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Friday Favorite – Where I Belong

WhereIBelongI’ve been thinking about home a lot lately –– home as the city where I lived for 15 years until last October… home as the place I currently reside, still unfamiliar in so many ways… but mostly home as the rugged island in the North Atlantic known as Newfoundland.

There’s something about ‘the Rock’, as it is called, that has a strange pull on the people born to it. I wonder sometimes if other places are like that –– if big city skylines draw people the same way that Newfoundland beaches draw me… if farm fields ready for harvest create the same sense of endless possibility as the rippling blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

When I was growing up in Newfoundland, the common way of asking someone where they came from was actually ‘where do you belong?’ or ‘where do you belong to?’ Newfoundlanders don’t come from the Rock so much as we belong to that raw and staggeringly beautiful land. And we continue to belong to it, even when we live the majority of our lives in places far away.

Which brings me to today’s Friday Favorite: the memoir Where I Belong, by Alan Doyle of the band Great Big Sea.

This was a book I so wanted to love that I delayed downloading it, strange as that may sound. When I finally did buy my copy, I opened it with some trepidation; I couldn’t bear the thought that a book with that particular title, which was about growing up in Newfoundland, might actually be a disappointment.

But it wasn’t.

It was just the opposite.

Some books take a while to draw you in. Some books never reach you at all. But Where I Belong had me firmly in its grip by the end of the first paragraph of the Prologue.

I know that little boy, I thought. He loves the island as much as I do, but he also asked the same questions I asked, was puzzled by the same things that puzzled me. And his writing… his writing is rhythm and music.

After every chapter I read, I’d pause –– reflecting, surprised by my connection to the words. When he first saw me do this, my husband Peter looked at me quizzically. Once it had happened enough, he just began to raise an eyebrow and grin.

You’re smiling, he’d say.

Yes, yes I am, I’d answer.

This is a book full of mischief, music, and memories. Kindred spirits, hard work, and determination. Wisdom, dreams, and generosity. It’s full of perspective, and it’s full of smiles.

Petty Harbour
A photo of Petty Harbour, the community where Alan Doyle grew up, taken in June 2015.

This book is the Newfoundland of my childhood. This book is my Newfoundland today.

I’m older than Alan, and I grew up closer to St. John’s than he did. Not ‘in’ St. John’s, I must point out, so I’m not a townie… but just out by the airport.

Our street –– Penetanguishene –– had ditches running alongside it, and we had our own well. What these days would be called an empty lot (which we happened to own) was next door to our house. We called it ‘the field’ and between it and the large front and back yards of our house, we had almost a half-acre to run around in.

We had ‘the path’ that divided the woods that were between our road and the one that ran parallel. We had a house at the top of the hill on our street where we could toboggan in the winter after school until dark. I don’t even know who lived in that house, but they never minded us being there ­­–– even when the fence that stopped us from going into the next back yard got damaged.

Photo from late 1960s of young girl with an armful of books standing in a driveway by a car
Me next to my mother’s Oldsmobile in the driveway of our house on 22 Penetanguishene… an armful of books as usual.

Fresh fish was sold door to door. Milk bottles were left on our porch. Catholics went to Catholic schools and Protestants to the other schools, except once in a while when a Protestant was given permission to school with us. Sunday morning masses meant Sunday-best clothing, and everyone sitting in exactly the same places in exactly the same pews.

Sunday drives up the shore and to Holyrood. Aunt Nora’s pantry and homemade ice cream sandwiches. Nan Morry’s brown eggs fresh from the hen house –– I still buy brown eggs because of Nan Morry. Nan Barron’s bread fresh out of the oven, the heel sliced off and smothered in butter, waiting for me when I got home from school. Toast and tea and mug-ups. Wild blueberries picked in the backyard.

Aunt Trix on the piano and Uncle Edgar on the accordion. My mother’s voice with its Irish lilt belting out When Irish Eyes are Smiling. My father and brothers step dancing.

Smoked and dried capelin. Beachcombing at Bellevue.

And always the certainty of the ocean and rock, of the fog and the wind, of the people –– solid people, faces etched with lines of worry and hardship, laughter and tears and music… sometimes rough, but always with a generosity of spirit. Willing to give you the best food from their cupboards. Willing to give you the shirt of their backs.

Like Alan Doyle, I always wondered what else was out there. My father knew, of course –– he’d traveled the world from the time he left Holyrood as a young lad until he returned at the age of 30 to marry my mother.

My mother didn’t leave the island until she was in her 40s, and her longest absence was six or eight weeks, and only then because she had no other choice but to be away. She would always say there was no place like Newfoundland to live. Surrounded by land she felt trapped. On her island, she was free.

But I needed to see for myself what was out there. I needed to make sure that the opportunities that weren’t always available on the island, were available to my family. I needed to know if I could hold my own with the people ‘from away’. And so there have been 10 addresses in five cities, three of those in the past 20 years.

Will there be other cities? I do not know.

What I do know, as Alan Doyle writes in the song that bears the same name as his memoir, is that I don’t know where I’m going but I know where I belong.

Which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing of all.

I must thank Alan Doyle for an incredible book –– it is truly a gift. And I eagerly await his next one.