I’ve done extensive genealogical research these last few years, tracing the branches of my family history to Ireland, Sweden, and Newfoundland. While my Irish research has hit some brick walls because most of the Irish records were lost in a devastating fire a century ago, I’ve followed the Newfoundland tree not only back to Newfoundland, but Ireland and England several generations before that. The Swedish line, incredibly, I’ve been able to follow back to the 1600s and even earlier.
I teach a course I’d designed at UMass Lowell called “Immigration Stories: Researching & Writing the Past,” and one thing we talk about is the truth that history becomes much more interesting, more alive, when you can personalize it, when you are able to place your own ancestors at this particular place at this particular time, experiencing this moment of history that the rest of us learn about in books, films, or, all too often, dull classroom lectures.
In a similar vein, travel can pop to three-dimensional life when your family’s history is involved. As an avid traveler and proponent of study abroad, there is always a point in the semester when one of my classes will take a hard-right turn to the subject of travel. I want to find out where my students have already been and where they dream to go. It’s my chance to push our study abroad options, to encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities to get outside their routines, their home towns and networks, to take that leap of faith off the edge of their comfort zones and connect to the rest of big blue marble we share with eight billion others.
But in this particular course it’s also a chance to tie travel back to family. Just like history becomes more interesting when we can see it through the eyes of our ancestors’ experiences, travel too becomes richer when we’re visiting the places where they once lived and breathed, succeeded and failed, triumphed and, probably more often, struggled.
Through my ancestral research, I knew that my mother’s maternal line led back to Newfoundland, and in particular a town called Petty Harbour. My wife and I landed in St. John’s after a few days in Montreal and Quebec City, and spent the afternoon and evening taking in St. John’s small-city charms, the pop of vibrantly-painted houses of Jellybean Row, which wasn’t really a row at all but entire neighborhoods stretching their way up steep hills overlooking the working-class harbor. We drove to Signal Hill for better views of the city, the high perch and open space and air a welcome contrast to the bigger Canadian cities we’d left. I’d been looking forward to this leg of the journey, both before the trip and, especially, during a couple congested and claustrophobic days in Montreal. I breathed long and deep, everything green and rich, blue and sparkling. It felt liberating. Healthy. Maybe even—cheesy to say, probably, but would it be a stretch to say it felt, somehow, like home? That some long dormant strand of ancestral DNA was recognizing this place?
I don’t know. Maybe.
We ate a celebratory first-night-in-Newfoundland dinner downtown after exploring the tiny fishing village of QuiddiVidi, where I sipped a tall local brew called Iceberg and watched the boats through a salty window banging against the dock.
The next day we drove south along the Avalon peninsula, stopping for a whale watching/puffin tour. We didn't see whales but saw thousands of puffins, funky and awkward-looking relatives of penguins, I’d imagine. There was only one other couple on our tour, so it felt relaxed and private, a preview of what this whole visit would come to feel like. Newfoundland is expansive and wide open, stunning views of the sea at every turn, and at times it felt like my wife and I were the only two people visiting. We had the place to ourselves. I’d remarked that it looked a little like Maine with its rocky coast and quaint feel, but none of the tourists. Driving south, we hardly passed another car, just us and the road, the expanse of sea to our left, open sky above. We found ourselves fantasizing about buying a home here, embracing the slow pace full-time.
We stopped in Ferryland, checking out an ongoing archeological dig, learning about Newfoundland’s earliest settlers, my ancestors. Up the hill a ways we had lunch at a place called the Million-Dollar-View Diner. We were the only ones there. We ate BLTs in front of a large picture window overlooking the water. For me, it could not have been more perfect: a dead-quiet restaurant, a stunning view, and a BLT. I could not have been happier. Maybe I really was home.
One the drive back north, toward St. John’s again, we finally stopped at the small village of Petty Harbour. We parked and strolled the docks and narrow streets. I took photos, sometimes of my wife but more often the boats and the hills behind us. So many of my family records had ‘Petty Harbour, Newfoundland’ etched in the spaces designated for ‘Place of Birth’ or marriage or death. So many names. Such a small village. The realization that they had worked this harbor and walked these roads, had celebrated and mourned here, was powerful and tangible. This small village in this out-of-the-way corner of the world, was the epicenter.
We ate dinner at Chafe’s Landing, a restaurant bearing my great-grandmother’s maiden name—and the name found on so many other family documents—built and operating since the late 1800s. Surely my family ate here, probably worked here. Heck, it had to have belonged to my family. Chafe’s Landing.
I kept thinking about that word, Landing. These fishing vessels all those years ago coming in from sea. Returning to safe harbor. Home. Returning safely. But it wasn’t just as a noun but a verb, too, as in He landed a good job or I’m sure he’ll land a nice woman one day. To land. To find.
To return. To find.