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#TheSoapbox: Memories of Mabel Avenue in the 1950s

A sweet time — Former Sudburian Oksana Kuryliw shares idyllic reminiscences of growing up as a Ukrainian kid in a Finnish neighbourhood in 1950s Sudbury
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Oksana Kuryliw share memories of growing up on Mabel Avenue in Sudbury in this installment of The Soapbox

Remembering:  Growing up in Sudbury in different times than now. No computers, no cellphones or organized kid activities — we made our own fun and adventures. 

We lived in our own world isolated from the many troubles of our present time This is a short story of what it was like as a kid in one small area we called our own. We hope that others will take the time to record their experiences as youngsters in their own area of the city — it’s history that deserves to be remembered for future generations. 

As a child in the 1950s, I lived on Mabel Avenue in Sudbury – a small street located in the east end of the old City of Sudbury. The name “Mabel” means beautiful, loving, and lovable, and indeed at that time it felt beautiful, loving,and lovable.  The street slopes gently down, north from Kathleen Street, and curves along the perimeter of the CPR tracks, tracks that carried ore from the nearby mines. 

As children, we could, and did, play on the tracks, picking up nuggets of granite, nickel, mica and other detritus of the Canadian Shield that surrounded us. 

For us, the tracks were like a border; I don’t remember ever crossing to the other side. If anyone did, it was to retrieve a ball, or just on a dare. The other side did not look kid friendly. (Sorry, Jean Street) I always thought we lived on the “right side” of those tracks.

Every weekday, I would walk from my house to Kathleen Street and cross the road to my school, College Street Public School, a sturdy two-storey red brick building with huge playgrounds on either side of it: one for the girls, and the other for the boys. 

The boys entered through their own doors on the east side, and the girls from the front doors. This was the norm at elementary schools in those days. In winter, the boys’ side was made into a huge ice rink. I spent many days and nights there, skating, or playing broomball or hockey. In spring and fall, kids on both sides played softball, or practiced for track and field events. 

A gravelled pathway led us from Kathleen Street, past the boys’ entrance into the girls’ yard, to steps that took us to Bloor Street. To go down those stairs, and enter Bloor Street was to leave the safety of the school yard and into a foreign country. (The school building still stands and has had a few other occupants since 1981, including a daycare centre, which has since relocated. The building is for sale as of this writing.)

For the kids of Mabel, our world was bounded by a railway track and a school playground. Both provided us with adventure, and a spirit of camaraderie and a warm sense of safety.

Fox’s convenience store right at the centre provided the sweetness. It was a two story, ramshackle wooden store, which sat at the corner of Kathleen and Mabel. The Fox family ran the store, and some members of the family lived above it. 

It was the hub of activity for everyone who lived on that street, but especially the children of Mabel. It was where we purchased, with our pennies and nickels, glass bottles of Coke or Orange Crush, grape popsicles (that were easily shared as they split nicely down the middle), red wax lips (which we thought were hilarious), and black licorice. We delighted in the chocolate and vanilla ice cream that came in the shape of a small brick, wrapped in wax paper, and ever so gently and carefully nudged into a deep waffle cone.

Most of our fathers worked for the Inco mining company in one capacity or another. The moms were mostly stay at home. 

The only woman I knew who worked for a living was Jan’s mother, Mrs. Mustard. She was a widow (something mysterious and exotic to us.) Mrs. Janetta Mustard supported herself and her two children, Jan and Doug, by teaching piano to many generations of Sudbury children, my sister and I included. 

We heard rumours that her late husband was related to the famous Dr. William Mustard in Toronto. (I now know that they were first cousins.) 

Dr. Mustard became well known for being one of the first to perform open heart surgery using a mechanical heart pump, and known for the Mustard cardiovascular procedure used to help correct heart problems in “blue babies”. The Sudbury Mustards were one of the first families to move away from Mabel Avenue.

In every household there were at least two or three kids. Most families spoke Finnish or English. How a Ukrainian family got into this mix, I’m not sure; most of the Ukrainian families that I grew up with lived in the Donovan neighbourhood (an Eastern European conclave) at the west end of Kathleen at Frood Road. Mabel Avenue sat in between The Donovan and Flour Mill neighbourhoods. 

However, I fit in very well. I was blonde and blue-eyed, as were the Finnish kids. The family joke was that the Finnish milkman and my mother must have had something going on, as my brother and sister were dark-haired and brown-eyed. Milkmen in those days delivered milk in glass bottles door to door, first by horse and buggy, later by trucks. 

Some of the families who lived on Mabel at that time were the Ahlgrens, Makis, Lukkonnens, Huhtalas, Mustards, Eliots, Bibbys, and the Joneses. Although Sudbury has a very large Francophone population, it was notable that there were only two French-Canadian families on our street. Most French-Canadians at that time lived on the other side of the tracks in the Flour Mill neighbourhood. We hardly ever ventured there either. Alien country. 

