Sometimes the place you can’t wait to escape is a very good place. Perhaps it is the very best place of all. But you, because you are you, are determined to escape it.
The Grade 3 class photos arrived by e-mail, the long-gone but so familiar faces slowly materializing in the dark well of my screen. “Hi Kathy,” the message said, “at least that’s what we used to call you. I won’t be there next week. But I thought you might get a kick out of these. Cheers, Steve.”
Cheers. I haven’t seen Steve Hrudey for 30 years. But he’s right, it’s that easy to reconnect. He was a new kid, an immigrant. He was dark, intense, smart, awkward. He couldn’t skate. We went to the rink every day after four. Not being able to skate was foreign; it was laughable. And he knew it. So he joked. I see him heading down the ice at me, his blades sweeping out sideways, graceless. I can hear the skates, grating, those decades ago.
In Grade 3, I am giggling in a party dress with puffed sleeves. I have a missing tooth; my fine hair, which my mother has tried to curl in bobby-pin secured coils, sticks out in wisps. Miss Wiese, the teacher, is glamorous in a fitted shirtwaist dress. No wonder I was in love with her. We children are positively luminous with good spirits. I can name Joan Wilson, Carol Marshall, Penny Jacox, Beth Young, Billy Shandro, Teddy Poole. Billy Shandro and Teddy Poole, front row left, both wear glasses and slump together, planning trouble. Johnny Crockett is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, very cool in 1960. He has written a word on his palm and flashes it at the photographer, who’s just pressed the shutter. I can read Johnny’s message: Hi!
Hi, Johnny. Wherever you are.
The “next week” Steve referred to was the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Windsor Park Elementary School. The school opened in 1953 and in spring of 2004 the current staff and community decided to celebrate. All former students who could be located had been invited. I live in Toronto and have almost no contact with anyone from my elementary school: that’s why the e-mail was such a surprise.
The neighbourhood was in Edmonton, built on lands originally owned by the University of Alberta. It occupied then, and still occupies, a plateau of perhaps a square mile, bound by a curve that mimics the S of the wide, muscular North Saskatchewan River in the valley below. From it, the land falls steeply through forest to the then muddy riverbanks. A road named after Emily Murphy wound down there to the Groat Road Bridge; I remember my mother would routinely remind me that Mrs. Murphy was the real brains behind the “five women of Alberta” who won the Persons Case, not that flashy Nellie McClung. When Queen Elizabeth II came to Canada, the road was widened to impress the monarch. Now expressways, a golf course, even an artificial lake fill some of that space.
The years before I went to school I spent with my mother. I played on the floor at the hairdresser in the tuck shop while she had a “perm.”
Years before, the university had sold the high, wild peninsula to British investors who made an attempt to develop it between the wars. They failed: it was the dirty thirties. But things were different after the Second World War; first came the delirium of peace and domesticity, and then the Leduc oil strike. Named for the royals, Windsor Park was a model community, with short streets radiating from a large circular inner park, with a school and a skating rink.
My parents bought when everyone else did, in 1950. My father and his friend, both engineering professors at the university, split three lots, so that each family had 1 1/2. They dug posts to build a fence and it rained: fortunate, because when a wasp stung me there was mud to pack all over my arm. I was two years old; I followed my adored older sister to the marshy spring across the mud street. We fished for sunken treasure. Our flat-roofed, many-windowed, bare-naked house was “modern,” with a sundeck where we were allowed to sleep out in summer. Seven years later, Dad woke us in the middle of the night to stand in the inky black and watch a bright white spark travel steadily overhead: Sputnik.
My sister and I amused ourselves by waking up the Thorseen kids in the morning: they liked to sleep in. But we had so much to do. The wild scrub and bush was still there and springs and meadowlarks. The odd settlers’ log house hid behind a caragana hedge. In winter we skated on our back- yard rink and tobogganed on the hill we called Lolly Bacon; in summer we walked along the riverbank where there was the tantalizing scare of “quicksand.” There were deer and rabbits, and eagles in the constant, empty blue sky.
Our house was nearly at the end of the number three bus loop. Buses were very important in the Edmonton of those days. “My” stop was the one before the turn, and I usually got on alone, a small girl taking a seat at the very back. Every time I went anywhere on that bus, I had to sit for 10 minutes while it idled and the driver allowed his schedule to catch up to him, before he pressed the long gear shift into first and the bus grunted into motion again.
