Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

 

Hidden in the walls

By Geneviève Hone
True North Perspective

Geneviève Hone is a grandmother, family therapist and social worker.  With her husband, Julien Mercure (also a family therapist), she has co-authored three books on couples and family life. Her home on the web is www.hone-mercure.com/index_hone_en.php.

“Are you going to see actual people this morning?” teases my husband as he watches me assemble the essentials for this morning’s excursion: sunhat, water bottle, snacks and an umbrella, these being uncertain times. “Yes”, I reply. “But most of them will be long dead.” My husband laughs: he knows that a friend and I are taking a walking tour of a few neighbourhood houses opened today to the general public for a charitable cause. The houses we plan to visit are quite old, some dating back to Victorian times and I am quite certain they are silently inhabited by all the families who have lived within their walls over many generations. The houses have seen families rejoice at the birth of a child and grieve at the death of a grandparent. They have seen children running up and down stairs in a game of hide and seek, shrieking in laughter and then in pain when taking a tumble. They have seen parents worry, cry, perhaps go hungry at times, pray for answers that were never received and yet somehow find the courage to continue working and giving. Day after day, year after year, the houses have been witness to better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. Their inhabitants are officially dead, but they remain alive in our collective memory and in the history of their home.

Painting by Julien Mercure.

We come to the first house on the list built around 1844. My friend, a keen genealogist, has studied the history of the builders of this house. She talks about their life, their work, their legacy. She tells their story in a way that certainly catches my interest, but more than that, invites me to feel compassion and gratefulness. Compassion, because life was often very hard in those days. Just imagine winter in Ottawa in those times, with a north wind blowing around and through a house that has just two fireplaces to keep the family warm. Gratefulness, for the courage of these people who, without even intending to, gave us such examples of generosity, resourcefulness and resilience.

A tour guide describes the transformations that took place in this house during more than a century and a half. She talks about the ongoing restoration and the architectural treasures found behind and underneath certain parts of the house: a beautiful coal fireplace behind a walled up section of the dining room, a lovely wide-planked floor under layers of old linoleum, well preserved cedar panels in closets covered with sticky turquoise paper.

We continue on to the next houses and learn still more about the efforts to restore them to their former glory while making them safer and less vulnerable to the elements. We learn how communities rallied to save houses abandoned by private and public owners but rapidly taken over by rodents and vandals. We meet some of the people who dared dream and fought to fulfill these dreams. We learn about hard decisions that had to be made: what could be saved, what could not, what new material should be used to effectively blend in with building materials of yesteryear.

Halfway through the tour, we enter a church where Julian Armour and the Chamber Players are playing Mozart. I’m grateful to sit down for a few minutes as I am beginning to feel creaky at the joints, somewhat like the old houses we’ve just visited. Perhaps it’s Mozart and the magic effect that his music has on me, but my mind turns to fanciful memories and thoughts. I remember Sister Joseph from grade school trying to convince us that we liked physical education classes by telling us that our body is the house of our soul, and that is why we must take good care of it. Personally, I thought that gym classes were a colossal waste of precious time that could be used for reading. And I didn’t believe then, and still don’t, that body and soul are separate entities, so Sister Joseph’s metaphor fell on indifferent ears. Yet, sitting in the church today, I begin to think that perhaps Sister Joseph’s metaphor made some kind of sense!

Dreamily, I start imagining that I am an old house. Like an old house, I have creaky joints, I sag in places that I prefer not to mention here, and I need regular maintenance and occasional serious repairs. The maintenance of the old house that I am pretending to be requires more and more of my time and energy. And we are not even talking about a full restoration project here! But if this house were restored throughout, from top to bottom, what would one find hidden within the walls or underneath the floors? Probably a couple of unexploited talents, maybe a few secrets that seemed so important a long time ago but are of no consequence today, perhaps a few grievances that really should have been aired years ago or memories of painful events and the feelings of fear, anger and sadness that accompanied them. And most certainly a small toy that I carefully hid when I was a little girl in an effort to protect it from the thieving hands of brothers who loved to tease the only girl in the family. But of course, hiding the toy meant I could not play with it, and over the years, I completely forgot about its existence.

My reverie is broken by the applause of the audience. I look around the church and say a prayer of thanks for the beauty of my surroundings, for the music so generously shared and for the friendship of my friend, the keen genealogist. Walking home, I tell myself that I will retrieve the small toy that I lost so many years ago, symbolically of course, since the house where it was hidden no longer exists as it was in then. This time, though I will put the toy in a safe place, I will put it where I can easily find it and remember the joy of playing freely without thinking of maintenance, repairs and restorations!

I open our front door, and before my husband even has time to say hello, I throw the question of the day at him: “If I were a house, what kind of a house would I be?” He laughs of course, his best defense against this style of communication, and answers: “You would have to be a rather large house, big enough to contain all your funny questions and thoughts. But, personally, I would want you to be a small house so I would always know where to find you.”

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