My husband Douglas and I moved into a lovely red brick Victorian home in the hamlet of Millbrook when our firstborn was 10 months old. The house was in excellent shape and featured a wraparound porch, a white picket fence, and about a half acre of property. Pretty much the ideal North American family home. Our street was very short, having only seven houses in total and ending at the entrance to our driveway. There was a long wooden fence running behind the house which separated us from our closest neighbours, the Raabs.
George and Evelyn lived on a lovely three acre property with their children Dustin and Jared. Evelyn was writing a monthly cooking column in “Today’s Parent” magazine when we first became neighbours, and soon after wrote a fantastic cookbook for beginners called “Clueless in the Kitchen.” My daughter Hannah’s version is so well used that most of its pages are spattered with ingredients, and the whole thing is falling apart. George was, and continues to be, a well-respected artist. Their property features not only a lovely Victorian home, but also a spacious studio for George, well-tended vegetable and flower gardens, and a large field which ends at a clear running stream. There is a sizeable hill which gently slopes down to a small pond, and a dilapidated treehouse the kids loved to play in because it felt like it was going to fall apart at any minute.
Evelyn is a lover and collector of animals, and when we moved in there were two horses in the stables, Annie and Spot, and a chicken coop bursting with laying hens. She had a peacock named Archie and two peahens, Betty and Veronica, and a bunch of guinea fowl. Guinea fowl are plump and round, with black plumage covered in numerous small white dots. They have teeny little heads with a spiky crest on top like a faux-hawk, and small red waddles on either side of their short beaks. They are hilarious to watch because they always walk in a row, and generally we liked having them around, at least when they were quiet. Guinea fowl, like most birds, are easily upset, and they generally send up a ruckus whenever they’re riled. Unlike other birds whose calls are pleasant and soothing, however, the sound of a guinea fowl is loud, repetitive, and annoying. Imagine the persistent, grating sound of someone playing for hours on a rusted, squeaking swing, and you’ll have a good idea of the guinea fowl’s call.
I was very nervous when we first moved to Millbrook, having always lived in large and densely populated areas. I wasn’t sure that I would like the slow pace and quiet of the village, and I had no idea how I was going to make friends. Evelyn took care of the latter concern the very day we moved in. I was in the kitchen unpacking boxes when there came a knock at the side door. I was perplexed as to who it could be, seeing as we literally didn’t know a single person in the village. I opened the door and there stood Evelyn, holding a basket filled with homemade cookies, a small bottle of champagne, and a dozen eggs courtesy of her “girls.” She introduced herself and welcomed me to the neighbourhood, handed me the overflowing basket, then promptly invited me to a large party she was holding for her husband’s birthday that coming weekend. I was introduced to scads of like-minded, friendly people at that party, and just like that my fears of being lonely were erased. Many of the people I met that day remain good friends thirty years later, all as a result of Evelyn’s kindness.
The Raab boys, Dustin and Jared, are respectively eight and six years older than my eldest child Max. They were always welcoming and happy to entertain both him and, eventually, my youngest child Hannah. They would kick around a ball or play hide and seek for hours when they were all kids, and Jared babysat a lot as they got older. Maxwell idolized Jared, and that was fine with me because other than being somewhat scattered, Jared is about as good a role model as a mother could hope for. He is kind, well-spoken, funny, and intelligent, and seemed to have endless good-humoured patience for my fawning son. Max was so enamoured of Jared that one year he insisted on “dressing up” like him for Hallowe’en – a development which suited me fine because it meant I didn’t have to buy, or worse yet try to make, a costume.
The Raabs have a very long driveway, and in the winter the plough deposits all of the snow beside the house. The snow pile thus created is usually enormous by late January, and provides a perfect opportunity for all kinds of fun. My kids and the Raab boys would play in the snow for hours, sometimes repeatedly jumping in it from an overhanging tree branch, but more often than not tunnelling through it. I’ll admit most of the excavation was done by Dustin and Jared because they were older and more competent, but Max and Hannah helped as much as possible. What was once a pile of snow turned into a complex maze by the time the boys were done, with multiple tunnels and small caves featuring built-in snow chairs. It made me wish that I was little so I could play inside too.
Dustin is one of those rare people who knows what they want to be for their entire life. He has always been fascinated by marine life, and when he was a boy, his room was full of aquaria and cages holding fish and reptiles of all kinds. I believe he now has his Masters in marine biology and works in his field on Canada’s east coast. Jared was much more interested in movies and the mechanics of making them than the natural world. He studied cinematography in university and is now a filmmaker.
Many productions are made in Millbrook because of its pristine, historic downtown, and because filming in Canada is relatively cheap for American production companies. David Cronenberg came to town in 2005 to make “A History of Violence,” and Jared came home from university to watch the filming. One evening most of the town turned out to watch a long scene which took place on the street in front of the post office, and it so happened that Jared was standing right next to me. I tried to make conversation, and while he politely responded to my queries, it was clear that he didn’t want to make small talk. He simply wanted to watch, so I shut up and let him. His eyes greedily took in the action before us, and his face lit up with pure joy every time Cronenberg opened his mouth. Occasionally he spoke to me, describing the different functions of the various crew members and parsing Cronenberg’s directorial decisions. I had previously seen movies being filmed in both Toronto and Millbrook, and frankly had mostly found the process exceedingly boring. This time, however, Jared’s expertise and enthusiasm led me to see movie production as an exciting, multi-layered activity, with myriad skilled people all seamlessly merging their talents toward a shared goal. For the first time I saw the artistry of the whole enterprise, not just the acting, and I have Jared to thank for that.
