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The house of memories

My grandparents' old house in Toronto

Darkness had fallen and driving snow whipped against the windshield as my uncle drove down a familiar stretch of Highway 401 from the airport. Less than 10 hours earlier I had stood waiting at a boarding gate in Heathrow, bound not for the warm temperatures of subtropical Hong Kong, but the winter chill of Toronto. It was December 2008 and death had struck the family two weeks before Christmas.

We turned down Bayview Avenue and into the silent suburban street, headlights seeking the driveway at Number 11. Once inside I caught a whiff of the same, comforting smell that had greeted me on countless summer vacations, and then grandma arrived, sweeping down the stairs before locking me in a tight, anguished embrace. “Grandpa was looking forward to seeing you!” she sobbed. I had planned a visit the following April, but already I had come too late.

We trailed up the carpeted steps, past the lacquered screen and hardwood furniture with my suitcase in tow. Behind the round dining table, just as I had remembered from my childhood, hung the enigmatic portrait of a well-dressed, moustachioed man. Great grandfather had emigrated to Brooklyn from a remote village in Toisan, amid the impoverished countryside west of Macau. Within the family, there was quiet speculation as to his exact ancestral origins: he possessed deep-set eyes, a strong brow and aquiline nose, the latter two traits passed down to grandpa, my father and his two brothers.

Grandma quivered, tears welling up in her eyes. “Your grandfather never spent a single night in hospital,” she choked, repeatedly blaming herself for the accident. Awakened from an afternoon nap, grandpa had lost balance, tumbling over the upper floor railing while she had been away. By the time the paramedics arrived, he was already beyond saving.

A few days later my brother and I joined our uncles and some of grandpa’s closest friends, hauling the immense weight of his solid maple casket on our shoulders. We gathered on the snow-covered ground, watching as it was lowered into a chosen plot beneath the empty branches of a maple tree, as grandma kept her distance, silently dabbing her eyes with a tissue. In time she would remind us of the significance behind each element: the maple stood for Canada, their adopted home, and the choice of burial site befitted grandpa’s given name, “shue jong”, the characters for “tree” and “stately”.

Grandpa, or Yeh Yeh as we called him, was a family strongman who spoke little in our presence. We feared him as children, a solemn, imposing figure with a booming voice. But in the days and months following his passing, bits and pieces gradually unravelled to reveal a man I never knew. Grandma would speak in detail about past events, sharing the photo albums that grandpa himself had meticulously compiled since the 1950s.

A winter scene in suburban Toronto

View from the upper floor, December 2008

For as long as I could remember, I associated my grandparents with the house they had lived in since retiring in the early eighties. Before they moved in, second uncle the architect designed an extension, complete with an en-suite guest bedroom on the ground floor, and a beautiful sunroom that spun off into the backyard. A few steps down from the main level, it was an inviting, light-filled space populated with sofas, armchairs, and a glass coffee table laden with the latest issues of National Geographic. The TV sat in the corner, while family portraits and plants took pride of place on a pair of decorative drawers and along a full-length countertop. Beneath the high ceiling, a collection of treasured vases and sculptures were placed in an alcove that ran the entire perimeter of the room.

Another favourite was the snug kitchen with two folding doors, where grandma would often be busy preparing a tasty broth of carrot, pork and black moss, ideal for creating “poh veh”, the Shanghainese term describing a perfect marriage of soup and rice. Breakfast was often a memorable affair: yoghurt, a generous dose of maple syrup doused on a buttered blueberry waffle, soft-boiled eggs, and orange juice in mugs bought from Florida, emblazoned with our names over a Space Shuttle launch.

I didn’t know it then, but April 2009 was the last time I set foot in the tan-coloured house that held so many of my fondest childhood memories. Eventually it was deemed too large for one person to live in, and grandma, albeit reluctantly, moved to an apartment farther out in the suburbs. The property was sold to another Asian immigrant family, who had it renovated and divided into several flats. Grandma recounted how friends had asked if she ever returned to see the old house, her dream home for nearly 30 years. “Why would I go back?” she tells me. “It’s no longer the same.”

