When some people talk about childhood memories, they often recall some intimate detail of the things they experienced, but don’t always remember the surrounding events. It’s those specific details that are engrained in our minds that bring back some of the treasured (or sometimes forgettable) memories. But it’s also the surrounding details that help fill in the gaps and help you contextualize the memory. Sometimes, these become the true memories that you recall because they help you lead up to that event.
On a recent day trip to Toronto, I had an opportunity to relive one of my early memories.
Growing up in Kingston, my parents would often make weekend trips to Toronto to pick up specific Chinese groceries that they couldn’t get locally. Leaving our home early in the morning, we would get to Toronto late in the morning and make our way to Chinatown (Dundas and Spadina area) and park our car on on the local neighbourhood streets. I can maybe only recall a couple of times that we used an actual parking lot.
As we arrived, we made our way to the streets of Chinatown and the all too familiar smells and scenes would unfold before my eyes. Though this time I was a little early compared to when my parents and I would normally arrive, I could see the vendors setting up their stands. Stacking boxes and crates full of fruits and vegetables in front of their shops, mixed with the all too familiar smells of Chinese herbs from nearby busineses. Not exactly your secret 11 herbs and spices from the Colonel, but certainly a mix of something that I’d gotten used to.
The streets, as I recall, weren’t exactly the cleanest in the world. But these days, it seemed a bit more sanitary. Sure, there are still a few cigarette butts littered on the ground, but for the most part, it was much cleaner than what it used to be. Not having to dodge the mystery puddles of water and whatever sticky goo that used to litter the sidewalks made the walk a bit more enjoyable.
Even with some new businesses, shops and restaurants, people passed through the streets as if it had never changed. The overall evolution of the area kept at a minimum.
As I walked, I stumbled onto another all too familiar location. Though some of the signage was not quite as I remembered it, the building and the steps leading into it were. A local restaurant that my family used to frequent on their trips to Chinatown. There were 2 floors, I used to think they were two separate restaurants, and by all accounts, they could have been. Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass up a chance to have some dim sum.
Though I don’t remember much of the experience from my youth, I do remember the crowds. The throngs of people packing the entrance, waiting for their number to be called so they can go to their table. The host typically having to yell over the noise of the patrons and the customers next in line having to make sure they can hear everything. I was here on a weekday this time, so the crowds were non-existent. In fact, I wasn’t even sure the restaurant was open. As I entered, I was greeted with not loud chattering or the clattering of dishes, but with an eery stillness and calmness that I was not used to.
While I’m certain COVID took its toll on this business like many others, this was still a strange experience for me.
As I sit down, the server brings a pot of Jasmine tea, the main staple of the meal. The memories are starting to come back.
As I place my order for food, I notice the absence of the ubiquitous food carts. These are the carts of delicious dim sum offerings that are being pushed around while the staff call out the specific food they are peddling. While I do notice some carts coming out, they are bringing out specific food ordered by customers. It wasn’t until later when I was about to leave that some of the carts started coming out. Perhaps a stroke of luck on my part to prevent me from ordering too much.
I did what I could to restrain myself from ordering too much. Even then, I barely finished the food I did order. As I sat there letting everything digest, I notice other orders passing me by and remembering how yummy those dishes tasted.
Though it was tempting, in the end, I resist. Satisfied with my options and the memories they brought to me, the meal acts as the cherry on top of a day filled with quiet reflection.
As I sat at my table, I started to truly reminisce about my past. Texting my wife started to bring back a flood of memories that I had not originally set out to find. The food, the smells, the environment, all brought me back to a time a place that I had long forgotten and never truly understood until now.
All of those times my parents took me here and all of those times I dreaded coming. I couldn’t fathom the thought that those experiences would form such a lasting and incredible memory. Times have changed, new facades and new people. And yet, among the crowds, I see what were past versions of me, my Mom and my Dad.
I didn’t start the day trying to find a memory, it found me.