My very old, faded and worn landed immigrant card says my family and I crossed the border into Canada in April, 1954. I would have been two and a half, so of course I can’t really remember anything about it, but somehow my mind has supplied an image of my father holding me in his arms while he fills out a form, and of a white Chevrolet with a chrome hood ornament shaped like a running cat.
Probably none of this actually happened, but for some reason I see it in my mind’s eye. What I do know for sure about the house on Grand Allée is this. There were only two bedrooms, so my brother and I shared one and we had twin beds. We trampolined between the two every night until our mother hollered at us to stop. Downstairs there were wooden floors and scatter rugs that were perfect for sliding. I was Aladdin riding a magic carpet and would run, leap and surf the floor as the carpet took flight beneath me.
One particular day the magic carpet jammed, I alone took flight, landed on my face, got a bloody nose and was parked in my father’s dining room chair — the captain’s chair, so called because it was the only dining chair that had arms — with an ice pack balanced on the bridge of my nose to stop the bleeding. I remember plucking at the freckle on my hand, hoping to pick it off and playing for hours in the unfinished basement.
My mother always seemed to be somewhere else (getting her hair done or at the curling club or playing bridge) and while I know that can’t be true, for some reason I remember more about my father in that house. Maybe it’s because she was an at-home mother and therefore part of the furniture. But when my father made us a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup for lunch it was memorable.
I did not like Campbell’s vegetable soup, so maybe that’s why this insignificant little memory has stuck in my mind like an insect in a spider web. I recall being summoned from the dank basement (cellar really) for lunch, climbing the stairs and being scolded for not wanting what was being put in front of me.
There was a doll’s pram that, for the 1950s, would have been the Rolls Royce of doll carriages. I left it outside in our small backyard one night and it was stolen. A laneway ran beside the house connecting Grand Allée to the street behind. This was where my friend Sheila Errand lived. Even at the age of three we travelled that alley between each other’s houses unsupervised.
My father worked in his own five and dime store in those days. He’d inherited some money from his father, along with the tiny house we lived in. He used his inheritance to stock up his store with thread and elastics, shoelaces and buttons, bobby pins and hair nets — notions he used to call them — and all the other merchandise you could find in a Woolworth’s store.
His emporium was a place of magical delights. More important than the barrettes, the costume jewellery or the toys, was the soda fountain. My dad could make the best banana splits in all of La Belle Province and sometimes he opened on Sunday, just for us.
The first Halloween we lived in that house, my father took my brother and me trick or treating along Grand Allée. I have only one memory of that night. We went to the house next door which sat high up from the sidewalk. I remember flights of stone stairs, perhaps two banks of them. An old man answered the door and yelled at us to go away. My brother and I practically fell down the stairs in our hasty retreat.
I wonder now why my father didn’t say anything to that man, but I don’t remember that he did. I don’t remember if we continued to trick or treat after that or if we went home. What I do remember dimly realizing is this: not everyone was going to love us or be nice to us. (Maybe he was the one who stole the doll carriage. Just to be mean.) Aladdin and the magic carpet ride weren’t real. And sometimes your nose got bloodied if you tried to fly.
But while that realization was the beginning of something, it was also on a dimmer switch, not really fully illuminated. All that really mattered was that every day felt like summer, that my friend lived an adventure walk away and that we sat down to dinner every night with great plans for magic carpet rides, visits to my father’s store and Babar at bedtime.