Gina Sorell is the author of the new novel The Wise Women.
Some people measure their lives by years; I measure mine by houses. Houses, townhouses, apartments, fourplexes, duplexes, each place bringing to mind a different country, city and stage of my life. When I was growing up, each time we’d move, my mother would say: “It’s just a pile of bricks.” But I’ve learned that a home can be so much more.
Our success as immigrants in a new country was charted with each new address. It began with a two-bedroom apartment that the five of us lived in when we first arrived in Canada, where my mother cried every day for six months because it was winter, she’d later joke, and she hated the snow. But of course, it was more than that. It was about starting over, about being judged, about other people making assumptions about who we were and how much we belonged, based on where we lived.
It would be a long time before any of the places in which we lived in Canada could compete with the house we left behind in Africa. That house, my mother would say wistfully, was a great house. It had a swimming pool and grounds, and we could play outside all year because it was always warm. That house was also proof that all my grandparents had been wrong – that my parents’ unsupported interfaith marriage had amounted to something. It was proof that my dad’s career as a hairdresser could support a family. It was more than a house to them; it was a home, and for a long time, it was the last place they lived that felt like one. But it was also in South Africa in the 1970s, and my parents didn’t want their children to grow up in a country that supported apartheid. Even though I didn’t remember the house, my mother did, and she wanted us to know that it was much better than where we rented now and that someday we would live somewhere as beautiful again. We would make something of our new life in Canada – a vow my parents aimed to prove with every move we made.
Our next place in Canada was a townhouse in North York off the highway where my sister and I shared a room, and my brother got his own. It also had green space and a swimming pool – albeit a public ravine and community pool in a neighbouring development that was a 10-minute walk up the hill. Living here was the first time that I remember feeling like an outsider. We stood out with our collection of funny accents: South African for me, my mom and my siblings, and a combination of French and Italian for my dad. Did we have tigers in our backyard? Did we ride on elephants? Did we live in a jungle? No, if you asked me; of course, if you asked my sister; and I dare you to say that again, if you asked my brother. The other neighbourhood kids had never met people like us before. In the autobiography of my real estate life, that townhouse gets filed under the headings Being New and Not Belonging.
After two years, we moved to a bigger townhouse in the same complex, one where we all had a bedroom and a beautiful patio canopied in ivy, where we could eat outside. We were renting still, but it was a move up, a place my parents were proud of. My mom and I became best friends with the mom and daughter of the family next door, and our two families would take trips together. We’re still friends all these years later. That place gets the heading Things Are Looking Up!
Owning was the next step, and my parents finally bought a house in a vendor take-back mortgage because they couldn’t qualify for one from the bank. The seller agreed to finance their loan at the impossible rate of 14 per cent. I know now, and I suspected back then, that it killed my parents to pay the mortgage on that house. But it was detached and had a pool, its own pool, and a backyard, where they could entertain family and friends just like they used to back home.
I’m ambivalent about that house, coming at a time when I was nine years old and had started a new school and had to make new friends. I remember it as the place where my older brother and sister had a wild pool party that I wasn’t invited to, where I fought with my visiting grandfather, turning the TV to MuchMusic so that he had to watch the video for the anti-apartheid song, Sun City. It was where I noticed my parents’ fighting, heard the money worries and first realized my mom’s health wasn’t great. It’s the place where the body issues I wrestled with when I was younger really took hold. It was the Under Pressure house.
So when my parents announced that we were moving again, this time to an even bigger house, one that I like to call the We Made It In Canada house, on a street poetically named Hollywood Avenue, I found myself repeating my mother’s refrain when asked if I’d miss the Under Pressure house – it’s just a pile of bricks. I could leave this place; I could start over; I could begin anew. For as much as moving was about measuring success to my parents, for me, it was about the chance to start again. Hollywood Avenue was the last place I lived with my parents, and I loved that house. It was big, although it seems much smaller now. It had a pool and was close to my high school and became the meeting place for all my friends. It reassured me that my parents were doing well, shouting that loud and clear to their own parents, who had, until then, refused to give them their due.
Eventually, I left that house and moved to New York, living in three apartments in three years. When I returned to Toronto, I rented three more places, before buying my first home with my husband, a house we renovated and stupidly sold (it’s worth five times as much now) so that we could have enough money to move to Los Angeles, where we lived for the next 10 years. It’s just a pile of bricks, we said to one another at the time, as we signed the paperwork, eager to start our new lives in California. But we both knew it was more than that; it was both proof of our success and a hollow reminder that the problems we were having couldn’t be fixed with a new coat of paint and some throw cushions. Staying in that house wouldn’t have made things better, but moving might – and it did.
After many more moves in California, my family and I returned to the same neighbourhood that I moved to when I got back from New York, where my husband and I first lived together. We’ve been in our current home for eight years now, renting it for four, before getting lucky enough to do a private sale with our landlords. This house is more than just a pile of bricks to me. It’s a home; it’s a testament to hard work and luck, and timing; it’s part of a community with people that have become friends, a place where the kids knock on each other’s back doors after school and ride their bikes, just as I used to in those townhouses.
Recently my son started at a new school, and I began driving past those townhouses every day. The other day I noticed that they had been demolished, and there were cranes and signs advertising brand-new condominiums. I immediately regretted not having visited it one more time, to show my son where we started out, to remind myself how far my parents had come, how far I had come. But then I swallowed the lump in my throat, and I heard my mother’s voice – it’s just a pile of bricks. Those bricks may no longer be there, but the foundation they created helped me build the life I am living now. That can never be torn down.
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