Five hundred and forty kilometres, and a lifetime

TORONTO
There are 540 kilometres between my office and my aunt’s house.

Last week, my office was full of meetings, big ideas and little frustrations, posturing and punning. My aunt’s house was empty.

I didn’t leave the office in a hurry, because I thought I had more time. I thought I could drive to the city, have some dinner and get some rest before going to the hospital. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the time I had, especially for those last few hours spent mostly driving and reflecting.

ginny 1971I could tell you stories about my aunt, like that time she leaned over her crutches and said, “Look how you’re growing! If you get taller than me, I won’t be able to talk to you” and I prayed I’d stop growing right then. Or how our little shih tzu Chen would sit at her feet on her electric wheelchair with his underbite exposed and his hair blowing in the wind and she’d laugh that laugh. Or how I knew she was okay with my distaste of the phone and was always, always eager to open my letters and emails. I would find — later, going through her things with my cousin and not crying — that she kept every photo I had ever sent. Some of them were framed.

I had all those hours to tell those stories to myself, and laugh, and think about what I’d say when I got to the hospital. My cousin called when I was about an hour outside the city and I told her my plans.

“There isn’t going to be a tomorrow,” she told me. “Come now, but get here safely.”

Those two phrases kept running over and over in my head as I navigated the 401: There isn’t going to be a tomorrow. Get here safely.

There isn’t going to be a tomorrow.

Get here safely.

There were all these things I had wanted to say and all the things I’d practiced saying, but when I saw her there, a shadow of my most precious aunt, I smiled and said, “I’ve just come to say hello,” because there was no way in the world I was going to say goodbye.

And we sat with her, a few of us representing her larger family, who were there in spirit. We told more stories, and we got a little boisterous, and it felt exactly the same as it did those times we sat in her apartment and squeezed as much of our lives into two or three hours as we could.

I thought I had more time. But in the end — at the very end — we had just enough.

Windsor harbours a bounty of street art and sculpture

A museum of walls, and a museum without walls.

Windsor takes its art seriously and uniquely. It’s impossible to walk around downtown or along the riverside without one’s eye being caught by a mural, a sculpture, or memorial to someone who touched this city in some way.

Murals

Many buildings got a fresh coat of imagination in 2013 through a partnership with Windsor and Free 4 All Walls that gathered 30 local and international artists including Daniel Bombardier, who told the Windsor Star at the time, “I find blank spaces dead and boring. These murals show that the city is alive.”

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Sculptures

At the edge of downtown is a five-kilometre riverside walk I got to know well during my stays in Windsor. This is the museum without walls: 31 sculptures ranging from a giant hand to a crazily realistic elephant to awkward little penguins that Canada geese step gingerly around. There are dozens more sculptures around town, hidden in laneways and planted in the middle of parks. I photographed a few, but you can see them all (and better lit) by clicking here.

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Memorials

As if all that were not enough, there is more art to be had. Every green space and courtyard seems to boast a memorial to war veterans, a sculpture commemorating Windsor’s rich history or a monument urging peace and a brighter future.

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Windsor is known for its auto industry and whiskey and the Detroit skyline, but its deep connection with its artists cannot be ignored.

Hiram Walker’s Power Building was once a jewel in his crown

The Walker Power Building in Windsor, Ont., summer 2015.
The Walker Power Building in Windsor, Ont., summer 2015.

WINDSOR, Ont. — There are days that I walk toward one story, only to trip over the curb of another. The story I was walking toward was that of Hiram Walker, and I had thought to tell it from the point of view of the fetching historical building I had seen from my taxicab. But the story I wanted—still his—turned out to be of the building across the street.

It’s impossible to underestimate Hiram Walker’s influence on the Windsor area. He moved to Canada in the 1850s, putting the Detroit River between him and the puritanical sensibilities of the United States, while he turned a cider vinegar distillery into something so much more.

Walker built the Silicon Valley of the whiskey world and launched a legacy when he responded to American demands to clearly label foreign imports by boldly branding his liquor Canadian Club. So much for Buy American, my Yankee friends: Canadian Club was a hit south of the border (by which I mean, since we are discussing Windsor and Detroit, north of the border).

Walker built a town to house his workers, creating a community that would reflect his own values: a church was designed, and schools, barbershops and public swimming pools, and public works programs were put in place, including such innovations as streetlights, running water and a railroad. He arranged for police and firefighters to protect the 600 or so citizens—mostly his employees—in Walkertown.

