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)