Skip to main content

Alone in her 50s, living in a comfortable home on a leafy street in a peaceful Montreal neighbourhood, my mother burned her house down.

It was an accident. Careless smoking was the cause, fire officials said at the time.

The effects were stark: Mom, a single parent managing manic depression, would never again possess her own place, and the blaze callously consumed such cherished personal belongings as old home movies and family photos.

Story continues below advertisement

Forced to move, she rented a pleasant apartment across town - a high-rise unit perched above treetops with the St. Lawrence River a piece of ribbon in the distance.

She was not a happy camper, but Mom knew she was the author of her own misfortune.

She lived there for about 12 years, until age 67. But when my brother and I noticed cigarette burns in the carpet around her bed, and saw other evidence of her increasing inability to look after herself or manage her daily routine, the search was on for a new residence - a senior's residence.

She was about as happy as a deep-fried clam.

Apartment No. 1 in her first senior's home was a well-maintained one-bedroom with a kitchenette and view of a lovely courtyard on the property. It was on the ground floor of a snazzy building that was home to autonomous seniors such as my mother and older residents who needed higher levels of care. She was the youngest tenant there when she moved in 13 years ago.

The years went by "like the turn of a page," Joni Mitchell once wrote, and Mom needed to move to another floor where her health situation could be monitored. My brother and I met in Montreal - he lives in Ottawa, I'm in Halifax - one summer a few years ago to help her move upstairs in the same residence.

On moving day, rolling up the familiar-looking carpet underneath her bed, I spotted new cigarette burns. Apparently, our little talks after the fire in her house and before the move from her high-rise unit were for naught.

Story continues below advertisement

Apartment No. 2, occupied when mom was in her late 70s, was a small flat with a view of an alley. Her unit's door was never locked and seniors' walkers lined the hallway outside the dining hall like motorcycles outside a bikers' bar.

Mom's reaction to being in a one-room apartment near tenants with varying stages of infirmity, and who might be there one day but dead the next? Again, she wasn't happy.

However, after living at the site for more than a decade and making friends inside the building, she'd grown accustomed to the place. My mother was more or less content, even though the occasional Alzheimer's resident walked into her small apartment by mistake.

So, her reaction came as no surprise to my brother and me when we reluctantly delivered the news last year that she had to move to a new residence.

Like many seniors, she has a limited income and bank account that can support only a certain amount for housing. Mom had to go to a cheaper old folks' home. She was not pleased.

After a couple of false starts, my mother, my brother and I finally found a suitable - and affordable - place for her to live. It's not centrally located like the old spot, but it should do nicely.

Story continues below advertisement

Of course, that's easy for me to say. I'm not the one moving at age 80 and wondering how long I'll be in my new home before perhaps moving again.

I signed her lease, though, all the while hoping this will be her last stop - for her sake, and ours. The process is stressful, time consuming and tiring for all involved.

In late August we spent a sunny and hot weekend packing boxes in our mom's former apartment, meeting with movers on the day she said goodbye to her cronies and staff at the old residence, and unpacking at her new studio unit.

The move went relatively well, but it wasn't flawless. Who knew elderly people could be so touchy when you commandeer one of the main elevators during geriatric rush hour, the period right after lunch when tenants want to get to their apartments?

At the new building, my brother and I tried to make the strange living space as familiar and safe as possible. We placed things in spots selected by our mother, put up much of her favourite artwork and spread family pictures along the few pieces of furniture she's kept since her house burned down.

The transition from long-time resident to new neighbour didn't seem to bother our mother, a self-described worrier. Or, if it did, she didn't show it. But I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for her.

On the flight home to Nova Scotia I looked out the aircraft's window and let my mind wander. I got a little nostalgic. The house that went up in smoke was where my brother and I were reared many years ago, when the neighbourhood's large trees were saplings and Clapton was God.

Our mother showed up in my daydream above the clouds - much younger, and holding a lit cigarette between manicured fingers.

Now she's hesitantly beginning a new stage of life in a different part of town. She has no choice but to adapt to her new surroundings, a process that took about seven years in her former residence.

But at least her fire hazard days are behind her. She stopped smoking at 76.

Michael Lightstone lives in Halifax.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to