Sunday, April 3, 2011


A trip down memory lane...if you were are familiar with small towns you might recognize some of these themes....

The town appears unexpectedly, a ripple on the landscape of gentle hills and rich farmland. It owes its existence to the meeting of two rivers, one being the powerful Thames. Thousands of years ago, the rivers cut deep into the soft earth, forming the high-walled fortress of hills that surrounded and enclosed the town. The water’s strength compressed the earth, and over generations the mud became limestone, and the limestone gave the town its sustenance.

It began as a thriving village nestled in the forks, fed by the river’s energy which churned through man-made canals into the flour mills, the cotton mill, the lumber mills. It was sustained by the railroad, for as two rivers met in its centre, two prominent railway lines criss-crossed the skyline with towering viaducts, joining the tiny community to the outside world. People and goods could travel northeast to Stratford, southwest to London, west to Sarnia, and east to Hamilton.

As the town grew larger, houses spiraled up the hillsides, proudly built with the products of the lime quarries. Stately grey, chiseled, mortared solidly into place, these houses lined the streets, outlasted their inhabitants,  and remained unchanged as the town grew around them. Homes spilled into the higher elevations as the twentieth century began. Churches built their prominent spires on commanding hilltops, visually reminding the good citizens of their parochial duty, of the extreme and patriarchal authority of God.

Efforts were made to bring culture to the community. A group of enterprising sousl built an Opera House. Choirs and orchestras flourished in community centers. A town Hall was erected, and its limestone towers continue to dominate the downtown area. The pious citizens argued and raged over accepting Andrew Carnegie’s gift, but at last, a library was built. Goods came in from far away via the railroad. Life was comfortable convenient, familiar, for those who lived in town.

But even then, did the shelter of the hills insulate the residents from the finer points of acceptance? There were few initial ties beyond the railroad. Did the isolation create an environment where the hierarchy was strictly enforced, where the small-town stereotypes of clannishness and secrecy became fully operational?

Or, is this the way of all small towns?

Before the car, before the rapid, convenient transport of humans across distance, movement in or out of town was limited, remarked upon. Notices were, are sometimes still printed in the local paper:” Mrs. Andrew Smith entertained her cousins, the Missed Marielle and Ruby Langford of London last week.” People did not drive out of town to work, not until the eighties and nineties, when cars became more affordable and credit was easy to acquire, when the cost of gas was lower than the cost of property tax in bigger cities.

New families occasionally move in, sometimes having connections in town through friends and family. A family from outside can transplant successfully, given the right ingredients: money, prominence, and willingness to conform. It matters whether or not you join the Lion’s Club, the IODE, or the Odd Fellows. It matters whether or not you are eligible to join the Royal Canadian legion, or the slightly less-respectable Army and Navy, based upon your family’s participation in the previous war.

What you do for a living is critical. Did you take a job that Walter’s cousin applied for, but didn’t get? Did they hire you to bring a new perspective – if so, be aware that newfangled notions are not always welcome. Are you properly respectful of the old guard? Did they tell you all the established family names on your first day of work?

It matters where you shop. Are you buying in local shops,  thus assuring that goods are bought and sold in the historic, yet sadly-provisioned business district? Or perhaps you make a pretence of local shopping, but you are wealthy enough to travel to London, or even Toronto, and acquire your goods in fashionable, upscale establishments. Kingsmill’s. Simpson-Sears. Eaton’s – after all, Timothy Eaton was once a local boy. Do you dare admit your scarcity in a public manner and shop at the Salvation Army thrift store?

Anonymity does not exist in small towns. People watch you. They notice where you go. They remark upon your presence. Just being neighbourly, is all. They discuss what you wear, and how you present yourself, after you’ve left the room. They feign surprise at the door left ajar, the conversation overheard in the ladies’ room at the church bazaar. Are you pleasant, yet respectful, to the old guard, the denizens who can trace their family lineage in this town back to the nineteenth century?

You’re new here, aren’t you? Haven’t seen you here before. Know anybody, before you moved up? Did you know the Jackson’s, or the Reese family from London? They’re cousins of mine. How long have you been here? Found your way around yet?  After you’ve been asked the questions a dozen or more times, you become weary. Does it matter? Why does it matter? Your answers may become more elaborate, or they may become short and sharp. If you start asking the questions, or heaven forbid, provide any feedback, you are either greeted with over-enthusiastic warmth, or you are coolly reminded of your station. What right do you have to ask those questions? That’s the way it’s always been done, nobody’s had a problem with it before you came along. Maybe you should live here awhile before you pass those kinds of judgments.

You feel the resident’s coolness, watch them dance in tight circles, shoulder to shoulder, as they weave in and out of building, down sidewalks, past rows of chairs at PTA meetings. They dance facing inwards, with their backs to the forlorn, the misfits. The circle grows tighter and tighter until they are stuck, unable to move forwards or backwards. Their feet stomp in place for so long that they are digging themselves into the ground, buried in the stagnant, infertile clay of exclusivity.

