Reflections on leaving one of the many places I call home
Author Note: This is the original, unedited version of an essay later published in the Globe & Mail in April 2018, “St. John’s Has Always Been A City of Goodbyes”: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/first-person/article-st-johns-has-always-been-a-city-of-goodbyes/
My memories of St. John’s International Airport seem mostly to be of departing from it.
The first departure I remember was in August of 1989, when my family and I went to visit our home country of Malawi for 3 weeks. The initial leg of our two-day journey was the midnight Air Canada flight from St. John’s to London Heathrow airport — a flight that, I recently learned, no longer exists — with our ongoing flight in London being a direct British Airways flight into Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, whose airport was only slightly larger than that of St. John’s. I was a little older than five years old then, but I can still recall how late we were in leaving for the airport, the tension in the air as I sat wide awake well past my bedtime, watching my parents flurry about the house preparing our bags. Ever the archetypal firstborn child, I seem to take notice of disorder in my world like nothing else. It was everything from their raised voices across the house as they tried to locate one thing or another that wasn’t in its expected place, to the chaotic fumble with which my parents eventually shepherded me and my two younger siblings out the door and into a long-idling taxi cab, to their harried, muted clips over the soft brick-red flooring of the boarding area, as we rushed to meet the plane that, had we arrived merely a few minutes later, would have left without us.
My clearest memory of this trip is of one of the airport security officers, who unexpectedly had in her possession a cache of Muppet Show buttons. If her goal was to cheer up tired children and their travel-anxious parents, she certainly did this for us. As our family bumbled toward her station she noticed my siblings and I clutching Muppet Babies stuffed toys — Miss Piggy for me, Kermit The Frog for my brother, Fozzy Bear for my sister — and jumped immediately into action, swiftly handing us buttons matching each of our toys’ characters as we each passed her. I remember her beaming at us with a kindness even brighter than the fluorescent lights above us, with that smile following us as we scurried through the security checkpoint and continued our half-walk, half-run to our gate. Thrilled as my siblings and I already were to be taking a plane ride, the bright red, shiny and rectangular Muppets pins we now had in our possession officiated our feelings, and we giggled and tittered with each other gleefully until the plane had risen well into the night sky, before my parents, themselves exhausted, finally made us go to sleep.
The second departure I remember, or, more accurately, have only recently allowed myself to recall in any detail, was in August of 1994, when we left Canada to return to Malawi for good. It was a Thursday afternoon, and we were late for our flight then, too — this time it was the 4:35pm Air Canada flight to Toronto Pearson, where we would then connect with our ongoing British Airways flight to London — and my childhood best friend’s mother, also good friends with my parents, drove us to the airport at the end of a long day for which my father had been shuttling back and forth between our house and the airport with all the suitcases and boxes that were coming with us. Still ever the firstborn but decidedly more capable at ten years old than at five, I had done my best to make myself useful in all the stress and clutter, and spent the better part of it writing and copying address labels for our luggage as my father came and went — ten suitcases and ten boxes by the time everything was packed, taped and labeled.
My best friend, however, did not come to visit the house, neither in the morning, nor most of the afternoon. Her mother thought she might only end up in the way of our final flurries of moving, and so she was only allowed to come over to our house for an abbreviated goodbye just a few minutes before we left. When she finally got to the house we spoke no words, only hugging each other instead, immediately and ferociously as the cooling sun fell over the faraway hills of the West End; then I jumped into the car and we drove off, leaving her on our stoop to walk home alone. It is this exact spot of memory that then triggered the nearly twenty-year blackout on the recollection of anything too significantly related to that move that my heart and mind resultantly delivered, and even now I can’t look at it too long before my breath starts to catch and my thoughts cloud over. Even as we have long since grown from girls into women, who will in a few years be the ages our own mothers were when that move took place — her firstborn child was even born in the same month as me, a few days after my birthday slightly over two years ago. One of the last things I recall from the day we left is how hard Mrs. Sheppard squeezed each of us outside the airport security checkpoint, perhaps especially tightly because she had to hug each of us in such a rush, and I remember how she called out to us how much she loved us all as we waved goodbye back to her one last time, before spinning around to run and catch our near-closing flight.
