By Kalen Marquis
Dedicated with love and gratitude to Patricia and her dear parents—two loving friends who passed away one short month apart.
The cardboard signs were up. The advertisement had been in the morning paper. Family, friends, neighbours, and small handfuls of strangers began making their way to 5326 Chambers.
The Saturday morning sun had risen on yet another beautiful spring day in the peaceful, established East Vancouver neighbourhood. But this day, however common, was different. With its grey and blue cloud-mottled sky, marked both a beginning and an end. Steve and Jessie, as younger relations joked, were ‘going condo.’
The elderly couple had bought a modern two-bedroom condominium apartment downtown. It was approximately thirty steps from the church and community centre which were like their second home. It was also just blocks from City Square. There on the corner of Cambie and 12th Street, just across from city hall, was a bright, modern shopping mall where they could do all their shopping. With a grocery store, book store, several clothing stores, a hairstylist, restaurant, gift shops, and even a big fitness club, it had everything Steve and Jessie might want.
After the better part of a lifetime in one home, it was going to be a momentous change for the retired couple and everyone teased them to help ease their worry and doubt. Someone had suggested that Steve and Jessie could go for their morning workout at the fitness club and make a quick stop at the hairstylist before nipping across the street for lunch with the mayor.
Jessie could bring some of her famous homemade Ukrainian perogies with sour cream and onions. Steve could just bring his regular good humour and warm smile as he had always been known to do. Having worked for the city of Vancouver until retirement, Steve had plenty of stories he could tell and one or two that the mayor might be surprised to hear. All the mayor needed to provide was his appetite, the silverware, and a good ear. They mayor, everyone knew, could not ask for a better deal.
Steve and Jessie’s home of thirty-eight years, bought when the twins were just two, had been sold as quickly as it had gone on the market. No one really cred to think about its future. No one knew how long it might be lived in as Jessie, Steve, and the twins had . . . or even how long before their house, with memories tucked in every corner, might be bulldozed for development.
Their two-storey home, with its hand-thrown stucco, was already dwarfed by more expansive modern homes on both sides. It would soon be like some of the other homes on the block—just another old house that time had passed by.
Jessie and Steve were packing up and they were taking all their most precious memories with them. These memories, carried as they were in their minds and hearts, would be carefully wrapped in soft, protective layers of nostalgia and tied securely with shiny purple and silver heart strings.
But these memories would all be tied to people, not place. Jessie and Steve knew that the events and people in their lives would always take them back to their home, but their home would not take them back to the events and people. This house of almost forty years would no longer be their home.
Steve and Jessie’s grown children, the twins, had been content to return home to visit their parents anytime they wished. Now in their early forties and old enough to be parents themselves, they no longer flung open the front door as they had all the years of their youth. . . but they could have. . . and on occasion, Steve, with a faraway look and rebellious gleam in his eye, still imagined that they did.
The front door, and all it opened into, had been sold. The house, if it still existed, would be someone else’s home. Years from now they might drive by and stop the car a bit further up the block before getting out to saunter casually by. They might even get up the nerve to knock one day. They would need to explain who they were and why they were there. . . but they probably wouldn’t do that. Most people don’t.
“Time moves on. Things change,” Jessie had said with an accepting sigh on the night they had signed the real estate papers. “Hmmm. . . they sure do,” agreed Steve with a brave smile as he stole glances at the hockey game on the television in the front room, thinking back to all the Canucks games at the Pacific Coliseum before the loud music and jostling crowds made them too nerve-wracking to attend.
It was not just the house, a two-storey home with a finished basement, that meant so much. There was the neighbourhood school where the twins had started their education, the park they played ball and went for picnics, and the highlight, of course. . .
The back yard. The backyard was fairly large by city standards with a small plot of grass, a vegetable garden, a tool shed, and a garage which opened onto the back alley. The garage, stuffed to the rafters with wood, metal, and tools, had long since served as Steve’s workshop but it was only one small part of the backyard which brought back many fond memories.
It was there that the twins had rolled big balls of snow, gazed at the stars, sought gold at the end of rainbows, drank lemonade, and blew soapy bubbles that danced in the air. It was also where they had picked fresh vegetables, fixed one flat bike tire after another, and, under protest, mowed the lawn and weeded the garden under Jessie’s watchful eye in the upstairs window. But those days were long gone. They had been left behind.
With less than five weeks before the new owners arrived, anything that was not to be taken with the and could not be passed on had to be sold. All the antiques, valuables, and other family heirlooms had already been set aside or passed along to close family and friends. Today was a day to part with almost four decades worth of unwanted furniture, appliances, dishes, pots, pans, tools, sporting equipment, books, puzzles, toys, and more. All would be gone, sold to the most reasonable bidder.
Today, “between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.’ the ad had said, was Steve and Jessie’s “Moving Sale.”
Jessie, a beautiful older woman with a full head of silvery white hair, was upstairs directing people around back. She kept the coffee flowing for the family and friends who came to help. She watched out the window as strangers came and went, carrying off books, toys, tools, pots, pans, shelves, desks, and various forgotten treasures from through the years. She cooked a fine hamburger lunch with every imaginable fixing and chatted with her daughter from the upstairs bedroom window as the first shift of helpers munched on home-made burgers, salmon quiche, veggies, and dip. She was quiet, reserved, friendly. . . her courageous smile and moist eyes masking any of the deep emotion she must have experienced on that day.
