Tuesday 5 October 2021

Pool and Shelf

Photo by C. Dowson: a neighbourhood landmark.

A question from a reader from a sunnier district of North America: Is it practical to have a backyard swimming pool in Toronto?  The answer is that Toronto has three seasons: rain, winter and July. July sometimes visits in April, melting the snow. Then it goes away, and the mercury sinks into a depression. Then it comes back, and the mercury soars.

July spends what other people call spring going back to and forth from Toronto like a Western University student who wants Mum to do his laundry. July then settles in more or less around the Feast of John the Baptist/the Summer Equinox and begins to steam.  

Given a choice, my own mother prefers to spend the hottest part of July in gentle, constant Europe. But sometime in May, my father goes out and takes the cover off the pool, tinkers in the pool shed (aka "the pump house" which sounds he is in Georgian Bath), and turns the green water blue. However, for months the pool will have been full of life and interest, thanks to the various avian visitors, especially the ducks. Ducks love the pool and swim around the deep puddles in the pool cover. Sometimes it attracts lovely little birds, too, like lemon-yellow American goldfinches. It seems that the pool is a rest stop for birds on their way to and from a wilderness conservation park. This makes staring out the very large kitchen window a profitable activity. 

Jealously, my mind races back to another large kitchen window, the one in the Old House, through which my mother could easily watch her numerous children running around or lazily swinging in the back yard. (Now that my half-British ethnic background is the daily foreground, I am more inclined to call it a back garden. However, such a thing would never have occurred to me when I lived in the Old House.) Then we did something she disliked, she would rap on the window, scowl, and wave her finger. 

But I didn't plan on writing about windows but shelves, specifically the shelf over the dining-room door, which was (now that I think about it) more of a cubby hole. It is October, so naturally we in elementary school would have thought of little else but Thanksgiving for the first half of the month and then Halloween thereafter. Catholic school though it was, we spent art classes making colourful graveyards  with chalk-white ghosts and animated skeletons out of construction paper.

Since my mother was against everyday candy--and how right she was---Halloween was a kind of Mardi Gras in our house. The normal ban on candy was lifted, and candy could be consumed--slowly--until that sad day there was nothing left but molasses kisses, which even we would (unless desperate for a fix) leave be.

How to stop children from eating all their Hallowe'en trick-or-treat candy at once? Put it on a high shelf and forbid them from touching it. This works when they are very small, but it is less effective when, if they stand on the kitchen stool, they can just touch the edge of their baskets.  I don't have any clear memory of doing this myself, but I have this deep intuitive knowledge that suggests that I did. I wonder if I mentioned it in confession. I am reasonably sure I would have thought it a very bad sin to pilfer something from one of my sibling's baskets, and I hope I didn't do that. 

Incidentally, I hope I do not have to tell my adult audience, who all presumably have money for their own sweets, how wicked it is for parents, who can just go to a shop whenever they like, to steal their minor children's Hallowe'en candy.

At any rate, the normal procedure for getting candy out of the baskets was to ask "Can I have a treat?" and wait until a parent had retrieved our baskets and offered us a choice. Naturally the first choice would be the Hostess potato chips, as chips were just as rare in our daily life as, say, Glossett chocolate raisins, or Reese's peanut butter cups. The Reese's pbc would, of course, be second choice, and then we would gradually munch through all the little chocolate bars, the M &Ms and the Smarties, and then on to the tootsie rolls, the lollipops, and the red liquorice. The hard candy, though someone disappointing, would do, but the black liquorice and the molasses kisses were, as it were, merely cigarette butts scrounged from the sidewalk. Fortunately, by then we were almost at December, with its promise of candy canes and chocolates disguised as coins or Santa Claus. 

Even a shelf over a dining-room door can have absolutely magical properties when you are a child, something C.S. Lewis must have intuited when he described Diggory and Polly exploring the joined attic of a London row house and Lucy opening the wardrobe door. Naturally I tried to find Narnia at the back of my parents' closet (who doesn't), but my mild disappointment has been replaced by a sense of wonder at the oddness of that narrow tunnel. My own closet, which was only about 3 feet high, was rather strange too, now that I think about it. 

The Old House, let's face it, was weird. It began existence as a small bungalow, and then a granny flat was added to the top, and then (if I have the order right) a kitchen and dining-room were added to the back. The sidling panel by the back door revealing boots almost concealed a passageway to the basement and my father's pile of lumber.  The basement, which was very big, contained a cool and dismal room where the furnace sulked and the laundry dried in winter. The laundry room (also in this cellar) had a sink and a toilet and counter on which my brother Nulli and I played with the chemistry set. My father's workshop, across the narrow cellar passage from the lumber pile (and behind the boots) was set into the wall, and my mother carried the laundry past it and up concrete stairs into the garden back yard. In winter those stairs and that door were covered up by a kind of wooden false front with a plastic window: perhaps Nulli could explain it better. 

In short, we traded many quirky details for the pool and the private bedrooms. If I could, I would buy the Old House back, just for the sake of keeping it in the family, but it has been demolished and replaced by a monstrosity worth over $2,000,000. The New House (with which I have in fact been acquainted for 35 years) has its own interesting quirks, I suppose, although it lacks the deep and only lately appreciated weirdness of the Old. 

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