Seven Years In Toronto - My Formative Years
The Day I was Born
When I was born there were days of parades held in my honour, with ticker tape falling from the buildings all up and down Yonge Street in Toronto. My mother stood at her hospital room window in awe at such a display shared in the joy of the birth of her first born child. At least that's the story my mother likes to tell. In actual fact it was in those days surrounding my birth that the Second World War was coming to an end with Victory over Japan - VJ Day. It was August 1945 and everybody was happy!
My father liked to tell a story of his own. With more glee than he should have shown, he often told me how he couldn't wait to go to the little viewing window to get a good look at this new baby - his first born. He tells how there was just two people waiting at the window, he and another gentleman, a man who in his opinion was not so very good looking. When the nurses wheeled the two bassinettes closer to the window he was shocked to find that the really cute baby belonged to his companion, while the clearly funny looking baby was in fact, his!
I loved both these stories!!
And so it was in a time of great celebration that my parents took this kind of funny looking baby home to the first place they shared - a couple of rooms on the second floor of a boarding house on Manning Avenue in Toronto, owned by a woman whose name always sounded like "Mud-ah-lane" to me. I guess her name in English would have been Madeline, but with her being Italian, as well as everyone else around us, that's the way it sounded to my young ears. We were in fact right smack in the middle of Little Italy - in Toronto, and my dad's family - his sister and her husband and children lived just a stones throw away on Clinton - a street that I remember rather fondly from my younger years.
Clinton Street - Little Italy
Mud-ah-lane was fiercely protective of me and from what I hear became a sort of pseudo nonna (grandma) to me as my own nonna lived 60 miles away in Hamilton. She was known to take me downstairs to her living quarters, when and if she perceived that my mother was not doing something the way she thought it should be done. And she would not give me back until the end of the day. There might have been real logic in that; after all why would she not want to have me during the day when she could cuddle and do fun things with me - without having to bother getting up in the middle of the night.
I of course do not remember any of the details of the time that my mom, dad and I lived in this house on Manning Avenue. But a story that my mother likes to tell everyone is the day she heard me talking from what seemed like a fair distance away. She followed my voice but could find me nowhere in the apartment when all of a sudden she caught a glimpse of me standing out on the roof, the window screen cast aside on the floor, and me calling "hi" to the people passing on the sidewalk below. That must have been a tense couple of moments for my mother as she quietly reached out the window and grabbed my dress from behind. I think that was one of the times that I ended up in Mud-ah-lane's apartment downstairs!!
There came a day when my parents thought it was time to move out of this boarding house and so they purchased their first house, a small bungalow in the west end of Toronto in an area known as the Kingsway, and we left Mud-ah-lane and Manning Avenue behind.
Ours was a tiny house on a street of other well kept houses, with a small median down the road from us with a bit of green space on it. Actually at the time I thought all of this was quite huge and it wasn't until years later when as an adult, I went in search of my childhood home and I realized how small it really was. We had a tiny backyard and beyond the backyard was a little bit of green space. Just beyond that was a railway track with a train that traveled by on a regular schedule. In my early days at this house I was absolutely terrified of this train. If I was out in the backyard playing and I heard it coming down the tracks, I would run all the way around to the front of the house and pound on the front door yelling for my mother to let me in. As if that was not bad enough, my bedroom was in the back of the house and it seemed I would no sooner be put to bed for the night, and lights out, when I would hear the nightly train approaching. I remember quickly grabbing my teddy bear, pulling the blankets over our heads and scampering down to the foot of the bed. Teddy and I would emerge well after the train had safely passed.
In time of course I grew out of this foolish behaviour and now with my litttle friend Jackie from across the street, would sit on the back step and bravely wave at the conductor as he went by. I hate to have to report also that as our bravado grew, one day we showed him the back of our derrieres. Yes, we were mooning the train conductor as he waved back at us. Thank goodness I was not going to confession yet because I could only imagine having to tell the priest about that little episode. My friend, being non Catholic had no worries at all in that department.
Neither my mother or father knew how to drive in those days. When my dad arrived in Toronto from Italy at the young age of 17, he immediately got used to taking the different forms of transit. Of course today one could say he was ahead of his time, because the fact is these days many Torontonians find it much easier to use the subway, go trains and streetcars, leaving their cars at home. I don't know what my mother's excuse was growing up in Hamilton, because everyone else in her family was driving. But maybe again it was simply that she was the youngest and at a fairly young age she had moved to Toronto to live with her sister and her husband who had a car, and there was no need for her to worry about driving. My mother did learn to drive years later when we moved to a more rural area, and my father "tried to learn to drive" soon afterwards - but that is another story altogether. So suffice it to say, that we did not own a car during our Toronto years, but we knew several people who did and could always count on them when in a fix.
When we did need to take a streetcar downtown this meant changing cars about three different times before we would find ourselves downtown Toronto on Yonge and College Streets. My mother and I would do this often, going downtown to shop, and I remember being worried that I would get separated from her in a department store. How in the world would I ever remember how to get home? I tried to pay attention on our way down, but after all I was only about five years old and it was just a bit too much for my young mind to take in at that time. So I figured the best bet was to make awfully sure that I did not lose sight of her in Eatons, or Simpsons or whatever department store we would find ourselves in. Eatons was one of our favourites and I still remember the excursions we would take at Christmas time to see the windows all lit up with trees and decorations and then again at Easter time when the windows would be festooned in lovely pastel shades of colour, with newly hatched baby chicks running around. And Toronto had to have one of the best Santa Clause parades - ever!
