The tracks of Newcastle

It's a gift, to live in one place long enough to know its corners and creeks.

Last January we found a creek down by the lake that had frozen smooth, just over three kilometres of it, perfect for skating. For a few wonderful weeks, the temperature stayed cold and skies were clear so we skated almost every day for hours.

We were on the ice again by January 11 this year. Our golden retriever likes to slide and skid ahead, not pausing even when her paws crack through into slush on the edges. Once, we found so many animal tracks that the kids dubbed that section the highway. It’s fun to think about all the creatures – sleeping now, hiding, maybe, or moved on – crossing the creek while we aren’t there.

It’s been eight years since we moved to the town of Newcastle, Ontario. We came here for a new job, a new start after the Great Recession knocked the pegs out from under our life in Barrie. It was not an easy transition but we’ve grown to love this village on the shores of a great lake. In 2002, when Opa died, I had no idea Allan & I would buy a house a decade later just a few kilometres away from where my grandfather was buried. In December 2020, a tiny pandemic version of the gigantic Brinkman family said goodbye to our beloved Oma in that same spot, as snow and freezing rain whipped through the graveyard straight off Lake Ontario.

Interestingly, both of my parents lived in Newcastle as kids, in different decades. The Brinkman family came here when my mom was one year old, a new start in Canada after the Great Depression and WWII knocked the pegs out from under a viable future in the Netherlands. Was it a hard transition? In 1951, they lived in a converted barn, big enough for the four kids who had been born in Koog aan de Zaan and the six who would be born here. “The Barn” is still there, looking pretty ramshackle these days, hunched on the corner of Andrew and Beaver Streets.

My dad’s family lived outside of town on a dairy farm. It was a new start for the Reitsmas, too, after initially settling in New Brunswick post-immigration. The Reitsmas moved here in the late 60s, when my dad was a 19-year-old college student who’d come home every summer and at Christmas. That farm is still here, too, though now it’s an orchard, producing apples instead of milk.

Sometimes I imagine these relatives, crossing back and forth through town 60 years ago. They’ve all moved on, of course. But their stories remain, and – like tracks in the snow – if you slow down to look, you can see them everywhere.

Penny candy

I started out by asking my parents what they remember. And then I asked their sisters. As far as I can tell, seven of my aunts lived in Newcastle when they were young. (Uncles, too, 10 of them, but I had to draw the research line somewhere).
As they began to share stories over email in early January, our 5-person family got sick – first the stomach flu, then Covid. Regular life was put on hold again, and, while I was tracking symptoms, these extended family memories started to take shape. They were describing the same streets, the same shoreline, that we love half a century later. When we couldn’t leave our house, I wandered backwards through time instead.

Aunt Mary remembers bubble gum for a penny at the corner store. Once when Aunt Grace was lost, two or three years old, she was rescued by the butcher, who gave her an ice-cream and called home. Aunt Jane was almost kicked out of the library for browsing in the “boys’” section, until she stared down the librarian trying to redirect her and said, “I actually like books that have boy characters. Makes it more interesting.” And was allowed to stay. Aunt Margaret remembers giving Mary piggy-back rides when she was sick of walking the shoreline, fields, roads or tracks.

“Summer holidays,” Aunt Pauline wrote, “we would walk to the public pool, a group of us. Don’t ever remember mom coming with us! The day that Knox [Christian School] was ready to receive students, ’62 I think, there was an announcement over the PA at the elementary school: ‘Will all the Dutch kids come to the office.’ We brought our bags and loaded a bus.”

“I loved all the traipsing through fields and going down to the lake that we did while I was growing up,” Aunt Helen said. “It was icing on the tough to chew ‘cake’ of farm life. Also interesting to me as a child were the two railway lines of CN and CP, which ran right through our farm, people and goods passing between big cities. The CP trains were generally slower and had to wait for each other on side tracks, one of which was on our farm, so we could talk with engineers if we wanted, or if they were so inclined. There was a long and narrow pond that stretched along the CP tracks that was our best skating place in winter.”

Four Reitsma girls in front of the Newcastle farm house in 1964.

Reverence & roots

By the end of January, 2022, most of us are recovering. Two of the kids are outside, traipsing through fields and going down to the lake again. They’ve gone back to the creek, though the ice is bumpy now from melting and freezing repeatedly. I’m reading essays by Wendell Berry and this line jumps out: “Though many of our worst problems are big, they do not necessarily have big solutions.” Instead of fixating on profitability, globalism and upward mobility, he argues for reverence toward the land, familiarity and local loyalty. “These terms return us to the best of our heritage,” he says. “They bring us home.”

Maybe some people chart a course through life with great deliberation, reaching every outpost they set sail for. But that’s not how it works for all of us. Sometimes we set down roots just to hang on.

Our middle daughter, Alba, is 14. She’s a member of the municipal Youth Council, which met over zoom on January 26. As I chip away at this editorial, she’s arguing passionately against a fee for parking down by the lake.

“It won’t stop the people who’ve driven an hour from the city,” she says, reasonably, “and it’ll just make it harder for those who live here. Can they improve the sidewalks instead?”

It’s a gift, to live in one place long enough to know its corners and creeks. To learn its history and fight for its future. To weather the storms of a global pandemic and say, here we place our Ebenezer. To call a 183-year-old town, knee-deep with family stories, home.


  • Angela Reitsma Bick

    Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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One Comment

  1. Upon reading this, I hurried to another site to see a satellite map of Newcastle and area. No wonder that you like it: not the sterility of city streets or huge farms. Lake, creeks, riparian areas, forests. Wonderful.

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