Seventeen years ago, when I moved to Ajax, just east of Toronto, I was immediately struck by its old-fashioned, small-town charm: the modest strip malls, the large tracts of farmland and the quiet streets bordered by old war-time houses.
My coffee-shop conversations with many old-timers soon alerted me to the town's military history. I learned, for instance, that Ajax was named for the British battleship that led the force that ran down the infamous German cruiser Graf Spee early in the war. Many of its streets, too, draw their names from personnel on board.
The street names remain, but over the years almost everything else has changed. The population has grown from around 60,000 to almost 100,000 and, every month it seems, land is being levelled for another subdivision.
During my early days here, my parents visited annually from Trinidad and, each time, I was determined to take them to some new and exciting place. I ran out of such places after three years, but I discovered that they were content simply to stroll along the waterfront.
Ajax Waterfront is a network of parks and paths along Lake Ontario – and one of the region's more underappreciated places. Its main access is via Harwood Avenue (named for the commander of HMS Ajax), which leads to Veterans Point Garden. A short stroll away is Rotary Park, a focal point for summer festivals, as well as many playgrounds and cycle trails.
My mother liked the tranquillity of the waterfront. While my father, a recently retired primary-school principal, slowly read some memorial plaque, experimenting with pronunciation, she usually wandered off to peer at the shrubbery or gaze at families milling around their barbecue pits. She liked the symmetry of the waterfront, and often remarked on the order and arrangement of the trees, the benches and the trails.
On the way back, my father would ask some question provoked by a plaque he had read, and I would cobble together an answer based on whatever meagre information came to mind. Much of this information had been gleaned from older residents, so my accounts typically veered into a history of the place. I remember telling him that Ajax had been established around a munitions plant just before the Second World War and that the University of Toronto was involved somehow.
On one occasion, however, he did most of the talking. We were walking along Veterans' Point Garden, which is studded with plaques, when, haltingly at first, he gave me a condensed history of his early years. I was surprised by his recollections as many of them were new to me. It was our last prolonged conversation – and likely that his Alzheimer's (the diagnosis came later) had already breached some part of his memory.
My parents no longer visit, but I still take regular strolls along the waterfront. I look forward to the summer events, to the amateur theatre performances and to the crispness of early fall when the leaves are just beginning to turn. I try to understand the pull of the place and I have considered the idea that lakeside settings – the sound of rippling water, the solitude, the diving gulls – may possess a special appeal to former island dwellers.
But lately, I feel there is more to the picture. Ajax, on the periphery of Toronto, risks being swallowed up by the city, our own elephant. Most local people work in the city, which has returned the favour by releasing thousands of its residents here. We are fortunate to have a mayor who is a frequent advocate for conservation issues, but there seems to be an inevitability to the shifts occurring in all the small towns that border Toronto.
Now, as I walk along the cycling paths, or gaze at the shoreline bluffs and the nuclear power plant in neighbouring Pickering, I pretend that this perspective offers a guarantee that some things will never change. And so, while the farmland is converted into housing developments, the strip malls replaced by big box stores and the once leisurely drives give way to miserable gridlocks, I pretend that, even as the land around is remodelled, the waterfront, with its marshes and beaches and trails, will stand as it always has. A sanctuary of sorts in a world so fast-paced and fickle, it's easy to forget the events of yesterday.
Rabindranath Maharaj's most recent novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, received the 2011 English Language Trillium Fiction Award.