How loose can the connections be that permit a social network to be called a network? Let me suggest a kindergarten reunion as the limit case.
Out of the blue a few months ago I received a phone call. John Baglow? Did you attend kindergarten in Richmond Hill in 1952? Why, yes. Would you like to attend a reunion of the Class of ‘52? You bet! But ask me why I so readily agreed and I’d have a very hard time explaining.
Why would the organizer, Bob Blanchard (in my class, by the way), dream up such a thing? Well, he gets together every year with a few friends from grade-school days—they call themselves the McConaghy Old Boys, the later name of the Richmond Hill Public School we attended. This year, when we’re all turning 70 or have already done so, he suggested a birthday party. But who would come? He proceeded to track down most of the Class of ‘52, both the morning and afternoon classes, and he included some grade eights too from McConaghy and from other schools that had opened later to accommodate the growing town population.
I arrived in Richmond Hill early, and so decided to test my memory by walking to my old house. I didn’t put a foot wrong. I passed the high school, now refurbished, and there it stood. Part of the woods I remembered still remained across the street. I was surprised at how long the walk from my old school was, the walk that I did every day when I was 4 and then 5.
The sun was unrelenting, and the humidity enveloped me like fog. I was suddenly tired, carrying a bag and wearing a seasonally unsuitable jacket. I took a picture or two, forgetting momentarily in the haze how to use my cellphone camera. A welter of memories, like a waking dream. The Ozarks hillbilly house next door (more below) had been replaced by a repellant, massive brick structure that might have seemed modern once. I had remembered stairs at the side of my childhood home, but I could have been mistaken. The inside of this WWII veteran’s house, judging from a realtor’s virtual tour, appears to have been transformed.
I walked back to Yonge Street, turned up a mild slope I had remembered as a hill, and quickly entered a roomful of strangers. I’m shy in these situations, and find it hard to break the ice. But I was greeted by Bob Blanchard, and by Dave Barrow, the mayor of Richmond Hill, in mufti. The attendees, some 140 of us all told, found ourselves in a single space, the very gymnasium where my kindergarten was held in what was once the only school in town, and now, perhaps appropriately, was a seniors’ residence. A table-mate and I reminisced about the afternoon naps. The girls got nice soft, fluffy mats to lie on, the boys, thin green ones. A teacher had torn one of the former from my grasp. “That’s how I first realized that girls were different,” I said. And it was true.
Talking to others at the gathering, we recalled trick-or-treating everywhere, no anxious parents on sidewalks. There were few family cars at the time. The ice-man came two or three times a week. In the winter, the coal man emptied his wares down a chute into the basement, filling it with clouds of dust.
And the Guppys. Everyone I spoke to knew of them, but we lived right next door to them. Rusting cars in the yard. The father ran a blind pig, which accounted for the cars lined up on the streets on weekends. And Freddy. He picked on me, but I was assured he picked on everyone. He was a year earlier at kindergarten, and never made it to Grade 8. What, no truancy enforcement? Easier, one attendee said, to give that family a miss.
Mr. Guppy would bring in a load of topsoil every Spring, toss it in a pile, throw some seeds at it, and in the Fall, to everyone’s chagrin, he’d harvest the best veggies for miles around. Freddy, I was told, later became a garbageman—and was good at it, apparently, working both sides of the street on one pass-through.
Reminiscences. A network of time instead of space. What else would bind us? Some wore photos of themselves around their necks. I said that the only photo of me from back then was on a horse. “We all have those,” several exclaimed. A photographer at the time would take his horse around from house to house, and took photos of little Richmond Hill kids astride it.
“Look at the people here,” a man at our table said. “No multiculturalism back then.” And it was indeed a pale crowd, with a couple of Inuit*, one of whom came to our table and twice let us know she’d been adopted. “One Black family moved in to Richmond Hill,” said my former classmate. “The kid played amazing baseball. There was never any problem (with racism).”
I had wanted to apologize to the little girl whom I had teased to tears nearly sixty-five years ago. But I learned that she’d passed away five years earlier. She had rested at a funeral home a block or so from where we were. There would be no closure after all.
There were two Lindas in my kindergarten class. I knew the Linda I remembered had lived on Benson, around the corner from me, and one Linda did, but she had no memory of me. People ribbed me a bit when I talked about “playing house,” but that consisted of throwing a blanket over a couple of chairs and my mother bringing us puffed rice in bowls for a snack. I recalled suddenly that we had laughed about rhymes once.
The invitation to gather allowed us to add colour and definition to our fading memories, but it was a trap, in a way. Our lives were now caught between two bookends, the first few years of life and the last few. Everything in between had become hazy, compressed, foreshortened.
At times like this we realize how quickly our lives do run, and how what stands out is arbitrary, circumstantial, possibly meaningless. The narrative disappears, or is at least cast into shadow, as we re-live the very beginnings of our memories.
Why did we do this, why did we agree to it? No one there could put it into words that ran very deep. Perhaps we didn’t have to. It was something we wanted to do—something that fetched me from Ottawa, another from North Bay, still another from Winnipeg.
There was the attractive oddness of it, of course, but also a call, speaking to some kind of need. And so we gathered, in the background a pervasive melancholy: a time when we realize at last that we are old, resting on a high storey of a narrow tower of years, staring from the window at the ground so far below.
*I was later informed by Bob Blanchard that they were none other than John and Rosemary Mowat, adopted by Farley Mowat’s parents on his urging after he made a trip to the Northwest Territories to research a novel.