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….
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.