My childhood memories often come to mind out of nowhere on any given day and remain vividly imprinted in my mind - like those spots when I close my eyes after staring too long at the sun (or a flashbulb). Most of these random memories take place in Montreal, specifically in my neigbourhood of Lachine as it was back in the day.
As a kid, every experience held meaning. It was like I somehow KNEW that it was significant and that I was forming a memory. I lived in the moment. Energetic, eager, curious, and artistic come to mind. I soaked up learning like there was no tomorrow and had a whole list of stock "what I want to be when I grow up" options. From time to time, new things would move to the top of that list.
I had no fear. The lessons of failure were far in the future.
Time seemed to last forever and summer was so long, I couldn't see over the edge. Just endless, sky blue, hot days of playtime and popsicles and falling asleep on fresh, clothesline dried sheets after a bedtime story. Nurtured, loved and protected, I thrived as a child.
Lachine Files - 830 56th Ave.
Our family lived in Montreal for seven of my early formative years, from ages three to ten. Those were the years in which I learned to read, started school, learned to print and write, started ballet and piano lessons and began to learn about history, a favourite subject. The years in which I learned the word "archeology" and all that it meant...also when I became fascinated by the word "bladder". When my fish died, my mom cut it open so that I could see one. Or, something that she thought COULD be a bladder. It was all white inside. Now I'm not so sure...
I remember growing up in Lachine with great clarity and fondness. Especially my school years there.
I could not WAIT to go to school in those days. Once, when I should have been a napping four year old, I made it out the front door with one red boot on, trailing my brother as he left for school one morning. I was determined to go with him and even had an old book bag of his slung over my shoulder like I knew what I was doing. I'm not sure I had pants on.
(Speaking of forgetting to finish dressing - another story about my missing school tunic which happened not once but TWICE, is to follow.)
Finally the magical day arrived and my first day of kindergarten began at Meadowbrook Elementary, which was within walking distance from our house.
Of course by today's standards, I would need to be driven to and picked up from school in an oversized Escalade and watched like a hawk until I made it safely inside the front doors. But back in the 1960s, I walked to and from school unchaperoned after that wondrous introductory first day of kindergarten, with Mom and Dad along for a parental meet-and-greet.
Once inside the large classroom, I rather casually said goodbye to my parents and plopped down on the cloakroom floor - happily engaged in playing with some wooden blocks that resembled ancient architectural features.
I quickly became enamoured with all things kindergarten and could hardly wait to get out the door in the morning to walk to school. I was eager to stash my coat and shoes in my classroom cubicle, change into my art smock and start the day with some painting...or perhaps some musical play at the Blue Bench...or to hang out and socialize at any of the game stations in the classroom.
(Our "game stations" were not plugged in. They consisted of a state of the art sandbox on legs, a super cool play house with running water - thanks to our super duper school janitor, Mr. Campaloni, and other areas featuring various hand-eye coordination tools.)
The unsupervised walk to school involved crossing a rather dangerous intersection complete with an aging cross walk guard in a long great coat left over from WWI. He was a dear soul and very kind to us kids. He always, without fail, had a small crumpled brown paper bag in the depths of his coat pocket containing large purple grape bubble gum balls which he handed out to us as we waited for the light to change. He always had enough - we always accepted without question or fear. I had already made the connection to old person and candy since my grandfather (Papa), of the same vintage as our cross walk guard, always had a brown paper bag in HIS pocket containing large pink and white Ganong peppermints for all of us grandkids at any given time. These days the kids get vitamin gummy bears.
I loved Meadowbrook Elementary. I loved our school uniforms, respected our wonderful teachers, and lined up and held hands after choosing a partner. I looked forward to class pictures, recess, show and tell and was dutifully scared of the Principal. Even the smell of Dettol (every class had a kid who puked regularly) fills me with nostalgia.
Above is my Kindergarten class photo featuring our Principal, Mr. Bent, and our two teachers who are also featured in the newspaper clipping. Note our school uniforms, called "tunics". Below is our Grade Three class photo - by that time, we were in our own clothes (which for me meant a never-ending rotation of bright yellow hot pants, red gauchos or the above peasant garb - all made for me by my beloved Aunt Helen). My teacher, Pat Kazuka, was a cool, nurturing and innovative teacher who taught me the basics of figure drawing. (Gold Star if you can pick me out!)
School rocked for me.
