The homesick landscape

Over the course of a particular few evenings, when I had just learned to print legibly, I sat with my parents at the dining room table in our first home, on Rathnelly Ave., as they got the annual Christmas card list together. My father and my mother went back and forth on names to be added ("we owe them one.") I think it was rare that anyone was dropped.

My mother signed cards and addressed envelopes in her tidy hand. (Dad's was the dense, and to me rather fascinating, hieroglyphic of a beat-reporter-turned-editor. He said that he'd once seen a newsman take notes on a coiled pad in the pocket of his overcoat, in a dodgy circumstance, and Dad's handwriting had that look, sans pocket.)

Addresses were simpler then. Our postal district was Toronto 7. So I wrote down, on Dad's intructions, with one of his slim black felt-tipped pens, the easy last bit of each address. Our envelopes were heading to many numbered sections of Toronto, to Elmira and Englehart and to family still farming on the prairies, and they got more complex as we prepared them for Glasgow and Edinburgh and London.

ENGLAND, I added, lost as soon as I saw the word London -- lost in the Mary Poppins stories and in Miroslav Sasek's This Is London picture book. Both had taken over wide tracts of my consciousness, Poppins for its adventures and Sasek for his clever, cosmopolitan street-scene illustrations that became more London to me than the London we had only just visited late that fall -- my first plane trip, at age five, with its small but significant accident on board, when a stewardess spilled scalding coffee over my pregnant mother's lap and there were choking sobs and urgent things being said.

Some time after Christmas, when the undeliverable London cards came back to us at their return address in Toronto, it was pointed out to me that I might have listened a little better; they were meant to go to addresses in London, Ont. 

Another London? I don't know why I didn't know.... 

All around that London, where we moved a decade later, a homesick landscape spreads: Lambeth, Lucan, Ayr and Birr. Stratford and Exeter and so on. Further on: Madoc, Munster, Lanark, Killarney, Clandeboye, Dresden, Jarvis, Durham, Aldershot, Paris, Sudbury. At one time there was a Berlin, and, of course, (Muddy) York. Eleven Ontario counties are named for Scottish places, as if they are junior somehow to a more important original place.

I asked a friend who came here from Ireland if this New World habit seemed strange to him. No, he said. When he encounters a name that mirrors an Irish place, "I think it's pleasant," he said. "Someone like me was here before me."

Early arrivals created the homesick landscape; later arrivals named businesses (the Budapest, the Annapurna, Hunan House), temples, community halls, neighbourhoods, sports fields -- and Corktowns, Koreatowns, Little Portugal, Corso Italia -- and philanthropists, developers and corporations leave their own imprints.

A terrific app called First Story has been leading me through Aboriginal place names (Mimico: "place of the passenger pigeon") and cultural nodes around Toronto ("where there are trees [wooden fishing weirs] standing in the water.")

First Story tells me that Indigenous scholars were inspired to tape over, briefly, signs identifying Queen St. with a translation: Ogimaa Mikana -- Leader's Trail. We have so many Victorias, Elizabeths, Coronations on streets, hockey rinks, highways, parks. I'd love to know differently the named places where I live. Peel away the homesick names, the traces of a civic duty in thrall to somewhere else, and show me those first names -- not the ones that soeak, however poignantly, of a longing for home, but those that speak specifically and firmly of belonging.

 

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