He is everywhere in Walkertown, a funky, mixed community adjacent to downtown Windsor. He is in the red brick buildings and the church he built in memory of his wife. He is in the (now unused) train tracks that follow the curve of the river. He is in the curlicues of the main Walker building, which now houses a museum and gift shop.

And though it would not have been the legacy he’d choose to leave behind, he is in the shadows of the once-magnificent Walker Power Building.

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Made of red brick and whitewashed wood and covered from ground to roof in climbing ivy, this river-facing edifice was built in the 1900s. It overlooked the main office from which Walker and his sons ran their empire, and would have helped power their enterprises.

As technology overtook the building’s usefulness, it was repurposed and reused and reimagined. But by the 1980s, it was struggling. Its neighbour, the Peabody Building leather manufacturers—which had survived a bombing during the Great War—was set to be demolished. The Walker Power Building was sectioned into a series of offices and cubicles, each wired haphazardly by tenants while the landlord was either clueless or wilfully blind. The fire department was unforgiving.

It became a haven for ravers, taggers and squatters, till even that was stopped, and its glorious windows were boarded up, its doors sealed, and the ivy allowed to overtake it. It is, though crumbling at the edges, a beautiful specimen of an industrial age that is ever so romantic in the rearview mirror of history.

Who’s the best man in this town?
Hiram Walker, Hiram Walker.
What’s the best brand in this town?
Old Club Whisky, Old Club Whisky.
— A drinking song from the 1880s

How to have fun in Ottawa for less than $10

Recently, Melani and Jilly joined me in Ottawa for a working weekend. It was one of those weekends where we were a little short on cash, but it’s a small and family-oriented town, and we were staying in a downtown hotel half a block from Parliament Hill. Here, in Melani’s words, is a tiny guide to having a blast in our nation’s capital on less than $10. 

How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)

How to have fun in Ottawa when you’re three and Mommy is beyond broke

  • Watch the changing of the guard at the war memorial.
  • Check out the “castles,” statues, 3D map, people, canal, things to climb on and pedestrian tunnel between your hotel and the bookstore.
  • Spend Mommy’s bookstore gift card. Then have a tantrum because she won’t buy you a scooter.
  • Scream all the way to the market.
  • Stop screaming and have a photo op on the nice policeman’s motorcycle.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
  • Go to McDonalds for the food that would have prevented the tantrum in the first place.
  • Start walking back to the hotel taking pretend pictures with a cardboard camera. Greet EVERYONE.
  • Sneak into the biggest castle through the spinny door and peek in the ballrooms.
  • Find a bowl of candy and take one.
  • Climb on more things.
  • Meet a man with parrots and have a complete stranger pay him so you can have your picture taken.
  • Discover a reflective wall.
  • Climb on even MORE things.
  • Meet a nice lady who’s staying in your “hotowel” and strike up a conversation. Find out she’s there for the same reason you are.
  • Play with all your loot.
  • Go swimming.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)

Meet Alton C. Parker, Canada’s first black detective

Alton C. Parker, Canada's first black detective.
Alton C. Parker, Canada’s first black detective.

It’s about history, sure. It’s about equal rights in 1950s. It’s about a guy who became the first black detective in Canada.

But Alton C. Parker’s story is a lot more than that: It’s the story of a man who held the heart of his community.

Born in 1907, Parker became a mechanic, as many men of any colour did in Windsor during that era, when Cadillac and Pontiac and Ford were becoming names less associated with historical figures than with the miracle of modern engines. A job like that, in a city like that was something to be desired: steady and sure. But Parker had a calling, and in 1942—two years before Ontario enacted the Racial Discrimination Law and one year before the Detroit race riots of 1943—he became an officer of the law.

History tells us that his road wasn’t smooth, but that his charm and gentle manner quickly won him a place among his white peers. He felt he had been called to serve his community, and his strength of character and work ethic saw him promoted to the rank of detective in 1951.

“When they promoted him, they also took a risk,” Const. Mike Akpata told Share newspaper in 2012. “They could have said, ‘we’ve got him here so let’s just keep him in the corner’ as opposed to moving him forward and putting him in a position of authority.”

Though his work load would have doubled, one imagines, Parker and his wife, Evelyn, never lost sight of their joint calling: helping the community.

A statue in Broadhead Park in Windsor honours Canada's first black detective, Alton C. Parker.
A statue in Broadhead Park in Windsor honours Canada’s first black detective, Alton C. Parker.

