On Sunday, July 4, 1965, exactly fifty-six years ago this weekend, this boomer left home at the age of seventeen. For good. Faced with another year in high school to do grade thirteen and dreading the prospect, unknown to my parents I had written letters a couple of months earlier to The Bell Telephone Company of Canada (as it was called then) and Ontario Hydro (as it was called then, and still is in my mind), enquiring about job opportunities. We didn’t call it a career back then. We just wanted to get a job and leave home. The first wave of baby boomers was starting to hit the job market.
Boomers were raised to be independent. The year before, in 1964, my girlfriend and I (both sixteen years old) landed summer waitressing jobs at a remote island yacht and fishing club in the North Channel above Manitoulin Island. We applied for and were hired without first even telling our parents of our plans. We just assumed they would be happy to be rid of us for the summer. Leaving home for good at seventeen wasn’t that unusual, unlike today where young people often live under their parents’ roof and remain on their payroll into their late twenties or thirties. That kind of dependency is beyond my comprehension, but we weren’t as protected as today’s young people are. We expected less and settled for less in our quest for independence.
The sun was shining and it was hot that Sunday on July 4, 1965, when my parents dropped me off at the front door of Willard Hall, 20 Gerrard Street East in downtown Toronto. All my worldly possessions were packed into a single white vinyl suitcase and a white vinyl train case. Willard Hall was a working girls’ residence/dormitory run by The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, located across the road from Ryerson and Bassels Restaurant. It had been recommended to me by Mrs. Wallace (I can still remember her name) the nice lady who hired me at Bell’s employment centre at 50 Eglinton Avenue East. The north-south subway stopped at Eglinton in those days and the Don Valley Parkway terminated at Lawrence Avenue East.
Willard Hall was the new home in the city for more than two hundred small-town girls who were starting jobs at insurance companies, the telephone company, taking business courses, or otherwise starting their adult lives working in downtown Toronto offices. We were in for a big education in life, both within and outside the walls of Willard Hall, beginning two years before the ‘summer of love’ (1967). The first tower of the Toronto-Dominion Centre at King and Bay was under construction and downtown looked very different from the sea of towers visible on the skyline today.
The next morning, on Monday, July 5th, I walked through the original old village on Gerrard Street West, past Marilyn’s Brooke’s original Unicorn shop (where the Chelsea Hotel now stands), over to my new job with Bell on the 5th floor of The Maclean-Hunter building at 481 University Avenue. In recognition of its age and architecture, the facade of that same building has now been designated a historical site and restored for incorporation into a new office tower.
Sitting at the lobby’s reception desk in a sea of green marble was an attractive woman of indeterminate age. Her blonde hair was perfectly coiffed and she was wearing a smart navy uniform that made her look like a stewardess (as they were called then). She greeted every person who came in with a cheery ‘good morning’ and to me, she represented the epitome of city sophistication.
I felt so incredibly grown-up. I was bursting with excitement. I’d left my small-town life for that of a single gal in the big city. I can even remember the green gingham dress and white high heels that I’d purchased especially to wear for my first day of work. In the weeks and months ahead I had my first taste of Chinese food at Sea-Hi restaurant on Dundas Street, my first taste of pizza at a restaurant called The Coliseum on Yonge Street, and experienced many other firsts as I began my new life. By the time I was twenty, I’d scrimped and saved enough money to travel around Europe on a Eurail pass for five months. No credit cards involved.
A lot of water has flowed under that old bridge since that day in July 1965. Our entire generation redefined so many social behaviours, political movements, and attitudes. My boomer readers know what I’m talking about. Fifty-six years later I’m faced with the unsettling thought that I now have a limited number of years ahead of me and it’s important to make them count. Not all of my contemporaries have made it this far so those of us who have reached our seventies have a lot to be thankful for.
For the generation that once trusted no one over thirty, we’re looking back at our lives and subsequent generations with a mixture of sentimentality and bewilderment. The horizon is approaching too quickly. I think the majority of us agree that those early years, although exciting and challenging were not easy. We were making our way, paying our dues and establishing ourselves in business, in relationships, and acquiring mortgages, car payments, and eventually credit cards. It’s been my experience that growing old(er) is a wonderful experience and I can honestly say that the years since I retired have been the best years of my life, not those early years so many decades ago.
We can look back and perhaps there are things we would or could have done differently, but then we wouldn’t be where we are now and have the friends and families we now enjoy and cherish. Recognizing that, it’s important that we celebrate every day we’re given and keep looking ahead with anticipation, excitement, and joy. Buy those red shoes. Eat the cake—or in my case, the ice cream. Every day is a gift and as we now start to move beyond the restrictions of the pandemic, we must embrace life and celebrate our remaining years, our earned wisdom, and our blessings. Happy July 5th fellow boomers.