Monday, September 7, 2009

Summer Nostalgia

**This is reposted from my livejournal and Facebook Notes. I've been getting lots of great feedback on it, so I thought I'd post it here. You can listen to a reading of this piece with music by clicking here.  **

I was just listening to CBC's Definitely Not the Opera where the host, Sook-Yin Lee, asked "If you could take back something from your youth, what would it be?" (the show was about nostalgia).

So I dusted off those rusty memory boxes, cracked them open with much squeaking and clouds of dust, and padded through pictures, trading cards, and Star Wars action figures until I found a set of keys. House keys, to be exact. One key for a deadbolt, the other for the door. They are discolored green and brown, worn with age, but they slid easily in the the locks of Little House where I spent many happy, youthful days in the summers past.

Every couple of weekends, my family would drive out to the town of St. Malachie, near Frampton. This was a wee pocket of Irish and Scottish families where four generations of my father's side of the family lived after arriving from Ireland via Grosse Isle. Living alongside the Tremblays and the Langlois' were the proud Irish family names like Hickey, Murphy, O'Rourke, O'Farrell, O'Grady, and Beatty.

The Little House was owned by The Aunties, who were my grandfather's sisters. At any one time, Madeleine, Bertha, and Dot could be found bustling in the kitchen, serving tea, and catching up on the news and gossip about the far-flung members of my hoary-old Irish family. It was a tiny, two-storey house with a rickety porch and fake brown-brick panels covering the exterior walls, some half-cracked and hanging on by rusty nails and much love.

As the wooden screen door SMACK-Smack-smecked shut, it announced to the room of people that new company had arrived with the promise of news and more good conversation. Bertha would be up in a flash for a hug and a kiss, with Dot dashing down the creaky stairs, and Madeleine wiping her hands on her apron as she pulled another fresh strawberry pie from the oven. I was a shy, awkward boy in those days, but I knew to shake hands with everyone in the room and grin on cue when they ruffled my hair or commented on how tall I was. I would run my hands along the textured, dark flowers that rambled across the upholstered couches like muted wildfire. I would pick at the flaking paint on the walls until I became aware of people watching, then laughing as I tried to be nonchalant about my low-grade destruction habits.

I tried to enjoy the adult conversation, but it centred about the local news, politics, the damn Tories, and whose gall-bladder needed removing. I would eventually wander away from the living room to talk to Madeleine and maybe get a slice of her mystical strawberry pie (it frustrated my mother to no end that she could never quite duplicate that pie perfectly). She would shoo me away, promising me a slice after lunch, or send me into the basement for something she needed.

I both dreaded and loved the basement of that house. It was dark, old, and musty. I could still hear the endless conversations above, but they were muffled and distant, disconnected voices that were strange, yet familiar. I always feared basements: although I was always curious to discover the treasures that were lost in storage, I feared the creatures that might be guarding them, their eyes tracing my every move and dreaming of how delicious my muffled screams would be. I would start out bravely searching for what Madeleine needed, but tear up the stairs in a mad panic once I found it. She would then shoo me out of the house again, laughing off the sinister possibilities of toothed potentialities in her basement.

The property was tiny: just enough space for a few cars to park in the matted grass, a small wooden shed, and a couple of picnic tables. The tall grass and weeds behind the house was so thick, I wondered if I would ever find my way back to the house if I wandered into it. I spent many summers rummaging in the wooden shed, searching for a way that I could explore the jungles behind the Little House and discover their secrets.

The second floor of the Little House was filled with beds. Ornate metal bedframes, squeaky bed springs supporting squishy mattresses and soft linens that invited lazy afternoon naps. The doubled-paned wood-framed windows welcomed warm sunbeams that inched across the pages of a favourite book as I spent afternoons lost in worlds of dragons, bold knights, and the odd papercut. Even the air seemed filled with dusty denizens that were only revealed with warm sunlight as they drifted from room to room, ghosts that could only be temporarily exorcised by an expertly-wielded feather duster.

When I wasn't exploring the Little House, sipping tea, and stealing extra slices of strawberry pie, I was visiting with my cousin Andrew, who lived only a few houses away. He seemed to regard every inch of the country-side with a lackadaisical attitude that bewildered my city-based sensibilities. Whenever I visited, we read comic books and we swung in the hammock, ducking away from the occasional crab apple that would be shook loose from the constant swaying. We went fishing, explored the back woods, and debated the mystery of girls, their wildish ways, and how cool it would be if we had the nerve to prove how cool we were. We put too much ketchup on our hotdogs while we watched scrap metal wrench and fly at the local demolition derby. We dodged the angry francophone kids who despised our English-speaking ways and warned us that we should go home or else. Mostly, we assured our parents that we were keeping out of trouble and rarely got into as much destruction as they always feared we would.

And then it would be Sunday, with the sun setting in the distance. My Dad would drive up to my cousin's house to pick me up and we'd be off to the city again. I would watch the old houses disappear in a cloud of dust, wonder if the old Targ video game in Hotel Paradis had changed as we drove past, and wait to see the familiar white and green bridges that connected the South shore of Charny to the North shore of Quebec city.

Those days are precious to me. Now that I've written this, I need to go back and visit, even though the Little House has been empty for many years and lists dangerously in the wind. Maybe I can get Bertha or Dot to lend me a key and I can unlock my past one more time.


Deborah said...

Wow - your childhood memories are eerily similar to mine. Permit me, someday, to tell you of Dunvegan, which is not much more than a crossroads. "Little Scotland" they called it. My heart is still there.

Anonymous said...

I always remember going out to St. Malachie and discovering that I'd forgotten the address of the particular O'Farrell I was visiting.

I got Mum to pull over to a phone booth (kids--ask your Mum or Dad what a phone booth was) and looked into the directory. It was absolutely no help. St. Malachie, so far as I could tell, was entirely populated by O'Farrells.

In the end, I think we went to the house that was my best guess. It was the wrong one, but the occupants knew exactly where to send me.

Re. "Take-backs". The day I got your dad's bike stolen ranks fairly high in my mind. It was one of those mental-blank moments, you know, the ones kids have, and people entering their forties, but I felt horrible for weeks afterward.


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