“A lot of people talk about doing something for these kids,” Parker said. “I don’t just talk. I want to do it.”

He and Evelyn organized and paid for Uncle Al’s kids’ party in their neighbourhood every year. Over two and a half decades, hundreds of children turned up in Broadhead Park for party games and treats and a picnic.

His desire to serve didn’t stop there: He co-founded an organization to help disabled adults find apartments and was on Goodwill’s board of directors. For his selflessness, he was awarded many honours, including the Order of Canada.

Years after his death in 1989, his granddaughter Cherie Steele-Sexton told the Windsor Star the most important lesson she learned from Parker: “You don’t have to do huge things to make a difference. Sometimes just the small steps, once you put them all together, there’s a journey.”

Click here to read more about Parker and other important figures in Windsor’s black history.

Mural in Windsor, Ont., features Mary Ann Shadd, Bishop C.L. Morton, Justin Jackson, Rev. J.T. Wagner, Walter Perry and Alton C. Parker. There is also an Underground Railroad quilt pattern and a Harmony Ribbon, the symbol of Windsors.
Mural in Windsor, Ont., features Mary Ann Shadd, Bishop C.L. Morton, Justin Jackson, Rev. J.T. Wagner, Walter Perry and Alton C. Parker. There is also an Underground Railroad quilt pattern and a Harmony Ribbon, the symbol of Windsors.

A walk in the park: Alexandria’s Festival of Lights

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s parks.

alexandria lights festival (6)

“Mum, can I come with you?” Jilly asked in her sweetest sing-songy voice when she saw me grab my car keys.

“I don’t know,” I said, a little cruelly. “I don’t enjoy driving with screaming little girls.”

“But I’m not screaming anymore.”

The tantrum was still echoing down the hall, but forgiveness comes as quickly as temper. Jilly and I were sick and had spent two days inside the house. She wasn’t the only one who’d had a tantrum that day; we needed to get out of the house or break down in tears. So we gathered all the hats and mittens, stopped to pick up Grandma and headed west toward the Ontario border.

Alexandria’s Festival of Lights is a showcase for community involvement. It was founded in 2006, when an enterprising citizen drafted people from the neighbourhood to create 22 light sculptures. It nearly came to a dramatic end that first year when an ice storm struck the day before the grand opening. The hardy residents banded together to get things back in ship-shape and the festival was inaugurated with a parade.

alexandria lights festival (5)The town of 3,200 people is a little more than 100 kilometres west of Montreal and it takes Christmas seriously. Strings of red lights spell out NOEL above the town sign and Main Street—in fact, dozens on dozens of houses on the way to Main Street—compete with constellations to light up the county.

The festival’s website does not display very nicely on mobile, so we weren’t completely sure whether the light show was still going on, or what park it was in. We drove slowly and pointed out every bright reindeer and slightly creepy crèche—like the heavily shadowed one that appeared to have a faceless Mary and Joseph—we saw along the way. We cruised along with our eyes peeled—“There’s a park!” I said happily, but it was just a monument on a hill—until we hit the back end of town and looped around to a gas station.

“Turn right at the second traffic light,” the clerk told Melani, though from my spot inside the warm car, her gestures told a much more complicated route.

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Indeed, we’d missed a step because we somehow ended up at the back end of Island Park. We shrugged, left the car there and snuck in. And by “snuck,” I mean we took five minutes to get all our hats and mittens on and grab the camera and giggle a little bit before slipping through the half-open gate.

Such pretty lights! The whole town—and beyond—is represented here, from schools to hardware stores to the pharmacy. A funeral home’s memory tree was especially touching. Along the shore of Mill Pond, a line of trees is reflected on the ice. If your gaze should wander upward, the stars seem to be just another part of the festival.

There is free hot chocolate to be had in the little kiosk and a donation box at the entrance to the park. All money raised goes back into the community, for next year’s festival and for improvements to the park like a sound system for the bandstand, the kiosk itself, a security system and lots more.

The Christmas season has blown past in a flurry of dinners, and flights to and from home, presents and colds, tree-shopping and tantrum-holding. Here it was quiet, despite us and without much snow to crunch underfoot. This small pause was like the deep sigh one indulges in before rolling up one’s sleeves for the next big thing.

Happy 2015, all.

You only have two more days: The festival of lights in Island Park runs from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. till Dec. 31. New Year’s Eve, get there by 6 p.m. for the fireworks celebration.