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My memories of St. John’s International Airport seem mostly to be of departing from it.
St. John’s is, in many ways, a city defined by its goodbyes; it’s full of comings and goings, whether it’s locals leaving to find work, or the city’s immigrant community heading back for visits, to Nigeria or India or Bulgaria or – in our case – Malawi.
My family spent 5-1/2 years in St. John’s. My father was a finance professor who’d been recruited by Memorial University. My immigrant family loved the city and the province so much, despite the short time we lived there, because we understood and appreciated the tension of loving a place when returning home is, or at least feels, impossible.
Newfoundland was once its own proud, self-governing dominion until it joined the rest of Canada in 1949. That independent spirit remains, and I felt that the struggle or pull between the way it was and the way it is inextricably woven into the atmosphere of the city, like the ever-familiar Atlantic fog. Immigrants understand that tension.
I have learned in the 23 years since moving away from the city, however, that there is seldom such a thing as leaving St. John’s for good. (My parents still own a house near Quidi Vidi Lake, which a friend looks after for us.) As often as I have left the city, I have come back to it, and each time it still feels like coming home – a feeling I suspect is shared by many Newfoundlanders who leave to find work elsewhere.
One of my favourite things to do whenever I return for a visit is to go down to the harbour and see if there is an ocean liner about to leave. Whenever this happens, the fence surrounding the port is lined with scores of downtown passersby waving goodbye, rarely knowing anyone aboard yet waving as though the ship carried a thousand friends. Many continue to wave as the ship’s foghorn sounds and it makes its way through the harbour, elegantly threading the strait before at last disappearing into the crisp blue Atlantic.
But it’s St. John’s airport where I experienced most of my comings and goings from this city. An airport that’s recently celebrated 75 years, it’s where necessary endings are implied, where so many have arrived and departed to begin new lives and make new stories.
One departure I remember or, more accurately, have only recently allowed myself to recall in any true colour, was when we left Canada to return to Malawi for what I thought was the last time, in 1994. It was a Thursday afternoon, and we were late for our flight. It had been a long day. 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. At 10, 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 – 10 suitcases and 10 boxes by the time everything was packed, taped and labelled.
My best friend was only allowed to come over to our house for an abbreviated goodbye just a few minutes before we left. We spoke no words and hugged each other urgently and ferociously as the 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. Even now I can’t look at this memory too long before my breath starts to catch and my thoughts cloud over.
My best friend’s mother, Mrs. Sheppard, who was also a good friend of my parents, drove us to the airport that day. One of the last things I recall is how hard she squeezed each of us outside the airport security checkpoint, perhaps especially tightly because she had to hug each of us in such a rush. We were already almost too late to catch our plane.
Twenty years later, we’d be saying goodbye to the Sheppards at St. John’s International again. The memory is no less strong. By then the airport’s old red flooring was replaced with sleek ivory tile, so regularly buffed as to be nearly reflective, and the journey through security was no longer a brief, straight shot through the metal detectors to the gate, but a long rise on the escalators through the heart of the airport.
We could no longer arrive at the airport as late as we had made a habit of back in the old days and still expect to be checked in and boarded. Instead, we checked in our suitcases well ahead of time, while the Sheppards waited on a nearby bench. We all stood around for a while trying to pretend we were not about to leave each other once more. When the time inevitably arrived, however, we were able to hug Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard properly, with all the linger and love accrued by a bond of decades.
“It’s always the Sheppards seeing us off, isn’t it?” I said softly to my mother as we walked away and waved.
“I know,” she whispered back, her voice shaking even harder than mine.
But in the same moment of our leaving, we were already looking forward to the next time we would return to St. John’s and say hello once again.
Michelle Chikaonda lives in Philadelphia, Pa. and still travels to St. John’s.