By Tom Solomon
In the August 2020 edition of Downhome, Paul Warford’s column, in talking of his non-Newfoundlander wife, closed with the line that “she was welcome before she even got here.” When I read that, I thought that there was the seed of an idea for a “Mom & Dad/Newfoundland” writing. But last fall didn’t allow for that sort of thought. I marked the page and set the magazine aside and told myself I’d get back to it.
To some extent, I feel like I’ve been disassembling Mom’s life since shortly after she died. The process of emptying the house has been like taking apart not just the last seven years that she lived in Franklin, Indiana, but years (and years) prior to that represented by many of the things in the house. Something that I have noted during this process was how many Newfoundland things they had accumulated in a short period of time. I’ve lost track of the number of times we saw Buddy Wasisname in Ontario (sort of a trip to Newfoundland without actually going). Our first Buddy concert was (I think) in 2001 and our last one was in 2016. In between, Mom and Dad actually went to Newfoundland five times. When I was finding these Newfoundland things in the house, they were from a relatively few days scattered during a 15-year window in the life of someone who had made it to 91 (or in Dad’s case, almost 90).
There were, of course, souvenir things: puffin mugs, wooden Vikings, a bottle of iceberg water etc. Those sorts of things don’t really link in with “she was welcome before she even got here,” though. But there were other things.
In Mom’s jewelry box, I found a pin with her name on it. Not that unusual in and of itself, but this pin was the same style nametag that the staff was wearing one year at Brown’s Restaurant in Whiteway, NL. It was in fact Mom’s own Brown’s nametag. Our routine when we were in that area was to stay in Cavendish and have at least one meal a day at Brown’s, usually supper, but sometimes lunch depending on what our touring schedule was. Mom and Dad hit it off immediately with Barbara Brown. Each time we’d visit, it was like eating with family. And we did get to know the family. People who run a restaurant can be pretty busy during the supper hours in the tourist season. Usually, though, at least once on our trip, we’d be in the restaurant late enough to sit and talk with Barbara Brown or Colleen Hickey or Renée, Barbara or Cecil or some or all of them, frequently over a partridgeberry sundae (Dad and me) or a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie (Mom). It was always nice to catch up. I’ll also not forget the time that Barbara had heard on the news that there were tornados in Indiana and called Mom to make sure she was OK. It was a connection that went beyond that of restauranteur/customer. They all treated Mom and Dad like they were welcome before they even got there.
Hanging on the wall in Mom’s living room was a print on papyrus from Egypt. Mom and Dad had never been to Egypt. Barb and Jim Jackson had. Barbara and Jim owned the Blueberry Hill B&B in Cavendish. On my first trip to Newfoundland, there were two or three B&Bs in the area. I picked Blueberry Hill because they had Fifi, the Newfoundland dog, and the other B&Bs didn’t. We became regulars over the years, and Barbara and Jim began to make a habit of bringing back a gift from their own vacations for Mom and Dad. Holiday Inn doesn’t do that. That print on the wall was sort of a stealthy way to ambush people with Newfoundland stories. One year when we got in the door of Blueberry Hill, Fifi brought out a toy to the entry area and dropped it. Jim told me that Fifi only did that with people she knew. Feef remembered us. We got the sense that even the family pet wanted to make sure we knew that we were welcome before we even got there.
Tucked away in one of the many boxes of Mom’s things somewhere in my house or garage is a little doll, a gift from our “Bonavista family.” Other than one year, every Bonavista trip was spent at Butler’s B&B, with Herbert Butler and Janice, their daughter and son-in-law (Kelly Butler Fisher and Jason) and two granddaughters (Hillary and Helana) across the street. I think it was the little girls who made each trip to Bonavista a little new. With all our other regular haunts, no one really seemed to age from year to year. I know they did, but when we’d go back, all of us (visitors and locals) looked the same. That’s not a problem, by the way. But there was something about going back to Bonavista and watching the girls grow up that really made us feel a bit like family visiting from away. Mom and Dad could do the “look how you’ve grown” routine and I think they enjoyed that. The greeting they’d get convinced Mom and Dad that they were welcome in Bonavista before they even got there.
When I was clearing out the kitchen, I found a pudding kit - the sort one would need to make Figgy Duff. For those who don’t know, Figgy Duff is a dessert that, when warm and coupled with ice cream and/or whipped cream, is very tasty. One year, after we’d taken our annual boat trip with Gatherall’s out into Witless Bay to see whales and puffins, we decided to eat at Gatherall’s onsite restaurant. We were enjoying some very tasty Figgy Duff when Michael Gatherall got himself a dish of duff and sat down and ate with us. I’d met Michael on previous trips, but it still caught Mom and Dad off guard that someone involved with running the show was sitting with us, eating with us and talking with us like we were family. Before we returned home, Mom had picked up a pudding kit. Figgy Duff with Michael wasn’t an isolated incident. Whenever we visited Gatherall’s, no matter what member of the family or staff we ran into, Mom and Dad were reminded that they were welcome before they even got there.
Another thing I found in a jewelry box was a key chain - a Buddy Wasisname keychain, which is why it resided in the jewelry box with the pins and necklaces instead of a drawer in the kitchen with the spare batteries and Scotch tape. It had come down from Newfoundland in a little bit of a “thinking of you” package from Wayne for Mom. We only saw Kevin, Ray and Wayne in concert once in Newfoundland (and ran into Kevin once in a restaurant in Glovertown), but when we’d see them at shows in Ontario, the theatre was transformed into a bit of Newfoundland for the evening. When StageWest was open in Mississauga, Mom, Dad and I would gather with “The Boys” (as Mom and Dad liked to call them) for a visit in the dining area. We’d catch up on what all had happened since our last concert, talk about what might be coming up and chat about the show. When we were sitting there, it seemed the most perfectly normal thing to do. It was generally in the car afterwards that we’d discuss how unusual it was that the band from Newfoundland would want to take any amount of time to visit with a family from Indiana after a concert in Ontario. There was an undefined sense that I had of why it felt normal, but it wasn’t until reading Paul Warford’s article that it was put into a phrase… we were welcome before we even got there.
One of our regular stays was with the Felthams in Eastport. Mom and Dad’s last trip was 2008. When I was in Eastport in 2009, I was chatting with Graham C. Feltham about why Mom and Dad had made such a big trip as many times as they had at the age that they were. Graham said he and Dad had talked about that and Dad’s answer was pretty simple: It was the people. The puffins, the whales, the cliffs, the icebergs, the mountains, the sunsets, the wildflowers and everything else that visually makes Newfoundland, Newfoundland, were all beyond nice. And I think the idea of an adventure along with the scenic pictures I had taken on my first trip had played a large part in their taking their first trip. But what brought them back four more times was the people. The people who would tell them stories and who would listen to their stories. The people who would give us pointers on where to go and what to see. The people who would ask how our trip was going - and really want to know how our trip was going. The people who were so different and so familiar at the same time.
As I stated at the beginning, the last few months have been a trip through Mom and Dad’s life. It’s been obvious that Newfoundland left a mark. I don’t know that I could ever list off all the people we encountered at B&Bs, shops, restaurants and museums, everywhere on the island from Trepassey to Cape Onion to Twillingate to Portland Creek. The snapshots that I’ve written about above are just a few brought to mind as I was filling boxes. I could have listed many more.
All of these words have been to say “Thanks” to everyone in Newfoundland who played a part in Mom and Dad’s well-lived lives. Newfoundlanders are known for many things - music, accent, humour and more. But I can’t think of a better trait to be known for than making strangers feel like they were welcome before they even got there.