When I Go Back
By Mary Howell
My heart quickened as the plane began its smooth descent over Torbay, and I looked down one more time at my beloved Rock. As if I needed any further welcome, every cloud puff had drawn back from a blue sky and now rested like a tousled ribbon of foam along the rolling hills, just above the lush green foliage. It hovered protectively, like a mother's cloak, over the valleys and fields that were splashed with brilliant flashes of yellow.
"'Buttercups," I said aloud, to nobody in particular; "Posies," added a voice in a seat nearby. I'd forgotten dandelions. After all, where could I see either on the chemically sterile lawns of Ottawa, my adopted home for the past 50 years?
Like so many Newfoundlanders who worked and made a life "away," visits home were as often as I could manage - all the more precious because they were farther between than I would have wished. As the years rolled by, visits were too often, and sadly, to say a last farewell to a loved one. This time it was a brother, companion and friend of my youth. Peter had never married and after returning from years in the army, he ran the ancestral farm and took care of our aging parents until their passing. Now the farm, the anchor of the extended family, would perhaps be sold to strangers. I needed to lock the memory of this visit in my heart, to keep it unchanged forever.
It was a little daunting entering the empty kitchen of my childhood, like being in a church or other sanctuary. I gazed upon the unplugged fridge, its door ajar, and the iron frying pan washed and hung on its nail behind the stove. We'd made a life in this room, all 12 of us. I recalled how we never had enough chairs, so we sat on the floor along the wall with the black iron stove and tried to make each other laugh by making grotesque facial contortions and animal shapes on the wallpaper with the lamp's projected light.
But the children's laughter that filled this room was long gone. The familiar aromas have left, too: pea soup, salt meat and vegetables, hash and onions crusting to a delicate brown, fish sizzling in the choking smoke of fat back pork. I was in a house that had lost its heart.
I looked out the window across unbroken fields, and played out my memories on them: small undernourished bodies flying down snow-covered hills on the bottom of a cardboard box or a few runners off a pork barrel; on all fours, crawling through the fishbones, waiting for turnips and carrots to form so we could appease our empty stomachs; discussions over the broken pieces of white clay tobacco pipes unearthed along the way and visions of ancestors from Wexford on their knees beside us. The last words of my brother when I thanked him for his hospitality at our last goodbye four years ago came back to me: "You have just as much right to be here as I do."
Once I'd found my peace, I continued my visit with the usual renewal of old friendships, visits to Cabot Tower and efforts to capture as many images of the icebergs as I could - if the fog ever lifted over Cape Spear. Then there were the many kettles boiled in my honour and the plates of tea cakes, fruit cakes, apricot squares and Jam-Jams.
I was fortunate to hear of a reading by two of Newfoundland's well-known writers: Michael Crummey and Michelle Butler Hallett. Set at the Ferryland Lighthouse, on an exquisitely clear day, the reading was preceded by an attractive and tasty picnic lunch of quiche and salads of goat cheese wrapped in alfalfa sprouts, topped with a tangy Mexican tomato. Michael Crummey's gently understated observations on the bruising and quirky aspects of life quietly evoke a knowing gasp or a spontaneous smile, and the unusual content of Michelle's work, with its whiplash delivery, makes the pairing of those two writers a wise selection in a study of contrasts.
It was still dark when I left my sister's house in the Goulds for my early morning flight back to Ottawa. Looking across the mist-covered fields I tried to see the old house and barn. Suddenly they seemed clear to me, standing just as they always had in my many years away, solid and waiting for us to come home. It was almost as if the mist had lifted just for me.
Morning on Cabot Tower
By Mary Howell
When youth of morning and the dawn
flows unpolluted and the spray
roars up in bubbles from the tide
to scatter dancing rainbow tears
upon your gypsy basalt side -
What scion this who dares intrude
this breathless virgin dawn -
This dormant phalange of the bay
guarding those ancient bastion cliffs
Who wakes this sacred day?
Then I behold seagulls dip
to scoop the suckling capelin up
with them to secret plains I climb
to fly down corridors of clouds
to touch the tapestry of time