Jan 152011

I’ve known Michelle Berry for years, in a way. I’ve only actually met her once in person. But I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology, and I have been a fan of her work since. She’s energetic, comic and prolific, with a list of books as long as your arm. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year. Michelle lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where I spent a couple of years in the Triassic (eons ago). I worked on the local newspaper, the Examiner, first as a general reporter, then as sports editor (this is, of course, why I am indisputably qualified to edit Numéro Cinq). I had my first short story published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine The Tamarack Review while I was working in Peterborough. A murder I covered as a reporter (and many of the settings) made it into my first novel Precious (the character Blythe Aschroft is very, very loosely based on moi). So it’s a special pleasure in all ways to offer Michelle’s “What it’s like living here” piece. I remember this place fondly. I can’t count the number of times I’d be working late in the newsroom, and a group of us would head out to watch the lift lock (okay, maybe the town wasn’t that exciting in those days) in the moonlight with a couple of beers and a burger.



What’s it like living here….

Good question.

Where is here?

In Canada? Specifically in Peterborough, in Ontario? In my squished, laughably-compact home office? Or in my head? I live in all of these places. The inside of my head is often stormier than Peterborough — although not so much in the summer. And, although my mind should be as vast, if not vaster, than Canada, it often feels as full of things-needing-completion as my cork-board, calendar-strewn office. My mother says that keeping up with my schedule (two really active kids, writing-in-process) is like trying to catch a train. From my perspective, it sometimes feels more like getting hit by a train.

Outside my second-floor office window there is a tree. A gorgeous, immense, old tree. I’m not sure what kind it is—oak? yes, an oak—and it doesn’t really matter because it’s a magical thing. Over 200 years old, this tree takes four adults to wrap our arms around its trunk. Because it has insignificant leaves, this tree isn’t as beautiful in summer as it is in the winter when it’s bare and stark against a cold sky. It sometimes looks like the tree from Poltergeist, the tree that sucked the little boy into the gory insides, the one that bashed through his window in the storm. It’s an incredibly inspiring and dramatic tree. A perfect view across from which to write.

Peterborough is a town about 2 hours North East of Toronto. Population 78,000 or so (probably more since we got a Costco. A chicken or egg thing—Costco brings people or people bring Costco? I don’t know. I’m not a member. They won’t even let me in the front door.). So, let’s say population 80,000. A sleepy town? Perhaps. But you should see our new Mall, Lansdowne Place. It’s a sight. Now we only have to drive forty minutes down highway 115 to Oshawa for The Bay. We’ve got every other store you’d want right here.

Peterborough is not only about the shopping. It’s about the lift locks. And the summer. Peterborough County is cottage country. All the rich Toronto folk drive through on the way to cottages that are so big they need cleaning staff. Boats going through the locks are even bigger than the cottages.

I’m not jealous or anything. Honestly.

Who needs to clean two houses?

I live near the downtown. Near enough so I can walk when I go out for dinner. Which I rarely do. I’m not sure why. Laziness, I guess. And lack of money. And the wine is cheaper in my kitchen. I live in an area called The Old West End which is made up of mostly young families in big, beautiful, old houses. I have two porches in the front of my house — one off my second floor office, one off the living room. I sit on these porches in three seasons as much as I can. I watch the kids play on the street, or the people walking their dogs. I read. Or just stare. At the tree, mostly. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in a 1950’s sitcom – Leave it To Beaver – the neighbours all calling back and forth across the street, coming over clutching snacks and wine, or coffee, joining me on my porch. It’s idyllic. Small townish. And makes me nervous. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. How is it possible that my eleven year old can play flashlight tag in the hot summer evenings until way past dark, running back and forth between people’s back yards (with their permission even!), or my 14 year old can hop the back fence to her friend’s house still wearing her pj’s late on a Saturday morning. Isn’t this 2011? It feels a lot like my late 1970’s childhood in Victoria, B.C.. My mother sits on my front porch and comments through the laughter of a street full of hockey players or basketball players, that it feels like her childhood too.

We live a forty minute drive from the lot where we park our car, get into our Boston Whaler, and boat five minutes to our small cottage on an island on Upper Stoney Lake. If we’ve gone up for the weekend and it starts to rain, we head home. No need to be slaves to the weather. We watch the sun set from our bedroom window, hear the deer snorting in the bushes, listen (of course – this is Canada) to the loons’ cry, the sound of speed boats drifts on the wind on the lower side of the lake.

