‘Home has always been where my furniture is’
By Barbara Schon (As told to her daughter Denise Schon)
When my daughter suggested that I move into a retirement home, my first thought was that I wanted to be able to take some of my furniture. I have moved house 14 times in the past 40 years, and countless times before that. Home has always been where my furniture is.
I was born 90 years ago in Windsor, Ont., just before the Great Depression. I grew up in the town of Walkerville (now part of Windsor) with my parents and three younger siblings. I remember my childhood vividly. My grandparents lived nearby, and my grandmother allowed me to help her in the kitchen, stirring pots of soup and baking cookies with her.
I was happiest in the days of my marriage to my husband, Robert. We were together for eight years. We met in Ottawa where our first daughter was born. Bob was German and 18 years older than me. He was training to be a psychologist, so we moved to Woodstock, Ont., where he did a residency at the hospital. That’s also where our second daughter was born. Then we moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he obtained his PhD. We later settled in Toronto on Rowanwood Avenue, where he started a family therapy practice.
He died suddenly, of his own hand, when our daughters were six and eight. It was a shock to me. I didn’t realize he was depressed, but in those days we knew so little about mental illness. It was illegal to commit suicide, and the police arrived. The stigma and shame were awful, but my neighbours supported me and my children. I wanted to get away from the house Bob and I had shared, but still be close to my friends. So I moved into another house on Rowanwood and started working, first selling real estate and eventually going to university where I got my bachelor of arts.
In 1969, I left Canada. First I moved to the Caribbean island of Montserrat and later to Ireland. At the time, I just felt that I did not want a conventional life, but I now understand I was also trying to escape the sad memories of my husband’s death. I still have many of his things: a wooden upholstered armchair, a lovely round red coffee table. These pieces follow me where I live, and they are a reminder of who I am, or who I was.
Eventually, I tired of living abroad, returned to Canada and became a librarian. Later, I started a freelance business, writing back-of-the-book indexes until I was 80.
My last house was a pretty little bungalow in East York, Toronto. I renovated it completely and lived there for about four years, until 2009. By then, living by myself had become difficult. My brain wasn’t functioning well, and I was often confused.
My daughter and her family invited me to live in an apartment within their house in Etobicoke, west of downtown Toronto. I didn’t want to live in the suburbs, but moved there anyway. I felt isolated and missed my independence. In order to keep seeing good movies and plays, I took taxi rides downtown that cost $40 each way — an extravagance for a Depression-era child.
Now I am back living downtown and settling into the retirement home. The people here are friendly and interesting, and the food is good. I like looking out the window and seeing the busy street and people going by. I feel connected to Toronto once again.
My new apartment is smaller, but I take comfort in having my things, my furniture and my memories. And I am still me, which amazes me.
Barbara Schon moved into the Hazelton Place Retirement Residence this past June after living with her daughter for seven years.
Illustration by Katie Carey
‘When the order came to evacuate, we were ready’
By Donalee Williams
On evacuation day, May 3, I couldn’t believe until the very last minute that I would have to leave my home. That morning, the Alberta air smelled much less smoky than it had the day before. I even went into work for a few hours at Fort McMurray First United, where I serve as minister.
But by early afternoon, I saw the red and grey plume punching into the sky, and then noticed flames in the distance as I drove back across the Athabasca River to my home.
Hours later, I stood on my front lawn shocked by a blood-red sun behind clouds of smoke and ash and a water bomber zooming frighteningly low toward its mission. I turned on both the TV and the radio, watching and listening for evacuation news. My spouse, Ian, rushed around packing.
The idea of leaving my home didn’t really sink in until I went upstairs to collect a few precious photos. Then my stomach turned into a fist. When the order to evacuate the entire city was broadcast just before 6:30 p.m., we were ready: the four cats in their crates, the car loaded. I walked through the house for what I thought might be the last time, saying a silent farewell to each room.
Once in the car, we joined the bumper-to-bumper exodus: it took an hour and a half just to reach the city limits, and almost five more hours to drive the 300 kilometres to Athabasca, Alta., where friends were waiting to welcome us.
We spent five weeks as evacuees. At least once a week I drove 150 kilometres to Edmonton to visit people from my congregation who were staying there. On one of those days, as dinnertime drew near, I thought: “Well, I’d better head home.” I felt a sudden shock at referring to my temporary home as “home,” and then a pang of disloyalty to my “real” home.
But living as an evacuee also expanded my understanding and appreciation
of home. We were hosted by ministry colleagues Rev. Cecile Fausak and
Bruce Jackson, whom I’d known for about six years. With each pot of
coffee brewed, each circle of prayer around the dinner table, each peal
of laughter as we enjoyed a board game, each story and tear and hug
shared, the blessing of their home eased my fears and sank into my
bones. The first time I took a turn cooking supper felt imbued with a
sacred sense of normal.
