A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the Summer ’12 issue of Canandaigua Magazine.
I could have called someplace else home on several occasions.
My time in the Army took me to Germany, England, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia. College started on the hill at CCFL before moving through Texas hill country for a spell and then Brockport, finishing in Virginia as I chased my master’s degree with a new bride and eventually our first two children. But no matter where I stopped, the return address on my mom’s letters always served as a welcome reminder of where my journey started, and an open invitation to return.
My sister and I were born and raised in Canandaigua. The Chosen Spot. Home of the Braves. So were my dad and his siblings. My dad’s dad had come south from Winnipeg in the ’30s for work. Fresh off the bus and wanting to remain “below the radar,” he picked the name Smythe out of a Buffalo-area phone book to replace his French-Canadian name, Terchone. After a stint traveling the carnival circuit in the south, he made his way back north to Canandaigua, married and took a job on the Midway at Roseland Park, where he worked his entire adult life. “Smythe” has been through a couple generations, so while we’re no longer under the radar, I think we’re at least legal now.
The lion’s share of my earliest memories are tied to summertime and our house on Buffalo Street, sandwiched quietly between The Daily Messenger and the Quayle’s—right around the corner from where we live now on Main Street. We spent long summer days in the sun with the Smith, Marafioti and Quayle kids, swimming, playing backyard kickball, riding bikes and—once dusk fell—staring into bonfires and chasing lightning bugs.
We’d watch the Memorial Day parade from the stone wall guarding the front of Woodlawn Cemetery and follow the crowds to Veteran’s Hill for the 21-gun salute and Taps. I used to spend entire days in the cemetery up to my shins in Sucker Brook hunting for crayfish and suckers from the 4th bridge all the way back to Pearl Street, and sit somewhat patiently for haircuts at Buddy’s Barber Shop. We’d lay blankets on the hood of the car to watch the 4th of July fireworks from Parkway Plaza’s parking lot or a movie on special occasions at the drive-in on Lakeshore Drive.
The old house is no longer there, but every time I drive by it I catch glimpses of its shape in the trees that still define the lot.
By the time I was old enough to have my own paper route, we were living on Prospect Street. With that responsibility came permission to fly solo on my 10-speed and haunt a newly charted fishing route. Tackle box in my backpack and spinning rod across my handlebars, I’d stop and see Teddy at Canandaigua Fishing Tackle for a couple new lures, spend a couple more dollars at Dee’s Donuts and then head for my spots: Holiday Harbor, the boat slips behind Seager’s and the overgrown outlet behind Roseland Bowl. The sting of Roseland amusement park closing was still fresh, but the fat bass and angry pickerel I caught on Daredevil spoons and Mepps spinners helped.
The powerful pull of my hometown nostalgia has grown stronger as I grow older. I’ve come to realize that there are so many things about being born and raised in The Chosen Spot that helped define who I am, afforded me the freedom to explore and gave me the confidence to try and fail and try again. Growing up here taught me the value of working hard for what I want, but also the importance of community, personal responsibility and giving back.
These are all elements of why I was able to get out in the world and (for better or worse) make my own way. Why I now coach the kids’ sports, served on City Council, started my own business and eat breakfast at Patty’s (when I can). They are why I made my way home after making my own way elsewhere.
Today, my kids’ summers are as full as mine were, with friends, lacrosse, hoops, bike rides and swimming. We watch the Memorial Day parade from camp chairs in front of our house on Main Street, but they have discovered the magic of crayfish and suckers along the same stretches in Woodlawn that my dad and I did as kids. We get to Kershaw Park early to claim a small patch of grass to watch the fireworks over the lake and JC Pennys stands where the drive-in once did.
The Chamber of Commerce now occupies the space that Canandaigua Fishing Tackle did before Wal-Mart’s arrival, but—again like me—the kids have started accumulating their own gear from birthdays and Christmas (and pillaging Dad’s tackle boxes). Dee’s Donuts has been replaced by Tim Horton’s and Dunkin’, but sweets are sweets and a stop there is just as special. Holiday Harbor is full of townhomes. There’s no fishing behind Seager’s, and Roseland Bowl and Lakeshore Drive have moved. But we still chase bass and angry pickerel in Lagoon Park.
The Canandaigua my kids know is different from the one I knew at their age, which is different still from my dad’s. But it is their Canandaigua. And while they may not realize just how valuable their childhood memories and lessons will be as they head out to make their mark on the world—and they may not completely understand just how big and wide-open that future is—they are growing up Brave. And in the end, I believe that will make all the difference.
Photo by Grant Taylor.