One week ago today, the day before crew change, we tied up in Sault Ste. Marie for the night. Even though I was feeling like I’d been hit by a train, I decided at 8:30 pm that I was going to go for a walk. It was too late to go to the mall, so I thought I’d check out my old stomping grounds. My old hood wasn’t as far from downtown as I remembered it being when I was a kid.
I hadn’t walked those streets in 21 years. Nothing has changed, but it looked different. The neighbourhoods generally looked more run down; although some of the houses have had serious facelifts, others have fallen into ruin. yards were a lot more cluttered than I remembered. I think if none of the houses had been touched since the last time I was there, it would make sense why they looked so abysmal. I think the Sault has always been a run-down dump (another steel town, like Hamilton), but I didn’t see that side of it when I was 9. Everything is always so much bigger and better from the perspective of a child. Becoming an adult and revisiting these magical, lustrious places later in life is almost a bad idea because it dispels everything you knew to be true once upon a time.
The first place I landed was Holy Angels elementary school (now called Holy Angels Adult Learning Centre). I walked around to the old entrance to the yard and stepped inside and immediately saw myself playing baseball with my classmates, showing off my new blue bat and mitt that were gifted to me from a friend of my stepdad’s. I remembered standing at that same fence, staring out at the beauty queens of St. Mary’s College across the street, decked out in prom dresses with tousled and teased hair, walking past me en route to something fancy and me looking at them saying to myself, “I’m going to look like that when I’m in high school” (I didn’t).
The tree I used to play around is still standing there in the middle of the yard, like a relic of the past. It was eerie to be in that yard, next to a school that may as well be an abandoned building as far as I’m concerned. Those were the best elementary years I had, and the place felt so vacant and abandoned without the cheery presence of kids within its walls. The ridged cement wall that circles the outside of the gym is starting to disintegrate. The doors have cage wire covering the windows. It just looks… empty, and as if it’s still trying to fulfill a purpose since its reason for being built is no longer required.
But looking at the outside I could still clearly remember qualifying for the city track and field tournament in that very parking lot. I can still remember running around the snow banks, pretending to be a wild horse when I was in the 2nd grade (because I was going through a horse obsession). I remember sitting on the steps trading stickers with my friends. I also remember eating lunch on those steps, and I remember Monique and I declaring to be each other’s best friend on those steps.
After I relinquished as many memories as I could from there, I walked on to Wilcox Park. Even that doesn’t look the same. It seems smaller, and the ice shack that used to be there has since been demolished. Every winter the city used to make an outdoor ice rink (one of many around town) in that park. I used to go there every single day and I’d spend hours skating around that rink. The ice shack was just this plywood structure that had benches inside where you could put your skates on and leave your things. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the tire swing. It may have been moved closer to the middle of the park over the years, but it essentially looks the same. Casey and I were playing on it one day when a photographer for the Sault Star approached us and asked if he could take our picture for the paper. Of course we excitedly said yes, so he dictated how we were to sit and made us do a few poses. Casey was laying across the base of the tire while I sat on top of her, my hands gripping the chains, and both of us with smiles as big as the Montana sky.
Remembering that had me reflecting on Casey. I really had two childhood best friends, and Casey was one of them. Monique was the other (the two of them hated each other). I spent most of my time with Casey, as she just lived a few blocks away from me. I could probably fill a book with all the memories I have of her – the great, the good and the downright terrible. Just after this photo was taken, Casey and her family moved to the other side of town and she switched schools. It was at that point that her family went public about Casey’s HIV positive status. She got infected from a tainted blood transfusion when she was a baby. She made the papers again, but this was probably the last time it was for anything non-AIDS related. This is one of the last remaining remnants of her normal childhood, so I treasure it with all my heart.
The last time I saw her was in 1994, about a year after my mom and I moved to Michigan. I had begged my mom to let me see her. I think we talked on the phone once or twice, until finally our families coordinated to let us have an entire day together, and it was like nothing had changed. We played Nintendo, rode our bikes all over town, gossiped… and then it was time to go. I spent years looking for her, from the time I was about 14 (when we first got internet) until I stumbled across her obituary in 2007. Casey died in 2004 from AIDS-related illness. The photo of us on the tire swing is how I choose to remember her.
So after I spent a while thinking about all of that, I wandered over to her old house. She lived at the bottom of the hill behind St. Basil’s High School. The apple tree that was across the street from her house is still there. Everything looks the same, except the satellite dishes are a lot smaller now than they were in 1992. There’s also a road going up the hill to the high school, where there used to be a set of stairs. It was nearing dark at this point, so I decided I’d make my way over to St. George’s Avenue to check out my old home(s) before it got too late. I walked past the house that used to be the convenience store on the other side of our block… past the house where the two Jehovah’s Witness boys lived, whose mother never let us play together (but we still did, in secret)… past the dirt alleyway that split our block in half and connected all our backyards.
I had a hard time finding the one house we lived in, because I remembered the yard being much bigger. I didn’t recognize it, and I wondered if the street had been widened some time in the last 20 years. But, it was hard to miss the original house on St. George Ave. that I grew up in, as it’s the first house on the south side of the street beside a building that’s now some kind of novelty shop, on the corner of St. George and North Street. When I was growing up it was a church of some kind. Then it became a banquet hall, and now it’s some kind of shop. And the house is totally different. New siding has been put on it, although the deck we built is still there. I peeked in the window as I was walking past and the interior still looks mostly the same (layout-wise), except I think they split the living room/dining room into two rooms.
Don’t you ever just want to knock on the door and say, “Hi, sorry to bother you, but this was my childhood home and I was wondering if I could come in and look at it”?
After that I walked up to get a Timmie’s. I was going to wander down North Street and over to another neighbourhood I lived in on Parliament Street, but it was getting late and I had to get back to the ship to finish packing. Next time I’m in town I’m definitely going to check out other areas I lived, like the Terry Fox apartment buildings. It’s amazing how many memories come flooding back that you had long forgotten about.
I will always love the Sault. If nothing else, it gave me a childhood I was lucky to have and carry with me always.