KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #206: Home I’ll Be by Rita MacNeil.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #206: Home I’ll Be by Rita MacNeil.

I was recently home to Cape Breton for a funeral.

The Island of Cape Breton is a special place and I feel blessed to have grown up there. Going back home is always more than just a vacation; it is a chance to re-connect with the essence of who I am and where I came from. Thus, when I first got the news that my cousin’s wife had passed away, it was like the “Bat signal” appearing in the sky, summoning me home. Even though I had just been home mere weeks before, I immediately booked my flight. There was never a question of whether or not I would go down. Of course, I would come home to say good bye. After all, this was family.

There is an expression that was said many times during my youth whenever you met someone back home for the first time and they were trying to get to know you. The question asked would be, “Who’s yer fodder?”. By establishing who one’s father was then, who your “mudder” was, the inter-connected branches of your family tree would reveal themselves to this new person and would help establish your credentials, as it were, in their eyes. So, let me do that for all of you.

My cousin, George, was married to Linda for 48 years. It was Linda who passed away. George’s father was a man I grew up calling, “Uncle Harry”. Uncle Harry and my mother were brother and sister, which means that George and I are First Cousins. My mother and Uncle Harry were two of twelve children! While not all twelve of them had families and bore children of their own, enough did and, as it turns out, George and I have many other First Cousins who populate our family tree. However, there is an important distinction….the importance of which to this story I cannot stress enough….to my relationship to George and his family.

The history of Cape Breton Island is coloured by a trend that sees the outward migration of a majority of young people born there, to all corners of Canada and the world. I am living proof of that trend. However, out of all of my cousins (all of whom are older than me (but one) because my mother was the second youngest of thirteen), George was the only one who stayed in Glace Bay. When presenting one’s Cape Breton credentials, being someone who stayed and set down roots and gave back to the Island well…..those are treasured brownie points, well earned. So, George and Linda became more than just relatives we saw on holidays, they became extended members of my own family when I was growing up. It was not uncommon for them to just show up, unannounced at our door, a couple of times a week, and come in for tea and a chat. So, I grew up never thinking of Goerge as my cousin. He and Linda were family. So, when news of Linda’s passing came, it was like, “Oh boy! This is a big one!” So, home I went.

I have to be honest with you all. As much as I went home for my own feelings on the matter, I really went home for my mother. Just as George was the only cousin who stayed on the Island, my mother was the only one of her brothers and sisters still home, too. Through death or outward migration, all others left their birthplace; leaving only my mother on the Island. So, from my perspective, it was probably going to be one of the last chances my mother was going to have to be with “family” again. Being ninety, with a failing memory, I knew it was important for me to get her to this funeral and to the social visiting that would occur afterwards while she still might be able to understand who these good folks were. So, home I went.

So, this funeral was a family reunion, of sorts. But, it was also a reminder to me of what it means to be part of a larger, cultural family, too. Being away from home for so many years now, it is easy to forget how close-knit everyone is back home. There was so much respect shown by others. For example, there was construction going on next door to the funeral home. As the church bells rang out to signal the start of the service, the construction crew halted their work and let their machines fall silent. After the service, as the funeral procession moved through town, from the church to the cemetery, any motorist on the street pulled off to the side of the road to let the procession pass. Men on the sidewalks removed their hats and stood silent and still. Later that evening, as we shared a family meal, some good friends of ours, who originally came from India and had just experienced their first Glace Bay funeral, marvelled at the respect shown. They speculated that the whole town must have known who Linda was to have acted as they had when her body passed by. I said that I am sure they had no idea who was laying in the hearse but, they knew it was someone from Home and that was all they needed to know. Family is family, even if you are not directly related. For that reason, even though I have lived in Ontario for most of my life; when asked, I always, always tell people that I am from Cape Breton. It is in my blood and will forever be part of who I am.

A few years ago, just prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, George and Linda left Glace Bay and moved to Ontario to be closer to their sons and, more specifically, to their grandsons. Then Covid struck and they found themselves somewhat isolated in a strange land. They were with their immediate family but, it didn’t necessarily feel like home. This past July, we four MacInnes’ decided it was safe enough to make the three-hour drive from Cobourg to visit them just outside of Ottawa. We had a grand time! While we enjoyed our tea and good chat, George and Linda told us that we were the first people, outside of their son’s families, who had come to call the entire time they had lived in Ontario. We didn’t know it at the time but, it was to be the last time we were to see Linda alive. I am sooooooo happy we made the trip that day. For that short while, having tea with George and Linda made it felt a bit like being back home at their house in Glace Bay.

At the funeral, there were several songs sung by the unofficial “Queen of Cape Breton”, Rita MacNeil. Her song, “Home I’ll Be” is an anthem for all of us from away who still call Cape Breton home. George and Linda gave the biggest part of their lives to the Island of Cape Breton and the town of Glace Bay. So, in death, Linda’s wish was to come home. She was welcomed back with open arms and now she rests in a small cemetery back home that I will add to my “cemetery” visitation list that I make time for each trip home. It is funny how the faces that used to be seen around dinner tables and coffee tables, are now, increasingly, names etched on tombstones in quiet green spaces home by the sea.

As for my mother, she is the sole member of the family left back home. My sister and I have returned to our homes in Dartmouth and Cobourg, respectively. George, his sons and their families, have all returned to Ontario, as well. Only my mother is left. For most of the funeral and for most of the dinner that followed, my mother could not hear well enough to actively participate in the many conversations that were going on. So, she sat and she watched and tried to make sense of it all with her eyes. She didn’t recognize everyone she should have but, she was aware enough to know that she was with special people, around a table, sharing food and good conversation, which is the essence of how life was growing up back home. As I drove her back to her senior’s home later that night, I asked her what she thought of it all. She replied that it was so nice to be with family again. As has turned out to be so often the case, my mother…..the last one standing….the one who was born on Cape Breton and who will die on Cape Breton…was absolutely correct. Home and family are everything.

To Linda…..may you rest in peace. I’ll see you next time I’m home.

The link to the video for the song, “Home I’ll Be” by Rita MacNeil, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rita MacNeil, can be found here.

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