One morning pre-Covid, I stood at a podium in an old but bright and clean gym at the Jewish Centre in my neighbourhood in North London, Ontario. As I prepped to check ladies in to my fitness class I thought, How well do I know these ladies? I mean, we sweat together several mornings a week, dancing to pop’s top 40. But, do we really know each other?
When the first woman arrived and handed me her membership card, I asked, “So. Where did you drive in from this morning?”
“Oh, from the west,” she said. “Kilworth Heights.”
“Really?” I responded, thrilled. “I grew up there! What street?”
“Oh my god. What number?”
“That’s my house!”
Well, of course, it’s not my house, or home, anymore. It’s quite definitely hers. We chatted a bit, about the neighbourhood, the ways in which it has changed, and also its ongoing country charm. It’s more of an eclectic mix now, in what we call the “old” Kilworth Heights – memorable houses from my time there over four decades ago, with several shocking gigantic rebuilds thrown in. Thank goodness for the half-acre lots. And, we both agreed, we can’t even fathom the “new” Kilworth Heights, with its expansive and ongoing commercial and residential construction.
The woman before me, who woke up in that treasured space that lives on in my psyche and often inhabits my dreams, admitted that she and her husband had not been diligent with maintenance on the yellow brick side-split. Sadly, the old girl had fallen into disrepair.
When I first met her? I was smitten. And also certain she was way too big and expensive to be the golden goddess that gave shelter to my family.
I was 10; it was 1968. There were five of us – my parents, my older brother, 12, and my baby sister, 1 – crammed into a three-bedroom bungalow in Chatham. My dad, a high-ranking bank manager, had been called to London to clean up another manager’s mess, as happened in those days. The real estate agent – so memorable that he/she/they exist in my memory as adults do in Peanuts cartoons, a disembodied voice going: “Whanh-whanh-whanh-whanh-whanh” – started off our search with bungalows in Byron, a neighbourhood in west London.
I liked our current home in Chatham, had no problem with it, but for some reason the homes he/she/they showed us depressed me. Perhaps, innately, I knew we’d outgrown it?
Despite my age and the disembodied voice, I picked up on the numbers. Those bungalows? In the $18-19,000 range. I know! Hard to fathom these days, huh? He/she/they wanted to show us a unique option west of the city, in a country subdivision. The kicker? $24,000.
That may not seem like much more now, but to me, way back then, even at 10? One thing was clear: my parents were way too poor to afford that! We had no money. That was the impression they gave off. If you wanted something, anything? The answer would be, “No.” Had we asked a zillion times and got that answer? Or just knew not to ask?
Our clothes? From the sale rack. I still love to get a good bargain. Grocery shopping happened once a week, on payday, and if/when we ran out of something? Well, we ran out. We lived a lean, modest lifestyle.
The drive to that country subdivision was lovely and so green with trees. We crossed over the meandering Thames (my London may be a pipsqueak to real London, but it stole lots of names from it) River yet again before turning left at the top of the hill, then right, then left again. And there she stood, glowing in the sun, her fine acreage sprawled around her like the Garden of Eden. We climbed the cement steps and entered into a gigantic living room flooded with light from a bay window, then a kitchen – of the same size! – behind that, with, wonder of wonders, a glass patio door?! Looking out onto a humongous back yard?! Up a few steps to a full bathroom with cool beige fixtures, and down a long hallway to three big bedrooms. Down, then down again to another bathroom? What the heck? Two bathrooms in one house? Another bedroom? A laundry room? Beyond that, a garage? Back in and down a few more steps to a rec room with a real fireplace?!
My brother and I were blown away. All of the other houses paled in comparison. It’s possible we pleaded and begged and tried out sales techniques on the parents. I don’t recall. What I do recall? Is when I found out I’d be living in that house? Well, it was a better and bigger surprise than any of the Christmases I’d enjoyed to date.
And I gotta say, 43 Beechnut Street lived up to the hype. She was big and bright and could handle our family of five. I made new friends and got to ride a bus to school (I was used to walking) and when I got old enough, numerous babysitting gigs were in walking distance. I saved up to buy my first pair of jeans, Lees for $13.95 because it was too hard to save the extra $3 for Levis. The neighbours were so friendly, I don’t recall being scolded once for walking on anyone’s property. It felt like the entire subdivision belonged to everyone.
I guess it’s natural to have nostalgia for one’s childhood home, especially if it was a happy one. There were trials and tribulations later when Dad’s struggles with the bottle caused a certain melancholy to stick to the place like LePages glue. But a family home is generally so much more than just a pile of bricks and mortar. Shit went down there: good and bad. You lived, you learned.
Recently, when my daughter asked her kids what they wished for the world, her 8-and-a-half-year-old daughter said this: “I wish for everyone to have shelter.” Such a wonderful and insightful wish from a youngster!
This sentiment came up in a podcast I listened to on the war in Ukraine. The interviewee commented that, in her mind, one of the worst things to happen was people being torn from their homes. It’s harsh and unfathomable, yes? I feel so fortunate to have never had to experience this.
And now, as the world mourns yet another senseless mass school shooting in the US, let’s give thanks to all of the places and spaces that have sheltered us safely over our lifetimes and pray that this time – THIS TIME – will be the time lawmakers come to their senses and make some progress on enacting sensible gun laws.
Website photo: The golden goddess shining in the sun, circa early 1970s.