“Oh, poor old Red Island,” dad would intone in a voice heavy with regret. He’s been gone almost thirty-five years but I can see him now, hunched forward in the old wooden rocking chair, the same one his mother and grandmother used, but in a place and time far removed. His head, downturned, face cupped in his frail hands and his shoulders slumped. There was no mistaking the grief, the heartache, the loss felt for a time that was but would never return.
And my mother’s quiet demeanour; she, too, seated, knitting probably, in a rocking chair but of a much more recent vintage. Try as I might, I cannot recall reading the same grief from her. But, yet, who knows? It’s also been such a very a long time–almost thirty years now–since I was able to share those by now precious and rare moments of her quiet wisdom.
They were so different in so many ways. He, though well-travelled, was born in that small remote place he longed to return to. He’d left home at an early age to attend St. Bon’s in far-away St. John’s and then attended the Normal School in that same city. Following that he’d taught school in Mount Carmel and Lawn for a while. In the mid thirties he’d spent five years in Boston to a) work in a Western Electric radio factory or b) support his sibling’s education by assisting his dad with some rum running. Believe whichever version you want. Once the family was squared away he returned and resumed his career in Corner Brook. Following the construction of the Argentia Naval base, however, forces–the church in particular–conspired to bring him home to reestablish some sense and order in his by-then chaotic hometown. There he settled until, for whatever reason, in 1958, by then in his mid fifties the desire to start a family took over.
She, too, had quite a story. Born in Cork, she’d been raised in Dublin and had lived her life there. Like him, she had also traveled extensively, but never once wavered in her desire to remain at home. …Until that personals ad in the Winnipeg Free Press–a story I’ll save for another time–changed all of it. Long story short, at the age of thirty five the erudite city-dweller married a bayman nineteen years her senior and left the rich culture of Dublin for what must have been the alien landscape of remote, rural Canada.
They had a daughter, and then a son.
Then came resettlement. I would have been in kindergarten but there was none of that in Red Island. As such I was too young to understand at all what was happening. Still, there are memories, whether they are real or have been constructed after the fact I do not know. I know them well though; fragments, joined into some sort of a rag-tag whole. Talk of moving. Angry voices of the men and women who lived there. Word of a place called Southern Harbour. Boxes everywhere. Our tom cat, Malcom, in a one of them with a net on the top. The Glenda Denty and a long trip over water. Malcolm’s pitiful mews as he endured what must have been a terrifying ordeal. A whole new place. Alex Best, his family, and his wharf. A new house, just barely finished and the beautiful smell of fresh-cut spruce lumber everywhere. Starting school.
The years passed. The old school was too small. Another was built. When it became over crowded, another, constructed from the bunkhouses that had been used while constructing the phosphorus refining plant at Long Harbour, joined it. Yet another–a high school–was built and then added on to. All the while the people kept coming. Some, like my Dad, built new; our three-story house in Red Island was too big, too old to be moved. Most, however brought their dwellings in on a float. The sight of a house in the beach at Whiffen’s Cove–a thing that would be wondrously unexpected today–was commonplace. So, too, was the activity that would inevitably follow. A tractor, huge logs for rollers, and swarms of willing, helping hands. The noise, the smell of diesel, the shouts of men as they coordinated the move, all just part of so many days. And the mud–mud everywhere. What else could you expect from dragging houses over a hastily constructed dirt road, one that just a year previously had been little more than a path? Wooden cribbing was, as often as not, the base and the scraping of the tractor and the logs exposed it time and again, revealing the underlying muck and bog, stuff that found its way everywhere.
Electricity–sort of. It failed often and, in the winter, the oil lamp was all we had to read–or knit–by. Running water–again sort of. In the winter the pipes would freeze so dad and I would have to fetch water from the well each day. “At least we had running water and electricity in Red Island,” Mom would mutter.
Community, a word we so casually toss around without hardly a thought to the riches that lie within it. Southern Harbour had existed before resettlement and already had well established families; Bests, Whiffens and Leonards had lived there for generations. Now they were joined by so many more. More names, and more places of origin. At first, a community as rag-tag and as scattered as my memories of that time. Turf wars, suspicion, old rivalries–at least those seemed to be the dominant things. It was rough. Fights and conflict of all kinds were the order of the day. Through it all, though, a community emerged. Compromises were made, families intermarried, new, lasting friendships were formed and old wounds started to heal. The electricity became dependable, a municipal water and sewer system was constructed, the roads were paved and, the year after I graduated from school, a gym was finally built. Thanks to all of that as well as a decent fishery and a brand-new oil refinery the community started to flourish.
