Hail Suburbia – 9 Rollins Place
In early 1966 we made our first move westward (movin’ on up – to the Westside) to the borough of Etobicoke. 9 Rollins Place was in the crook of a cul de sac, a quiet street with just a few homes on it.
I was four, and my brother was five-going-on-six when we moved there. He had a tough time adjusting to the new neighborhood and the new school. Our neighborhood in Etobicoke was predominantly second-, third-, or later generation Canadians (which my family collectively called “English” people) who, unlike the Polish majority in our previous neighborhood, did not understand our language or culture.
One winter day my brother came home with a bloody forehead caused by a snowball with a rock inside it. Some bigger children in the neighborhood were mean to him because he wasn’t like them. That snowy winter afternoon in our kitchen as I watched Mom clean and bandage his forehead, was my first (but far from last) experience with bullies that served up a cocktail of feelings including fear, relief that they had not targeted me, and shame that I could be that selfish when it was my brother who was hurt and afraid.
Most of my memories of 9 Rollins Place are from that winter when I was five. I recall Dad helping my brother and me build the best snowman ever. He started out looking like a traditional snowman (three big snowballs) but Dad wanted him to look unique and real, so he sculpted legs and arms on him using a snow shovel. Nearby, we carved a fort out of a heavy snowdrift and had a great time playing in and around it.
I wasn’t much help during these construction projects, as Mom would bundle me up in so many layers that I could barely move, and would certainly need help being peeled, like an onion, out of my layers. The mittens were attached to each other by a long string that was threaded down the coat sleeves so that the mittens hung out the ends and couldn’t get lost, a brilliant invention by someone. The hat was quilted and had earflaps that tied under my chin, effectively rendering me deaf. I couldn’t take off the hat because my arms were so stiff with layers of clothes that I couldn’t reach my chin.
The house was a 3-bedroom split level. We kids each had our own room upstairs; mine was sparsely furnished with a bed and a dresser. The bed was the crib I’d slept in as a baby although I was able to climb into it unassisted. True, I was a small for a four-year-old, but it was many, many years (I mean, 40 or so) before Mom would relate to me as anything but a baby. I think it was because the year or so we lived at 9 Rollins Place was a highlight in her life and having me, a tiny child, at home to take care of was inextricably connected with those good times.
Since Mom didn’t drive (and never would learn), she could walk to the hairdresser or to the department store to buy herself dresses or shoes. We were fairly close to the Cloverdale Mall, which at that time was an outdoor plaza anchored by The Bay (an upscale Canadian department store and coincidentally the oldest merchandizer in North America). Cloverdale Mall also had a Dominion store, a Canadian (what else, eh?) supermarket chain founded in 1919 that has since been acquired by other grocery retailers. Like probably every other kid ever, I loved going to Dominion with my parents and riding around in the shopping cart. On a really good day, we’d also get to ride the coin-operated horse outside.
Mom was young then, barely 30, with curly black hair and a pretty smile. She worked hard on her appearance. I recall what seemed to be a weekly walk with her across a long bridge over the highway (I think it was the 401 as the other highways that cut through Etobicoke today hadn’t been built yet) to her hairdresser, where she would get her hair shampooed and styled. I’ll never forget her devastation one time when a hairdresser talked her into a bad perm. She immediately found a new hairdresser and never forgave the woman. Years later, when in a complaining mood, she’d talk about her beautiful hair had been butchered by that horribly incompetent woman.
Dad got a job as a cabinet maker at Kobi’s Cabinets Limited (where he would work for the next 20 years or so including pulling a lot of overtime) and was gone all day on weekdays; Mom was more than relieved to have him out of her hair and the house to herself.
We got our first TV, black and white of course, a large wooden box that sat on skinny legs and brought the world into our home with shows like Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (as it was called then), and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, among others. I’m pretty sure that’s when Mom started watching her soap operas – Days of our Lives, General Hospital, and The Doctors – which not only helped pass the solitary time until we’d come home from school, but also taught her English.
