I’m on the phone talking a little bit about Joan Sharpe with her youngest brother, Bob. I forget the exact details of the conversation but I wrote this down, him reflecting about Joan: “She’s the family’s writer and intellectual.” Indeed. Whenever I’m wrapping up a trip to St. John’s and see my cousin Joan for the final time I hug her deeply and my mind always floats back to one of Dorothy’s lines as she is giving a big hug, preparing to leave OZ: “I think I’ll miss you most of all”. Maybe it’s the writing connection and, with that, of course, the reading connection. When I was querying for agents/publishers for my first (still unpublished) novel, I sent it to Joan. Over the time she took to read it I would receive periodic emails from her that noted the chapters she had just finished, describing her thoughts and feelings of characters, places, events, that left me, every time, with the knowledge that I had at least one reader in this world who got my writing. While I’m thrilled that I am now published, I can honestly say that the knowledge of having that one reader, Joan, would in many ways be enough.

To Bob’s description of intellectual and writer I would add: family historian and photographer. With family history comes Newfoundland history, for Joan knows in her heart you cannot grasp the history of her family without understanding the history of, as Wayne Johnston titled Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The soulfulness of that title, I think, expresses Joan’s understanding — that it lives deeper than intellectual understanding — the intertwined history of family and place resides in her soul — Joan as embodiment of family history. Her mother had three siblings who died as infants: Charlie, Sadie, and Joan. No one needs to stretch to understand where Joan’s name came from. A few years ago Joan shared with me a short story she wrote, “Bonnet”, which sprang from an incident her mother shared surrounding the death of her infant sister. As the story goes, the neighbours could be overheard whispering, after the baby girl died, of how Mary had taken the baby outside without a bonnet. The cruelty of such gossip, though all nonsense, resided within Joan’s mother her entire life and found an outlet in Joan’s creative writing.

Sisters those two are: Marie on the left, Joan on the right

Beyond the name, when I look upon a photo of  Joan’s mother, Mary Seaward Sharpe, I see Joan when she became middle-aged. With the untimely death of Mary’s father in his mid-forties, Mary, being the oldest child, had to leave school to support the family. Mary’s own promise of intellectual pursuit became as much an unrequited dream as the colony in which she was born. It is easy to perceive Joan’s life, her education, her career as educator, her writing, her relentless uncovering and sharing of history as travelling the path her mother could not. If correlative can be understood as antonym to unrequited then Joan’s life, perhaps, can be understood as correlative to the life of her mother.

Years ago, Joan began writing a historical fiction called The Strong Survive that opens in 1892 with the great fire of St. John’s. The meshing of family and Newfoundland history propelling that story, Joan’s great grandparents having already settled in the house on 43 Goodview Street (where Joan and her siblings grew up). According to Joan her grandmother, Martha, “was just two years old when the fire raged through the city. Her father spent the day and night with neighbourhood men. They covered the rooftops with tarpaulins and hosed them down in order to  prevent the flying flankers from setting the street ablaze. I am assuming they used buckets of water to do so.  As it turns out, the wind changed direction. The backside of the houses on the east side of the street were singed. It was certainly a close call. Fire was a tremendous threat to the city as it had been levelled by flames decades before.” From there, Joan traces the Seaward family through to her mother and her brothers, the stay of the youngest boys in the Mount Cashel orphanage, the later migration of some of those boys, as grown men, to Ontario, which broke her mother’s heart. I sure hope that Joan chooses to finish that novel, and her skills to do so are obvious — just look back at what she wrote: “to prevent flying flankers from setting the street ablaze.” Those are words strung together by a talented writer.

Joan attended Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) and graduated in 1976 with a major in French. At the time she thought she might pursue a career in communications but, for the time being, she took a job at MUN alongside her future brother-in-law, Paul Noseworthy, in a research position focused on televised instruction versus traditional instruction with a classroom teacher. “The big question,” Joan said, “was which mode of instruction was most effective. Generally speaking, the results indicated the test scores were higher in the delivery of content in a traditional classroom setting with a teacher on hand. We were using the same state of the art computer technology that was used by audience researchers at the Children’s Television Workshop in the US.” (For reader clarity: Children’s Workshop Television is an American non-profit that was formed to create Sesame Street — in fact, the non-profit is now called Sesame Workshop.)

