The black and white photo of my parents sits proudly next to my wedding picture on my mantle. They were younger, huddled together with arms secured around each other in a joyful embrace. That’s how I like to remember them. Laughing. Together.
Both have since gone. My dad succumbed to cancer that ravaged his fifty-six-year-old body until there was nothing left. Memories were taken at the end. I heard him ask my mother as we stood at his bedside about the red-headed girl who was crying. “Who is that?” he had asked. My mother looked at me, confused. She turned to his questioning face. “That’s Karla. You know her,” she said quietly patting his hand and willing him to recognize his only daughter.
My Dad was from Nova Scotia. “I’m a Bluenoser,” he would say. We would crinkle our noses and laugh, “Your nose doesn’t look blue!” I had no perception of Nova Scotia. A scant picture of a foreign landscape and of a Nana I didn’t know were my only introductions to an East Coast so vastly different than my Southwestern Ontario upbringing. I possessed no concept of life outside my little townhouse in Chatham. He would tell us tidbits of his life in Digby. My dad was an only child. His stories of eating seaweed and sardines made us cringe and laugh. When he was in his teens, my grandfather urged him to work on the fishing boats. Hard work to which my Dad gave an honest effort, but it wasn’t for him. He had other plans. A three-year stint in the Air Force and then off to Ontario to find work. By 1954, he and my Mother had married, and they had started a family.
I’m fifty-four and I have lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for twenty-five years. I married a Botwood boy out of college. We met in Toronto, married, and started a family. As fate would have it, we were destined to an island, again, very foreign to me. It took a few years and a few kids later, but I adjusted. I understand the Bluenose reference. My ears have become acclimated to the various dialects and nuances of Newfoundland vernacular. I have even said a few, “Go on, b’ys,” myself. I appreciate the ease of becoming part of a community that is innately communal. Generations of families living close and welcoming ‘mainlanders’ into their fold. An expedition to stomp around the homestead of my late father is never far from my mind. A bucket-list item that heads the top, it should have happened years ago, but with babies comes responsibilities. The leisure of visiting a place of my roots was put off for something more immediate like a school trip or dance lessons. Now, the notion of a no-travel ban has raised its steel toe boot to my bucket- list and I lament not having made the trip. I had the luck to visit the Maude Lewis exhibition in Halifax last year before the ugly virus drove us inside. I felt at home sitting outside her house, thinking my Dad may have driven by her little painted dwelling on his way out of town. Maybe my grandfather knew her. The mere idea of a connection makes me feel at home. I’m part Bluenoser, part Newfoundlander and part Chathamite. Fractions of places that feed my identity as a whole woman at ease living on the edge of an ocean.
I wrote the following story last year. I thought with all of the CoVid-19 chaos, a story would be a great escape. It’s not long. Enjoy and take care, xxoo
Growing up in the seventies, our only responsibility was to be occupied outside until dinner without ample blood loss or missing a limb. An old apple tree situated on a backyard lot gave us cool shade from the searing pavement of our parking lot playground and enough activity to ensure we met that responsibility. There were no monkey bars or climbing walls unless we trekked down to Steele Avenue Park. Even then we had to have an older sibling or an adult accompany us to make our way. No older sibling would be caught dead dragging his kid sister down an open street where actual people could see him. We lived in a complex of townhouses that had been developed on an old apple orchard. Some of the trees were saved, but the majority were destroyed to make room for the townhouses. One backyard still had one of the old trees and it served as a gathering place for the kids in the neighborhood. It creaked and swayed in the wind, the tenuous branches daring us to climb and sit upon them, our bare legs scraping against the dry bark. Summer days were spent climbing, making forts and playing around the trunk until dusk set in. The tree was expansive with wide enveloping arms that stretched to the sky, inviting us to linger. The crab apples became ammunition as the screams of innocent kids who wandered by the tree unaware of its silent occupants, echoed throughout the adjoining backyards. These cries of pain elicited concerned adults to venture out onto their back steps to protest the unprovoked assaults.
