Anytime soon, the first pathetic sightings will begin. You know them the second they stumble through the arrival gates at Halifax International Airport, brains fried from nine hours aboard the West Coast red-eye, blood drained from their faces from the harrowing, fog-shrouded landing. Sometimes you spot them pulling into an Irving Big Stop, heading east somewhere on the TCH (Trans-Canada Highway, for the uninitiated). They’re easy to pick out: the car with the kids plastered to the back seat, the resentful spouse—who hasn’t muttered a word since Rivière-duLoup—wondering what the heck’s wrong with a nice cottage on a lake in the Canadian Shield. It’s the other adults with the goofy, beatific grins to avoid, the ones who stare at you hard with an expectant look, ready for the slightest flicker of recognition. “You old bastard,” they bellow if you raise even an eyebrow in their direction. “Jay-sus, I thought it was you.”
Doesn’t matter that they’ve never laid eyes on you before. They’ve got several weeks off from the brokerage house in Vancouver, the office on Parliament Hill, the auto plant in Windsor. For a displaced Atlantic Canadian, there’s only one thing to do: pack the family into the minivan kicking and screaming, and join the wagon train heading back east. If the latest census figures are to be believed, this summer’s caravan should be one of the longest in history. More young, ambitious Maritimers than ever are exiting dying outports and villages for opportunities elsewhere. Come June, they feel an almost primordial itch to head for where every place and face has memory and meaning.
They arrive moaning like junkies for lobster and “Black Arse” (Newfoundland’s Black Horse beer, for the uninitiated), pining for ocean water unfit for any warm-blooded animal. The delirium takes many forms. In Alistair MacLeod’s wistful novel No Great Mischief, an elderly Cape Bretoner with no shortage of testosterone reacts in, shall we say, a most-manly fashion whenever he returns to his beloved island after a winter working in the woods. Now that’s an image to hold onto as you consider thousands of homesick Maritimers gunning their engines towards the New Brunswick border. MacLeod, who spends his summers writing in an oceanfront cabin in Cape Breton once his teaching duties end at the University of Windsor, knows about the draw Maritimers feel for their
birthplace. It’s a complicated question: the tribal homeland where all the best memories of youth reside? Or just a stunning, saltwater-licked, good-time Oasis?
Whatever the answer, it leaves them wandering heartbroken through big cities and small towns far from the Atlantic Ocean. It can be a sad thing to go looking for solace at a Great Big Sea concert. Or to find yourself at a party droning on about Down East like King Arthur reminiscing about Camelot. I’ve walked in those lonely footsteps. So I’ve got sympathy when - they arrive on their pilgrimages desperate to reconnect. I, too, recall burning the candle at both ends on trips back to Nova Scotia, trying to see everything and everybody in too short a time. Sooner or later, my wife and I would inevitably go cottage-hunting. It was a meaningless act, given our bank account—the owners would have had to pay us to take the most forlorn hovel off their hands.
That didn’t stop us from jumping in the car and just driving. Nothing scientific—we’d tool around little out-of-the-way places, eyes peeled for For Sale signs. If we found one, we’d peer in the windows, maybe talk to the neighbours and jot down the telephone number. When we got back to Calgary or Toronto, I’d find those scraps of paper in my wallet, then throw them out. The ritual made me feel better. I just needed the idea of Nova Scotia—out there, waiting for me in case everything else fell to pieces. That’s why I made the annual journey—to see that it and all it symbolized were intact.
Why not? It’s human nature in rootless times to want to anchor yourself to the earth somewhere. Don’t take my word for it: go to a homecoming in Newfoundland’s Codroy Valley, or a clan gathering along New Brunswick’s Miramichi River. Ask my friend, a Halifax newspaperman living in Toronto for the past four years. He’ll return any day now for his visit. He’s planning to see friends, hit the beach, play golf. He wants to look at real estate while he’s around. That’s funny, coming from someone who considers buying anything more than a toothbrush an act of outrageous materialism. But if it makes it easier to spend the rest of the year paying $1,500 every month for a bachelor with garbage trucks rattling outside the window, who am I to argue? Twelve months is a long time. Soon, I’ll be hearing all about it. CS
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