Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘Sault Ste. Marie


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“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past…”

Shakespeare – Sonnet 30

Recently a haze of childhood memories clouded my mind struggling to become clear. I was back in the city of my early years, revisiting the people and places that were so much a part of my early life. To my Italian relatives, especially my elderly aunts, those formative years were still clear. It was easy for them for they never left Sault Ste. Marie. They never abandoned the memories. I, unfortunately, did for a different life in a different place. I depended on their stories to bring those days into sharper focus.

One morning, I walked with N. to the now closed Soo Locks where I use to come to watch the big Lakers carefully creep through the canal leaving barely enough room on either side. I would marvel when the water gates closed at their stern and marvel even more when water levels rose lifting the ship ever so slowly up to meet the open expanse of the St. Marys River, before it crept away creaking and groaning under dead slow speed.

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Looking down the length of the waterway I saw the long span of the International Bridge to Soo Michigan rising over the river. Beneath it, rusting and abandoned was the old rail bridge. It didn’t take me long to remember what childhood friends and I did there on lazy Sault Ste. Marie summer afternoons.


Railway tracks ran behind our schoolyard straight to the trestle. We would follow them, running between the steel rails trying to stay on the railroad ties and not touch the thick gravel. We paused only when we spotted a spike sticking up above the wood. This was a prize we stopped to pry loose.

It was only when we approached the trestle that we slowed down. Here we had to be careful. As we moved out under its steel span the ground gave way to open air. We were suspended over water now. To us, it was a long way to fall. We stepped carefully from tie to tie, yelling at the top of our lungs partly to keep fear at bay and partly to prove that we knew no fear. To hestitate would invite the taunt, “codardo, codardo, codardo, andare a casa di mamma.” Translated it branded you a sissy telling you to, “run home to mamma you coward.” None of us ever did.

Once across and before we ran down the embankment to the river we always looked back. It was in that one brief silent moment that we realized it was our only path. We knew the times when the freight trains rolled through so we were sure of safe passage home. And when the whistle blew for the sift change at the steel plant we knew we must be on our way. A freight was due through about an hour after that. Any later getting home would always mean trouble. Somehow our mothers knew where we had been even though they repeatedly forbid us to go there.

There is a river of memories that flows through us all. Its source springs from things past. These memories are but embers sitting silently, buried deep in our soul. All we need do is breathe on them gently to ignite a remembrance of things past.


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When I was a kid, my last name was the reason why I always found myself involved in schoolyard fights.

I was constantly called, ‘nanny goat, granny nanni, nanny no no, ninny’ or whatever variation of  NANNI they felt was funny enough to their buddies laughing and chanting the insult in unison. At first I laughed along with them, but after a while, my temper got the best of me. It was tough being Italian in Toronto in the forties.

The end result of my frustration varied between broken glasses, scrapes, bruises, torn t-shirts and the occasional bloodied nose. At recess the schoolyard monitor shadowed me because my frequent outbursts had branded me a troublemaker. There wasn’t much else I could do but fight to show the pack that I was no push over. They had to know that messing with my name had consequences. Eventually it worked. Eventually my surname became by badge, my tag, my nickname, and my reputation that I was a kid of honour. After a couple of months, when I came out for recess or after school they would shout, “hey NANNI, we’re playing Red Rover…you’re on our side.”

Retribution! Besides, it was a lot better than, “hey Wop!”

The NANNI name is a derivative of GIOVANNI. At some point it was shortened to VANNI and somehow became NANNI. There is also a stream of thought that says it might be a derivative of BONANNO – which became NANNO – which became NANNI. Take your pick. Whatever its origin – NANNI is my family’s surname…pronounced NANN – E.

The NANNI men came to Canada pre World War Two. A good number of them settled in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Our surname faced a major challenge when the NANNI men began working at Algoma Steel and the pulp and paper mill. The English foremen and bosses addressed everyone by their last name. And for some reason began emphasizing the last letter or our name making it NAN – EYE. This annoyed my family to the point where they changed the I to E to coincide with the pronunciation they were hearing every day.

Which brings me to the photo below.

Notice anything? It appears the change in spelling has stuck with some. Or the newspaper people are making the same mistake as those foremen at the steel plant. I asked my cousin who is building the family tree if he knew why this happened. He had no idea.

Even today, especially in the Soo, there are two spellings to our last name. Even in my own family. I still adhere to the original N-A-N-N-I.

