Dia de los Muertos, Toronto style

It used to be all about Getting Away, either from Toronto or just The Place You Were From. Where did all that start? Some time in young adulthood. We talked about Europe, about New York, as the really exciting places to be. I remember seeing Leaving Home by David French, and discussing Getting Away as a significant theme in Canadian literature.

But for me, it started earlier than that. Migration felt encoded in my genes or at least in my expectations. On one side, I’m a second generation immigrant, and though the other side of my family has been in Canada for six generations, my ancestors migrated on a regular basis from city to town to farm to main street and back again, crisscrossing the country to find … what?

I always expected to do a certain amount of growing up here in Toronto, then go away. Find a place on the planet that resonated with something deep inside myself. That would be my true home. Life would start.

And so I find it a little surprising to be getting into my fifties here, in the city of my birth, unable to imagine what it would be like to settle elsewhere. How would I ever become intimate with the smell of another city’s air, the quality of its light, its moods and habits and unwritten rules? Even though I’ve done my share of moves within the city, Toronto is most definitely home.

My attempts to Go Away never worked. Each time I accused myself of lack of courage, failure to launch. Yet deep inside I welcomed each return. I breathe more freely here, walk more confidently laugh more heartily, feel engaged and stimulated and enfolded by community. And maybe — despite my conditioning — this is what I’ve wanted all along: to live in one city for years and years and years. Accumulating memories.

It’s the beginning of November, a time when in Latin America they celebrate Dia de los Muertos. The dead are thought to come out and join the living. For me, the holiday makes more sense with each passing year. It happens often these days: I rush up to an old family friend in the street, but just before I say hello, remember that that person is dead. Maybe it was a ghost I saw, or just a projection of my own desire to see them again.

But I am just as liable to run into the ghost of a former self. In one of my favourite books, Another World, Pat Barker writes that trauma has the effect of stopping time. Another dimension is opened, and haunting becomes a very real phenomenon. I would go so far as to say that all moments of heightened emotion — good or bad — alter our experience of time, and that the memories have a way of taking almost tangible form.

As I pass the gritty yellow brick facade of 66 Spadina Road, I look up to the seventh floor, where a family of four shares a one-bedroom apartment. A mother and daughter sit on straight-backed chairs in the semi-darkness, waiting, whispering: Where is he? Just a little to the south, I see the same pair, thirty years later. The younger woman pushes the older one in a wheelchair. She points to the flowers in the various gardens flanking the nursing home. Positioned one in front of the other this way, they don’t see each other’s tears. A young girl passes them, skipping, a book balanced on her hip. She has finished her first reader and is allowed to take it home. Further south, still there’s a rock garden kitty-corner from Jarvis Collegiate where a teenager sits eating a sandwich. It’s December. She’s coughing and her hands are chapped. But she’ll do anything to avoid going into the cafeteria. Further south, now to City Hall. A bunch of people rush giddily out of the building on an unseasonably warm day in March 2003, looking for a place to order a glass of champagne. They ask passers-by to snap a picture that includes them all. The couple in the middle hold their newly clad ring fingers a little self-consciously. All around them, in Nathan Philips Square, a protest is disbursing: US out of Iraq

Through sorting my grandmother’s papers, I became intimate with those powerful moments in the lives of previous generations in my family. In that sense, my own memory, my own ability to be haunted, goes back to before I was born.

Last week, I walked around the shops in Forest Hill, putting up flyers for my reading at Type Books, 427 Spadina Rd on Saturday, November 12th. The reading is important to me, because my grandmother lived in Forest Hill during the Second World War. The time also happens to coincide with Remembrance Day, a day that was like my grandmother’s second birthday in our house.

It is a fine day; I zip open my coat and turn my face to the sun. And here she is, Mona, in a trench coat and high-heeled pumps, rushing past me on the sidewalk. It’s 1942. My grandfather in away in the army, and she’s living with my adolescent father in an apartment building just a little north of what is now Type.

I want to know more, to complete the picture. I visit the Toronto archives and seek advice from one of those magical people who open the doors of the past so that stories can be told (a librarian in other words). He sets me up at a microfilm viewer with the city directory for 1942. He shows me how to fast-forward to S (Spadina) slow the dial, then focus in to find “Forest Hill.” It’s beyond the point called “city limits.”

427 Spadina was a fruit store back when Mona lived there. There were also two drug stores, a barber, a dry-cleaner, a grocer and a bookseller. My grandmother would have hurried along this sidewalk many times doing errands. She was busy in those days.

I have some idea how she felt in the fall of 1942. Her personal life was fraught with pain and fear. Her brother and her lover had been killed in the war, both losses so sudden and brutal they must have seemed surreal. Each day brought greater anxiety for another two men in her life, her husband and son (who would soon be old enough to fight). At the same time, her career was blossoming exquisitely. “This Was My Brother,” the poem she wrote to express her grief, was run on the back pages of newspapers across the country. There were plans for her first book to come out in the spring. She was in demand as a public figure in her job with the Red Cross. Her housewifely role behind her, she finally had a chance to let her ambition soar.

Mona walked the streets of Forest Hill in the grip of powerful emotions, and I have no doubt she’ll be there at the reading on on November 12th. Since her death in 1999, Mona’s been known to set small fires, launch deafening rounds of microphone feedback, confiscate jewellery, and bounce plates off a rail on the wall. I’m not making any claims here, but it may not be a coincidence that in the very moment my authors’ copies of Outside the Box were deliverd, there was a small earthquake in sothern Ontario. She’s never done any serious harm, just enough mischief to get people’s attention. I’m happy to oblige.

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2 Responses to Dia de los Muertos, Toronto style

  1. Terri Favro says:

    Clearly, Mona was a force of nature. (Great post!)

  2. You have an interesting relationship with our city!

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