Spending time these days near the city where I was born has meant frequent meanderings down memory lane. Today it was more a stroll down memory avenue.
Strathcona Avenue is a long residential street in Thunder Bay’s north end, Port Arthur when I was growing up. It’s part of a neighbourhood known as Current River, named for the river that runs through that end of the city to a dam built back in 1901. The dam created an artificial lake known as Boulevard Lake, a place where I spent hours every summer, picnicking, learning to swim, hanging out as I got older.
In 1955, a housing development went up along Strathcona and my parents were among the first families to buy. The houses were neat, tidy, modest bungalows, generally three bedrooms, a living room, eat in kitchen (no one had dining rooms), one bathroom. I was two when we moved in. The yards were still dirt, the driveways unpaved. But all the young families moving in were delighted with their new homes.
In time, the dirt yards were replaced with sod, the driveways paved, flowers and shrubs and trees planted. Fences went up around the yards, low enough so neighbours could talk over them. Ours was a white picket fence that ran along the back yard with a gate to the back lane.
When my parents moved in, they had only me and my older brother. Seven years later, my sister came along and I had to share a room. I didn’t mind. She was cute. And funny. And easily taken in. One year, she was convinced and delighted that Santa was speaking to her at bedtime from the upper bunk. Why Santa sounded like a 10 year old girl never crossed her mind. I liked being the big kid to her little one.
Over the years, life played out much as it did for many families in small towns through the 50’s and 60’s. There were all the usual celebrations and milestones. Going to school, playing with friends. It was, despite some ups and downs, a great place to grow up.
Today I went back.
Dan and I drive around Boulevard Lake and I point out some of the places of my childhood, where little ghosts of friends past seem to flicker in my peripheral vision. We continue past Current River School which looks very little like it did when I attended. It’s been expanded, modernized, the brick replaced, the windows that we opened with a long pole are long gone. But the playground is the same. I point out the baseball diamond where I was playing when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Grade five, I think. Past the little Anglican church where my mother would drop me and my brother off for Sunday school. She was agnostic, my father atheist. She felt we should at least have some religious education so that we could make up our own minds when we got older. Down Hodder Avenue, left at the firehall where the firemen would flood a skating rink every winter on the empty lot behind the building. The crunch of skates sliding along the snow to the rink whisper in my ear. And around the corner onto Strathcona. There’s Coadys’ house and Pies’, Vidlaks’ and Humphreys’, Whatleys’ and Philps’ and so on and so on… The street looks the same. And different. The houses are still neat and tidy. But the trees are much taller, the street seems shorter and those neighbours, I think, are mostly gone.
In the 50’s and 60’s, Strathcona Avenue was a street full of young families, where we knew everyone in every house, where the women met for coffee and bridge, where the men curled and golfed together. And where as kids, we roamed after school and all summer long in a motley sort of gang, the bigger kids keeping an eye on the little ones, complaining about the minding but secretly pleased with the hero worship. One end of the street was a dead end, a big hunk of Canadian shield rocks and trees, known as The Rocks. (We were practical if not creative.)
We built forts up there, occasionally swiping tins of beans from home to heat over a campfire. Or we’d head to the other end of the street to an empty lot where we dipped down behind the houses past the open sewer pipe to a creek, more bush, more forts, more beans. That was called the Echo. Because every trip there included yelling down the sewer pipe and listening to our voices bounce back.
The lot leading to the Echo is neatly groomed now with healthy green grass. But The Rocks are virtually unchanged.
Dan and I climb up the same footholds I remember, down the same paths where I can only assume other kids still run since the paths are still clearly defined. We walk to the railway tracks that are no longer used and spot the abandoned rail cars well down the line. Where Fred the Hermit used to live in a tar paper shack. Where we’d sit as kids, feet hanging over the edge of the rocks cut on either side of the tracks, waiting for a train after we’d put pennies and caps on the rails. Where a teenage boy once told me he loved me.
We can see the grain elevators in the distance with the Sleeping Giant beyond, and are surprised to find a little gravel path someone has carefully marked with twigs and branches, a path going nowhere except to a pile of downed trees. Where did the gravel come from, we wonder.
As we drive back down the street, I ask Dan to stop so I can take a photo of my old house. It looks well cared for, new windows, new brick. But the front walk is gone as are the flowerbeds and my mother’s roses. The driveway, a big hill when I was racing up it on my bike, looks less steep than I recall. The paving is cracked and bumpy. Perhaps it’s original? Someone’s added a paving stone pad that looks out of place.
Next door, an elderly man is watering his flowers.
“I wonder if that’s Mr. Whatley,” I say. “I used to babysit for them.”
“Why don’t you go and ask?” says Dan.
“I don’t know, I’m shy.” Dan rolls his eyes and laughs. “And I’m not sure it’s him. He was quite tall.”
“And you weren’t,” says Dan.
Fine. I jump out of the car, head up the hill.
“Mr. Whatley?” He turns around and looks at me blankly. White haired, strong face, stooped now but it’s him. “I used to live next door. I babysat for you.”
The light of recognition comes on. He smiles, a warm friendly smile.
“I’m a senior citizen now,” I laugh. He shakes his head, looks puzzled for a moment, says that’s not possible. He asks after my mother and my siblings. We chat about the neighbourhood and the neighbours. So many changes. Only a few of the originals still here. He doesn’t know the people next door.
“There’s been a lot of turnover in your house,” he tells me, “since your family left to live in the country. At least ten different families there. There was one fellow who seemed nice but we never got to know the rest. We’ve lived here 59 years now.” His wife, he says, used to bring muffins when someone new moved in but she stopped the last few times. Nobody seemed to care. There are a few signs of kids on the street but none in sight. The women don’t socialize. The men don’t curl. The fences are tall.
We chat a bit more. I shake his hand and say how nice it is to see him again. As I walk to the car, I look back at our old house and can’t help but feel a little sad that it’s seen so much change.
I was 17 when I left Strathcona Avenue for the big city, moving to Toronto, ready to begin my own life. My parents moved to the Little House in the Bush a few years later. But today my memories are refreshed. And I am reminded again how lucky I was to grow up when and where I did.