Me and Nonna in her house on Cavel Street, Hamilton
In the summer of 2011, I was preparing to leave Canada forever. My family warned me that I was being dramatic, reminding me that I only had a one year student visa for Australia, but somehow I was convinced that I would never return. Every part of me felt as though I was leaving for good, and maybe I was right. One year has nearly turned into two, with still no plans to come home. But before I left for this great adventure, I had to embark on another one- one that would take me through the roots of my childhood to the depths of my memories as a lonely Hamilton student- one last time.
The task before me seemed small. I had to visit a special visitors doctor on King Street to complete a chest x-ray as a requirement for my visa. Both my father and sister were unable to accompany me on that day, which made me extremely irritated. I didn’t have much experience driving from St. Catharines to Hamilton, and I was notorious for getting lost on the road. Worst of all, I had to start work at noon, which only gave me a few hours to get the job done. I wrote out directions from Google maps and set on my way, relying mainly on my memories of this forgotten city.
For the first 17 years of my life, my family drove to Hamilton every weekend to visit my mother’s parents. It was the one time that we could all count on being together; my two brothers, sister, parents and I. Back then, none of us kids paid attention to the road. Although we must have driven it a million times, none of us could tell you how to get to Nonna’s house off by heart. We were too busy looking out of the windows, daydreaming or asking a parent’s most dreaded question, “Are we there yet?”
The first thing that always caught our eye was a large dump yard. I asked my sister what the little hills were one day and she said that they were baby mountains, due to erupt any time now from volcanoes. I knew very little about mountains in those days, and even less about dump yards, so naturally, I believed her. Every time we drove past it from that day on, I would bury my head in my hands and beg my father to speed up. No one ever corrected my sister, rather they waited for me to simply grow out of my naivety, which is something I’m still working on.
Then there was Stelco Steel. As we drove past, my mother would say, “Oh, here’s where my dad worked after the war! He sure doesn’t get a very big pension considering all the dangerous work he did there!” And as she complained for the next fifteen minutes, my brothers would hound my dad about the smoke that clouded the sky, asking if that’s what China looked like.
As I drove past Stelco Steel on that lonely summer morning by myself, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of loss. It suddenly dawned on me that I was alone in the car, driving the path that my father took us down so many times during my childhood. I missed my mother’s voice, my sister’s nagging, my brothers’ screaming, my father’s sarcasm. I even missed wondering if this was the day that those baby mountains would finally erupt. As I approached the exit to my Nonna’s house, I was incredibly tempted to take it and call this whole trip off. I wanted to be somewhere familiar, somewhere that I could reconnect with. But it was too late, I had driven right past it as I daydreamed. Something in my subconscious was pushing me forward into the unknown.
The city was not like I had remembered. I spent my first year of university at McMaster, where I lived in a claustrophobic dorm shared by three very different girls. I avoided socializing at all costs and went to great pains just to be alone. I spent most of the year in various libraries on campus, almost exclusively in silent study rooms. I was madly in love with the university, infatuated at first glance. To this day it remains the most beautiful institution I’ve ever stepped foot in, and for the life of me, I can’t recall why I transferred schools in my second year. If I could take it all back, I would do exactly that; I’d go back. These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind as I drove past highway signs for McMaster, wondering why I was about to move across the world to attend a new school, and doubting that I would love it nearly as much.
I had followed the Google map instructions to a tee, but somehow, I hit a dead end. I got out of my car to look for help, but the area appeared desolate. I followed the breeze I felt in the distance, and it led me to a quaint little harbor with picturesque sailboats on perfect blue water. The sight had me stunned. I had never seen water so crisp and clear in Ontario before, and I never would have imagined to stumble upon it here, in the Steel City. I stood there for a while, watching small ripples hit the edge of the boats and fishermen with their Tim Horton’s coffee waiting to set sail. I didn’t look for street names or a sign for the harbor. I decided that I didn’t want people to know about this place. When I spoke of it later, I would tell them that it was just a beautiful little harbor I discovered by chance, and I’m sorry but I couldn’t tell you how to get there. It is still my little secret.
I drove out of the harbor and into a Tim Horton’s drive-thru. Seeing that man with his coffee made me aware of how caffeine deprived I was that morning. I ordered my usual large coffee with two milk and two sweeteners, plus one plain timbit, before asking the friendly lady for directions to the clinic. Whether or not she gave me correct directions remains a mystery to this day, for I got lost almost instantly, but then I always had a knack for that sort of thing.
I ended up on the mountain, and I wasn’t completely disappointed to be off track this time. I couldn’t recognize anything, not the Wal-Mart or the Shoppers Drug Mart, or the little plaza with a foreign grocer that sold Dutch biscuits and chicken flavored Lays chips… But I ventured through these places anyway, thrilled to discover something new. I even decided to get my passport photos taken in the plaza that I had found. I figured that whenever I looked at my passport, I would remember this strange place on the top of the mountain that I had came across in a wander lusting state on a very frustrating, otherwise tedious, day. And I was right- I look at my passport often just to remember this very scene.
I drove in circles for a while, searching for a way back down the mountain. I remembered enough to know that I was not in the same area as the Limeridge mall, but I desperately wished that I had been. As a student, I would sometimes watch the busses arrive on campus on my way to class, and I would get the most impulsive urge to skip my lecture and go for a ride. I rarely ignored such urges, and more often than not, I wound up at the Limeridge mall. It was a great escape for me. It felt rebellious and liberating at the same time. I think most of the mall’s appeal, for me, came from the fact that it was a forbidden childhood destination. My Hamilton cousins used to brag to my sister and I about how big and great the Limeridge mall was, and we would beg our parents to take us there every weekend. They always said the same thing, “It’s just another mall. It’s too far away. We don’t know how to get there.” We had to wait until Elisa got her license to finally visit the mall. I was 13 when we made our first trip there, and on the way home we got so terribly lost that we swore never to return again. My mother was furious when we got home, almost 12 hours later.
“I told you not to go there! Driving up the mountain is dangerous! If you want to go shopping in Hamilton, just go to the Center Mall! It’s just around the corner from Nonna’s, and your Aunt Julie works there at Zellers. You can have lunch together!”
We promised my mother that we would never drive to the Limeridge mall again, and I don’t believe that my sister has gone back since. But me, I could never stay away.
At last, I found signs indicating an exit from the mountain and onto King Street. Of course from there, I would still have to find the clinic and that would be the hardest part, since the streets were all short and intertwined, and I had no experience driving downtown. I looked at my watch, and I could still make it to work on time if I started down the mountain now and hurried into the clinic. I drove towards the signs, etching closer to the exit, and before I knew it, I was turning my car around in an illegal u-turn. I pulled over to the side of the road and called my boss.
“Jules, everything ok?” she answered.
“Rita, I won’t be making it into work today. I’m extremely lost on the mountain.”
I went to another Tim Horton’s Drive Thru, ordered another coffee, and asked the lady how to get to the Limeridge mall. And in the back of my head, I heard my mother warning me not to go. I saw my sister in tears, driving in circles around the mountain. I heard the bells ring for class, and the screeching breaks of a city bus halting in front of me.
I stepped on the gas and silently promised my late mother, that this would be the last time.