A flashback of the island happens sometimes when I’m not expecting it; a movie or a TV show, there will be a sudden establishing shot of sharp red cliffs with the ocean behind them, and I sit bolt upright. “I know where that is,” I say. It happens rarely, because who can afford to film in Prince Edward Island? It’s across a 14-km bridge from the mainland, with a winter population of around 140,000, almost a thousand of them Buddhists from the monastery outside Tea Hill. It snowed almost 18 feet the winter of 2013. My mother had to dig herself out of her house inch by inch with a spatula, threading it past the screen to shovel the snow back and force the door open. But every time I see a little snippet of the North Shore or the Charlottetown Harbour onscreen, it just feels…right.
I was born in Prince Edward Island, which means I’m forever an Islander. Even though we left when I was 8, and my mother returned years later and bought a house and lives there still, I will always be an Islander even if I never live there again — and she will always be “from away.” It’s hard to understand what it means to be “from away” if you’re not an Islander, but it’s a distinct way to draw a line between “us” and “them.” I know a girl whose aunt was born while their family was in Nova Scotia on vacation; everyone in the family is an Islander, except her. You don’t get a membership card or anything, although if you live there or visit often enough, everyone knows all your business. I was housesitting for a friend a few years back, though I live in Montreal most of the year, and everyone on the street on the Island — including the mailman — knew my name though I had never introduced myself.
It’s small-town writ large — the capital is 34,000 people, but it’s the biggest city we have. You can circumnavigate the entire Island in 10 hours; we added up the estimated driving times in a map handed out by Parks Canada. As a child, the island seemed huge. We lived first in a house that my mother and father built, in the country outside of Charlottetown, and then, after their divorce, in the center of town itself. Our apartment is still there, having cycled through being a real estate office and back to apartments.
I rang the doorbell once, to see if I could see the gash our grand piano left in the hallway ceiling, but no-one answered; we’re not so much a small town as all that. It’s a regular ritual of Islanders, identifying things by what they used to be — the office of parks management that used to be Tweel’s grocery store; the take-out place that used to be Seatreat restaurant, where my mother took me once a week for lunch; the hospital where I was born that became an old age home and is now sitting empty. It’s important to share these memories and confirm your presence in a shared past: I was here when this was something else, so were we all, remember? I’m from here, not from away.
There are a few other Island touchstones: the musical — if you have to ask “which one?”, you aren’t a real Islander. The Anne of Green Gables musical has been playing at the Confederation Centre continuously since 1965, going through new stage directions and backdrops every couple of years or so. I think the first time I went, I was 5 years old, but I’ve seen it almost every year since then, barring a few times when I lived too far away to get home regularly. A friend of mine worked in the Anne of Green Gables Store and said they played the original cast recording on a loop every day, so she can sing all the songs in her sleep. Love her or hate her, Anne is so much a part of Island consciousness that she was on our license plates for four years.
Rainbow Valley is another touchstone, the only amusement park unless you wanted to take the ferry to Nova Scotia (this was before the Bridge). There was a flying saucer gift shop, a swan’s pond, a talking owl, teacup rides. Since Rainbow Valley was open from 1969-2005, only the very youngest Islanders don’t remember a trek to Cavendish and a ride on the Red Baron. I went to a screening of a documentary about the park (“Rainbow Valley”) a couple of years ago, and the audience surrounded an outdoor screen in beach chairs; there was a collective sigh of enjoyment the first time the fiberglass rainbow appeared onscreen.
Aside from the connection with things that aren’t there anymore on the island, I’m always drawn to the line of the horizon, and can find my way down to a wharf in my sleep. I know how many different shades of green and grey the water can go in winter, and exactly how barnacles feel when you accidentally get scraped along them by a choppy wave. I’m used to seagulls and the smell of the ocean; no matter where you are on the Island, it smells like fresh salt air. The houses rot around you from the constant damp, but your sinuses never feel so clear. There’s a tendency towards isolation on this Island, a hunkering down and resistance to change. Maybe that’s because the landscape is both unique and everlasting; it’s always red dirt and pine trees, even as the rocks erode and tip into the sea. The new summer houses of the out-of-towners are ostentatious, but the Islanders can see around and past them as if they were rocks.
I can’t imagine a way for me to go back and live on the Island again, so my main connection to it is visiting as often as possible, and joking with other Islanders. My only real feeling of home comes from the Island, even though I lived there for such a small part of my life. I actually considered a way to “accidentally” find myself there at the end of my pregnancy so I could have my baby there and ensure she would have the same legacy. But instead, she was born in Montreal, so even if she comes to love it as I do, she’ll always be “from away.”