I am writing this in the car on the way back to Toronto (science! technology! the future! etc.), on our way home from a long weekend in Quebec. We were there for my cousin’s baby shower, and also to visit my grandmother and other assorted extended family.
My grandparents moved to Saint-Bruno in the early 50s, shortly after they married. Back then it was a tiny hamlet south of Montreal just beginning to experience post-war boom. Although the town itself has been around since the mid 1700s, most of the houses there fall squarely into the mid-century bungalow category. My grandmother says that when they first moved to Saint-Bruno, it was still remote enough from the bustle of big-city Montreal that the selection of furniture and appliances that they could order for delivery was seriously limited. She and her neighbours all had exactly the same couch from Sears, which was available in only three staid, somber colours.
My grandmother has lived in the same house for nearly sixty years. What I love the most about her house is that change happens there at a glacier’s pace; although rooms are occasionally rearranged, with furniture sometimes drifting from one room to another, and the downstairs bathroom has been refitted to accommodate my now-wheelchair-bound grandmother, so much else is exactly as I remember it from my childhood.
So many versions of me exist in this house – as a squalling infant, pushed up the rocky drive in an old metal pram by my mother; as a rambunctious toddler, staying with my grandparents for a few weeks while my parents prepare to move to Ontario. There’s me throughout my primary school years, all skinny tanned legs and long blond hair, my clear skin and self-confidence both shining with pre-pubescence.
I’m there as a sullen teenager, resentful that I’ve been forced to leave my friends behind just so that I can visit my dull grandparents. I’m there as a self-absorbed early-twentysomething, convinced that a few years of university mean that I know more than everyone. I’m there in my rebellious phase, shocking (or so I think) in my low-cut tops and short skirts, bragging about boys and booze. I’m there with my first serious boyfriend, who then became my husband. I’m there pregnant. I’m there as a new mother.
I’m in the cool, dark basement playing school with my cousins; it’s the late 80s, and one of my imaginary classmates is named Charlie Sheen. I’m tearing around on a Christmas sugar high, unable to sit still long enough for holiday pictures. I’m sitting at the kids table during a family dinner, happy that I don’t have to endure adult conversation.
I’m eating breakfast with my grandfather at the oil-cloth covered kitchen table. I’m 19 years old and midway through my first year of university. He tells me that he has lung cancer. I don’t have the right words to say to him, so I just tell him that my mother already told me. We sit in silence for the rest of the meal.
I’m back four months later for his funeral.
I can’t turn a single corner in this house, can’t enter a room or pick up an object without encountering one or several shades of myself. It helps that this place has a sort of fairy tale quality to it; the hedge surrounding the backyard is easily ten feet high, giving off a sort of sleeping-beauty-enchanted-forest vibe, and the interior of the house is neatly preserved as if by magic in another era. Stepping through the door sometimes feels like traveling through time, although I don’t know whether I’m going back to my own childhood in the 80s and early 90s, or my mother’s, several decades earlier.
It’s not just the house either, it’s the town itself. Out for a walk with Theo, I pass the lake where we watched Saint-Jean-Baptiste day fireworks, the same lake where my sister once cut open her foot on a stray piece of glass. We pass Mount Bruno United Church, where my grandfather laid the cornerstone back in the 1960s. I am inside that church, simultaneously in the midst of being baptized, crying at my grandfather’s funeral, and singing in my cousin’s wedding.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lived a fairly uprooted life (by my calculations, I’d moved 13 times by the time I was 25), but having a house like this that has been there at every stage of my life seems positively extraordinary. Maybe if you’re someone whose parents still live in the same place where they grew up, this whole post seems bizarre and pointless, but bear with me here, there is a message in here somewhere.
I guess the thing is that I don’t really feel like I have a hometown. People ask me where I’m from, and I hesitate. Do they mean, where was I born? The answer to that would be Montreal, but since we only lived there for a few years, I can’t really think of it as my hometown, can I? If they mean where did you live the longest? or where did you grow up?, then the answer is Kitchener, but since I have no family left there, and since I spent so much time actively planning how I was going to escape southwestern Ontario, that doesn’t seem like the right answer either. Do they mean where do you live now? That would be Toronto, but I don’t really consider myself a Torontonian, for many reasons.
So maybe the answer is Saint-Bruno. Maybe that’s the place that I have the strongest ties to, or at least the most emotional ones.
We had such a lovely weekend. We played in the creek at the Parc du Ruisseau:
We ate tomatoes fresh from my grandfather’s garden
We discovered the WORLD’S MOST EXCITING SHOPPING CART:
Basically, everyone, especially Theo, had a total blast.
I hope that we can make it back there soon. I hope that we can visit often enough that Theo starts to understand why I feel the way I do about Saint-Bruno. And most of all, I hope that he has someplace, any place, in his life that is as secure and familiar and unchanging as my grandmother’s house is for me.