“The stress of COVID-19 forced many into painful reckonings and reinvention this year, my family included.”
It all started with the puppy.
It was early April when I decided it was finally the right time to grant my daughters’ ardent wish for a dog. Confined to home, with no daycare or school, they needed something to cheer them up. (Also I’d read that in Spain and Italy, where pandemic lockdowns were most severe, people were allowed to walk their dogs. So I may have had a sanity-preserving ulterior motive.)
In any case, I went on Kijiji, found a puppy, put down a deposit and crossed my fingers we’d be allowed off the island of Montreal the day we were scheduled to pick up our new family member. Thus, I set in motion a series of fortunate events that caused my family to make some major life changes in 2020, with the pandemic serving as a catalyst.
The stress of COVID-19 forced many into painful reckonings this year. People lost jobs, businesses and livelihoods. Marriages crumbled. Lockdown widened the cracks in things. But it also got many contemplating what truly makes us happy, sparking reinvention.
My own story — how we got a puppy, sold our condo in the city and moved to a small town — is not that original. Many families got pets this year, what with all that extra time spent at home. The Montreal real-estate market is booming. An exodus to greener pastures in the Laurentians or the Eastern Townships continues apace, with more Quebecers working from home and people seeking breathing room.
These were factors in my family’s move — along with rising house prices in Montreal.
But there was also something emotional about it, at least for me. The need to escape our cramped condo and densely packed neighbourhood was kindled by COVID-19. Before that, I was content with our urban lifestyle, which traded a smaller space for access to interesting places. I hadn’t been seeking change.
But two parents and two kids confined to a two-bedroom apartment in the middle of the city is not as cozy as it sounds. It’s chaotic and claustrophobic. Life revolved around the dining room table, which would be piled high with the day’s detritus each evening, a mix of dirty dishes, LEGO bricks, glue sticks, laptops and crumbs.
We had to stagger our work schedules to make sure one of us could take the girls outdoors, rain or shine, since they were too young to be left to their own devices and they desperately needed fresh air. Some days last spring, it felt like we were under surveillance on Mount Royal or the campus of McGill University where we often sought refuge. I lived in fear — or paranoia — that this cherished bit of freedom would be taken away.
Bringing a puppy into the mix was a little bonkers. But welcoming our cuddly, curly golden retriever helped seal our fate.
“We’re doing this backward,” my husband complained, noting most people would get a house with a yard before a dog. But I stubbornly insisted.
To keep the family peace, I was the one on duty during that mercifully brief yet exhausting period when puppies need to go out several times a night. He would yap at 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. before getting up for the day at 5 a.m. I would hustle him out the apartment door and downstairs before he could wake my husband, children — or the neighbours. He would relieve himself in the tiny, woodchip-filled tree well cut in the sidewalk, the only “natural” space within blocks.
You’d be surprised how many Montrealers are out and about during the wee hours, looking to make conversation. Too many men asked to pet the puppy. It was the middle of a pandemic and most women outside in their pyjamas at 3 a.m. are wary of strangers.
One night, I couldn’t get the front door open. After a few confused, bleary-eyed shoves, I realized the exit was blocked by a homeless man sleeping on the front steps. We were both apologetic.
We’d already resolved there was no way we were spending a second wave of COVID-19 lockdown in a small condo with no yard. But the puppy made moving urgent. We put our place on the market in June, and sold it within two days.
The decision to leave Montreal was a gradual one, however. I was initially determined to find a new place in the city — in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Rosemont, Ahuntsic or Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, perhaps. But a few cracked foundations and bidding wars later, the writing was on the wall.
Since the prices and the competition were just as fierce in the West Island, my husband spent the summer wooing me to Hudson.
It was like we were dating again. We’d pack up the car (with the kids and the dog) and cruise the tree-lined streets, checking out the quaint cottages and cozy bungalows, slowly falling in love with the place.
Eventually, we stumbled upon the one house among the dozens we toured that immediately felt like home.
For one last bit of COVID-related drama, we officially said goodbye to Montreal and hello to a new hometown on Sept. 30 — the day the city entered the red zone as the second wave crashed over us.
Were we running away or embarking on a new adventure? Had we made a long overdue decision or embraced the change thrust upon us? Did we give up on a city in the throes of crisis or were we seeking safe harbour from the storm? All of the above are true, to some degree.
Certainly, the choice wouldn’t have been as obvious without the unprecedented circumstances of 2020. Or the puppy.