Steve, a handsome older man with grey hair, dark glasses, and a youthful smile, made his way back and forth between the sun porch and the garage. He was content to smile and laugh, but his family began to give him ahard time. He was not really cut out for the moving sale business. As a kind and generous man in the awkward position of selling the workshop of tools and other treasures he had spent a lifetime gathering, he was content to all but give everything away. Steve, they knew, had never been in anything ‘just for the money.’
Steve watched for short periods of time as a helper, a friend he had just met that day, bartered back and forth with a customer over the price of tools. . . a tin of assorted nuts and bolts. . . some other metal ‘doo-dads’ and an iron ‘thingamajig’ that only a handy person like Steve would know what to do with.
“So, this is what it has come to?” Steve mused. Had he spent a lifetime working, building, and collecting the things he needed to make his family’s life comfortable so that these two strangers could barter over their value under and constantly shifting sky? It could not be easy. Behind that youthful smile, seasoned yet strong, had to lie some reluctance, some hurt. “Go away. Leave my stuff alone. I paid good money for that. I made that. I need that for . . ..”
But no, catching a glimpse of the garden, untended for the first time in all those years, he realized that time had moved on. The many years of looking after a house, yard, and garden had passed. He no longer had the same energy and will to do all that he had always done. He no longer had a need for all this stuff. “You can’t take it with you,” a well-meaning friend had quipped. That statement, which hurt at the time, passed through his mind now and he realized its truth. “You can’t take it with you,” he whispered to himself, feeling lighter than he had for some time.
The sale was a quiet success. By lunchtime, the most valuable pieces of hand-crafted furniture and most of the tools which Steve had fashioned from wood and metal were gone. His hand-crafted wrought iron bookshelves were disassembled with great care—with an almost slow, religious respect—by one extremely pleased purchaser and the twins’ two hand-crafted wooden desks with arborite tops were carted away by young immigrant families with playful school-age daughters in cotton sundresses.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” said Steve as he thought of himself (Stephan as he was called back home), and Jessie just starting out. Hehad immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine more than forty years ago with virtually nothing. He had met and fallen in love with Jessie, a beautiful Canadian Prairies girl with Ukrainian heritage. He married her and they had worked hard to establish themselves, happy with the prospect of creating a simple, hard-working family life.
Probably even more than the young immigrant families that arrived in Vancouver today, Steve and Jessie knew what it was like to suffer and go without. They knew what it was like to work for everything and to be genuinely thankful for the opportunity. It had not been easy but Steve found gainful employment with the city of Vancouver—the same job he would eventually retire from.
Like all parents, Steve and Jessie wanted the best for their children and hoped that they would enjoy an even better life than they had known. Even as their income increased, they were very careful not to spoil their children with too many things. They never skimped on time and affection, but they made a point of resisting the advertisements on television, the row upon row of fancy boxed and cellophane-wrapped toys that reached from floor to ceiling in the department stores, and the familiar pleas to buy something just because ‘everyone else has one.’
Jessie and Steve instilled in their children the need for discipline, respect, hard work, and above all, compassion. Respecting and caring for themselves and other people was the most important lesson they could teach. They spent time with their children, listened to them, and guided them in their studies and friendships. They set firm boundaries, only giving more independence and responsibility as they proved themselves capable.
They knew, too, that the greatest gift they could give their children was an education. Jessie’s love of books was passed on, not by lecture, but by example. The hour upon hour which she and the children spent together in the kitchen or front room sharing books and, later, as they grew older, independent reading time, made all the difference in the world.
Steve would take the occasional phone call from a concerned teacher very seriously, following through on each and every detail, ensuring all the lessons were well-learned while the twins were young. “That’s what childhood is for,” he insisted, “making mistakes and learning from them before it’s too late. . . before it’s time to go out into the world on your own.”
And it hadn’t been long before the twins were grown and it was time for them to venture out into the world. And venture they had.
Patrick travelled as far away as Rome to study to become a priest. Now known as Father Paul, he had just returned home to his family’s Vancouver parish.
Patricia, a schoolteacher whose strong support and compassion for others endeared her to all who call her a friend and colleague, travelled to faraway places like Africa, France, England, Hawaii, and her father’s homeland, Ukraine.
It was these thoughts and many more that flashed through Steve and Jessie’s mind throughout the day and long into the evening. The moving sale had long since finished. The left-over items had been packed up for the church bazaar, the money had been counted, and the extra help had gone home.
Walking curiously around a barren-feeling house, sensing the strangeness of their echoing voices in a home where everything had been so familiar, they thought of their new home, a condominium with freshly plastered and painted walls and band new modern everything. It was just thirty odd steps from their community centre and church, Patrick’s church. After several years away, Patrick was home and they were thankful.
They thought of Patricia and all she meant to them. She was living and teaching the suburbs of Vancouver and, despite her travels, had never been more than a quick phone call or a short car ride away. Patricia, they knew, was connected by something far more meaningful than telephone lines and painted pavement.
Standing on the sunporch, surveying the dark stillness of a now empty backyard at sunset, Jessie and Steve thought of the unbearable eternity—and incredible shortness—of the next five weeks. Holding one another as they had done so many times before in their lives, they contemplated their future with great wonder and more than a little fear.
There, with only the neighbour’s sleepy dog, Prince, as a witness, Jessie and Steve stood in loving silhouette under the peach, pink, and violet hues of an eraser-scrubbed sky.
©1999 Kalen Marquis