If we are lucky, Home is the heart of our life. It’s where we grow and learn and laugh and love.
In 2005, I was ready for a break from Montreal. It’s such a beautiful yet culturally complicated city. I was ready for a reprieve from the cosmopolitan center of the Two Solitudes that had defined my world. My mother is from Alberta. My grandpa was a United Church Minister, so my mom moved from manse-to-manse spending childhood years in Coleman and coming of age in Stettler.
In 2005, Ralph Klein made his feelings known about same-sex marriage and some friends scratched their heads that we were leaving Montreal as a same-sex couple to relocate to Lethbridge, AB but I believe that every corner in Canada is a gem. I was born and raised in Ottawa and am hard-wired to embrace Canadian pride. My closest uncle and aunt have lived in Lethbridge since the 1960s. We would drive from my grandparents’ house in Calgary to visit Lethbridge and visit Uncle Allan and Aunt Kerry and my cousins.
We had arranged to meet our realtor, Scott Maxwell, at a coffee shop - the Penny Coffee House on Fifth Street South. We parked the little white Hyundai sedan on this Saturday afternoon and there was no one in sight. It was a warm but breezy July day. I remember feeling nervous. I remember seeing a tumbleweed blowing across the street. I wondered to myself “Where am I? Where are all the people?” This made me feel even more nervous. We found the Penny. This is where the people were. Scott found us and was so gracious and welcoming. Scott was going to show us about five different houses. I loved the first one. It was a Victorian on 13th St S just south of 6th Ave. It was blue stucco and it had a clawfoot tub and an exposed brick chimney. I loved it. Annie could discern that a cat had been living there and opting out of its litter box. That was a deal-breaker. We looked at others and finally, we saw the little house on 10th St South. It was even more lovely than the photos on MLS. Our hearts were stolen from the first moment.
This is the house that became our son’s first home. Beautiful big skylight pouring through the windows, but we were at the mercy of bellflower in our rare double-wide yard, and wasps nesting under our 100-year-old cedar shingles and entering our bungalow through the roof where the chandelier hung. There wasn’t an ideal spot for me to make films or for Annie to have an art studio. The insurance company let us know the knob-and-tube was a problem and we discovered 80s DIY renos could get us in a pickle with modern-day housing code. There was always something in need of repair and our sorrowful neighbour’s struggles were audible when windows were open. Perhaps we needed a new house.
Just two blocks down the street I spotted this 1950s or 60s bungalow for sale. Alberta was Booming with a capital “B”. The price was so much higher than our 2005 home, but we were all making hay while the sun-shined in 2008. So, we bought it. Gracious roomy, another double-wide lot with a full-renovated to code house. Moments later real estate crashed, and our 2008 dream home lost its value. It didn’t matter because the house was still a home.
It was 4 a.m. on Labour Day weekend. My community changed forever in those wee hours. I stopped feeling safe, and I stopped feeling at home.
“I said, ‘The car is on fire.’”
By the time Annie made her way to the kitchen to set eyes on the sky-high blaze, the windows on the car began to pop and shatter from the heat and the baby started crying because the distorted and surreal volume around us escalated.
The baby was crying more loudly. We had to move more quickly. But there were 20-foot orange flames crackling and encroaching onto our house from the incendiary car fire in the driveway adjacent to the kitchen. I stood and moved in slow motion through what I assumed war would sound like. She got the baby and I called 9-1-1 and we left the house by the front door as quickly as we could.
Annie frantically, almost angrily implored me to “Tell them to hurry!” I calmly asked 9-1-1 to hurry – it seemed to go without saying but... They wanted to keep me on the phone until the fire engines were within earshot. Our neighbours were all on their lawns by this time. Annie swaddled our 14-month old in her arms when our neighbours across the street coaxed us into the calm, safety of their home. They gave their grandchild’s toy fire engine to the baby to play with as we watched the scene through their picture window. I went outside to wait for the firefighters. The night sky was black and clear – a severe contrast to the orange flames burning in our driveway. I could not believe my eyes. Our modest family car was engulfed in flames. The sound and crackle were deafening. But most of all, I felt helpless. One neighbour walked over to me to see if I was okay. I smiled and just as the firefighters arrived on the scene I said, “I always hated that car. Crumby wiring.” The flames had just begun to inch their way to our newly renovated garage that had been completed the week prior after months of contractor delays. The fire began to scorch the exterior side of the house, the shared wall with the baby’s room. A few short minutes longer and his would have been first to go up in flames. The firefighters arrived, fought and won. The car didn’t explode. Small miracles.
The firefighter came across the street to talk to me once the fire had come under control.
“Good evening, Ma’am. Is this your vehicle?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” I responded, sheepishly owning up to the car with no guts and bad wiring that just about caused a major disaster.
