Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Archive for June 2009

A Quickening Of The Heart

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I just got back from a couple of days in the Big City…Toronto that is.

For years it was where I lived, the place where I was born, the city I was constantly leaving and inevitably coming back to. On return trips by train, plane or automobile, there were familiar landmarks that quickened my heart, telling me that I was almost home.

Driving up the small rise just before you exit the Queen E on to the Gardner the sight of Lake Ontario’s shoreline and Toronto’s Skyline never failed to make me smile. (So did the slight feeling of being airborne if you hit the rise at the right speed.)

Flying over the city at night was magical. I could spot landmarks from the air. I always knew which runway we were to land on from the direction of our approach. If we banked out over the lake then leveled off, I could see the street where I lived. That’s when the blood returned to my knuckles.

Entering Toronto by train brought me through the bottom of the city. Coming in from the West the lake and greenery of Sunnyside were certainly prettier than the industrial wasteland of the East end. Either way, pulling into the grandeur of Union Station always told me that I was in the city at the centre of the Canadian universe. At least, that’s what Torontonians believe.

But, all of this fails to impress me now. Now, I come to Toronto reluctantly and leave as quickly as I can. Whenever I’m there, I’m always planning my exit.

And this time, as I made my escape, it suddenly dawned on me; Toronto is no longer where I come from. Southampton is. And this reality, this transition happened effortlessly. I can’t remember suffering any withdrawal, homesickness or regret as a result of my leaving.

Racing everyone along the 401 speedway and up the 427, I realized that the pace of the city no longer excited me like it once did. Toronto was no longer my kind of town.

My blood pressure settled as we turned on to Highway 10. We were driving into quietude. There was no construction congestion, just the openness of farm fields freshly ploughed, that vivid just grown greenery breaking out everywhere, the soy bean fields now a brilliant buttercup yellow, all under a great big brilliantly blue sky.

And then, as soon as I saw the Saugeen River beside me on Highway 21, it happened. I knew I was home. Past the Range Light and across the bridge was the harbour with the sun glistening like fool’s gold on the water. That quickening of the heart I once experienced came over me. Only this time Southampton was the inspiration.

Yes, I come from away, as the locals describe us. Yes, I was once a ‘citidiot’ the name they sometimes use when they refer to newcomers. But I consider myself an adopted son now…a Southamptoner (Southamptonite?) I’ve happily traded the shores of Lake Ontario for the shores of Lake Huron, hazy smog for brilliant sunsets, hustle and bustle for peace and quiet, the fast lane for the slow lane, competition for contemplation.

There is a marvelous passage from The Place No One Knew by an unknown author, which sums it all up:

“You want a place where you can be serene, that will let you contemplate and connect two consecutive thoughts…that can stir you up as you were made to be stirred up, until you blend with the wind and water and earth you almost forgot your came from…There must be room enough for time – where the sun can calibrate the day, not the wristwatch, for days or weeks of unordered time, time enough to forget the feel of the pavement and to get the feel of the earth and of what is natural and right.”

I have found that place…right here, in Southampton.


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If you’re cruising slightly above the limit along Highway 21, leaving Southampton on your way to Port Elgin, you might miss them.

If you happen to catch a glimpse as you zip by you’ll probably do a double take. I know I did the first time I caught sight of them. When I took a quick look back I just about rear-ended the truck in front of me. These things could become a traffic hazard. But after your first sighting – you tend to ignore them.

I mean, really – Palm Trees, this far north, on the side of the road?  No big deal.

They’ve been there all along. Rght? They must have been covered in deep snow this past winter. Or hidden behind high roadside snow banks like everything else.

But that can’t be. These things would never survive in this climate…even if we do live in Southwestern Ontario. No. Someone in Saugeen Shores has a sense of humour…or loves to indulge in wishful thinking…or just plain likes to play with our heads.


But they are real – two tall Palm Trees outside of Shoreline Stone & Garden Centre between Southampton and Port Elgin…sitting beside a leaning hydro pole, enjoying our cool spring weather…and not a coconut in sight. I do have to say, though, they are looking a little worse for wear. Still getting use to the climate, I guess.

The Twin Palms traveled to our shores all the way from Florida. Obviously they had no problems with the recent heightened levels of scrutiny at U.S. border crossings. I guess you get a pass when you “Buy America.” There go our import/export quotas.

Anyway, if they survive the summer they’ll tough out the winter in the Shoreline’s big plastic enclosure. That way you can visit them when you go to buy your Christmas tree.

Maybe they should stage an annual replanting event. Like letting loose the swans on Fairy Lake or raising the Big Flag down on the beach on the 24th of May. The Bringing out of The Palms could be a rite of spring like May Day celebrations.

