Well, I didn’t make the long list again for the CBC Creative Non-Fiction contest, but that’s okay, that means you get to read this now. Here’s my essay on some of my memories of 1967. It was an incredible time to be 5 in the capital of Canada.
My dreams twirled in front of me dancing like the minnows I caught on the end of my fishing line the year I was five. I’d spend my days in tomboy glory, my little blonde beagle Cookie that my dad bought me running by my side. My bicycle was my trusty steed riding me to adventures unknown, or maybe to freezies at the corner store. I was a bit of a free-range child I will admit. We lived in a two bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a building very close to the shores of the Rideau River on what is now called old Ottawa South.
In the morning after breakfast of the typical 1960s sugary cereal the dog and I would climb out the window and meet up with our friends in the grounds at the back. My friends were mostly boys because boys did fun things like fishing and climbing trees. If a stranger asked me if I was a boy or a girl, I’d say boy. My long hair had been cut short by this time and I did look like one. It was a fun change from the frilly dress gloved and hatted girl I would be on Sunday when attending church with my family. Tea parties weren’t for me; I melted my Barbies on the radiator just to see what would happen and while my dad insisted I wear the pretty dresses he bought for me when he visited, my mom let me be who I wanted to be, which in that year was Stefan. We lived just us three, my mother, sister and I in the apartment. My dad lived in an apartment near Rideau Street. Cookie was a birthday present from him.
On the weekend when he would take my sister and me out we often wound up at the Mayflower Restaurant on Elgin; it had undergone a renovation and I remember it had a colourful maple leaf in tile on the front of the counter where there were stools. It was put there in honour of the 1967 centennial in Ottawa.
The centennial was a really big deal for Canada, and certainly for Ottawa. It was an exciting time to be a child, there were numerous parties and celebrations and in addition to that, there was Expo 67. So many things happened that year for me that I can truly say that this was the first mostly full year I can remember. A lot of it is in glimpses: playing on my aunt’s piano in her living room in her apartment upstairs in the same building we lived in. Standing in line at Dairy Queen on Bank Street near the Mayfair theatre. Being lectured by a policeman after my friends and me, playing with a Coke bottle accidently threw it through a store window. Oops.
Some of these are funny: there was a grassy area on Elgin Street close to where the National Arts Centre was being built. Ottawa, tourist mecca that it is, was teeming and I was totally enthralled with the colorful fun clothing people wore at that time. Walking past there one sunny summer day, I saw a guy dozing on the lawn, his curly long red hair flowing behind him.
When I think back I remember a lot of music. I was frequently at my aunt’s where she played the piano often and very well; she had been a concert pianist and played for the precursor of CBC radio during a mine disaster up in Northern Ontario all night one time I was told. I loved it when she played her version of Onward Christian Soldiers, full of fierce chords and trills, it always made me laugh. The Beatles were huge at that time and I remember sitting with a baby sitter in a cafeteria somewhere – they had the radio playing the Beatles and they were excitedly talking; one weird thought I had was seeing one of the girls’ hair – it was blonde at the bottom with a couple of inches of dark at the roots and I wondered if that’s what my mom meant when she said blonde hair goes dark over time. I was a strange child.
My mom had friends who lived in Montreal and had a cottage in the Laurentians. I remember her excitement at us being invited to their place for a week or two so that we could go to Expo 67 and then to the cottage. I loved riding the train so not knowing what an Expo was I still loved the idea of travelling by train to Montreal and being able to swim in a lake maybe, now that I could swim.
Being able to swim was actually a fairly recent development for me at the time; my mother loved to swim and grew up spending summers on the Rideau River at the cottage her father owned. In memory of his youth in PEI he hand built a lighthouse for the kids to play in and change their clothes. So when we moved to the apartment building we spent many an hour at the indoor pool my sister and me splashing around, my mom doing the breast stroke and encouraging us. My sister tended to be a bit of a bully sometimes like older siblings can be; one day while swimming she pushed me under and held me there. I fought and managed to kick myself away from her grasp; then I realized: hey, I’m swimming! I was underwater and knew just what to do. Mean as it was, that action was just what a four year old me needed for it all to click. To this day I love swimming underwater; I even dream of it. It’s so peaceful there.
Expo 67 wasn’t my strongest impression of that trip to Montreal. Oh I do remember it; the Habitat Pavilion intrigued me and I was totally amazed by just how many people were there. I hadn’t been anywhere with that many people before. There was an electric sense of something incredible, something important going on. There was music, lots of music, and food of all kinds to try. It was fun.
What I remember most of that vacation was the cottage in the Laurentians. I wish I could remember the name of that man and his wife, they were very kind and the man walked around the grounds with me talking and showing me stuff. We had this conversation about his toenail and how they froze it and pulled it out. I was fascinated. I thought he meant they held ice cubes on his toe and I didn’t have the nerve to ask him why. I just was intrigued by the fact that nails could come off. One thing that really stood out for me was their old hand crank party line telephone. It was the real thing – you held the ear trumpet in one hand and spoke into the mouth piece on the phone body, and you cranked a handle to get the operator. You knew who the call was for by the number of rings. Ring ring pause ring ring – well, that was two rings and it wasn’t theirs so you didn’t answer it. Except, with a sly smile, our host showed me that if you quietly took the ear piece off the hook and held your hand over the mouth piece, you could listen in on somebody else’s conversation! It was our little secret, this conspiratorial thing between us because we knew if anyone else had caught us listening in we’d be in trouble. It saddens me to think that if he’s still alive, he’d be well into his 90s.
I could ask my mother, she is still with us. However going on 98 her mind is lost in a world of its own; she spends her days in bed mostly, sometimes lucid more often not. Now is not the time for questions. Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer anyway.
As we settle into the year that Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary I won’t be at Parliament Hill on July 1st. I’m not in Ottawa anymore. For 1967 I was in that crowd on that hot summer day. It was my dad’s 36th birthday and I sat on his shoulders as we listened to the Queen and later watched fireworks. My mom and sister were there too of course.
My dad and my mom did get back together shortly after the apartment got flooded and after I lost my fishing pole forever as punishment for biking downtown by myself. But like many families, in the 1970s ours didn’t last and that was the right thing to do for us.
My dad, like so many in my half century on Earth is no longer here. So for now I think I’ll be that small girl on his shoulders on a historical day in a wonderful place for just few minutes more in my mind.
Happy sesquicentennial, Canada.