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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

In the nearly two decades that I have lived in Canada, I have developed a deep love of the urban neighbourhoods whose patchwork forms the largest city in the country. Each neighbourhood feels like a small town unto itself. Taking a walk means stopping every block to say hello to another neighbour. Baristas at the local coffee shops know their customers by name and crossing guards see the same kids safely to school from kindergarten through to Grade 12. Houses are densely packed together, our backyards easily visible to one another. Each one just a postage stamp in size, every bit of usable outdoor space is covered in seating or greenery tended with great focus during the warmer months in Canada.

Our backyards are the place we spend many an evening and weekend, soaking up the nice weather when we get it, and accidentally joining in activities that occur across the fences and high shrubbery. Our backyards act to each as their very own park, host to life’s momentous events, big and small. My husband’s 50th birthday here, a bat mitzvah there, John’s memorial service across the way or a casual evening of catching up among friends.

In one corner of Toronto where Indian Road snakes a line northward and Roncesvalles Avenue acts as our small town’s main street, houses are set apart by about the width of a typical fence gate. The paths between houses have provided access to each other’s outdoor space during pandemic social events which continue through the coldest nights in the dead of winter. Many backyard fires have burned, with a token guest roasting something edible over the coals, deeming the open fire legitimate in the eye of the city bylaws. My daughter’s 16th birthday saw numerous puffy down coats huddled around a large thermos of cocoa.

In the warmer months, we tend to our gardens, fix our bicycles, do homework and eat alfresco in our backyards, just a few metres away from the neighbours – so close that they can hear the clink-clink of our forks and knives. My husband often brings out an extra wine glass while he is grilling, so that he can share a taste of his latest find with our neighbour across the fence.

There is an understood community around the unavoidable overhearing of a next-door neighbour’s backyard life. We attempt to allow each other privacy, even though we are physically so close to each others’ property lines that overhearing is assumed and witnessing is a given.

One perfectly cloudless June day in this semipublic environment, the worlds of three contiguous backyards came together in a full circle of life a number of years ago. We mingled together for a few precious hours. To our west, our 37-year-old neighbour, Michael, had died of cancer and his wake was beginning. We went over to pay our respects. To our east, Christian and Sheila were set to say their wedding vows that afternoon, a long-awaited celebration of love found later in life. Their adult children and friends from near and far would look on from a deck so newly built for the occasion that the scent of fresh lumber still lingered in our yard.

Arriving guests for the two events were unsure which set of front steps covered in flower bouquets they were meant to take. A valet in front of the bride and groom’s house mistakenly told guests walking to Michael’s wake, “The wedding is this way.”

The wake grew silent as the sound of bagpipes signalled the bride and groom walking to their places at the altar at the back of their property. They would stand under the apple trees, trees that drop fruit every fall on both sides of the fence.

I wondered whether Sheila, radiant in red, noticed my daughter and her caregiver, their faces pressed against the window, watching her walk down the “aisle,” or in this case, the concrete pathway between our houses lined with greenery in full summer bloom.

There we sat in the middle of both ceremonies, caught between the milestones that impatiently and inevitably move through our lives. Our own annual extended family gathering was occurring that day as well to mark a 5th birthday and a high-school graduation. We kept our singing of the birthday song quiet so as not to disturb the wedding festivities and we played bocce ball with the backdrop of live music and voices mingling. A few pint-sized guests at the wake needed a break and came over to test out our swing set. As it grew dark, I took our daughter to the third-floor deck for a bird’s-eye view of the wedding guests, haloed in lights strung across the yard, fence-post to fence-post. As the last of the guests left the wake, a small circle of close friends sat with Michael’s partner and his family, swapping stories about their dear brother.

Since that day, the three backyards have seen many more family celebrations. At times we are invited to these events and sometimes we choose to enjoy them from our own backyard. Either way, as music or a child’s laugh floats over the fence, we feel a part of their lives as much from our own backyard as when we wander over to theirs.

Leslie Nicholson lives in Toronto.

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