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2006 12 12
Christmas in Toronto, 1973
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In 1973, when this picture was taken, I was nearly two, my sister nearly four. We sat in front of the Christmas tree in our parents' Cabbagetown home, gleeful and glutted with gifts and (probably) candy. I have no direct memory of this Christmas, other than a dim recollection of having walked under that teak table in the middle of the night and a sense of unbearable anticipation, an event which may have happened during a different Christmas. Such memories have a tendency to coalesce, superscripted as they are by the larger narrative of the holiday.

Our most precious presents that year were the life-sized doll my sister clasps tight to her velvet dress, and the Raggedy Ann doll I'm holding. In the foreground is a red metal wagon that would have hitched to the back of a tricycle. Lurking unmistakably in the background is a can of Tinkertoys, added to each year until the entire house was a deathtrap of wooden pieces rolling underfoot. Our parents built the doll beds beside and behind us, as well as the red dollhouse to the right. There appear to be two white bookcases to the right, which our parents would have built as well. They would have built these things not only because nothing available for sale would have met their specifications of size and quality, but because they could not have afforded them alongside the precious dolls and Tinkertoys and the red tin wagon.

Like many people who come to Toronto, my parents had uprooted themselves from lives elsewhere to pursue opportunities here. My father gave up his Maritime law practice to work as an underpaid administrator at the University of Toronto; my mother gave up her Fredericton literary connections to trudge the streets of a city she found vulgar and bigoted. My beautiful mother was followed by strange men, my father was asked by the coroner to identify the body of a murdered prostitute who had lived down the street, a neighbour's unsafe fireplace set the wall between their dwellings on fire, a deranged man living in a rooming house across the street used a slingshot to fire Red Rose tea figurines through the window at our visiting, elderly grandmother. They moved often, from Etobicoke to Parliament and Carlton, to Cabbagetown proper, to Leslieville, and must have thought often about leaving the city. And indeed, I was the first of their children born in Toronto, and the only one who still lives here.

But this Christmas picture, taken in 1973 shows a moment of becoming. My sister and I don't remember moving, don't remember the fire, don't remember the SWAT team. We remember only the dolls and dollhouse and the Tinkertoys. We remember the parcels that would arrive, bulky and bent and sometimes late, from distant relatives concerned for our well-being in the dangerous city, parcels lined with hand-knit mittens and dulse from the Bay of Fundy and news from Down Home. We remember traveling to visit Santa at a downtown department store. We remember waiting for our father to come home with a spruce picked not from a snow-covered country woodlot but from a temporary stall at a city parking lot, needles fragrant but slightly dry, prickly under our bare toes in the living room. Our memories of Christmas are set amid recollections of city houses packed in close around us, the streetcar glowing through the rain and drizzle, wet footprints along the street, the smell of fish and chips and curry escaping from restaurant doorways, scratchy polyester dresses we would wear to Christmas Eve carol services on Gerrard Street.

And what we remember most of all is the long, still night before the unfurling, the tree silent but alive, listening like ourselves, like others across the city, for some whispered arrival, some transformation of this glittering promise into real life, real light. It really happened for us, in Toronto, in 1973. Soon, I think, it will happen again.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 12/12 at 12:23 PM

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