Award-winning story for OPEN BOOK TORONTO, Stories About North York, June 9, 2018
Lavish willow trees bordered Wilket creek and the ravines and streets where we lived and played. The trailing curtains of elongated branches provided whips for gentle wars, smacking bare legs in the unending games of childhood. Once, while lying indolent upon the grass, we picked mosquito-bites until small bubbles of blood came to the surface. And then we pledged undying sisterhood and rubbed our bleeding arms together so that the three became one. And with that ritual, began the promise of a lifetime bond.
It did not matter that the youngest of us still played with dolls, that the middle girl was a bookworm or the oldest, a ballerina. We would meet excitedly, in a neighbourhood where we could wander at will and without caution from our stay-at-home mothers. A patch of cool green became our starting point for the day, and we would idly search for four-leaf clovers in an established habit marked by the expectation of good fortune. Then would begin the inevitable sing-song: Whatcha’ wanna do? I dunno. Wanna ride around? Na. So, whatcha’ wanna do? Finally, a decision was made and we would spring into action, preparing ourselves for adventure. Transistor radios in hand, CHUM charts folded into tiny squares in the pockets of our shorts, snacks wrapped in waxed paper and sometimes a thermos of lemonade to share, we would finally mount our bikes and ride, handle-bar streamers blowing behind in bright streaks of soft plastic.
There were several ravine entrances nearby, and we would debate which of these was to be the destination. Sheppard had the easiest trees for climbing; Cummer took you down quickly and deeply into the valley; the furthest away, Leslie, had the best river clay. It was a time when the hours stretched and the complexity of life was reduced to roaming the banks along the Don, following racoon tracks, practicing our balance on deadfall splayed across the river, sharing sandwiches while perched on limbs hanging low above the murky water.
Walking our bikes, we edged along the mudded footpaths, descending into shade that smelled damp and cool, and muffled the noise of the traffic so that we became entirely enveloped in a quiet that magnified the sound of birds and currents of water. Occasionally the river would reek with a particular dankness and we would wrinkle our noses until we grew accustomed to the odor. We had secret names for each other there, and spoke pig latin, signalling with hand gestures to make ourselves better understood. We explored until we sensed it was almost dinner time, and rode back quickly, not wanting to be scolded for tardiness. After dinner, we were permitted to reconvene and stayed closer to home until the street lights came on. If we disregarded this signal, our mothers would appear on the sidewalk, calling our names with irritation.
The games which then so completely absorbed us were simple: truth-dare-double-dare-promise-or-retreat, hide ‘n seek, and tag were among the mainstays. Acting out the newest of Nancy Drew books was another favorite. The bookworm would recount the story, and then divide the roles so that there were always three heroes and not one of us was in love with Ned Nickerson. And although we knew that someone’s parents were fighting, or another one’s father was drinking, we did not speak of these things, or of the sadness that sometimes crept into our families. Our sisterhood was separate and distinct from such concerns.
With the hottest of the summer sun, when the asphalt melted and stuck to the bottoms of our shoes, travel to the ravines or creek-bed seemed too great an effort. Instead, we would recline in the shade behind one of our homes, sharing Popsicles or Lolas, hoping that her parents would agree to water the lawn. We would run for our swim suits, jumping in and out of the spray with abandon, and whooping with laughter until the sprinkler had to be moved. Then we would wait impatiently, dripping and shivering on the sodden grass, until the arcing water resumed. Anyone’s mother would bandage a scraped knee or provide glasses of cold milk in Melamine cups and a plate of cookies. The kitchens had a familiar sameness, painted yellow or turquoise with gingham curtains and linoleum floors, and we would sit, three bottoms on one chair at Arborite tables with strips of ridged chrome along the edges.
All of the neighborhood would gather for fireworks and our fathers would contribute the firecrackers and put on a short but dazzling show for us, with pails of sand and garden hoses at the ready. Near the end, we would each be given our own sparkler and when they burned out, it was time to leave and walk reluctantly home to bed. At other times, in a spirit of daring good will, we held Friendly Neighbourhood Week and would stand curbside to wave at the cars, setting goals for the number of drivers who might wave back.
Sometimes, as an unexpected treat an adult would provide us with a nickel and we would walk to the store where we purchased Barrett’s Fountain candy or a Lownie’s chocolate-covered cherry to share. And if we had been very good, we were occasionally each given thirty cents and allowed to spend twenty-five on admission to the Willow Theatre, with the additional nickel for buttered popcorn. Inside the darkened space, bumping up close against each other, abstract fixtures with pink, purple and green Smartie-shaped lights illuminated the walls. As our eyes adjusted to the dim, we were guided to our seats by a flashlight-carrying usher. The floors were always sticky with orange pop, and we lifted our feet with great ceremony to make puckering noises before sitting down. We whispered quietly while waiting for the National Anthem to play before the movie. And then we stood up like sentries and sang lustily, knowing that if we did not do so, the technician would not start the movie reel and someone might be asked to leave in disgrace.
Once a week, we were permitted to walk to the pool together, and join in the chlorine-infused free swim, our voices shouting to be heard in the echoing space, while we splashed and floated and paddled in the shallow end. On Saturday mornings, we made the trek to the Willowdale Library, through Northtown plaza and the pioneer cemetery. Inside, we would inhale the dusty fragrance of old books and peruse the shelves, carefully pruning our choices and selecting the maximum number allowed. We would then line up to watch the librarian cross our cards and feed them through the thwacking check-out machine, firmly stamping the due dates on the paper pockets and placing our selections on the conveyor belt for us to collect. Books gathered in string bags, we would go downstairs to use the washrooms and stick out our tongues before the large mirror. Then, equipped for home, we would pass under the mural with its mysterious lettering, along the outside wall.
In August, we moved from these simple pleasures to the excitement of the Exhibition’s opening and with it an impending sense of loss, as summer drew to an end, and our parents took us shopping. We compared our preparations, the colours of our pencil cases, packages of paper, new shoes, and compass sets. And suddenly, the first of us went to The Haig, absorbed into the rhythm of that larger building and the new friends she met there. Soon after, she called us babies and signalled that she was now a teenager. At the same time, there was talk of a subway extension coming north to Finch, and our parents went to meetings and worried about the changes that would take place.
Families started to move away, and some of the tiniest houses were torn down. New ones were built, so large that they seemed out of place. We saw the first of them appear a few blocks away and went to gape. Gradually however, they did not seem quite so strange, even as they grew closer to our own, and people we did not know moved into them. Increasingly the blood sisters spent even less time together. But I remember still, in late summer, when the winds lost their gentleness and carried instead the coolness of change, the maples began to drop their keys, and we twirled together frantically, arms outstretched, trying to catch them before they fell.