‘Immersion Memoir’ and Returning to My Childhood Home Part 1

As I was reading a recent essay by Suzanne Farrell Smith called “The Inner Identity of Immersion Memoir”, I began thinking about my own trip back to my childhood home on Charles Street in Toronto a few years ago.

My old house was being leased after being occupied by a print shop for the past 25 years. I called up a realtor friend and asked her to show me through the house. Armed with a camera and notebook , I went in search  of childhood memories, hoping the experience would trigger more than I’d been able to access to date. Although only the first floor and the basement were available to us,  I tapped into the architecture in my mind and compared it to what remained that day.

Here are some of my notes from November 18, 2008.

I sucked in my breath as I entered my childhood home on Charles Street. Fifty-eight years since we moved. The main floor and basement were up for lease and a real estate agent friend arranged access for me. The first floor was stripped to the brick wall and studs. The original room divisions were obliterated. My stomach lurched.

I struggled to recognize the house of my childhood. The bones were still there, a few familiar markers. Outside I had climbed the metal stairs and heard a clanging sound instead of the thud of the former wooden steps. The hidey hole was still there under the front porch with its winding cement steps to the basement door. To my left in front of the basement window a cement pad replaced the metal doors of the chute to the coal bin below. The old front door had been replaced with a barred metal commercial entrance. Gone was the old carved glass windowed door with the bell to turn beneath. The transom above also looked different with a decorative metal flower in lieu of bars and the old curtained transom window opening inward probably considered a security risk.

In my mind’s eye the house I grew up in for the first 9 years was huge. The rooms seemed so spacious because of the very high ceilings. The living room faced the street with a large picture window. When I was nearly 4, I remember looking out into a white snowy night waiting for my mother to return with my baby brother. It was February 1945. Jim has just turned 62. Amazing that I can remember that night. There was a fireplace and mantel but it was never used. We had a radio, one of those big ones that stood on the floor. I used to lie in front with my head in the speakers to listen to a children’s program from Buffalo. I think it was called “Through the Garden Gate”. When I was 8, I even won a contest they held. I drew a picture of “The Garden Gate”. My prize was 2 tickets to the movie “The Wizard of Oz”. In the living room a stained glass window of a robin was behind the chesterfield. I used to love looking at it. Years later I saw someone removed it and probably put it in an antique shop. How sad to have it removed from its context. In the corner of the living room stood a big wooden box, low with a lid that opened up like a trunk. I think my Dad made it. I loved having my doll’s tea parties on it. The rest of the room is a blur, a carpet I think, a chair I recall my father reading his paper in. The painting on the wall of the Bow River; Sadie and I used to sit in front of it and make up stories cuddled under a blanket. One day the plaster ceiling came crashing down on my that wooden box. Luckily there were no tea parties in progress at the time.
(from earlier freewriting about my house)

I walk through the glass door from the now tiny front hall and see a brick wall straight ahead with some horizontal planks covering the old fireplace – now a chimney for the high-efficiency gas furnace. My bearings are lost. There are no room dividers and a big pile of debris fills the room. Remnants of one wall between the former kitchen and my parent’s former bedroom (really the dining room) tell me where the walls once were. The staircase is now walled and the once spacious hall is gone given over to the open room. The glass paneled French doors are gone to the living room and between the living room and dining room. We search around and find remnants of old plaster, high carved baseboards and window trim. The very high ceiling appears to be original and bears an old stamped pattern. But my favourite stained glass window with the robin on it is missing, as is the stained glass in the top of the rounded large picture window. I recall sitting on the back of the chesterfield looking at that robin in the stained glass before flipping myself backwards down to the cushions.

To be continued...

Have you ever gone looking for your past in old buildings or landscapes?


Elizabeth Young said...

I grew up in a little village in the North of England, so when I visited several years ago perused many places alive and well in my memory. I went to the first house I lived in and explained to the people I was visiting from Canada and begged them to allow me a quick look around. The inside of the house was gutted and the outside exactly the same, and the huge garden hadn't changed much. I discovered through an old neighbour that together with the other side of the house it had originally been a finishing school for young ladies at the turn of the Century. How precious is that?
When I went to the graveyard to visit my sisters grave a huge wind blew up out of nowhere tore my dress on a gravestone. The significance wasn't lost on me. I visited ancient cobbled streets, stocks, the school where my grandfather, father and I all went, and it's all in there ready to be interwoven into the book I'm writing about my paternal Grandmother. An awesome post!

kathleen said...

What a lovely post,Ruth! It is is rich with vivid memories of your childhood perceptions and for me reflects the importance of revisiting a childhood home to resurrect these memories. I felt like I was right there with you walking through the house. I have driven by places of my childhood but have never actually walked through a childhood home. just driving by brings memories back so I imagine actually going inside would lead me deeper into my memory bank as you have shown here. Thanks for sharing!

cassie Merko said...

Great post Ruth. You're lucky to be able to revisit that house. I am certain that visit triggered many vivid memories and gave you much inspiration and subject matter for your writing. Few people get such a
great opportunity. Many of our homes have been "bulldozed down like trees" (Memories of Kulish Poem). Take advantage of that good fortune while you have it. Good luck and Enjoy!

Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

It must have been most productive to visit your childhood village and house. You are lucky, as I am, that the house is still there and England has such regard for its history.
Thanks for your comments. Look forward to your book.

Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

Yes, it is different being inside the space you inhabited as a child. The old cliche "But I remember it as being so much bigger" hits you immediately. I remembered my house pretty well but there were a few things that were a bit off. It's well worth going inside your old house if that could be arranged. I would take a video camera too if I had to do it again.

Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

Thanks for your comments. I do feel lucky that my house is still there especially since the entire rest of the street is gone except for these 5 old houses. Much of Toronto's history has indeed been bulldozed.