My childhood was much like most fairy tales . . . before the wand-waving starts.
We looked like the Waltons, only with even more kids and less money. “Running water” meant sprinting from the well with pails. I grew up in the seventies in Southern Ontario. My classmates all had indoor plumbing, and a few even had swimming pools. We had a pond with a duck who’d grown testy after losing both feet to frostbite.
Strangers often pulled up at the end of our driveway to pop trunks and drop bags, like a “we deliver” Value Village. We loved the stop-pop-and-drop days. Sure, we got bell-bottoms and polyester — once we even got a heavy grandma coat with a real fur collar — but there were also gems, like a hooded maxi dress and one rather stunning, ice-blue, full-length peignoir set edged in cream lace.
The maxi dress was the perfect outfit for my Lady Macbeth soliloquy. I thought a real lady would put on a nice dress before she went sleep-walking. As for the peignoir, it looked like something a movie star might wear to answer the door. For warmth, though, you really couldn’t beat the grandma coat. I dragged it through the snow all winter when I was six.
By far, our house was the biggest freebie we got.
The old Alcona Garage on Highway 11, with its two stories of living quarters above, was being torn down. Dad asked the owners, “Mind if I take your upstairs?”
My father was a big man with even bigger dreams and an unparalleled skill for starting projects. This house was his best start ever.
The garage owners agreed, provided Dad would pick it up himself.
“Fair enough!” he said and left with the extra-long staircase strapped to his truck. On five rural acres, he dug and shovelled and began to lay cinder blocks around that staircase. More rows of blocks were added, with openings left for windows and a door. Finally, at about fourteen feet, it was the height of the staircase sitting on the ground inside. Dad drove back to Alcona to pick up our living room.
The newspaper’s front page showed hydro workers holding up wires, while Dad proudly sailed beneath with two stories of house on his flatbed truck.
Mom, Dad, and eight of us kids stepped in through the cinder block doorway, stood on the dirt floor of our new basement and looked up at the massive beams of our home. Then we climbed the fourteen-foot staircase for the first time. In some ways, it felt like a tree house. As it was dark underneath the house and could be hard to locate the stairs at night, Dad hung a light bulb with a long string inside the coil-spring front door.
“A man’s home is his castle,” he said proudly.
Already, he was discussing plans to add a fancy two-car attached garage. “Its flat roof can be a deck, see? And we can walk outside from the dining room. Maybe put some lawn chairs up there. I’ll just need to take out that window,” he said, standing in the gravel below and pointing up to a standard window. “I’ll cut a bigger opening and put in proper sliding doors.”
For reasons known only to himself, he started with the window, not the garage, and our first year was breezy. Finally, he added the sliding doors to the gaping opening he had cut . . . fourteen feet above nothing at all.
The plumbing never did get hooked up. Instead, we hauled water from the well and used an outhouse. When the well froze, we melted snow in a pail on the stovetop. For those wondering, a pail of snow, when melted, is not nearly enough for a bath. Later, he “installed” a tall white pail in the bathroom and placed a plastic toilet seat on top. Sometimes, when we were coming from the well, we would pass my brother Morgan going in the opposite direction with a pained look on his face. He was headed for the outhouse with the white pail. His arms were strong, and his stomach was even stronger. Morgan was my childhood hero and eau de toilet was the heady fragrance of my youth.
Dad found or was given many other treasures, most of which we kept in the backyard, behind the pond: old cars, dressers, mattresses, sofas . . . the list went on. We even had a horse drawn carriage. One time, we had a grass fire and the auxiliary fire department rushed over to help. They worried about fire spreading to the big woodpile out back. Dad had something else on his mind and whispered urgent instructions to the six of us old enough to walk. We dodged the ill-tempered duck and rushed to fill our pails in the pond, staggering through dry summer grass to pour water around an old convertible. That’s where Dad was storing dynamite.
Being a kid, I thought a lot about castles and what a real one might look like. I dreamt of fancy dresses and hot water. I played gymnast on a discarded beam in the basement and sat there to try my first sip of alcohol from a bottle of Red Stripe beer— very old, very warm beer — left behind years before in the mound of dirt from the initial excavation. Forgotten? Or strategic parenting?
The fairy-tale ending I had first envisioned seemed to be getting closer when I went on my first date with a boy named Steve. We held hands. We slow danced. And when he was dropping me off afterwards, Steve insisted on walking me to the basement door. I said goodbye and stepped onto the plank inside, yanking the light string. He cleared his throat behind me. I turned back. He stood there in the shadowy cement block doorway with his eyes closed and lips puckered. Fish lips, I thought, and let the door spring shut on his face. I went upstairs and mentally re-wrote how I wanted my particular tale to end.
Eventually, we all left home, even Mom, and then Dad brought a new wife to the house. He told her about things he’d finish, like the plumbing, the heat, and the garage under the sliding doors, plus new stuff like a kitchen skylight. He started with the skylight.
As for me, I learned to make my own wand and now enjoy the perks of central heating and flushing toilets. My prince is charming and saves me from friends who suggest camping holidays. Maybe character is something that thrives in such settings, like mushrooms flourishing in cool dirt basements full of warm beer and puckered fish lips.