An older kid nailed a two by floor across the middle branches of the tree making a perfect lookout spot. If a kid got to the tree early enough he could sit on the plank with another kid and keep watch over the backyards, ammunition at the ready. Kids who were good at climbing would clamber up around the crow’s nest to the top of the tree calling names and daring others to climb higher. The tree was abandoned in the darkening night save for a few brave souls who remained hidden in her shadowy leaves determined to claim a spot on the plank. I always had a sense of comfort sitting up in that tree, secreted away from the noise of the other kids’ roughhousing, the revving of car engines and slamming of screen doors. My eyes closed I would raise my face into the cool leaves allowing the tree to wrap me in her false sense of security. My feet would dangle precariously from the plank, the cold smooth wood underneath me, my hands clenched onto the encroaching branches. I was directed not to ‘let go’ by my brother. He was the only reason I was sitting up on the plank in the first place. His fate was clenched in my fist as tight as those branches had I fallen. I’m sure the phrase “Watch out for your sister and don’t let her climb that tree,” was said on more than one occasion. Much to my delight my brother would pay no heed and would only allow me to get to the plank if he was there. Otherwise, I was on my own. I dared not climb without him, and usually, he would knock a kid or two out of the way just so I could get a chance to sit up there. It was a glorious accomplishment and I relished every second. I would sit and view the world, a queen on her pedestal overlooking her court. The jostling and screams of wrestling boys and girls playing tag as several kids tried to climb the chain-link fence without getting their shorts stuck on the links that jutted out on the top. It was an active and chaotic yard.
No one tried to kick anyone out of the crow’s nest or push anyone off. If a kid got to the spot first, he owned it. Plain and simple. I wasn’t a very good climber. My brother would make sure no one tried to knock me down or take my post, but he would climb up and ask me to move claiming it was his ‘turn’ on the plank. I was obligated to climb down and gaze upwards at the kids higher than the plank seat as the crab apples tumbled to my feet; the damp earth trampled and worn from our sneakers’ incessant pounding. The chain-link fence that surrounded the back yard sequestered the tree as if attempting to cage it from the adjacent parking lot of the businesses that it bunkered. There was a hole in the fence just across the tree that provided a short cut to the variety store parking lot where it was twenty-five cents for a bottle of pop if it was drunk inside the store, and thirty cents if it was ported outside its doors. I spent many days hovering around the pop machine inside the store trying to drink as fast as humanly possible to catch up to the other kids who were already down the path back to the tree. Just like the crab apples, it didn’t make for very good stomachs afterward. For most of that summer, we managed to skirt trouble and broken limbs with only sporadic blood loss. Until one fateful day when we didn’t.
That hot day in July started like any other. The sun blistered the pavement sending kids for multiple requests to parents for change for popsicles and ice cream treats from the Dickie Dee truck. We could hear his bell jingle from around the last housing development and the ensuing pandemonium resulted in chaotic line organizations for a chance to buy the first treat. We gathered under the shade of the apple tree, our popsicles dripping down our bare legs making them sticky orange masses. Blades of grass and dirt would stick to us making it look as if we rolled in glue and fresh grass cuttings, sending our mothers running for wet washcloths and exclamations of “What a mess!” After the mass cleanup, we again pandered for the crow’s nest resulting in shrieks of dismay and more wrestling for branches still waiting for eager occupants. Some kids trotted off to the nearby Thames River to throw rocks under the cool bridge or to watch the Americans moor their boats for the weekend. The rest of us sat under the tree, relishing the shade and quiet rustle of the leaves. A few boys sauntered by the tree, my brother among them giggling in hushed excitement at their new toy.
A pellet gun had been presented. I spotted the black handle and the fervor the boys expressed as they encased it in their small hands. They took turns holding it, impressed with its power they perceived it held. They ogled over its smooth finish and weighty trigger. They practiced holding it in two hands and then in one hand, pointing it at the fence and then at the trunk of the tree. They searched the branches for a wayward squirrel or latent wren that they could shoot. Appalled that an innocent squirrel or bird could be maimed, the girls retreated to the parking lot to skip and dance among sprays of the water hose on a front lawn, leaving the boys to their prey. Lunch turned into the late afternoon and once again we made our way back to the tree. The boys were still hunched around the trunk. I could see the black gun barrel protruding from my brother’s shaky hand. He aimed intently at a bird perched on a high branch as it sang to the sky. In horror, a young girl screamed out scaring the bird and obliterating my brother’s concentration. A blast fragmented the quiet summer day. The pellet had missed its intended target. The little girl who had protested the impending slaughter of a bird slumped into a heap a few feet in front of me. Blood seeped from her chest as her face contorted into a scowl. I screamed in horror. I stared into my brother’s ashen face, his eyes staring at the girl lying limp at my feet. He dropped the gun and ran. The other boys were quick to scream and run, one scurrying to the girl, one clamoring to a neighbor’s door pounding in panic. I stood frozen in my spot, crying and sobbing in terror. With the chaotic movements of parents and kids running and screaming, there was no time to think nor any time to move. The ground reverberated with desperate feet. Questions and demands were hurled through the humid air as the mother of the girl lifted her daughter’s sweat-soaked head checking for consciousness, blood soaking her hands. I stared up at the apple tree. Its quiet branches seemed less inviting, the leaves remained still in the weight of the afternoon heat. It absorbed the chaos, the cries, and the blood. The bird had flown away. The tree stood steadfast and waited in stoic silence as the child was picked up and hoisted to a car to be transported to the hospital. We were all ordered home at once, parents questioning kids, reprimanding the carelessness and providing as much comfort to other parents as possible.
