‘I can’t even fathom what that must have been like’: Father, daughter memorialize old family tragedy in outport Newfoundland
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ST. JOHN’S, NL – Growing up by the sea, Newfoundland and Labrador children were always within walking distance of tragedy.
Newfoundland-born soprano Tonia Evans Cianciulli says it was a happy coincidence that prompted both her and her father, Fred Dyke, to recently recall one such family history that happened before she was born.
Dyke, who now lives in Ontario as a pastor, published a biography of his father through Flanker Press in October.
Skipper Ches: As Tough as it Gets tells the story of Fred’s parents, Chesley Dyke and Elsie Stanford Dyke, and the almost unbelievable adventures of his father, who spent most of his life as a schooner skipper.
Born in 1908, Ches’ life path took him through all manner of Newfoundland existence in the early 19’s -Pierre.
He and Elsie had nine children together, but it’s the heartbreaking death of their firstborn son that also caught Evans Cianciulli’s imagination.
“I grew up hearing my dad and aunt talk about ‘poorlittleward,’ and it was all summed up in one word, and with their Newfoundland accent, it was a little hard to understand what they were saying,” she said in a phone call from her home in Toronto on Thursday. “But it’s ‘poor little Edward,’ which is what my grandmother called Edward after he drowned for the rest of her life.”
By the 1930s, Ches and his wife had moved from St. John’s back to his birthplace, Pool’s Island, where they had moved into a house near the shore.
They had two little boys then; the eldest, Edward, was 4.
Dyke tells the story:
“The uncle took the two sons, Bob and Edward, to the wharf, and the wharf was right next to the shed or shop. We called it a store. As the uncle left to go to the house, the one boy Edward said, ‘I’m going in with Dad,’ so he let go of his hand.”
It was June and Ches had probably been working on a boat or mending nets for fishing.
When the uncle got back to the house he told Elsie that Edward had gone to his father.
“Mom, knowing what Dad was like when he was working, rushed downstairs to find him. She said, ‘Is Edward with you?’ and he said, ‘No, I haven’t seen him,'” Dyke said in an interview on Thursday, December 15.
“They both went to the wharf and he was standing on the bottom in about a meter of water.”
The boy had drowned.
They suspect a couple of teenagers on the wharf were poking at flatfish with a goad, a common pastime for youngsters on the bay.
“When they found him, the spike was in the water next to him, so they suspect he was trying to mimic what they were doing.”
Evans Cianciulli said family history is never far from her heart.
In 2019 she dedicated a series of tributes to Twillingate opera legend Georgina Stirling, including a book co-written with her other grandfather, Calvin Evans, a double CD release and a concert tour.
“It’s been an absolute whirlwind year and it was exciting and amazing and then it was like you woke up on the morning of Chinese New Year 2020 and I said to myself, ‘I really don’t feel like I have a vision for this year have. ‘”
COVID-19 soon took care of that, and the pandemic gave her time to think.
This year she released a more thoughtful album, Hymns of the Heart, and has recently returned to performing live with orchestras.
But one thing she wanted to do was capture the story of her drowned uncle in a song.
“As a mother myself, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to tragically lose your firstborn child,” said Evans Cianciulli, who has two teenagers.
“In this day and age we have so many resources to draw on to help ourselves, to heal things or to grieve, but then what did you actually do? I do not even know.”
She said Elsie probably turned her pain into a passion to care for the rest of her family.
“You just have to keep going.”
So, with the help of poet Vaughn Harbin, she wrote the song “Churchyard Roses” in memory of young Edward.
The ballad, featuring Jesse Fegelman on guitar and Erika Nielsen on cello, was recorded, mixed and mastered by Dima Graziaani.
A Christmas play, It’s Christmastime this Year, in Newfoundland, was also recorded on the same trip.
Fred Dyke decided to include the words to his daughter’s song in his book.
As a footnote, Evans Cianciulli adds that her close association with Georgina Stirling – whose stage name was Marie Toulinguet – contains an odd parallel.
As it turned out, Georgina had a younger brother named Edward who also drowned.
As always, the sea must take its toll.
Peter Jackson reports on tribal affairs for The Telegram.