Visiting Use-ta-ville

By Caitlin Kelly

Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.

“It used to be…”

We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.

One of the most-loved indie bookstores in Manhattan, Posman Books, is closing its Grand Central location on New Year’s Eve — to make room for (what else?) some costly new building. So annoying!

It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.

I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC
Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.

It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.

We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.

Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.

I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!

Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.

One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.

Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.

Soul?

Fuhgeddaboudit!

One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”

All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.

Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

What do you remember of your childhood home(s)?

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood ho...
English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood house at Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark in 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer, a columnist for the weekend Financial Times, Harry Eyres, is one of my favorite writers. He recently wrote a poignant piece about emptying his childhood home and finally leaving it for the last time:

Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it.

Leaving a
house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from
your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers,
autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking
staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of
your being, is harder still…

We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day,
which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke
through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the
house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal
connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it
so.

The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our
departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of
furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to
a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump
before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.

We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny
picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low
wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any
chairs.

I’ve only lived in a few houses with my parents, at least those I can recall.

There was one in London, when I was very small, then one in Toronto, a big brick house with a deep backyard and my bedroom at the very top, where I lay in bed and listened to the radio. I knew my mother was climbing the stairs when I heard her ankles popping. There were brilliant yellow forsythia bushes outside the kitchen window I used to call “for cynthia” — my mother’s name.

When my parents split up, and I was about seven, that was the end of that house. I miss it still.

I didn’t live in another house until eleventh grade, when I moved in with my father into a white brick house on a Toronto corner. There was a lilac tree just outside the kitchen door and a huge park behind our yard where our dog would get out and run in circles really fast, usually whenever I was having a party and it was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

Since then, after leaving that house when I was in university, I’ve never owned one nor have my parents stayed very long in any of theirs, usually only for a few years, scooping up a healthy profit, and moving into yet another. I watch the houses come and go, envious they’ve even owned a house, let alone several. I wonder if I ever will.

My father had a 200+ year-old house in Athenry, just outside Galway City, for a few years, that’s now a nursing home. I loved my few brief visits there, scything the lawn and staring out through its ancient, rippled glass panes.

When I return to visit Toronto, I often drive past that white brick house. It doesn’t look much different, even all these years later.

Jose’s childhood home was torn down and is now the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only remainder of his life there is a tiny courtyard and the apricot tree from whose fruit his late mother once made jam.

Do you remember your childhood home?

Is it still there?

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?

Mexico APTNice Wall Street Journal piece ran this weekend about re-visiting your childhood home(s).

It’s a poignant thing, often clouded with nostalgia. For some, it’s simply impossible.

My sweetie, who grew up in Santa Fe, was a Baptist minister’s son. His Dad’s church and their adjacent home were both torn down to make way for the city’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum, opened in 1997. He has often reminisced about riding his bike alone as a little boy through Santa Fe’s streets, so I was eager to see where he grew up. But it’s gone.

When we visited the museum, he stood at the north end of one room there: “This used to be my bedroom,” he said. How odd that hundreds of people, possibly thousands by now, have stood  — having no idea that this space once housed a family and a congregation — where he once slept in his little boy pajamas and dreamed his young dreams.

Only the apricot tree, the one his mom made jam from, still stands in the museum’s tiny courtyard. His parents are long-dead, so the memories of that home now reside in his head and those of his two older sisters.

The old three-story brownstone apartment building at 3432 Peel Street in Montreal where I lived with my mom — where I came home night, alone, at the age of 12 to find that we had been robbed — is long-gone. The white brick house in Toronto, on a busy corner where I lived while in high school, is still there. I wave to it each time I go north.

I went back, in May 2005, to the apartment building in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, where my mom and I lived when I was 14.  I used to walk up a short, steep hill to my school, where I spent too much of my day staring out the windows at two distant volcanos, one per tall, narrow window.

In that building, my bedroom window looked directly into a next-door field full of cows. Surely, by 2005, it had changed. Surely, by then there was some flashy high-rise or a new house or…

Nope, still a field full of cows. The photo with this post shows our Cuernavaca building; we lived on the third floor.

What a soothing pleasure that was to find a spot from my childhood so unchanged. The nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton, was of course still there — and now three pottery candle-holders from a store on that street sit on my terrace wall every summer, a tangible reminder of one former home now gracing my current one.

Have you gone back in search of a childhood home? What did you find?