In the winter we build an ice rink in our back yard. Kids come over to skate, impromptu hockey games start up and end and start up again. Twinkle lights dot the fence, a spot-light for night skating, a few Christmas lights on the clothesline. My seventy-year young parents skated on Christmas morning this year, my mom used a hockey stick as support to propel her along. I can watch the rink from my kitchen, stirring a sauce, boiling noodles, sipping wine. I can see the dog jumping onto the ice, sliding, the kids shouting at him to get off, laughing when he skids into the boards.

This city is full of paths. Old railway tracks turned into walking trails. Jackson Park and the Rotary Trail, paths that take you great distances through forests and beside rivers and lakes and canals, up past the Trent University. I’ve seen huge snapping turtles on the paths. There are bear warnings every so often. Mostly there are a motley series of dogs – big ones, little ones, ones wearing coats or boots. Once I saw a dog in sunglasses. And another time I saw someone walking a ferret on a leash. You can X-country ski on these paths. You can bike all the way to Lakefield where you can fill up on ice cream at Hamblin’s and then turn around and bike back.

Peterborough’s downtown core is typical of southern Ontario towns – two one-way streets, George and Water. Rows of stores, some out of business, boarded up, others thriving. We have a clock tower, a movie theatre, an amazing jewelry store and a few really great coffee places. Among other things, of course. Like restaurants: Japanese, Cajun, Belgian, Korean, Mexican.

A Santa Claus parade winds its way down George Street every year and you can show up right when it starts and still get a good spot to see everything. There are floats and dogs and clowns and the occasional truck which, for no reason at all, is part of the parade. A local motorcycle shop has a wild float that blasts music and lets off huge bursts of smoke and noise. One year a group of men danced down the street wearing purple and we still don’t know who or what they represented.

The thing about this city is the people. We aren’t stuck in traffic all the time, our houses are fairly inexpensive, there are spaces in the local sports leagues and the piano teacher has free days in her schedule. So we’re generally a happy folk. People have parties and get-togethers and go for walks and travel together. One family rents the local arena for a holiday skate every year and the whole neighbourhood shows up. Stress is here, of course, but it is comparably less than, say, Toronto where I lived for seventeen years. I haven’t had a conversation about directions, about how to easily avoid traffic and get from one place to the other, since I’ve moved to Peterborough. That’s not saying it isn’t a bitch to get around in the summer. The cottagers move their traffic jams here along with their swimsuits. But my husband likes to tell his Toronto-family that his commute to work takes only four minutes every day, no matter what.

I know what is going to happen, though. This happened to my parents. My kids will move. No sane high school graduate would want to stay in Peterborough. My children will move to Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal. They will go off to school, maybe start families, elsewhere. I’ll probably follow them. My parents followed me. It took them twenty years and I had to move away from Toronto before they would do it, but eventually they came. What’s interesting about this place, however, is that these kids seem to come back after they’ve started their own families. We have many friends who grew up in Peterborough, who moved away, but then came back to raise their children the way they were raised. To spend winter weekends at Devil’s Elbow ski hill, racing, or summers at the cottage. To spend Fall and Spring biking the paths.

Every time I sit on my front porch it’s inevitable that cars will drive by the big tree and then stop, back up. People will get out of their cars to stare at it. They walk up to it. Touch it. Wrap their arms around it. They take pictures. My neighbour jokes about putting a little money-bin on a post by the tree with a sign that says, “Save the Tree.” He wants to see how much money he can collect. But it makes us all proud to watch the cars slow down, to watch these people stare in awe at this tree. Because it’s so old. Because it’s steady and strong. Because it weathers all weather. And no matter how busy my mind is, this tree always reminds me to stop for a minute to admire it.

I’ve been told that this tree will last another hundred years.

Which is good. Because when it falls, it’ll hit our house.

—Michelle Berry


  47 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Michelle Berry in Peterborough, Ontario”

  1. Funny. And just reading it filled me with contentment, rather like I was the one sitting out on the porch. I wish these essays were actually elaborate pamphlets for a house-exchange program. I want to look out on the people looking at that giant tree.

  2. Lovely Michelle. I think I’d like to move to Peterborough.

    • The more people who move here, the more likely we might just get that train to Toronto we’ve been wanting. Come!

  3. Great piece, Michelle! I really liked its very convincing air of effortlessness – way to be smooth. And you look great in the skates and snowpants outfit, btw. XO.

  4. Peterborough is as such that looking at your photos I immediately see that you live across the street from where my best friends lived when we were all in high school together. Which makes it difficult to explain to other people that there is more than one street in Peterborough, but there is, and many more things. You’ve done a fine job of showing that here. Thank you.

