Living in Nova Scotia, you have probably heard tales of haunted houses, ghost stories, reports of forerunners, and legends of ghost ships that appear and then disappear as quickly as they came. Tales of the unexplained and the unexplainable are common among the residents of this province where such stories have become the stuff of local legend.
With Halloween coming up, I would like to share one of my favourite stories that you can find in my new book, More Ghost Stories of Nova Scotia. And before I forget, Happy Halloween.
Call it a gut feeling. Call it a sixth sense. Or call it intuition. Have you ever known something with certainty, even though you can’t explain how you know it? It is possible that all of us have the gift of intuition, but only a few are able to tap into it. Mothers, though, are highly intuitive, especially when it comes to the wellbeing of their children.
There have been many documented cases of mothers intuitively knowing when their children were in trouble, even when great distances have separated them. Many a time, a mother has felt a strong urge to reach out to her child and followed that instinct only to find her child was in distress.
Helen and her husband Arthur had three children, all boys. Arthur was a fisherman who had toiled on the North Atlantic his entire life and, while he earned a good, honest living from the sea, he would be the first to agree that it was also a hard life. The days were long and the conditions were dangerous, with Arthur having survived many close calls during his lifetime.
Working on the sea was all Arthur knew and, like his own father and all the men from his family who came before him, he was content with the life he had created for his family. Be that as it may, however, it wasn’t a life that he wanted for any of his boys. But, as fate would have it, all three of Arthur’s sons followed him to sea.
Helen worried about her sons, naturally. She had spent her entire married life worrying and fretting over the safety of her husband and as each of her sons grew up and took to the open sea, she took on the burden of worry for each of them as well.
It was a heavy load to carry on her shoulders. She knew first-hand the perils of the life of a fisherman as she had lost many members of her own family to tragedies on the ocean, including her older brother. She waited with bated breath each time Arthur or any of her sons went to sea. It was not easy to remain ashore not knowing what her loved ones were facing so many miles out on the open seas. She coped and prayed, accepting that such was the life of a fisherman’s wife and mother.
Helen had a deep bond with all three of her sons, but that bond ran deepest with her youngest son, Jimmy. Perhaps it was that bond or her intuition that led her to know something was wrong in 1996, long before she knew all the facts.
As her two oldest sons grew up, married and moved out of the house to start their own families, Jimmy remained behind and lived with his parents. That arrangement was just fine with Helen. She knew the day would come when her son would meet someone and move out, but she was prepared to pepper her youngest child with as much love and affection as she could while he was still at home.
She liked having her son around the house, but she loathed those times when he went to sea for she feared he might not return. Sometimes, as the job demanded, Jimmy would be gone for four or five days at a time and those long trips were especially hard on his mother.
When he wasn’t fishing, Jimmy liked to party and, as many young men do, he would go out with his friends, sometimes not returning home until late into the night. This, of course, caused Mom to worry and she spent many a sleepless night wondering what her youngest son was up to and if he was OK.
Helen didn’t sleep much when Jimmy was out with his friends and, because he was still living under her roof, she had one rule that she insisted he follow. She didn’t ask any questions because her son was an adult, but no matter what time he came in at night, she insisted that he come to tell her that he was home and that everything was OK.
Knowing how much this meant to his mother, Jimmy followed the rule and whenever he came home, no matter the time, he would go directly to his parents’ bedroom, stand in the doorway and announce that he was OK. With that reassurance from her son, Helen was able to fall asleep.
Sometimes the hour was very late and while he hated to bother them, he also knew his mother would not be sleeping. While the routine was borne from the elderly woman’s worries about her son’s wellbeing, in time, it kind of became a running joke between the two, but no matter how old Jimmy became, he continued the practice for many years.
Shortly after Jimmy’s 26th birthday, he was preparing for a fishing trip that his captain estimated would last four or five days. Including the captain, there were four crewmembers on board and Jimmy was looking forward to this trip because he was saving money for a down payment on a house that he had been eyeing and he estimated that these earnings would give him enough to finally make the purchase. But while he was looking forward to the trip, his mother was dreading it.
