There was a ton of work just getting things organized and cleaned before we could set to the task of repairing broken plaster, re-glazing smashed windows, fixing and replacing bathrooms, kitchen appliances, and getting electrical and plumbing reconnections working safely. It was daunting and exhausting.
With broom, shovels, rubber gloves, and dust masks, we started filling trash bins with the mildewed books and ruined photographs, suitable only for burning, scooping pile after pile of nasty, damp, and black mold paperwork into capacious trash bins. Among the debris, I spotted a leather-bound book with very old fashioned writing on the cover. I thought it was probably a fancy Harry Potter edition of some sort, since it looked newer and undamaged, unlike all the others there was no possibility of salvaging.
When I opened the cover, I saw a hand-written inscription that set my heart racing:
To a keen pair, suitably matched, joined today, 16 August, in the year of Our Lord, 1876. Gaius Samuel Turner and Lucy E. Stiles. May you find each day forward a gift and of accomplished industrious purpose.
We stopped work immediately, and promptly sat down among the rubble and started turning the pages. They displayed intricately cut-out his-and-her silhouettes, and unfamiliar ingredients and directions for short recipes, like: build a bigger fyre box than usual for a very hot oven and add several soft pinches of asafoetida to a spoon-drop dough.
Though the writing appeared to be feminine, it became clearer the more we read that it was Gaius’ writing, as he logged and accounted lumber orders, railway schedules, the death of his mother:
“Elizabeth Colpitts, kindest model of motherhood and goodness has most dearly departed, I shall not bear witness to another woman as fine save my own dear Lucy, who shares this day’s sorrow with me.”
Page after page of daily notes, meals shared, notable neighbours, kindnesses extended, weather anomalies, trade business, lazy workers on the property and at the shipyard … and then of his increasing desperation as he described Lucy’s failing health, including doctor visits, elixirs mixed, tinctures administered, and finally her quietly slipping into an “unwakeable slumber” when she was pronounced dead.
“I feel she hasn’t yet left us, she is now utterly still but I cannot accept that my soul is not somehow still attached wyth her. How is it possible to not acknowledge what I have been told as fact, and begin to wonder if I, too, am facing such a journey as grief has gripped me in mind and body this cold spring of 1892.”
Entry after entry describes how he implored the doctor to revive her, that for several days before her burial he felt certain she was in a fast deep sleep, and that he was determined she could be woken.
“My mynd is not so beset with denial. Though my education did not benefit from study of the human body, I surely must be intelligent enough to know her spirit has not left, so must trust that quackery does not confound the good Doctor to know that her life has ended, as mine will one day, too.”
It was heartbreaking to read about, as he described his own failing health, his time in the General Assembly, and the distractions in Fredericton that served to take his mind away from Lucy’s impending burial.
“To bury a wife who in death is still vibrant is an abomination -- I am told tyme and tyme repeatedly that she is gone but how is it to be that our bond was too strong to allow me to believe it is not so, or for anyone else to think I’m not mad with grief to consider it true -- she did not perish; my final kiss to her cool, not death-cold, forehead still returned her familiar loving connection.”
He wrote less and less. The final entries were in early April 1892, became more scant -- then blank. We remembered from the archives that was the year he died – “after a lengthy illness.” How grief takes its toll.
We put the special book aside, a treasured keepsake to be sure. We somberly talked about how powerful the mind is, letting him continue to believe his wife Lucy never really died, and drove him to near madness, which must have contributed to his decline and death.
We resumed our task of cleaning and sorting -- now with a more careful eye to treasure hunting, hoping to uncover more valuable archives. We filled the bin and took it out back to dig a burn trench. Using an old mattock found in the shed and a brand new shovel from Kent’s, we both set to breaking up the overgrowth a safe distance from the neglected back lot behind the house, careful to spread dirt wide so the dry grasses wouldn’t catch fire. The new shovel was more helpful than the mattock, and each shovelful produced good moist soil we piled on the sides of the trench.
A hollow CLUNK stopped us both short in our efforts, and we realized we had hit something wooden. Worried that we’d unearthed the top to an old septic or cistern, we brushed away the dirt, and found that it (whatever ‘it’ was) was still under more soil. We quickly cleared away several rocks, cut off a few hindering roots, brushed away the remaining dirt, and found it was a thick plank of wood. More treasure? We guessed it was decking from the shipyard, and started to pry it out. For this, the mattock was of more use, so we nudged its broad curved end under the longest edge of the plank, and levered and leaned and pried back and forth until it SPRANG up with a crack so loud it startled us! We both fell backward on the mounds of dirt behind us.
What we thought was just a long and wide plank was, instead, the lid of a coffin. And within that coffin was a tangled cluster of bones, cloth, hair, and STINK.
We just sat and stared, horrified but fascinated. Time seemed to slow down. The smell slowly assaulted us, and it took a few minutes for the reality of what we were looking at to set in. We held hands and just stared.
Then we saw it. The underside of the plank. Those deep scratches in the wood were not caused by the mattock. The gouges, the splinters, the broken finger bones, so many broken finger bones. Gaius was right – Lucy hadn’t been dead after all.
Jane Chrysostom continues to share her love and devotion to local people and landmarks of Albert County where her ancestry in the Fundy area goes back even further than Gaius and Lucy Turner's time.