Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"... this used to be fields..."

We would be going somewhere, driving down a street lined with stores or houses.  To the child I used to be (some would say, still am), that particular part of the planet seemed as permanent and unchangeable as any other.

"When I was your age, this used to be fields. I would come for horseback riding lessons near here. There were bridle paths all through the fields."

I never for an instant doubted my mother. Yet it was more than I could fathom.  My mother wasn't that old.  There were no fields anywhere in this place.  Mile upon mile of sidewalks, pavement and buildings. I couldn't remember seeing a field all drive long. It seemed a fantastic notion. Fields, here? Horses?

On Saturday my sister-in-law Bev was here for a visit. She was staying with her sister Linda in Laval. We went over for brunch.  When we turned onto Linda's street I noticed it had been repaved. From the look of the pavement, the paving was maybe a week old. Tops.

Every time I go to Linda's, it's a trip in a time machine. I grew up in that neighborhood. I distinctly remember when Linda's house was built, and when her street was paved, the first time.

Our kids are visiting for the long weekend, so we went to Linda's in two cars, and a scooter. I was in need of a ride.

After brunch, Susan drove Bev to the airport and I decided to take the scenic route home: west along the old river road to the ferry that goes to Ile Bizard, then over Ile Bizard back onto the Island and home.

Back in the late 70's Autoroute 13 was built. Laval's burgeoning population had made a second Autoroute link to Montreal a pressing and long overdue necessity.  The highway was built nineteen years after my parents' house was built, eighteen years after the seven year-old me moved in.  That was a very long eighteen year span.  Years back then lasted much longer.  Nothing like the recent ones that seem to slip by in uncounted numbers.

Our house in what is now the Chomedey sector of Laval was on the edge of the developed world back in 1959. The frontier was a couple of blocks away. Farmers' fields extended from our neighborhood and away to the west, as far as the crow could fly. Farther probably.

Autoroute 13 obliterated the ancient red brick two-story, four-room schoolhouse I attended in grades three and four. Good riddance. I had nuns, and was the only 'city boy' in the school, or so it seemed to me.  I shed no tears when that part of my childhood fell to the bulldozer.

I digressed on the way home, searching for any vestige of the world of the 1960's where my school and the nearby convent that supplied the school's nuns had stood.  The old riverside road, Chemin bord de l'eau, petered out as it approached the point where the western edge of the Autoroute blocked its original path.  The fields south of the old road that used to stretch a quarter mile or more down to the river, were no more. The three story convent was no more.

Cheek by jowel, acres of McMansions had mushroomed.  Imposing, elegant, brand-new, dressed-stone manor homes, with many-gabled roofs, and wrought iron adornments, succeeded one another, snaking along gracefully curving streets.  There was no trace, absolutely no visible trace, of the seven or eight-year-old's universe.

'... this used to be fields...' my mother's words were ricocheting in my slightly numbed brain.  My childhood world was gone. No school, no convent, no fields, no '57 Chevies, or Ford Fairlanes.

I turned the Vespa around and headed west on Chemin bord de l'eau. At least the old road still existed.

Many miles later, as I neared the ferry landing, development's grip slackened and the changes were less troubling.  The ten year old boy had no difficulty getting his bearings.
The three-dollar ferry ride was a comforting transition that left the unsettling vision of McMansions swirling in its wake.

Was that real?


RichardM said...

I've given up going to anywhere I remember in my youth as nothing looks the same anymore. Farms and fruit orchards are now miles and miles of residences and box stores. But it was in Los Angeles anyway and I can't think of a good reason for returning,

VStar Lady said...

I'm lucky ... though places from my childhood are progressing, they are not changing so fast that I can't keep up.

David Masse said...

Richard, Alaska to L.A. is quite a contrast.

Once a place has been redeveloped there is not much point in returning. It's strange, it's almost like an important part of your existence has been tampered with. Seeing a childhood place with adult eyes informs your memory, like adding a layer of narrative that connects the present to the past. Once the place is physically erased there is only memory. The older the memory, the less reliable it is. Our circumstances alter our perception. When you were a kid you were smaller so things seemed bigger.

