Lionel Seymour Hill is the love of my life. You know, I can still remember the day we met. It was my first day on Haida Gwaii (aka Queen Charlotte Islands, as it was known then), in late August 1979. I had been accepted for my first teaching job, and had flown up that day, while my belongings were being shipped by barge. I rented a car to get from the airport at Sandspit to my apartment at Masset. The apartment was furnished, basically, but no linens or dishes. After checking it out, and putting my suitcase down, I drove around looking for somewhere to eat. I saw a sign for Chinese food, and went in. The room was huge and dark and suddenly very quiet, and as my eyes adjusted I saw that it was mainly a bowling alley, with a long counter off to one side lined by stools. I went over, and ordered a combo meal from the friendly Chinese owner, Kim. Then I started to look around and suddenly realized that I was the only woman and the only white person in the room. In small groups at the bowling lanes, and by the jukebox, and further down the row of stools, were a number of young native men, all standing still and staring at me. I dug into my meal, trying to look braver than I felt.
After a few minutes the door to the Bowling Alley Café opened, letting in the rays of the low late afternoon sun, back lighting a dark figure who proceeded to come across the room. He sat down right beside me, threw his arm across my shoulder, grinned broadly, and loudly introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Lionel. Pleased to meet you!” He gestured toward my meal, and said to the owner, “I’ll have one of those too!” The audience, in their little groups, continued to watch silently. My knees started to shake and knock together, and I tried desperately to look brave, smiling nervously while still eating. I peeked sideways at him, and saw that he was dressed in very muddy logger’s clothes and boots, had no teeth, and was topped, incongruously considering the hot summer weather, with a black tuque. I would soon discover his sister had shaved his head when he had passed out during a party – in a day and age when shaved heads were decidedly not cool!
My friendly companion gobbled down his food, then took me by the elbow, and said, “C’mon, I’ll show you ‘round,” and steering me out the door, asked where my car was. I wordlessly pointed, and he cheerfully dragged me over and said, “Let’s go!” I started driving, too scared to do anything but what I was told. He directed me here and there, and told me to stop in front of a house. Lionel jumped out of the car, came around to my side, and taking me by the hand, steered me inside and downstairs to the unfinished basement, where around the corner on the floor sat a group of about a dozen native girls, drinking beer and smoking. He proceeded to introduce them one by one, and it seemed that every single one was his sister, according to him (turns out only 6 were his sisters, and the rest were cousins). He thought to ask me my name, and then told them! I was pretty sure they weren’t too pleased to meet me, but I smiled gamely. Then he steered me back out to the car, and started directing me again. We left the small town of Masset and drove along a stretch of beach, soon coming into another area of homes. Lionel proudly proclaimed, “This is Old Massett, my village!” The first building we passed was a small shack, its walls covered with what appeared to be red roof tiles, and obviously burnt out. Leaning against the blackened empty door opening was another young native man, beer in hand, who raised his hand and gave us the finger.
Lionel soon had me stopping at every third or fourth house. On the way to his village, he had quizzed me about myself, and now as we entered each house, without knocking, he was proudly introducing me to the elderly woman in each home, telling me, “This is my nonnie, my grandmother. And this is Norma. She’s a teacher!” The women were all very sweet and gently friendly, and soon I felt some of my terror starting to drain away. I was also getting a very full tummy, as I’d already had Chinese food, and now at every house we went into, Lionel headed straight for the wood stove in each, grabbed a couple bowls, and scooped out a bowl of soup for each of us. I tried to argue that I was full, but he shushed me, whispering loudly in my ear that to not eat some food would be very rude! So what could I do, even as I felt like I was about to overflow?!? I bravely swallowed down the very delicious soup at each house, but all the time wondered how one young man could have that many grandmothers!
When we got to the end of the houses, Lionel directed me a little further, and we got out of the car at the community graveyard, where row upon row of crosses, and some beautifully carved statues of eagles, marked many graves which were surrounded by wild yellowed grasses, with wind-blown brambly bushes scattered here and there. He took me by the hand, drew me a few rows into the graveyard, and stopped at a grave. His face took on a suddenly serious, caring look, and he told me, “This is my Chinny Pete.” Then he directed me back out of the graveyard and down along the beach. The tide was out, and despite a clear, sunny sky, a chill wind was blowing salt spray. And as I gazed out across the water, I was taken with the Islands. I felt like I was home, that I had been there, in that very spot, before. And perhaps I had been, for my parents had lived with me in Masset when I was a wee child, and we had gone for many long walks along the island beaches.
Now we were walking farther along the beach, and Lionel bent down and picked up a beautiful wave-smoothed agate, and promised that someday he’d find me a black agate. He started telling me about his people, and about his islands. And I wasn’t afraid anymore.
Lionel directed me back up town, and I dropped him off at the Bowling Alley Café, then drove the car back to my apartment. A couple days later, the barge arrived with my vehicle and the rest of my belongings, and a few days after that, school started, and I was busy planning my lessons for my first year of teaching, and getting to know the other staff members who lived in the “teacher’s apartments.” Around the end of September my new friends suggested we throw a party in my apartment. In ones and twos the guests started arriving. There was a knock at the door, and when I opened it, there stood the most handsome young native man I had ever seen. He was dressed in a white dress shirt and black pants, with beautiful black hair and shining white teeth. He smiled shyly, and said he had been invited to a party, and was this the right place? I stared at him, and then realized who it was. “Lionel!” I gasped. He kind of grinned and asked if it was alright if he came in. “Sure…” He walked in and sat down in the easy chair. The party was in full swing, and all the guests were getting into the spirit of the thing. But Lionel sat there real quietly, looking kind of nervous and shy, and clutching the arms of the chair. He had a glass of coke, but hardly said a word, and never moved from the chair.
The party eventually started to wind down, and people were leaving. Finally everyone was gone except Lionel, my two best gal friends, and me. Then he said, “How would you like to go to a real party?” Well, we girls were feeling pretty brave, so we agreed. We hopped into my van, and he directed us down to the village. We stopped at a house near the end, and he urged us to come in. Sure enough, a party was in full swing. Now my two gal friends were both pretty young gals in their early twenties, new to town like me, and most of the people at the party were young native men in their twenties. Needless to say, we were instantly the center of attention – and suddenly quite nervous! Lionel was holding onto my elbow, so I suppose the rest of the guys figured I was taken, and they swarmed around my two friends. Lionel grinned, and pulled me back near the door, and said, “Watch this!” Suddenly the guys were chasing the girls round and round the table, with the girls squealing and the guys laughing. Lionel gently pulled me out the door by the elbow, and we got in the van, and were watching the antics through the window. He leaned over to me and kissed me full on the lips. For a second I started to pull away, but oh, my goodness, I’d never been kissed like that! Suddenly there were peals of laughter, and my gal friends jumped into the car, giggling and demanding why we’d run off and left them. The guys were standing outside, laughing, and telling the girls they’d be seeing them around.
We drove home, dropping Lionel off at his sister’s house. I went home to my apartment, and to bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep for ages. I was crazily, madly in love!
Well, thirty-four years have passed, and through lots of ups and downs, with many changes in our lives, we are still together, proud parents of five children and nine wonderful grandchildren! We had our thirty-first anniversary this spring, and yes, Lionel is still the love of my life!
Norma J Hill
(Story originally written in 2007 – last paragraph updated today, August 15, 2013 – very nearly exactly 34 years after we met. Met again, that is, for my parents and Lionel’s Chinnie Pete were friends in the mid-1950s, and it seems that Lionel and I may well have played together as toddlers!)