NEWPORT — A year can change a lot … especially this past one.
On March 13, 2020, Heather McKeown was still working as a flight attendant for JetBlue.
Today, on the one-year anniversary of Governor Phil Scott’s state of emergency declaration, McKeown is still picking up the pieces of her former life. The 68-year-old, who left her dream job in late June, is grateful for what she does have and thinking every day of her co-workers still flying.
“I’ve cried so much this year,” McKeown said. “I really have nothing to be sad about compared to people who’ve lost family, but so much has changed. I know this will make us stronger eventually … what I really really hope is that people value their health and take care of themselves.”
She has lost six of her fellow crew members to COVID-19: the youngest 28, the oldest 66, all without pre-existing conditions.
McKeown was asked by Memphremagog Trails vice president Louise Whipple to create a snow sculpture as part of a community snow sculpting effort this week.
McKeown crafted what she knew to honor her fallen coworkers, working diligently starting on Tuesday and finishing up on Friday. Near the trail network’s parking lot now lies a plane, complete with wings, windows and a JetBlue sign. Some accessories were used due to the spring-like conditions.
“There’s a purpose,” McKeown said on Thursday. “It’s to say ‘guess what, Jetblue: I’m still loving you every day.’”
“I want people to know those flight attendants are still up there, pilots are still up there,” she said. “They are essential workers that are pretty much anonymous for people who don’t fly.
“Please add them to your prayers because they’re up there helping people every day on every airline,” she said.
When the state of emergency was declared a year ago, McKeown was off doing what she loved most in a two-week-on, two-week-off schedule.
She returned home from one such stint on March 22, 2020. After that, nothing was the same.
“When I went back, I took a picture at JFK and it was empty,” she said. “It was 5 p.m. and no one was there.”
McKeown, who has held a multitude of jobs over her lifetime, started with JetBlue at age 52. It had always been her dream to be a flight attendant, but she was rejected 53 times from airlines all over Canada between the ages of 18 and 22 because of her short stature.
When she finally got her dream job, it was just as she had imagined.
“I loved my job at JetBlue,” she said. “Every day was wonderful, it is a fantastic company and there are wonderful people working there.”
McKeown, who has written a book of essays about her experience as a flight attendant, said the company’s values resonated with her: safety, caring, integrity, passion, and fun.
“Living here in Vermont, those values flow through all of us,” she said. “So when I got to JetBlue it was like being home.”
McKeown grew up in Montréal and spent summers directly across the lake from Newport in Cedarville, Quebec. She moved to a small cottage in Newport two-and-a-half years ago after living in Franklin County for three decades.
McKeown remembers the moment she signed the paperwork to leave JetBlue: 7:13 a.m. on June 27, 2020, alone in a Las Vegas hotel room on a layover. She says the company had asked as many of the attendants who could leave to do so, in order to not furlough anyone.
“I’m 68, so it was my turn, even though I thought I’d never ever retire because I just didn’t want to,” said McKeown. “It’s been very, very hard for me, but I’m so glad I did pull the plug on my beloved career because I can.”
“There are so many of them out there with mortgages and new babies and new cars and plans to travel and they need the job badly just to live,” she said.
McKeown’s two children are grown and she lives in a 950-square-foot house: her needs now are very simple. She has other careers she has fallen back on: massage therapist, writer, mediator, artist.
McKeown sticks a JetBlue plane in all of her paintings.
“I’m not quite ready to let it all go yet,” she said. “Until COVID’s over, I just want them all to stay safe.”
“I worry about [my former co-workers] every day, they’re like my brothers and sisters,” she said. “They taught me so much and their example and strength of character was such an inspiration to me.”
McKeown has one friend at JetBlue who has lost nine members of his extended family to COVID-19.
“We still take care of each other,” she said.
McKeown praised the work Vermont has done to keep cases low.
“I think the governor did a fantastic job,” she said. “He didn’t go on TV every day to brag; he went on to give facts, if he had any, and to encourage us to set a good example.”
McKeown, an introvert by nature, says the isolation hasn’t hurt her as much as others.
“I love my friends and I miss my friends, but I’m not suffering when so many people are,” she said, adding that at age 16 the isolation would have been a nightmare.
“We have to find things that are humorous amongst the sad,” she said.
McKeown, hopeful for the future, is scheduled to get the vaccine on Monday.
“Protect yourself and protect your neighbors by being considerate,” she said.
This weekend, however, and as long as it lasts, you can visit her plane and other snow sculptures on Darling Hill Road in Newport.
“Right now it’s a mud bog in the parking lot,” reads a post on Memphremagog Trails’ Facebook page. “If you don’t get a chance to visit them, please vote on them virtually on Saturday.”
Photos of the sculptures will be posted to the trail network’s Facebook page.
“Our trails are not just about skiing and snowshoeing and, now, fat tire biking, but a sense of community,” said Whipple, who came up with the idea. “I thought the snow sculptures would be just a nice artistic way of expressing community.”
Tara Patten, Lynda Chaffee and Emily Robinson built a gnome village, inspired by Patten. She has made over 500 clay gnomes and hid them around Memphremagog Trails and other NEK recreation areas this winter.
“I have always loved gnomes: I and my kids love to hike and we used to paint rocks and hide them with inspirational quotes,” Patten said. “I thought I’d make some lucky gnomes and hide them in the woods for people to find and keep or relocate.”
“With such a crazy year I just wanted to bring some joy,” she added.
Whipple said that it’s cool to see kids going into the trail system to look for the small gnomes.
“These are people sharing their light in our community by doing these things,” she said.
Whipple herself built an upside-down snow person for a sculpture.
“This year everybody’s been kind of tipped upside-down with this COVID thing,” she said. “We all want to get out and have fun but we’ve been upside-down all year.”