In the days leading up to her son’s departure, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. She couldn’t quite explain it, but she felt there was a dark cloud hanging over her family and she feared something terrible was about to happen. Because her husband had since retired and neither of her older sons was scheduled to go out in the near future, she couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever was about to happen must involve Jimmy.
Fearing the worst, she tried for days to convince Jimmy to skip this trip, telling him that he didn’t need the money and offering to pay whatever difference he needed for his down payment on the house. But Jimmy wasn’t having any of that and as he packed his gear, he dismissed his mother’s fears as nothing more than the ramblings of a superstitious old woman.
On the morning of his departure, he kissed his mother goodbye as he always did, and told her he would see her in four or maybe five days. As he left through the kitchen, he paused at the back door and turned back to tell her not to worry. He insisted he would be OK.
But Helen was not so sure about that and as she watched her youngest son walk down the back steps and disappear down the back walkway on his way to the wharf, she felt a deep gnawing in the pit of her stomach.
As the next two days crept by, the dark cloud followed Helen wherever she went. She could not shake the oppressive feeling that tragedy was near. She prayed that her son and his fellow crewmembers were OK and that they would make it safely back to port.
On the night of the second day of Jimmy’s trip, Helen was having an especially difficult time sleeping. Tossing and turning, she remembers glancing at the digital clock on the night table next to her bed. In glowing red numbers, the clock said it was 12:15 a.m.
Just then, she felt a strong urge to turn around and when she did, she was surprised to see Jimmy standing in the doorway. He said to her, “Don’t worry, Mom. Everything is OK. You can go to sleep now.”
While Helen was surprised to see Jimmy standing there, because he wasn’t due back in port for at least another two days, perhaps even three, as a fisherman’s wife she also knew that many things can happen out at sea that may force the boat to return earlier than scheduled.
Perhaps there was engine trouble. Perhaps the catch was good and they filled their hold early. Perhaps someone was sick or injured and needed medical attention. Perhaps there was a storm at sea that they didn’t know about back on land. Whatever was going on, Helen took comfort in knowing that Jimmy was home and, knowing that she could get the details from him in the morning, she rolled over and went to sleep.
The next morning, as Helen and Arthur were in the kitchen having breakfast, the telephone rang. She quickly picked up the receiver after the first ring because she didn’t want the noise to wake her son. As Helen spoke to whoever was on the phone, Arthur knew something was wrong as he watched his wife turn every shade of white he could imagine. Quickly placing her hand over the phone, she told him to go up stairs and check on Jimmy.
Without questioning his wife’s instructions, Arthur immediately went up the stairs. Upon his return a few minutes later, he informed his wife that Jimmy was not in his bed and furthermore, it didn’t look like anyone had slept in the bed last night.
“No,” Helen cried, dropping the phone. She insisted that Jimmy had come last night and that he had spoken to her.
Picking up the phone, Arthur listened while one of the captains from the wharf told him that Jimmy’s boat was missing and that they had no contact with them since —
are you ready for it — 12:15 a.m. According to the man from the wharf, that was the last time that any known transmission was sent from Jimmy’s boat and it was feared that the boat and all four crewmembers had been lost.
But how could that be? That’s a question that haunted Helen in the years following the tragedy. Had Helen seen Jimmy’s forerunner, a celestial image of a person in distress or imminent danger? Did the young man reach out to his mother during the last few minutes of his life to let her know he was okay? Helen went to her grave thinking yes, indeed, that is exactly what happened.
Today, we gather and tell ghost stories for different reasons — to preserve and share our heritage, to amuse and entertain and, at this time of year, to help us celebrate Halloween, or at least that’s the view from here.
Vernon Oickle writes The View From Here column, which appears weekly in the South Shore Breaker. He can be reached at vernon.l.oickle@Eastlink.ca