As Joan explained, the research referred to television as a “ fugitive medium”, with fugitive meaning, in this case, fleeting. “The images appear and ‘poof’ they disappear. This makes learning from television a tricky business. The medium is so transient. The learner is often bombarded with messages so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult to internalize, digest, and remember specific facts.” For her, computers, and media in general, are an extremely valuable enhancement to learning but can never replace the human interaction student’s require to be truly educated. An interesting thought to ponder in this age of Covid where students and teachers have been separated and forced into virtual interaction. And, if you’ll forgive this writer an old, worn out phrase, Joan didn’t just “talk the talk, she walked the walk.” Along with her brother-in-law, she earned a Masters Degree in Learning Resources. She did so while working, getting married, and bearing children. After what Joan describes as a mid-80s “blur” — birth to twin boys, substitute teaching, and finishing courses — she was hired by Brother Rice High School as the Learning Resource Teacher. (By the way, she was pregnant again, but only one this time, a daughter.)

Joan with her twin boys: Michael and Nicholas

So, what exactly did I mean when I said “walk the walk”? Well, these are Joan’s words about the dynamic change she endeavoured to help create: “The library was no longer the quiet place it was in younger days. That’s why it became known as a Resource Centre and the person who worked there was the Learning Resource Teacher. The days of the librarian with the bun in her hair, telling the students to ‘shhhh’, were over. I was having nothing to do with that stuff, I tell you! The goal was to try to stir things up, to help move teachers away from the traditional delivery methods of ‘talk and chalk’, and to embrace a more activity based model involving cooperative learning. After all, different students learn in different ways and at different speeds. The old library was now a busy hub of activity. You might find a Newfoundland Culture class learning a long lost Irish dance called ‘The Lancers’ taught by fellow teachers. (This dance was once popular on the Southern Shore but unknown to this generation, as the old folks died out.) Another day we might head over to the home economics lab and cook up a traditional Newfoundland scoff. You might find the place crowded with every kind of an art project imaginable. It was no longer the quietest room in the building!”

(For those readers unfamiliar with Newfoundlandese, let me help: a scoff is a large meal, a great dinner. For Newfoundlanders, that can often mean a Jiggs Dinner, one of the great scoffs on planet earth, a boiled dinner of salt beef, cabbage, turnip, carrots.)

“Perhaps my favourite annual event,” Joan continued, “was the collaboration with fellow teachers in staging an annual Renaissance Fair for Grade 9 students during their study of Romeo and Juliet. Teachers dressed in medieval costumes and performed comedic renditions of the play, much to the delight of the students. Alumni returned to demonstrate the art of fencing while medieval music was performed by costumed students. This all culminated in an interclass competition of Whose Line is it Anyway? drawing questions from quotes directly from the play. We truly hoped that we had fostered a lifelong appreciation of the genius of Shakespeare. We sure had a lot of fun trying!”

There you have Joan: the intellectual helping to drive new learning into the 21st century while cherishing and preserving the traditional way of life, history embodied, not relegated to dusty shelves. As with her siblings, music surrounded Joan growing up on Goodview Street. I suppose I would be foolish to proclaim that Joan is the greatest Bruce Springsteen fan alive, but I wouldn’t be that far off the mark. Though she has seen him perform live over many years, Joan has yet to see him perform on the Jersey Shore, but she has made the pilgrimage to The Stone Pony in Ashbury Park. When I spent time interviewing all five Sharpe siblings, Joan was the most candid about her disdain, growing up, of traditional Newfoundland music. Guys like Dick Nolan, she said, “just didn’t turn my crank. I really didn’t care for songs like ‘Aunt Martha’s Sheep’ — I just thought the content was somewhat stupid. While my folks were listening to it I was exploring the world of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc — maybe the contrast was too much.”

