Although my parents would be horrified to hear this, I had a deprived childhood.
Every kid in the neighbourhood suffered the same privation. The east Indian girls across the backyard fence, the six Italian kids next door, the Polish family on the corner, Mindy and Fern Waldman, the Japanese boy down the street who played clarinet in our school band and my best friend Brent, a Ukrainian Irish hybrid.
Superficially we grew up in abundance – cottages, swimming pools, new cars, colour TVs, but this affluence was a mere glaze on our deep emptiness. You see, our parents had the appalling lack of foresight to move into a neighbourhood with only one chestnut tree. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true – one.
Every June when the school bell rang for the last time and we were paroled for summer, spires of pink and white flowers festooned the sacred tree. A week later, the petals had fluttered to the ground as the tree moved into its next phase.
We would stare at clusters of little nubs on the end of the branches willing them to grow faster knowing that each little nub would soon swell into a full-blown chestnut and out of a spiky green leathery shell, cradled in a creamy white, velvety interior, would emerge one, sometimes two, mahogany-coloured gems.
Their exquisite beauty and lamentable rarity made them precious. So precious, in fact, that we used them as currency.
We knew nothing about global economics. We barely knew our multiplication tables. Instinctively, however, we knew that everyone wants what they can’t have. Ipso-facto: Chestnuts were gold.
Two chestnuts could be bartered for a chocolate bar; four bought a cone of fries; six a comic book; a dozen could wangle an invitation to join a family vacation to Florida in the depth of winter.
Patience was another rare commodity in our neighbourhood.
One year, mid-July, Brent shinnied up the tree to pluck a few chestnuts so immature they were barely the size of chickpeas. Valiantly, he inched along a thin branch creaking under his weight, arching down a little further with each nudge forward. We all heard the crack as the branch broke and another crack when he hit the ground still clutching his treasure. It was a noble mission and we all signed his cast.
Tragedy turned my life inside out that summer. My parents went to Europe and I went to stay with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Molly in downtown Toronto.
Nothing against Jack and Molly, I love them. Uncle Jack was a janitor at Maple Leaf Gardens and occasionally left me in the stands to watch the Leafs’ hockey practice while he swept the hallways. No, Jack and Molly were great. The source of my chagrin was much more practical.
By missing the annual chestnut harvest I would be doomed to a year of penury. Reduced to selling pencils on the street corner, shoveling driveways or delivering papers to make ends meet. This was a serious imposition, almost certainly a violation of one Geneva convention or another.
My head hung low the day I was banished to the depths of Toronto’s east end. Molly showed me my room and where to find things in the kitchen. Ground rules were established: home when the street lights went on; stay off Dundas Street; and no wandering into the Greek section of town (I love Greeks, but my Scottish kin were not so enthusiastic).
Making new friends was easy. A kid from the suburbs was an exotic addition to the inner city menagerie.
One day, playing soccer on the street, I took a bad tumble – tripped deliberately by one of those Greek kids I was warned about. Lying flat on my back on Hillingdon Avenue staring up at the sky I recognized... a chestnut tree.
I stood up and scanned the street and the angels began to sing: The whole street was lined with mature trees laden with ripe chestnuts. Chestnuts in downtown Toronto – who knew?
In the middle of East York I had found Eldorado. Chestnuts so plentiful they were literally lying on the ground, crushed by cars, carried off by squirrels. It boggled my mind that people could be so oblivious to the bounty being squandered.
For the remainder of my exile, I collected chestnuts diligently. Those squirrels may have had a head start but I had opposable thumbs, motivation and two new pillow cases. When it came time to go back to the suburbs I left all my clothes in the closet and lugged my little suitcase back to the suburbs filled with chestnuts.
Exquisite delirium! Wealth beyond imagining. For weeks I kept my suitcase in my closet on its side brimming with mahogany gold. Whenever I needed a favour, a snack, or to borrow someone’s bike for an hour or two, I had ready cash.
Unfortunately, through inexperience and (to be totally honest) a modicum of greed, I flooded the market with chestnuts and their value plummeted. Periodically this happens on other stock markets as well.
Then natural disaster struck: Worms invaded, little white wrigglers, and mom threw my cache out with the trash - a day that will forever live in infamy as Black Wednesday.
That was the summer I learned about global economics. I’m not talking about Adam Smith, Marx, Keynes or John Kenneth what’s-his-name. Those days, Jimmy was the only Buffet I knew, a cheeseburger in paradise cost ten nuts and margaritas would be a glorious discovery for a future decade. No, that was the summer I learned the law of supply and demand, a theory known to cognoscenti around the world as The Chestnut Standard.
A lifetime later, I can’t help but notice that one residual quirk remains from my days as the Chestnut Baron of Wishing Well Park. Wherever my wife and I live, Toronto, Boston, Halifax and now Shediac, New Brunswick, we plant chestnut trees in our yard. Spread the wealth, I say.
——THE END ——
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