When the Chevy Silverado pick-up truck in front of him swerved suddenly to the left, JT Markunas put his foot on the brake of his police car, slowing down. The pick-up stopped on the shoulder on the left side of the road just as JT saw what it was that had made the driver swerve. It was a woman in a house dress slowly crossing the road, looking steadily ahead but not for approaching traffic. He pulled off and turned on his flashers.
The pick-up driver was leading the woman by the elbow off the road.
“She almost walked right into my truck,” he said.
“Do you know who she is?”
“No, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m making a delivery to French River, coming up from Stratford. I thought I would go along the coast. Christ, I almost hit a dog down by Oyster Bed and now this. Next time I’m taking the highway.”
JT put the woman in the front seat of his car and called in that he was going to try to find out where she lived and get her back there.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good, but I’m cold,” the woman said.
He turned the car’s heating on, directing the vents at her.
“Where do you live? Here in South Rustico?”
She pointed up Route 243 in the direction of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. He swung his police car around turning in a tight circle and drove slowly up the road.
“Along here?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Up that way.”
When they got to the church he stopped and asked again.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere that way,” pointing to their left.
“What color is your house?”
The woman looked at the church. “Everybody went to church back then. Especially here in a small community like this. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming. My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky. Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”
“You have a good memory,” JT said.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “My school was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of them came from the islands.” The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “There were four classrooms and eleven grades. The nuns were one hundred percent French. My French is fluid to this day.”
South Rustico is on the north-central shore of PEI, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. There is a beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park. The Rustico lands are home to one of the oldest communities established in La Nouvelle Acadie after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
“I once went to mass at St. Augustine’s twice in twelve hours,” said a man from the grave. Archie was the woman’s dead husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning, they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I say, what, did I die? Then I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend.”
“You must have really liked me,” said Ida.
Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Ida Arsenault and Archie Thomson got married there in 1941. “Her foster mother hosted our dinner at the Charlottetown Hotel and the party afterwards was at their house,” said Archie. “The barn was behind the house, and they brewed homemade beer. Ida and I didn’t have five cents to rub together, but we were young and ready to go.”
Ida Arsenault was born at home in 1917. She grew up in what became the Barachois Inn on the Church Road. A barachois is like a bayou, a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.
“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died the next day,” she said.
Her father, Jovite Arsenault, a farmer with nine children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Ida, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns.
Ida and her sister, Elsy, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest end of the island, while she became a ward of the Boucher’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, on the front side of the church. “It was just a few minutes away,” said Ida. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my new parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”
The Boucher’s were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. They were childless. “I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Ida. “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a black Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once-in-a-while.”
Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Ida. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”
Her aunt lived a few miles away outside Cymbria on Route 242. She washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. There were thirteen children in the family. They didn’t have running water or electricity. “When I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up, there was meat and butter in the bucket. That was their refrigeration.”
“When did they get power and plumbing?” JT asked.
“In the 1950s when they moved across the street into an old schoolhouse,” Ida said.
“Where were you going when you were on the road?”
“I don’t know,” Ida said. “Maybe I was going to visit my auntie, but I’m not sure.”
Archie was born in Thorold, Ontario a year after Ida. “My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and that’s where we moved,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence River and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting on top of the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, anybody can watch cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a whisker away.
He enlisted with the Royal Canadian Navy on his twenty-first birthday. It was 1939. During the Second World War Canada commanded the fifth largest navy in the world. Archie met Ida when she was in nursing school in Halifax, where he was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Ida. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1939. She and her friend enrolled, and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.
After graduating, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Christie Street Veterans Hospital in Toronto. It was a Collegiate Gothic building originally built as the National Cash Register Company factory in 1913. “They gave us $45.00 a month to live on.” She and Archie dated long-distance by mail and phone. They got together when they could. When they did, they jumped into each other’s arms.
“Whenever I got leave, I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit my parents in Thorold. That’s how I introduced her to my family.” At the same time, Ida was introducing Archie to Prince Edward Island.
“I took the ferry S. S. Charlottetown across the strait when we were dating,” said Archie. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road. There would be a hundred cars full of frozen men inching along in the morning trying to get on the first boat.”
In the dead gray of winter, crossing the Northumberland Strait from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Archie stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.
“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.
One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to South Rustico, coming off the ferry in December and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road. “The road went down a valley and there was five feet of snow piled up,” Archie said. He reversed his 1935 Chrysler Airflow back to where the rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving. I shut it off and caught my breath.”
Archie gave Ida a ring. She gave him a stack of books for his next sea voyage. They hardly saw each other after that as her man sailed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. In June the S. S. Charlottetown sank on her way to a dry dock in Saint John for an overhaul. The boat was four miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The crew rowed to safety in their lifeboats. Two wrecking tugs tried to get to the vessel but turned around in the heavy fog. When she was finally refloated the flow of water into her couldn’t be stemmed.
“We were in Lisbon when I got a message from Ida that she and my mother had decided on December 8th for our marriage,” said Archie. The executive order from PEI said to be ready. “I went to the radio communications on board and sent a telegraph confirming my agreement.” They were married the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.
“Stay in the car, Ida,” JT said. “I’m going to the church for a minute.” He was hoping to run into somebody who would know where she lived. But there was nobody to ask. All the doors were locked, and he didn’t see any parked cars anywhere. He went back to his police car.
“That’s where I live,” Ida said pointing through the windshield at the Barachois Inn up the street from the church.
“That’s a hotel,” JT said.
“That’s where I live,” Ida repeated.
When JT knocked on the door with Ida standing behind him, a woman answered.
“Can I help you? she asked until she saw Ida. “Where did you find her?”
“Trying to cross Route 6,” he said.
“She said she lives here.”
“She did when she was a child.”
“Do you know where lives now.”
“Yes,” the woman said, and gave him directions, describing the house. “She has a neighbor by the name of Bernie Doiron. He tries to keep an eye on her, but he’s a farmhand and works most days.”
“Thanks for your help. If you don’t mind my asking, how old is this house?”
“It was 102 years old when we bought it in 1982,” the woman said. “It was built by a merchant back then, a man by the name of Joseph Gallant, so we call it the Gallant House. My husband and I had planned on living here, restoring it, which we still do, but we converted it into a bed and breakfast two years later.”
In the car Ida said she was hungry.
“We ate fish, mussels, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl. That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I got married, I never had Italian food. After I got married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee, what’s that?”
JT found her house easily enough, escorted Ida inside, and boiled water for tea. He waited until she was resting easy in her easy chair before leaving. He flipped her a two-finger salute off his cap.
“Thank you, Mr. Policeman,” she said. “Can you come back soon and take me for a walk?”