Sunday, July 10, 2016

Places I didn't live: In Which the Author Doesn't Go Home

They say you can never go home. Who exactly says that? Can't say I know, but I have heard it said. I think about it every time I revisit my childhood home, which is actually quite often. It’s funny the things that do come back to you, and the things that just don’t.

Of course, my childhood home was almost entirely washed away by the flood of 2014. True, the room where I spent most of my time and stored the accumulated artifacts of my life up until then, were drowned – “washed away” is definitely the wrong phrase – in a deluge of shit-laced sewer backup. There was no attempt to restore it to its original state, my folks seeing it more as an “out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-opportunity.

So that particular bit of nostalgia is gone without a trace, but there are little bits elsewhere that remain.

The woods by the creek are still there, and the foliage is denser than ever. When I was growing up, kids would ride their bikes over the little hills and mounds in there, and were constantly sculpting them with shovels. Grown-ups, true to their mission to stamp out fun where ever it may be found, sent bulldozers in to flatten the mounds out, either stupidly ignorant of, or contemptuously indifferent to, the damage to the landscape – the bulldozer treads just butchered the landscape and crushed all manner of plant life. Just so kids couldn’t ride their bikes over a dirt path. It was a typically upper-middle class solution to a non-problem, but the busy-bodies have since turned their attentions elsewhere. The woods are still there, even if the hills are gone. The pathways are much too narrow for bicycles now, but kids still find their way in, as they always will.

The grassy field beyond the woods has not been paved over with houses yet, but give it time; Canadians hate nothing so much as undeveloped green space.

Strolling the neighbourhood, I’m struck by how clean everything is. No chip-bags, chocolate bar wrappers or cigarette butts in sight. You can walk the streets in your bare feet, and I often do – I find the rough concrete scratching the itchy soles of my feet as evocative of summer as grass between my toes, which is also common here. True, power tools often shatter the peace, but these are no worse than the obnoxious motor bikes revving their engines outside my apartment window all hours of every day. I marvel at the lush green lawns and the tall trees lining every street, forming a leafy archway overhead, and remember a time when this sort of thing wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the super-wealthy.

Thank you globalization!

You need to be super wealthy to own a home here now; the kinds of people moving in are the kinds of people who like to turn tasteful detached bungalows into three story mansions, and buy their kids Mercedes for their sixteenth birthdays. Everywhere I look, the physical manifestations of my memories are replaced by ornaments of excessive wealth. Renovations, facelifts and landscaping, all gaudy and garish clashing colours and mismatched materials, almost defiantly out of character with the neighbourhood, or even the merest aesthetic consideration.
It wasn’t always this way.

There are also a couple of places I really wish they would change. There are couple houses in the old neighbourhood whose pale blue and white motif has always lent them a kind of sickly quality. I’ve always found them cold and foreboding, not in the gothic haunted house kind of way – that would be to flatter them – but with a kind of stultifying aura of age.

I don’t know what created this impression, but I’ve carried it with me all my life. I must have been no more than four years old when I had a vivid dream of visiting one of these houses. In the dream, the place was run like a dusty museum, filled with glass china cabinets and stiff, uncomfortable furniture you weren’t allowed to sit on. Everything was of that sickly blue and white, and could have been a hundred years old. The matron of the house, a prim but not unfriendly old woman, introduced me to her “daughters”, who were no more than animated piles of clothes, Victorian style dresses with no heads or hands. even at that age I suspected there were people with no more personality than the clothes they wore.

Rubbish of course. I never set foot in either of those houses and have no idea what their owners were like. I suppose four-year olds are judgmental. I guess there was something about the places, the ghastly pallor, the dreary sense of order, that struck a fidgety young ruffian as unbearably oppressive. As if, alone in that warm and animated neighbourhood, these were places where the stomping and shouting of little boys, was unwelcome. Unjust no doubt – who knows what kind of people lived there? But try arguing that with a four-year old.

At least one of those houses has since been purchased by a youngish couple who are warm and friendly as can be. They keep their curtains open, and the large screen television in their living room is usually playing sports. This actually humanizes the place. But even if I was wrong about those particular places, I know that such places exist – alleged homes run like mausoleums, and I will always feel ill-at ease in them.     

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