But seriously, it is a nice gesture – one that brings a smile to the faces of weather-hardened locals as we anticipate another of our wonderful, albeit, short Saugeen Shores summers.


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My grandfather believed in keeping his family close. It was the old country in him. So, when he settled in Sault Ste Marie he set about creating a home, a compound actually, where his three sons and their growing families could live and work – never more than a few steps from each other.

He bought a corner property with two houses separated by a courtyard that had a garden behind it. The corner house became a barbershop for my two uncles and a candy/variety store for my aunt. My parents lived upstairs. Everybody else lived across the courtyard in my grandfather’s house. It had a big kitchen for Wednesday and Sunday dinners and the only access to the cold cellar and wine cellar under the courtyard.

On spring, summer and fall mornings my grandfather would tend his garden then sit on an old chrome-framed kitchen chair with the stuffing coming through the cracked plastic seat, hose in hand, watering down the courtyard. I would bring him his espresso.

After he drank it down in three gulps he got up and systematically started at one end,  driving the water down the surface towards the street. Then he would walk back to the top and repeat his actions. First he set the nozzle to shoot out one tight line of water…to loosen the stubborn dirt. Then he would go back over everything with the nozzle set to a spray.

This he did until he was satisfied that the complete expanse of the courtyard was clean. Job done, he would sit and gaze over the wet, glistening concrete surface, quite pleased with himself. When I asked why he did this every morning he looked at me, twisted his gray, handlebar moustache and said, “You need to water concrete every day to keep it fresh. Otherwise it will melt.”

As a gullible youth, I believed him. “I didn’t know that cement was so delicate,” I answered. There was silence.

He looked down at me and shook his head. “No. No. No. Not cement. Concrete.”

“Same difference,” I shot back quickly.

“Adamo, cement and concrete are not the same.”

I was bewildered. “Doesn’t matter. Does it?”

“Cement,” he said, “ is what they use to make concrete. Gravel, sand, cement…you mix them together, with water, and they all turn hard, hard like concrete…because of the water. Which is why you always have to keep your concrete wet.”

Now, as a kid, none of this was important to me. It was just an impish grandfather setting his uneducated grandson straight. But after that lesson, he let me water the concrete courtyard a couple of times a week.

And now, as owner of my own home with a long, concrete driveway, I do what he did those many years ago. I get out my power washer (something he would have loved) and hose down my concrete to keep it fresh.


People passing by look at me like I’m crazy. But I just smile as I wash the dirt down to the street. There are others on my street that also have concrete driveways. But mine is the freshest and cleanest. Because they never water theirs.


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EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR BUSINESS…at least they think they do.

One of the idiosyncrasies of small town Ontario that I’ve yet to get use to is the one the lets you think you can live anonymously in your community. If you come from away, you immediately forfeit your privacy. Any unfamiliar face on the street suffers intense scrutiny. Your identity must be made known. The townies will not rest until your past and your present is revealed or, at best, subject to some subtle investigation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Most new-kids-in-town expect some scrutiny. They’ve taken up a new life, in a new place by choice. Making new friends is part and parcel of fitting in. The prying of new neighbours is, at first blush, kind of fun. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?

What is kind of unnerving though, is when they look at you and say,

“Oh, you’re the ones who bought the old such & such place,” and then fall silent, and look at you sideways, watching you try to figure what they really mean.

Case in point. Not long ago my son bought 42 acres of untouched meadow next to a site protected by the Grey/Bruce Conservation Authority. It was an old farm, long abandoned close to Big Bay. It had a sawmill, at one time. The original house, barn and out buildings were removed after the Niagara Escarpment people ordered an Environmental Assessment. (It passed.)

Eventually he will build his family a home there. But right now it sports, a fire pit, a woodshed and a trailer – nothing else. It is his escape from the city.


The other weekend we enjoyed a picnic and some bird watching there. Afterwards we drove to Keppel Croft Gardens to wander their nature trail. My daughter-in-law was chatting with Dawn the owner. She mentioned that they were up visiting their property. Dawn innocently asked where it was. When told, she immediately responded, “Oh, you’re the ones who bought that old farm…lots of mosquitoes on that property. And you’ve put a caravan there. How long will you be living in it?”

My daughter-in-law destroyed their assumption that they were living in the trailer.  But she did plant the idea that an architecturally different home would soon be built on the land…just to give them something else to talk about.

Now Dawn will be telling everyone that a lovely young couple have taken the old storied farm that stood vacant for so long, under their wing.

Word sure gets around, doesn’t it? Well, at least now, they have a clearer picture. The owners of the old farm are no longer anonymous.