We stayed inside for the rest of the day. Few words were spoken as dinner was placed on the table, the heavy absence of my brother felt throughout the house. Despite my mother’s searches he was nowhere to be found. The police car was still outside even after my father had returned from work, a panic phone call urging him home at once. He remained outside with the officer as dusk descended and games of hide and seek were long forbidden. He stormed through the house snatching my brother’s grade five picture from the photo album. It was the one with his half-smile and a straight bowl cut. He shoved it into the police officer’s hand. My mother paced in the hallway as we waited for news of him and the girl he shot, the evening growing darker with every step my mother took. My eyelids grew heavy with sleep but I was determined to wait out the night and to see my brother home. “He’s small,” I heard my father plead to the police officer. Weeks passed, the summer retreated into fall and the neighborhood fell in step with the march of time. The girl’s family moved, too distraught by her death to remain. My parents’ guilt became too much and I watched my father pack a suitcase and leave without a “goodbye.” My mother’s morning ritual of retching away her worry yet another sound I was forced to tune out. My brother had flown away like the bird who escaped the intended pellet. I still wait for his return.
The following summer, we went back to the apple tree. The crow’s nest remained and we continued to dare each other to climb up to reach it. With my brother no longer there to knock kids out of the way for my ascent to the perch, I conceded to sitting beneath its expansive branches. The leaves were in full bloom and the crab apples tumbled around me as I closed my eyes and listened to the echoes of the backyard kids. They climbed higher up the tree, the limbs creaking beneath their weight and the leaves rustling with movement. A tear slid down my face as I opened my eyes and clutched a crab apple from the ground. A robin flew and perched on the chain-link fence in front of me, its head darting side to side. It stayed despite the commotion and I clutched the crab apple tighter, ready to throw. I raised my hand to strike and the robin gazed into my face as if daring me to follow through. For a moment, I stared back. The apple sailed from my grasp launching the robin skyward, its wings whipping the humid air. I watched it as it flew high above the apple tree and out into the summer sky.
Last night, I dreamed I was sitting in my mother’s chair. The one in which she sat during the day and drank her coffee and smoked her cigarettes. The wooden chair at the kitchen table where she could look out the window at the goings on of the neighbourhood. I dreamed I was sitting in that chair, seeing from her eyes.
It was an odd dream. I remember the kitchen well. Small with a cube freezer sitting in the corner by the wall telephone. She would put knick-knacks on top for a bit of decoration. The table sat in the centre of the window and the refrigerator and stove sat to the left, the sink and counter across from the appliances. It was small but big enough.
I had lived there all my life. The little townhouse in the back of the row of townhouses, hidden from plain view of the parking lot. The window sat facing a brick wall from the adjacent row, but if she sat diagonally to the window, she could see up the small sidewalk. She could see who was walking towards our door as we were the last row house on the end. One couldn’t go any further. There was a fence that blocked foot traffic from treading past our place to the side of our townhouse where there was a green space. It led to another parking area for the duplex units situated there. That’s where we would play tag and red rover until well after dark.
The dream was as dreams usually go. Brief, milky and hauntingly real. I was sitting in the chair, looking out the window at the grey sky. I could see the parking lot and the cars idly parked. I looked around the empty kitchen and remember seeing the small curtains on the window. At one point I got up and went to the sink. There was water in it with dishes floating around waiting to be washed. Instead of getting at them, I just looked and decided to go back and sit in the chair. Even dreaming, I’m too lazy to do up a few dishes.
It was unsettling sitting in my mother’s chair. She’s been gone eight years now and I can still hear her in my ear. Especially when I’m talking to one of my not-so-much-a-kid-anymore kids. Funny how now, I go back to that old town house to look out the window. I sit at the old kitchen table in the precarious wooden chair. I see what she may have seen. A neighbourhood full of families and children. Green grass in the summer with her marigolds sprouting from the garden. The old fence a good backdrop for her tomatoes and morning glories. The sprinklers spraying in the searing summer sun. The lamp post on the corner beaten by hands of kids using it as a base for hide and seek. I wonder what she may have thought as she sat drinking her coffee and smoking her cigarettes. Would she have thought we would have made it out into the big bad world to have kids of our own and sit in chairs that belong to us? Would we be sitting drinking our coffee looking out at our neighbourhoods wishing the same for our kids?