“Were those things written on the hood of the vehicle before?”
I don’t know how it happened, but all at once my heart sank to horrible depths and I understood. It was not faulty wiring. Someone with deep hate, or sorrow, or nothing at all in their heart set fire to our family car with the baby seat in plain view and a now singed bumper sticker that read, “Commit random acts of kindness.” This did not feel like home. For a long, long time.
Then in 2010, this little company in Lethbridge started building infills in the southside of Lethbridge. Very modern. Out of place and long-time residents were vocal and angry about what the infills were doing to their neighbourhood. But for me, the homes represented a quality of renewal and revitalization that captured my imagination. It was reminiscent of The Big Orange Splot, a children’s picture book from the 1970s. In it the main character, Mr. Plumbean, lives on a "neat street" where all the houses look the same. A seagull flies over his house and drops a can of bright orange paint on his roof, but instead of repainting his house to look like all the others on the street, Mr. Plumbean paints it to resemble his dreams. His neighbours send people to talk him into repainting his house to look like theirs, but everyone he talks to ends up painting their houses like their dreams also. In the end, all the neighbours say: "Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams." The possibility of these infills was uplifting to me.
After experiencing my first Alberta boom and bust as a homeowner, there was no way I was going to spend copious amounts of money on a new home. Perhaps I could renovate the home we were in to erase the horror of the fire. I had the modern builder in to talk to me about a renovation. I believed we could build up and with our huge lot, we could build-out. So many possibilities. I was informed, “You would be better off to start with something new.” After considering the expense of renovating to code, I concurred. But it would only be possible to stay at our price point and create a modern home with this builder if we built a duplex. I like the idea of shared walls – after the fire, it is deeply comforting to know you are not alone. It reminded me of the homes I loved from my young adulthood in Toronto and Montreal. Shared walls are part of my vision of a dream home.
Working to build this duplex infill with this young builder was an absolute dream. Not only was it the first time I had built a home from concept to keys, it was a fresh start after the residual nightmare of being fire-bombed at our home. He built our dream house and in 2017 we moved into our Lethbridge dream home. And as luck would have it, we share a wall and an alley with dream neighbours with lots of kids that make our family-life fun and full of laughter for our only child who has neighbours his age to call on and play with all year-long. With this infill, we won the neighbour jackpot.
After 50+ years of not living in Alberta, my mother decided it was time to return to her home province to be closer to my family in Lethbridge, and her brother and sister-in-law and my sister and her family in Calgary. She saw how elated we were with our young modern builder who treated us so, so well – even giving us a free place to live on the westside while we dealt with delays on the completion of our home on the southside. My mom decided she would sell her home in beautiful Oak Bay, Victoria to build an infill near us in Lethbridge. After some conversation, she and the builder who I considered a friend came to terms. He would build her forever home.
Right out of the gate, there were delays. Lots and lots of delays. The terms of my mom’s builder agreement were drastically different from the simplicity that Annie I enjoyed. After the completion date kept on moving, and while the build seemed stalled at a foundation and nothing more, I suggested my mom cut her losses and purchase a finished home. But she is deeply ethical and felt she could not renege on their plan to build a new home. After great trials and tribulations, it was official - she had sold her home in Victoria in 2018. Her home in Lethbridge was nowhere near done and my mother was officially homeless.
The winter of 2019 was cold. It was a shock to the system for someone who had spent the last 14 winters in Victoria, BC. My mom shuttled between our house in Lethbridge and my sister’s in Calgary. The build in Lethbridge seemed to remain stalled. Then came the March 2019 email to my mom and text to me. The long and short of it: the builder that built my dream home was abandoning my mother’s build at about 75 per cent completion. He was going out of business. But at the end of the day, my mom was left with an uninhabitable property. I won’t even delve into the minutiae of the troubles and chaos created by the builder’s decision. There were unimaginable layers and layers and layers of headache and heartbreak to manage. Not the welcome back to Alberta I had hoped for. Enter Gary Schlichter.
When I didn’t know what to do, Gary Schlichter of Leading Edge and his team of excellent tradespeople saved the day. Part of the Lethbridge Living experience is that we take care of each other when the chips are down. That’s what our neighbours did after the fire in 2008, and this is what Gary Schlichter and his team did for me and my mother in 2019. This is Lethbridge Living. Moving from Montreal to Lethbridge in 2005, I really thought my partner and I would be here for a couple of years. It proved a land of opportunity and a couple of years turned into 14. And when I raised the prospect of returning to Central Canada for a dream job opportunity with a film festival in Toronto, our 12-year-old said with wide-eyes, “I don’t want to leave Lethbridge. I love Lethbridge.” With those words, the rollercoaster of a resettlement was over. Lethbridge is home.