The number three bus still cuts through the University of Alberta on 87 Avenue, and makes a right turn on 118 Street. From there it rumbles northward for several blocks past what used to be the Experimental Farm, and the tennis courts, behind the old brick residences of Athabasca and Pembina Halls, and the Quonset huts. Then it turns left. Two blocks on a slight incline down and you are at my old stop. Next comes a curve, and then the wait. Endless. When the bus starts up again it will speed around the back side of the park, giving a view of the school playground where the doors were marked Boys and Girls, before getting back out to 87 Avenue, the dividing line between Windsor Park and “South Windsor,” and beginning the journey across the High Level Bridge past the Legislature Buildings and downtown.
On the way to the anniversary I don’t wait for the bus. I come straight from the airport by taxi. I get out on the crescent a little distance from the school. It is a beautiful sunny day in May. I feel lightheaded, I feel like a clown on stilts. The street is small: the trees are huge. The school has been freshly painted its old white with blue trim around its flat roof. I walk up the pavement still with that feeling of being in the air above it all, watching. Inside the door, directly to the left, is the gym with its windows up against the 20-foot ceiling, barred to stop errant soccer balls. The floor is hardwood with red and black lines signifying out or in for volleyball, basketball, badminton.
All this is like a dream. On the stage, where we learned square dancing, stands my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. Barnett. He looks the same except that someone has taken fine wire and pressed it hard into his forehead in a number of horizontal lines. I look at him; he looks at me: recognition, without even surprise. I remember that he wore crepe-soled shoes. He used to stride down the middle of the corridor and you could hear him coming—a coiled spring.
He is saying that he was 18 years old when he started teaching here, only a summer course after high school graduation, one of the “six-week wonders” enlisted to teach us, the baby boom children. And he was intimidated, because the daughter of the mayor was in his class. Yes, I remember Georgina Hawrelak. I remember so many others, as well, their names rising like air bubbles in a lake, and bursting on contact with a face, here in the crowd, so changed and yet so instantly known.
When the speeches end we gravitate to the class photos spread on a table. People mill: those little faces are magnetic. Also, they are the ones we know, not these life-altered versions. But before long our restraint goes. I see “Pixie,” who isn’t called that anymore, and Patty, who is. I see old playmates who still live in the neighbourhood: their children have gone to this school.
The present students have done projects on our decade. The 1950s is a woman in an apron, an iron lung, a girl in a ballet tutu, a fallout shelter: images of confinement. I want to argue. They don’t understand. It was not like that at all. But perhaps it was. The women were confined, but the children, and the girls, were free. Most families had four kids. If you couldn’t find the one you wanted, you played with her brother. Every house was a safe call on Halloween for homemade candy; we’d fill a pillowslip. No one seemed to worry when we went down into the woods to visit the hermit who lived there under a few sheets of plywood. We played outside for hours, ranging a mile to the gravel pit, the shopping centre, the South Side swimming pool. I loved school so much that my mother had to prevent me from leaving home at 8:15 a.m. for the 10- minute walk. We came home for lunch from noon until 1:30 and sometimes brought the teacher. The only prohibitions I can remember came from my father: I couldn’t be a crossing guard and stand on the corner in an orange pinnie, because I was a small girl. There was, and is, no traffic.
I leave the school anniversary and walk back along the crescent toward the bus stop with Mildred “Jennie” Frost. She used to be Mildred but she hated her name, so she changed it and she feels better. She and I used to write puppet plays together, make the stages and perform them. She went away to England to study, but she had an unfortunate (she said) love affair and came home. She now lives five doors down from what she calls “your” house—that would be the house my parents built. She knows every house by the original family, and where most of those original inhabitants are. A surprising number of them are within a mile of here. And for good reason. This is a beautiful neighbourhood now.
The bus is sitting, throbbing, as we pass it. I remember waiting on it. Ten minutes is forever. I feel the stillness; it is as if nothing has existed since I was that happy child. What did I do during this time? I dreamt of going to London to ballet school. Of being the next Margot Fonteyn. I tried to place myself on the globe. I got vertigo at the way the earth stretched away and then dropped down again. I saw way into the distance as if I were on one of those polar flights they talked about. I thought about the huge glittering black sea of sticky tar and sand north of us, guarded by squadrons of giant mosquitoes. My father flew there from the municipal airport; my mother took my sister and me to the observation deck to wave goodbye. We used to think we could see the curvature of the earth. My mother taught us about the great world. She did not teach us to cook: she didn’t want us wasting our life doing that. “Never live your life for a man,” she said more than once.
