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X marks the spot on a family trek

In the Nova Scotia wilds, sisters find the `treasure' on their map is the legacy their parents staked out.

January 14, 2007|Laurie Mercer | Special to The Times

St. Mary's, Canada — BEING the two-years-younger sister to an accomplished firstborn hasn't always been a day at the beach.

Our parents, Jack and Eddy, gave us corny similar middle names (Joan for her, Jean for me) and identical dresses. Memory is selective, but most of my childhood take on sisterhood lies securely wrapped in matching gingham dresses.

Throughout adolescence, when I was feeling second best, I acted out by taking her clothes. I even dated some of Bonnie's boyfriends after she was safely off to college. We were competitive to our biological core.

Adulthood brought some respite. In time, I got over her cutting off my braids. And one recent summer, we quickly agreed to risk a long vacation together accompanied by the men who are now our partners in life.

There was nostalgia about it. Bonnie and I chose to travel to Nova Scotia, pursuing a mysterious map to land our parents bought here in 1970.

In a marriage that lasted nearly 50 years, our parents traveled the globe together, often on limited means. They would stay in youth hostels when they were young and Elderhostel as they grew older. In the 1950s, they took Bonnie and me all over Europe, traveling double on a Triumph motorcycle. We were in a double sidecar, usually arguing about the firstborn's right to sit in front.

They had rich lives of their own.

We knew little about their land in Nova Scotia. Notices of assessment and taxes from the municipality of the district of St. Mary's in Sherbrooke indicated the purchase was part of the Antigonish-Guysborough region.

Bonnie and I began paying the taxes, about $50 annually, when we took over our mother's financial affairs in the 1990s. (My father died in 1988.) By then, we couldn't ask her anything about the property because of her advanced dementia. Why did they buy land? What was it worth?

Its true value was something we would learn on our trip.

Besides a hand-amended map drawn by our father, all we knew about the land came from a deed issued in 1927. The actual amount of land appeared to be about 2 acres with 300 feet of oceanfront; the cost was $1,950. Thus equipped with purpose and destination, we prepared to experience the Canadian Maritimes for the first time.

Bonnie and I and our respective mates met in Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital, and secured for a week a 36-foot top-of-the-line RV that would make the trip more enjoyable. For $2,000 plus mileage, we weren't roughing it. It had a washer and dryer, two bedrooms and a lighted curio cabinet that neatly disappeared when the slide-out living room was retracted while we were in motion.

But even all the enhancements offer no escape when sharing an RV. And although our sisterly silliness soared at the chance to make a fundamental connection to the adventuresome spirits that had been our parents, Bonnie's husband, Alan, who likes his comforts, and my companion, David, an adventurer, expressed reservations.

"Why are we taking this trip?" each man had asked as we pulled out.

A more pertinent query would have been, "Where are we going?" Aside from the description on the deed and my father's map, I hadn't a clue.

Nova Scotia's landscape was riddled with coves and islands, beaches, harbors and more than a few places called Lobster Point. Always keeping the Atlantic to our right, we traveled as if we had all the time in the world. Having once watched Bonnie captain their 36-foot sailboat into its slip in Redondo Beach, David asked her to share the driving. It made me proud to see how easily she took the wheel.

In Yankee Wells by Fancy's Beach, around the corner from Lobster Point, we began to ask strangers to help us find the land. There are fewer than a million people in Nova Scotia, so finding someone to ask for directions was sometimes a quest in itself.

The map was a draw. We began to call it our "treasure map." People loved looking at it, even when they couldn't help us. Although the treasure map and the modern road atlas we had bought in Halifax bore some resemblance, Nova Scotia is vast and often unmarked, and we were never completely sure where we were. I enjoyed that lack of center; it made me feel like a child spinning to lose her balance.

The only way to discover the chunk of land that our map said was bordered by Long Pond and Smith Cove meant finding a person familiar with local geography, past and present.

Our wizard turned out to be Willard. We never did learn his last name, in Smith Cove Willard didn't need one. He was the local harbormaster and a practiced fisherman who knew the coast.

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