My brother goes by N-A-N-N-E.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

August 14, 2012 at 5:10 PM


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I’m making wine. It’s not my first time. I’ve been making wine for years. In Toronto, I had the luxury of a basement. Here, in Southampton, there is no basement. Just a narrow laundry room. When you open the door and walk in the odor of fermenting grapes hits you in the face. It takes me back – back to when I was a child living in Sault Ste. Marie.

My grandfather owned a large corner lot not far from the employee entrance to the Algoma Steel Plant. He had enough land to build two houses separated by a courtyard with a big garden plot behind that ran the length of the property. We lived in the corner house that also had a candy store and my uncles’ barbershop. After school I would help out by sweeping the cut hair into a hole in the floor. On weekends I would shine shoes. Once I got caught stealing licorice pipes from the candy store. My uncles told me, ‘next time, just ask.’

Making wine reminds me of my grandfather’s wine cellar. As a child I remember it as a vast underground cave that ran deep under the houses and courtyard, long and cavernous, divided into locked rooms some with stacked barrels, another with a stained wine press, one with sausage, salami, bresaola and prosciutto dangling from racks like cobwebs, a room where shelves filled with jars of fruits, vegetables, jams, sausage in oil, and sugo (tomato sauce) covered the walls. Finally there was the room with a long stainless steel table and a rack of knives, cleavers and grinders, the room where I watched my father, grandfather and uncles turn lifeless carcasses into food for the family.

In the fall, rectangular cases of grapes, dripping juice and followed by fruit flies, where delivered and stacked next to the wine press. Soon the odor of fermenting wine from open barrels filled the underground cavern and seeped upstairs into our house. The smell lasted for weeks and only disappeared when the ‘purple pop’ (as I called it) was racked and sealed in aging barrels. Every week they would draw a sample, taste, shake their heads and hammer the bung back into the barrel. And then, months later, they would open the spigot, draw a glass, taste and smile. A pitcher would then be poured, a salami taken from the rack and sliced, fresh bread was ripped apart and the celebration began. I was allowed a glass of the winter wine mixed with 7Up and then sent upstairs. My grandfather, father and uncles wouldn’t leave that room for quite some time.

So now, in my mind, as my winter wine ferments away my adult imagination recalls those days. The magic of wine making in my house is not the same, though. There is no cavernous, multi-room cellar. My wine ferments in a plastic pail sitting beside the furnace…in my laundry room. Times change.

My Winter Wine ferments in a plastic tub. No gravitas there.

My Wine Cellar - a cold room under the stairs.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

January 8, 2012 at 3:37 PM

The Snow Blower Brotherhood.

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The snow blows horizontally here in Southampton. That’s one of the first things we noticed during the first days of our first winter in our new hometown. The squalls come in off Lake Huron and blow down the Saugeen River behind our house, sculpting drifts that shift with the wind leaving my driveway sometimes clean and most times buried.

Having lived in Sault Ste. Marie and Montreal, I’m no stranger to snow, deep or drifted. But living in Toronto spoiled me with those once-or-twice-a-winter storms. So, I had to get used to shoveling all over again. And it hurt. It hurt my back. It hurt my knees. It hurt my self-image of having the never-ending strength of someone use to hard, physical work.

Finally, after four years of digging out after the snowplow passed…after enviously watching my neighbours effortlessly clear their snow with mechanical ease…after a continually aching back, I realized that joining them was the only way my aging body would survive future winters.

So, I bought a snow blower.

And, it’s a beauty. I got me a red, Honda HS724 with Hydrostatic Transmission and electric everything. It has tracks instead of wheels. I can control the angle and height of the chute with a video game type toggle, no manual cranking, no manual anything. Just set it and go, forward or reverse. Twenty minutes and I’m done. I’ve never been happier.

Right now, there are cleaning patterns to work out, wind direction and speeds to content with, all of which are proving to be a pleasant learning curve.

My neighbours have all been by to inspect and comment on my new machine. And they approve.

Now, after the squalls have had their fun, I don my lined Kamicks, my Tough Duck bib overalls, my Honda Red Parka, pull on my toque, take up my position behind my machine and turn the key. It starts first time, every time. Then I set her in gear and follow her to the driveway. I raise my hand to my neighbours – the sign of the brotherhood – and then I blow snow…with a smile on my face.


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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.