Calling Auntie Ann
Every now and then I call Auntie Ann, my father’s youngest sister. Her first sentence is, “Hello darling,” with a hint of Irish brogue and her second is always, “Are you home?” You see, she’s in Newfoundland and I’m in Pennsylvania and even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for over forty years she still considers Newfoundland my home. There’s also the implication that the distance between the two places is almost too great a distance for a casual phone call.
Auntie Ann lives in Kilbride, on the outskirts of the capitol city of St. John’s. When I was growing up I spent weeks each summer with my aunts and uncles in St. John's. I still like to keep in touch with them. My father’s family settled in Kilbride many decades ago. All five of my father’s five siblings made their home down the street or just a couple of miles away from their parents, but early in their marriage my parents moved first to Corner Brook and then to Grand Falls-Windsor. Both towns were a long distance call from St. John's. My aunts still use that term. “I saw that it was a long distance call and hoped it was you.”
It could be anyone calling, you might say, and of course it could, but my aunt and the rest of the family are very rooted. I have north of two dozen first cousins on the Kenny side of the family and I believe only four live on the mainland. The rest stayed on the Avalon Peninsula, the eastern end of the island, where St. John’s is located. They have a strong connection to the island on which they live, as do all Newfoundlanders. They also have a strong sense of family.
“What made them all stay?” I sometimes wondered. Perhaps it’s as simple as they were already home. They like to bloom where they grow. A few cousins lived on the mainland for a time but eventually returned. Just a few of us found our lives off the rock, as they say.
But this week I called Auntie Ann for her birthday. She didn’t ask me if I was “home”. Despite how well Newfoundland has weathered the pandemic, the island is not open to visitors from the United States. Even Canadians are restricted. Auntie Ann knew I wasn’t on the island.
There are few arrivals of late. If you're a Newfoundlander returning home from work or vacation elsewhere, you might be welcomed home with a few Nanaimo Bars but you would also be expected to help keep everyone else safe. You would strictly honor the full two weeks of quarantine because you would never want to bring the virus into the community. It's as if everyone who knows you is keeping track of your 14 days.
Also, it seems that everyone in Newfoundland knows everyone else. If they don’t know who you are then they know someone you’re related to, and if you don’t fall in one of those categories then you’re a Come from Away. So you fall in there somewhere! In this place where everybody is somebody, social distancing has generally been working.
Last April a Newfoundlander posted on Facebook that she had seen two women with tans walking down the street. In other words, someone came back from a Florida vacation where COVID was heating up. The comment even made the radio talk shows. It happened early on when nobody knew how to slow down the virus and people were very afraid. Newfoundlanders were watching the news from the States and across Canada and the situation was worsening with each new day.
Each and every local case of COVID makes provincial news in Newfoundland. “A 46-year-old Newfoundlander returned home from away and came down with COVID on his 12th day of quarantine.” Newfoundland's Health Department keeps everyone informed.
Other than last March when an initial outbreak of close to 200 cases was traced to one location, the number of new cases has been one or two here or there, mostly from people who have been away. The population of around 522,000 has worked together to minimize cases. Then came last month's outbreak in the high school.
These newer cases took everyone by surprise. Within a few days there were hundreds of people with COVID-19, and at one point over 75% of those affected were under the age of 20. For the last few weeks the Avalon Peninsula has been on Level 5 total lockdown and the rest of the island on Level 4. Newfoundlanders are hitting back hard and their efforts are working. They’re already back down to low single digits each day. They have learned that the new cases were of the UK strain. That’s a warning for all of us.
Currently, the total number of the province's COVID-19 cases is around 1000. Yes, I hear you, they have it so good, but they, and we, still have to be careful. The less attention paid to standard precautions, the more likely there'll be another flare-up.
I hope the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline, here, there and everywhere. I hope we all stay safe and healthy, and that our grieving hearts as well as our economies will soon heal. And I hope I can call Auntie Ann, Auntie Brenda, Aunt Anita and all my family to tell them I’m coming home this summer!
Josette Abruzzini loves to write! One of her favorite genres is memoir, particularly about growing up in Newfoundland. She is also working on several picture book manuscripts and an historical novel. Read more on her blog at Blog | josetteabruzzini . Thank you for reading!