    • That’s fantastic, Kerry — so that means your friends lived with the tree? Or were they one up or one down? Although there is more than one street in Peterborough, my street is the best.

  5. Lovely, Michelle. Great voice … it reminds me of having grown up in a place that I was anxious to leave as a teenager, but always happy to go back and visit as an adult.

    • Yes, Mary, although I grew up in Victoria and, for some reason — regardless of how beautiful and wonderful Victoria is — I’ve never wanted to go back. Maybe it was the island feeling — being stuck on it. Although, as David Helwig says below, Peterborough isn’t on the way to anywhere, it also isn’t an island.

  6. You describe a serene place where you balance being hit by a train with grace. I’d love to see a picture of your tree in the summer…

    • I’m not sure I have a picture of the tree in summer — it’s just not that impressive. The leaves are tiny and bland. The limbs are what makes this tree stunning.

  7. A wise portrait and full of warmth: maybe one of the things about Peterborough that makes it timeless is that it’s not on the way to anyplace else. I was reminded of this when my daughter was studying at Trent. Writers:in 1959 while Robertson Davies was still there editing the Examiner, the summer theatre company featured, among others, a young actor named Timothy Findley.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, David. You are right that Peterborough is on the way to nowhere. You have to want to be here to get here. And we still get amazing writers visiting (and musicians and actors, on and on). And many fine writers live here. We would, of course, be grateful for more!

  8. I really enjoyed reading this, being able to see the places that you see, that you write about.

  9. Hi Michelle…….Lovely acticle on our beautiful city. I thought maybe you would mention the Riverview Park and Zoo. It’s still free admission and draws thousands of people here every year.

    • yes! I love the zoo. Although I don’t go as often anymore, now that my kids have grown.

      • The zoo is great and so is the Farmer`s market downtown…great people in this town and I lived in Montreal for 35 years. I have been her for 12 years now and I would never return to live in Montreal. I have never experience such kindness and hapiness in such a little city. Bravo Peterborough…

  10. Hi Michelle

    I moved to 560 Homewood Avenue (second house west of the tree) in 1952 and remember looking out the baywindow of my bedroom to a lightning-filled sky and the tree swaying many times over the 20 years that I grew up in that house.

    It strikes me that the neighbourhood has not changed!


  11. This is wonderful, Michelle! I love how the first paragraph zooms in from the vastness of Canada to the inside of your head. And that tree–I can see and feel it! And the way time seems to stretch out generously as your waiting for the shoe to drop morphs into a hundred-year wait for the tree to fall.

  12. I couldn’t have said it better myself! I am one of those who HAD to leave Peterborough after high school, only to come back once I had children. And I grew up about 6 doors down from your house (I can tell where you are by the ginormous tree of course).

  13. Having moved up here from just north of the GTA two years ago, I am still trying to “find” this city and its surrounding areas. I really enjoy the landscape but find the working atmosphere somewhat disturbing. In the back of my mind I keep thinking we should move back near the GTA but I need to also keep reminding myself that owning our own home is alot easier in the Peterborough area.

    Your article is a reminder of why my wife and I made the step to move to the area. Start a family and we did just that with fraternal twin boys. And the easy access to lots and lots of nature. Just hope we can keep it up here for as long as we can.

    Great read.

    • Welcome to Peterborough! Sounds to me like you should get a new job. And move to a better area — with twin boys you will surely find lots of people who you’ll connect with. Come to the Old West End. Or the Avenues. Or University Heights. Or, or, or….. Hang in there. When your kids are older you’ll reap the benefits of this lovely city.

  14. Hey there,
    I’ve found that this article didn’t express Peterborough to me at all, though a lot of people I know really connected with it. I’ve written a response article on my website – http://candaceshaw.ca/iguessidolikeptbo/ – and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • Hey there back! 🙂

      Thank you for reading Numero Cinq. Glad it inspired you to write.

    • Candace,

      I think you’ve captured Peterborough eloquently in your piece and I think these two pieces are almost good companion pieces. Now we need someone from the East City to write one and from the South end.

      I, too, have experienced Quaker Oats’ lovely smells, ghosts in old buildings, screeching party-goers late at night and petty crime. I just chose to write about other things, but a whole book could easily be written about Peterborough.

      We all have unique experiences in this city. I’m glad you shared yours.

      cheers, Michelle

  15. Well, as a Toronto girl married to a Peterborough boy you have made Peterborough sound picturesque. I will make sure to file this wonderful article under “never read again” for fear of wanting to do exactly what my in-laws want and move there.

