Recently, my brothers and sister were driving through an area of downtown Toronto when we found ourselves in familiar surroundings… or familiar at least when we were kids. Just off Dundas Street at Brock Avenue between Dufferin and Landsdowne, there’s a tiny street…Hickson, where my maternal grandparents lived for forty years. Because little construction had taken place during the war, coupled with the resurgence of returning soldiers, houses were scarce in this period, but my grandparents had found this duplex and moved in late in 1918.
Time had seemingly stood still at No. 8 Hickson. As I stood across the street, little imagination was required on my part to envision my grandfather Will Carruthers sitting on the front porch, reading, or maybe working a crossword, a cigarette clenched between his fingers. Originally he hand rolled most of his smokes but later on someone gave him a cigarette rolling machine. To a five or six year old, that gadget had to be the greatest invention in the world. My brothers and I used to practice “coughing like Grandpa.” Neither our mother nor grandmother were particularly amused as I recall.
If he wasn’t doing a crossword, Grandpa would be reading the sports pages of the Toronto Star. Because he always made such a mess of the paper…pages turned inside out and upside down…Grandma grabbed the newspaper first, giving him the sports section while she read the rest. Once she was finished then he could do what he wanted with it. Grandpa Will was an avid sports fan all his life…and critical. There were two or three members on the Detroit Red Wings hockey team for which he had a dislike and hated the New York Ranger team in general. During baseball season, he directed his emotions toward the Yankees.
Standing there reminded me of the important role a front porch served so many decades ago. Porches were the focal point of every neighbourhood, a community lifeline of sorts, where news and gossip could be exchanged freely and as easily as did the telephone “party line” for the rural population. On summer evenings, I remember how my grandmother would scurry to get the supper dishes washed and put away so she could be first out on the front porch. One reason was she simply didn’t want to miss anything. But more importantly, an early appearance sent a silent message down the block of household efficiency. If someone did beat her, Grandma would grouse “There’s no way so-and-so could have all their chores done this soon!”
Because No. 8 Hickson was a duplex, its dimensions at first glance were deceiving. In reality, it was simply a small house with equally small rooms, but perhaps that’s why it entertained a sort of coziness, apparent the moment you stepped through the door. The whole of Hickson Street was cozy for that matter, where all the dwellings seemingly snuggled up to one another. No driveway existed…the little house practically sat on the sidewalk and a narrow passageway just wide enough to walk through, led to a handkerchief-sized back yard.
It was about an hour’s ride to the city from our hometown of Bradford, the train arriving without fail at Toronto’s Union Station just at rush hour. Streetcars would be jammed with commuters heading home, so as not to lose us in the crush Mom often elected to do some shopping at Eaton’s huge department store until the crowd thinned out. Following an hour’s stay, we’d finally be on our way via the city’s familiar red and yellow trolleys.
Once off the streetcar at Brock Avenue, it was just a matter of yards to my grandparent’s home. There was a store on the corner of Dundas and Brock, and right next to it bordering Brock and Hickson, a junky old lot that customarily contained little more than used tires and scrap wood, which oddly enough had a regular habit of catching fire.
This phenomenon seemed to occur despite my grandfather’s constant vigil. The sight of any youngsters hanging around the lot would trigger a generous amount of hollering and cane waving until the offenders retreated. Despite these frequent outbursts, my grandfather harboured no specific grudge towards children, provided they remained in the street and minded their own business. Unlike the “gentleman” across the street who installed an electric wire atop his board fence. If a kid so much as touched the fence, he’d turn on the switch.
Continuing to stare at the house with so many memories, I could visualize my apron-clad grandmother baking in the tiny kitchen, the blue flame from the gas stove providing the room with such a homey atmosphere. It’s interesting what one remembers clearly and what becomes discarded with time, but that “blue flame” is the vignette that always leaps into my mind when reminded of that kitchen. One was barely through the door when Grandma would have the kettle on for tea. She must have boiled a million cups in her day. Everyone received, and just expected a cup of tea.
