For those who know me in real life and not just online, you know that my mother passed away just over 2 years ago from ring-cell cancer that had spread through-out her body. It was a frustrating experience for everyone — a failing body with no obvious cause, with the final diagnosis only coming with the post-mortem examination (i.e. an autopsy). But, on the positive side (to the extent that there is ever a positive side to losing a parent), it wasn’t “sudden” with no opportunity to say goodbye.
My father had passed away 17 years before, so that basically leaves the six surviving kids, of which I am the youngest. For some people, the loss of a parent can be a bonding experience, showing what the kids are made of as they pull together. In our case, it really showed that of the six kids, two see the world in a radically different way than the other four. This caused a lot of tension, frustration, anger, resentment, and while my mother was hopeful that I would find a way to “pull the family together” after she was gone, I knew that was not something I could commit to attempting. I tried to be the peacemaker after my father died, and it wasn’t a sustainable solution, too much crap to deal with at one’s own expense, and I eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it. You can make it work if all parties have the same goal, but our family did not. Which is the long way around to say that my family has fractured quite a bit, and I’m really only in contact about once a month with three of the other five siblings.
The reason I mention both of the above realities is that I’ve been feeling a little bit like I’ve lost my roots. I still go to Peterborough, as the in-laws live there as well as two of my siblings, but the old stomping grounds haven’t felt like home in over 20 years, and even less so now that my mother has passed away. Which makes it very hard to reconnect with my past when desired. And I really wanted to this weekend. My mother used to love Easter, partly I think as it was both a Christian celebration as well as the signalling of Spring. Christmas was always a “family celebration”, Thanksgiving and other holidays were not big ones, but Easter? Easter was pure Mom. I felt it hard last year, and even harder this year. There are lots of campaigns about driving while texting, but driving while crying isn’t a great idea either.
Yet I still took a drive on Sunday, dragging my camera long for the spin. I thought perhaps driving around the old city would help me reconnect a bit with my heritage. I started in East City, over by the Lift Locks, where my mother and father both lived when they were young.
I saw St. Joseph’s where most of my siblings were born but which is no longer a hospital and undergoing massive renovation, to the point where it isn’t recognizable anymore. The Westclox building is there, but was changed from a factory into offices long ago (30 years, probably) and while it is a hook for my father (it was one of his first jobs, and his father worked there a long time), it had no resonance for me. I checked out a couple of beach areas, even the East City Bowl baseball diamond, but no resonance either, although I had watched games there occasionally as a kid.
I headed over by the Courthouse Hill where I used to toboggan as a kid, but the park is configured differently, again no resonance. I felt some small stirrings over by the London Street dam and generator plant, but even there, there’s a foot bridge over the water that is vastly remodeled and there’s lots of renovation afoot in the generator plant area.
Quaker Oats HQ is nearby, but that has no real meaning for me. I spent a lot of time over that way in my younger days, but it is changed so much for the better (greenbelt, paths, lighting), it’s hardly reminiscent of the rough trails when I was a kid.
My high school was never a sanctuary for me. Lots of people loved high school, but mine was more like five years of uncertainty broken up by summers and regular bouts of unpleasantness. It wasn’t all bleak, but I would never want to do it again. There are no glory days for me to relive, and the fact that it is no longer a regular high school helps distant the experience. I learned some of who I would become during that time, but it wasn’t a flowering so much as a difficult birth.
I swung by my elementary school, St. Peter’s, but it closed long ago. The doors for the auditorium look almost the same, which was interesting, and part of the playground for the kindergarten set is still there (a raised porch-type area with a railing around it, even though the railings are vastly different and wheel-chair accessible now). A small twinge of recognition.
I swung by Trent University’s Catherine Parr Traill College next, and while one might think I remember it from my university days, it is more from my elementary school days. The College is located about 2 blocks from my house and it’s where we used to play hide and seek, kick the can, hockey in their parking lot, football and soccer on one of the fields. Very few of the buildings look the same, even some walls have moved. The fields have all been appropriately cut back so that bushes don’t give predators places to lurk near walking paths for coeds. I did see one little “hiding nook” from our hide and seek days that is still there, although much less covered than it used to be. I even took a picture of it.
Next on the itinerary was my old street. All the neighbours are long gone, most having left long before my parents did. The old house is still there, but with siding all over it. Some of the garden boxes that my dad and brother built are still there, as is a shed in the backyard. And sure, my dad built most of the enclosed porch. But there was zero resonance for me. It’s just a house. A house I lived in for 23 years, but still just a house.