Toronto Street Cars
Tip Top Tailors
My dad was an excellent tailor by trade and he worked at Tip Top Tailors right down on Lakeshore Road by Lake Ontario, across from the Molson's Brewery. It's funny what the mind remembers. These were both landmarks to me, especially because they were right next door to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. For years after I grew up to be an adult, and after my father passed away, I could not drive by that building without thinking of my dad. Not so long ago it was made into an expensive condominium complex - another victim of this new wave of Industrial Loft Condos. But it still has the Tip Top Tailors sign on the roof.
My mother has done many things during her career. In the early days she also worked at a clothing place, but at this time she was mainly a homemaker and a stay at home mom who continued to use her talents in sewing to make me pretty dresses, as well as outfits for herself. With dad making my coats I was a very well dressed little girl. When I was six years old I started school at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Elementary School. I have a great little photo of myself sitting at my desk with a book open in front of me looking like I was really learning something. But what I love most of all is the adorable little pinafore dress that my mother had made for me in a red and white gingham with white ruffles around my shoulders. Other than that I think that I still look like the funnly little person that my father had talked about the day I was born.
I have some specific memories of my days at this school. First of all the teacher had a real problem with my name - Lynda Virginillo. I do admit that when I was young I too had a problem pronouncing it correctly and if asked what my name was I would say "Inda Birch-ah-nell-wo". But come on, I was just a baby! i guess in her defense there were not a lot of Italians around us in this new area of town that we had moved to, so every time she would call on me to answer a question she would call out "Virginia" And of course I would just sit there. In exasperation she would call out "Virginia" once more before realizing her mistake and then in an annoyed voice she would say "Oh why didn't your parents call you Virginia? Uh-Huh! Virginia Virginillo - wouldn't that have been cute! If I thought that was bad, I was in for more surprises as I got older and into my teens when my male classmates had all kinds of fun with this strange surname.
Along with this my days of showing my derriere to the train conductor were now officially over as I was preparing to make my First Communion and there was no way I was going to tell any Priest what I had been doing with my little friend across the road. I was already getting into enough trouble at school without that. Our teacher had made a rule that there was no throwing of snowballs in the school yard while on recess. So one day at recess I was standing there on the tarmac by myself. I bent down and picked up some snow and proceeded to roll it around in my mittened hands. A few minutes later, being done with it, I tossed it back litterally at my feet and onto the snow bank I was standing next too. When I got to class I was horrified to find out that someone had told the teacher that I had "thrown a snowball" In front of the class the teacher asked me if I had done that, and my explanation fell on deaf ears. If I'd been quick enough I could have told her that Virginia did it, but alas I was to meet her in the cloakroom after class where I would be administered 5 taps with the strap on each hand. I was both mortified and terrified, but truth to tell the strapping felt more like tickling. My feelings were hurt more than anything, and I had decided that my little non-Catholic friend across the road would be the one I would stick with for the rest of my life. She would never turn me in for breaking any rules.
The Giant Ferris Wheel
The Canadian National Exhibition
I have to say that one of my favourite memories of my Toronto years occurred every year from about August 21st to the Labour Day weekend. That was when the Canadian National Exhibition was in full swing. The Ex as it was known was the biggest and grandest fair to be held all across Canada and was in fact the 5th largest in North America. People came from miles around to take part in it - even from across the border in New York State. There was of course a huge midway with all kinds of rides, a grandstand for various forms of entertainment and water shows because of it's location right on Lake Ontario, plentiful buildings hosting garden shows, home decorating and the latest technologies, a horse palace and one of my favourites, the food building. In those days one could count on getting all kinds of freebies in the food building, bits of this and that, enough to feed you for the day. Unfortunately as time went on this became less and less the way, and more and more of the "pay for what you eat" deal. It was a time to remember and to reflect back on.
I recall the days my mom and I would hop the streetcar and go down to Tip Top Tailors by ourselves, where we would meet my dad after his long day of work. We would have to announce ourselves at the front entrance, by pressing a buzzer, after which security would let dad know we were there. At that age I thought surely he had to be a very important person for that to happen, so I was quite impressed. In no time he would appear and the three of us would make our way down the street and to the main entrance of the CNE - the Princess Gates. There would always be photographers on hand ready to take your photo as you walked through the gates and of course we did co-operate a couple of times and have one or two kicking around in albumns to remind us of those days. Of course I usually wanted nothing more than to get through those gates and get on those rides, and some of the photos show my impatience at this unwanted interruption. Either that or I was still that funny looking baby that my dad talked about just a few years earlier!.
In spite of all of this it was always a wonderful time at the Ex and those are memories that I will never forget. I was still pretty young and for the most part I contented myself on the kiddie amusements, but it wasn't long before my dad cajoled me into riding the giant ferris wheel with him. I was a ittle doubtful at first, but I trusted my dad to take care of me and so eventually I found myself sitting next to him, and stopped at the very top looking out over the hordes and hordes of people, over all the buildings and out toward Lake Ontario. Snuggled next to dad I felt like nothing could possibly hurt me, and I was safe. One of my best memories of mom and I at the Ex was in the food building, where we had just picked up some lunch and were looking for a place to sit. There was nowhere, so we decided to join in on one of those cooking demonstrations, just to get a seat. We were sitting there, not paying attention to anything, eating our lunch, when they announced a door prize and weren't we sitting in the winning seat! Off we went with a whole shopping bag full of Campbell Soup products and canned goods. Memories!!! The Canadian National Exhibition is still running to this day.
When I was seven years old and half way though grade two my mom, dad and I moved from Toronto to Hamilton so that my folks could go into business with my mother's brother Joe who was starting a clothing business. I would be leaving behind my friend Jackie, but of course through the years I would make more friends wherever I lived. We would return to Toronto to visit my Dad's sister and her family and we would also return to the CNE through the years, after all Hamilton was just a hop, skip and a jump away. But nothing was ever quite the same as those first seven very young years of my life in Toronto!