It's all very strange.

David Masse said...

Karen, I think that's it, when an old place can still be seen and is somewhat the same, or you have witnessed the changes, it's like you can keep up.

When the changes to the place are too great, the place is erased and you can't keep up.

Our kids have left the province. As we make changes to the house, we tamper with their memories.

This is why, in part, humans are allergic to change.

Interestingly, my in-laws who survived WWII and the holocaust, whose entire world was literally obliterated, along with many of the people who were in the old places, were quite comfortable with change.

When they moved to Florida later in life, they kept little of their furnishings. It was like wiping the slate and starting new.

Can you imagine living all your life in Paris or Florence? Or Rome, literally the eternal city?

Unknown said...


I am one of the few and rare Vancouverites. I remember the way it was back in the 50's and 60's. Nothing is left. Not much history here. Old stuff is torn down and rebuilt. I remember taking the street car downtown. They ran on rails. I remember the horsestables near QE park. Oak street back then stopped at 41st

Riding the Wet Coast

Dar said...

The old saying goes "You can't go home again" it seems that the places I used to haunt are forever changed as well. Progress is sad, because it usually means concrete, condos, subdivisions, and apartment buildings. Sigh

Deb said...

A post that struck home for me as well as I've recently been in conversation with friends about this very topic. As Dar says, "you can't go home again" as "home" no longer exists.

I lived in Europe as a child and loved the way they preserved their historic heritage. Not so in our country.

So they tear down beautiful old buildings, baseball parks, and smother out wildlife with concrete and strip malls and then lament about it all.

Remember that song by Joni Mitchell? "They take paradise and put up a parking lot" or something like that.

It makes me very sad too.

David Masse said...

Bob, the only globetrotter in our whole family back then was my maternal grandmother, Margaret.

Her sisters still lived in her native England, and her other two daughters lived in Washington D.C. and Melbourne. She lived a very frugal life and saved her money so that every three or four years she'd be off on a round the world tour.

She'd come back with tales of places like Ibiza, and Barcelona, Madrid, Vancouver, Melbourne, Sydney, Fiji, Kyoto, London, Paris, and Washington.

One summer when I was eight or nine, so 1960 or 1961, she took me on the train to Ottawa to show me the nation's capital. I remember her telling me all about her train trip to Vancouver through the Rockies.

It sounded like a wondrous place. I only got to visit for the first time in 2000. By that time Oak street went as far as it does today... Marine Drive I'm guessing. My knowledge of Vancouver geography is improving, but not very quickly.

The fact remains that Vancouver is absolutely one of my favorite places in Canada. It easily surpasses the images my grandmother conjured with her travel stories way back in the dawn of my times.

David Masse said...

It's odd Dar. It's all about time, context and relativity. When I think of Vancouver, I think of that skyline of towering glass condos that you see from Granville Island, or crossing the Cambie Bridge, or the Granville bridge.

I can see how someone who grew up there would think that the charm of the city was lost to the developers. And it may be so, but 'my' Vancouver is full of glass towers and I love it.

Still, any change to the environment we grew up in is going to strike a wistful chord in our hearts.

David Masse said...

Deb, Montrealers are fortunate to a degree. Through a series of thoughtful planning initiatives mixed with dumb luck, we have succeeded in saving key parts of our architectural heritage.

It's possible to walk through the old city and have essentially the same experience that people of generations past enjoyed. Right down to the cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages.

In the areas that aren't clearly heritage locations, the world you describe is the one we experience too.

The funny thing is that years ago I was in Geneva on business. I was having a chat with a fellow lawyer. His lament was that in Europe everything was already done, everything worth saying or thinking had already been said or thought by smarter older generations, and that opportunity for change was stifled.

He wished he lived in Montreal or New York where the veneer of civilization was thinner, where change was constant and opportunity was everywhere.

It was odd for me to hear that, because like many of us, the feeling is that we trash our past with so little thought given to the virtues of preservation.

The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.