My version of my past is based on the belief that my life began at post-secondary education. As soon as I was allowed, I left the narrow world of hockey jackets and a town so small that grown men spent frigid Saturday mornings driving around together drinking whisky, looking for something interesting to happen between the three stoplights that served as its boundaries, to a sedate university town by Lake Ontario. Its ivy-covered buildings reassured me I had escaped forever.
My high school town was where I grew up, but it wasn't where I was from. Although my father, as a provincial police officer in Ontario, was stationed only an hour away from where he and my mother grew up (later, during those post-secondary years as a summer tree planter, I saw the places in the north of the province that Dad had referred to as "hell holes," towns where there was nothing in the way of entertainment but an establishment with a heavy-metal band on one side and strippers on the other, I realized how much worse it might have been) they and I by extension were outsiders in our postings. Sure, we made friends, but it was understood that we weren't sticking around forever.
No, the land of my people is the Ottawa Valley. This weekend I headed up to see my parents, where they live in a quiet suburb that is technically the city but only ten minutes to territory familiar to them for more than seventy years. We drove past fair grounds in Carp where I remember eating cotton candy for the first time, and as we continued along a beautiful ridge where the autumn leaves were starting to gain their color--while back in Texas, we were still in sweat all day weather--and the little towns came back to me, knowing where I was before I even saw the signs.
I didn't drive these roads as a teenager and I never lived within fifty miles of them. I don't personally know more than five souls there. But as I sat in the car with my parents, all of my childhood rides on Sunday afternoons to visit relatives had embedded the route in my deep memory. I had a flash of understanding as to why Alzheimer's patients retreat to their childhoods: I can't remember things that happened five years ago, but the drive over the Pakenham bridge felt like I had done it yesterday.
Of course, hockey and whisky rule the towns in the Ottawa Valley as much as they do where I grew up. There is as much of a sense of community, good works, petty gossip, and insularity. It's just that I never lived there. So instead of going back to see people who remember my awkward adolescent moments, my snobbishness, my dateless prom, I remember being with people who adored me. A trip on a tractor at five, wrapped up snugly in a blanket. Playing Crazy Eights in a "summer kitchen" and drinking my first vanilla float. The smell of an indoor woodstove, still burning in January even though an electric furnace had been installed.
I often say I don't like to look back, but it's clear I view the past as a smorgasbord. The delicious parts are those I choose to keep.