We all have places that we know yet don’t. One of mine is Wiarton, Ontario. It’s where my mother was born and grew up, where my late uncle set foot on the freighters for summers on the sea of Georgian Bay, where my grandfather’s barber shop burned to the ground. Up until I was six and my grandmother died, it was an integral part of my landscape too. I bounced balls on the sidewalk in front of her house and walked up and down the steep escarpment hills with her, the lake shimmering in the distance.
In the past couple years I’ve been to Wiarton to overnight twice. A couple summers ago, Jason and I sailed there, riding the wind up cliff-lined Colpoy’s Bay to tie up at the town dock. We played tourist – snapping photos of ourselves with the huge Wiarton Willy statue, poking through a few of antique shops, huffing it up the hill to get some smoked fish around the corner from my grandma’s old house.
In early October, I had to go again, this time on assignment. It demanded an overnight stay, so my mom came along. We drove through the apple orchards and crowds of scarecrows in Meaford and then turned up the Bruce Peninsula, riding the rocky ridge that juts out into Lake Huron. It was dark when we got there. We went up the hill to check out one B & B and down the hill to look at another. The second turned out to be in familiar ground for my mom.
“This is where my friend lived,” she told me as we pulled into the driveway of a red-brick Victorian home, now Gadd About Bed and Breakfast. Mom peered up through the windshield at the lit stained glass. “It seemed like a mansion then.”
The inn was just around the corner from Scott Street, where she was born, where she spent the first decade of her life. It was across the road from the modest house my grandmother wanted my grandpa to buy. He refused, convinced he wouldn’t stay there, that they’d one day move back to Manitoulin Island.
Walking in, I watched my mother’s face. The last time she’d treaded this ground she was six years old and she stepped slowly into her past. The grand staircase was less grand, the rooms a bit smaller, but the large windows were still there, the tiled fireplace. In the parlour, we settled in for a chat with the innkeeper about who had lived here and what was happening these days in my mom’s hometown. Sipping tea, I thought about how strange it is to enter foreign places you think you know.