Another fond remembrance was sleeping overnight at my grandparent’s home. The frequency and variety of sound were vast contrast to the stillness of our farm back home. The rumble of trucks and rattle of streetcars seemed to go on indefinitely. These distractions were occasionally upstaged by a fire truck’s wail, as it sped off into the neon night. The fire hall was just around the corner, so one heard every call. Mixed with the outside clamour was the chiming of the mantle clock. As a kid, I figured that clock to be the most wonderful object in the world. I enjoyed lying in the semi-darkness of my bed, waiting for the regular quarter hour concert of the Westminster chimes.
Even at such a young age I was a lover of automobiles, and the stop and go, bumper to bumper traffic on Dundas Street just a short block north of their house was a constant source of entertainment. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go alone, but if my older brother Richard was there, she’d relent, provided we remained at the corner of the intersection, well back from the curb.
On the corner in front of the variety store, Richard and I on one occasion discovered a bubble gum machine. We stared for the longest time at the colourful assortment within the glass bowl until suddenly I remembered I had a penny in my pocket. I’d found it on the floor at home the previous day and slipped it in my jeans. It had made me feel quite rich at the time, but until now, had forgotten it. Since it was my fortune to invest, I received the honour of inserting the coin and rotating the handle. I don’t remember how we planned to share one ball of gum…but we didn’t have to. When I turned the handle…two tumbled out! If we won the super lottery today, we’d probably be no more excited than we were at that moment. Of course we had to face the third degree from Mom when we got back as to where we had gotten “all that money” to buy the gum we were so proudly chewing.
When I was older Mom would let me walk up to the busy intersection myself. I especially enjoyed it on an early summer’s morning, while the air was still cool and fresh and the streets swept clean. Wind direction, if any, could always be determined quickly. A southwest breeze funnelled in the smell of the Guttapercha Rubber plant. A northwest breeze signalled the distinctive odour of the Ontario Stockyards. A northeasterly flow brought an improvement in aroma, via the Neilson Chocolate factory.
The local shopkeepers would be sweeping the sidewalks and cranking down the awnings in preparation for another day’s business. From my corner vantage point, I’d observe the fruit and vegetable trucks delivering their goods to those small stores that were so prevalent along Dundas Street in the 1950’s. The produce appeared as fresh as our own garden’s bounty that hour of the day…how I longed for a few pennies to buy a succulent peach or delicious red apple! The milkman would be finishing up his rounds at this point, delivering the glass bottles in those little snub-nosed vans so common in that era. And of course the bakery truck…one could almost taste those pastries as it passed by…an absolutely, wonderful time of day!
Most of families that lived on Hickson Street had been there as long as my grandparents, but during the 1950’s, a major cultural shift emerged. The mammoth building boom that took place in cities all across Canada in the years following the war was no more apparent than in Toronto. Between the Yonge Street subway, new office buildings and thousands of new homes springing up in the suburbs, plenty of opportunity awaited ambitious labourers. Few were more qualified or dedicated when it came to construction than the Europeans…especially the Italians.
My grandparents begin to feel like strangers, as old friends and neighbours one by one passed on or moved away and new Canadians took their place. Meat markets and fruit and vegetable stores they’d known for decades, took on strange new names and cuisine. These new neighbours were friendly enough, but with their customs brought from home, they naturally had a different way of doing things. For the “Anglo’s” who’d lived most or all of their lives there…well it just took some getting used to.
By the summer of 1958 and both now in their mid 70’s, Grandpa and Grandma finally but not without some reluctance, decided that the time was right to put the house with so many memories up for sale. In the “seller’s market” of the 1950’s, it sold in a matter of days.
Toronto’s “west end” somehow appealed, and before long the real estate agent was driving them through the tree-lined avenues of Etobicoke. A bungalow just off Royal York Road beckoned and a few days later a new deed was signed, thus relinquishing control of 8 Hickson. After 40 years, the house now belonged to someone else.
“…Well, we’d better be going” Richard interrupted…“Are you ready?” Reeling my mind back to the present, I realized everyone was in the car… “Yea I guess.” I climbed into the seat beside my brother, and while we slowly threaded our way back through the seemingly endless blocks of red lights, traffic and pedestrian congestion, horn blowing and various hand gestures of Toronto’s drivers…in my mind…I was still sitting at the kitchen table of a cozy Hickson Street duplex, while the blue flame from an old gas stove boiled up yet another pot of tea.