Before I did anything else I had to go and see Rita. Rita is one of my parents’ – and my – oldest friends. She has known me all my life, babysat for me and my siblings when we were babies. Another cherished elder. Rita has always remained incredibly loyal and loving to our family, despite the distance of continents of the last 40 years. Everyone should have a Rita!
Rita is a bit older than my parents but maintained her independence for longer. Now however, in her mid-80’s, her memory is failing and she lives in residential care in Belleville, a town 100 miles east of Toronto, the same town as her daughter Pat. The last time I phoned Rita from the UK, not long after my Dad died, I could tell she was confused. So I had phoned Pat from the US and arranged this visit with her. Day 1 in Toronto, a sunny autumn day, I took a scenic train ride along the northern lakeside of Lake Ontario to Belleville.
Pat met me at the station. I’d never met Pat before though I’d heard about her and Rita’s other children over the years. My family’s relationship with Rita had always been very much with her as an individual, in Canada and in the subsequent years when she made occasional solo trips to Europe and visited us in the UK – quite a feat bearing in mind she was married with 11 children, all grown up by then.
Despite never having a lot to do with the rest of Rita’s family, our families are interconnected nonetheless. On the way to Rita’s Pat stopped by her house to collect something. She told me her and her husband almost bought our old house in Richmond Hill when we left in the 1970’s which I never knew. Her house here now is much grander – she pointed to the huge yacht in the front yard and says to me drolly, ‘I call it my husband’s girlfriend!’ Before I can come back with the next obvious question she points to the pool nearby: ‘…And I have a pool… instead of a yacht!’
And so we arrived at Rita’s care home. She did seem a little confused as Pat had warned me, and I wasn’t really sure if she knew who I was. I was a little disappointed but she was as sweet as ever and we set off. We stopped first for coffee at Tim Horton’s, one of Rita’s favourite haunts – a successful Canadian coffee shop chain. And gradually, as the day went on, Rita began to remember me, though she muddled me at times with my aunt Jean who I look like.
Rita always had a deep love for my family, I’m not sure why. My parents met her in the 1960’s at the local amateur dramatics group my Dad got involved with in Ontario – Dad on stage, Rita and Mum helping out backstage. I think things were difficult for her at times all those years ago and my Mum became a good friend to her. It touches me again as she remembers. Once she gets a bit teary and tells me how much she misses our family; ‘Your mother was so good to me.’
After coffee we headed off for a lovely drive. It was a bright autumn day and I sat in the back with Rita. And Rita did remember. She struggled to keep anything I told her in her head for long – she repeatedly told me what good memories she had of my family, how much she’d like to see my Mum again. I told her several times about my father’s death, but it was almost as if she knew.. ‘And your father..?’ And she asked the same questions again and again about my brother and sister. But I didn’t mind. Every time she was delighted to hear my brother had a daughter – ‘A little girl!’ And: ‘Give everyone a big hug, give everyone a big hug,’ again and again. Love can bear repeating.
We stopped for a moment for Pat and Rita to show me the Lake on the Mountain – a mysterious, bottomlessly deep lake high above Lake Ontario. The lake has no visible water sources up, yet cascades continually into the greater lake below. Science has yet to explain it and it remains a beautiful, magical place, once sacred to the First Nation people. A place of peace and the unknowable. It reminded me of somewhere I couldn’t remember – photos and stories my parents told me of a cottage we spent holidays in by a lake, but I’m sure it wasn’t this one.
We had lunch at another favourite place and drove back to Belleville through a reservation area. The Canadian term ‘First Nation’ is one I like. Pat and Rita explained that First Nation people are exempt from tax in Canada – a government system they were and want no part of – which makes sense. First Nation people have businesses including petrol stations, with much cheaper tax-free fuel as a result of this. Restrictions have been put on non First Nation people driving into these areas to take advantage of this and fuelling up, which sounded complex. Pat and Rita told me all the houses I saw in this area – very much like everywhere else – some quite fancy with yachts and pools! – would all be homes of First Nation people. Though I had not exactly expected teepees or ramshackle cabins, I discovered my own naivety and ignorance – and disappointment – at the extent of erosion of original First Nation ways, at least here in this fleeting drive-by glance – and the cultural loss that goes with it.
