My "cousin" sent me a link to an online listing last week of a home for sale in Vancouver, Canada, that I remember from my childhood in the 1970s. It is the home of my "aunt" and "uncle", who are downsizing to an apartment.
I call them my aunt and uncle because that's what they were like to me, although we're not related. Their daughter was my teenage babysitter, a freckled redhead called Janet, and I tagged along with her to her home, wriggling my way in to their family as an honorary member.
Janet's home on William Avenue was an exotic place to me, only because of its utter normality: theirs was a two-storey, ranch-style home with a garage, whereas we lived nearby on the corner in more of a log cabin, on Shakespeare Avenue.
My parents were young hippies, with two somewhat unmanageable girls and a baby on the way; Auntie Mavis and Uncle Jack were older, steady-as-it-goes Catholics with four children, who had big family dinners.
Clicking through the images online of that House Unchanged By Time unearthed my earliest memories: the bookcase in the basement, where I discovered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; the grassy backyard where we played; the washroom where I was taking a bath when Auntie Mavis told me I had a new baby brother; the kitchen where they brought me in a towel to talk to my mum on the phone from her hospital bed.
When we moved away from the neighbourhood, on to my stepdad's sailboat, I remember saying matter-of-factly that we would be back. I don't know what I was thinking, but after a life of moves, I could honestly tell them now we wouldn't. I think I saw Auntie Mavis and Uncle Jack only once a decade later, when I attended Janet's wedding.
But over the years, that family and that home has come to represent the kindness of strangers, a kindness I clung to over the years, and a lifelong belief that family is wherever you find it, although I wouldn't trade my own nuclear family, for all of its love-worthy flaws, for any kind of perfection.
Now, as for my "cousin". He's the real nephew of Auntie Mavis and Uncle Jack. When I moved to Toronto two decades later, I met him through a mutual friend and we were unaware of the connection, although I thought his melodic laugh was familiar. After five years of being friends, we were sitting in a theatre and I was telling him how I'd been to Vancouver.
"I have an aunt and uncle in Vancouver," he said. So? "They live on William Avenue," he said. The magic words. "I lived on the corner of William and Shakespeare," I said, "but I moved away when I was six, and I only knew one family on William."
"The Tooveys?" he asked. Yes, the Tooveys. I started crying as the curtains opened. You could put this material on the stage.
I now call Grant my cousin, and he reunited me with Janet on her visit to Toronto. When I told my mum, who still sees Auntie Mavis, she remembered her saying I should meet her nice nephew in Toronto. Well, fate took care of that, along with a whole lot more.