A sane man would never have left the Meadowvale station in the middle of a snow squall, especially not mere hours before nightfall. Carl, frantic over the idea of leaving Madonna alone overnight, felt the wait may be more perilous than the walk. It would take a day or more before the roads into the village were passable. Crossing the farm fields on foot was more direct anyway, and there would only be more snow to trudge through at daybreak. The pain in his hip already radiated from deep within his bone from standing on the train. There were no chairs in the station. If he remained on his feet much longer, he may be unable to walk at all.
He shielded his eyes against the wind, seeing nothing but a blank white canvas. Heading easterly, he would eventually reach the Credit River. From there he could follow the riverbank to the bridge at Derry Road. This would lead him home.
His dress boots offered no protection against the cold, let alone the snow. Wiggling his toes between steps, he hoped to delay frostbite. He could not hold his hat on his head without exposing his hands to the elements. Damn foolish mistake to leave tuque and gloves at home in April. He knew better than to casually dismiss Mother Nature's moodiness at this time of year.
Back in 1907 my great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens, made the two mile journey from the train station to his home in
, three times a week. Rents were cheap that far outside of Meadowvale, Ontario , which was perhaps the reason that many artists settled in the sleepy little mill town. Madonna Ahrens described their time there in some detail in her memoirs, from their little house on the mill dam, to the large garden Carl insisted on tending despite his bad hip, to the birth of their first daughter, Penelope. Toronto
A century later Meadowvale is a heritage village within the boundaries of the city of
. Getting to it involved most things I can’t stand about life in the 21stcentury; ugly strip malls, industrial parks, road construction, cookie-cutter modern housing developments, and surly gas station attendants who refuse to give directions unless you buy something first. Mississauga
The moment my cousin Chris and I crossed over the
on Credit River Old Derry Road, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. While we were still in the city, there was no trace of it around us. We turned off the radio, opened the windows and listened to the sound of the breeze. My eyes swept over the farm fields gracing either side of the narrow tree-lined avenue, half expecting to see a tall man with a cane trekking across them to greet us. Every house we passed was both immaculate and from an earlier time. I wondered how many of them Carl had been inside, which one he called home. Had he attended the small red-bricked church? Had he ever exhibited his paintings in the town hall?
We parked the car, anxious to rid ourselves of the reminder that we had not truly gone back in time. An elderly gentleman waved at us as we walked past his porch. When we asked about the old mill, he said it was long gone, a gazebo now marking its place. Gone, too, was the old mill pond, then called
. Willow Lake
I held little hope of finding the old Ahrens residence without these landmarks.
The lone envelope I had from that time was addressed to Carl Ahrens – artist – Meadowvale and the family photographs only showed a small portion of the house. Still, Chris and I were in no hurry to leave. We wandered the small gravel lanes of Old Mill Lane and
Pond Street, studying each house and waiting for instinct to tell us it was the right one. While they were all from the right era, the only thing that kept luring us back was a tall oak by the gazebo.
“It looks like something Granddaddy Carl would paint,” Chris remarked.
I shook my head. “It looks like Granddaddy Carl himself. But what’s he pointing at?”
One limb of the tree jutted out dramatically and appeared to be directing us toward the woods. Chris shrugged and went to investigate. A few minutes later he called out for me to follow him. It was a dry creek bed and I could see at once what had his attention. The suns rays filtered through the trees in a particularly haunting way. This, I thought, was something Carl would have painted. It was also something his great-grandson, a talented photographer, must capture on film.
I closed my eyes, listened to the rustling of the leaves, and knew we were close to the house.
A year and a half after visiting Meadowvale I contacted a local historian and obtained an old map of the village. What we had thought was a creek bed was actually the remains of the mill stream. I should have realized this, as the gazebo marked the location of the mill. The dam once sat about three steps to the left of where Chris and I had been. I quickly pulled up the photographs Chris had taken on that day, and my heart leapt into my throat. The light rays that had so hypnotized us were concentrated on that bend, as though illuminating the way for us.
I e-mailed a friend of mine,
artist Rick Taylor, about my discovery. He replied at once; Meadowvale was ten minutes from his home. Did I want him to go investigate? I sent him all the family Meadowvale photos I had. He assured me that the board and batten construction of the house would narrow the choices down significantly and the angle of the light on Carl’s face in one photo suggested they were on the west side of the old mill pond. Mississauga
Two hours later I learned that if Chris and I had simply stepped into the light that day, we would have seen the house.
In this photo you can see the creek bed. We were around that bend, about two steps out of the picture. In the foreground on the right is part of the ruin of the old mill dam. As it wouldn’t have been possible for a house to literally be on the dam, Madonna must have meant that the house was beside it.
Rick, the photographer of the photo above, is standing in what was once the old mill pond, a.k.a.
. This 1909 photo of Carl holding baby Penelope would have been taken only a short distance behind where Rick was. Carl would have faced the house shown in the photo below. Willow Lake
What this experience taught me is that when it comes to researching setting, tools like Google Earth and old photographs can only go so far. I would never have been able to write the scene from The Oak Lovers at the beginning of this post, and certainly not the text that follows, had I not seen those fields for myself, had I not known what Carl’s destination had been that day in the snow squall. My intuition is much stronger now than it had been back in 2004. Were I making my first trip to Meadowvale now I’d have listened more closely to the faint musical refrain of the breeze and walked directly into the light.