We returned to Fort McMurray on June 7.
Although I had seen satellite photos showing both my house and the
church intact, I was still relieved to find both undamaged. The only
difference to our home was that it smelled of kitchen garbage and a hint
Even so, re-entering my house unsettled me. As I
stood in the front hallway, everything seemed weirdly wrong. I was so
different, but the house hadn’t changed at all.
It took many
weeks to settle back in. Our house had no smoke damage, but the
recommendation was to wipe down all surfaces, including the walls. And
while the cleaning was tedious, it was also therapeutic. It helped me to
reclaim my home.
As I write this, so many in Fort McMurray
haven’t yet returned: some are on extended vacations, some have lost
everything and are waiting to rebuild, and some will never return. Every
day is like living in a continuum between settled and unsettled, like a
table that is cleared, wiped and then stacked with stuff from other
rooms, waiting to be put away.
But a little more each day, I am finding my own way back home.
Rev. Donalee Williams is the minister at Fort McMurray First United in Alberta.
Illustration by Katie Carey
‘Our time as stewards of the land had elapsed’
By W.J. Smart
Like most city dwellers, escaping to a new life in the country was our fantasy. Twenty-three years ago, the missus and I packed up our stiff jeans and simple philosophy and hightailed it to our own country heaven called River Run Farm, near Mount Forest, Ont.
A genuine river ran through our land and out the other end. My own earworm for the pleasures of the farm was a loop from Dylan Thomas’s poem Fern Hill. Most of the time, life at the farm really was “air/and playing, lovely and watery/and fire green as grass.” By gum, I loved that place.
Walking out to the barn one morning, I was hit by a sense that the whole farm — the house, the barn, the sky — was flattening out. One ugly truth barrelled in: It’s time to say goodbye to this place, even though it’s going to be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do.
Being in denial helped, for a few weeks. But the feeling didn’t go away: our time as stewards of the land had elapsed.
So we went — back to my hometown, my old stomping ground, west-end Toronto. I figured maybe Durie Street might ease my sense of dislocation and private sadness.
Then, after the boxes were unpacked and flattened, after the neighbours’ welcomes, after the Toronto garbage calendar was finally fixed on the fridge, I waited for the messages from the new Durie spirits.
In place of the farm’s immensity, I was confronted with 20 feet of circular backyard, darkened by a privacy fence and a sky-stopping brick wall. I had bought into a new world in which everything had been squeezed small, except the price. Even worse, the tough-guy jobs of the farm were now reduced to un-jobs: oiling the sliding door, raking a dozen leaves, searching for places to caulk. It was practically undignified.
But the power of small things took over. Things started to re-form. Gradually, there developed a new intensity of small but beautiful and telling details, different from the rural life I had left behind.
Folks in the country love to talk; their conversations over the fence are louder and longer, sometimes two or three hours in length. More than once, I was chastised by my rural neighbours for my abrupt closures. In 23 years of farm life, I could never get the hang of it. Here on Durie Street, it’s actually quieter. Because the city house is a corner location, conversations with passers-by are inevitable, but brief. Then off you both go, busy-busy.
Every day, throngs of school children pass by on the other side of my privacy fence like figures in my own private zoetrope. At 2 p.m., my one Duchess of Albany clematis flower reaches up to the sun and turns more vibrant. While they aren’t as prominent as the farm’s, the twilight shadows against my backyard brick wall create effects that are distinctive and surprising.
That summer began with a sense of dislocation and restriction. But in time, those new miniature sights and sounds made Durie Street home. I just had to be open to the unexpected details on both sides of the privacy fence.
W.J. Smart is a writer who moved to Toronto from a farm near Mount Forest, Ont., in June 2015.
Illustration by Katie Carey
‘Home is where I don’t have to bury my identity’
By Elie Chivi
For many people, the concept of home is static. Geographically fixed. Steeped in nostalgia and always there when needed.
My idea of home is more like that of colourful fabric, woven together with the thread of one desire: finding somewhere “better,” a place where I don’t have to walk differently — straighter, manlier. Somewhere where I don’t have to make sure that my hand gestures aren’t effeminate, where I can freely love another man and not worry that every day might be our last, where I don’t have to bury parts of my identity so deep that I forget they ever existed.
Persecution, or the threat thereof, is ingrained within my family’s history, and something that has contributed to my patchwork understanding of home. In 1916, my grandparents escaped the Assyrian genocide from Turkey to Lebanon; in 1976, my parents fled from Lebanon to the United Arab Emirates at the start of the Lebanese civil war; and in 2003, I left the U.A.E. and homophobic discrimination behind and arrived in Canada on a student visa. With every move, we carried with us the most vital pieces: culture, language and religion.
