Saying goodbye to my childhood home, I learned my hometown is in good hands
“Hey. Hope you are doing okay with no end in sight to the picket line. Just wondering about your things here as we are coming to a close in four weeks.”
It was a text from my mom. I’d been on strike for 21 days with the Writers Guild of America in Los Angeles. And while collectively we were grappling with the long fight ahead of us against the studios and networks, my thoughts kept drifting to my childhood home, knowing that I needed to get back there one last time.
I’d felt a sense of dread since my parents sold the house in April, knowing their departure would coincide with a likely strike. I also knew that because my parents were moving across the country, I would have no reason to return to my hometown again once they were gone. That made this goodbye trip seem all the more pressing.
I grew up in Ancaster, Ont., a pretty bedroom community nestled along the Niagara Escarpment. It was a good place to grow up. We rode bikes and climbed trees, cultivating a sense of adolescent independence. But, as television regularly reminds us, our small town was not immune to the kind of trouble one finds in any city. I still remember when criminal defence lawyer Lynn Gilbank and her husband, Fred, were shot in their home in 1998. Or the time vandals burned down our middle school teachers’ lounge.
Still, this was my home. And arriving back, I felt a nervous energy. The house was lighter. Much of the family belongings were already gone except for what my parents were taking with them. With a tightness in my chest, I tried to savour every remaining detail.
Mom and Dad already had one foot out the door. “It’s been a wretched spring,” they said more than once. They said the same about winter. “And the traffic!” Don’t get them started on the traffic. I patiently listened to their story about Brandon House, a beautiful 19th-century stone heritage house on a busy corner that was knocked down three years ago. A retirement home is currently being built in its place. “Can you imagine what that will do to traffic?”
As I packed the last of my books, frames, home videos and keepsakes, I couldn’t escape the feeling that someone was dying, as illogical as that sounds. And this notion of grief was so nagging, I kept picturing myself breaking down during my final goodbye, blubbering, “I’M NOT READY!”
I couldn’t do that to my parents. So, in an effort to overcome this grief, I made a list of all the places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do, including some pretty woo woo rituals that I would normally cringe at.
My parents indulged my farewell tour, starting with the annual Heritage Day Parade. We were late for the pancake breakfast and too old for the kids’ craft corner but arrived to find oodles of families lining the street as floats celebrating local dentists and construction companies passed through while karate, dance and steel-drum clubs strutted their stuff. The parade was much as I remembered except that, beyond a few friends of my parents, I recognized virtually no one. A new generation had cropped up in the time I’d been away.
“It’s not the same Ancaster we grew up with!” texted my high-school best friend, who now lives about 90 minutes north. She’d stopped in the busy Ancaster Walmart a few months earlier and felt like a stranger in her old hometown.
She hoped sharing this would make me feel better. It did, actually. I’d been away for so long, and though I checked in every six months I had no claim over this place. Ancaster belongs to the people who live there now – and knowing that gave me a strange twinge of relief. Maybe because even after I was gone for good, I knew the town would be okay. It would be looked after.
Ticking off more stops on my hit list, we hopped from Bennett’s for apple cider donuts; to the Spring Valley Trail; to the ice cream parlour at Little League Park; to the Coach & Lantern Pub; to the Hermitage Ruins, a site I’d chickened out of visiting on one of my last nights of high school because it was rumoured to be haunted.
Along the way, I thought about the question my script consultant Ruth Atkinson asks of my protagonists when we’re working on a new feature together: “What do they need to heal from?”
Turning to my grief, I wondered, “What do I need to heal from?”
Perhaps it was a fear that in losing my childhood home, I would lose a part of myself – something I could never get back. Because even though I would still have memories, memories aren’t tangible. And every time you remember something, you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it, not the actual event. And each time, the edges seem to get a little more faint. Because our histories fade.
Can you ever really heal from something like that?
As my trip came to a close, I focused my attention on home, cannonballing into our backyard pool despite an unseasonably cold June. I watched Gladiator with my parents, my mom’s snowstorm ritual back in the day, and tried to pretend we had a roaring fire going and a blizzard outside. On my last night, I walked from room to room, touching every wall and door, thanking the bones of my house for sheltering me and keeping me safe.
Lastly, I wrote a letter to the new owners to welcome them and to let them know how much this place meant to me. I’d be lying if I said it was for them more than me, a way to find closure.
When it came time to leave in the early morning, I asked my mom not to stand on the steps and wave me goodbye as she’d done a million times, but to go inside and let me be the one to close the door. I felt the cool handle between my fingers and pushed it back, hearing a conclusive snap and thud. And then I repeated a phrase to myself I had stumbled across online: “There is nothing more to gain or learn behind this door. But there are always other doors to walk through.”
Driving toward Pearson Airport, I looked out at my neighbourhood for the last time. And as we merged onto the 403 with the Niagara Escarpment on my right, I felt my eyes well with tears momentarily, but I didn’t break down as I’d feared I might.
Even though I was sad to say goodbye, I accepted that this was goodbye. Like all coming-of-age movies, this was always going to be a story of acceptance. And as we left Greater Hamilton, I pulled out my phone, ready to read the latest on the strike. I was going home.
Gemma Holdway lives in Los Angeles.