What defines a park? Many years ago in Buffalo, New York, I had time to kill while waiting for a bus to take me to Youngstown, Ohio to visit my grandparents. I got on a city bus and got off at a local “park” that had ‘lake” in the name. It turned out to be a relatively small gravel area with an extremely large puddle of muddy water in the middle, some trees on the perimeter, a set of swings, a bench and a surprising absence of birds. I was shocked that this would be called a park.
Sunday dinners at my maternal grandparents’ house are some of my first memories. My Mum had one brother, two sisters, and when tallied, there were ten grandchildren. On Sundays, everyone was invited, in fact expected to come for dinner. Friends, and neighbours were also welcome. My grandmother was a good cook and lived by “throwing another potato in the pot” to stretch meals to accommodate anyone who would walk through the door. Boards or perhaps old doors were put on top of the table, hidden under tablecloths, when there were not enough leaves in the table to accommodate the group. TV tables were for delighted kids when more space was needed. In a pinch, you’d just put your plate on your lap.
Summer was the easiest to accommodate our rambunctious crew. The baseball game of “scrub” was halted, and we’d picnic on blankets outside. Then we’d be off to play in the massive “yard” that included climbing trees, monkey bars, swings, a stream with a pond surrounded by a rock wall, two wooden bridges over the stream, tennis courts, a path around the perimeter to roller skate or ride bikes and a diverse range of trees with prickles, red ants, and long whip branches. Sometimes a blanket was set up and my cousins would share their large collection of comics while sucking on homemade popsicles.
My grandparents were not affluent. Tatlow Park, where they were caretakers, is just one of the many neighbourhood parks open to the public in Vancouver. “Go play outside” was the refrain of my Nanny, Grandpa, aunts and uncles. And when we did, we learned all about working together on collaborative projects, solving fights, making new friends, and noticing the animals, plants, and trees around us throughout the different seasons. We learned that death is part of life and that respect was required to mark the occasion. We reminded each other to never touch a dead thing with your hands. Disease existed and you had to take care. Strangers were potential friends but you always travelled in a pack for safety. We learned what rain smells like and the feeling of sun on your skin when you’re sitting quietly in a hiding spot.
We learned that risks need to be calculated. Roller skating down the “big hill” at the end of the park took skill. So did jumping to the rock in the pond or climbing the big trees. We also learned to watch the direction of the wind carefully if you were going to fly a kite in the park and that a high tangle meant saying goodbye to the kite.
We didn’t go outside to exercise and take care of our physical and mental health or to develop relationships. We played tag, hide n’seek, baseball, climbed on monkey bars and trees, roller skated, rode bikes and ran from each other, ran to the monkey tree, and ran to get dinner. The outdoor activity was fun in the park in the midst of the tumultuousness of all of our lives. Any physical health, wellness or development of relationship was a fortuitous by-product.
Tatlow Park has a special place in my heart. My husband knew it when he proposed to me on the bridge. As he was on bended knee, my first impulse was to grab the ring. I’d dropped and lost many things into the stream below that bridge as a kid. I stared at the ring on my finger and then noticed that we had an audience. Everyone in the park had gravitated towards us to watch the proposal and share in the excitement. Because that’s what neighbourhood parks do. They build community.