rain and old roses

blanc double coubert

I’ve always loved the old roses, the noisettes, the mosses, the varieties named and anonymous, the ones you see smothering trellises in abandoned gardens. When I was a teenager in Royal Oak, then a rural neighbourhood of Victoria, with many of the pioneer families still living in their original homes, I’d ride my horse along quiet roads on early summer morning and stop now and then to pick a rose growing over its fence or into a field. I remember this one, Rosa rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, a pure white beauty with an intense old-rose scent. In fall, its hips were deep scarlet against the dark green leaves. I found a plant of it at the farm and garden centre in Gibsons in late winter and for now I have it by the front door. For now, because I want to see how it will do with limited sunlight. For years a ‘New Dawn’ thrived there, grown from a cutting given me by a neighbour of my parents, a woman who knew so much about Royal Oak. Her son rented a house across the road, a house she told me was the oldest house in Saanich. I don’t know if that’s true. I tried asking an archivist years ago and he was dismissive. That road didn’t exist before the 50s, he insisted. But an earlier road existed there, called (I think) Colquitz Avenue. The man across the road, Bill Mahon, was the son of an orchard-growing family. The oldest house was behind his house, also old. In those years there were a number of orchards on Wilkinson Road and I believe descendents of the Quick family still owned the house built by William Quick in 1911 and the fields filled with daffodils in spring, where cattle grazed, and sometimes sheep.

The ‘New Dawn” is less enthusiastic about its location these days but another one, grown from a cutting from Edith Iglauer’s ‘New Dawn’, has established itself happily along a trellis and beam above our patio. It shares the beam with wisteria. Edith had cuttings of our wisteria, I remember, and she’d phone when it bloomed. Edith was Angelica’s first visitor when we brought her home from the hospital; she came for tea, with the gift of a harlequin bear who played Brahms’ lullaby, and the package was tied with ribbon and a single bud of ‘New Dawn’ which was exactly the colour of our new daughter’s shoulders. See what a complicated thing is memory? It holds roads, names, colours, what it felt like at night to walk back to my house from the oldest house in Saanich after babysitting for the family who lived there, where roses grew on Beaver Lake Road and on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman where the Ferrie sisters still raised chickens and where they’d gone out to dances at the Royal Oak Community Hall, built by local men, including William Quick, in their gum boots, carrying their dancing shoes to change into for the evening. They were old when I knew them. The trail that they took to the hall wound up the hill and through the orchards. They gave my mum cuttings of several old roses but somehow the plants were forgotten when my parents moved to an apartment towards the end of their lives. But I remember them, vivid pink, with a heady fragrance. They might have been ‘Reine de Violette’ — their petals were densely clustered and they were heavy-headed in rain.

A complicated thing. When I close my eyes, I can feel the sunlight on my back as I ride down Beaver Lake Road, my horse’s feet light on the pavement. My hand on his damp neck, the reins soft with dubbin. I don’t yet if the ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ will stay in the Chinese tub by the front door but every time I pass it this season, I will stop for a moment, remembering. I am walking home late from the oldest house, legs wet from the tall grass, the apple trees in bloom, and the Ferrie sisters laughing as they return from the dance.

old house on mahon property

Searching for Mann Avenue

It’s so different now, the road where my parents bought their first house in 1969 – they were in their forties but hadn’t been able to settle anywhere until then because of father’s military transfers. You got to our side of Mann Avenue by turning off Glanford. Then, the road ended at a small clearing by Colquitz Creek, a place where lovers parked on weekend nights and where I rode my horse when school finished on winter afternoons. There was another short section of Mann Avenue leading off Wilkinson Road. Now the two sections have been connected and the fields have been filled with townhouses and a subdivision and only those of us who were young in the 1960s remember the remnant orchard where the Mahon family had grown apples for cider and where the remaining son Bill, who was probably in his sixties, lived in the beautiful old house with his bulldog Winnie. Where a man who lived on Christmas Hill rented some of the orchard for his young cattle. Where I’d retreat sometimes when our house got too noisy and where I’d read under apple trees and where once a calf grazed around me as though I didn’t exist, so still was I in the soft grass.


 Some weekends, young men came to visit and when the garbage men collected on Monday morning, there was always the sound of crashing glass as they emptied Bill’s can into the trunk. Gin bottles, my mother would say as she pulled the curtain aside to watch. Thereafter, I always associated gin with young men coming for the weekend. I was only in the house once, when I knocked on the door to sell Christmas cards or some other (forgotten) item for a school fund-raiser. The house smelled old. Old in itself, inhabited by old residents: Bill and Winnie. I waited inside the vestibule, by the front door, while Bill searched for his wallet. He wore slippers, I remember, and he shuffled. When the young men came, you never saw a sign of life for the entire weekend. The blinds were pulled and Winnie was put out to pee in the yard by herself. She whined at the door but for the length of a weekend she was not primary in her owner’s mind.

Behind the Mahon house, but still on its property, was another even older house. Our neighbour Daisy Harknett said it was the oldest house in Saanich. Her son Carl rented it for a time, with his wife and young child. Occasionally I babysat for them, walking down the rough lane behind Bill’s grand house to the shabby wooden building behind while Winnie barked from the window. It was a little scary to be in the house, alone, or at least the only one awake, while a small child slept upstairs and the trees creaked outside in the wind. Walking back to my house past midnight was like walking into another century, the one I knew.


 These photographs came from an online archive and show the houses at the turn of the 20th century. In the past I’ve asked archivists for information on the street where I lived as a teenager. Specifically I had questions about two houses which I thought had historical value – this was long after the Mahon houses had been torn down and tract houses erected in their lost orchard – but one archivist insisted the road hadn’t existed prior to the 1950s so the houses I was remembering as “old” couldn’t possibly have existed either. Yet my mother learned things from the Ferrie sisters who’d lived on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman. That they’d attended dances with other farm families from the area before WW2 and that they’d walked to dances at the Community Hall on West Saanich Road, built by the Quicks. They wore their rubber boots and carried their dancing shoes in a bag along the dark road to the bright hall and sometimes they took a shortcut through the Mahon’s orchard. Neither of them married but my mother said they had been beauties. I wish I’d paid more attention. My mother had a rose rooted for her by the older of the Ferrie sisters, a bright pink climber, and I wish I’d dug it up when my parents sold their house.

Everyone I knew on that street is gone now. My parents. Bill Mahon. The Footners – Mr. and Mrs. and their grown daughter Molly. Daisy Harknett, who grew wonderful pears and who gave me cuttings from her New Dawn rose, telling me her mother had always said that you needed some old wood and new wood to make a cutting take. Mine took, both of them, and I have large tangly New Dawn roses to thank her for all these years later.The neighbours on the other side died too and I was visiting my parents when the husband passed away. From my open window I heard his grown children cry as they stood in the back yard and planned what to do next.