Chapter One: Earnest
I first met Earnest Henry Wayward when he was 76. In many
ways, he and his life were a puzzle that was revealed to me one
unique piece at a time. I didn’t know it at the time, but like a
tiny pebble in a large pond, meeting Earnest would have a
rippling effect upon my life and a lasting effect on everyone
who was a part of his. Though he led a simple life, it was
not without conflict, pain and significance. He was a commercial
fisherman, a husband and a father; however, none of his five
daughters - whom I would meet later - would remember him
the same way. Earnest Wayward was, in many ways, indescribable.
Simple words do not suffice in painting a portrayal of him, nor
could they embody all that he was and all that he wasn’t. Earnest
was not a man to be described as much as he was someone to
Our paths converged during what I thought was a routine assignment. The editor of the Toronto newspaper I was working for had asked me to cover a story about the decline of commercial fishermen in Prince Edward County; a coveted island set against the backdrop of Lake Ontario. Every man and his dog wanted to own a piece of it and tourists had an ongoing love affair with it. Seasonally, they inhabited it just long enough to fall in love with its quaintness, but not long enough to grow tired of its minuteness. It was a place with which many people had a romance, but rarely wanted to make a full-time commitment. My own love affair with it had begun two years earlier, when I was led to its picturesque shorelines to write my first article on the birth of its most recent offspring: its vineyards. What kept me there - I purchased a house in the area a year later - was that I had always sensed it had a story to tell me. What I didn’t know was how instrumental I would be in unravelling that story and how entangled I would become in its fabric.
As with most stories in our lives, it began with a simple meeting. It was a rainy Thursday evening when I entered Cod Jiggers, a little bar nestled in the back portion of an old granary mill within the town. This town, during the long winters, was inhabited by a modest 4,200 people, but in the hot squalor of summer, it could boast a whopping 50, 000, that came to visit its quaint shops. Other than tourism, the town didn’t see very much excitement – the odd artisan festival or wine event, and of course, its legendary September fall fair. Consequently I wasn’t expecting much of a story or much excitement, but who would have guessed that I was about to walk into one man’s life and into the lives of five women who would illuminate his life, and in turn my own?
His girls’ names were Margarite, Cassandra, Debra, Esther and Ruthie. They were grown women when I met them, but locked away in the mind of their 76-year-old father they would remain little girls, until time itself snatched him from this earth. And what loving parent doesn’t want to remember his children in the height of their innocence? Earnest was no different than any other father who was fond of his girls; the only thing that was different was that most fathers are never faced with losing all their children at once.
In 1967, Earnest, who was a relatively young man at the age of 37, was ‘widowed’ – in actual fact, his wife disappeared mysteriously and was presumed dead. Earnest later explained to me that “even if there was no evidence to confirm her death, it felt like a permanent loss. I knew she wasn’t ever coming back.” Earnest found himself alone for the first time in eighteen years, with five daughters, a couple of loaves of bread, a brick of cheese, two bottles of milk, and, ironically, not a sliver of fish. He had sold all of his day’s catch to the fishery in town. As per usual, that morning he had planned on bringing his day’s wages home to Abigail, to be put in the tiny tin box they kept in the kitchen cupboard beside the dishes and above the breadbasket. They were saving for a refrigerator; a proper one instead of an icebox. That’s how Abigail had put it. “I need a proper refrigerator. I need to keep our food cold properly. We’ve got five girls to raise and it’s time we had a refrigerator.”
If Earnest had admitted it, it was time they had a proper lot of things. It was time he had a proper lawn mover, and the girls would have argued it was time they had a proper television – or any television, for that matter. Earnest and Abigail had made it their mission to pay cash on the barrel (if only they had owned a “proper” barrel), living by the motto: If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t buy it. Plain and simple. It was one of the few things their girls would say they ever agreed upon.