But here’s the thing: Joan’s own generation of original Newfoundland musicians who took the common themes of traditional Newfoundland music and combined it with contemporary music grabbed her heart. Anyone who has ever visited St. John’s no doubt has spent time on the famous street of pubs, where live music is played everyday: George Street. At one end of George Street is a sculpture depicting people dancing and playing music. The guitar player within the sculpture is Ron Hynes. As Joan said, “I think he was a brilliant songwriter, known here as the man of 1,000 songs. Ron Hynes had a folky way — Dylan styled in many ways— some of it very beautiful and some very intense that was universal in nature.” If you don’t know the music of Ron Hynes take a moment and click on Sonny’s Dream to hear him sing his most well-known, and covered, song. The other contemporary Newfoundland band Joan talked about is the one most Canadians probably know: Great Big Sea. Of course, with Joan, talking about that band comes with a story of pride, the constant fight of Newfoundlanders against the never-ending stereotyping of them by mainlanders. “I love the story,” she said, “of how Great Big Sea were trying to break into the mainland market. Initially they were told to dress in Sou’westers and have their pictures taken in a dory. The boys simply refused to be typecast as ‘Newfies’. I admire their gumption.” When I heard that from Joan, I heard the echo of Marie Sharpe telling me her approach to theatre, TV and film costumes: “I don’t do plaid jackets and rubber boots.” Sisters, those two are.

No matter where you grow up the universality of music can manifest in your experience if the artists are true storytellers, original, avoiding cliches. When you are a girl coming-of-age on Goodview Street, hearing Bruce sing about listening to “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely” or, in another, the pain of life in the streets and lamenting “the poets down here write nothing at all”, touches you in the same way as it touches the girls in Ashbury Park and on Jersey Shore’s E Street.

Since retiring from teaching Joan focuses much of her energy on photography. If you’ve looked at a few of my Profiles over the last six months, you’ll know that I normally include three or four photographs for context and to allow images to speak their one-thousand words. In this Profile, you’ll notice substantially more (follow the link to Flickr to see a greater array) and a number of the photos in the other Sharpe profiles were taken by Joan. On one of my bookcases is a framed photo of the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company (pronounced “kiddy viddy”). When I talked to Joan about it she said she loved the reflected light which was made possible because the wind had actually stopped blowing — a hard photo to capture in Newfoundland, the wind doesn’t often stop.

My favourite photo, the brewery in Quidi Vidi. This photo is also my screensaver.

She has photos of things that never change like “the savage sea” (as she put it) and photos of people and places gone to dust, captured time, historical artifacts. Photos of the beauty that arises from natural formations and beauty that has been human created: the boats, shacks and small houses in places like Petty Harbour. She covets and protects old family photos, wartime images of those in uniform, of those still at home. Decades old pictures of Goodview Street, time captured fifty years ago, people long gone, but stored away to be gazed upon from time to time as if we’re archeologists looking at time trapped in amber.

Here are some of Joan’s recent photos:

St. John’s in the fall: Bowring Park.
For the sake of beauty.
Also taken in Quidi Vidi, not far from the Brewery. Quidi Vidi is a tiny village near the ocean on the north side of Signal Hill. The small harbour is locally referred to as “The Gut”.
More reflections: a real soft winter’s day in Petty Harbour
The last of sunset as seen from Signal Hill, St. John’s.

Gazing at Joan’s photos I relish their significance to our family, to our history wrapped in the history of Newfoundland, when she posts them on the Facebook private groups that she administers: Goodview Street and Seaward Clan. Family is everything to Joan and as she told me: “being a mother is THE most important role in my life, and always will be”. Joan enrolled her son, Michael, in soccer when he was five years old and he hasn’t stopped since. He is currently Varsity Coordinator and Women’s Soccer Coach in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University. The other twin, Nicholas, has his own painting and plastering company named “Island’s Finest”. While a lot of his work centres around new home construction, he has a great passion in the restoration of historic homes in the city. Nick also has the passion of Uncle Bill and Uncle Doug — he’s been the drummer in many bands over the years. And daughter Heather followed Aunt Marie into the theatre, television and film business. She’s Costume Set Supervisor and Costumier for the TV show Hudson and Rex currently being filmed in St. John’s.

Joan and Heather

I wait patiently for Joan to finish writing that novel, to weave the history of that one street, that one family, into the wider fabric of the world; fictional rendition of what I’ve attempted to capture with these Profiles; her artistic expression capturing an ever changing world for one moment, like the image captured by a photograph when the wind briefly stops blowing.

Until that time, when I get to read that novel, I will attempt to wrap up this series of Profiles in an epilogue, a reflection back on these marvellous people I get to call my cousins, a reflection through them of the place my father called home, and how I finally came to understand my father and his home: Newfoundland.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

More About Ed

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