Pat and I took Rita back to her home and I said goodbye to her. I don’t know when or if I will ever see her again but it had been so lovely to see her now. As with Val and Ben in Ohio I treasured the rare experience of being with my elders and those who remember my parents so fondly.
I said goodbye to Pat at Belleville train station and thanked her for a truly lovely day. This is what Pat does with her Mum now – simple times, nice trips out, singing in the car and having a laugh. There is only 17 years between Rita and Pat – Rita married very young and Pat is her eldest child. I sense the difficulties of Rita’s earlier life were Pat’s childhood ones. Pat tells me ‘I don’t have too many good memories of childhood, so I’m making them with Mum now.’ Good for her.
On my last day in Toronto – and of my trip – my quest – I couldn’t resist going to Richmond Hill – a satellite town a few miles north of Toronto, where I lived from age 0 to 4 before my British born parents brought me and my brother and sister to the UK where I’ve lived ever since.
I suspect this isn’t the case for everyone but my memories of earliest childhood are brightly coloured and sunlit. Canada is a bit like that. We lived in a lovely single-story open plan house with a huge garden, life was simple (as one would hope for a young child), the sun shone in the summer and it snowed enough for perfect sledging in the winter. Our street – Scott Drive – and Richmond Hill have changed enormously since then. Scott Drive turns off Yonge Street, the main north-south road that begins on the shores of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto, and continues north, many claim, all the way to the west coast of Canada, which would make it record-breakingly, the longest road in the world. When I lived there there was empty space at this junction, perhaps one lonely diner, and lots of fields between Toronto and the suburban town of Richmond Hill. No more. Now it is totally built up, since the early 1970’s Toronto has expanded exponentially – and now there is no space in between – uninspiring blocks of flats, shopping malls of no architectural merit. I got the bus up there on a dull day, one almost as grey as the one I dimly remember when arriving in England for the first time at Manchester Airport.
I knew it had changed, I’d heard this many times before, and I did make a visit there about 20 years ago when I was in my 20’s (with Rita driving me then) though I don’t remember much about it then. I’m not naive enough to think it would be the same but I was still, especially on a journey such as this, interested to see it. As I’d been told, the small wooden houses on the huge plots have long ago been taken down, the plots divided into much smaller ones, and much bigger houses built on them. That’s what happened to our house when my parents sold it in 1972. The houses there now were in fact the only really ugly ones I had seen in the USA or Canada – not the beautiful detached, wooden, painted houses with porches I love and had seen so many of.
I popped into the primary (or elementary) school at the end of the road, which my big sister attended for a short while before we emigrated. (I never made it, I was too little.) The 2 women in the office were very interested to hear I had once lived there, and one of them had lived there herself since around the time we left 1972. She agreed how much had changed – and about how ugly some of the houses were!
She gave me a giant cookie left over from Halloween, it was nice to be treated as a 4-year old again! I remembered that the last time I was here at this time of year, I was indeed trick-or-treating with my parents – dressed as fairy I believe (my brother as a wizard, my sister as a witch).
I didn’t expect to feel anything much. The past is a country you can never go back to, didn’t I know that at The Beginning of all this? Perhaps I had needed to come all this way to find that out for myself. Here I was, wandering the first street I had ever known, looking for something. As I walked down Scott Drive to Yonge Street for the last time to get the bus back to Toronto, I noticed the pavement the way a child does – the detail, closer to the ground – the pattern of the pavement and the autumn leaves. I seemed to feel my 4-year-old self who had run up and down this street and studied this pavement take my hand and come with me. When I left here I never fully understood I would never be coming back. Perhaps I had left a bit of myself behind.
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