There were few days in Earnest’s life that he would describe as standing out to him, but July 8, 1967 became one of them. He hadn’t known that morning that his life and the lives of his girls would change forever. He was usually out of the house every morning by 5 a.m., long before any of his girls were up. In the years following their marriage, Abigail would dutifully get up with him to make him a sandwich and a thermos of hot coffee, but after bearing five of his children and maintaining their home without a “proper” anything for so long, she decided to stay in bed later and later as the years went by. This morning was no exception. She didn’t get up when he did. In fact, she didn’t do anything she normally did that morning. Though she didn’t speak of what was bothering her, her daughters told me later that they had sensed something was wrong with their mother.
She had been in a solitary mood the night before and continued like that through breakfast. It was not unusual for her to keep to herself, but what struck her daughters most was that she seemed very sad. If she had been feeling ill it wouldn’t be like her to mention that, anyway. There wouldn’t have been much point. Medicine for such things wasn’t heard of in the Wayward household; both of them had been raised to believe that if something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. And though Earnest was not an unfeeling man, telling him that she wasn’t feeling herself would have been useless as well. It wasn’t that Earnest didn’t care for his wife; in fact, he cared a great deal. It wasn’t that he didn’t pay attention either. Oh, he paid attention; more attention than Abigail wished at times, otherwise she wouldn’t have had the five daughters she did have and buried two sons in between.
No. It was simply that Earnest didn’t know how to care for his wife. If he’d paid any attention to her at all (and this wasn’t lost on him), she would have replied something like this: “Oh, now, don’t go fussing over me. There’s nothing wrong with me that a good cup of tea won’t cure. Shouldn’t you be off to work? We’ve gotta save money for a proper refrigerator! Now, get going.” When he did ask if she was feeling all right, she simply answered, “I’m fine. I’ll be all better by the time you get home from work. I promise! Now go on and do some work, won’t you?” She might or might not let him give her a quick kiss on the cheek. A lot depended on Abigail’s mood.
On this warm July day in 1967, Earnest was about to discover three things: it would be a day he would never forget; it would be the last time his lips touched Abigail’s warm skin; and it would be the first time he realized that he alone was responsible for his five girls. After that morning – and she did let him kiss her, by the way – Earnest never saw his Abigail again. That day, he didn’t make it home until long after the sun had kissed the horizon goodbye. Two officers approached him as soon as he was docked. They relayed to him that his wife was missing. It wouldn’t be until years later that he would learn the truth, and from the most unexpected source. In fact, Earnest would wonder for years if his daughters knew the details of his wife’s disappearance, and he would marvel at how the same five daughters under the same roof would have their own unique version of what they thought had happened to their mother. I, also, would marvel that five daughters under the same roof could possess such unique and strange memories of not only the same incident but of the same two parents. But their story comes later…
After the police visited Earnest on the docks, he was asked to go to the police station to answer some questions. He was told only that his daughters had come home to find their mother gone and that her car had subsequently been found abandoned on a country road. Earnest was not a man to be easily distracted by circumstance, and he explained that before going to the station he must first drop off his fresh catch of the day. No man, under any circumstances, wants to be in mid-July heat with boxes of fish on the back of his truck. After taking care of these details, he was questioned by detectives as to whether he knew of his wife’s whereabouts or if he had any reason to suspect that someone might want to harm his wife. Earnest, in truth, had no idea of how or why his wife would just disappear. In fact, there was a part of him that wouldn’t believe a word of it until he returned to his home that evening with his day’s wages in his pocket, but no one to give it to. His four oldest girls were sitting quietly around the table while Ruthie, the youngest at age five, and seemingly unaffected by the event, continued her play by the fireplace.
Normally, every night he would sit down, say a blessing and devour his meal, seemingly to barely notice the six other individuals in his home. This night, however, after he tucked his day’s wages into the tin box (this brought a sudden unfamiliar stab to his heart), he stood at the head of his table and stuck his thumbs in between his shirt and his elastic suspenders and looked at his girls. He snapped his suspenders and breathed deeply. The girls looked up at him and even Ruthie stopped what she was doing, thinking or perhaps hoping that their father had something deeply profound or comforting to say to them.
He said nothing.
