We moved into our current home in March 2007, a few months before Monkey was born. We were not newlyweds anymore, we were bracing for a family. The home we had lived in was nice, and ideal for a couple. For a pregnant woman, the home was turning into a challenge; it would be hell with a child.
When we arrived, the building was bare, but it housed a history that we would slowly learn over the years to come, from those who lived around us. We would contribute to that, as well, as we brought our own lives to bear on the structure. This history was taught to us largely by our neighbour, Jo-Ann, who had been next door the large majority of her life. This week, she turned the keys over to a new family.
So let me tell you a few things about our friend.
To meet Jo-Ann for the first time might be off-setting for some: she looks like that stern teacher you had in Grade 4 who wouldn’t give you an inch. And, truthfully, aside from a cursory “hello” to her and her mother, Maria, my initial contact with her was limited, and a little bit intimidating.
To be fair, we were new to the neighbourhood. And while we had the right to call the house our own, you can’t just explode into a new place and expect to immediately gel with everyone around you. Especially since Westgate (our neighbourhood) has many original owners of the 60+ year-old homes, and people who have lived here two or more decades.
I still remember the day that Monkey, who was only about two and a half, marched over next door to see what Jo-Ann was doing. Jo-Ann had spent many years beautifying their property; I feel like our yard looks like an abandoned lot compared to hers. We haven’t the sculpted garden, the plethora of flowers, the tightly-kept lawn, and no matter how much water I put down, our always several shades more yellow. I was worried that Monkey, being only a little kid, would turn into Dennis the Menace to Jo-Ann’s Mr. Wilson.
Never judge a book by its cover. It’s a lesson I’ve heard throughout my life, and one I’ve repeatedly experienced. Don’t make assumptions based on little information. And I’m glad I did just that. I watched Monkey, and cautioned her not to interfere, but Jo-Ann was happy to have company, even if all Monkey did was ask questions: “What’s that? What[‘s it] for? What’s that? Why [are you] dig[ging a] hole? Can I help?” Questions that would normally drive Alex or I nuts seemed to be nothing more than casual conversation.
In the years that followed, Monkey and Choo-Choo would visit regularly. Sometimes they would help with raking (which amounted to making a bigger mess, but Jo-Ann never complained), sometimes they were invited to pick raspberries from the bushes in her backyard (and would leave precious few behind), and sometimes, when I couldn’t find them anywhere in the house, they’d be out with Jo-Ann, just telling her story after story after story of the things they’ve done, and filling me with guilt that I’d probably cut them off from doing the same because I was “busy”.
Jo-Ann was the first house visited on Hallowe’en, without exception. She always had a prepackaged bag of candies for them. Even outside of trick or treating, she had a constant supply of sweets, and ice cream in the summer. At first, I was worried that my kids were abusing a neighbour’s generosity, but it quickly became clear that Jo-Ann had become, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate grandmother (a little ironic, as Monkey and Choo have three grandmothers already), or a favoured aunt.
Jo-Ann and I shared many conversations often over the fence while we were each doing yard work. Periodically political (we share similar leanings, so they were more supportive rather than combative), but always socially-minded, we would talk about the schools, transit, our city councillors, goings-on in the neighbourhood (Jo-Ann had a fanastic capacity for collecting news), and city activities. Even after Jo-Ann was packaged out from Enmax, she still managed to know what things were going on with our utilities supplier. The only problem I ever faced in my conversations with her were that I didn’t get as much work done.
Maria died in 2013, leaving Jo-Ann in the house all on her own. Almost immediately, there was talk of selling the house. Immediately, I started to fear that future. My kids didn’t quite yet understand the impact. But there was no rush to leave, and Jo-Ann’s family wanted to do some small improvements to the house before they sold it.
It went on the market in the fall, and sold almost immediately (and might have, had it not been for a realtor who didn’t act as quickly as expected). Still, there was no rush, and despite the time on the market, the house ultimately sold. On that day, there was celebration … and the sobering reality that we were going to lose a close friend.
Monkey scheduled a “Women’s Tea Party” last weekend. Jo-Ann (and Monkey’s Grade 5 teacher) attended, and we all talked about how things were going to change. She’s found a rental nearby for a few months until she makes up her mind on where to go next. Her current thought is Montreal. She’s not quite gone, but it’s almost there.
The new neighbours moved in yesterday. We haven’t met them yet. But they won’t be Jo-Ann. They won’t be the favoured aunt. That period is now closed, and it seems a little darker, a little colder as a result.