Friday, 1 March 2013

Snow Walk Home

I wandered the neighbourhood in the blowing snow on Wednesday night. Stinging cheeks. Branches and wires covered - fairy land. I live, and we grew up in, Montreal South. If you're under 60, you won't remember it, as we were annexed into Longueuil c1961. Diehard Montreal Southers still call it that. I count myself proudly among them. :-)

Our family moved to Lafayette Street from Parthenais Street in Montreal in 1923. The story is, Granda wanted to bring his family to the country after a little boy was killed by a car near their home. Montreal South was country then. The children picked violets in the woods in spring and skated between the trees in winter. No sidewalks. No paved streets and plenty of mud. Clean air. Swimming in the St. Lawrence in summer.  

Our neighbourhood was three blocks by three blocks - Lafayette to Ste-Hélène and Victoria (now St-Laurent) to Washington (now Désaulniers). The railroad tracks at Désaulniers were levelled and are a much -used bike path in snow-free days. In spring, cherry blossoms overhang the paths, intoxicating scent, pink snow drifting.

I walked to Lafayette and in by the trees that used to bookend our stone wall and Gram's irises and hosta. Into the hall, out the kitchen window, and across to the Carlson's - all in imagination, as our house full of light, laughter, tears and dark swirling things, was cut in half and moved under Taschereau Boulevard (so said Hughie Oakley). I've never been able to find it, and still I search as if memories and understanding could be re-captured in the house. Carlson's house was taken down, and there's a four-storey apartment building at the back of the property. The chestnut trees that Cheryl and I used to climb are still there. When my Mum and aunts were young, they could climb the massive willow in the back yard and watch ships sailing down (or is it up?) the river.

Along St-Laurent and south on Lasalle past Ruby and Hughie's, whose house was built (according to a plaque on the side wall) in 1897. As I approached the house, I smelled Pot, and then noticed a man in their driveway who turned away from me. And how, you may ask, do I know the smell of Pot, former nun and good priest that I am? Well, in 1975 when I was hospitalized in Boston for my breakdown/breakthrough, someone walked by outside the window of North Belknap 1 smoking a joint, and my roomie who was more worldly than I at the time, introduced me to the smell. I didn't inhale of course, and have actually never smoked it - though it's a pleasant enough tangy scent.

Ruby and  Hughie have long since crossed the bar to whatever comes next. Except when snow was too deep, we always cut through at the back corner of their property from ours on our way to school or friends. We stopped off when they had kittens in the shed, but I was never happy going inside.  The house was mysterious, dark, messy with newspapers and clutter, and it stirred feelings of a nameless anxiety. A large stuffed owl kept watch from on high.

Wagram - Campbell's - Judy's on the corner, her Campbell grandparents upstairs after Grade 2 forever teacher Mrs Briscoe retired and moved to Brockville. Judy's Deville grandparents lived in the right side extension. Mrs Deville made the most delicious date cookies with a hint of nutmeg. I have her recipe, but could never get them to come out light and fluffy and oh so good. Judy does a close second to her Grandma.

William White School is no more, having been torn down and replaced by - guess what?! - condos. Some of the trees were saved. I remember walking in the front schoolyard with Miss Pitman (who became Mrs Anderson) holding her hand - around the trees and keeping an eye on the Grades 1 - 3. At the back of the school on the girls' side, we played marbles, stand-oh, and other games. In winter, Mr Butler, our caretaker, put up the boards for a rink. As Trevor Butler was Jim's best friend, we would go over at night, shovel the rink if necessary, and skate to our heart's content. I can still hear echoes of us under the lights, laughing and shouting, cheeks red, eyes bright - alive!

Past the Lidstones' on Mercier. I don't remember them having a shed at the back. Mrs Bertha Carleton's little house has a new open verandah along the front and left side. Oddfellows Hall is long gone. Jim played the piano there once accompanying Jean McLean who sang. Condos. Along St-Laurent to the corner restaurant that is no more. In our day, the owner was whispered to keep rather nefarious company - but no one ever knew it for sure. Or if they did know, they weren't saying.

Ste-Hélène - The small theatre burned. The theatre to which we marched from school each June to receive our report cards and prizes. Jim composed, at the tender age of 11 "The William White March" and played it his last year there ... He's a talented musician is my big brother. Next door, the old Montreal South United Church was torn down a few years ago, leaving an open space with trees, weeds in summer, and a lonely feel. Auntie Eileen attended school (Grade 3) in a tiny room at the back of the church hall in 1923. We attended Girl Guides in the hall on Wednesday nights, so given that this walk was on a snowy Wednesday, I heard the soft voices of our little gang walking each other home at 9pm, laughing and chatting. Cheryl and I were the last two, and parted north and south, she to 790, I to 427 Lafayette. 

A few years ago, I discovered why the people from Montreal South United and Gardenville United were - mmm -- less than friendly and co-operative with each other. Turns out that Montreal South was Methodist and Gardenville was solemn Presbyterian, and when the two denominations united in 1928 to form the United Church of Canada, neither congregation forgot its roots. :-)

Along Désaulniers, with the bike paths on my left. Night of mystery - did I hear a ghost train? And when I reached Lafayette, I heard the old Southern Counties car chugging along, bell clanging. The tracks were removed long since, and trees grace the centre of the boulevard. A little girl was killed by a trolley on those tracks on Hallowe'en night when we were children. 

Idyllic little neighbourhood? We played outdoors every chance we got. Summer time was dawn to dusk, often softball on our spare lot with first base being a huge rock at the edge of Salette's. Bicycles. Tree-climbing. Cowboys and (yes, I cringe at the thought now) Indians. Davy Crockett hats. Guns. (Cringe again). Imagination, fun, laughter, arguments, tears, forgiveness. 

And yet ... at least 5 children died in that little three by three block neighbourhood when we were children. There were at least three pedophiles, about whom we were not warned. Troubling? Yes! As an adult, I discovered that my oldest brother, Lorne, who drowned at 8 in 1950, was molested repeatedly by the teen-age son of our neighbour. (It took a while for my parents to find out. Can't we trust our neighbours?) Alcoholism. Spousal abuse. Depression. Bullying. Anxiety - I accounted for a fairly high percentage of the neighbourhood anxiety, :-) but I had plenty of company amongst children and adults alike. Grief.

Real life, then. We had our Gram upstairs when we came home for lunch and after school. Our cousins across the street from my present home, two blocks from our childhood home. Comfort and a measure of safety - or the illusion of safety. And hey - illusions serve their purposes - especially when we're children in desperate need to survive. As we grow up, we may choose to give up illusions to set our hearts free.

What is it about falling snow that stirs up nostalgia? Memories? Longing for - what? It's so beautiful it hurts my heart. Music does that. Art. Cats' whiskers. A child gazing at her baptism candle. Daffodils. The sweet, soft scent of violets. A newborn baby. Open hands at the altar at communion - old hands, young hands, crossed open hands of tiny children as they gaze up in awe and a little puzzlement about the funny white 'bread' ... They so want to be part of it .... and are ...

More snow coming! :-) This winter is sooo wonder-full. I just, just love it! And I hold in tension the memories... the life we lived ... the children we were ... the truths we have discovered as adults ... the child within ... the grace of falling snow ... 

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful account of that area, and what it used to be like. I really enjoyed reading it.