He was thinking. No one would really know how thoughtful a man Earnest Wayward was. He thought about what on earth he was to do with these girls. He questioned how he and Abigail had ever found the time or energy to even create such a brood. He pondered what he was to do without her and with them. He could not bring himself to ask certain types of questions, however. Where had his wife gone? Had she left of her own volition or had she been taken by force? To imagine that she had left him voluntarily was even more tragic for Earnest than if someone had taken her. He refused to ask himself or even ask anyone else what they might think, for many years. In the end, he simply sat down and ate the meal his girls had prepared for him and tried not to think at all.
It wasn’t until later, after his girls were asleep, that Earnest actually did stop thinking and began feeling. He hadn’t known that a man’s heart could ache so intensely from losing someone. There had been times throughout his life that he had wondered if he even had a heart. While his wife had tenderly reared their daughters to read, sew, and learn the manners needed to prepare them for being women, Earnest had been out fishing. In fact, much of their eighteen years together he had been fishing. Many nights and many early mornings he was dipping his large hands into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario trying to catch a living. ‘Isn’t it odd,’ he thought, ‘how a man could spend so much time trying to provide for his family that he missed out on the time he should have been spending with them.’ He’d been so focused on trying to put food on the table that he hadn’t realized how starved they were for him. Is that why his Abigail had left him? Did she grow tired of waiting for him to come home? Had she grown tired of not having a proper anything? These thoughts nearly drove him to madness, though he never let on to his girls, or anyone else, for that matter. He simply carried the heavy burden of believing that he must have been a disappointment to Abigail and so she had fled from him and her life.
In the days after her disappearance, Earnest watched his girls run the household quite efficiently without his help. Why this should surprise him when Abigail had been doing it for nearly eighteen years, he didn’t know. She had obviously trained them well. Margarite was the oldest at seventeen, Cassandra had just become a young woman at fifteen, Debra was thirteen, Esther was ten-going-on-thirty, and Ruthie, of course, was five. Earnest found it somewhat amusing, as he observed them running about and carrying on as if he didn’t exist at all. Margarite delivered her orders like a drill sergeant. “Cassandra, fetch me some water. Debra, stir the fire. Esther, set the table.”
As he grew more attentive to them, he began to see for the first time their full personalities. One evening in particular, while he had been sitting, counting the money from the old tin box to see about paying their bills for the first time (Abigail always took care of that), he turned to see Ruthie with her thumb in her mouth, trailing a tattered blanket behind her. She stood behind the chair across the table from him. He simply looked at her and smiled. She stood there, staring at him as if unsure if it was safe to come close. He slowly raised his large left hand and motioned for her to come to him. Moments later, she crossed the floor and found his lap and climbed up. As Earnest gently took her into his lap, he looked at her. “So, Ruthie, what’s your job at supper-time?” he asked. There was rarely any command or guidance for her. Ruthie looked at him with her large inquisitive eyes, shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. She rested her head on his chest and pulled her small, tattered afghan up around her. Her warm breath was comforting to Earnest, and while he continued to count his wages in his right hand, he held her snugly with his left. While he understood that it must have been an awful shock to a young child to suddenly lose her mother, Earnest remained unaware of how traumatic an event it had truly been for Ruthie. Her silence, as she lay in his lap that evening, would continue for the majority of her life.
Holding Ruthie that evening was Earnest’s first attempt to truly be a father to his girls. He shared with me that on the first evening alone with them, he made up his mind to get to know them. He wanted to make up to Abigail for his failings, by now being everything to his daughters. He promised himself that he would love his girls the best way he knew how, and raise them in a manner of which Abigail would be proud. It didn’t matter if he didn’t know how to do that. How hard could it be? Earnest readily admitted that before that fateful day he hadn’t made much of an effort to know his daughters, but tragically, after that day he was given very little time to make up for it.
There were events later that year that would eventually take his daughters from him, and while devastating to him he did admit to me that in some ways he felt relieved, if only because he was spared the constant reminder of Abigail in their faces. However, after they were taken, the more time went by the more Earnest became aware of the palpable ache in his heart. “It was something to have my wife suddenly disappear,” he would later tell me, “but it was something entirely more heart-wrenching to have my girls taken away by people who were practically strangers. It didn’t just leave a hole in my heart; it was as if I’d been shot six times and left to die.”