Although my parents would be horrified to hear this, I had a deprived childhood.
Every kid in the neighbourhood suffered the same privation. Superficially, we grew up in abundance – cottages, swimming pools and colour TVs, but this affluence was a mere glaze on our emptiness. You see, our parents had the myopic lack of foresight to move into a neighbourhood with only one chestnut tree. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true – just one.
Every June, when the school bell rang for the last time and we were paroled for summer, spires of pink-and-white flowers festooned the sacred tree. A week later, the petals had fluttered to the ground and the tree moved into its next phase of production. We would stare at the clusters of little nubs, eagerly anticipating the day when each one would become a mature chestnut. Their exquisite beauty and lamentable rarity made them precious. So precious that we used them as currency.
We knew nothing about economics; we barely knew our multiplication tables. Instinctively, however, we knew that everyone wants what they can’t have. Ipso facto, chestnuts were gold.
Two chestnuts could be bartered for a chocolate bar; four bought a cone of fries; six a comic book; a dozen could wangle an invitation to join a family vacation to Florida in the depth of winter.
Patience was another rare commodity in our neighbourhood.
One year, mid-July, my friend Brent shinnied up the tree to pluck chestnuts so immature they were barely the size of chickpeas. We all heard the crack when the branch broke, and another when he hit the ground. It was a noble mission and we all signed his cast.
Tragedy turned my life inside out that summer. My parents went to Europe and I went to stay with Uncle Jack and Aunt Molly in Toronto.
Nothing against Jack and Molly, I love them. Uncle Jack was a janitor at Maple Leaf Gardens and occasionally left me in the stands to watch the Leafs’ practice while he swept the hallways. No, Jack and Molly were great. The source of my angst was financial.
By missing the annual chestnut harvest I would be doomed to a year of penury; reduced to selling pencils on the street corner, shovelling driveways or delivering newspapers. A serious imposition, almost certainly a violation of one Geneva convention or another.
My head hung low the day I was banished to Toronto’s East End. Molly showed me my room and where to find things in the kitchen. Ground rules were established: home when the street lights went on; stay off Dundas Street, and no hanging out with the Greek kids (I love Greeks, but my Scottish kin did not).
One day, playing soccer on the street, I took a bad tumble – tripped deliberately by one of those kids I was warned about. Lying flat on Hillingdon Avenue, staring up at the sky, I recognized … a chestnut tree.
I stood up, scanned the street, and the angels began to sing: The whole street was lined with mature trees laden with ripe chestnuts. Chestnuts in Toronto – who knew?
In the middle of East York I had found Eldorado.
For the remainder of my exile, I collected diligently. Squirrels outnumbered me, but I had opposable thumbs, motivation and two new pillow cases. When it came time to go back home I left all my clothes in a drawer and lugged my cardboard suitcase back to the suburbs filled with chestnuts.
For weeks I kept my suitcase in my closet, brimming with mahogany gold. Whenever I needed a favour, a snack or to borrow someone’s bike for an hour I had currency.
Unfortunately, through inexperience and (to be totally honest) a modicum of greed, I flooded the market with chestnuts and their value plummeted. Apparently, this happens on other stock markets as well.
Then, natural disaster: Worms invaded, little white wrigglers, and Mom threw my caché out with the trash – a day that will forever live in infamy as Black Wednesday.
That was the summer I learned about global economics. I’m not talking about Adam Smith, Marx, Keynes or John Kenneth what’s-his-name. Jimmy was the only Buffet I knew, margaritas weren’t on the menu and a cheeseburger in paradise cost five nuts. No, that was the summer I learned the law of supply and demand, known to cognoscenti as the Chestnut Standard.
A lifetime later, I can’t help but notice that one residual quirk remains from my days as the Chestnut Baron of Wishing Well Park. Wherever my wife and I live – Toronto, Boston, Halifax, and now Shediac, N.B., we plant chestnut trees in our yard. Spread the wealth, I say.
Colin Thornton lives in Shediac, N.B.