  16. I lived and worked in Peterborough for nearly 5 years while attending Trent University….it was wonderful, comfortable and memorable. I came to the town as an 18 year old from Oakville and when I left I had earned two degrees, fallen in love for the first time, learned to stand on my own two feet and had had my heart broken. I left the town to find work and move on with my new adult life. That was in 1997. All these years later I’m now a father and husband to the most important people in my life and I am settled and living well on the shores of Lake Ontario – – – but my mind often wanders back to those years in Central Ontario’s unofficial captial and I long to have a late dinner at Hot Belly Ma Ma’s and wander up George to get a coffee before deciding where to spend the evening hours. I will always love Peterborough and its people and maybe one day circumstances will allow more than just the occassional visit to enjoy a ‘po boy on the way to Ottawa. Thank-you for this writing, it was wonderful.

  17. I love this piece, Michelle. And the tree, and the photos. In the prevalence of the urban story we forget that this demi-urban life is actually still real, children playing in the street, walking to work, the quiet; an ordinary life. I’m thinking about Peterborough these days, and it was very good to read this.

  18. Michelle – I’m trying to contact you – as a former member of one of your writing workshops in Peterborough. Your comments on my ‘homework’ compelled me to expand into a full novel.
    Now I need an editor. Are you available?

  19. Hi Michelle
    Great article on one of Ontario’s best-known small towns. When I was a teenager my father owned a corner house (can’t remember the street name) and he wanted to move our family there. Of course at my age, that sounded like certain death to me because I dreaded the idea of a small town and leaving all my friends and the ‘excitement’ of Toronto. So, instead he rented the house out and eventually let go of the dream. Now, as I’m approaching forty, I find myself more and more drawn to these small, quaint little nooks of our beautiful province. I am exploring the possibility of relocating to one of these towns, Peterborough being one of them, but need to know a bit more about the employment situations before I take that leap. If you have any advice on that, I’d be really grateful for an email about it.
    Thanks again for painting a great picture of the town!

  20. A bit too idyllic a picture of Peterborough, after a few years being in the sleepy town we had to move our family away. The downtown is downtrodden, the riverside is indicative of the high employment rate with drunks and users ruining a lovely spot at all times of day. A city on the decline is more the narrative of reality, with a service based economy based on retirement.

  21. We’re thinking of relocating to Peterborough with two small boys. Are the neighborhoods you referred to above still the best ones for school districts and young families? I’ve read so many conflicting opinions of Peterborough, I’m trying to sort out what a real picture is.

  22. Looks like this article is a few years old, but I’m curious how your giant tree faired with this year’s ice storm (2014).

  23. Meant “fared.”

  24. We are moving to Peterborough and you have painted a lovely picture. We have met some lovely people there. I am sure it has its share of problems but I feel on the whole that it will be a good move for us.

  25. I had a live-in love affair with Toronto for 15 years, but once the babies came along it made sense to trade in the subway card and rising rents for a little property, something with some actual grass to roll in. So we headed east and landed in Whitby, ON. It’s pleasant here but it has always been missing something for me. I miss that old character charm of the Victorian houses we rented floors on. I miss having some kind of downtown – not something referred to as “The 4 Corners” with a Wimpy’s Diner and about a gazillion hair salons – people around here seem to REALLY like getting their hair did. It’s difficult to explain, but as time passes and I feel more and more like I’m just peering through the outer pane of Toronto, longing for what I once had, I know I won’t be happy setting real roots here. Realizing that I’m looking for somewhere else to raise our awesome little family in, I’ve begun to create a short list of towns and cities that could really meet our community-driven and historically rich criteria.

    Thanks for bumping Peterborough WAY UP on the list with this post. 🙂

  26. Michelle – I came across this article two years ago, and it was so exactly what we were looking for, that we are making our own Toronto-Ptbo move in a couple of months. We cannot wait. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  27. I love, love, LOVED reading this post. Not because I love Peterborough, I know nothing of the town. Not because I’m thinking of moving there (I was accepted into Trent), but because the writing was kind, humorous, warm, and welcoming. Thank you for making me laugh tonight.

  28. My husband is considering a significant offer in Peterborough and I am scared to death of the possibility of starting fresh…but you painted a pretty stellar picture of the town and for some reason I am feeling more at ease with the move…Thank you!

  29. Dear Michelle,
    I just wanted to say thank you for your story on your experiences living here in Peterborough. It truly made my evening.
    All the Best.
    Jaime Leah Wren

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