You live here. You are an outsider. They will take your money, but not your advice. Your presence is required at PTA meetings, but you are expected not to speak. Your children are welcome at school, but please do not ask the bus driver to pick them up, you’re out of the busing area. We make allowances for some families depending on the difficulty of the walk. No, your children may not bring a lunch to school, even if it takes them twenty minutes to walk home at lunch time. Only bus students may bring a lunch.

And so on.

The streets are clean. The roads are deserted at night. The town is steeped in silence; there is a calm that cannot be found in your former urban home. It is so quiet that it’s hard to sleep, at first. And after your eyes drift closed, you are forcefully awakened by the blast of a train whistle.

Everything is closed on Mondays.

Mail is not delivered. You pick it up at the post office. The Post Office is a modern building that smells like a dusty stack of books. You ask for your mail at the counter, as you are on the waiting list for a post office box. You open your mail and discard the junk. Before you leave, five or six people have noticed you, eyes shifting away when you make contact. Some acknowledge you with a glimmer of a nod.

On Sundays you pile the kids into the car and go to church, six to a pew. Back pews are always filled, so you march the little ones to the very front, on the left hand side of the church, under the watchful eyes of the priest as he delivers his sermon. You make the sign of peace with everyone around you, but they do not speak to you as you hurry the children to the car. You are asked to join the Catholic Women’s League. You pay your dues and discover that only the executive meets, there are no regular events, and the single ongoing project is knitting red slippers for altar servers. You don’t knit.

Your kids are divided at school. Separate playgrounds, different teachers, each child concerned with preserving their own social integrity at all cost. This could mean that your daughter mocks your son, as she trudges the long road to and from school with him. But, in the face of adversity on that walk, they become unified. They turn their backs with stoic despair, having learned from you that it is better to ignore those who taunt them, than to rise to the insults. You really didn’t know how bad it was, you tell yourself later. In the other world, the world that was, they whooped and hollered their way to school, with friends fore and aft.

They don’t fit. Their clothes don’t fit. They don’t understand the distinction between town kids and country kids, what passes for the racial dividing line in a sea of white faces. They don’t laugh at appropriate moments, like when the kid from the dairy farm arrives with a head full of straw and muck on his boots. They don’t know not to laugh at the girls who huddle in a circle, giggling at nothing. Their silence at home about such matters causes you pain. You only overhear them as they whisper to each other after dark, consoling each other at the end of another long day.

In winter, they are the kings and queens of the best toboggan hill in the south ward. All the kids become their friends for a hour or two. Everyone goes home at night, and arrives at school the next morning with a bemused expression and frosty silence when your kids greet them with familiarity.

In winter the snow piles high. Schools close when it storms. People stay indoors, watch the snow swirl and settle, and wait for the plows to clear out their streets. You learn to carry jumper cables, you buy a block heater for the car, and you invest in snow tires. The children walk to school, trudging from one end of town to another four times a day because you are five houses away from the busing area. At lunch, they barely have time to take off their wet mittens before you send them back out the door. If they’re late, the principal will call you and suggest that you re-organize your schedule so that your children arrive at school on time.

Here, the trees are taller than you had imagined, healthy and abundant. Your children laugh and squeal at the squirrels, still a novelty. They play in a huge back yard filled with trees, alive with the voices of birds and the rustle of movement from the wind. Bats swoop from leafy branches at night and settle in the vacant barn, in the lot next door. You sleep with the doors unlocked, the windows wide open, and you awaken to a chorus of birdsong every morning. There is no traffic. There are no squeals of bus brakes, no distant hum of transport trucks moving goods along the 401.

Your friends and family are long-distance calls away. They visit when they can.

You walk alone for hours when the kids are at school. You travel along the riverbank, by the abandoned railway. There’s a dirt road that follows the Thames for miles out of town and you hike along its dusty track. You take the kids with you, and teach them to wade in the water, and to fish. All of you watch in awe as a great heron flaps its wings and sails skyward, with long legs trailing gracefully behind. Your kids expand their vocabulary and knowledge, learning about cattails and milkweed, burdock and skunkweed. And skunks. You listen as the water cascades over rocks, an endless burble, a trickle between your bare toes. You rest on the limestone banks and forget time, forget place, forget that you are a stranger.

You are here.


MakingSpace said...

I wanna read the second chapter now...

Camlin said...

do you think these are chapters? If they are, I'm offering them in no particular order. There are at least three more to come...

MakingSpace said...

This is going to sound crass, but I expect someone to find a body... (huge Agatha Christie fan...) - and maybe a bit of a psychological thriller thing too.

Yeah, crass. You keep doin' what you're doin', pay me no mind.