The Dickson Avenue house was my mother’s dream. She came from a predominantly English-speaking town in the eastern townships where, in those days, being English meant you had it made in the shade. Her father owned an insurance agency and she remembered the depression years as more or less having passed them by.
There was always food on the table. They could even afford to keep a maid. The house she grew up in, where my grandfather lived long after his family had moved away, was a row house with a view of the Magog River. It had front and back staircases; a huge novelty for the visiting grandchildren.
There was a boarder too, a pale, papery man we called Uncle John whom Mom called a “dainty person.” I am not sure if she knew that he was gay and that was a 1950’s code word or if she just truly believed he was dainty. My memory of him was of a kind but ghostly man who chewed each bite of his food 30 times and had beautiful table manners.
My grandmother required beautiful table manners and my mother demanded them of us. Whenever we stayed with my grandfather, there was always a white linen cloth on the table, white linen napkins in engraved silver napkin holders, and a china cabinet with a silver, slender-handled dinner bell that my brother and I would take turns ringing.
My grandfather’s housekeeper, Mrs. Davie, would cook the main meal at lunch, and we’d all sit, when visiting, in the dark dining room on heavy Victorian furniture and eat the equally heavy noonday fare. It was always a long meal, as we had to watch Uncle John chew every bite 30 times.
Released, we’d spill onto the street or out the back door into the alley behind the house where there were lines of garages and ladders and drooping trees that begged to be climbed.
These summer visits to my grandfather’s home set the stage for my mother’s dreams. She was a product of the depression and then the war years, where smoking and uniforms were glamorous, where hair was long and curled in waves, waists nipped in and shoulders padded.
She loved the sound of tinkling cocktail glasses and big band music. She loved smoky rooms, cigarettes lit with heavy silver lighters which were put out in faceted crystal ashtrays that were, in turn, emptied into silver silent butlers.
And so, when a gracious, albeit dated centre-hall red brick house came up for sale a few streets away from our small house on the busy street beside the laneway, we moved. On the night we took possession, before the power was connected, my mother put ice cube trays on the front porch so that she would have ice for her morning Coke.
The house had a small front foyer with black and white tiles, where we have a photograph of our black and white cat sitting and looking up. A den was to the immediate left and the kitchen straight down the hall. On the right were the living room and the dining room behind that. Just after the den, a staircase wound its way to the second floor, the three bedrooms and a tiny bathroom.
This house. This is where the memories truly start. It is a house where I learned many things and where the first faint glimmers of knowingness began. It was a house where I saw and listened and heard.
But first it was a house where all things were possible. Where the smell of new-mown grass wafted in my window on summer mornings, where the Eaton’s catalogue arrived with a satisfying thump on the porch in mid-November, where the brightly wrapped Christmas presents spilled out of one room and into another, where green lawns, those childhood frontiers, drifted from one backyard to another and a bicycle was the most valuable thing I could ever imagine owning.