As the famous song once said, “A House is not A Home,” but this one certainly was. It was a place where memories were made, stories were shared, and love was felt. It was a place where family gathered for Sunday dinners and Christmas Eve gift openings. It was a place where neighbors became friends, and where dogs roamed the yard. It was a place where the smell of fresh baked bread and donuts filled the air, and where the Christmas lights twinkled on the snow. It was a place where the creak in the stairs and the sound of the wood stove crackling were familiar and comforting. It was a place where, even though the physical structure may be gone, the memories and the love that were built there will always remain.
Growing up as a young boy in the eighties, there was no place I loved more than my grandmother’s house in Keenans. Keenans is a small hamlet that lies along the Miramichi River and it was there that I spent endless summers exploring the great outdoors and making memories that would stay with me forever.
My sister Jennifer and I spent a good chunk of our childhood at Gram’s house, often staying all night with her on the weekends and eventually many weeknights – Gram didn’t like to stay alone. I slept in the bedroom across the hall from Gram’s. Before bed, I would always check on her to make sure she took her pills, and in the morning, she would always yell out from downstairs to wake me up for breakfast. I’d snuggle up on the couch with a bowl of cereal in hand, eagerly anticipating the latest episode of Mr. Dressup or Romper Room, yearning for that moment when Fran would work her magic with her mirror and call out my name. She never did.
My grandmother’s house was a modest one, but it was always filled with warmth and love. From the moment I stepped inside, I felt at home. It was that two-story home where my grandparents raised their ten children. I remember climbing the steep staircase to the second floor, the wood creaking under my feet as I went. Each step was well-worn and held a lifetime of memories. The bedrooms were cozy, with old-fashioned wallpaper and windows that let in plenty of light.
In her kitchen, the smell of freshly baked bread and fried donuts filled the air. Her homemade bread was always warm and soft, perfect for slathering with butter or dipping in gravy. And her donuts were simply the best. When they were golden brown and crispy, she would dust them with sugar, and we would devour them while they were still warm. The kitchen was the heart of my grandmother’s home, and her love and care for her family was evident in every delicious bite.
In the afternoons, the kitchen table was a hub of activity, especially when her brothers-in-law, Ephriam, Gerard, and Hugh, came to visit. They would sit around the table, sipping cups of tea and snacking on homemade donuts that my grandmother had made earlier in the day. I loved listening to their conversations, as they reminisced about the past and shared stories from their youth. As Gerard told his stories, I would listen attentively while he rolled paper in his hands – a little habit of his. They would sometimes speak of my grandfather Joseph. I never knew my grandfather Joe, as he passed away years before I was born, and the few family photographs that I had seen were my only connection to him. But, in a way, these visits with his brothers helped me to feel closer to him.
The house had a welcoming front veranda with a wraparound built-in bench, and it was the perfect spot to relax on a warm evening. It would later be converted into a windowed porch, but I favored the freedom of the veranda. I remember sitting there with my grandmother, listening to the crickets chirping and the soft rustle of the leaves in the trees, watching the fireflies dancing in the warm summer breeze. I remember my grandmother’s sisters-in-law, Grace, Marie and Yvonne, sitting with Gram, chatting and gossiping about the latest news. They’d always have a funny story to tell.
On other days, she’d have a visit from Beatrice, one of her neighbours who lived up the road. I remember how she would often walk down to visit and chat for hours on the front veranda, sipping tea and enjoying each other’s company. Beatrice had a boisterous laugh! I can still picture her sitting on the porch, her head thrown back in laughter, and it brings a smile to my face even now.
Gram’s house was not only a place for family gatherings and memories but also a haven for beloved pets. Gram’s dog, Brownie, was her constant companion and was always by her side, wagging his tail and looking up at her with adoration. He would follow her everywhere, from around the house and yard, out to the mailbox, and even down the road to my Uncle Ernie’s camp, eager to be wherever she was. Uncle Billy’s three-legged dog, Lucky, was also a fixture of the house. He would spend hot summer days digging holes under the front porch steps to cool down in the sand, and we would often find him napping there with Brownie.
Ernie’s camp was a small rustic cabin that stood below the side hill, next to the brook. We would walk down the path to the camp and would explore the woods and play by the brook, skipping rocks across the glistening water.
The memories of those happy times spent there remain just as vivid as those spent at my grandmother’s house. In fact, they’re a reminder of the many special places and moments that make up the tapestry of my childhood, each one a thread in the fabric of my past that has helped to shape the person I am today.
