Monday, October 5, 2009

Stepping Into the Light

By Kim

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 Meadowvale, Ontario, three times a week. Rents were cheap that far outside of Toronto, 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. 

A century later Meadowvale is a heritage village within the boundaries of the city of Mississauga. 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.
The moment my cousin Chris and I crossed over the Credit River on 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, Mississauga 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.

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. Willow Lake. 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.

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.


  1. Great post Kim. The excerpt from Oak Lovers is brilliant. Can't wait for you to finish it.

    Love, Dad

  2. Enjoyed the piece and the pictures. Sounds like a place I would love.

  3. Lorna, you would most certainly love it. We talked to several of the Meadowvale residents and they said there are many rules regarding what can be done with the houses. Nothing can be torn down and anything that can be seen from the lane can only be given a face lift, not altered structurally. I believe even paint colors are strictly monitored. There was more of a town when Carl and Madonna lived there, but it's amazing how it still feels like a place from an earlier era. There are no shops to speak of there now, but a few minutes up the road there are plenty of grocery stores and malls. It is like a little oasis in the middle of suburban Toronto.

  4. Hi Kim, You certainly have a romantic soul! I enjoyed reading about Carl's house in Meadowvale and your search.
    My parents once went on a picnic up in that area and there is a picture of us all sitting about with hampers.

    Your great grandfather would be very proud of you and I'm sure, fascinated by your project. Bet he's looking down even now and smiling!


  5. What a delighfully written recollection, Kim.
    It recalled the day I went in search of Meadowvale, where I had heard Carl Ahrens, my first cousine once removed,had once lived. (This is dating myself!) It must have been well over 10 years ago. I was returning home from visiting my brother. Before heading north, I had determined to find Meadowvale. According to the map it looked to be less than 30-45 minutes away. Lorna is right when she describes it as an oasis in the middle of Toronto! It wasn't that easy to find coming from the direction I was driving, but with persistence I arrived. I remember coming to what must have been the cossroads of that old Village and obsrving the gray wooden houses and sensing I was in the midst of a pioneer settlement. There didn't seem to be a great deal to see. I thought Carl must have lived in one of those old board houses, but which one? The streets were deserted, although, I knew there were people living there, but not seeing anyone and because of time restraints, I didn't venture farther from the main section as you and Chris did. I mentally pictured Carl walking the streets and going into the corner building, which must have been the old general store and post office. I left feeling somewhat unsatisfied, because I had hoped to leave knowing I had seen his house. But now, thanks to Rick, I have finally seen his house and I feel satisfied. (Perhaps it should be plaqued?)
    Before I left the Village that day, I was intrigued to discover the Gooderham Estate; the homestead of one of the members of one of Canada's better Whiskeys, Gooderham & Worts. Years later, when I returned, the property was being torn up in preparation for a new sub-division of homes and I felt distinctly saddened, knowing the authenticity of the Old Village would gradually be destroyed. Not wishing to linger, I moved on. As Maxine suggested, I am sure Carl walks with you when you are in search of his past. The Swedish Seer, Emanual Swedenborg, wrote that in the other world, "Thoughts bring presence and affection brings conjunction." While on earth, we are spirits clothed in a material body, a body we leave behind when we awaken in the other world. I have no doubt, that Carl is present with you in spirit as so much of your heart and mind is focused on him. With your heightened perception you sense his presence, particularly when you discover those places he once dearly lived, loved and painted and where some of his affection must still linger, especially when you turn up!


  6. Dear Kim,
    Your columns should be read by a multitude of readers as it is the sort of information writer's long for and go to writer's clubs and conferences to obtain. You have so skillfully shown how going to a location can bring a story alive. The adventures you and Chris had in discovery are as interesting and vivid as the excerpt from the book about Carl and Madonna You should seriously think of how you can market your column to writer's magazines, writer's clubs etc; how you can gain more readers in every way possible. All the effort you pore into making your column informative, interesting, and compelling reading needs to be utilized by getting it out to the general public. Aunt Betty

  7. Maxine - Yep, that's me. A romantic down to the core.

    Paula - As you know, Carl was also a Swedenborgian, and his faith had a great influence on the mystical quality of his work. He would've been well versed in that passage about thoughts bringing affection and affection bringing conjunction. He certainly believed that, as I have come to believe it. Meadowvale was one of the first places I had visited for my research, and it took time and familiarity for me to recognize the methods my muses (and I do believe it's Madonna and my grandmother, too)use to lead me to things. Today I'd pick up the cues at once. I first felt Carl himself was with me at his grave, a story I'll share here someday. A few days later he was at the Ojibwa reservation in Southampton. Chris felt him there, too.

  8. Thanks, Kim.
    I am delighted and also impressed. A beautiful piece of writing. You should add that the croaking of a frog was the key that unlocked the puzzle as it made me remember Carl's cooking frogs legs as a treat.

  9. Rick,

    I completely forgot that a frog solved the puzzle!

    For the benefit of everyone else, before Rick went to Meadowvale for me, he read the Meadowvale section of Madonna's memoir and knew Carl used to catch frogs by the mill dam to supplement their diet.

    Leave it to another painter to be so perceptive!

    Incidentally, Rick was also the one to find the house my grandmother was born in.

  10. I so enjoyed reading this again. We both know how unhappy you were with the original version of this post. Just goes to show how constructive criticism and brainstorming can turn an okay piece into a stellar one.

  11. Marion Roes09 October, 2009

    Thanks, Kim:

    Your writing is beautiful!

    Marion Roes
    Waterloo Historical Society (Ontario)


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