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first person

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Illustration by Erick M Ramos

When my family moved into a newly constructed home in Calgary, my parents – Ruth and Morely – expected there to be a garden at the centre of the cul-de-sac, not a slab of concrete.

The developer had told my parents and the rest of the neighbours that the 90-metre-long pit would be filled with trees and soil in the spring. There’ll be plenty of flowers once the snow melts, they assured us, don’t worry.

That fall was full of promise. We waved at the stream of incoming families during their move-in days. Hands were shaken. Couches were hauled up front steps. But we neighbours saw less of each other as winter approached. We all were busy inside, safe and warm. Names were forgotten.

In March the pit began to peak out from beneath the snowbank above it, fully revealing its gravel belly by the end of April.

My dad first noticed the change while driving Mom back from the oncologist’s office in early May. The pit had been filled with concrete. It was an awkward floating sidewalk. Mom felt betrayed. Dad was furious.

Mom died a couple of years later in 2015.

Many of the neighbourhood’s kids began to learn how to ride a bike that summer. The little ones would waddle across the concrete atrocity as the older siblings raced around the block. Their mothers would be nearby, sitting and chatting on the curb.

Dad had desperately wanted a community garden, a place for children to play, but more importantly, a quiet place for parents to sit and relax. He had wanted the neighbourhood to have an attraction; a reason to leave the house and join the community. His dreams of a tranquil garden had been paved over, but he began imagining a bench, in Ruth’s memory.

He began knocking on doors and reshaking hands. He chatted with Eric, the welder from across the street. The cost of materials would be reasonable. Why one bench? How about three? He met with Noni, the designer from a few doors down. Benches aren’t very complicated: it wouldn’t be hard to design a nice-looking one.

E-mails were collected, a plan was distributed, a date was set.

I was 15 on the Saturday that the benches were assembled. It began with me and my father hauling pieces of lumber and steel out of his truck, laying them on the driveway and scratching our heads.

It was as if all the neighbourhood parents had been peeking out from behind their curtains, waiting for a signal. Within minutes there was a flock of young neighbours at hand, each claiming they had a power tool that might be helpful.

None of us knew each other well, but all hands were on deck. Jeff ran to the garage to grab the pin-drill he got for Christmas. Brian held the boards together while Dad threaded the bolts. I dug through the tool box in search of the correct wrench. Ali predrilled anchors as Charlie measured and marked their locations. Sundeep ran over to see how he could help.

After a few hours and more than a couple of stripped screws, the project was complete. Three benches formed a semi-circle on the boulevard. They were the perfect place to sit and be with the neighbours, have a coffee in the morning or have a beer after work.

That afternoon marked the first of many weekend Neighbour Days when weather permitted. Kids raced each other around the boulevard while parents brought out whatever food was lying around the house. Later in the evening, someone brought out a firepit and put it in the centre of the benches so that the conversations would carry on into the night. We often ended up there the following afternoon, as well as countless afternoons and evenings in the years since.

I left our Quarry Gardens neighbourhood and moved to British Columbia for university four years ago, having learned to emotionally value community. I’ve become increasingly conscious of just how rare my situation was. I’ve lived in dormitories, crowded student homes and apartments, and can’t recall a single name of any of those neighbours, although I haven’t built any benches, either.

I’m enrolled in a program at Simon Fraser University that focuses on Canada’s philanthropic sector. Our guest speakers consistently share a common piece of advice: philanthropy isn’t just about money. Your time and talent are all it takes to create a change.

There’s a saying: you must be a good neighbour to have good neighbours. My dad wasn’t a billionaire. He didn’t sit on a board of directors or know what the CRA’s charitable distribution quota was. He just wanted a place to sit on a Saturday afternoon. A place to reminisce about his wife.

I’ve worried that Dad may have been lonely, living by himself, although even the pandemic couldn’t stop his neighbourhood from weekly check-ins at the benches, masked up and 2 metres apart from one another. He sold the house this spring and I flew back for a few days to help him pack up.

On his last Saturday at the house, all the neighbours congregated at the benches and threw him a celebration. There were plenty of hugs, handshakes and impromptu speeches. As a parting gift, they had made a flag for him to fly wherever he lives next. The flag’s image was an aerial view of the cul-de-sac, with three cartoon benches imposed overtop.

There were farewell messages written all along the border, signed by each family with love.

Gabriel Dufor lives in Vancouver.

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