Monday, February 1, 2010

Life on the "east side" of Manor Park

Manor Park is an upper middle class neighborhood in Ottawa where we moved when my father retired from the forces. We left the base and moved to Eastbourne Ave. Eastbourne is a long street, most of it winds through single homes with fireplaces and large back yards with gardens with flowers, in particular roses. They were large homes with private entrances and long driveways. Eastbourne Avenue ends in a series of row homes arranged in a u shape, the east end of Manor park.

Unlike the homes with fireplaces and long driveways, we had a common parking area behind our houses and no yards to speak of. The U in the front or courtyard was shared by all and the only patch of grass that we could lay claim to was a small garden 4 feet long by 2 feet wide which my mother filled with zinnias, peruvian four o'clocks, and marigolds which my cat loved to sleep in!

We lived in these row houses. There was something exciting about living in these row houses and not having any private entrances. We lived in each others backyards and to make it more interesting, we had a collection of eccentric neighbours. On the far end, Neil and Michelle had taken vows of poverty, wore white robes and meditated. They would invite their friends over for chanting sessions and we would watch and snicker. They had a son who was not allowed to eat candies or watch clowns. To this day, I have no idea why there was a clown prohibition.

Next to Neil, there was a family whose father,whom we knew as Mr. Foran, who, although he was capable of speech, chose to exercise his right to silence. He would gesture in sign language to his daughter who was in my sisters class. If it was cold, he would point to her, shiver, pat his arm, point to his house and then back at her. That meant "Jackie it is cold, go in the house and put on your sweater". We called it Eastbourne sign language.

Mr. Foran was the strong silent type with a penchant for looking into windows. Our home was on the end and we did not like using curtains. Mr. Foran would take his daily constitutional, rain or snow, sun or wind down the east side of the path and would turn his head and look into our window. It drove us all to distraction. I mounted my camera with flash and tripod in the window and waited until he passed. As he turned, I pushed the bulb and the flash flashed. Mr. Foran never looked into our window after that.

Directly across from us lived a family of blond children and fair haired parents. They never spoke to us, but the youngest daughter would sit every morning on the concrete steps with a cup of tea in hand, deep in thought in her pyjamas. We never knew why, or what she was thinking.

Behind us lived a colourful family of Lebanese immigrants. They lived on the end unit and believed that the patch of grass forming a corner was theirs. The first thing they did was to dig up this plot to plant vegetables like the old country. They were told that they were renters and did not own the land. After much heated discussion, the garden was plowed over. Their children were masterful marbles players and could memorize and create rules out of thin air. They rarely if ever lost and many of my prize marbles were lost to their vast holdings. They would generally ignore their mother's calls to come home until they heard shrill shrieks in Arabic. This froze their blood cold. We never knew what it meant, but it must have meant something like "I will skin you alive and feed you to the camels" It had an instant effect and Tony Hammoui would pack up his marbles and go home, not stopping to look back.

The family was one to economize at all costs. The boys were taken outside in the common back yard with bowls over their heads to have their hair cut. The Hammouis would bring us plates of Lebanese treats which we eagerly devoured. While other kids longed for chocolate bars, our little row houses were used to the smell of fresh baklava and feta cheese.

My sister had a young friend called Nikki who lived in hard working family. Her father had at least three jobs and we never saw him walk, he only ran. All we saw was the smoke from his cigarette as he ran from job to job. Nikki's mother also worked and Nikki was greatly admired by my sister because Nikki could come home alone and would cook for herself. At eight, Nikki could make macaroni and tomato juice! Nikki knew how to use the washing machine, the stove and could also make her own sandwiches. She carried her housekey around her neck and it was always exciting for my sister to visit her as they were alone without any parents and hence could watch TV and drink gingerale!

I remember the Viau family whose father would call his children once a week over a table for a 'family conference'. It was at this summit that issues such as allowances, 'groundings', school performance and behaviour were discussed. The Viau's had turned a hill behind the row houses into an icy race track where we would eagerly charge down on makeshift sleds. The Viau's also were the first to put out a blow up pool in the common back yard. I think they had a dog, but I cant remember. Our family rarely ate together, choosing to forage what we could from the dinner table and so talk of a family conference was the stuff of national geographic to me.

For all the colour and excitement of our row houses, with the heating system that rarely worked, the bath water than ran cold and windows that grew thick and heavy with frost on the inside as the temperature outside dropped, there were those who were embarrassed of them. We had a middle aged writer who lived in our square. She was somewhat of a recluse but dreamed of recognition. She was a little pudgy and spent her time behind her typewriter. However, when she did venture beyond her home and took the bus, she would get off on the West end of Eastbourne, as if to pretend to all on the bus, including herself that she belonged in the more affluent part of Eastbourne and did not rub shoulders with people like us, with the 'others'

Years later, I now live in a house with a fireplace with a long driveway. We have a private yard and we grow roses and have bird feeders. My neighbours are quiet, there are no marble territory wars, there are no ice hills. The eight year olds in my neighborhood could not make macaroni and tomato juice, and would probably not even know how to use a housekey. Most homes have elaborate alarm systems and even if you could open it with a key, you would have to disarm before the swat team descends on you. There is no smell of feta or backlava in the air and our house is far enough from the street to discourage even the most determined of curious neighbours unless they had binoculars.

My neighbourhood is quiet, safe and utterly banal. A child growing up on my street today would never have to learn the art of negotiating with a marble cheating they never play alone, their parents are always with them! A child on my street today would never be allowed to dream on the front steps, Mr. Foran would be in psychiatric care and not spoken about, the children's aid would have intervened with Neil and Michelle. Even if this happened, no one would know because we are all isolated from one another. We build walls, and hedges to ensure that we do not rub shoulders with the 'other'

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