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I felt as though I was disappearing, as though Toronto was leaving me, my red blood cell count spiralling down.
“Here lady, have some water. You don’t look so good. You family?”
“No. She’s an old friend. Was. Is,” I mumbled, trying to adjust. “She met my mother crossing the Atlantic. I’ve known her most of my life.”
“You better sit down. I gotta go. I got classes. Someone still picks up the mail, so you can leave a message.”
I was thankful for the silence. I looked through the window again. Was. Slowly, I walked around the house and into the back garden. Used to. Over-ripe tomatoes rotting in the soil. Dandelions galore growing through the pavement cracks. On a faded plastic dime-store chair lay her worn gardening gloves and underneath, her size 9 slippers. How she had envied Mom’s size 5 feet. The whole still life assaulted my eyes. Was. Overhanging the back of the chair, a rose from a neglected rosebush. The famous last rose of summer. I took a picture, left a contact message and began the long walk back to the hotel. No subway this time. I needed movement. I needed to somehow get me away from all of this.
I began to wander the streets off Bloor. So many early 20th century homes were being gutted, cleaned up and cleaned out by the inheritance generation and investors. Like a scruffy street dog after a day at doggie spa, they all looked primped and polished, utterly stripped of anything endearing and looking slightly silly. A small gathering drew me down one of the streets. A grand old silver maple, too big and too close for comfort to the neighbouring homes and power lines, was being, I heard, accommodated. My heart sank. Every hack resulted in a sorrowful thud. The children were delighted with the spectacle. Me, no. We watched it all, one crash at a time, until only the stump was left.
Back at the hotel, with a consolatory glass of wine, I related my day to my son who had called from Vancouver.
“What is happening to Toronto?” I mourned.
“Mom, I think you need to ask what is happening to you. It’s not a diorama, it’s a big city and you’re taking this way too personally.” When had he grown up to offer insight into my turmoil?
I finished the wine and watched the early evening crowds on Bloor. So many people going in so many directions. What was happening to me? Had I turned Toronto into my personal horcrux, any changes heralding my peril? I had lived in Edmonton for three decades and witnessed scores of changes without batting an eye. Why could I not extend the same nonchalance to Toronto?
For the next five days I set about assessing the extent of the damage.
From Casa Loma to the ubiquitous CN Tower, all the big-ticket items were still there. Chunky ferries still departed at the foot of Yonge. The islands, place of rustic respite for so many immigrant families, had not been swept away. From Centre Island, the million-dollar view of Toronto’s skyline brought my pulse back to life.
Back on the mainland, Kensington Market, Chinatown, the Beaches, the Annex, and the curvilinear City Hall had stayed much as I remembered. I loved seeing the city lit up. But the Long Bar, overlooking City Hall, was long gone and with it all those glasses of wine, with all those dates, all those years ago.
My elementary school, playground and all, had stayed where I left it. I breathed easy at the sight of it surrounded by oak and maple trees. But it was the small neighbourhood items, inconsequential to others, that filled me with a dark unease. The house we all thought was haunted, the dime store where we bought Export A cigarettes, the old junkyard, popular during my Grade 7 year, where we learned how to smoke and stick our tongues into the warmth of a boy’s mouth. Gone, replaced, accommodated.
So was I still a Toronto girl? On my last day, I took the subway back to High Park. I needed to see a place of roots, colour and congregation.
It was glorious. A Sunday like all my other Sundays in the park. I roved at will, hotdog in hand, listening to snippets of the multilingual conversations of families, couples and friends out to enjoy a last warm day before the greys of winter. High Park was a gift that John and Jemima Howard bestowed upon Toronto in 1873. What a gift! Not as big as Vancouver’s Stanley Park, it still felt expansive and was a fiesta of autumn colour and alive with the hopes and dreams and stories of so many people, as it undoubtedly had also been in 1959, my first visit as a new immigrant, a toddler from Germany. Then, as now, High Park was a meeting place, a stroller’s paradise. It had been our backyard when were young and our freedom when we were adolescents. And, as we took on life and its challenges, it became our peace. As I walked and sat and listened, it still was.
Down by Grenadier Pond, where the ‘we’ of my youth believed bodies sank eternally, never reaching bottom, I realized that I was caught up in the banana bread disaster all over again. When my mother passed away, I had lost the recipe to her much-loved banana bread and the versions that I tried just weren’t quite right. I could remember the taste so well, but it seemed I would never relive it. Toronto’s recipe was changing, too. Pretty close would have to be close enough. As I wandered the park trails back to Bloor Street, I made peace with my city. The ‘me’ inside the worldly ‘I’ belonged to Toronto. It anchored me, filled my photo albums and blessed me with my most poignant dreams. And, while I realized that Toronto has its eye fixed on the future, I would continue to look back, not necessarily to a better time, but to my time in my city.
“Where are you from?” the desk clerk asked as I checked out the next day.
I never hesitated. “I’m from Toronto. But I live in Edmonton.”