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posted January 06, 2008

Dufferin Rink January 1996: The rosemary plant

On the windowsill in the Dufferin Grove ice rink change house there’s a rosemary plant that’s just putting out new leaves. Through the window behind it you can see the wind blowing the snow around. Margie dug up the rosemary plant in late fall, from the ornamental herb garden near the rink fence, the herb garden she planted with Mario and Wilson (two of the Salvadorean youths we hired with the “Breaking the Cycle of Violence” money). There was a heat wave when they dug the garden, and we have a photograph showing Vincent, Margie’s four-year-old, holding a shovel and looking with admiration at Mario – standing there in the heat with his shirt off, flexing his truly splendid muscles, while Wilson, in the background, is laying the last bricks in a design of circle-and-cross.

Margie had the idea of doing the herb garden in that old-fashioned, formal design because we had extra bricks. The day before, my son Luke and I had gone out to the construction dump at Leslie Street Spit and gathered up as many wet (it was raining) grimy bricks as we could load into my car. The car was going to the wreckers the next day, and damage to the springs, or dirt on the upholstery, didn’t matter. We found a whole pile of old cobblestones there too, and we went back four times, getting these free treasures for the Big Back Yard.

But in the end we didn’t need all the bricks for the gardens in the Big Back Yard, and that’s why Margie and Wilson and Mario and Vincent put in a herb garden, close to the flowerbeds in the northwest part of the park by the rink. They agreed on the design, and they planted eight different herbs. Margie bought a white rose bush and planted it in the centre, ringed by some small purple flowers the Parks Department gave us.

For a while the herb garden looked a bit sparse, but not for long, As the summer wore on, we often saw people crossing the park to the northwest garden area. Lots of people would take a sprig of something away from the herb garden, but the plants were strong and bushy anyway. The Italian men who sat under the maple tree nearby, playing cards and watching the bake-oven being built, often came over to the gardens to inspect them, or sometimes to chase off a dog walker whose dig was getting too close to the herbs and might lift its leg. The old men had a thing about dogs.

The children weren’t so very interested in the herbs, although they loved the rose bush. They spent more of their time staring up, way up, at the giant sunflowers in the other gardens nearby, devising ways to get their seeds.

In the summer, when the flowers were brilliant, we put long benches next to the gardens, and people sat on the benches, talking or eating their lunches. In the early morning there were people doing tai chi, or sometimes yoga, nearby. When fall came, High School students sat there at lunch or after school. And also truant boys, who were mainly interested in the sunflower seeds. The basketball players almost never came to sit there even though the court is so near. A few times they came and looked at the oven.

When the oven was finished, it seemed that we ought to have some kind of ceremony to “open” it, so in October we put up posters on the lamp-posts and invited the mayor and got a wine license. The wine meant we had to put up a temporary fence to enclose the gardens and the oven. When the Parks crew came to pound in the stakes for the fence, the basketball players watched them from the court without saying anything.

The morning before the ceremony, Fabio, the eleven-year-old who always knows everything first, called at my house, saying the oven had been damaged and the whole area was a mess. I came to the park fast. The picnic tables were upside down, the benches had been pushed over, the oven roof had a lot of shingles torn off, and the shingle pieces were spread all over the ground. The gardens were all right, though.

We cleaned up and patched the roof with clear plastic. I asked around, and eventually heard that some of the basketball players had decided we must be putting a permanent fence around the oven-garden area, and they had got mad. No fences!

No words, either, just actions.

So we had the opening ceremonies with a ragged roof. We put a big fire in the oven anyway. Sixty loaves of bread, and soup, and apple fritters, were all consumed in a few hours. The mayor made a graceful speech and a Portuguese choir sang in the garage, and people sat talking in the late-fall gardens. The day after, the Parks crew took the fencing down again, and the staff handyman filled in the gaps in the roof shingles. As it got colder, there were fewer basketball players. The gardens slowly died back. But the herbs were pretty hardy.

A few school classes came to bake; one class made foccacia and they bought rosemary at the store to sprinkle on the bread with olive oil. It didn’t occur to us that they could use the herbs in the garden. But when Margie dug up the rosemary I realized I could use it at the rink for the herb-bread I was going to bake in the oven. On baking day I snipped some from the pot, and went out and scratched under the snow at the herb garden, and got some thyme as well. Inside the rink house, I had set up a table and the flour and the mixing bowl. The young guys (some of them play basketball in the summer) and girls who have adopted the rink as their winter home came over and watched. A few of them told me their mothers made corn bread at home, and two of the girls helped me knead the herbs into the dough. One of them said, “if my mother saw me doing work like this, she’d never believe her eyes.”

So some of the summer herbs got baked into the winter bread. But only sparingly. I haven’t got the heart to chop much off the rosemary plant, growing so bravely in its ceramic pot in the windowsill. I just like to admire it, to compliment it on its excellent new leaves. Lily, the rink building attendant for the winter, waters the rosemary, along with the pink impatiens I dug up from the Big Back Yard just before the first frost. The kids lean on the café counter and watch her. Lily’s a bit like a part-time mother at the rink house – the “mother” of the kids and of the plants, as well as of the building. Outside, the snow blows around, and the skaters shoot pucks on the hockey rink or twirl around on the pleasure-skating side. Inside, it’s warm and clean and kids argue or play chess, or sneak a cigarette in the washroom, or just sit there looking comfortable and kind of sleepy. The old men play cards at their tables in the hockey change room, and Lily laughs at their jokes.

There have been so many days when I have wondered what we’re doing at the park. What’s the focus of the things we started there? Is it the kids? The gardens? The youth gangs? The benches? The bread? On certain snowy days it seems to me the questions I ask are not the right ones, but it doesn’t matter that much. It’s just enough to see all those things at the rink house, and to know that the rosemary plant can grow there like that.

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Content last modified on March 24, 2014, at 07:40 PM EST