Million young poets
Screamin’ out their words
To a world full of people
Just livin’ to be heard
My parents paid $9,500 in 1963 for their one and only house just outside the London city limits. They needed two mortgages in order to finance the home on Kostis Avenue and I seem to recall the first mortgage was for 25 years (not amortized but actual length) at 2% interest. The last figure may not appear very remarkable except to those of us who remember mortgages hitting a peak of 20% (Olga and I paid 12.5%, which we thought was a bargain, on our first property). Indeed the price was miniscule and the stories quaint in the shadow of today’s soaring prices and news headlines of a housing crisis but the hard work, the risk and the sacrifice were equivalent.
My parents started in rental units, moving yearly, adding a child at each new residence. First was a 1959 relocation from Belmont to a rented unit on Talbot Street in London where Gary was born. In the following year, they changed homes again, this time to Piccadilly street where I arrived as the second child, five days short of the first’s birthday. In 1961 they relocated to the farm, which is now the corner of Commissioners Road and Highbury, where Peter came into the world 13 months after my emergence. Then in 1963 they bought a house on Kostis Avenue; Michael was born two years later. I suspect Dad may have just started working at Kelco, a small machine shop in London, offering a better wage than employment with Toon Verboom, a Dutch landscaper who serviced large estate homes in and around the university. The new job helped facilitate their ability to purchase a house.
Kostis Avenue was a dead-end gravel road with 17 houses, situated outside the city limits, surrounded by fields, blasted through out the night with the warning horns of the freight trains riding the CNR tracks, so close to the airport you could see the planes at the end of the runway from the backyards. The house itself was second last from the end, a Strawberry Box structure (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_box_houses ) encased in grey asbestos-cement siding shingles. It was one and a half storeys with two bedrooms upstairs where us boys slept without air conditioning: Gary and I in one room, Peter and Michael in the other.
The lower floor consisted of small, segmented rooms designated for their specific purpose: eat-in kitchen, front room with the TV, parent’s bedroom, tiny playroom and the bathroom. It only ever had one washroom: toilet, sink and bathtub; everyone simply had to wait their turn. The front entrance opened into the living room and was rarely used. From a door in the narrow hallway, you descended an open staircase into a solid concrete walled, unfinished basement to access the oil furnace, the sump pump and the wringer washer. Clothes were hung on the clothesline out back in the summer or on the indoor line in the winter. Cement blocks lined the dirt driveway so the car could park beside the back door where we would enter by way of the rickety wooden steps into the windowless kitchen.
The septic tank was buried immediately behind the house; the water was drawn from the neighbour’s well. In the far back of the 1/3 acre property, divided by a fledgling pear tree and accompanying flower garden, a large vegetable garden was cultivated. The yard was not contained with a fence but rather was wide open on both sides resembling a large recreation park.
I cannot imagine how the MLS would have listed the place as it lacked the basic amenities so many people expect in their homes today. My parents viewed it quite differently and anticipated the benefits of their real opportunity to enter the housing market. My father was reminded of his Tilburg home, the location similar to where he grew up on the edge of town looking out over agricultural fields; my mother envisioned potential, ways to improve, to make the most of the situation, to make the house a home. It was what they could afford at the time and it represented their continuing integration into Canadian life.
Part of the attraction, as well, was the proximity to other Dutch immigrants. This picture is one of the earliest dated with the house on Kostis Avenue. In the middle are Harry and Leina Willems, standing in between Dad’s parents who were visiting for their one and only time in Canada. It was Harry Willems who alerted my parents to the availability of the house, right beside their own, at the end of Kostis Avenue. A small enclave of Dutch families lived there already: the Willems, the Hoornicks, and the van Geels. Harry Willems was a bricklayer working various jobs; Fred Hoornick was a pipe fitter at the GM train engine plant ten minutes away by car; the van Geels were chicken farmers whose barns were on a concession road further east.
