Reconciling the town I grew up in with the one I have returned to

Special to the VOICE

When I first moved away from Fonthill I was fresh out of high school, and like the stereotypical teens of country songs and movies, I was eager to leave my small town and not look back. It wasn’t that I didn’t like growing up here—in fact, I have wonderful memories of running around the neighbourhood barefoot, playing capture the flag and road hockey (at least until the streetlights turned on). It was just that I knew there was much more to the world beyond my little hometown, and I wanted to experience it all. So I headed to Europe for a year, then Ottawa for four.

As a result, my contact with Fonthill has been minimal over the last several years. I am aware of the changes that have occurred, and continue to occur. I listen to my parents lament the loss of fields and green space to houses and retail, and the brief visits I make to visit them have afforded me glimpses of that development. From visit to visit I notice that houses have appeared where there were once trees, two-story buildings have doubled in height, and stores have sprung up where there were none before. I continually marvel at the speed of the changes, and join my parents in lamenting the loss of the small town feel—feeling that it has been exchanged for full-on suburbia.

However, even though I am aware of these changes, and even though I have been living in town again for the better part of the past year, Fonthill as it exists today is not the same place that I would think of when I answered the question that inevitably comes up when you travel—where are you from.

I have realized that the place that I imagined whenever I answered this question did not match what I have seen on my most recent visit home. The Fonthill of my mind was something different. It still is.

In the nearly six years that I have been away, including my year home—which has been punctuated by periods of travel—I have answered this question many times. I tend to describe Fonthill as a small town in Niagara. Whether it is or is not is often a matter of perspective. I, for one, am undecided, as I have been to larger and I have been to smaller.

Regardless, in my mind Fonthill is a small town, its size and boundaries not defined by where it starts to meld with Welland, nor by its proximity to Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, only a short drive away. Instead, in my mind its boundaries are defined by the distance my bike could take me when I was younger. Welland is a far off place in some ways, a place you only visit to go to the movies, and St Catharines and Niagara Falls farther still. Fonthill stands alone, isolated from other towns with very little but fields around it.

This isn’t all that’s different from the Fonthill which exists in my mind. The town is less developed, and has fewer buildings in it. For me, the new developments of East Fonthill do not yet exist. The collection of houses, the new community centre, and the new shopping plaza have no place in my mind. Fields stand in their place, stretching into lines of forest that couch the Steve Bauer trail. At times this image even includes the tree nursery at the corner of Highway 20 and Rice Road.

Venture further up Highway 20 to Pelham Street and one finds a cluster of small shops and cafes. The road is absent of buildings higher than two stories. Keith’s stands tall on the northwest corner, across from Klager’s Meats, which in turn is a door down from the bridal shop. These are images of Fonthill that seemed unchanging and immovable for such a long time.

Closer to the town square the banks stand out in my mind, but specific shops do not make it into my image of the town. Instead, as the result of a seemingly relentless turnover rate for many restaurants and stores, my mind has left those shops empty. While living elsewhere, I knew it was likely that those shops would be different each time I visited home.

This is the Fonthill that I think of when I tell people where I am from. It is the image I keep in my mind when away and that I must overwrite again and again each time I return home and remind myself of the changes.

I have to wonder though, if this Fonthill that I hold on to is really that different from the one I have returned to. Outwardly it would appear so. Underneath its appearance however, it seems much the same. The people here are still kind and say hello or smile in passing. Nobody knows everybody in town, but you know a whole lot of people, and if you don’t know the person then you probably know their kid, their cousin, or their friend. The sense of community seems to still be strong. In essence perhaps the two are the same.

That begs the question then: why do I disassociate the Fonthill of my mind with that of today?

Is my problem really just with development? Clearly the new construction stands out as a key difference between present-day Fonthill and the one I think of. Are these the changes that keep me from associating the two versions of the town?

Or does my mind automatically think of a past version because it is what my mind is most familiar with? Have I not been here often enough to update my memories? I question whether the image and memories will update to match what the town looks like today if I live here long enough as an adult.

Or is this the beginning of a lifetime of nostalgia, a “back in my day” outlook on life, where my memories of Fonthill are perpetually locked in the past? Have I already joined of the ranks of those who forever reminisce about the good old days? Perhaps it is possible that my childhood memories will forever colour my image of the town.

It is difficult to know why my mind disassociates the present-day reality of my hometown from the image I form when thinking of it. I would be curious to know why this occurs and if this image will remain for years to come, or whether what comes to mind when I hear “Fonthill” will eventually match that which everyone else sees.

Or perhaps this is normal. Maybe on some level everyone who grew up in Fonthill, or Fenwick, or any town anywhere, experiences this plurality of realities. It is possible we all move through life constantly balancing past and present— seeing today’s reality through yesterday’s filter. Perhaps we each maintain our own private Fonthill— constantly calibrating it against those of our fellow residents. It is in the assembly of this multitude of images that we can truly find our collective memory, our crowd-sourced reality, our town.



While you’re here…consider taking out a Voice Membership to express your support for local journalism.