For years, I sat and thought, for 10 minutes at a time, in silence and solitude at this bus stop. During this time, as I set off to go across the river and downtown to ballet class, sent off alone by my mother at six or seven years old and for years to follow, I decided that the world was elsewhere. I did not formulate a plan, only a knowledge. I waited for the schedule to roll round, for the minutes to go by and the driver to start up again, and I became aware of myself as a tiny little speck in this great big huge world. Edmonton, I knew, was the farthest north city of any size in the world, second only to Moscow. Moscow was significant because there was a Cold War. London was also important. My mother got letters from her relatives in England. These letters made her laugh. An uncle lived at the end of the Piccadilly Tube. Another travelled the world selling Farley’s Feeding Biscuits, another had homing pigeons, and another a housekeeper who magically became his wife.
I felt a starkness, a sparsity in the landscape, and even in the people. Our parents had left their parents behind to come to Alberta. Most of our grandparents left their families behind to come to Canada in the first place; others had left them behind in far-off Ontario. None of this was questioned because it meant getting ahead and progress and development. Not only famous ballerinas, but close family were missing, far away; they had to be reached for, stretched for, the way so much had to be stretched for.
The years before I went to school I spent with my mother. I played on the floor at the hairdresser in the tuck shop while she had a “perm.” I played Scrabble by myself where I’d cheat to make seven-letter words and tell her I won. I’d go skating on the backyard rink in the bright sun, and look back to see her face over the kitchen sink, her head in the window.
My mother wanted to teach, but my father was against it. If a man’s wife had to work, something must be wrong with his earning power. She wanted to write; when she wrote, it was about him, or us. Mum led the Brownie pack, joined writing groups and studied French. She turned the laundry chute into a fishpond for birthday parties and sewed tutus for ballet recitals. She was a Tawny Owl when I was a Brownie. I was so proud of her bon mots. Once Carol Clute said, “Mrs. Govier, I’m bored.” My mother responded, “Carol, I’m floored.” Before bed she read aloud and I was enthralled by her laughter. I believe it was when I heard the story of the Heffalump that I decided I would be a writer. It was not to tell stories, in particular, but to make my mother laugh.
In Grade 6, Lois told me her mother lay on the couch all day, eating chocolates and crying. Astonishing. But not entirely.
There was a writer in our neighbourhood. Sheila Watson lived along this street with her husband, Wilfred, and many cats. People thought they were strange; she had no kids.
Mildred/Jennie and I pass Lois Cuthbertson’s house. In Grade 6, Lois told me her mother lay on the couch all day, eating chocolates and crying. Astonishing. But not entirely. I believe I knew, deep down, that the place was filled with unhappy mothers. There were shadows. My Grade 5 teacher had a nervous breakdown. A professor who lived near us got divorced. And the world grew slowly but steadily less perfect, less safe. There were threats of nuclear attack; we had drills at school. An alarm would ring to indicate a nuclear weapon had come shooting over the North Pole toward Edmonton, aiming at the oil refineries. We hid under our desks for a while and then we all ran home. Where else was there to go?
There was no shelter, either, from what came to pass. Teddy Poole was first: he died in a car accident in Grade 9, before I moved away. In his 30s, Billy Shandro shot himself. Johnny Crocket died later of cancer. The Pike girl, who was a ski racer, became a bag lady. One of those falls did something to her head, people said.
Mildred/Jennie’s sunny backyard faces west over the river; it is a beautiful spot, so different from my narrow, horizon-less townhouse garden in Toronto. She and her kids order pizza for dinner. I call Carol Marshall, with whom I used to draw architectural house plans. We’re going out for dinner. I say goodbye to Jennie, but before we leave the neighbourhood we drive past “our” house. Yes, the fence dad built is still standing. It’s a good fence.
Only as we fly in Carol’s car across the bridge to a restaurant, a safe, anonymous haunt, do I finally shake the feeling that I am dreaming.
It was a wonderful dream. I am so glad I had it. I feel envious of my own past, of myself, that favoured, happy childhood in that golden world. How did this lucky-ness happen and give me a lifelong sense of being blessed? Women made that home, and women changed it. My mother, after all, sent me on that bus, while she—who would have loved to go places—stayed home. I mourn this place. I want the bus to stop longer. But the 10 minutes is up, and the bus sighs into motion.
Carol tells me about her life. She too lives just down the road in another neighbourhood, but close to here. Her old friend lives only a block away. But I have gone, on that bus. I can come back to visit, and for that visit it is as if I have not left, but that of course is the illusion.
So it is with all “perfect places.” Some people can stay. But some have to leave. Maybe that’s what this story is about. Maybe that’s what all stories are about.
Katherine Govier lived in Alberta until she was 22, and now lives in Toronto. Her most recent novel is Three Views of Crystal Water.