Last Trip To My Home Town

Written in my journal a few years ago

There's something about growing up in a small town. It's the innocence, being isolated and making the most of what you have. My hometown of Chelmsford, Ontario was nestled in the middle of the Sudbury basin. Chemmy as some the locals called it, was 12 miles northwest from the city of Sudbury. While 12 miles doesn't seem a lot. It felt like I was in another world when I was a kid.

It was a bedroom community mostly comprised of blue collared workers that worked in the outlying mines. It was your typical two light town. The Canadian Pacific railway ran along the northside of the town. There wasn't a mall or theater. Just a few restaurants and stores. The arena was the only place that served to fill our entertainment needs as many of us learned to skate and play hockey. 

Back in the 70s, we didn't have cable and there were two channels, one in English and other in French. You had to use your creativity to fend off boredom. Some kids played sports and others found some type of hobby. I could be found in the bush exploring or at one of the streams or lakes fishing. During the winter, I would often be in my bedroom reading books. But as with most kids from small towns, they out grow their childhood homes and move to bigger and better places. Mine was to Southern Ontario, then to Alberta and eventually the United States. I moved to the Cleveland area in 1998 and I've been there ever since. 

Last week I made the journey to meet my family to spread my father's ashes. My father passed away last December after complications from his surgery. My father was never a religious person. In his will, he didn't want a funeral and his wishes were to have his ashes spread at the golf course where he played. 

Sunday morning, I leave Cleveland blurry eyed and tired. The night before I was at the U2 concert and I was lucky to get any sleep. The last time I was back home was 2009. A week after visiting, my grandmother had a stroke. Due to her age and the severity of it, my father and uncle made the decision to move her closer to my uncle in Ottawa. Years before that my parents moved to British Columbia to be closer to their grandchildren. In 2012, I got news that my aunt Lillian and uncle Robert had sold their home and moved to Ottawa as my aunt was the early stages of dementia. They were the last of my extended family in the area. That's when I wondered if I would ever return.

Eight years later, I'm driving up north. The sprawling urban jungle of Toronto gradually gives way to the rolling hills and then the rocks and lakes of the Canadian Shield. It's a quiet trip as my girlfriend is sleeping. I use the time to reflect. My father was in poor health for several years. My father and I had a strained relationship. We were never close and our personalities often clashed. I hadn't seen my sister and her family for a very long time as she lived in British Columbia. My younger brother's life was a mess and he was slowly putting the pieces of it back together. Earlier in the year, my grandmother passed away. It was a stark reminder that I'm getting older. I get a text message from my sister and I tell her I'm almost near the city limits. In the distance I see the superstack, the iconic symbol of the city. We check into the hotel and head over to the restaurant where they were eating. 

As we walk in, there's my sister and her husband and their youngest son. My mother hugs me and cries as it has been some time since I've seen her. Also in attendance is my uncle and one of his sons. I go over and hug my brother. I introduce my girlfriend to everyone and settle down to eat. It's a little overwhelming because we're so spread out across the country. It's a time of catching up and I'm mostly listening as I'm stuffing my face with food. The next morning, we're all meeting at the golf course. We get back to the hotel and I'm out before my head hits the pillow. 

The next morning, we meet at the Lively Golf Course, where one of my father's friend has planted a tree in his honor. It's a small blue spruce planted near the 18th hole. We all gather around and my mother breaks down as she spreads his ashes around it. My brother, I, and my sister gather to support her. My uncle says goodbye to his brother and tells him that both Lillian and Robert wished they could be there. As we start to leave I look back at the tree and wonder how big it will be when I'm 72 as that was the age of my father when he died. 

After the ceremony, I take my girlfriend and mother to Chelmsford. We drive on the Northwest bypass and in the distance I can see the town down in the valley. The town has grown as there's several new developments off the highway. We come up to the traffic light and there's the old grocery store where I worked as a teen as did my mother. We turn onto highway 144 and there's the Canadian Tire, KFC, Belanger Ford, and Northland Hotel. The four places I remember from my youth. I see my old high school that is slated to close due to low enrollment. My father was a teacher there his entire 30-year career. We drive down Edward Street and see the house that I grew up in. As it was in 2009, the house is for sale again. I tell my girlfriend all of the names of the people that lived on that section of the street. Not surprisingly, nearly all of them are gone except for the Daiglemen's.

