The comfort of the familiar

English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image...
English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image panoramique de Toronto. Italiano: Un panorama di Toronto, al tramonto. Nella skyline si nota la CN Tower, la più alta torre per telecomunicazioni del mondo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We stood on the sidewalk, gobsmacked.

We’d walked along Queen Street in the freezing cold, counting the minutes until we were seated once more at our favorite Toronto deli, Prague, a Toronto institution of schnitzel and strudel and Pilsener and potato salad.

“Closed” read the sign.

A guy stepped out.

“What happened?”

“Some new owners bought it. They changed it. It didn’t work.”


I peered into the windows, looking in vain for the charming renovation they’d done a few years earlier, for the display cases filled with ham and jam and biscuits. All gone. The only thing left was the ancient mirrored wooden icebox from the original store.

There is something deeply comforting — in a life filled with constant change — in the familiar. Since I was born in Vancouver, I’ve lived in Toronto, Montreal (twice), New Hampshire, New York, Cuernavaca, Mexico, London and Paris. Between 1982 and 1989 I changed cities four times and left my native Canada for the United States.

After a few decades, when so many friends and jobs and colleagues and husbands and wives and sweeties have come and gone, knowing you’ll always find something lovely still standing in its spot takes on new power. It might be a tree, your old school, a beloved park. It’s a marker, a milestone. a piece of your past you can return to.

When we drive north to leave Toronto we pass a white brick house on a corner, the one we lived in when I was in high school. The one with tall narrow windows my Dad punched into those walls. The one with the lilac tree outside the kitchen door. The one where I lay in bed for a month with mono. The one where I wrote my essays in my first year of university while I still lived at home.

It was the last home I shared with my Dad.

I moved to New York in June 1989, so I have plenty of memories and associations there, sights and sounds I treasure as well, from our reservoir walk to weathered, patina-ed metal scrollwork of a nearby estate.

But there is something deeper for me in returning to places I first visited as a very small child and have been enjoying since. I have plenty of history in New York but much of it has been stressful — four surgeries in a decade, a brief and miserable marriage, becoming a crime victim twice in five years. For all the fun and excitement of publishing two books and re-creating my writing career, I miss the sense of optimism and excitement I had — as most of us do — in my early 20s, before I launched myself off the rocket pad of Toronto, my hometown.

We had lunch this visit at The Coffee Mill, which opened in 1963. I love the fresh rye bread, pre-buttered, they bring to the table. Their goulash and strudel and dark black coffee, all impossibly exotic in the Toronto of the 1960s. The seats are always filled with stylish regulars; when we we there this week, a famous Canadian actor sat a few tables away.

We stopped in down the block at the jeweler my Granny used to frequent, splurging her inheritance on enormous rings whose stones weighed down her hands. Jose bought my wedding ring and earrings there, a choice he happily gave me when we were deciding where to purchase that symbolic link to my future. I still own rings I bought there in my 20s and one my mother bought for me.

English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with ...
English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with a globe on top) on King Street East, Toronto, Canada, early 1860s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll be having lunch in a few days with my first true love, a man who’s now on his second marriage, a very late-life Dad. We’ll eat at Le Select, another Toronto institution, which sits  — of course! — directly across the street from the place where, in 1984, my writing career started in earnest, the newsroom of The Globe and Mail. I used to walk up its steeply sloping driveway ramp every morning, pulling open the metal door, grabbing a fresh paper off the stack there and stepping into that day’s chaos. Every single morning, as I did so, my pulse rate soared as adrenaline kicked in and I wondered what they’d ask me to accomplish that day. An enormous satellite dish would beam my words to Saskatoon and Moose Jaw and Victoria and Halifax. Magic!

It will be odd to see P., but lovely. We were inseparable in my first year at University of Toronto. I was 18, he 23 and editor of the school newspaper where I, desperate to become a professional journalist, spent all my time when not in class. I was still living at home, he in a big old house shared with room-mates, one of whom was a ferociously serious member of the Marxist-Leninist party. We got fancy journalism jobs, married other people, got divorced, re-connected briefly in the mid-1990s, lost touch, found one another again.

University College, south side, University of ...
University College, south side, University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this visit, as we always do, we had lunch with M., a friend I’ve known since my early 20s. It’s the sort of friendship where we pick up as if we’d stopped talking a week or so ago, not the three or six months that usually pass between our visits. Her love and enthusiasm and smarts are a touchstone for me. She, more than anyone except my husband, knows my intimate history — the sad dramas within my family and the ex-es who made me knees weak and possibly still could.

Do you take comfort in the familiar?

What are some of your touchstones?

14 thoughts on “The comfort of the familiar

  1. The older I get I find those kind of friendships, like the one you have with M, are few and far between. I have two friends like that. No matter how much time has passed since we last spoke or were in the same room, it feels like only yesterday. It’s lovely to know there are people who know my history – even if I forget it myself – and I theirs, so we have a kind of shorthand between us.

  2. They are like a second/backup version of our own memories.

    We are going even further north in Ontario today to visit my friend Sally, who has known me (!) since Grade 10…we reconnected in 1995 at our high school reunion and our lives could not be more different, but the friendship thrives. Our husbands get along beautifully as well, and we are so grateful for this relationship.

    It’s so true that they remember things we forget.

  3. Yasmin

    So lovely and nostalgic and your thoughts were beautifully described! Makes me excited to be in my 20s, but a little scared of growing up too :O

  4. Yes! I had a similar disappointing experience. I went back to Chicago and wanted to wander up Clark street to my favorite coffeehouse, where I had first been independent, floundering, and broke. Where I had taken my husband on a second date. I wanted to recapture those conflicted feelings, and found that the shop had gone out of business. The old brownstone sat there empty and dark, flanked by sports bars on each side. Sigh.

    1. It’s odd that we attach so many memories to places that can, and do, disappear. But it’s a way to concretize our histories. It feels so disorienting when the place is gone! Thanks for sharing…

  5. I suppose we all take comfort in the familiar to some extent, even the ones who claim not to. Memory is a powerful thing. I’m in Mexico (La Paz) right now, soaking in the sun and a small carnaval that they have here, and I’ve been continually struck, over the last couple of days, so so much of it reminds me of Malaysia, and specifically, Malacca, where I spent many mid year holidays (have family there). This is giving me a great deal of comfort because it means I have a frame in which to approach a completely new place. Still feel like an alien, but at least I’m in the same solar system, not another quadrant of the galaxy 🙂

    1. It’s interesting how quickly we can find the familiar elsewhere…I tend to look for a good teahouse (Paris has some great ones) or bookstore. Even in the most exotic locale, we can usually find a touchstone.

      Enjoy Mexico!

  6. tm

    Hi there, I have been away from wordpress for months and have just returned today. I scrolled through new posts and clicked on your work less/slow down post. I was pleased, for some reason, that I recognized your site and had visited before. And then I was even more pleased to discover you were born in Vancouver and a Canadian. I lived in Vancouver for the last 20 years and now I live in Northern Ireland. Sometimes I fantasize about the familiarity of Vancouver, particularly Commercial Drive where I spend most of my 20s–an intersection, a restaurant, the people, the buzz. The memory of a happy time is sweet and the loyalty to “home” is fierce.

      1. tm

        Yes. I remember it. I remember the long lines and the good food. It’s in kits. Everyone hears about it and goes there.

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