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A former resident’s tale — of lightning, love, and laundry

By Mark Summers, Knox resident 1994–1998

Mark, Perrine, Louis, and Amelie Summers

From my first year as an undergrad at the University of Toronto, I had always admired Knox College in passing. It looked so nice, I couldn’t imagine engineers like me being allowed to live there! But when a Civil Engineering classmate who lived at “Wart” told me it was possible, I put in my application for the start of grad school.

I’ll never forget moving in, late August of 1994. I hadn’t yet unpacked my suitcases and was gazing out my tiny attic window at the heavy rain in the Quad – when the Chapel tower took a direct bolt of lightning! At the time I assured myself that lightning striking the Chapel – and dislodging chunks of masonry – must be a common enough occurrence…. This was not at all the case, but I clung to this misconception during my Knox residency.

In those first few weeks living at Knox, identifying my fellow engineers was easy enough. But this was my home, not my faculty, so “shop talk” stayed on the far side of the parking lot. Instead I gravitated towards writers, artists, and a number of theology students. I used to love the open discussions at the big tables in the dining hall. Suppers were the best times – and often the noisiest.

In my second year, a typo in the Knox Resident Directory listed my degree of study as “M.Div.” This clerical error, together with the company I tended to keep, left some people guessing for several weeks – until I was exposed as an M.Civ., and my shocking absenteeism from Ancient Greek and Hebrew was suddenly explained.

Apart from the Christmas banquet (which was not to be missed), another highlight of each year for me was the Coffeehouse or Talent night. Those were always great fun and featured everything from jugglers to flautists. Sadly possessing little talent myself, I teamed up with fellow resident and artist Curtis Macdonald. I soon discovered that with the right blend of subterfuge, props, and attire, the audience would only question our sanity and my overly skinny legs – rather than my complete lack of accomplishment. This became a format we would stick to.

In the summer of my second year, my life was about to change forever. As I entered the third floor common room to pop a potato into the microwave, I met a young student named Perrine, just over from France. This lovely girl was sitting alone and eating corn from a tin – and although her English was not completely fluent, it didn’t hold her back. Wow, could she talk!

That summer I was a Don and helped out at reception, so Perrine and I kept running into each other. Since she played the piano, I showed her the Steinway in classroom four, and a recital of my full piano repertoire did not dissuade her. Several weeks later we seemed quite inseparable, but the summer was over, and sadly she had to head back to Europe.

Although email existed, we preferred the personal touch of handwritten letters, two or three a week for two years – adding up to hundreds! Telephone calls were far too costly at that time, but we did manage the odd trip across the Atlantic before I finally packed my bags and left Knox and Canada behind.

We had decided to meet “halfway” in the UK. (I’m still not sure about that distance calculation!) We settled in central London where we’ve lived for 18 years, now with our 11-year-old son, Louis, and our daughter, Amelie, age 8. To this day, whenever possible, our anniversary dinners feature tinned corn and microwaved potato.

Last summer marked the 20th anniversary of Perrine’s and my first meeting at Knox as students, so we and the kids returned for a visit. It was our children’s first time in Canada, so we did a fair bit of travelling around – perhaps a bit too much down “memory lane” for the kids.

Returning to Knox, I found it mostly the same – except for the washrooms, which are of course now quite amazing, and those sinks in the hall, very snazzy with the seemingly mindreading paper towel dispensers. Otherwise it looked and felt much as it did back in the mid-1990s. It was great to see Daniela still there. We shared a laugh about the past, and we heard many about new shenanigans.

Daniela managed to give me my former room for our stay; sleeping there again so many years later was an incredible and surreal experience. Perrine and I delighted in showing our kids around. After a week, I felt like I had never been away. But the most extraordinary part of the visit happened while doing a load of laundry in the basement. Another middle-aged man walked past the door – and then did a double-take. It was former resident (and my co-performer) Curtis Macdonald. The look on his face, running into me out of the blue after 18 years, was well worth the $1.25 I lost behind the washing machine. After he steadied himself and checked for signs of dreaming, he was able to ask, incredulously, “What are YOU doing HERE?”

I responded calmly, as though no time had lapsed since 1996: “Just doing my laundry, Curtis. You alright?”   

Knox was always, and still is, so full of surprises. I wonder what will happen on our next visit? We’re already looking forward to it.

Mark Summers lived at Knox from 1994-1998. Perrine Werner lived at Knox in the summer of 1996. They reside in London, UK.