Toronto in the 1940s where I spent my early years was a demographically homogeneous city, unlike its current appellation as “New York City run by the Swiss.” Back then, Toronto was populated by the descendants of Scotch-English immigrants, many of whom, like Grandma and Grandpa Johnston, had risen by the second generation to middle class gentility as small business owners, doctors, and teachers. I always thought Grandma Johnston’s family must have been related to the House of Windsor, for she looked just like the Queen Mother. . . .
“I see the lake!” I see the lake!” my cousins and I all shouted at once as the first glimpses of a cerulean blue window opened between the trees at the bottom of the long hill. Those shouts were the signal that summer had arrived. Nothing looms so large in the Johnston family's collective memory as that beloved building, that place, that interlude from the stresses of work and school, that place where we are always young, known simply as, "The Cottage.". . .
I can still remember the first portrait my mother, Freda, painted in that cramped upstairs flat in order to have a sample she could show to prospective clients. It was a life-size oil portrait of Rita Ouimet, our next-door neighbor. I can still see Rita. A glamorous Rita Hayworth redhead, she is pictured in three-quarter pose leaning against a table. In her hands she holds a bunch of plump green grapes which droop languorously toward the table. The background is washed in a greyish-purple, probably cobalt violet mixed with viridian green with a touch of burnt umber. . . .
My Dad’s studio was the first to be built. It stood on a small hill toward the front of our property nearest the road. The studio had a large north-facing window as northern light was the most advantageous for artists because of its lack of shadows. I see Dad sitting in a large untidy room at a drawing table next to the window working on mockups for the illustrations that would go into the childrens’ books he was illustrating. . . .
The Springdale Girls
One would never know Dolan Woods existed before those rows of cookie cutter condos and schools obliterated its memory. The only remaining legacy of Mr. Dolan, who must have been the owner of all that acreage, is the junior high school I attended that bears his name. Unlike the settlements of ancient cities dug up by archeologists, nothing remains of Dolan Woods, the site of my first mystical experience, my childhood cathedral, my playground, my refuge, so the excavation must be done by memory.
The Springdale Girls
As usual, I was late getting to the “Springdale Girl’s” reunion. I guess you could say we are retrogrades. We still call ourselves “girls” even though we are now in our seventies. I was supposed to meet the “girls” at 4:00 PM in Guilford, Connecticut. I don’t know how many years we “girls” had been meeting like this, one year seems to blur into the next. We first met in kindergarten at Springdale Elementary School , a drab, square brick building on Hope Street . . . .
It was 1962. John and I had just returned from a honeymoon camping around the north shore of Lake Superior in his old VW bus from which he had removed the back seat and contrived a gerry-rigged bed. The Civil Rights Movement was then in full swing. Two years before, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins had occurred and just a year before this a group of courageous civil rights volunteers had ridden on Greyhound buses into the Deep South. Idealism and noble purpose was in the zeitgeist of us northern whites who only watched this drama from afar and we were eager to make our own contribution to the struggle. Spurred by the idea of serving the poor, a group of young white clergy and their wives had decided to move into East Harlem, known as El Barrio, to serve churches that would be both places of worship and centers of community development. . . .