The Raabs hosted two annual events for all their friends; a corn roast on the Sunday before Labour Day, and their own version of the winter Olympics. Both occasions included pot luck suppers, with the hosts providing all the corn at the roast and homemade medals for the Olympics. The corn roast featured an extremely good-natured round robin volleyball tournament for the adults on the front yard, and croquet for the children on the side lawn. My kids informed me that the croquet field was lumpy and hard to navigate, but they loved it because it added an interesting level of difficulty to an otherwise pretty sedate game. Lots of people would pitch in to get all the food laid out on the long tables set up beside the porch for the pot luck, while still others would help with shucking the many bags of corn needed to feed such a large crowd. The corn was boiled in a huge black cauldron, reminiscent of the one used by the witches in Macbeth, hanging over an open fire at the edge of the yard. Four men would heave the pot away from the pit after the meal was done, and more logs would be added until the fire was raging. Folding chairs and stumps would then be placed in a ring around the bonfire, and we would have a rousing sing-along as night descended. It was always a lovely day.
The winter Olympics were extremely silly and incredibly fun. Evelyn would send out tongue-in-cheek invitations and make up just the most ridiculous events. The relay event was called the frozen chicken trudge, and instead of a baton, team members carried and passed off an actual frozen chicken as they slogged through deep snow for their leg of the race. There was a horse patty throw, where contestants pitched frozen horse poop, and the yellow snow penmanship event, held in a discrete part of the yard so men could privately write their names with their urine. The judges would come later and make a decision as to whose writing was the neatest. A snow ramp was built at the bottom of the hill for the distance sledding competition – an event won by whomever went the furthest on the pond after taking the jump on a GT. Max was hesitant about taking part in this event and consequently held the break down for the whole of his descent. He was going so slowly by the time he got to the bottom that he simply stopped on top of the ramp and then just sat there not knowing what to do. It was hilarious, but nobody laughed. Everyone loudly and heartily agreed that he had made a good attempt, and congratulated him for trying. Such nice people!
There is a winter meteor shower called the Alpha Centaurids which occurs every year in early February. It was predicted to be especially bright and spectacular one year, and Evelyn invited the kids and me over to watch on a night which was forecast to be perfectly clear. There is virtually no light pollution in Millbrook and the large hill on her property provides an unobstructed view of the cosmos, so it promised to be quite a show. I set my alarm for 3 a.m. on the night in question and woke the kids up when it went off. We all bundled into our winter gear, grabbed some blankets I had purposely left by the door, and went over to the Raabs’. There were several tarps covered by blankets and sleeping bags laid out on top of the hill, and some people we knew, including George, Dustin, and Jared, had already staked out their spots. The boys called Max and Hannah over, and we all snuggled in together. I had just asked George where his wife was when she crested the hill balancing a tray of mugs filled with steaming hot chocolate – the kids’ drinks topped with marshmallows, and the adults’ laced with booze. The meteor shower was spectacular, the company was excellent, but as always it was the kindness and thoughtfulness of Evelyn and her crew which made that night so memorable.
At one point Evelyn added turkeys to her menagerie. One afternoon her large male turkey, Lurch, came through the fence and made for my children. I knew Lurch was a brute because he had beaten up his mate, cutting her so deeply with his beak and claws that Evelyn and a friend had had to use maxi-pads as bandages to stem the bleeding. I felt bad for the poor bird, but there is something inherently funny in seeing a large fowl strutting around the yard with feminine hygiene products strapped to its wings and body. I am afraid of most animals, and Lurch was no exception. I picked up a shovel with which I tried to nudge him through the fence, but when it became apparent that he had no intention of leaving, I simply hustled the kids into the house and let him have free range. Moments later my husband came home and, being absolutely fearless, he immediately ran out with only a broom for protection. He repeatedly swatted Lurch’s ass until he was back on the Raabs’ property, and then securely locked the gate behind him.
There were two ferrets in the Raabs’ house for a while as well. Evelyn and I would meet up every Sunday morning in her kitchen for coffee and a chat, and so I could get my eggs for the week. The only time I didn’t enjoy these visits was when the ferrets were around – everything would be fine until all of a sudden one of them would slink across my foot and send me shooting upright with a frightened squeal. One time when the kids were all playing hide and seek, my daughter Hannah chose a tiny little cupboard upstairs as her hiding place. She was the only one small enough to fit in the space and felt sure they wouldn’t even look for her there. The game had been going on for some time when she heard a shuffling noise behind her. The cubby was pitch black so she couldn’t see what had moved, but she instinctively turned to look anyway. Just then something slithered across her hand and she popped up with a scream, banging her head and scraping her arms as she scrambled out the tiny door. Hannah had been ferreted, and I empathized entirely with her plight.
The Raabs were perfect neighbours, other than the occasional run-in with creepy or aggressive animals. They welcomed me into their social circle without hesitation, looked after my kids whenever I asked, proved staunch allies through the dissolution of my marriage, and supported me during my husband’s illness and after his death. I always feel at home when I’m at their house, and am inexpressibly grateful to have had them literally and figuratively beside me for so many years. Everyone should be so lucky.