Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A Child's Christmases in Toronto 2: The Little White House

Let us flee from the alt-right and terrorist-studded present back to the distant past. Saigon has fallen to the Viet Cong, and my still-youthful parents have bought a house in a tree-lined street of modest houses in northern Toronto. My mother, still in her twenties, has had her third baby, a girl. My father, still slim with brown curly hair, goes back to work, aka "the office." I go to kindergarten on a minibus. My mother continues her project of painting walls, running up curtains, sewing quilts, washing and hanging out the laundry, cooking all the meals, grocery shopping, breastfeeding and a hundred other activities I took for granted.

From the outside, this south-facing house looked like an ordinary two-storey Toronto dwelling, built in the 1950s. It had a green tar-shingled roof, a red front door and was painted with white harling. A short flight of sideways steps led to the front door. The front garden was staggered,  a flagstone wall supporting the smaller upper lawn, and above this wall a black lamppost. A number plate hung from a slender arm jutting from the post. 

Alongside this garden and the house, separating them from the red brick next door, ran a gravel driveway, each stone a pointy-sided pebble rather painful to naked feet. The drive ended shortly before the side door and, across from this door, the wooden tool shed. Built into the bumpy white wall to the right of the side door was a little wooden door to an old-fashioned milk- or post-box. (My grandmother's house had one, too.) The post went through the slot in the red front door, however. 

Behind the house was a long back garden with trees, bushes, flowerbeds and a white arbour which supported grape vines on the west side and climbing purple flowers on the east. To the north of this structure was a round raised flagstone flower bed from which tiger lilies grew year after year. The yard wasn't even--at a certain point it rose, which created almost enough of a hill for toboggans to slide down. 

A swing set was soon placed between the pussy willow and a much taller, smoother tree with inaccessible branches. To the south of the smooth tree was a pear tree surrounded by a massive bush of dry white flowers grouped like snowballs: I had no interest in flowers, so I cannot remember what they were called. Beyond the pear tree was a narrow band of grass running past the west windows of the dining-room towards a fence attached to the front of the house. My parents planted climbing roses here. Below the south windows of the dining-room were raised gardens of ferns and a mock-orange tree. Its scent on summer evenings was heavenly. 

The landscaping was rather clever and included a raised flagstone platform behind a large (and climbable)  maple tree growing on the south-east side of the garden. My father constructed a sandbox there. Meanwhile, the whole was visible from the large north-east kitchen window, and when my mother thought her children were being naughty, she banged on the glass. 

There was a flight of stone steps at the centre of the north (back) side of the house leading from the garden to the cellar. My father constructed a winter cover for these steps to keep the cold out of the house and the children from falling down icy stairs. (His basement office window was high in the wall and looked out at the garden.) When the cover came off in the spring, my mother would emerge from the cellar door every fine Monday with a big yellow plastic tub of wet laundry. She hung it up to dry on a laundry line operated by a pulley. In winter the laundry was dried in racks in the immaculate furnace room. 

The house was unusual inside, however. The top storey had been fashioned as a "railroad" apartment for the previous owner's married child. The staircase led to a landing with two doors. One door opened onto a small west-facing room which years later became a nursery. The other opened on a suite of three connected rooms running towards the back of the house in an L-shape. 

The first room, probably a sitting-room, became my green-and-tan bedroom. The second room, whose sink hinted at a former kitchen, became the baby's pink-and-white bedroom. The third room, which was separated from Tertia's room by a short corridor the length of two built-in closets' width, became Nulli's bedroom. For years it had the brown carpet and orange walls for which 1970s home design is notorious. Eventually Nulli (and our younger brother Quadrophic, who was moved there from the nursery when Quinta was on her way) would create some privacy from sisters by opening all the closet doors. Otherwise, we lived in semi-dormitory conditions. 

My parents' bedroom was on the ground floor on the west side of the red front door. It had its own lockable door to the one bathroom. Its other door opened to the front hall and looked towards the primary sitting-room. Meanwhile, it had a big window that looked onto the street, but was screened by bushes and was rather dark whenever the lights were off. It didn't get much sun. I thought it gloomy, which is just as well as it was usually off-limits. 

The primary sitting-room also had a plate-glass window and besides that a long chimney piece, built in bookshelves,  a fireplace and a wide doorway leading to a smaller sitting-room, which we called the TV room although it became dominated by a standard upright piano/torture device. In summers when the TV room's window was open, the lady in the brick house would have her housekeeper open her own window so that she could listen to Nulli play the piano. Mrs Brown had been a radio star. 