The house had wall-to-wall carpet, desirable in that era and particularly welcome in winter weather and to muffle the squawks and screeches of children. Being a fairly new structure, unlike the vintage Victorian at Macdonnel, it was easy to keep clean – or would have been if there hadn’t been two young kids in the house and occasional visits from family friends with kids our age.
One Sunday afternoon some friends of ours came over and we found ourselves bored. We sock-skated around the vinyl floor of the finished basement (one giant room that ran the length of the house, which we never furnished in the time we lived there, so it was ideal for games like hockey.) When we got bored of sock skating, we noticed an upholstered chair in the corner of the room, and realized it made a perfect go-cart. We took turns sitting in the chair and being pushed around the room at top speed, chortling and hooting all the way.
It wasn’t long before the grown-ups came downstairs to see what all the fuss was about, and caught us mid chair derby. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the chair (which had wooden feet) hadn’t scuffed up the entire white floor with black skid marks.
We were handed some Ajax powdered cleanser and wet rags and told to start scrubbing. I’m pretty sure we didn’t get more than a couple of square feet of scuffs cleaned up before giving up. I imagine that Mom spent the next few days scrubbing and mopping up that floor herself.
We hadn’t brought much furniture from our old house, although I do recall the living room being anchored by a pair of bentwood planter/shelves Dad had made in Poland. About three feet tall and perhaps four feet wide, they were made of curved, highly polished wood, each with several little round shelves that were home to houseplants and random tchotchkes.
Dad built a heavy, walnut-veneered round coffee table about 5 feet in diameter, two end tables, and matching wooden lamps, all solid pieces that lasted the rest of Dad’s life including two more house moves. I’m sure that coffee table and its sibling(s) – I think he might have made two or three of them as I recall another one at my aunt’s home – is still somewhere in a living room in the greater Toronto area to this day.
It was in the house on Rollins Place that my parents studied to become Canadian citizens, a process that required a crash course in English so that they could pass the test and recite the oath of citizenship. I remember my parents sitting in the living room with Mr. Lietdke, a family friend and our church’s organist and soloist, who had them practice the oath.
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
English and Polish are very different in many ways, including phonetically. There are sounds in the Polish language, such as the diphthongs “cz” or “sz,” (loosely pronounced “sh” and “ch” but not, because you actually pronounce the “z.” ) There is a distinct difference in vocalization of many consonants and vowels between the two languages, and no non-native Polish speaker that I’ve known has ever been able to precisely grasp some of the diphthongs. That goes both ways – my parents were never able to accurately pronounce some English verb sounds. I recall the word “observe” in the oath of citizenship being a stumbling block for my parents as they tried again and again to manage pronouncing the “e” in that word. Instead of “ehb-zurv” it would sound more like “ohb-sehrv” – a much softer sound – no matter how hard they tried to duplicate how it sounded when their tutor said it.
My dad, who was multilingual and multi-literate with a good grasp of Russian, Ukrainian, Yugoslav, Croatian, and other Eastern European languages as well as German, always said that English was ridiculously hard to learn because – unlike other languages “you don’t spell it like it sounds.” He’d get particularly frustrated with silent letters like the “gh” in “light” or the “h” in words like “honor.”
My parents did learn to recite the oath well enough to become Canadian citizens on their first try (and my Polish-born brother by proxy) in 1966. I remember being at New City Hall in downtown Toronto, either before or after they’d taken the oath. They were issued Canadian passports and fancy Certificates of Citizenship.
For many years those certificates lived in a drawer that also housed report cards, school pictures, and other paper treasures. That treasure drawer also had, buried in the back, my mother’s Polish sex education book that she’d use years later to teach me about the birds and the bees. She’d brought the book with her from Poland, so it had been published in the 50’s or maybe even the 40’s, and yet, to my surprise when she finally showed it to me when I was about 11, it was remarkably graphic and descriptive. I can only believe that the Old Country was not as prudish as our new homeland evidently was in those days.