Part of the discovery of ourselves was discovering what it was like living in suburban Canada. And it wasn’t just a matter of Carmen experiencing Kanata, so far removed from congested Cavite, it was an adjustment for me too as a permanent lifestyle.
It wasn’t suburban Ottawa I was adjusting to – I had lived in suburban Nepean for 30 years, faced the daily commute to my office in downtown Ottawa, driving everywhere to shop and deliver the kids to their various sports events. It wasn’t all bad. I also savoured catalyzing my garden each spring, and mourning its death each autumn. And I loved our custom built house with its many rooms curiously separated from disparate parts. But when Marlene died and I sold the house I had had enough of suburbia. I imagined myself instead moving to old house, in an historic town, Perth, and savouring life of a different sort, the life of an author, eccentric perhaps, within walking distance of the library and interesting pubs where I could study the various inhabitants of a life so different from suburbia. Or so went the fantasy. Instead I moved to a downsized, though substantial, three-story townhouse, in Kanata. There I languished for a year, confirming once again that a house is not a home.
A house is not a home
The townhouse was ~1760 sq ft on three floors (still a lot smaller than my previous house of ~2600 sq ft on two floors); Carmen’s little house was a mere two-room half-double of only about 50 square meters! The townhouse had a single car garage, a small front porch and a large driveway; Carmen had a concrete pad of a front porch and no driveway at all; I had a back stoop and an envelop-sized garden with patio, picnic table, barbeque and many pots with plants, but nothing like the sweep of gardens and hedges and trees of my old house; Carmen’s back yard was a dirt plot with a lonely mango tree.
My townhouse had been freshly painted and the floors replaced when I moved in, ten months after Marlene had died; all the old furniture that I wanted to keep moved with me and the rest that would not fit or was redundant, or the memories too painful, was discarded. The bedroom suite from the 48 year marriage went to daughter Shannon, the guest bedroom set became my new bedroom; the kitchen set stayed along with the memory of when Marlene and I had found it in Renfrew many years ago. So too the dining set, way oversized for the tiny space that served as a dining room in the townhouse, but I could not part with it, a custom-made memory from 40 years ago; it was intended for Alison, one day, along with all the china and crystal. A portrait of Marlene hung on the wall beside the china cabinet. Carmen never knew Marlene of course; she studied the portrait, but never revealed what was really going on in her mind.
The living room furniture from the early days of the marriage was refurbished and reupholstered, in masculine gray and orange stripes. I bought a dramatic woven rug, gray with bright orange and coloured highlights. My book case, hifi centre and floor-standing speakers and my mother’s curio table completed this reading room, my favourite room in the house.
I had hoped Emily would make it a new home for me, and for her, but that dream evaporated, as most dreams do. A year later the house was still not my home
Now it was a case of seeing whether Carmen could bring home the magic. Or was she merely another artifact in my lifeless life.
It seems paradoxical to speak of the magic of home and suburbia in the same breath. Home is a romantic notion of comfort and security, a place uniquely your own. Suburbia conjures up images of monotonous sameness and boredom. There are many heart-grabbing quotes about home: ‘Home is where the heart is.’ ‘Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to let you in.’ ‘There’s no place like home.’
A house may be a man’s castle, but it may not be his home: ‘You can never go home again.’ ‘You go back home and everything you wished was different is still the same, and everything you wished was the same is different.’ ‘You can go home again … so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.’
Strangely there are not many pithy sayings about suburbia, or maybe that is the point.
It must have been shocking for Carmen the contrast between her congested concrete village (ambitiously named Capital Hills) in Trece Martires, Philippines and my spacious townhouse neighbourhood, Bridlewood, in Kanata. It’s a conceptual problem that is hard to process until and unless you have thoroughly experienced both environments. For Carmen, Kanata was so unlike Trece Martires, Bridlewood compared to Capitol Hills. I don’t think she thought of suburbia as a wasteland of boredom, as so many Canadian teenagers do, and maybe their parents. She was amazed at the expanse of it, blocks and blocks of spread-out spacious abodes, even the rowhouses are large, with shade trees and lawns, sidewalks with grassy boulevards.
The pleasure of a neighbourhood is neighbours – and I had yet to make much acquaintance of any of mine. Carmen’s development in Trece Martires was very close-quartered, tiny joined houses; she knew almost all of her neighbours, for blocks around, many of whom were also family, once, twice or three times removed. The knock on suburbia is the alienation and detachment of neighbours from their neighbours, loneliness in the midst of many. But in the Philippines, you could never be lonely.
A livable neighbourhood, suburban or otherwise, needed to have accessibility to the simple pleasures of life: a nearby convenience store, a pizzeria, a pub. I chose my townhouse in Bridlewood in part for that reason, a lovely little plaza with all the amenities, only a three-block walk from my house. It wasn’t the romance of Perth, but it was okay.