Heading Home

This essay was originally published in The Chronicle Herald’s (Nova Scotia’s provincial newspaper) Sunday supplement on Aug. 14, 2011, under the title below. I’ve added the photos.

There is room in the heart for two homes

Home. A word that is as important and elusive as Love. Two years after I moved to Cape Breton I took a trip back home to Alberta, the province where I was born and had lived most of my life. I spent three weeks visiting family and friends and then I came back home. To here. To Cape Breton Island, my newly adopted and adored home. Home used to be a simple word for me. Home was Calgary, warts and all. I complained about it frequently, knew it intimately, lived through boom and bust and boom and bust again, and watched its explosive growth with mounting alarm. But whatever ambivalence I had about the Stampede City, it was home. I always knew the answer to the question, “Where are you from?”

There is no such ambivalence about my new home. I found my place on the planet, here on some wooded land between the Cape Breton Highlands and the Atlantic Ocean. I share the space with moose and coyotes, frogs and songbirds, black flies and dragonflies. Ancient granite highlands are creased with waterfalls that send the high plateau water on its journey to the sea. The Acadian mixed forest is lush with ferns, mosses and mushrooms and blazes with colour each autumn.

Cape Breton is a welcoming place where people invite neighbours over for tea, help each other out in times of need, and gather together in community halls to eat home-cooked meals and enjoy the home-cooked entertainment of square dances and ceilidhs. No matter how long I live on this island I will always be a ‘come-from-away’. But that’s just fine, because people here accept those of us from away into their hearts and communities. That I am ‘from away’ is a statement of fact, not a judgement or an insult.

But there it is. I am, at the end of the day, not from here in a way that I am from Alberta. I followed my heart to a new home, and so divided forever the word Home in two. Home is where I’m from. Home is where I live.

It’s a common dilemma in today’s world. I am one of the lucky ones who left my home out of choice rather than necessity. I bucked the trend in this country of transients and moved from booming Calgary to bountiful Cape Breton, even as waves of East Coasters stream west to where the money gushes like oil. For some, Alberta represents work and opportunity, a place to make some money before returning back home. Others will settle in, buy houses, grow roots, raise families, and stay on. Alberta will become, over time, home.

However much Canadians shuffle around this vast land, we are still in our home country. But Canada is also a land of immigrants. For them, the pull between the old home and the new can be far more wrenching. My parents emigrated from England after World War II, and while my father honed his engineering skills in the oil fields of Alberta, my mother looked after their young toddler – my older brother – and struggled with loneliness and homesickness. Edmonton in the 1950’s seemed alien and inhospitable. She came by ship at a time when there were no cheap flights to dash back for a taste of the country left behind. It was twenty years before saw England again, and it wasn’t the same England she left. You can’t go home again.

I didn’t have to wait twenty years to visit the home I had left behind. But even after a mere two years I saw my home province with fresh eyes. The Rocky Mountains, so familiar since childhood, stunned me with their lofty grandeur. So this was how they looked to people seeing them for the first time. And the mountains aren’t the only things that are big in Alberta. The prairies are so immense they dwarf both man and beast. You can lose yourself on that vast expanse of earth under the infinite prairie sky.

I drove the country back roads to visit family on a farm in east central Alberta. It is a serene place of rolling glacial moraines, a place where you can breathe, a place with elbow room. It was an unusually wet spring and the brilliant green fields were dotted with calves and foals as well as a few llamas and buffalo. The long drive back west across the prairies, south along the foothills, and into the mountains along the winding old 1A highway felt familiar and good. Felt like home. Alberta is in my blood and always will be.

During my visit I saw a herd of deer silhouetted against a blazing prairie sunset, danced under the full moon in the foothills, and slept in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. I lingered on Calgary pub patios, drinking beer with good friends, friends left behind and very much missed. I heard some great country music by a band from the Maritimes. Then I got on a plane, and I came home. To here. To Cape Breton.

by Sue McKay Miller
August 2011