“It’s just bricks and mortar.” So say those nomadic folks, who buy and sell their homes more often than I change my socks. No attachment. No sentiment. A simple business transaction.
There was a time when I would have agreed, but when it came time to part with our family home of four decades, I was unexpectedly awash with emotion and an awareness that the family that lived, loved, laughed and cried inside that shell had breathed life into it. The pain of leaving was almost physical.
In a similar vein, I was mortified on a recent drive through my old Toronto neighbourhood to find nary a trace of my childhood home. Gone. Demolished and replaced by a cookie-cutter little box. The empty tug in my gut was palpable.
But it’s not only old houses that capture a piece of us. Lots of things can do that.
I grew up with sandlot dirt in my shoes and salt stains on my battered ball cap. From early spring until the first killing frost, life was all baseball. Maple Leaf Stadium was our field of dreams and my home-away-from-home every summer weekend when my beloved Triple A baseball Leafs had a homestand. I loved that place: the vast expanse of green, the colourful outfield signs, the Great Lakes steamers creeping through the Western Gap beyond those fences and the aroma of the world’s best popcorn.
Sadly, by the 1960s Toronto had become too uppity for anything that wasn’t major league. In 1967, after years of civic apathy, the team left The Big Smoke. A few months later, that beautiful old ballpark was rubble.
Today, there is nothing at the foot of Bathurst to remind us of what was once there. But I’m sure the spectre of a ragtag little boy, autograph book in hand, still wanders those streets.
The 1960s also saw a surge of new technical/vocational high schools in the big city – places where non-academic kids could nurture talents that might remain undiscovered in a more academic setting. I was excited to become part of that revolution when, in the fall of 1965, I joined a young, enthusiastic staff whose positive energy resuscitated the students’ flagging interest in school.
And that’s where I met Joy, who joined the secretarial staff at the start of my second year. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. More than a year would pass before our first date. After that, our journey to the altar progressed at warp speed, starting a few idle tongues wagging with baseless speculation as to the reasons behind our haste.
A few years ago, almost fifty years after we’d last set foot in the place, Joy and I dropped into the old school for a stroll down memory lane. The weed-infested lawns and crumbling asphalt provided an inauspicious start to our visit. The interior was no better. The peeling paint, cracked windowpanes and grungy walls exuded a sad aura of neglect. But it was still where we’d met, felt that first frisson of attraction and begun our courtship. That made it special and no amount of decrepitude could take that away.
Now, it’s gone. Not a trace remains. But the memories live on. They are forever. Today, just south of Toronto’s Bay/Bloor intersection, stands an upscale Indigo bookstore surrounded by high rises. Back in the late 50s and early 60s, it was the site of a humble but much-loved watering hole favoured by thirsty U of T students. The Babloor Hotel (their spelling) was an unremarkable two-storey building that housed two separate street-level pubs.
The northernmost of those drinkeries was your typical mid-century men-only dive, pumping out ten-cent draught beer as fast as its chronically parched clientele could consume it.
On the other side of a small foyer was the more genteel Lundy’s Lane Room complete with giant murals depicting the famous War of 1812 battle. Casual, but a tad classier than its sister pub, Lundy’s Lane was nice enough for a laid-back dinner date and it served up decent meals for a pittance. Think Boston’s legendary Cheers – comfortable, cosy and welcoming.
During our brief courtship, Joy and I would occasionally drop into Lundy’s after a movie or concert and it was always the same familiar, homey place. It was there that I popped the question that would change the course of both of our lives.
From my reckless undergraduate days to the moment I made the smartest move of my life, I have many fond memories of the old Babloor. I left a bit of myself there. Even as I write this, more than a half-century later, I feel that familiar emptiness – a strange mix of sadness, sweet nostalgia and thanks that even though something has been lost I am fortunate to have had it in my life.
The Babloor, our family home, my childhood home, Maple Leaf Stadium, that old high school. Most have fallen to the wrecking ball, but all still own a piece of my heart and soul.
Bricks and mortar? I suppose. But their absence leaves a bittersweet void that endures.