'Where do you belong?' In Newfoundland, that's a sticky concept indeed
"Where do you belong?"
The question came at me like a left hook the summer of 1998. I was house-sitting for friends on the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula and a neighbour of theirs had come by looking for them. I had just washed my hair in a bucket and was sitting in the sun looking out at the ocean.
Where do I belong?
Rather forward, I thought. How much time do you have?
Of course she meant, "where are you from?" I learned that later, and I must have sounded thick when I didn't know what to say. I thought I had a pretty good idea.
I got my first look at the place in 1996, when I took a job on the coast of Labrador. I was a grad student in Ontario at the time, originally a prairie kid, and I had come out to work on a Memorial University project on seabirds.
Four of us, all strangers, arrived in May at the Gannet Islands by coast guard icebreaker and repaired an old research cabin with the help of two men from Cartwright. There was an oil stove in the corner, and four bunks around a picnic table where we would eat and work.
There was no fresh water on the island; we'd collect it from the roof of the cabin. The food we'd have for the summer was lowered on pallets by helicopter. Our first aid kit had a bone saw. Someone would be back to get us in August. In the meantime, we were to collect data and not get into trouble.
I had worked in the field before, in the boreal forest of Saskatchewan, and on the Norwegian tundra. But I wasn't truly prepared for Labrador, not for what it would do it my heart: 360 degrees of open ocean. Icebergs big as cathedrals. Stuck at the stinking, squawking, throbbing centre of a remote seabird colony, having the world move through me.
Feeling so small, so lucky.
I went back for more the next year, and at the end of that contract spent a couple of months in St. John's. Turns out the people were just as savage and fresh as the land. I went back to Ontario to tidy up my business there and drove east again the next summer in a little red truck, to stay.
Belonging is … a sticky concept
Newfoundlanders' hospitality is legendary. I'm back living in Alberta at the moment — after choosing Newfoundland as my home, working and studying in Newfoundland, marrying a Newfoundlander and bringing babies home to a house in Newfoundland, I'm now firmly in the fifth stage of the Newfoundland life cycle: working on the mainland, trying to get home out of it.
Newfoundland brings a smile to people's faces up in Alberta. People think they know what it's like. All those kitchen parties. They're all so friendly there.
But Newfoundlanders also know that while there's no harm in smiling and showing visitors a good time, trust needs to be earned.
And just falling in love with the salt air and the weather isn't enough. You can't just show up and belong.
Life was hard when I first started to live here. I thought I'd work as a biologist, but contracts were scarce. I had started hanging around CBC and was getting some freelance work, but I had a student loan to pay, and every week for a long time was down to the wire. People I met had their own lives to live, their own families. I was lonely, I was poor.
But I knew I was in the right place, even if the place didn't know it yet.
It was in the way people would pick up and start talking to you like they'd known you all their lives. The way they'd stop and listen. The way they were interested, and assumed you were interested too. The way they dressed for the weather. The way no one cared about the weather because if you assumed it was going to be bad, you'd always be content.
The way it was taken for granted that the average person could play, or sing, or write, or act, or if not, they could build you something useful and keep you alive in the woods. The way everyone was levelled by tragedy. The way — every time — I'd call up someone around the bay and ask for directions to their house and be told, "Well, you know where the Needs was to…"
Even when things are dark here, crookedness and corruption served up with a side of gale-force freezing rain, that's what Newfoundland gives me: love and constancy.
There were murders, and terrible abuses, and politics that could be mistaken for satire. But as a kid who grew up on the Prairies, with people who didn't suffer fools, things here made sense. And there was that whole big ocean, wrapping us all in delicious isolation, saying: You've only got each other now. Figure it out.
I've been thinking lately about how people imprint as children. My son, a Grade 4 kid in Calgary, wants to fish on the Grand Banks when he grows up. (Though he thinks it's still done from schooners, and I haven't the heart to tell him.) My husband's friend's kid thinks my older daughter lives on an island in the Bay of Exploits because she went to visit her at the cabin there one summer. My younger daughter thinks Nanny and Poppy live there, too.
I was born in Vancouver and lived there until I was adopted as a toddler. I grew up having dreams about ships. Doesn't make any sense for a prairie kid with no recollection of the ocean to dream about ships, but I did. The smell of fog makes me weak in the knees.
The summer we were moving away I was turning 40. I was pregnant, and 40, and leaving the place I had chosen and the home I had worked hard to make. On our last dinner out, my husband handed me a picture of the little cabin across the tickle from his parents and said, "Happy birthday."
The next summer we came home with the baby, made the long journey by car and then boat to get there, and poured everyone into bed in the dark, everyone wailing, cold and exhausted, everyone feeling foreign. But in the morning, with all the babies sleeping, I tiptoed out into the meadow. There was the quiet of the sun rising and the small waves on the beach. To the west, nothing but water.
This imprinting business. I read a book about adoption recently, by Nancy Verrier, and a line in it stood an inch off the page: "There is no way for others to convince adoptees that they are [good] … [but] if they get gentle, steadfast love and constancy … they may begin to trust in the possibility of their goodness."
Steadfast love and constancy.
Even when things are dark here, crookedness and corruption served up with a side of gale-force freezing rain, that's what Newfoundland gives me: love and constancy. It seems a bit foolish — un-Newfoundland-like — to spell it out like that.
But she asked me, all those years ago: "Where do you belong?" And I thought, how much time do you have?