The Kostis Avenue residents were all working class. The Makis lived directly across the street, a very young couple, the husband a truck driver who died in a drunk driving car accident. Gord Appleby was an electrician at Firestone and a functioning alcoholic; Mr. Puckett was a driver at an Oxygen company who was booted from the small brick bungalow when his wife dumped him for someone she met online; Reid was a postal driver who parked his dilapidated vehicles all over the property. Next door lived the McIntyres who owned a local auto garage and treated their property like one. Beside them was Shirley Guite whose husband worked at the GM plant, died suddenly leaving her, a stay-at-home widow in serious financial debt. The street had many of the trappings of an East of Adelaide existence ( https://lfpress.com/2014/04/04/song-articulates-the-divide-known-as-eoa ).
As kids we were oblivious, relishing the seemingly boundless alfresco playground our home on Kostis had to offer. The neighbourhood had numerous families and a bountiful of children for fun and games. The minimal traffic allowed for few interruptions when playing hockey on the road. We had access to a large vacant field where a makeshift baseball diamond was built and became the site of summer Saturday evening pickup games involving the male contingent from the street running the bases in front of spouses and girlfriends and sisters. In later years, the field was transformed into a figure eight dirt track for the young Willems boys to race their home made go-cart. They had also built a tree-fort in a large oak on the edge of the farmer’s field where we spent numerous hours hiding away. Across the open field stood the “woods” where the four of us would be engrossed for entire days marauding about, building forts, reenacting war games. Across the train tracks, surrounded by a fence, was the Somerville dump where we would scrounge for scrap games, attempting to stay out of sight of the security guards. Each day our mother would send out her four rambunctious boys in the morning, allowing for endless exploration, never looking for us except to return home for lunch or dinner.
The limitations of Kostis Avenue did not manifest themselves until we became teenagers and adults. Living outside the city, absent of public transportation, meant you could not get anywhere without a car. This dead-end street adjacent to a highway offered no place to embark for a leisurely stroll. Not until I left London did I look back and see Kostis in its true colours, a street jammed with automobiles, ill-kept houses and derelict yards which detracted from those attempting to improve their lot. The condition of my parent’s immediate neighbouring properties grew increasingly worse, needing ever larger evergreens to hide the mess.
Mom understood how their improved economic situation could allow my parents to enhance their situation by moving to a different community. The children had all moved out and Dad was earning a peak union wage at 3M. The time was right to move up, to demonstrate their lifelong accomplishments and leverage the home for which they stretched and sacrificed into that dream location with the large kitchen counters, modern luxuries and appointed gardens. Dad, however, was not a risk taker.
He was comfortable in his large yard and could not understand why they would willingly undertake another mortgage. Over the years they made numerous changes by constructing a small addition with a fireplace, adding a car port to shelter the side entrance, building a large wooden deck in the back, installing new windows throughout, fashioning a finished basement and decorating an ever changing interior. It was a very clean and extremely well kept home so Dad could not fathom living anywhere else. In spite of these hard earned improvements, Olga and I encouraged a move as well, believing the right location would bring the benefits of a walkable community near shopping, parks and people and help transition to a life easier on aging people.
They did not sell and stayed. When Dad retired a sense of stagnation became evident.
The home began feeling more like a house with the vegetable garden reduced to a mere patch, and the flower beds mostly eliminated. Mom stopped all of her craft activities and Dad sat more often watching the grass grow. Dreams of increased travel were hampered by Mom’s health and Dad’s growing reluctance to spend lest the financial well run dry. When Mom suddenly died, Dad remained ensconced until he finally relented and determined that living near one of the boys would be better. The house was sold for $220,000 ten years after Mom’s passing, 52 years after it was purchased. Dad moved into a retirement home in Wallaceburg, five minutes away from Michael and Michelle. He eventually succumbed to his illness in 2019 after a final, forced relocation to a long-term disability facility.
My parent’s life of working hard to acquire that first house, to make the most of the situation, to build a home regardless of the circumstances was a guidance for the possible. Lessons are learned from observing inaction as well. Their default decision to remain at Kostis when there was an opportunity for moving forward causes me to reflect on my own situation, to consider ongoing possibilities as our circumstances evolve, to reflect on how we proceed, to carefully consider our actions and what we need to change, to stay vibrant, to continue living. It is a reminder for constant re-assessment on what would benefit both myself and Olga, and for an honest reflection on what example we are establishing for our own children.
Maybe someday those words will be heard.
Hope they’ll have a better understanding.Check It Out – John Mellencamp