Our white aluminum-sided house was surrounded by a white picket fence and bordered by fleets of lilac trees. In spring, in the front garden, pansies blossomed, and in summer, red geraniums, and pink and white petunias. A small gate opened into our front yard, and a walkway to a flight of stairs that brought you into our enclosed front porch, which was filled with various pots of geraniums and other plants that my mother nurtured. 

A large wooden door led you into the living room. The ground floor, with its five rooms, was where our family spent most of our time. The top floor had a play room, music room, and also a private bedroom and bathroom for my brother. I shared a double bed with my older sister in a bedroom on the main floor. 

A three-room apartment in the basement was rented out frequently to Ukrainian refugees who had recently arrived from Europe after the Second World War. The backyard was huge, with overgrown grass and bordered with willow and maple trees.  We had a barn to play in, and a vegetable garden for my parents to till. A clothesline ran from the back veranda window and stretched across the length of the back yard to a weeping willow.

From my brother’s bedroom window on the top floor I could see across and down the street to the train tracks. This bird’s eye view included the grey stucco house very near the tracks where Raya and Rita lived. The Mustard house next to it had a side entrance for the piano students to enter. 

I could also see Pentti’s and Siirka’s house where they lived with their mother and father. Their hospitable mother baked the most delicious Finnish bread with cardamom. That enticing scent of baked bread permeated all the nearby houses. Once Nancy, who lived next door to Pentti, and I got a whiff of that aroma we would race over to Pentti’s house, grab a chunk of that bread, and then run to Nancy’s house where her mother served us coffee with lots of milk. 

Nancy lived across the street from me with her older sister, Lola, and their parents. She was my best friend, but although I write that now, I have a very hard time picturing her in my mind. I have no photo of her, but remember a fun-loving, gentle-spirited companion who shared most of my play time. I learned to speak Finnish in these two households: the Ahlgrens and the Luukonens.

Most of us on Mabel Avenue lived in modest stucco houses, with picket fences and elm trees, weeping willows, birch trees and white or deep purple lilac trees. In the spring the lilacs bloomed and filled the street with a blissful scent (almost camouflaging the sulphur smell emanating from the nearby smelter that also permeated the area.) 

In the summer you would often see families sitting on their porches or front steps picking through a freshly picked basket of blueberries while enjoying the shade provided by the willows. Autumn leaves turned to rust and fell gently on the gravely road. Walking and kicking through them, the crackling sound brought us a rush of vitality as we walked to school. In the frigid winters the snow banks topped the picket fences, and sidewalks provided an icy, sleek ride down the street.

Next to our house was the small Jones bungalow. It’s true that we could not keep up with the Joneses: they had a car, and one of the first television sets on the street. Most fascinating was Mrs. Jones, Richards’s mom. She smoked. A lot. When entering the house, you were immediately aware of the heavy dank air; Players A non-filtered tobacco filled the rooms.

Richard was older than me, more my sister’s age. He is well-remembered in our family as he once threw the ball directly (although not on purpose) at my sister’s nose while they were playing “three flies out” and broke it. In those days, we played with a hard ball. 

Richard’s backyard, as well as ours, was where we played “Cowboys and Indians” endlessly. (Of course, at that time, we were quite oblivious to the racism exhibited by this game.) I remember being bundled up in an old blanket and plunked down on Richards’s backyard porch, to play the part of a captured “Indian princess” as Richard and his posse of wildly enthusiastic cowboys brandished toy guns, while Nancy, Pentti, and some others tried to rescue me, from I really don’t know what danger. 

The sidewalks were filled with hopscotch lines and the coloured pieces of glass that we had found on the tracks, which were used as our markers. The street in spring and summer was often filled with the sound of skipping rhymes chanted by one set of girls or another.  Often a squabble would erupt, one girl accusing the other of holding the rope too tight, or of some other transgression.

No doubt there was heartache and hard times (especially during the 1958 Inco strike that lasted three months.) But for me, my family and others, Mabel Avenue was a beautiful street to grow up on, and it provided us a loving, stable, and lovable community. The Finns on Mabel taught a Ukrainian-speaking girl how to play, and how to appreciate another culture. Because of them, I was able to speak Finnish before I learned English. 

When I returned for a visit to Sudbury a few years ago, I went to take a look at our old house. The years had not been kind to Mabel Avenue. I was disappointed to hear that the house I lived in had once been a crack house, and the street a haven for motorcycle gangs and drug addicts. Some of that old sweetness had disappeared, as had Fox’s confectionery store.

But I do believe that the spirit of those yesterdays is deep in the roots of that street. A more recent visit revealed that some gentrification had happened; my old house had been rehabilitated, and appeared cared for. Although the white picket fences may not return to Mabel, I hope some of the maples, willows and lilacs that were cut down or died will be replanted to restore some of the harmony that I remember. 

Perhaps then the current residents might one day experience some of the sweet life and love we enjoyed at that very special time in the 1950s.

Oksana Kuryliw, still a Sudburian at heart, now lives in Toronto.

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