I was sixteen and done with high school. Like my sister had done the previous year I left to attend University at St. John’s–a thing my Dad had done himself when he’d been about that same age. My sister never came back, except for the scattered visit.
I finished my bachelor’s degrees the year grade 12 was implemented in this province. My former school needed a math / science teacher and I was given the nod. For the next nine years I learned my craft, taught school, volunteered my time, started a family and, thoroughly enjoyed my rural way of life. Then something changed. It was probably not any one thing, not *solely* the decline of the fishery, the dwindling student population, the fact that many of my friends and colleagues were moving on, the reality of my own growing family. Regardless, from somewhere there grew an overall restlessness, a growing emptiness, a sense that, somehow, I was ready to move on.
I left again.
A new resettlement, this time one that was not so much overtly a product of forces from the outside This time the force was tacit, a thing that existed just beneath the surface of my consciousness. It was just as powerful, though, and it carried me away to a wonderful, exciting new job, back to the city, a place I continue to live in to this day, some twenty-five years later.
Looking back, it’s clear now that the choice to leave had nothing to do with the quality of the personal life I led. Sure, it was a small community with only a few amenities. It had a powerful, defiant spirit, though. Besides, shopping, healthcare and such, while not truly local, were only a relatively short drive away in Clarenville. No, it was more about the work, or rather the career that I saw. Enrollments were steadily declining. In the mid 1970s, when I was of school age, classes ran about 30 per grade level. In 1992, my last year there, only 4 students were registered for kindergarten. It has not changed much since. In the local area, there are five communities, and there were once six schools. Now there is one centrally located k-12 school.
And now, here I am, beyond middle age, more or less settled, at least physically and wondering just where is home. Is it the place I have lived in for this past quarter century, this smallish house, in a tiny building lot tucked away in an obscure cul-de-sac in Mount Pearl? A community that, on the one hand proudly boasts of the services and such it can offer, and how they’re so much better than those provided in nearby St. John’s, while, at the same time, enjoying the protection and added services afforded by its much larger neighbour.
Or, as some would offer, is it “where the heart is?”
If so, that brings up an even harder question, just where is that heart? Is it here with me all this time. After all, I’ve been married for almost thirty years and have raised four children who are, at least in this very moment, right here with me–a thing that gladdens me greatly.
So why the other house, then? You see, when I left Southern Harbour I hung on to my house. It was the family home Dad had built after resettlement and I’d done a major upgrade on it just before getting married. After I left, I rented it for a time and, when I was able to get some extra work freelance writing, I was able to use it as a summer home. That ended, though. Vandals did considerable damage to it and, with a growing family, I found myself financially unable to get it back in repair. Logic dictated that I should sell it, but I’ve stubbornly hung on, even though, frankly, I’m unable to do what is needed to put it into usable shape.
So why then? It’s not that I’m normally given to irrational acts. This, I suppose, is just one of those times when I ditch common sense, for whatever reason. I find myself unable to let it go even though it would be the most sensible way to go. I could laugh it off, assert that I’m Irish, after all, and, as such, well used to living a life where not everything adds up. It’s true, at some level, but, admittedly that’s just ducking the hard question. The answer has more to do with being whole than it does with ignoring inconsistency. In the same way that Dad left a part of his …spirit? …heart? *whatever* in Red Island, so, too did I when I left Southern Harbour. As long as the house remains, though fractured I am more-or-less whole.
At least for now.
Just next month my first born, now twenty seven will be leaving this province to take up residence in Rossland, BC. He’s educated as a professional engineer but, sadly, the province he loves so well does not love him back. Like so many before him he’s uprooting and heading west for lack of suitable work here. My second born, now twenty five, with a completed Commerce Degree, and also unable to find work, is planning to make a similar move in the near future.
The cycle continues and I imagine, sometime in the not too distant future, they’ll be relating the next chapters of this same story of resettlement.
For now, this one is complete. After I upload this post I figure I will sit here on the couch, cup my face in my palms like Dad used to and ponder how everything changes yet manages to retain those all too familiar themes of loss, regret and a longing for something I cannot ever have.