. She had the ability to make geometry a matter of simple logic. Whereas I struggled in algebra and had to be tutored, learning it all in the final week, geometry came as naturally as speech. In the combined Grade 11 math final, geometry and algebra, I scored the highest mark in the province that year.
At age eleven I started private piano lessons and continued for six years. I wasn't a model student, although I did stay with it longer than most of my brothers (except Bruce, who still plays), and long enough to learn Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor for my final recital. I practised just enough to get away with it. We played on a Willis and Company upright piano that Dad had bought after the Second World War. His brother, Don, who knew his pianos, had gone with him to try out the models available. At recitals my older brothers often played duets, but they operated on the assumption that the faster the piece was played, the better it sounded, regardless of the specified tempo. Artistic finesse was not their forte.
There was always music in the house, either from the radio or from the record player-at first a tabletop model that played 78s (I remember Peter and the Wolf
, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers and Doris Day) and then a cabinet RCA on which we played 45s-Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Pat Boone, Buddy Holly and Connie Francis, among many others. Later David came home from university with a portable that played LPs. He loved Broadway musicals but we also listened to Dixieland jazz, Mahalia Jackson, Alice Babs and the Swe-danes (an early forerunner of groups like the Manhattan Transfer) and film scores from The Five Pennies
and High Society
. There was music playing constantly and we were always singing along.
Still, my first ambition was to be a movie star. I was a regular at the Capital Theatre, pored over issues of Photoplay
and other movie magazines with the same passion that my brothers evinced for Sports Illustrated
, and watched scores of black-and-white movies on television at home. Among my favourites were Mrs. Miniver
, with Saint John native Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson, and The Greatest Show on Earth
, with Cornel Wilde, but the films that are still at the top of my all-time list are The African Queen
and Random Harvest
, again with Garson. This dream of Hollywood was a complete fantasy. I had never acted and had no prospect of training; there were no drama clubs in school. By my early teens I had let this go, without regret, as music had taken on greater importance.
I think I was nine when, riding in the car one day, we heard Gale Storm's "Ivory Tower" on the radio. My mom's future sister-in-law, Kay, heard me singing along in the back seat and said, "My God, Marion, Anne has a beautiful voice." And I thought, I do?
We later learned that Aunt Kay was tonedeaf. The next year, however, I had a more official assessment of my talent, and it was not auspicious. In Grade 5 my music teacher, Mrs. Ritchie, administered singing tests. We were each instructed to sing a few lines from a song, and I was told to sing from Stephen Foster's "Swanee River." I had sung less than a line when she told me to stop-that was enough. Later she gave me a C, as low a mark as I'd ever had in anything. I was shocked. Here I had thought I could sing, but this evaluation gave me pause, however briefly.
Still, I kept on singing. At fifteen Mom and Dad suggested I take singing lessons. I don't think they harboured any specific ambitions for me; they simply knew my interest and believed that I could and should develop whatever potential I had. And as in so many other aspects of my life, I reacted reflexively, without protest, assuming that if my parents thought it was a good idea, it must be a good idea. So, every Saturday morning for the next two school years, I got on the bus in Springhill at 8:00 a.m. and went to Tatamagouche, a ninety-minute ride away, where my paternal grandparents lived. I'd spend part of the day visiting them, have my private lesson with Karen Mills, sing with other students as part of her Northumberland Girl Singers (a nonet) and then ride the bus back again at night. I didn't love the music we sang, which was principally Italian arias, German lieder and other material from the world of classical music. I was much more interested in contemporary sounds, both rock 'n' roll and folk. But I was reluctant to stop for fear that I might miss something. And the lessons did prove useful, more than I ever realized at the time. I learned sight-reading, proper phrasing, when and how to breathe, and how to sing in a group-skills that would later prove invaluable.
In high school, with two other friends, Geraldine Hopkins and Catherine Ross, we formed a trio, the Freshettes. We'd rehearse for hours singing three-part harmony, and I would accompany us on a ukulele I had taught myself to play. We performed several concerts at various Springhill venues-the Miners' Hall, the Baptist church, the Knights of Pythias Hall-and once on TV, in Moncton. Our material included everything from folksongs such as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Cotton Fields" to pop material like "In the Still of the Night."
My first complete solo performance was at a festival in Tatamagouche when I was fifteen. I sang "The Primrose," from a poem by Robert Herrick, competing against two other girls, and won with a mark of 85. I was so nervous I was astonished that any sound at all came out of my mouth. At about the same time I also sang as a soloist in church, singing "O Holy Night" at midnight Mass.
Even more memorable for me was my high school graduation, at which I sang "Ave Maria." It was a kind of epiphany. There on stage at the Capital Theatre, for the first time I was completely conscious of the audience, and, in a sense, of performing. I was nervous, as always, and nervousness can sometimes blind you; you're so focused on the fear that you can't absorb the externals. Here I had the fear sufficiently in check to allow my eyes to move around the room, identifying my mom, friends and classmates, and their parents. It wasn't singing as an exercise or singing for sheer fun. This was different. And when I had finished, I noticed that I had somehow managed to bring some people to tears.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from All of Me by Anne Murray with Michael Posner. Copyright © 2009 by Anne Murray with Michael Posner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.