Thursday, September 15, 2016
For as long as our family has lived there, it's been known only by its street number: 84.
Our parents bought the house on July 14, 1966 and for the first year it was rented to university students, while we were living in London, England. We arrived in Canada by ocean liner a year later, sailing up the St. Lawrence to the Port of Montreal, passing Expo 67 in full swing. It was evening when we arrived at Union Station: our mother, five children ranging in age from 7 to 15, an uncle, an aunt and two cousins. Our father had remained in London to finish up some research.
I definitely did not want to come to Canada. I loved my school in London, loved my friends and classmates, and beseeched my parents to let me stay behind. I think our father would have caved, but our mother insisted I come with the rest of the family to Toronto. London in 1967 was fun. It was exciting. I had never felt as comfortable and alive as I did in London. By contrast, Toronto was staid, provincial and boring.
In London, we wore school uniforms. As a result, our weekend clothes tended to be much more stylish. Starting school in Toronto, my wardrobe consisted of the weekend clothes I wore in London. Clothes from Carnaby Street, Oxford Circus, Selfridges. Eye popping colours, shorter skirts than any worn in Toronto, bright leather shoes. I quickly got used to heads turning in the hallways of the local high school. Anything from England was considered cool that year, and I had an English accent which, combined with my clothes, made me stand out, even though I was a couple of years younger than most of my classmates. We also had a copy of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had not yet been released in Canada.
But 84. We arrived at 84 to find a large, old, dark, grimy house without basic amenities like light bulbs. I remember my siblings and I trying to wash the walls of the kitchen that night, alarmed at the prospect of having to sleep in what looked like it might have been a haunted house. Next morning, in daylight, we were amazed to see that most of the house was wallpapered in an enormous pattern of olive green fig leaves over white brick.
I quickly claimed the larger attic bedroom for myself. The rest of the summer was a blur, getting the house cleaned up enough to be habitable. And gradually we settled into what was to be our permanent family home. I got a part time job, first at the library, then at the local bakery. And that is where I was when I first met Ivaan two years later.
He came in one Thursday evening in December to buy some dill pickles and a small loaf of light rye bread. Zwei un' dreisig the bread cost, in Yiddish, because it was a Jewish bakery. Thirty-two cents. I was working alone in the bakery that evening, and because it was slow, we began to chat. He was a photographer, he had gone to my high school a decade earlier, and his family lived a few streets away from mine. At 25, he seemed like an ancient geezer to me, but he was really interesting and I enjoyed talking to him.
Two days later, I came home to a phone call from Ivaan. He wanted to know if I would like to accompany him to the opening of an art exhibition. I explained that this would necessitate him coming to the house to meet my father. He seemed agreeable, and shortly thereafter he arrived at the front door. He and my father retreated to the kitchen for a chat, while I stood in the living room for an inordinate length of time, wringing my hands. Eventually I poked my head into the kitchen, and found the two of them so engrossed in conversation that they had completely forgotten about me. Somehow, I secured permission to attend the art exhibition, and it was the start of a friendship with Ivaan that spanned decades.
Ivaan led a big, exciting life. I was in high school. On the surface, it would be hard to imagine two more unlikely friends. Years later, I learned that he had told his mother all about my family. My high school friends were impressed. When he learned I liked motorcycles, he gave me his old Harley Davidson. He came in useful when I needed to scare off too-persistent boyfriends. He once insisted on attending a high school dance with me, where he showed up reeking of patchouli oil, in full hippie regalia. Looking back, I realize that Ivaan provided what I was missing when I left London: a bigger, brighter, more exciting life.
So, what does all this have to do with 84? This month, we put 84 up for sale. It no longer has the fig leaf wallpaper. The neighbourhood has gentrified to the point where all the houses are protected by a heritage designation and the only people who can afford to buy a house there are the people who can afford to spend a couple of million. One day later, the house was sold to a young couple with two boys the ages of my brothers when we first moved to 84. Three weeks from now, it will be their family home.
We'll be leaving so much behind: the memory of our lovely niece being born there. The memory of our elder brother being married there. The memory of our mother taking her last breath there. The memory of the fig leaf wallpaper, some of which still remains on the walls of the upstairs cleaning closet. I spent a month at 84 this summer, cleaning, repairing and painting it in preparation for the real estate market. It reminded me of our first night there in 1967, trying to wash the kitchen walls - only this time with light bulbs in place.
But personally, what I'll remember most vividly is that I'm saying goodbye to the house where I waited impatiently in the living room in December of 1969 while my dad and Ivaan seemed to have been talking about everything under the sun except me. The small rye bread Ivaan bought the evening I first met him at the Harbord Bakery now costs $3.95.
As for 84, I like to think I've honoured our family's years there by leaving it in better condition than I found it in, 50 years ago. But as the American poet Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
I didn't think it would be bittersweet, but maybe it is after all.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
In the late 1960s, Garth came to live in Toronto, part of the wave of young Americans whose opposition to the Vietnam War brought them to Canada. He was a talented photographer, and actually as soon as you meet Garth you realize he's someone who, in his quiet, unassuming way, is very good at quite a number of things. Garth floated into Ivaan's orbit - and vice versa - and they shared a lifelong friendship that didn't require them to be in regular contact.
Garth was a family man right from the start. Ivaan was the opposite. When Garth met Victoria, his fate was pretty much sealed. They quickly acquired a house and a houseful of children and Garth settled down to a rich, fulfilling family life. All these years later, they still live in the same house. Victoria is vivacious, distinctly pretty, with a quick sense of humour and a youthfulness that belies all their years of marriage.
And Garth? Garth is a happy man.
Last week, Garth called me with the news that their 40th wedding anniversary is fast approaching. He'd been having a look on our website and hoped to surprise Victoria with a new wedding ring. After all, she's lost one while gardening and lost its replacement while doing something else. And the thing is this: Victoria has lovely hands. She felt the absence of a wedding ring keenly.
Garth and Victoria had planned a 40th anniversary cruise to Eastern Europe as their anniversary gift to each other, and they had agreed not to exchange gifts because really the cruise was their gift to each other. But they were having a little family celebration in a couple of weeks, and he really wanted to present her with a new wedding ring, with rubies, because 40 years is the Ruby Anniversary.
He'd earmarked a few rings on our website, and he had sneaked a couple of her rings out of the house when he came by the atelier with a close friend of Victoria's in tow. He wanted to ensure he chose the correct size.
So here's where the plot unravels. I thought the rings he had earmarked were too heavy for an everyday ring. Their friend agreed. And I was fairly sure that the rings he'd brought were too large a size for her ring finger. So we devised a plan. I'd lend their friend a ring in a size seven-and-a-half, she'd show it to Victoria and pretend that she'd just found it in the street, and Victoria would no doubt try it on. I deliberately chose one which Victoria would be unlikely to recognize as an Ivaan ring.
I showed Garth some rings that I thought Victoria would like. Immediately he was taken with a double-Calla lily ring in white gold with two diamonds, but asked if he could have it with rubies instead. I thought it was an inspired choice. So off they went to try out their little ruse on Victoria.
Fast forward one hour. Garth and Victoria walked into the atelier. "The surprise is off" said Garth. Apparently, Victoria immediately recognized the "found" ring as an Ivaan ring, realized that a little drama was unfolding in front of her eyes, and said to Garth, "If you're planning on getting me a new wedding ring, can I at least come and see it?"
Happy Anniversary, you two.