Coal

from the Springhill Record Nov 16, 2005
When a young Vivian Gillis left the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1948 to be married, she so looked forward to her new life, and yet longed for home. The close knit ties of a coal mining family are carefully interwoven and uneasy to sever, perhaps due to a lot of pain and anguish. The kind of pain and anguish that goes along with the tragedies afforded coal mining families.
The depth and darkness of the Cumberland Mine has been described over and over as the blackest of black, the loneliest of lonely and the coldest of cold. But it is with those above ground that the worry sets in, and the waiting takes place. Everyday the miners dig a little deeper, miles beneath the earth's crust.
Vivian Gillis's father Dan and his brothers were all the men of the deep mines. All bore the scars of this difficult and weary life. Most of them aged before their time, suffered illness later in life, but coal mining was in their blood. A hard old life for these resilient and valiant men. As Vivian Gillis and her husband Bert were in the process of creating a family in Amherst, tragedy struck. Fully pregnant with her fourth child, the news came from Springhill. November 1956, a devastating mine explosion. Vivian Gillis, beside herself with grief, waited for her husband to come home and safely deliver her to her family.
The drive from Amherst to Springhill is a beautiful one at the best of times but in the fall is it is just short of spectacular. The color of the leaves , the ones that hadn't fallen, were able to channel her thoughts back to her childhood and the many strolls she would take through the untouched forest. She could hear the familiar sound of the train whistle. She could see herself as a child sitting among them at the supper table. All of them big and strong and strapping men. Baked beans with brown bread served with hot steeped tea and plenty of it. The sound of love and laughter always filled the rooms...........and then off to bed early because all were up before dawn. A little more coal placed in the stove to keep the home warm. Coal, the same thing that brought warmth and work to their home was the same thing that so dangerously affected each and every one of them.
It was the sound of the sirens broke her concentration and brought her back to reality. As they got closer and closer to the town the traffic thickened. Cars, trucks, police, fire engines, ambulances. Dense smoke hung in the air and the stench of death was all about. This dreary vision of Springhill is one that Vivian Gillis would hold in her soul forever. Tragedy brings people out in the streets. All met near the face of the mine. Doctors, miners, draegermen, business men and the intense and profound sound of crying. Just as they were able to bring some to the surface word came that friends and family alike had lost someone dear.
A cousin, an uncle, a friend, gone. Such is the life of a miner's family. Blood and bone is the price for coal, pain and suffering linger in your soul. Vivian Gillis, like every other true Springhiller took the disaster in stride. She supported those who needed it, fed the families of the miners, opened her family home on Lisgar Street to those who needed a hot cup of tea or a place to lie down. She even sang songs with those whose souls required the comfort of music.
The media swarmed the town, support came from all over the world, and as families came together to say goodbye to the lost ones, Vivian Gillis went home to Amherst to have her baby. Naturally upset by all that went on, Vivian suffered complications that sent her to the doctor. Blood pressure at an alarming rate might very well cause the death of her baby or even take her own life. So, she had to settle herself down. She did, and a few weeks later she held a baby girl in her arms.
As life moved forward, Vivian and Bert and their four children lived a moderately quiet life. It was probably not their intention to have any more children but a couple of years later there she was, full with child, 1958, when the underground bump shook the town of Springhill nearly upside down. This time 74 men were killed, the other 100 survived, some barely. Loved ones collected their beaten and broken and the whole town mourned the losses together. This time the results were devastating enough to make the decision to permanently close the mines.
Again, there she was evident in her passion, full with child and ready to serve. It wasn't an infringement on her part, it was a sincere obligation. When one thinks about the disasters that we, as a world community, have had to face, it might be true that it produces some of the strongest and most resilient people. I don't think anything compares to the souls of the families of coal miners. Work, blood, sweat, worry, tears, death and more tears. Despite the obvious dangers involved, their abounds among them a true sense of the value of life, laughter and love. Those brave hard working men like Dan Gillis, his brothers Angus and Hughie, and sisters Francess Gillis, and Mary Soppa were determined to secure a better life for their children, far from the darkness of the mines. Dan Gillis didn't want Vivian to be a miner's wife. To him, there had to be a better life outside the walls of Springhill and there was.
She marched forward with a proud sense of who she really was, and when forced to face any kind of obstacles in her future, she was quick to rely upon those inward instincts of survival that were permanently embedded on her soul. I should know,
Vivian Gillis was, is, and always will be, my mother. Vivian Canton (1927-1998)
Todd Canton

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