My family is neck deep in endings. Dismantling the homes of two grandmothers at the same time. On the English side, the condominium at Yonge and Wellesley was systematically stripped bare and decked out in fresh carpet and paint. But all I see is the ghost of its former self, comfortably worn in and smelling of lamb shanks and vigorously steamed broccoli while we gather over cherry tomatoes and beer. My grandfather’s beer stein said “Please bother me, I’m studying.” He earned a PhD in his seventies.
The place is empty now but I see the corner cabinet with the game of Othello inside and remember my grandmother’s hands so deliberate as she flipped the pieces. In my earliest memories I was curiously aware of the skin of her arms, fine and lined as tissue paper reused a third, a fourth, time. My grandfather was an engineer, apprenticed in his teens in Cornwall, and each room bore out his genius through quirky practical inventions: the homemade clock, the adjustable drafting table, the handy mechanism for storing plastic bags.
On the Portuguese side, the sidesplit in Etobicoke was well preserved until after its sale, a shrine to the family that came across the Atlantic in pieces to call it home. The fruit trees in the backyard flourished under the gentle supervision of my partner’s grandfather. His Pomeranians lovingly terrorized the neighbourhood with their puffy zing. This was a man I never met but imagine my husband to be like in many ways; I wish I had known him. The prominent family portraits on the walls proclaim the importance of family, of traditions. The recent Christmas nights I spent there, watching nature programs, chatting casually, enjoying cake and tea, I didn’t know how fondly I would remember those moments until now that they are firmly, gone.
An aspiring minimalist, I am punch drunk from witnessing the physical stuff of these flagging lives flashing before me – in bins to go to my parents’, the Salvation Army, the dump; in trucks to come to my house, or my uncle’s, or into storage.
For our part we have outfitted our current space – a rented nest in the Junction neighbourhood – with an appropriate number of our grandparents’ things. We’ve hung their art and replaced the environmentally questionable glue-and-chipboard dining set with their much nicer teak one.
Keeping these things feels right. They’re a tribute to the spaces they formerly inhabited, to the people who chose them, loved them, and lived there. And something to show our baby daughter when she asks about the great-grandparents she never got to know. She and her great-grandparents are ships passing, as the saying goes.
As for Toronto’s insane real estate market, the endless headlines that used to depress me are now amusing. I am no longer surprised when acquaintances relaunch their careers as realtors and developers. But these financial assets, these plaster, brick, wooden structures are also containers for our everything. Watching my family unload a century’s worth of history on anonymous strangers without so much as shaking hands feels, well, odd.
We’ve cleared the rooms like a film set after all the actors have gone home. But there is still something left in there. A shadow that can’t be scrubbed out. A lingering feeling, a late grandfather, left behind.
And so to the buyers of these homes I tell you: good and kind people lived here. There was a baby grand piano over there. My grandfather used to play on Sunday mornings while my grandmother went to church. His answer to religion perhaps. As you settle in with your boardgames and portraits and enmesh yourself with the wood, I tell you this: the late afternoon sunlight is glorious. Just lower your blinds if you want to protect your furniture. And don’t challenge the local ghost to Othello – she is crafty and she will win.