Come from Away, Gander, dead grandparents, a wall of text and the meaning of life

Long crazy couple of weeks. Months. It’s probably been a couple of months now, I don’t even know. Went to see a play at Ford’s Theater called Come From Away about 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. Why the fuck would someone go through the effort to write a play about September 11th in a random Canadian town and not New York or D.C.? I will explain. Basically Gander was settled during WWII due to it’s suitability for Air Force bases. Newfoundland is roughly halfway between Boston and Dublin, and thus a perfect refueling spot for old planes that couldn’t yet cross the Atlantic. The airport remained a functional international airport after the war (and is still operational today.) When the attacks happened on 9/11, the U.S. airspace was closed with planes destined for the States still in the air. 38 of them were forced to emergency land in Gander, where many planes were being diverted because, here’s where everything comes full circle-, those giant runways designed for WWII-era military planes that required a long stretch of runway to land and take-off could serve as an XXL plane parking lot for the many jets circling in the air with nowhere to go. Gander is small and lacked the resources to care for so many people in an emergency situation so huge in scope that when the passengers were unloaded, the town’s population was doubled overnight. (Realistically, Gander is actually large by Newfoundland standards, which was one of my few criticisms of the play, though I can see how portraying a place as shockingly uninhabited is more interesting than portraying it as an economic hub in province that is just small overall.) But the people of Gander pulled together in a huge way, converting school gym’s and Salvation Army, and the Knights of Columbus into sleeping quarters, bringing their own bed linens, cooking trays and pots of food, bringing clothes and toiletries, inviting the passengers to their homes, for dinner or for a shower or to stay until the situation was resolved. Showing them around town, trying to keep them entertained, just beyond hospitality, empathy. The crux of the situation was as horrible as the events were, the passengers were lucky to have landed in Gander, where the community felt a real responsibility to welcome them with open arms, and care for them as best as they were capable.

 

For a play, I can see how this is slice of life is a gift from God, the perfect small town values overcoming racism and homophobia, it’s sort of like a mirage in the desert, a respite from terror and violence. It’s entertaining and a little heartbreaking and very well-produced, I’ve had some of the songs stuck in my head for a couple weeks now. But enjoying it does feel like a self-indulgent. It’s a real story but it is not a real solution, and even though they faithfully reproduced the scenario, I felt a little sick. I guess I’ve seen a lot of feel good movies, but never one I’ve been able to independently verify to any degree, and I was kind of surprised to find even when the depiction is genuine, taking a vacation from my own reality felt irresponsible. I wasn’t okay with accepting the Shangri-La of a place that puts aside terrorism and homophobia when the place I live in absolutely does not.

The whole situation was weird because my Mom’s best friend since childhood, who grew up on the same street with her in Gander moved to D.C.that week. Her father and my Mom’s father, my grandfather, met during World War II, and in a sense founded the town with several other families that my Mom would grow up with, all on the same street. Prior to the war, Gander wasn’t hugely populated, and when the fighting started what sprang up was hastily constructed barracks, that my grandparents raised their older children in. My grandfather, and my Mom’s friend’s father, were among the first people to form a housing co-operative and submit a request for land, and to build a housing development in Gander. They pooled their resources, some men were great electricians, or carpenters, and built each other’s houses together. I believe the only work that was ‘outsourced’ was the pouring of the foundations. On top of that bizarre coincidence, that a play about the incredibly small town my Mom and her friend grew up in would begin playing in D.C., the week her friend moved to town, we lost both of my grandparents in the past 12 months. My grandparents lived in the house they built in Gander, on the street they helped create, with the parents of my Mom’s friends, until they died. My grandma passed away last August, a few days before her birthday, and my grandfather in May. Besides I believe, one other neighbor, they were the last living “original” residents on the street. Everyone else had moved into hospice, or passed away.

When my grandfather passed away my family began to close up their estate and sell the home they built, that my Mom and all her siblings grew up in, that I spent my first birthday in, and we all visited on Summer vacation. Gander is incredibly difficult geographically to reach, you can fly into the airport but the flights are limited and flying there is almost prohibitively expensive, and flying to Newfoundland in general is a couple grand a person minimum. I didn’t have the relationship with my grandparents or their home where they babysat me after school, or I went for Christmas dinner, but it was beautiful. It was special. Every crevice was unique and unchanging and had a story attached that sometimes went back decades. A spindly spice cabinet built into a decorative wall dividing the kitchen from the dining room that I was obsessed with was built by my grandpa after my two Uncles got into a fistfight and punched a hole through the wall in their early 20s. They had thick vertical blinds and brittle plastic register covers that my Mom would always step on or knock over when she tried to look to the window, and they were so ugly and so cheap looking but were the height of modernity when they were installed, and my grandma would hear them rustling and start yelling “YOU’RE TREADING ON THEM, YOU’RE TREADING ON THEM!!!”(is there anything more satisfying than your grandmother yelling at your Mom?”) My grandpa grew rhubarb, in the incredibly rocky and untenable soil. His parents, who passed away from tuberculosis when he was very, very young, had owned a farm. He would let us pull out stalks of rhubarb an we would go inside to the kitchen where my grandma would give us little bowls of sugar to dip it in. This is also where she’d give us slices of ham and cubes of cheese to feed my Aunt and Uncle’s Maltese/Shih-Tzu-mix Monty, which is, without question, one of the most joyful experiences of my life, my Aunt and Uncle would go for an evening walk around the block, and I would wait like it was Christmas Eve to hear Monty’s tags jingling by the back door as he ran upstairs and started tearing through the house knowing he was going to get treats. I’ve never experienced anything more satisfying than feeding an excited 12 pound fluffball a slice of ham, not even graduating college. I learned to walk on their brown linoleum floors. My grandpa brought home two school desks from my Mom’s old high school, refinished them, and painted them bright white just because he thought me and my sister would like to sit and colour in them. I remember watching Apollo 13 and The Muppet Show sitting in school desks in their living room. It was awesome. Both of my grandparents had quiet, sturdy love for children, and people, and animals. A useful way of showing their love, that was borne out of such genuine respect for humanity, what I can only guess was an understanding of the fragility of life and relationships, how ephemeral life is. I can see it reflected it my Mom, and the older I get the more I see how my own values are connected to theirs. It truly was a gift, such dumb freaking luck on my part that I got them as grandparents.

Their house sold around the same time we saw the play, which also happened to be around the same time as both their birthdays. My Mom didn’t mention it until much later, I don’t think she can deal with it right now. It is truly bizarre to think that My Mom’s, and all her old friends’ connection to that neighborhood is gone. I realize things live on in memory, and history, and in old censuses and land records, and I’m not looking for comfort or reassurance or trying to wax poetic, it just, is. Virtually everyone on that street is dead, and virtually no one’s houses remained in their families. They’ll all be modified, it would be tough to raise a young family in my grandparents home the way it is, not enough outlets, a steep staircase, old appliances. An entire generation lived and died in a neat little package, because of the circumstances of their time and where they settled and the War, this explosion of human suffering that also caused so much good for us personally, a physical currency for Newfouundland, an escape from the cycle of debt my grandparents and everyone else was born into, my grandparents meeting on an Air Force base, my Mom’s idyllic childhood, my entire existence, the relative stability that allowed my Mom to go to university and eventually move a few dozen times until we end up in D.C. Watching a play about Gander with her friend, when neither of them have the physical connection or the familial connection that started this whole cycle off in the first place.

“The meaning of life” is kind of a cheap punchline,  like what do you want, the meaning of life? But damn it it is truly hard to wrap your brain around.

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