Especially when it came to music and learning new songs. Whether this was part of the actual curriculum or just a substitute teacher's whim, I didn't care. I was an avid pupil. We belted out such classics as "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor" and "And He Played Upon a Ladle" with great gusto. My mother says to this day that she remembers hearing me for blocks (from Sherbrooke St. to 56th Ave.) before she could see me coming home from school, singing with loud enthusiasm "...and he played upon a lay-ayy-dal!!" Kindly, she had her laughing done and over with before I burst through the front door, eager to tell her about my school day and to drop off some drawing or other offering that we had made in art, before I was out the door again - looking for stray playmates and a game of hide and seek before next meal time or before the street lights came on.
...and yes, sometimes we DID play in the street in those days.
Making friends at school was great fun. When re-visiting old class pictures I'm amazed at how many names I can still remember...and how little we really were.
Most of my friends lived on my street and around the neighbourhood of the school. We went to each others birthday parties and exchanged Valentine and other holiday cards at school - being left out was rare in those days. There was always one close friend in rotation at any given time. I can name them to this day: Laura, Michael, David B. (the boy across the street and my best friend), Billie (I helped Billie, who was fresh from Poland, with his reading and other things English. We were next door neigbours and pals but he stole David B. away from me), Ricky (An awesome birthday party host) and another David S. (my first boyfriend), and Kim - who hosted my going-away party when our family moved away from Montreal. I can still point each kid out in our class photo. Uniforms, shortest to tallest, neat and tidy oxford shoes and shy smiles - the faces of the future.
During those heady socializing years of kindergarten and early grade-school and the gradual paring off of like-minded kids, came that lovely occasion where you got to go to some new kid's house and play. I remember getting invited to Susan's house which for some reason to me was a great treat. Maybe because we weren't bosom friends but were casual acquaintances and therefore, the prospect of seeing the inside of her house seemed more glamorous. It was a different style from our double duplex so naturally I thought it was a mansion.
(I will be writing more about the inside of people's houses, which never ceased to intrigue me as a kid and to this day, influences my preference for basement rumpus rooms, mid-century furnishings and knotty pine paneling styles.)
I had worn a dress to school the day I was invited to Susan's, which happened to be a hand me down. I forget where it came from but it was a favourite of mine - a dark plaid number with a white sailor-type collar and a red bow. I loved hand me downs and had quite a few memorable pieces from various sources which I loved as much as if they were brand new.
(Again - I will be writing more about my early childhood sartorial influences and styles and my preference for "costumes of the day" before I knew the word "eccentric" or had seen the movie "Grey Gardens", for that matter.)
After school, Susan and I meandered our way to her house. She lived on the way home to my place, quite near the crosswalk to my 'hood. Her house featured a large crab apple tree in the front yard and had a rather imposing high, black wrought iron swinging gate with pickets.
The events of our playtime are not clearly remembered, but at some point we got it into our dinosaur pea-brained heads that it would be great fun to climb that gate. I was wearing a dress, remember. I was also wearing my black patent leather Brown's shoes with little bows. In short, why would I have been climbing ANYTHING? I should have been safely ensconced in her living room, parked in front of a scratchy Canadian TV program with a glass of milk and a cookie - out of harm's way.
But, no. I dimly remember climbing the gate. I'm not sure if Susan climbed it as well, but I do recall that our visit sort of went to hell in a hand basket shortly afterward. I made it up to a point (literally) and was hoisting myself over to make my way down the other side when something went terribly awry. My dress caught on the barbed shaped picket and I could go no further. As I feebly investigated my predicament from my high perch, panic set in. Susan's face looked up at me, a worried little white blob with anxious eyes, more because she was worried that SHE would get into trouble I suspect.
I hung there, like a duck in a Chinese restaurant, waiting for someone to rescue me.
Then came the dawning realization that from any given viewpoint, anyone could see my underpants. This emerging vanity of soul quickly took precedence over any fear.
To this day, I cannot remember how I got down.
I do remember my mother afterward examining the ragged hole halfway up the back of my ruined dress. What a shame. A crime against fashion.
That was not the first time, nor the last that I had a run in with a fence. Wrought iron, chain link or electric - they have a piece of me and I have a story.
I guess some adult supervision would have come in handy on some days...back in the day.
Childhood memories. Not a day goes by when I don't meet my kid-self around a corner - all suntanned and sneaker-wearing, dashing around in a gangly, happy and carefree manner. Thriving. The last thing I would do is to pin her down and tell her "what I know now".
No. Instead, I just want to spend some quality time with her - happy just to listen, remember and reconnect with the exuberant feeling of living in the moment, and with the magical anticipation of "what can be".