Across the brook and up the hill was Lou’s store – a small, cozy one-room shop that was the go-to place for my grandmother to send me for things like eggs and, at the time, cigarettes. It was a different time back then, before the era of cell phones and social media, and I was just a curious seven-year-old kid walking down to the store, picking up a pack of ‘smokes’ for my grandmother, who’d be watching from the other side of the hill. It was something that was not unusual at the time, and Lou would always give me a kind nod, a friendly smile and a bag of penny candy as he handed me the goods, his wife Patsy holding the door open for me. I’d race back across the brook with a bag of cherry sours in one hand and a pack of Rothmans King Size in the other.
One of the best memories of spending time at Gram’s was having my cousins stop by to play Red Rover, Hide and Seek, and other games that never seemed to get old. The kids that lived in Keenans were all cousins, whether it be first or second, twice removed. We would play outside for hours on end on the front lawn with its uneven dips and rises, until the sun had set, and the streetlights flickered to life. It was our sign that it was time to head indoors, but we never wanted to leave the fun and laughter behind. Sometimes we would stay a little longer and one by one the mothers of Keenans would stand on their front porches and call out to their children, beckoning them to return home. We would make our way back to our respective houses, filled with fond memories of the day’s adventures and eager anticipation for what the next day would bring.
My grandmother never scolded us for getting dirty or making a mess. Instead, she would let us be kids, and we loved her for it. We knew that no matter how much mud we tracked into the house, or how many grass stains we got on our clothes, we would always be welcomed with open arms.
In Ephriam’s yard, there stood a mighty tree that captured my imagination as a young boy. Its thick branches reached towards the sky, and its sprawling roots seemed to go on forever. I would spend hours climbing and exploring that tree, feeling like I was on top of the world when I reached its highest branches. Sometimes, my cousins would join me, and we would play games or just sit and chat while swaying in the gentle breeze. The tree was a constant presence in our lives, a symbol of the unchanging nature of our childhood in Keenans.
When we weren’t exploring the brook or climbing trees, we would often play in the sandpile at the “crutch of the road”. It was a spot just a short walk from my grandmother’s house where the Howard and Foot Bridge Roads split in two, creating a triangular-shaped area that became our playground. The sandpile was our favorite spot, and we would dig tunnels, and make roads for our toy cars.
Swimming in the river was another favorite activity of mine. We would often swim out to the abutment, where the river was deeper and the water was cooler. As we swam, we would take turns climbing up onto the abutment and jumping back into the river with a splash.
When I wasn’t playing outside, I would lounge in the living room of Gram’s house, watching old episodes of Cheers, Murder She Wrote and reruns of The Littlest Hobo on her analog TV. The TV had two channels, six and twelve – the CBC and CTV, and was a relic from another time. It required constant adjustments to the antenna to get a clear picture and once midnight came, all you could watch were test patterns.
Laying on the floor watching hours of classic TV, I could always hear my mother and her sisters playing cards in the next room. A soft background hum filled the room, created by the shuffling of the deck and the gentle clinking of teacups on the kitchen table. Sometimes, I would peek over at their game, watching as they laughed and joked with each other. Some nights, the porch would be alive with the sound of my uncles playing darts. The rhythmic thud of the darts hitting the board, accompanied by the occasional cheer or groan, filled the air with an energetic buzz.
Sunday dinners and Christmas Eve were always special occasions at my grandmother’s house in Keenans. Every Sunday, many of my aunts and uncles would gather around the kitchen table for a big family meal of meat and potatoes, and of course homemade rolls.
And on Christmas Eve, we would all sit around the tree, trimmed with tinsel and bulbs, and watch Gram open her presents. The room would be filled with laughter and excitement with Kenny and Dolly’s Once Upon a Christmas album playing in the background. The warmth of the ever-burning wood stove would spread throughout the room, making it feel extra cozy. Gram would bring out her fresh-baked molasses cookies and cinnamon rolls. I remember those days well, the days when time seemed to stand still, as if it had paused to take a breath.
Sadly, my grandmother’s house in Keenans is no longer standing. In its place is an empty lot, with nothing but grass and a few scattered trees. It’s a strange feeling to look at that empty space and know that it used to be the place where I spent so many happy days as a child.
But even though the physical house is gone, the memories remain. I can still close my eyes and picture the front veranda, the creaking stairs, and the living room floor where we watched TV. I can still hear the laughter and chatter of my aunts and uncles, and I can still taste the homemade donuts and cups of tea. I can still picture my grandmother gently swaying in her rocking chair, lost in thought while taking small sips of her King Cole, with her loyal Brownie resting at her feet.
In a way, those memories are even more precious now that the house is gone. They serve as a reminder of the love and joy that once filled that space, and of the special bond that my family shared. And while I may never be able to go back to that house, those memories will always be with me, a cherished part of my past that I can carry with me always.
Read more about Gram and her life here: Memories of Mama – A Tribute to my Grandmother