You come across a derelict old building – infested by wild animals and, sometimes late at night, wild teenagers.
Photo by Andrés Hannach
You have a choice: get the heck out of there, or look at the place – a massive former canning factory – and visualize what it could become. Cliff Smith chose the latter.
8 years later, the building, surrounded by nearly 4 acres of land in the village of Grafton, Ontario, is a wonder to behold.
Photo by Peter Sellar
It’s home on the weekends for Cliff and his wife, Yasmin. During the week, it’s a showroom for the Vincent Sheppard line of modern furniture Cliff distributes across Canada through his company Augustus Jones Inc.
Photo by Peter Sellar; Vincent Sheppard chairs with Daybed by B&B italia
My husband and I were invited to visit with Cliff and Yasmin after a reading from my book A Good Home in nearby Cobourg. We were grateful to rest and dine with them before heading back home.
“Go try out the various sofas and chairs till you find one you’re comfortable in,” Yasmin, an osteopath, encouraged me soon after we arrived. “Rest up a little.”
The problem was that they were all comfortable. But then I found the perfect seat: a beautiful red chair. Oh, wow! I sank into it, feet up on the matching ottoman, and didn’t want to move.
Photo by Peter Sellar: TOGO Red chair and ottoman by Ligne Rosset
Cliff Smith and I attended the same school in Mandeville, Jamaica: Manchester High School. We’d been educated by great teachers and an outstanding headmaster named Gerry German.
A world away from those days, as we sat with our spouses and another schoolmate, Paul, in Cliff’s astonishingly beautiful space, we reminisced. “Gerry”, our principal, knew the name of not just every student, but our parents as well. Gerry believed that every child had great potential, and a duty to live up to it. If we didn’t, there was a good chance he’d pay our parents a visit.
Cliff became a top-notch art director and book designer in Canada’s publishing industry. But as the industry faltered, he decided to do something different.
Photo by Gerry Taylor. Cliff talks with potential clients about the Vincent Sheppard furniture.
The old canning factory in Grafton excited him. He saw what it could be: a weekend home for his family, a large space for cultural events such as book launches, art shows and other things, and a huge, airy showroom for modern indoor and outdoor furniture.
Cliff is a visionary willing to work hard to realize his big dreams. As his former schoolmate, I am intrigued, guessing at what he’ll do next, and enormously proud of his achievements.
This photo and the next by Peter Sellar
Cliff and Yasmin’s city home was featured in the Globe and Mail newspaper in late summer and the canning factory was featured in Azure Magazine.
What a remarkable space. What an exciting selection of modern furniture. And what a distinctive home.
I know grown men who, when sick, cry out for their mothers. But my husband begs: “Please, whatever you do, don’t call Mom!”
I’m not sure what scares him more: her showing up with a bag full of foul-tasting home remedies, or the fact that the remedies always work. They do. The fouler they taste and smell, the more effective they are.
And now his cough is dragging on, keeping the whole household awake at night. I have to phone his mother.
“Boil some ginger, some garlic, some honey and some apple-cider vinegar,” Mom instructs, passing on a remedy for her son’s bad cold. She uses the no-nonsense tone I imagine her using with junior colleagues before she retired from her beloved profession, nursing.
I never wanted to be a nurse, and I don’t know the first thing about making home remedies, either.
“How much ginger and garlic?” I ask. “And what were the two other things?”
“Why don’t you get a pen and paper and I’ll tell you,” Mom suggests.
You’d think I would know this recipe by heart. I’ve heard it before. But Mom is full of recipes, most made from Jamaican, African or Middle Eastern ingredients with unspellable names, and I dread this almost as much as her son does.
“Grate some ginger.”
She thinks a moment. “About a tablespoon,” she says.
“Is that before or after it’s grated?” I ask.
Mom sighs, the sigh of one who never gets used to the fact that her intelligent, accomplished daughter-in-law is secretly an idiot.
“It’s about an inch or so of peeled ginger,” she says patiently.
It’s the “or so” that always gets me. I want exact measurements.
“About the same amount of garlic,” she continues. “Grated.”
Next, she tells me the correct amount of honey and cider vinegar needed. I read the ingredients back to her and ask: “And then what?”
“You put it in a small pot, and simmer together on low heat till they’re all mixed together nicely.”
I’m about to ask how you know when it’s “mixed together nicely,” but Mom’s read my mind already.
“You’ll know when it’s ready from the smell,” she says. “It smells very strong.… Then you wait till it cools a bit, and give him a tablespoon, and another tablespoon before bed. Let him keep taking it till it’s finished.”
I thank her, and joke: “Well, Mom – at least this time I know every ingredient in the remedy. And it’s all healthy stuff.”
She laughs, and declares, “You young people don’t know anything. Every remedy I give you is made from healthy stuff.”
I set to work immediately. Garlic, ginger, honey and cider vinegar are ingredients I always have on hand.
I watch the golden-brown liquid simmering in the pot, giving off vapours that stink up the whole kitchen. Mom’s right: It’s a very strong smell. It floats ahead of me as I enter the bedroom. My husband dives under the covers at the first whiff and pretends to be asleep.
“You have to take this,” I coax. But he doesn’t emerge from under the thick, downy comforter. He’s playing turtle. Or possum. Or something dead. But I’m not having any of it.
“I know you’re awake,” I say. “I just saw you sitting up in bed a few seconds ago.”
I bend over him, holding the tablespoon and mug of potion cradled on a saucer with upturned edges. It’s extra protection against spills. This stuff doesn’t only smell and taste awful, it looks as if it might stain anything it touches. But I’m convinced it’s good for him. Mom’s “meds” always work.
It takes long minutes for him to peep out from under the bed cover, checking to make sure the danger is past. But I’m still standing there.
“Go away!” he whispers in what sounds weirdly like both an order and pathetic begging. I stand my ground. He tries another tack. “Leave it here on the bedside and I’ll take it when I’m ready.”
He’s almost whimpering, now, but I am unmoved. All the store-bought medication has failed. It’s come to this. I have to administer the potion myself, because I don’t trust him to do it. I dip the spoon into the still-warm liquid and tell him to sit up so I can bring the spoon to his lips.
“Open your mouth,” I say. Speaking those words reminds me of the many times our children refused to take their medicine or eat Brussels sprouts.
He opens his mouth, glaring at me and the spoon the whole time. And makes the most awful grimace I’ve ever seen on a human face. “What the hell is this?” He demands. “It’s horrible!”
No argument there, I think. But this patient does not need sympathy. He just needs to tough it out and take his medicine.
Two days later, he starts to recover. The cough is less frequent, less violent, less loud.
“You’re improving!” I say, delighted. But the man has a one-track mind and it leads straight to mother.
“Don’t tell her! Don’t tell her it worked.”
“But she needs to know that it worked. She’s been so concerned.”
I start for the phone on a small table across the room. He grabs my arm, pleading.
“It’ll only encourage her,” he says. “She’ll never let me forget it. And the next medicine is going to taste 10 times worse!”
I don’t mean to laugh, but I can’t help myself. I sit on the bed, pat his leg and laugh.
“Glad someone thinks it’s funny,” he says petulantly.
I kiss him on the cheek and go to call his mother.
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.