*       *       *

Note: Sadly, I have no recent photographs of the exterior or interior of my grandparents’ former home. The title sketch was from the summer of 2002, and in the years since my grandmother moved away, it has acquired a newfound significance. Special thanks go to Madhu of The Urge To Wander, who was a key inspiration with the poignant accounts of her own family history.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Don’t visit! I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I left to go to college. My parents moved away after I started school, and I went back one time (with a college friend) just to visit. I actually knocked on the door and an old man answered and I said, “I used to live here!” and he let me inside to have a look around. EVERYTHING was different. It wasn’t the house I grew up in anymore. My friend trailed behind me as we walked from room to room, and I kept trying to describe how things used to look. When we left the house, I broke down and started sobbing, and my poor friend didn’t know what to do. It was a bad idea to visit…it’s better to just remember your grandparent’s house the way it used to be.

    June 27, 2013
    • You’re right, Rachel… just yesterday I had a look on Google Maps Street View and even that was pretty sad. The front door had been replaced and all the bushes on the lawn had been pulled up. It’s heartbreaking enough to know that the house has since been subdivided; I don’t think I could muster up the courage to go inside for a look.

      June 27, 2013
  2. What beautiful memories; what a beautiful tribute to your grandparents.

    June 27, 2013
    • Thank you, Angeline – this is one of those entries that have been simmering for a while now. Glad that Madhu’s series steered me in the right direction.

      June 27, 2013
  3. Superbly written. You have painted a beautiful picture, albeit a sad one, but clearly you also have many fond childhood memories. Thanks for sharing.

    June 27, 2013
    • Thanks in turn for the kind words. 🙂

      June 27, 2013
  4. James – a beautifully written piece as usual, but I want the rest of the story! 🙂
    Please tell us about this – ” bits and pieces gradually unravelled to reveal a man I never knew. Grandma would speak in detail about past events, sharing the photo albums that grandpa himself had meticulously compiled since the 1950s.” I was expecting this to be followed with tales about your grandfather – can you share some?
    Thanks
    Alison

    June 27, 2013
    • Good spot, Alison – I left them out deliberately as my grandfather’s stories would require a post of their own! Rest assured, I’ll be drafting a “part two” in the next few weeks. 🙂

      Best,
      James

      June 27, 2013
  5. Oh good. I was hoping that’s what it was. Looking forward to part 2 🙂

    June 27, 2013
  6. Retracing the history of our families can be really interesting, indeed. However I don’t have any memory of my grandparents as they had passed away long before I was born, except my grandmother from my mom’s side whom I met once when I was little. It’s always fascinating to read a story of someone who left his country to find a new hope in faraway places. Anyway, I’m sorry to hear what happened to your grandparents’ house. But it’s the memories of their love that we must cherish. Again, great sketch James! You’re not only a great writer, but also a great sketcher!

    June 27, 2013
    • Thank you, Bama! I guess I was very fortunate to grow up with all four grandparents still around – today three of them remain alive and well. I also find family history endlessly fascinating… to hear amazing stories being handed down from generation to generation, sometimes it’s even better than what is shown on the silver screen!

      June 27, 2013
  7. James, Absolutely lovely post … and timely for me. Today I am attending my Aunt Bev’s funeral, the last surviving member of my Dad’s family. She was the rock that held us all together after his early death, and will be sorely missed. But she left a legacy of gentle humor and kindness that I’ll always cherish. Her quirky favorite expression when surprised was “My stars!” So my sisters and I have banded together with a new motto – WWBD (What would Bev do?) to remind us to lead honorable lives. Thanks for the beautiful tribute to your grandparents. All the best, Terri

    June 28, 2013
    • You’re more than welcome, Terri… it’s good to know it came at such an appropriate moment. My condolences for Aunt Bev’s passing, may your family be drawn closer together in the coming days, weeks and months – building on bonds that can never be broken. All the best, James

      June 29, 2013
  8. Reading this very inspiring piece reminds me of how valuable spending time with our loved ones can be. Having lived far away from where I was born and only going there at least once a year, I find no amount of Skype or Facetime can replace actual physical presence.

    July 1, 2013
    • Very true, Dennis… we often don’t appreciate it until we’re hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

      July 2, 2013
  9. Beautiful story and very well written…thanks for sharing.

