CAN'T GET ENOUGH AIR WHEN I LEAVE THE HOUSE. It's spring, or almost spring,
and the air and light outside has already made that subtle transformation.
I'm greedy for it -- I walk to the bus stop gulping huge lungfuls as I
walk. I find myself bounding, not trudging, to the store. I grin unaccountably,
stifling huge, gleeful smiles so as not to alarm passersby. This happens
every year, and every year I'm surprised by this eruption of idiot glee.
Life -- my life -- will be much the worse the year I notice that it isn't
I'VE SPENT THE LAST COUPLE of weeks in the archives at
the half-abandoned City of York municipal centre, the onetime municipal
heart of the area where I grew up, before city amalgamation rendered it
superfluous. The archive, and the museum in which it sits, are doubtless
scheduled to be absorbed by the city archive sooner or later, but as Nancy,
the archivist in charge of the room, explained to me, city budget crises
and bureaucratic arthritis have delayed the inevitable, perhaps for years.
In the meantime, the museum, with its hodgepodge of artifacts,
and files of photos and paper ephemera, opens every day from 1pm to 3pm,
visited more often than not by unruly children waiting for a turn in the
municipal pool. I've been going through back issues of the Mount Dennis
News Weekly, a community paper that ran from 1931 to 1965, as part
of my research for the feature-that-never-ends.
The truth is that I love this kind of work. It's time-consuming,
sure, and only rarely directly relevant to the finished work, but there's
something about excavating through the strata of the past, rooting amongst
the layers of detritus that have survived -- often through mere serendipity
-- to try to piece together a picture of the past. It's a strange sort
of past that emerges, built up from blurry box-camera snapshots and official
portraits, land surveys and newspapers and the tattered programs from ribbon-cuttings,
graduations and remembrance ceremonies.
Occasionally, you come across a typed transcript of an
oral history, submitted by some long-dead old-timer, and a real gem is
sifted out, but the whole process requires a good deal of imagination and
intuition, like piecing together the identity of a murder victim from a
tooth, a scrap of shirt, a bus transfer and a belt buckle.
THE NEWS WEEKLY IS, as far as I'm concerned, great
reading. It helps that, every now and then, I find some mention of a relative
of mine in the social notices or wedding announcements. Practically every
month in the early to mid-1930s, I find news of another award or medal
being won by young Bill Livings, a violin prodigy. A decade or so later,
little Billy married my cousin Terry -- by then, he was a hip young musician,
playing bass in swing combos. He was, alas, too much of a musician for
my cousin, and she left him a few years later. I find my Aunt Helen's wedding
notice, and notice that my dad wasn't there -- he was off in RCAF training
at the time.
It's hardly earth-shattering stuff, but there's something
quaint about a newspaper that, in its May 21, 1931 issue, feels obliged
to inform its readers that:
|"We are pleased to report that
Earl Mackell's dog is safe home again after its wanderings."
...and in the Aug .31 issue of the same year that:
|"Mr. H. Barnes, with Mrs. Barnes
and their son, of Rockcliffe Blvd., left on Sunday for a trip to the old
In a neighbourhood that I always remember as being crammed
with modest houses on tiny lots, its interesting to read, in the Oct. 1,
1931 issue, that:
|"Another dwelling being erected
on Guestville Ave. leaves but one vacant lot on this thoroughfare between
York and Dennis Avenues. There were only three houses on this section a
few months ago."
My grandfather was one of the small builders filling in
these lots all over the neighbourhood, but by 1931 he'd lost his business
to the banks.
Ten years later, in the early years of the war, the paper
celebrates its tenth anniversary with a special issue boosting the area.
"Mount Dennis, in the Township
of York, offers you:
RAILROAD FACILITIES ON BOTH TRANSCONTINENTAL
LINES. ADEQUATE FIRE PROTECTION and A WELL-EQUIPPED POLICE FORCE, HYDRO
ELECTRIC POWER, AND WATER AT A LOW COST."
There something so strange in boasting about "adequate
fire protection". It's like nobody had ever heard of hyperbole.
With the war only two years old, it's amazing to see that
the sense of carnage and tragedy hasn't made itself felt at home, at least
not yet. In this context, there's something heartbreaking about the moral
outrage of this little item:
|"The person on Guestville Ave.
who is taking such a delight in poisoning defenseless cats will be pleased
to know that in three days last week they were successful in taking the
lives of two cats and a kitten, all of them children's pets. This week's
count isn't in yet."
On February 27th, 1942, the Weston Theatre is featuring
Judy Garland and George
Murphy in Little
Nelly Kelly, and William
Tracy in Tanks
a Million. Has anyone ever seen these films?
In further entertainment news, the Kodak String Orchestra
will play at Pearen Memorial United Church the week of April 21, 1942.
That summer, a nice big ad informs readers that they can:
Ride for Health at the
DIAMOND 'F' RANCH
(Situated at the foot of Hospital
Fred Williams, Mgr.
Shorty McLeod, Cowboy.
A dude ranch, in what is now the heart of Toronto. You
can only imagine what it might have been like.
In late summer of '42, the paper suddenly drops in size,
from a big broadsheet to a modest tabloid, "...back to original size...after
11 years of progress." Although they claim it has nothing to do with war
shortages, the paper doesn't return to broadsheet size for almost four
In the summer of '44, notices of "Killed in Action" or
"Missing in Action" start appearing, at a rate of five or six a week. Previous
to that, they were rare, usually notices of accidents at air base training
camps. Too often, the death notices mention a wife and children -- these
weren't just boys, but men, and for some reason the loss becomes even more
poignant. I imagine moving day on Chryessa or Lambton, a woman with her
little boy and girl and a few neighbours emptying a rented house into an
old truck, leaving the neighbourhood to live with her parents in Swansea
or Silverthorn or Parkdale, the house vacant for barely a day before a
new family moves in, happy to find a place during the housing shortage.
Another young woman and her kids, perhaps, hopeful that it'll all be over
soon and Jack will be back from Italy. Like I said, it takes a bit of imagination.
Somewhere in the midst if this, a wedding announcement
includes the detail that a mortgage burning occured as part of the festivities.
In March of '45, a house fire on Greendale kills two children.
The community raises $2000 for the bereaved parents.
On April 27, 1945, barely two weeks before V.E. Day, Inch's
Drugs on Weston runs an ad:
"We Salute HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
The Baby in Your Home."
And the Baby Boom officially begins, lurching from the
gate a hair ahead of the starting bell.
On June 8th of that summer, Elliott Perry publishes a
"Notice of Divorce", stating that he has received custody of the children:
|"This notice is published for the
benefit of neighbours who took Madeleine Perry in without knowing the true
facts of the case."
The true facts, whatever they were, remain unknown except,
perhaps, in the vague memories of children now well past retirement age.
It's a tantalizing shred of scandal, though, even today.
The year ends, the war over, with gleefully trivial news:
|"A large white owl was perched
on the peak of the roof of Dr. Davis' residence at the corner of Dennis