St. John’s is, in many ways, a city defined by its goodbyes. One of my favorite things to do whenever I return for a visit is to go down to the harbor and see if there is a large ocean liner about to undock. Whenever this happens the fence surrounding the port area finds itself lined with scores of downtown passersby waving goodbye, rarely knowing anyone aboard yet waving as though the ship carried a thousand friends, continuing to wave as the boat lumbers away with a loud honk of the foghorn to slink its way through the turquoise glass of the harbor waters, elegantly threading the strait before at last disappearing into the crisp blue of the Atlantic horizon. Most of my classmates at my elementary school in Virginia Park had relatives who lived a long way from St. John’s, in Corner Brook, in Labrador, on Bell Island and P.E.I.; at the end of each school year we knew for certain that most of us would not see each other again until September, and hated it. Yet as much as we knew we would miss each other for those months, I know today that their own parents, at some point in the histories before our births, must have spoken infinitely more final goodbyes to their own people, as they departed to begin new lives and make new stories in St. John’s. The necessary endings are implied.
I have learned in the twenty-three years since moving away from the city, however, that there is seldom such a thing as leaving St. John’s for good. The school friends always returned, and my family and I have visited St. John’s numerous times since we left; I even returned to St. John’s to live temporarily, needing space and quiet to complete my college coursework from my university in Pennsylvania, returning in the fall of 2006 to my old basement bedroom in the house we’d bought the year before returning to Malawi. As often as I have left the city I have come back to it, and each time it still feels like coming home, which is to suggest that as potent as my departure memories of St. John’s are, it might only be because leaving home is always hard, no matter how many times one does it. The heart does not rip apart in quite the same way as the first time, certainly; that it tears in each moment of parting, however, remains a constant truth.
The final distinct memory I have of leaving St. John’s — though it was not the last time I or my family would visit — was in August of 2012. It was also a Thursday afternoon, though it was the 1:35 flight to Toronto Pearson we were taking and not the 4:35 flight, and Mrs. Sheppard once again drove us to the airport, but this time with Mr. Sheppard joining us. By then the airport’s old brick-red flooring had long been replaced with sleek ivory tile, so regularly buffed as to be nearly reflective; and the journey through security was no longer a brief, ground-level straight-shot through the metal detectors to the gate, but a long rise on the escalators through the heart of the airport, before disappearing past several glass walls into the second-floor gate area that is many times the size of the area that my five-years-old self first passed through that night of our first departure, over two decades prior.
We were also, for once, not in a rush. Check-in regulations have significantly tightened since the 1990s, and we could no longer arrive at the airport as late as we had made a habit of back in those days and still expect to be checked in and boarded, or even be permitted past security had we had no checked bags and printed our own boarding passes. Thus, in a marked contrast to our earlier departures from Newfoundland, we instead checked in our suitcases well ahead of time in the Air Canada ticketing area, while the Sheppards waited on a nearby bench. When we had only our boarding passes and carry-on luggage in hand the Sheppards got up to join us, walking with us to the bottom of the escalators, where we stood around for a while trying to pretend we were not about to leave each other once more. The time inevitably arrived, however, when we were forced to concede that it was time for us to go; though on this departure, finally, we all had the time to hug Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard properly, with all the linger and love accrued to a bond of as many years as ours. Trudging onto the escalator we all immediately turned around again to continue waving at them and they at us, watching them grow as small as their daughter’s childhood collection of porcelain dolls as we glided upward toward the sky, the Sheppards now illuminated by the long, crystalline swathes of afternoon sunlight of the airport’s atrium, and not the grim fluorescent lights of before.
“It’s always the Sheppards seeing us off, isn’t it?” I said softly to my mother as we continued to wave to Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard, my words wavering in a familiar quiver. We had all separately done this routine many times with the Sheppards, at various points since we had moved away, but it was the first time since our 1994 departure that it had been done with the whole family.
“I know,” my mother whispered back, the tremor in her voice reflecting my own. Then we stepped off the escalator and, quickly turning away, walked resolutely to the first security station of the departures lounge, insistent upon not prolonging our goodbye any longer. In that very same moment of our leaving we were already looking forward to the next time we would return to St. John’s, already eager to wave hello, instead of goodbye, once again.