The west doorway of the TV room led to the hall. Staircase to the north, windowless bathroom to the west, window-lined dining-room to the northwest, kitchen to the north and stairs down to the side door on the east. Agatha Christie would just have drawn you a map. 

What I hope all this description gets across to curious (as opposed to nostalgic) readers  is that we lived in a small and increasingly crowded but very pretty house with a splendid back garden to cultivate and banish children to. My parents were both enormously hardworking although the world would have credited only my father, for he made all the money and climbed the only career ladder. My mother was "just" a homemaker--unfortunately in the decades of history this was least fashionable--and what a beautiful home. When I dream about home, home is always that pretty white house. It even has its own flavour, for my parents made jam from the pear tree. 

My family celebrated ten Christmases in this house, although some of us fewer than that. Sometimes my foreign relations--including a grandmother and an uncle--would make the journey, and sometimes they sent large, hopeful, brown paper parcels instead. My father always went to fetch my Canadian grandmother on Christmas morning. The Christmas tree was set up in the larger sitting-room, and my mother decked the mantelpiece first with golden tinsel and later with cedar rope. In those days, the tree was always decorated with gingerbread doves entirely covered with white icing. The birds dominated less and less as the years wore on and the Christmas tree decorations became more numerous. I am sure most families like mine have similar boxes of decades-old, instantly recognizable Christmas baubles. 

What I remember most vividly about that first Christmas in the little white house was the baby-stroller under the tree. As this was for my mother--and newborn Baby Tertia--I don't know why it made such an impression, other than that it was large and unwrapped. I cannot say for certain which Christmas we got the two wooden sleds--maybe when I was seven--but they also made an impression. 

Christmas Day (or Midnight) Masses of the 1970s may have made a strong impression then, but I don't remember them very well now. But I was a pious child from early on, and my mother says I evangelized my newborn sister by pretending to read her the Christmas story from my child's Bible--the Good News about the Baby Jesus "and his Mother Marty."

Turning to a material artifact, I close this section with the description of a blue hardcover, formerly blank book. At the bottom of the spine is the motto "GRUMBACHER 7194.1" in gold. On the front cover are the remnants of gold stick-on letters that once spelled "DOROTHY."  On the inside of the front cover is my maiden name, address and telephone number written in pencil. The frontspiece bears a crayoned self-portrait and the penciled information "My name is Dorothy. I'm 7 years old. I received this on X-mas." The first dated entry is marked Friday, December 29 of the same year. 

Amusingly, the tops of the pages have December 25 and December 26 written in and crossed out. Apparently I had intended to write every day. But however infrequently I wrote, I provided us with the following glimpses of Christmas that year:

1. I liked playing in the snow. (I no longer do unless skiing counts.)
2. We enjoyed a very rare dinner at a Chinese restaurant shortly after Christmas. 
3. Nulli and I were taken out tobogganing at a public tobogganing hill. I fell off the toboggan a lot, and I found this unusually painful. 
4. In January I attempted poetry suspicious reminiscent of that of Canadian poet Dennis Lee, so I strongly suspect Nulli and I received Alligator Pie and Garbage Delight that year. 

Sadly--for fans of these memories--I did not write again about Christmas until 1984. Without my childhood books to jog my memory, I'm afraid other Christmasses are just a blur. However, Christmas 1980 stands out in my mind as the Worst Ever (insofar as Christmas could ever have been bad) because our beloved uncle died that Advent. 

With our absorbing crayon drawings, Nulli and I weathered our grandfather George's death with nary a tear. And as you may have surmised from our lovely home and all that clean laundry, we had a relatively cloudless existence through our share of the 1970s. But the police officers' knock on the door ripped a hole in our hearts. Here was Early Death and Loss and Pain. I'm glad now, come to think of it, that in our baby way we shared in our elders' sufferings. But whenever I get on a plane, I pray "Not yet, Lord. Not until the children are older." 

The little white house, by the way, most of its trees, its gardens and its driveway, were all apparently destroyed to make way for a soulless, pretentious monster home.  (Its hideous back patio stretches past the surviving pussy willow,) I say "apparently", for as long as we remember it, it still exists.


  1. Dear Auntie S, I thought I still had your email kicking around, but evidently I don't -- so I'm just hijacking your combox instead. A former teacher of mine just published the following and I thought you would find it interesting: https://www.nas.org/articles/its_something_but_its_not_history_canadian_history_in_ontario_schools

    That's all! A blessed advent to you :)

    1. Very good article! One way to make students more curious about Canadian history is to introduce them to the novels of Robertson Davies.