Today, I look back on the first 17 years of my life in the Middle East through a lens of both nostalgia and nightmare. For every smile that creeps up on my face as I recall my siblings and I lining up in the backyard so our father could hose the beach sand off our feet, I also recall the paralyzing feeling of being called “faggot” by my classmates. For every fond memory of the smell of garlic and coriander frying in the kitchen as my mother prepared another feast, I also remember the time she slapped me across the face for writing about my homosexuality in my journal.
At times, I interpreted my Christian parents’ rejection of my sexuality as a sign from God that it is wrong to be gay. We were members of the conservative Syriac Orthodox Church. I struggled every day with reconciling my family’s religious identity — meant to keep me on a moral path — and the sexual orientation I felt was most natural to me.
It’s incredibly confounding and isolating to feel unwelcome in the only home you’ve ever known. But that ugly feeling has been the best catalyst on my journey. Hope — and the resilience it discretely affords — cannot be subdued.
Regardless of my often-bleak upbringing, I held onto the idea that life outside of the closet was possible. For me, the way out was university abroad. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal to study human relations and creative writing, and was accepted.
It took me many more years to find the group of friends I now consider family, to confront my parents about the way I was treated and to heal our relationship, and to walk down the street with my head held high. Throughout my life, that yearning to belong was always the compass that directed me onward.
Being an immigrant, and now a citizen, in a country that prides itself on diversity emboldens me to celebrate my Turkish heritage, my Lebanese ethnicity, my upbringing in Dubai and my sexual orientation, and never feel the need to conform.
Regardless of where I live, or what passport I hold, I now understand that home is wherever I can be myself.
Elie Chivi is director of marketing and business development at HighLine Apparel Inc. and a freelance writer in Toronto.
Illustration by Katie Carey
‘The parkade where I sleep feels homey to me’
By Stanley Q. Woodvine
As a long-term homeless person, I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of home than I ever did when I had a ceiling over my head and four rooms to myself. This is less ironic than it sounds. Before, I simply had no good reason to think critically about what “home” meant.
After becoming homeless, I yearned to be rescued from the unknown terror of life on the streets. However, there was no rescue. This was 2004. The Liberal government of British Columbia was showing a new tough love toward the poor and homeless. Left to my own devices, I had no choice but to get over my fear and disorientation and come to terms with the reality of my situation — in order to survive, if nothing else. Being homeless on the streets of Vancouver became my new normal, and I adapted.
One adjustment I had to make quickly was figuring out how to get a decent night’s rest while outside, a practice called sleeping rough. Within two weeks of becoming homeless, I managed to convince a mini storage company to rent me a small locker — I was not going to live out of a shopping cart. Keeping that locker became a vital responsibility. And because, 11 years ago, emergency shelters could be synonymous with bedbugs, I wasn’t going near one for fear of bringing the bloodsuckers back to the storage company’s hundreds of lockers.
In order to sleep rough, I had to adopt a much more relaxed attitude toward the ideas of private property and trespassing. I had to learn how to treat the outside as my inside, wilfully blinding myself to public scrutiny in order to get some semblance of privacy. I had to find somewhere that was safe and accepting. I don’t think I realized it at first, but though I was homeless, I was trying to make some kind of home for myself.
These many years later, the parkade that I sleep in certainly feels homey and welcoming. I look forward to rolling up there with my bike and trailer at night, and I wake up every morning feeling refreshed and eager for the new day.
One thing that being homeless has taught me is that “home” is an idea before it is a reality. When you strip it back to essentials, there doesn’t need to be cable television, hot and cold running water or modern conveniences of any kind — not even walls, for that matter. Home is the intersection of freedom and safety, which together equals comfort. It’s that place where you can sleep in peace and where you are as free as possible to be yourself. Everything else, it turns out, is a bonus.
No long-term homeless person that I’ve spoken to about the subject feels truly “homeless.” All of us find our comfort zone someplace: in a neighbourhood, a street block, a park or a parkade. The term “homeless” is an imposition that most of us, I think, wear lightly with a kind of shrug, as if to say that it really doesn’t fit us, but there’s nothing that we can do about it. It should come as no surprise to anyone that we homeless people — like all people — strive to make homes for ourselves, even in the midst of what some would characterize as ruined lives.
If it helps at all, picture us as the survivors of a natural disaster — a devastating earthquake, for example (one that happens to be called poverty and circumstance). Then we’re just ordinary, plucky folk making our way through adversity, like people do the world over.
Stanley Q. Woodvine is a former graphic designer and illustrator who now earns his living collecting returnable beverage containers in Vancouver. He also writes a blog for The Georgia Straight tabloid.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter now!
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.
SIGN UP TODAY