Petunias in the park

Photo: Jock Smith

By Patricia Williams

I went back to Gage Park the summer I turned 60. It had been more than 40 years since I had last seen it, and something about hitting that terrifying next decade had created a gnawing nostalgia. The road ahead was shortening, and the route travelled to get to this place and time was starting to drop off at the edges. I wanted another glimpse of that summer before it turned to gossamer and floated away on the winds of imperfect memory.

There was a festival the Saturday I went back, and parking was non-existent. After driving around in circles, I found a spot in the funeral home parking lot across the road from the park. I could see the landscape clearly from that vantage point and rolled down my car window.

The park was decked out for Canada 150 celebrations. Flowerbeds were formed into a perfect red-and-white floral maple-leaf flag. They stood out against the impossibly green grass. I glanced around at the children hanging on to strollers as more adventurous ones ran ahead of scrambling parents. Older couples leaned on each other making their way slowly around the manicured beds. The maple trees seemed so much larger than I remembered, and their canopies left more shade than sun.

I scanned the park from one side to another looking for the spot. It had been cool, dark and secluded that night. A small gust of wind blew from the south, and to my right, the leaves parted gently. There was a quick glimpse of the white gingerbread trim. I smiled. It was still there.

Mike and I had known each other for a brief time when we lived in the same apartment building when we were 13 or 14 years old. He was six-foot-four with sandy red hair. His long, lean frame made him a natural runner. We were friends, but deep down I had a crush of teenage proportions. He took me to my first rock concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, he held my hand and the first time he smiled at me, he took my breath away. After a year or so he moved away. There was the occasional letter and a few short long-distance calls.

The summer I turned 16, Mike called me unexpectedly and we arranged to go to the movies together. That year, American Graffiti filled the theatres with teenage love, old-fashioned rock ‘n roll and an impossibly young Harrison Ford in a ’55 Chevy 150.

After an evening of shared popcorn, Cokes and some more hand holding, we drove to Gage Park. Mike parked his dad’s new blue Pinto on a side street, and in the disappearing summer light, we walked through the summer gardens.

The park ran along the main road into town and was really more of a small flower garden than a park. It spanned just a few blocks and was only a few hundred feet wide. Each year the flowerbeds were filled with white and pink or white and purple petunias. The colour scheme changed each year, but order and precision seemed the guiding rule. The grass was perfectly cut, and no one ever walked on it. I never saw any work crews or gardeners. No one planting or weeding. The park appeared fully formed each year as if by magic.

Along the edges of the concrete pathways stood massive maple trees. Bright green in the summer months, they displayed red, orange and yellow in the fall. I think the leaves must have fallen in neat and orderly piles as well, to be swept away by the ghostly ground crew. There was never a carpet of crunchy leaves, the smell of decay or the first whiff of winter snow.

Shiny black chain fences kept dogs and children away from the tidy beds, and there were no climbing structures, swings or baseball diamonds. It was a place where you made your way sedately along the curved paths from one side to the other.

In the centre stood the obligatory bandshell. A shiny white octagon, it was lifeless except for a few days a year. There was usually another black chain at the foot of the stairs to prevent anyone from having a seat on its freshly painted steps.

We strolled along softly chatting about the movie, the music and the characters. We held hands again, our palms sweaty, and we occasionally brushed against each other’s arms or hips. The sun had finally set, and the park lights had come on, casting shadows amongst the trees, giving the white and pink petunias a silvery glow.

We walked from one end to the other, mindful that Mike had to get the car home before 11. In front of the band shell, the trees were densely packed, and the streetlights couldn’t fully penetrate the foliage. For a split second, I felt a light breeze, and I could smell the faint perfume of the petunia beds. With a slight turn, Mike bent his head towards mine. There, in Gage Park, I had my first kiss.

With my face to the breeze, I closed my eyes and savoured the memory of innocence and first love.  As my journey moves down its road, the paths and maple trees of Gage Park may blur at the edges of my brain. But whenever there is a light summer breeze carrying the spicy sweetness of petunias, I remember that 16-year-old boy and the night he kissed me by the bandstand.

Patricia Williams wrote this memoir during Anna Rumin’s GCC class in memoir writing.

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