The salt of the earth

An online conversation about Newfoundland made me remember this little slice of my life and the grace and generosity of the people of that province.

When I arrived in Newfoundland to work in the spring of 1992, I was fresh out of jorunalism school. I had been living in Charlottetown, P.E.I., as a boarder in a fully furnished house.

As I made my great trek across the Atlantic Ocean via ferry, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Newfoundland? Do they even have electricity?

My father, who had toiled on construction projects in Stephenville, Corner Brook, and Come-By-Chance, assured me life would be as normal as it as in Antigonish, N.S.

Stowed in my car, which one year earlier was a university graduation gift, I had but two suitcases of clothing, a toaster, and a few spare utensils from my mother’s kitchen.

She had also given me a couple hundred to get me through until my first paycheque, plus enough for my first month’s rent.

Alack and alas, the exhaust system on my K-Car decided to fall off somewhere around Deer Lake. I limped into Gander four hours later and went to the first place I recognized as a car-service location. Unfortunately, it was Canadian Tire and they took almost every last cent I had.

I arrived at my new office the next morning, after a sleepless night at Hotel Gander, and introduced myself to the good folks. I managed to find a fully furnished apartment for the chill price of $350 a month, including utilities.

Now don’t get too excited. I was only making $300 a week as a cub reporter (I earned a raise of $50 a week after my probationary period and I stayed at that salary until I left four years later — thank you, Harry Steele!).

I subsisted on toast and jam for four days … breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every morning, the older ladies (I never use the word ‘ladies’ as it conjures images of a class system for me, but there’s no other descriptor for these gentle women) would ask me what I had for dinner last night, now that I was a young, independent woman in my own apartment able to cook on my own.

They seemed troubled that every morning I would say, ‘oh, toast and jam.’ I suppose it was endearing because ‘toast and jam’ is quite the meal to Newfies … it’s traditional, it’s comforting, and, best of all, it’s cheap.

I would go into my office and try to suppress the hunger pangs, knowing I was one day closer to my first real paycheque (which totaled somewhere around $550 for two weeks of work).

But one day, I came back from my lunch of toast and jam, and there on the floor of my office was a pile of grocery bags. Some had pots, some had dishes, most were filled with eggs, bread, jam, potatoes, chicken, frozen vegetables, Tupperware full of leftovers, and so much more.

I turned and Iris Warren was standing there and said something like, ‘Now, my ducky, you don’t ask no questions. You just take this stuff home and make sure you come to us tomorrow morning with a full stomach.’

My eyes filled with tears, just as they are now, remembering that day.

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