In the 1790s, Elizabeth, the English wife of John Graves Simcoe (first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada), fled to Toronto Island from the tedium of military life “amid the beat of Drums and the crash of falling trees&" at Fort York. This spirited soul would step into an enormous birchbark canoe and be paddled across the harbour to “her favourite sands.&" Once ashore, she would sketch, write up her diary, pick wild grapes or race her horse along the beach. She would also set fire to meadow grasses to watch the “pretty effect.&"
As I prepare for the annual “fire parade&" -- one of the many rituals that punctuate the year for the more than 600 people who now live on Mrs. Simcoe's refuge, minutes across the water from downtown Toronto -- I can't help but be reminded of her combination of resilience and eccentricity. For one thing, the procession is held on the August holiday weekend, known locally as Simcoe Day. And of course there's the pyromaniac connection.
"It lights our way"
As our family leaves the house, my son Michael lights candles inside a large star-shaped lantern he built of branches and paper for the occasion. On our 10-minute walk to the village green â€“ in this carless community we walk or bike everywhere â€“ it lights our way. By the old willow near the clubhouse, we join hundreds of others holding lanterns.
“Stilt walkers, line up in front,&" barks one of the self-appointed artistic directors. Stilt walkers? Yes, for several decades there's been an informal cultural exchange between Trinidad and our island, resulting in regular classes in this Caribbean art. Learning to do it is almost a rite of passage here. Fifteen or so costumed “moko-jumbies&" -- some as young as six -- move forward, towering above us and swinging their gauze-draped arms like bird wings.
“Fire twirlers, to the left.&"
“General percussionists, mix yourselves into the crowd. Flag bearers, to the fore.&" This simply elicits laughter -- Toronto Islanders aren't
very good at taking direction, and that may be learned behaviour. This city-owned island is also prime real estate, so to keep our 262 houses safe from bulldozers, we bucked a sheriff's eviction notice, as well as pressure
from politicians and developers for almost 40 years until we earned a long-term lease.
Under the willow, we catch up with neighbours, many of whom we've just seen on the ferry that morning, crossing to work in the city. But the lawyerly suits and workers' overalls have been changed to theatrical attire, including loon beaks and penguin feet.
The trumpeters, torchbearers, jumbies and drummers lead us slowly down the boardwalk, then on to our own favourite sands where we congregate around a massive bonfire on the beach. Anchored out on the water, a wooden dory is barely visible. Its skipper lights a large moon lantern above the boat, shimmering magic onto the lake's black surface and surrounding the dory with a hazy silhouette.
Downtown Toronto may be 10 minutes away, but suddenly we are with Elizabeth Simcoe, 200 years away.
Like Elizabeth Simcoe, Linda Rosenbaum has found refuge and delight on Toronto Island, where she has lived since 1974.