LEFT MOUNT DENNIS over fifteen years ago, and apart from occasional, often
accidental visits, I haven't really been back. Last month, I pitched a
story about my old neighbourhood to a big lifestyle magazine here, and
they accepted. After a couple of weeks of procrastination, I went back
I know I'm making it sound like Mount Dennis is my distant,
far away hometown, a little prairie village or seaside town hundreds of
miles from here, the kind of place most of us escape for the big city,
and a very few of us return to, later in life. The fact that Mount Dennis
is half an hour away from here by public transit -- barely ten minutes
by car -- is, to me, incidental. I feel, every day, like I'm a thousand
miles away from the place where I grew up, in more ways than even I can
I leave for my old neighbourhood after a breakfast meeting
with one of my editors, starting pretty much directly from the centre of
the city. I finally put my book down on the Weston road bus when we pass
the high point at Rogers Road, before the bus starts down the steep slope
to Black Creek and up the hill again to Mount Dennis -- so named because
it's probably the highest point in the west end, a small plateau carved
out by the once-raging rivers that subsided eons ago into the humble trickle
of Black Creek and the more substantial, yet nevertheless declining, flow
of the Humber River.
I get off the bus at the physical centre of the neighbourhood,
the corner of Weston and Eglinton, directly in front of the Anglican church
where I used to have my piano recitals, and next to the library where I
spent much of my childhood when not in school or in my room. It seems a
good place to start.
Across the wide intersection, the old tavern by the bank
is now a Korean restaurant -- the most immediate of the various changes
to the place. I head west, to Guestville Avenue, and down the street, past
the church where I was christened and confirmed, and where my parents were
buried from. I turn at Astoria, past the nicest homes in the neighbourhood
-- clustered around the Medical Centre, naturally -- and head along the
street where it curves around the edge of the slope at the edge of the
Flats, the broad floodplain of the Humber.
I head down Lambton to Grandville, to the row of houses
my grandfather built in the twenties, and which he lost when the economy
tanked. It's a signal fact of my family's history that he ended up renting
a house that he built, and that he never worked again. I stand in front
of number eighty, and try to match it up -- a tiny bungalow with a newish,
timber porch and a small parking spot carved out of what was once the lawn
-- with the house in the pictures of my dad in his RCAF uniform. It's a
bright winter day, and it's a tough fit in this light -- I decide to move
on, and turn up Outlook to Chryessa.
I walk down the dead end of the street to my aunt
Matty's house. I knock twice before I hear her opening the door, and hear
the t.v. set, turned to the weather channel, blaring in the living room.
It's been years since I've seen Matty, and she doesn't remember me until
I say my name, twice.
When I was a little boy, my mother bought me a box of
stationary -- buff-coloured paper decorated with an elaborate, vaguely
medieval manuscript-type scroll. (I was obsessed with the Middle Ages at
the time, a period that sat roughly between my obsession with Egyptology
and marine biology.) I didn't know anyone who lived outside my neighbourhood,
so I decided to write to my Aunt Matty, who lived two blocks away from
us. She still remembers my letters, and tells me she has them, somewhere
in the house. She's just about to get up to find them when I tell her not
to get up.
My uncle Tommy passed away a few years back, and Matty's
lived alone in the house ever since. She's hard of hearing and walks with
a cane, and I don't think she uses the upstairs anymore. I used to love
visiting Matty and Tommy when I was little, and especially loved the fish-bowl
by the window full of multicoloured guppies. The big t.v. set, in it's
dark wood cabinet, is sitting about where the fish bowl was, and Matty
has a table next to her chair covered in books, medicine, the t.v. guide
Matty's still sharp, if a bit sad.
"My life really ended when Tommy died," she tells me,
and I don't know what to say.
I ask her about the neighbourhood, the house she's lived
in for over fifty years, her memories of my parents and their friends.
"I thought Mount Dennis was heaven when we came here,"
she tells me, at least two or three times. "I remember the wooden sidewalks,
and muddy roads." She came here with her parents from Scotland when she
was a little girl, and arrived at the docks in Montreal on Armistice Day,
1919. They were delayed leaving the ship by the three minutes' silence.
Matty is 89 years old.
She tells me about a skating rink on Lambton that Mr.
Marshall, one of the neighbourhood patriarchs, used to flood, and how he
charged a quarter when there was a band. They'd swim in the Humber and
catch fish for frying.
A lot had changed, even when I was little. The Irish and
Scots that made up Mount Dennis were being replaced by Italians, Portugese
and Croats, and later by West Indians and, now, Koreans and Vietnamese.
She remembers market gardens, thick bush, and potato patches on the flats
below the houses, the last of the brick kilns, and the gravel pit that
I knew as Smythe Park.
I remember bullying at school and tough kids who hated
bookish, unathletic kids like me. I remember walking to school, imagining
the ordeal ahead, the beatings and humliation I could expect, as if to
prepare myself; a daily ritual that somehow made it easier when, at the
end of the day, it was only half as bad as I expected. I remember that
when the boys had gotten tired of making my life miserable, sometime at
the beginning of the seventh grade, the girls, newly roused by the power
of their earlier puberty, took over, and that was somehow much worse. I
don't remember Mount Dennis as heaven, yet here I am, my backpack full
of maps and photocopied history of the neighbourhood, trying to make sense
of it all.
I tell Matty that I'll be around a fair bit over the next
month, and that I'll drop by on her when I can. I ask her if she needs
anything, and she tells me no -- she orders her groceries over the phone,
and her son, Tim, comes by on weekends to help her out.