    July 1, 2013
    • You’re more than welcome. 🙂

      July 2, 2013
  10. Hope your grandmother moved closer to friends,etc. Where was her former house in Vancouver?

    July 7, 2013
    • Hard to say – I don’t visit very often but when I have she’s had multiple friends and family over for dinner at the new apartment. My grandmother has been living in Toronto, specifically the North York area, for at least the past 30 years.

      July 7, 2013
      • She seems like socialable person which is great. Sorry for the confusion re Toronto vs. Vancouver.

        90% of my huge extended family lives in Metro Toronto. So I know the city well enough.

        July 10, 2013
  11. Oh James what a beautiful, poignant tribute to your grandparents! I can well imagine the happy times you all spent in that lovely house as kids. Sadly life moves on, most often without giving us notice. Glad to have been the inspiration behind this special post! Look forward to part II with keen anticipation 🙂

    July 8, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed reading, Madhu! I still wish that I had made a real effort to photograph the rooms of that house (and the outside) before my grandmother moved away. It was such a blissful place during the summer.

      July 9, 2013
  12. Kamila #

    Loss of someone closed is always touching and difficult. But in general the death is interpreted as a natural part of life circle that lets go weak, ill, unhealthy and brings space for a change and new life with new perspective. It also doesn´t hurt the once who passed away, but those who stayed.

    I got through similar experience before leaving the UK.It started in April when Mum told me in between words that granma overdosed herself by medication.It didn´t happen in the past and didn´t look seriously.Unfortunately medical check in the hospital showed more complications.So granma had to stay in hospital till her last days. During that time relations between granma,her daughter showed its decay and brought up the question of duty of being kind to someone who doesn´t treat you well, doesn´t stick for you in times of need, gets you down instead and when there is the need you are expected to care about such a person. But hay que perdonar y perdonarse and let go, keep dignity for the last moments.

    Just two days before flight home, I talked to my Dad and he told me: ” Granma is going to die very soon, but it seems she is waiting for you.” And he was completely right. The day I visited her, she communicated and had her best day in last three weeks when death was expected every second. I made it. One week later I left for Wallis in Switzerland. That week on Monday, grandma passed away. It brought changes in Grandad´s life. Suddenly there was noone arguing with him, he gained his space and freedom to be and spend time constructively. Death brought relief and more peace into the family. How time passed, grandad regularly brought flowers on grandma´s grave. To surprice of all of us, he has really missed and loved her, even he has never showed it. He is 86, 7 years after by pass operation,cycling, driving, reading, thinking with great memory and complaning that if his peers haven´t passed away, they can´t move and think sharply. Bless him, travels through the books.

    This also brings me back to Morales family in Pamplona. Not sure why, but for some reason I liked Senor Alvaro, always elegant, ready to comment on any football, tennis match or athletics, typical Spaniard with everything. One day after the dinner, he was in chatty mood and it was interesting to listen so I diceded not to refuse wine and become one big ear. Senor Alvaro revealed his testimony about his wife who passed away 4 years ago. I was quiet and stunned by his words and its authenticity. There was no doubt in me he loved her.I didn´t ask much during the conversation, but Senor Alvaro and I finished whole bottle of wine and I silently nodde in the end, because sometimes words are empty or not enough …

    There is also saying that everything you do, will come back to you. If you hurt, you will be hurt later.How you serve others, you will be served. Leaving UK , particularly workplace withh all people was one great release to me, but I was coming back home hurt, to place where granma dying and i felt my Mum needed me to encourage,cheer up and forget about the tensions and stubborn men´ negativity.Year after that, having gap year in Pamplona, a friend of mine told me that his father has just died and he was devastated.

    Well, there is something invisible, deeper hidden behing all changes in our lives and it is upto people from which perspective they choose to see it, how thy interpret it nad what actions and attitudes they take.

    In conclusion I must admit I admire great courage of all emigrants who started from nothing and from the scratch in different continent and they have made it happen.

    April 1, 2014
  13. Kamila #

    I apologize for all errors left. I haven’t read it after myself in the end.

    April 2, 2014

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