The place was all wrong from the start. You need to know that. To begin with, it was precisely the kind of place I vowed to never live in. In my teens, I declared, “I don’t want to live in the suburbs, married with 2.1 children and driving a Volvo.” To be fair, the Volvo wasn’t mine, it belonged to my wife Jean. She always raved about the crash safety of Volvos and with two young children under four years of age, how could I object?
But there were other things about the house that made it all wrong and should have given us pause before we signed the papers. It was in the wrong neighbourhood; too far away from the schools the kids would be attending, it backed onto a busy street, the neighbours themselves seemed a little strange, and it was miles away from amenities like doctors, shopping malls, and restaurants. And the house itself was awkward; it was a split level with far too many floors, it had a crawl space that meant you cracked your head every time you needed something from storage, there was no access to the deck from the kitchen and all the windows were rotten and required replacements. You don’t think of these things at the time and the superficial appearance of the place blinds you.
The trees for one. The lot the house sat on was substantial and contained an abundance of young trees; maples, spruces, and willows that provided shade. There was one corkscrew willow twelve feet from the house, that shaded the patio and caused problems when it came time to construct the new deck. When I built the gazebo using a rustic post and beam design using ancient-looking timbers, the tree sprang up through the deck floor like a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired space. Eventually, I had to take the willow down because it developed dry rot, but not before a family of racoons used it to scale the rooftops, chatter outside our bedroom window and build a home in the roots under the deck.
The backyard was large and begged to be cultivated and planted into a perennial garden; not the formal kind, but a wild place of paths that offer up their secrets to those who ventured in. In the spring the eye is drawn to the burgundy and whites of the Lenten roses, the reds and whites of the tulips, the yellow daffodils, the pinks and purples of the irises, hyacinths, and crocuses. In the summer one is taken by the bold reds and pinks of the peonies, the yellow of the primrose, and the myriad of other small flowers that fill in the gaps between the walks. In the fall the golden colours predominate in coreopsis and the goldenglow. Some of the plantings like the floribunda rose, the white iris and the goldenglow came with Jean from her mother’s garden. Jean had to teach me about the garden. She still does. I am a reluctant gardener at best.
When the kids were in their teens, we built a pond. It was a whim. We dug a large hole, mounded the excavated dirt into a hill, brought in rocks by the ton, installed a recirculating system of pipes and pumps and constructed a dry-stone wall with a waterfall. By the end of the summer we had a landscape that looked like a stream somewhere in the Cotswolds; flowing out of a culvert and winding its way through the perennials and past the concrete Buddha. I bring the statue in each fall to its resting place on the hearth singing “He ain’t heavy, he’s my Buddha,” – a joke that never grows old.
We moved to Waterloo in the fall of 1979 so that I could complete my university education and it has been home ever since, except for the year post-graduation that we went to work in a remote northern town and found it hard to fit in. We returned to Waterloo in 1984 and our daughter was born in the fall. We bought a house, but with the birth of our son felt we needed a bigger space; and so, the house-hunting began in earnest. We had moved so much in the years since our marriage that Jean’s farming family started to voice concerns about my stability. You don’t move much when you have a farm to tend. You move a lot when your family, like mine, had trouble settling down.
And so, we ended up here in a house that has curb appeal on a suburban street. We moved in six months to the day the year our son Andrew was born. That was thirty-one years ago. We were eager to settle down.
Andrew had his second birthday two days before my father died. My father, who had retired to Wales, was on a visit home and stopped by at my suggestion that he might want to see his latest grandchild whom he had not met. I can’t remember whether he was impressed with the house, but he spent time playing with Andrew in the family room while I watched from the railing. They played cars on the carpet, each reveling in the company of the other. I was transported back to my childhood, back to the days that my father and I were close.
My father died on the Ides of March 1990 two days after he had met his grandson for the first and only time. A child of WWII he was estranged from his own family, a life disrupted by global conflict and the times in which he lived. After he immigrated, he found it hard to settle, drank too much, and remained closed-off to his family.
In November, Jean and I will have lived in this house for nearly half of our lifetimes. We learned to get on with the neighbours despite the conflicts when our children were growing up. One of the troubled children died a couple of years ago from a drug overdose and was found by his parents in the garage one cold morning. The tragedy brought us all closer together.
Our two grandsons visit daily. They call the place Nana’s house. My son and I are close. I had to navigate my way through my past with my father to make that happen. He and his partner are expecting our third grandchild in the spring. We have a cat, whom I call our point-one child, bringing us up to the average number of children. Jean no longer has a Volvo, she traded it in for a Beamer. Oh well.