My first home, the haven of my childhood, still lives in my heart.
Even today I can see, smell, almost touch our house, bright and lovely in the hot afternoon sun. It is small – only one storey, painted pink, with a tin roof and a verandah. A wide stream runs beside it.
And I still hear it, loud with loving mother, father, sisters, brother, relatives, friends and passing strangers.
Home and family. Inseparable.
When I was 7, we were uprooted. Our family, minus our father, moved a few miles up the road to my grandmother’s house. It was the beginning of life without men – almost all the men in our immediate family left for jobs in England.
Suddenly, we were living in a village, with more houses, more people, more religion, more rules. I consoled myself by daydreaming that some time we would again be the same family living in the same little pink house with the stream. I imagined it missing us, waiting for our return.
Yet the years that followed were also times of love, learning and discovery. A kind of growing into the self I was going to be.
At the end of my teen years, I said goodbye to my family, home and Jamaica itself and boarded a plane for Canada.
I studied, got a degree, got a great job in television news. Became a Canadian citizen, married a funny and loving man. We had children, bought our first house together, raised strong kids, built award-winning careers.
I rarely went home to Jamaica. But the small pink house with its wide stream had found a new place – inside my heart. There it sat throughout the years, a secret image I alone could see, influencing the houses that attracted me, the ones we rented or bought, and the way I wanted my own children to feel.
Our children are now adults with their own homes. My husband and I still live in an old farmhouse on the edge of Toronto. Built by Scottish immigrants, it’s about as old as Canada. It is as different from the small pink house as you can imagine, but this house has its charms. It also is the stuff of daydreams and memories.
With welcoming verandahs, soaring mullioned windows and thick, thick walls, it’s a house designed to let in sunshine while protecting those inside from the biting winds of winter.
On our first visit, my husband climbed the wide maple staircase and disappeared into the house’s nooks and crannies. When he finally emerged, he said he’d felt “embraced” by the house the moment he walked in. Then he beamed a smile of such joy, my heart lurched inside me.
There and then, I knew it: We were goners, captivated by an old house with a mysterious magnetism.
Just days before we moved into the old farmhouse, I was injured in a car accident. “Poof” went my daydreams as I became a prisoner inside the house. Days became months, then years, of pain. I barely wanted to live. This last thing I told the house, afraid to tell anyone else.
The house had other ideas. One by one and two by two, it started to summon its children home. On some of my most wretched days, strangers began to show up, unannounced, their faces wreathed in friendly smiles. Years later they still come, these children of the house.
They knock at our front door tentatively, afraid that we will turn them away, or perhaps that we will let them in. After all, if everything inside has changed, will their precious memories be ruined?
When we open the door, they stand like deer caught in the headlights, not quite knowing what to say.
“This is my house!” one man finally blurts, then apologizes for what he thinks is a rude beginning. Laughing, we welcome him inside.
When they are here, they are children again, and this is still their home.
Through their eyes, I see children sliding down the banister of the wide maple staircase, yelling with glee; children helping their parents on the farm; children dressing up for a party. I see future Olympic equestrians riding their horses around the grounds, jumping over the forbidden ditch the adults have warned them about.
Sometimes, the memories are so vivid I feel I’ve flown into the past and am laughing along with the children, applauding the feats of the teenagers and their horses.
From another visitor, a different story unfolds. A child tries to hide from an abusive adult. Unable to shield the child, I sit helplessly at our kitchen table and cry with the now-adult sitting beside me.
The crying over, a silence follows. The visitor looks around the room and, glimpsing a happy memory, smiles. Walking slowly from room to room, touching the walls, talking quietly to the house, the visitor pauses as if to listen, and seems strengthened.
Except in memories, my small pink house in Jamaica is gone, bulldozed, replaced by a new building. It seems to us that by loving the old farmhouse, by taking good care of it, we are protecting not just a small piece of Canada’s heritage, but also the site of future memories and daydreams. We have no say in whether the memories will be good or bad, or both; we can only take care of the house and welcome its children home for as long as we are privileged to live here.
Cynthia Reyes lives near Toronto.