Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Childhood Details

Last night I was thinking about my childhood home and was suddenly seized by panic because it was so far away and I couldn't get back to it. In this context, childhood home was a time as much as a place, and that time was about 1980, to which there is no return. 

Fortunately, although the house is gone, the street, the trees and many of the neighbours' homes remain, so I can recapture childhood a little just by walking down it. Although I am objectively short in stature, I always feel like a giant when I do. Walking around the neighbourhood now takes me no time at all. The thought that I can at least do that helped me get to sleep. This morning I ponder that 1980 rests safely in God, and that presumably in heaven, we will be able to "go home again" if God so wills and it is necessary for our happiness. 

I am also very lucky in that both my parents and all my siblings are still alive. At least three of them, perhaps four, remember the little white house with the red front door, the green side door, and the roses climbing up the west side of the house. Three will remember my beloved cat; I hope the fourth one does, too. It was believed in his infancy that he and the cat were in league with each other, the cat distracting my mother with various antics while my brother pushed toothbrushes down the bathroom sink. 

The cat--a beautiful, friendly orange-and-white creature--was eventually killed by a car, and my sister Tertia asked me if cats went to heaven. As an adult I know that the theologically correct answer is that they will be in heaven if they are necessary for our happiness. At the time I believe I cited Lucy Maud Montgomery (the authoress of the Anne and Emily books), who said they were. LMM was not theologically sound, but what a lovely surprise should my dear cat come purring up to me in heaven. 

The funny thing about this nostalgia is that as a child in Toronto I was already nostalgic. Having found myself in England at age 3, I wanted to return, and I spun out long, complicated daydreams about my romantic, adventurous life in London, a city I had seen only two days of my short life and knew mostly from Miroslav Sasek's This is London picture book, first published in 1959.  As a matter of fact, we lived in Cambridge, in an award-winning low-rise house/apartment complex that is still there although--like my childhood street--it is much smaller. The enormous field behind the deep woods has shrunk to a grassy strip and the woods are not so deep. 

Graham Greene once said or wrote that childhood was the "credit balance of the novelist", which is something I have tried to impress upon my writing students, who have the fortune of still being children. I seem to be always telling the youngest generation to keep detailed notes, but it might not be necessary, as the details of childhood stay with us longest. This has been awful for European survivors of World War 2 concentration camps, but will be nice for me, as long as I remember home, not school and not my piano lessons. Greene must have meant the sights, sounds, smells, sensations and tastes of childhood, though, for   I don't recall much plot. Plot is driven by misfortune, so it is just as well. 

The greatest misfortune of my childhood was that my only uncle died when he wasn't much older than 40, which plunged my brother Nulli and I into such great grief, I don't recall anything like it since. I have felt grimy, complicated grief for my own mistakes, gambles and sins, but the shock of the police-at-the-door Advent bereavement was incredible, in the sense that we could hardly believe it. We were too young to comfort our parents or be as conscious of their own sorrow although the memory of a long-closed bedroom door is firmly fixed in my mind. My father's mother wept at Christmas Mass that year, I remember. But, as I wrote for a Toronto Catholic paper many years later, my good parents and grandmothers did their utmost to make sure we children had a happy Christmas despite everything. Forty years later, I marvel at their emotional generosity.  

I have often wondered if my uncle knew how much he was loved by two small children up in Toronto. Well, presumably he knows now. It's a thought that makes me, the second-eldest aunt of a 10 year old, a little more careful in crossing the street and keeping my weight down. 

B.A. has wonderful stories about his very different childhood in Dundee, and he is determined to pump his uncle for more information about his colourful great-grandmother--who wore an orange turban with a fake jewel and was something of a neighbourhood celebrity. His childhood was a lot more chaotic than mine, but happily he was born with the resilience of a rubber ball and has always bounced back, smiling. 

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