We start our tour and I point out houses of people that I knew and asked my mother if they were still around. Most of the answers were no. We turn onto Main Street and nearly all of the stores that I remember are gone. The sporting goods store, the steak house, and the Sears store where my mother use to pick up her parcels when she ordered from the catalog. There is a sense of sadness because it's not the place that I remember. Everything on the street looks old and tired. I point out the Algoma Hotel and the French church as they are the two oldest buildings in the town. 

We cross over the Whitson River into Whitson's Gardens. This the section of Chelmsford where I grew up as a young kid. It was the place where a lot of the younger families lived in the 70s. Back in the day, we would be playing out in the bush or riding our bikes throughout the neighborhood. Today, it's eerily quiet. Not one kid was out. The neighborhood has seen better days. We drive onto Goldie Street and I stare at the townhouse where we lived in. My brother was borned shortly after we moved in. It was small but cozy. Eventually we out grew it and moved to the house on Edward Street. On top the hill was the water tower and the jack pines scattered along the rock outcrops. During the summer, I would be in the bush either catching garter snakes or picking blueberries. As with every other place, I would tell my mother about remember that family or that kid I went to school with. We drive up Errington Street and there's the post office and one of the grocery stores. Not to my surprise the Chinese restaurant Chew's is still open. The hardware another fixture of the town is still there. We get to highway 144 and head north to see the High Falls in Onaping.

Back in the 70s and 80s, there were still a lot of people working in the mining industry. But as time went on, the mines didn't need as many people working there. As people retired, some stayed and others left. As teenager I felt like living in Chelmsford was too isolated. I was confined to the valley. When I got my driver's licence it became more bearable as I was able to venture to Sudbury. But, I wanted to remove my shackles. When we went to Toronto, I was at awe of the size of the city. The different types of people and cultures. When I graduated from high school I went to college in southern Ontario. I had big dreams. Some of classmates went out of town and others went to either Cambrain College or Laurentian University. A few returned, but the majority of us never looked back. But I'll never forget my roots. After seeing the falls, we drive through Chelmsford and I wonder if the citizens of the town will try to save the school. The Northland Hotel, Canadian Tire, and Tim Horton's will be there long after I'm gone. 

Tuesday morning, we leave the hotel and I stop to fill up at the gas station. The clerk notices my U.S credit card and asks what brings me to Sudbury. I tell him I was here to spread my father's ashes and I brought my American girlfriend to show where I grew up. We talked for a little a bit and he asked if I would come back and I shrugged and replied "Not sure." When I got back in the car, my girlfriend asked what I was saying to the clerk. I told her we talked about spreading my Dad's ashes and if I would come back. She said it would be nice to check up on the tree. I glanced over and smiled, but I didn't respond. 

For some us we never go back to the place were we grew up. For others, it's the nostalgia. If my father didn't want his ashes to be spread back home, then 2009 probably would have been my last trip back home. However, I do have a lot of fond memories of my home town. It was an important part of my life. It shaped me for who I am. The surrounding bush and lakes is why I went to a natural resources school. I had a love for the natural environment and if I grew up in a city I would most likely be doing something else. 

As for coming back? I have no idea. My brother is the closest living 4 hours away. My mother still has friends back in Sudbury and Chelmsford. But she getting older and eventually one day she won't be able to do it. Will the tree be there in ten, twenty, or fifty years? I still remember receiving the call from my mother when she told that my father was being taken off life support. I was stunned but I felt emotionless. Ever since they moved out west, I rarely talked to my father. If I did it was brief. His death didn't leave me any closure. There were still questions that needed to be answered.

We turned onto the highway 69 and head south. I looked in the rearview mirror and see the last views of the Sudbury. Inside my head, I said farewell to home. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I used to love reading your post about steelhead fishing 13 years ago ( I mean I still do just not everyday anymore) but I really enjoyed reading this aswell about your home town. Tight lines, Sonny Harris