It’s just an ordinary town in the middle of the county in the middle of the province. It has a beautiful river on the south-west side, a river which once marked that edge of town, although the bridge built in 1918 changed that. The river is wide and not terribly deep, grass on the banks, rocks in the bed. Everyone who fishes tells me that makes it a superior trout stream and as I have eaten quite a bit of trout taken from the river, I will believe them.
It’s not a well-laid out town, I have to admit. The first roads were simple cart tracks, but as the town grew, the next generation of roads seem to have been cut out between where the first business owners had their places of business and the lots where their wives wanted to build a decent house and live. After that, well, let’s just say town planning was a way off in our future.
So many of those decent houses, now a century or more old, are made of yellow brick with interesting cornices and beautiful stained glass windows, along with open, welcoming porches. They’ve been updated through the years, with indoor plumbing and electrical wiring, and even new energy efficiencies, but they are still graceful examples of what simple middle-class dreams used to look like. Today, of course, the houses in town come in a variety of materials and shapes, but people who visit do tend to remark on the beauty and grace of those windows and porches.
Thanks to our horse and buggy past, we have very wide main street running north-east to south-west, with shop fronts that offer all the goods and services one could need on a day-to-day basis. We have small businesses like Bricker’s Five And Ten that sells everything you need for your home and some you didn’t know you had to have; there are two clothing stores and a combination office supply and bookstore; there’s a Chinese restaurant just like in every small town in Ontario, plus the pub and of course the Rose Cafe; and the Riley brothers emporium on the edge of town continues to grow every year.
There are professionals like lawyers and accountants, not to mention about 23 people employed at the three banks located at what we call Money Corner, and of course the people who work for the town and the county. The county is filled with fine farms raising a variety of crops including a few I didn’t know were actually things that could be raised, and of course there are the businesses in town dedicated to support farming. It is, as you can see, a town that’s well-enough-to-do with the usual mix of past challenges and future opportunities.
People often say there are not a lot of opportunities for our young people here. They finish high school, go off to university or college and don’t come home again because there’s no work. I think they mean no high-paying office jobs in tall buildings. I myself know four business owners and two farmers who would hire the right person this afternoon if they could find him or her, and the money wouldn’t be too bad either. But it wouldn’t be exciting, and horizons wouldn’t be expanded, and everybody would know when you’re dating someone and who they used to date and after a month, be trying to figure if a wedding was coming or not, so I can see why the city calls.
Just like your town, there are scandals stuck in the back of some closets and maybe a few out in the open as well, but we try not to dwell on them too much. Some of our former residents have gone on to achieve outstanding honours and glory while some are quite content to have the best they can right here, and for 5,688 of us, not counting the farm population and the two hundred or so souls living around Mill Hamlet, that’s quite a bit.
Not everyone is a Happy Jones but very few truly have the troubles of Job either and all told, this is where I happily call home.
It’s interesting to think about how a place can dig itself into your heart. I cannot imagine living anywhere else, or maybe I should say I can imagine it, and I don’t like it. I used to think a lot about being one of those young people who leave to find something else, but somehow I never could convince myself to pack my suitcase and go. My roots run deep here, being fourth generation on my mother’s side, and I know how this town breathes.
I know my town very well because I spend time walking around, down to the river, out to the mill, and around again to the Riley brothers’ place. I check out the shop windows, and take peeks into the living room windows lit for the evening when I walk past on my way to the river. And I know the banks of the river in every season; I could easily walk from my front door to the Double Rocks at the big bend in the dark without a light and not get lost or trip and fall.
I know every street, and I would think most of the people who live on them, at least by their faces if not their names, in every house. I know who drinks and who is a righteous abstainer; I know who spends too much money on clothes and not enough on food; I know who loves their children and I know the kids who are desperate to get away from home; I know who’s sick and who is sick at heart. Some of this I know because of the cafe. Everyone comes to have coffee or a meal pretty regularly and I see their stories come in with them. And I listen to them.
Listening seems to be a lost art these days unless you’re being paid to practise it, like a counsellor or a minister. It’s true that social media has made us able to communicate more, and more often. But throwing out a few pithy comments on how pretty someone looked at a wedding or telling everyone that you’re headed to Florida for two weeks is not the same as talking and listening.
People don’t just talk with their words. They talk with their faces, so if someone is looking strained even as they say ‘everything’s fine and how are you?’ should mean asking the question again. When someone who normally doesn’t care how they dress suddenly starts showing up in brand new jeans and a freshly pressed shirt, you can be pretty sure the answer to ‘what’s new’ is not ‘nothing much’. And if you’re watching a man clench and unclench his fists while watching another man across the room, be prepared if something bad happens later that night.
Jake Reilly says that I know all these things about people because I’m kind of spooky. He means my second sight, an unknowable awareness of things that seem to be about to happen to people. And I suppose there is something to that. GeeGee had the sight, and everyone says I’m getting to be more and more like her every day. But it’s not necessary to have this gift to listen to someone’s story, to share their pain and their joy. Maybe if I tell some part of some of the stories I have seen over the years, you might find a moral, be entertained, fall in love with my town the way I have.
NB: This is a first draft of what I think will be the intro to the collection of short stories, a collection which seems to have named itself RIVERDALE. There are a few other short stories from the collection on this blog; do feel free to go the “Reading & Writing” and/or “Short Story” categories to find them. And please tell me what you think!