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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

When I moved into my second-floor studio apartment on Indian Road in Toronto, the path forward of my immigrant life was as obscure as the end of that street. Indian Road was covered in a dark green canopy: Heavy branches of mature trees, deep, lush gardens and heavily anchored old houses holding on to their layered history and generations of lives lived.

That sense of permanence and stability helped me slip quickly into my new, tiny place as if into a second skin. I loved the view out of my window into the next-door garden.

As time passed and each season gave way into the next, I grew my own fragile roots into the toughness of a new ground while observing, day after day, the slow but intrepid transformation of the greenery on the other side of the fence.

To record that continuous metamorphosis, I took pictures of the garden next door. These photographs captured ephemeral glimpses of nature and light and I used them to line the shelves of my apartment, bringing inside the garden’s eclectic presence.

I was busy working and living, figuring out the intricacies of a new language and culture, and trying to understand my place in it. I did not know anyone very well in Toronto, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in this new country. People seemed mostly friendly but, if I am honest, also quite aloof. Especially compared to Italy where I studied and Romania where I grew up. My parents and brother were too-many-to-count miles away, and that metaphorical umbilical cord connecting me to my old life was slowly but surely drying up.

My studies required me to take exams for which I started to prepare in the evenings, after work. My mother came to visit, so she could take care of me while I studied, as she did for so many years when I was growing up.

Once she arrived in Toronto, I gave her clear instructions to keep to herself and showed her a few places she could wander to in the neighbourhood. Mom is an expansive, gregarious person and I was a bit afraid that her heavily accented, rudimentary English would not always be welcomed by a stranger.

One day, on arriving home in the evening, I found her impatiently waiting for me with a visible glow on her face.

“You will not believe it,” she said excitedly, “your neighbour talked to me today. She called me over to show me her garden, but I did not want to go empty-handed, so I snatched the garden pictures from the shelves and gave them to her. You don’t mind, do you? The lady was thrilled that someone else valued her years of ongoing care for her plants! She wanted to know about us, and she sent you a flower from the garden, look at it there on your desk, and the business card of her husband.”

A bit skeptical of my mother’s enthusiasm, I sighed. “Oh Mom, now I need to call to thank them.” Curmudgeonly mumbling under my breath, I rang them and we got an immediate invitation for a glass of wine that same evening.

My neighbours were incredibly welcoming. They “adopted” me that evening. My mother, with her rusty English, colourful personality and extrovert tendencies, helped me settle further into this new country by connecting me to my neighbours.

Ann and John were curious to know about me, my past and my future, and my plans in Canada. Immigrants themselves from England and the United States respectively, they told us about their lives, their five children, their grandchildren and their accomplishments.

Over the years, I felt like I became an extended member of their family. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays, non-celebratory dinners, I was at Ann and John’s. With the graceful care only parents can give, they helped me embrace and love my new Canadian identity.

I came to Canada to learn but then I stayed to build a better version of myself and give back to the country that gave me a second chance in life. That chance meant that I needed to move West and when I left Toronto and my tiny apartment next to Ann and John, I left behind their unconditional love. But it would continue to hold me straight and firm.

My professional path meant I didn’t get back to Toronto much to see Ann and John but when John’s 90th birthday came along, I could not miss it.

On a torrid July evening, countless family and friends and fellow “adoptees” thronged the house on Indian Road and its magic garden. Energized by the heat and a rapturous rain, by laughter and chatter scattered like little candles, we celebrated John’s spirit, moulded by intellectual curiosity and scientific exploration.

I stepped away to let myself navigate those familiar, old garden paths and sat on the bench at the back taking in all the richness that fed my strength all those years ago. And there, I met Michael. It couldn’t have been a better place, it couldn’t have been a better time, it couldn’t have been a better man. Michael ended up joining me out West, and when we decided to get married, we immediately called Ann and John to let them know our big news.

“You are having your wedding here!” they exploded in unison. And we could not refuse that irresistible offer to marry in the garden of dreams, the garden where we all met.

My parents couldn’t make it to our wedding. Age, disease and distance shattered my hopes of having them witness our happiness. But Ann and John, our extended families and friends did not let any shadow fall over that day. John walked me down the aisle, Ann read a good Shakespearean sonnet.

A violin, a clarinet and a cello played near the garden bench and spoke what the trees, bushes and blushing flowers could not say, what the sun whispered, and wind tempered, what vows promised, and hearts hoped.

Many seasons have passed, now. Ann still watches over her garden and perhaps secretly listens to hear John’s baritone voice, now a memory, echoing from some corner in the house.

The phone rings at times, bringing joy and laughter and tears both ways. Now there is Skype, and that shrinks geography between us somewhat. Life unfolds as it must but I know that the garden on Indian Road will sprout another coat of fresh green paint in the spring. And I cannot wait to wander its pathways again, meandering in Ann’s steps.

Oana Caluseriu lives in Edmonton.

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