Fast paced modern life, at least for myself, transforms my home into a more a “space” rather than a “place.” By connecting with the history of my home, I can pause time and gain a new perspective on the hearth.
Sleep. Eat. Leave. Come back. Eat. Repeat.
Being a serial renter, the houses I occupy are just places to rest my head, to dump my stuff in between work and school, and microwave my Michelina’s mac n cheese. I rarely move beyond seeing four walls, and acknowledging the histories of these houses.
I tend to forget that just like me, real people lived, worked, and contended with the stresses of urban life here.
Sure, that panini press underneath the liquor cabinet left by the previous tenant reminds me that there was once someone else here, but that’s someone recent. Someone with a lifestyle similar to my own – stuck in the same cycle except with a panini habit.
Sleep. Eat paninis. Leave. Come back. Eat paninis. Repeat.
I ignore this person. They are me, maybe a different facet, but somebody that inhabited this place, didn’t alter it, and then left unnoticed after the lease was up.
A milk cabinet changed all this for me – my perceptive space became a place independent to myself.
I was in the garbage room when I looked up and noticed a milk door.
This small cupboard, scarcely big enough to hold a couple textbooks, opens on the outside and the inside. Inconsequential, another strange thing left behind by a panini-loving version of myself.
Except it isn’t.
The milk door is a relic from another culture. A time when milk man was a career choice, and ice-boxes struggled to fight the good fight against curdling. A place where empties were exchanged for full glass bottles, and many kids were introduced to their first concept of recycling.
Inconceivable as a desirable amenity in modern life, my landlord installed a stairwell over the door.
This cabinet stops me and makes me reflect on past presences – this house was built for people with lifestyles completely unknown to the modern me.
Relics haunt me. They ask me to reconcile the new with the old without losing either. Relics make me want to pause time and learn – go beyond my modern cyclical self and peer into a near past when milk men roamed and ask what happened.
We practice mindfulness, we sometimes indulge, but often the practice of turning inwards leaves us stranded in an intense and self-oriented present. It takes one little confrontation with the fact that it wasn’t always just me here to shock me out of myself.
Milk door or a portal to an existential crisis?
This simple milk door inspired me to go to the London Room in the London Public Library and consider the history of my rental house. Who lived there, what were their lives like, and how rich was London’s vintage milk scene?
The London Room’s directories tell me that my house was built in 1948-1949 as a single family detached. Just one among many as these types of houses dominated 60% of Canada’s new construction in the 1950’s. A date that places it not so much in the distant past, but in a space beyond myself and in the gaps of the spotty memories of my then infantile parents.
This house was undoubtedly a part of the baby boomer population expansion in the postwar years, as the Canadian housing market focussed on improving the access of moderate-income families to owner-occupied housing.
One such new owner was C. T. and his wife K. – the first landlords of the house.
T. was an assistant engineer at a local Hydro company. A job that, according to 1946 combined Canadian and American entrance salaries for engineers, would have earned him roughly $409 a month. While this is a crude estimate based on entrance salaries for all engineers, and not assistant engineers at Hydro companies, T.’s annual intake of about $5,000 would place his family in the 1950 American middle class.
Don’t get too hung up on my use of American economic statistics – the dollar was at par in 1948. Que the collective painful nostalgia as we buy US MacDonald’s “Dollar Menu” items now for over $1.30.
I wonder about how the T.s lived.
Were they shocked and appalled at the advent of parking meters that gathered on London’s streets in ’48? Or were they pleased that more parking opened up downtown for their Chrysler C39? Did they watch as Sir Alexander, the British High Commissioner to Canada, visited the city in ’47? Did they eagerly anticipate the opening of the Stock Coliseum on the Western Fair Grounds?
Would K. later on in the ‘60’s read the writings of Betty Friedan and nod as she reflected back on her time here?
Maybe. But that’s kind of the point.
Like controlled breathing, considering the past is a practice that gets deeper the longer you engage with it. It’s a skill that allows me to contemplate things outside of my narrow realm, and consider my house as as much of an existence that reflects its cumulative experiences as I am.
Experiences only hinted at by strange milk cupboards and discarded panini presses.
I can only guess at the history of my house – the more I learn the more questions I have. But for now I’m on my journey to figuring it out, and hopefully figuring myself out along the way.
If you too want to discover more about your house, visit the London Room at the Public Library.