Lindsay Jones | The Atavist | March 2021 | 5 minutes (1,556 words)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 113, “The Lives of Others,” by writer Lindsay Jones. In remote Newfoundland, a search for answers about a series of baby mix-ups leads to a woman known as “Nurse Tiger.”
Rita Hynes lugged her pregnant body up the rural hospital’s wooden steps. It was the night of December 7, 1962, and her rounded belly tightened with each contraction. At just 20, Rita knew what she was in for. She had given birth two years prior, to a girl. Rita wasn’t married then, so the priest from her Catholic fishing hamlet on the southern coast of Newfoundland had snatched the infant from her arms and slapped Rita across the face. The baby would be raised by an aunt and uncle.
Rita, a slip of a woman, with blond hair and a rollicking laugh, soon became pregnant again by the baby girl’s father, a burly, blue-eyed fisherman named Ches Hynes, who was 11 years her senior. The couple married in the summer of 1961, the same day their son Stephen was born. But their happiness was short-lived: Stephen died as an infant, in his sleep.
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Now Rita was pregnant for a third time. At the hospital, she felt the intensifying crests of pain—at first bearable, and then searing as the night wore on. Just after midnight, she heard the cries of her eight-pound baby pierce the air. A boy! She named him Clarence Peter Hynes, after his godfather, who was a close friend of her husband’s, and her brother, who had died in a fishing accident. Clarence was deposited in the hospital’s nursery and tucked into a bassinet, while Rita dozed in the women’s ward. This time, she surely hoped, no one and nothing would take her baby.
Clarence, whom everyone calls Clar, grew up in a fishing town, St. Bernard’s, perched on the edge of Newfoundland’s Fortune Bay. He was the first in a steady stream of infants to arrive at the Hyneses’ home, a small taupe bungalow on a hill overlooking the quay, with its fish sheds painted the bright colors of jelly beans. As a youngster, Clar watched out the kitchen window for boats steaming into the crescent-shaped harbor and then furiously pedaled his bike down to the wharf. He earned $4 an hour unloading and weighing nets teeming with squid and silver cod.
Clar slept in a top bunk in a room he shared with his brothers. They were fairer than he was—Clar had a toasty complexion and a thick head of dark hair. When they wanted to torment him, his brothers called him Freddy Fender, after the Mexican-American musician. He grew to become a local heartthrob, with a chiseled brow and lean, muscular frame. Clar was a natural athlete who excelled at hockey and cross-country. Rita, a typical hockey mom, banged on the glass during his games and leaned over the railings to yell at the referees.
At 16, when Clar left home for Ontario to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rita cried for days. She knelt on a chair at the kitchen window, clutching her rosary beads and praying to God to bring her son back. She kept all the letters he sent her in her closet. When Clar did return, driving his navy blue Chevy Camaro into the village after many months away, the teenage girls of St. Bernard’s swooned. “Oh, Clar is so handsome!” his sister, Dorothy, remembered hearing again and again—her friends were always talking about her big brother.
Clar was 24 when he met a woman named Cheryl at a motel bar in Marystown, farther down the boot-shaped peninsula from where he grew up. Clar had an on-and-off girlfriend at the time, but when he saw Cheryl he was smitten. With pretty, bow-shaped lips and curly blond hair, she was the belle of the bar. She’d recently moved back to Newfoundland from the Toronto area, where she’d worked as a hairstylist. Cheryl noticed Clar looking at her. She didn’t normally date guys from rural fishing communities, or “down over the road.” They were a hard bunch. But as she and Clar talked over beers and glasses of Screech rum and 7Up, Cheryl found him attentive and kind. They danced and chatted the night away. She didn’t want it to end.
They were married two years later in Marystown’s white, steepled Anglican church. The ceremony was packed to the gills with family. Rita wore a royal blue dress with puffed sleeves, and her husband Ches a dark gray suit. They were thrilled to see Clar tie the knot.
Rita was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer a few years later, at 50. Clar nursed her as a mother would a baby. He held her and rocked her in the Hyneses’ old bungalow on the hill, making sure to face a window on the ocean so she could see the waves. Rita stayed with Clar and Cheryl at their home “in town,” as everyone calls Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, during the futile treatment she underwent. Clar spoon-fed his mother bowls of fish and potatoes. He spent day after day with her right up until the end, so she would never be alone.
Five years after that, lung cancer took Ches.
Clar and Cheryl built a life together in St. John’s, raising three children of their own. When the fishery that had sustained generations of islanders collapsed, Newfoundland’s economy reoriented itself around the offshore oil and gas business. By 2014, Clar had a job as a welding foreman at Bull Arm, one of the industry’s major fabrication sites, where employees were building an oil platform that would eventually be towed out to sea.
That December, 52 years to the day after Rita brought him into the world, Clar overheard a woman in the hallway just outside his office sing out to a coworker, “It’s Craig’s birthday!” The woman’s name was Tracey Avery, and she was a cleaner at Bull Arm. She was talking about her husband, who also worked at the site. How funny, Clar thought. “It’s my birthday, too,” he said with a laugh.
“Yes, b’y,” Tracey replied. (B’y is pronounced “bye”—the Newfoundland expression is one of surprise, like “oh really?”) “How old are you?”
When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?”
“Come By Chance Cottage Hospital,” Clar said.
Tracey stood stock still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind. Clar shivered.
In that moment, a secret began to worm its way into the light: Another child had been taken from Rita Hynes—and she wasn’t alone.
Depending on how you look at it, the stirring of this long-buried truth was sheer coincidence—one of those wild things that just happens—or it was inevitable, born of the quiddity of place. Newfoundland, the island portion of the sprawling Canadian province known as Newfoundland and Labrador, is a massive triangular rock in the Atlantic Ocean, colonized centuries ago for its fishing grounds. It has a rugged coastline, with hundreds of communities nestled into crooks, crannies, and coves. Some towns have blush-inducing names such as Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo, and each is its own remote kingdom, fortified by rolling bluffs. Extended families are vast and tightly bound. For a long time they had to be. In such an austere place, it was a matter of survival. Today on “the rock,” as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.
Getting anywhere along Newfoundland’s 6,000 miles of mountainous coast has always been a challenge. In the early 20th century, people in many of the island’s approximately 1,300 outports—the local term for fishing towns—had limited access to health care. Cottage hospitals, strategically located to serve dozens of outports at once, were intended to eliminate unnecessary death and suffering. They were a place to have your appendix out, get stitched up after an accident, or give birth and recover under the care of qualified doctors and nurses. They heralded a new dawn for Newfoundland. According to Edward Lake, a nurse and health administrator who worked in cottage hospitals and later wrote the definitive account of their history, they were the start of the most advanced rural health care program North America had ever seen, forerunners to Canada’s publicly funded national system.
The first seven cottage hospitals opened in 1936. One was located in the village of Come By Chance, which had been given its curious name by English colonists. As the story goes, in 1612, white explorers came ashore in one bay, only to discover a well-worn path to another bay on another coastline. The path had been cut by the indigenous Beothuk people. (The Beothuk were wiped out in the 19th century by the encroachment of white settlers.) The route led to the mouth of a river flush with salmon. It was a fortuitous find, which perhaps explains why the colonists later christened the settlement they built there Come By Chance. More than three centuries on, the village would prove a prime spot for a cottage hospital, with more than 50 outports close by.
The cottage hospitals were cookie-cutter clapboard buildings designed to be inviting. From the outside they looked like quaint residences. Strangely, in Come By Chance, the hospital was built the wrong way round, with its back to the road. For those inclined to superstition, the error might seem like an omen—a foretelling of bigger mix-ups to come.