In my large family, getting everyone together for a holiday dinner can be complicated. So when 12 of us decided to travel from Fortuna, California to St. Johnís, Newfoundland, we had our doubts. But with one common and noble goal between us, everything fell perfectly into place. We were bringing John home.
My father, John Crotty, was born and raised in St. Johnís. As any Newfoundlander will tell you, to be born in Newfoundland is more than a geographical statistic, itís who you are. And this was certainly true of him.
My father was a hard-working man, a good father and husband. He loved his grandchildren. He was not well educated; in fact, he told us that he walked into the fifth grade, took one look around, said, ďThis isnít for meĒ and walked out. But he was very intelligent and could do anything with his hands. He had a quick wit, common sense and lots of opinions. But above all, he was a Newfoundlander.
My father shared many memories of growing up on Flower Hill in St. Johnís. I learned a lot about him through those stories. His childhood was not easy, though he never complained about it. He had four siblings, and when Dad was 12 his father died. Being the oldest son, my father quit school and got a job shining shoes to help support the family. Yet the memories he shared were good Ė sledding down Flower Hill with the neighbourhood kids, grabbing cooling buns from the bakery on Water Street and topping them with molasses from the barrels on the docks, and swimming at Bowring Park.
His familyís house still stands on Flower Hill. In fact, it is pictured in a cheerful print by Richard Steele entitled, ďThe Cling.Ē The print depicts a group of boys sledding down Flower Hill. The last house on the left is the house Dad grew up in.
In 1956 my father, mother and I moved from St. Johnís to Fortuna, California. We ended up there the same way many other Newfoundlanders ended up in the States. My fatherís two sisters had met and married two American brothers stationed in St. Johnís. The brothers were from Fortuna. When the sisters moved to Fortuna my father followed. There, Dad built his home, had three more children and found employment at a lumber mill. His home and family were in Fortuna Ė but his heart was still in Newfoundland.
John and Marg Crotty hold three-month-old Sheila in 1956, shortly before moving to California.
The pull of Newfoundland
In 1962, my dad quit his job, sold the house, packed up his family and moved back to St. Johnís. I still remember that day, driving away from my home in our station wagon pulling a trailer full of belongings.
Home must be a powerful longing, for the hope of it led him to leave all he worked for. In St. Johnís, my father bought a gas station on Topsail Road and my family rented an apartment. My dad put in long hours at work, but it was a harsh winter and the business was not making enough money. Only a year later we moved back to Fortuna.
In 1974 my grandfather, John Heffernan, came to Fortuna to visit. When he was returning to St. Johnís I, having just graduated from high school, accompanied him. I lived with my grandfather, worked at Atlantic Films and Electronics, and fell in love with St. Johnís. I have never felt as happy as I did during that time. I know I must have told my father how much I loved it and I believe I planted the seed, because in 1975 my family once again packed up and moved back home. But the move would be short-lived once again. My brother, John, only ended up staying a few months before driving back, and about a year later the rest of the family, myself included, followed.
Clinging to home
In 2003 my father was diagnosed with cancer. He received chemotherapy for a few years and spent many hours recovering in his recliner. Directly in his view was ďThe ClingĒ painting. He had a lot of time to reflect on growing up on Flower Hill and I feel that image brought him the peace he felt as a boy.
When my father passed we were left with the decision on his burial. He had never discussed it, but we instinctively knew. My father was to be cremated and his ashes were to be brought back to his homeland. There were 12 of his family to accompany him on his last trip home; his wife, two sisters, three children, one daughter-in-law, four grandchildren and one niece. His sisters, Marge and Catherine, had not been back to St. Johnís for more than 40 years. Sitting on the apartment deck in downtown St. Johnís, my aunt said, ďSheila, this is all a dream.Ē I agreed.
And here I am back in Fortuna, and I know that feeling my father felt. I, too, miss St. Johnís. Recently, I legally changed my surname to St. John. It is my way of paying tribute to my homeland, and to both my father, John Crotty, and my grandfather, John Heffernan. I think of them as my guiding light. I admire my father for giving it all up to find that peace of home.
I know that he has finally found it. It was a privilege and an honour to bring John home.