A photo memory popped up this morning from 11 years ago. In it, my daughter – one at the time – sat playing at a table with another child her age. I remember that day well. We still lived in an outport back then, and we dearly embraced most things about the rural lifestyle. The pace was slow, the people laid-back and friendly and the scenery? Second to none. The issue? No children.
My across-the-road cousin had a little boy two years older than my daughter, and while we got them together for play dates, the writing was on the wall. My cousin’s little fella would be starting school come September and my daughter would have no playmate for half the day.
And worse? For my kid to have a same-aged female bestie, I had to plan a play date and drive an hour. Watching my daughter play that day, I realized how much she would be doing without if we stayed.
‘Vive La Outport!’
When it was time for her to start kindergarten – at that time a half-day endeavour– my wee one would be on a bus all alone over one long and winding and wicked outport road.
Thoughts of her not having a same-aged gal pal to grow up with and share experiences with broke my heart. The first opportunity that came to escape, I ran for the Doe Hills and kept going.
For someone who had shouted ‘Vive La Outport!’ from the top of our pine-clad hills for the past six years since returning back to this province from up along, it wasn’t my finest moment. The things that saw me proudly return to my outport roots – from needing to feel that personal connection while living in a place where everybody knew your name and your ancestors, to needing to smell the salt air and reconnect with my aging parents – all went out the window pretty swiftly.
After years of trying to do my community-minded best – from playground maintenance, Sunday school set up and writing Easter plays for the local kids to perform, to picking up roadside trash – it was time to go. Once again, like what got me there in the first place, my reasons were extremely personal.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t some guilt. Walking away from a dream of somehow contributing to the revitalization of some small chunk of outport Newfoundland wasn’t easy. I felt, in a way, as if I was abandoning my roots. And while a van loaded down with two kids and a dog certainly wasn’t the powerfully haunting image of a home being floated across the bay during resettlement, it felt like that to me.
Moving away from my outport was just as powerfully personal as returning to it had been. I had to do what I had to do.
And life ticked on. A decade later, I still haven’t been back much. Too busy. Too long of a drive. A whole host of reasons keep my wheels on this side of the island. And rural Newfoundland has survived just fine without me.
While some more have left, others have returned. A few kids – some of them girls – have been born out there since we’ve left. The old graveyard has been revitalized, the road-side trash is still picked up by new hands and the salt-sea air and the spectacular view is still enjoyed by those still lucky enough to call it home.
As to the age-old question: will the outports survive? Well, Premier Smallwood’s resettlement closed 250 of them between the mid-1950s and the early 70s, and now, here we are, and here they are in 2021, still standing.
That these small communities that dot the coast are still around isn’t a testament to any government policy. That someone occupies a saltbox instead of a semi-detached is not a commentary on economics, either. What populates these outports is a whole bunch of people with very personal connections and stories – a solitary solidarity of sorts. That heart-string pull is what gets people to call an outport home. And it’s what makes pulling up roots and leaving so difficult. Even 11 years later.