I didn’t linger and then it was on to Hamilton Park. I have no idea if it still has that name now. It was the name of the park when I was a kid, and it used to have a small dam that created a wading pool / swimming area where it would hold back Jackson’s Creek in the summer. I’m sure it was terribly unsanitary. But my mother would take me up there in the summer. The layout is still the same. Same location for swings, although there is a large climbing structure now. The basketball court is in about as good a condition as it ever was, down to just one hoop and basket and an asphalt court with grass growing up through it.
Jackson’s Park was the next stop, but the ground was still pretty muddy, so I passed. The playground area was never one of our areas anyway, we only really played near the big fish pond, and rode our bikes on trails.
I grabbed KFC for lunch, a slight nostalgic trip down memory lane, as the franchise has been there for over 40 years. I still remember when it was a Scott’s Chicken Villa. We used to occasionally grab snak-paks there when we were young, sometimes on the way out to the trailer or on the way back. The building has changed over the years of course, but the location is the same. From there, I headed North out of the city.
When I was a kid, my parents had a trailer out at Chemong Lake, 20 minutes north of Peterborough. Fourteen miles door to door. I love that drive, it’s the perfect distance for a cottage. Just far enough that you could commute in summers, just far enough to appreciate the removal from the city. Back then, it was Breezy Point Campground — four cottages, and about 75 campsites along the lake. That was a rule of the farmer who ran the campground — he wouldn’t rent out campsites unless you had direct lakefront. No rows and rows away from the lake, it was front line only, and when you ran out of lakefront, the campground was full. Combined with cheap yearly rates and the lack of infrastructure (it was mostly outhouses, although there was a dumping station for the few trailers that used it), almost everyone outside of the cottages were year-round campers — no over-nighters, no turn-over.
Of course, way back in the early 90s, the farmer sold off all the land and the campground subsequently closed. Multi-million-dollar houses now rest where the campground was, with even the bay we were on having had the shoreline changed, dredged, reinforced. So you would think there is little there to resonate with me.
Yet, I visited the same area 2 years ago on the day of my mother’s funeral. I am somewhat of a loner by nature, and in times of trouble or emotional angst, I rarely seek solace in the company of others. I got through the arrangements and the funeral, and then I needed to grieve alone. So I went for a drive. And ended up at the lake, which surprised probably no one in my family (certainly not Andrea). A search for a piece of my distant past, something to hold on to in the face of massive change.
As I said, it’s hard to imagine a different sight. Houses where cottages once stood. Fields turned into streets with signs, and streetlights. Massive homes with front lights where outhouses once stood on hills. But you know what saves the image? What makes me feel a little bit of connection?
Trees. For some reason, probably simple economics, the builders and clearers of land left some of the original trees in place. I can see three or four evergreens on the point, next to where a cottage once stood. Just down from that, another evergreen next to where one of our neighbours camped. And just down from that, three different stands of trees, right next to the water, that used to be the edge of our campsite. Some of the ones farther in from the shore are gone, but the ones at the water’s edge are still there. One we used to tie our canoe to sometimes. Another that was next to a shed. Several that were near our campfire. A huge one near the swimming hole that is slowly falling over, growing out over the water and that will eventually fall. But some remnant of the past is still there. I don’t know why I’m comforted by those trees being there. They aren’t anything special. Not pretty. Not huge flowering trees in the spring. They were more annoying than anything. But they have unique bends in them that are recognizable. Placemarkers that allow me to picture where the campfire was, or where the dock was built. I thought about going to the cemetary, but that’s just where the shells are buried. In my heart, I see my parents at the lake, with the summer just starting.
I’ve been wondering too if part of the disconnect, separate from the parental separations, is that I haven’t re-planted myself in Ottawa. Sure, work plays a big part of my identity, but I’ve worked for four different departments since I’ve been here. I’m involved with RASC, but not actively. And as I live longer and longer in Ottawa, perhaps I should be looking for some of those roots here? I lived a lot of different places around town, and few of them ever felt like “home”, but back in March, I did some calculations of when I moved different places, how long I lived in any one place, etc. and here are the results:
- In Peterborough: from birth to law school — 8479 days or 23y, 2m, 18d;
- In Victoria: for law school until co-op in Ottawa — 489 days or 1y, 4m, 1d;
- In Ottawa: ever since — 8131 days or 22y, 3m, 6d.
What this means is that on March 22, 2016, I will have lived in Ottawa longer than I lived in Peterborough, and on July 24, 2017, I will have lived half my life in Ottawa (i.e. the point where I have lived in Ottawa more than the other two places combined). I’m not counting the 3 months in New York, as I maintained my home here.
I think I need to start finding ways to cement a better sense of “place” rather than “location”. It won’t stop me from missing my Mom at Easter, but it might mitigate some of the sense of dislocation.