Friends of the Richelieu. A river. A passion.

"Tout cedit pays est fort uny, remply de forests, vignes & noyers. Aucuns Chrestiens n'estoient encores parvenus jusques en cedit lieu, que nous, qui eusmes assez de peine à monter le riviere à la rame. " Samuel de Champlain

"All this region is very level and full of forests, vines and butternut trees. No Christian has ever visited this land and we had all the misery of the world trying to paddle the river upstream." Samuel de Champlain

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Living ahead of our time

Areal photo of my parent's home(3d from the right) and mine(1st on the left) in 1976.

I'm still trying to figure out if I was born to parents who were considered different from most folks, or if I was simply born in a small backward community where people did not go out much.

My father was working for a Montreal company, and my mom was a stay at home mom, and they decided to buy this summer cottage at the end of the street that followed the Richelieu River. There were very few cross streets to our street, and the cottage is about a mile from everything: church, schools, the bank, the pharmacy, the dépanneur, grocery store, bus stop, you name it. At the time, and this is at the end of the '40s, there was mostly only one row of houses on that street, opposite to the riverbank, and there were empty lots in between them too! The empty lots, and the lots behind the houses, were farmland or woodlots. This was at the edge of town, and in the next town, the same street kept on going, but with mostly summer cottages on it. So when I was a kid, in the 50s and 60s, there were not a lot of children to play with near where I lived.

So mostly, my parents' families thought that they had moved out in the boonies. By the time I was born, their summer cottage was now an insulated four-season home, and my father had done most of it. And he kept on working on it while I was growing up. When I was a baby, my mother would wrap me up in the baby carriage, and leave me out on the front porch for the afternoon nap. Even in winter. That was frowned upon by the few neighbors we had at the time. And I still nap sometimes outside on the front porch, in the sun, when the wind is coming from the back. The roar of the river is the perfect background to fall asleep. I still wonder what people think of me when they see me lying there, outside.

In fact, come to think of it, we very rarely saw the neighbors outside, except when they mowed their lawn, of course. But my parents and I, well, we are outdoors people. All year long. We do the chores, and once we are done, we find a place to sit down in the sun and read. Even now, (I still live in the same neighborhood), I rarely see my neighbors outside, except to mow the lawn. I even have a neighbor who maintains an outdoor swimming pool, but some years, like this year, I never see them enjoy it. Not even to sit by the pool and dip the toes. Although now that I think of it, there is ONE neighbor that spends more time outside than I do: he's a gentleman farmer that bought the local estate (in the middle of the above photograph).

When I was about 6, my father built what he called a solarium on the front of the house. It made sense: it has a south-west orientation, and it's the perfect look-out to gaze at the river. But most people though he was crazy building a glass room outside? At school, for years (during the 60s), my classmates had no idea what I was talking about and had never even heard of the word "solarium"! (I'm not sure the municipal zoning by-laws would let us build it these days)
My mother and I in the solarium.

Also, because we often when down to the river to have a swim, and the water was getting less and less clean, at some point my father built an outdoor shower near the backdoor. It was nestled in a U in the back of the house, and after coming up from a swim, we would, each our turn, go in that corner, strip the swimming trunks off, take a shower, wrap ourselves in our towel and go inside. Well! Of course that caused a scandal with the neighbor, who had to make quite an effort to see us do it. Up to that point, I had not realized that not everyone was comfortable with family nudity.

And once, when I was about 12, some classmates came to see me at home, and giggled when they saw the clothesline. I had to ask them what they thought was so funny: I could not figure it out. It was my father's underwear: it was colored! There was navy blue, red, green, besides the regular white. They had never seen anything like it! I could not believe it.

Like I said, we lived (and I still do) a bit far from everything. But back in the 50s and 60s, and even the 70s, my mother and I were the only ones to walk. It was so bad that we were often offered a lift, because people figured we had probably broken down and were in trouble. Now, on my street, during daylight hours, there are all kinds of people walking, strolling, just for the exercise or enjoy the view. But not in those days! I used to walk if I had a destination or a reason to do so. But my mother would walk every day, sometimes many times a day. And because of that too, we were considered different.

In the 50s and 60s, my father had a subscription to the Montreal Star. The population of our town did not justify home delivery of newspapers at the time, so the papers were delivered to the local family restaurant. They would spread the papers on the table of a booth, and those that had a subscription were given a number, and so could find their own newspaper with the proper number written on it fanned out on the table when they picked it up during the day. Which is what my father did when he came back from work on weekdays. But it was my job to walk or cycle to go and pick up the newspaper on Saturdays. My friends thought that pretty weird. Because, you see, there was no question of firing up the car just to get the paper. Even then, we kept our outings by car to the minimum. And that was a foreign concept to most people I knew at the time. And it still is.

And of course, there was my Mom's veggie patch. She always grew her strawberries and veggies, and she always composted kitchen scraps too. I'm talking about the 50's here! Composting is barely catching up in the rest of the community here! I myself have 3 compost bins. I wonder what I will put in it when we will finally have a brown recycling bin in my town.
My mother in her garden before I was born.

By the mid 70's, I was shopping for my own home. When an agent would make us visit a house, I would bring a compass: window openings on the sunny side were a must for my new home. Again, it was considered a bit strange to insist on that at the time. Today, with home heating costs, people are just barely catching up and determine if a house is worth buying because of the sun exposure!

And when I did finally find the perfect place back in 1979, one of the first things I did was change the windows that yes, were facing mostly south. The roof, also, needed to be done, and instead of buying the usual asphalt shingles, I chose a yellow colored ribbed steel roof for durability. A pale color to keep the heat down too. Again, environmentally savvy home builders are barely catching up and recommending pale roofs to avoid urban heat islands! But my choice was considered strange at the time for a family home: only industrial sheds had yellow roofs, I was told.

One of the craziest things that put me apart from my neighbors is this: every Fall, I see my neighbors start up their riding lawn mower and go through their property to bag all the leaves. Those bags end up by the road that a big diesel truck picks up to deliver them somewhere where I'm told they are being composted. Then, each Spring, I see my neighbors fire up their four-wheel drive and go to a hardware store where they buy bags and bags of compost that they bring home and spread on their property, throwing away all those plastic bags in the trash. I, on the other hand, simply take a rake and sweep those leaves around my trees, under my hedges, sprinkle them on top of my flower beds and veggie patch, and presto! Next Spring, I have nice composted leaves and rich soil to start the new growing season. No fossil fuels involved at all!

My parents are gone now. But I guess I will continue to march to the sound of my own drum, not waiting for the rest of them to catch up with me. I still don't care what they think.

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