Maybe. My life is very different than my mother’s. My chair is a little sturdier and my behind a little larger (hence the sturdier chair), but I think we share the same hope for our children; that they will have a chair in which to sit, a cup to drink their coffee and a window for which to look out at their neighbourhoods to hear the children, see the flowers and wonder about the future.
Convocations have occurred with some fanfare and very little drama (thank Gawwwwd) and now, the final epic graduation of son will take place to end the graduation year ceremoniously, thus. Or something traditional and ceremonial like that….
His grad date and Mommy spontaneously dropped by to shake my hand and meet the mother of the young man who will accompany her first born on her graduation. I’m hoping I made a good impression what with the clean laundry littering the floor, Mags barking madly, Hubby chillin’ on the couch eating his snack and watching hockey news and me still in my stinky running clothes. WHO DOESN’T WANT TO MEET SOMEBODY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THAT SWEET MESS?! She was sweet and then the turkey talk happened. Literal, turkey talk. Son and grad date will have pics taken at someone’s cabin or farm or something naturalistic like that. I went into a semi-conscious state when the question of ‘so what are your plans for that day’ was asked. I wasn’t aware I was to have PLANS. Like, real PLANS?!! Then on to the discussion, well really more of a statement than discussion, of having pictures taken where there was a wharf and water and oh yeah, could be turkeys wandering about. BECAUSE GRAD PICTURES AREN’T GRAD PICTURES WITHOUT A RANDOM TURKEY IN THE BACKGROUND. That’s how it’s done, people.
If I get trampled on by a rafter of turkeys (I looked it up…a group of turkeys is a ‘rafter’. Now you can amaze your friends with your trivia and expert knowledge of turkeys. I DO RESEARCH! You. Are. Welcome) I want that escapade into awesomeness documented for future generations to peruse and envy. “Oh, yeah look at Grandma run from that wacked out turkey! HE LOOKS PISSED!”
It will be framed and hung in the most auspicious place in the house. The bathroom.
I’m still waiting for warm weather to appear, but the gods of Spring/Summer refuse to cooperate, so here we are freezing in our capris and sandals hoping for some temps above freezing to save our tulips and budding trees. Plants are defiant and trying to come to life despite the cold air and billowing winds. It’s dismal. All this while I sit in front of the fire and see that other parts of Southern Ontario are under a heat wave and have HEAT warnings. ACTUAL HEAT WARNINGS. “I’m just dying from this heat” said one lady on the news. “I have to jump in a pool to cool off” OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE, SHUT UP! And I think I may have hurled my wine glass at her. The dog looked scared and ran off. I may have frightened Hubby who suggested we go for a walk. THEN WE LOOKED AT REAL ESTATE IN MY HOME TOWN…which was so eye-opening. What’s with all the dark-stained moldings?
I don’t understand.
Also, EVERYBODY HAS A POOL!! WHY CAN’T I HAVE A POOL?!
Because I live in Newfoundland and have the fire going in the middle of June. That’s why.
But, I still want a pool in my backyard and a cornfield in the park around the corner.
The current weather conditions have prompted Hubby to exclaim his dedication to moving, so he has taken to looking up prospective real estate on the mainland. This has included my hometown, where I have to say “No, that’s not Chatham. That’s actually in Tilbury” to which he shakes his head and says “So?” Yes. Exactly. So? So why are you even looking over there? So, there’s no real viable based-in-reality prospect of us moving to Southwestern Ontario within the next 4 years, but he loves to toy with the idea just to see my reaction. I remain ambivalent and aloof, until the next day which has me looking up real estate in ACTUAL Chatham, not the near-miss towns, and then I get all sentimental and ‘what if’ and then I snap out of it when the IB book list looms over my head reminding me my teenaged son has yet to graduate highschool. And drive. And get a first part-time job with actual customers yelling at him because he messed up their beloved double-double. To relocate the junior would be detrimental to my sanity…and his.
Life marches on and the weather we are experiencing plays a major part in mood and enjoyment of life. The entire month of July has been one big kick in the ass, day-after-day of rain, drizzle, fog and near freezing temperatures. After a while it has one dreaming of beachy vacations amid sand, sun and surf, and possibly even selling it all and moving to an uninhabitable tropical island to become beachcombers and vagrants…is that even possible? Can one still be a rugged beachcomber living off the sand, building a straw hut and eating coconuts and bananas all day as the warm sun sinks into her skin? Ahhh….I think I want to try that.
People are starting to wonder if the sun will ever shine again in our skies. Flowers are not blooming, the barbeque remains unlit and the deck hasn’t seen occupants the entire month. We are now thinking fall will just come swiftly, leaving summer a distant imaginary friend waving at us from our driveway as father backs over her with his car. Poor Summer. She never had a chance with Dad at the wheel.
As the rest of the civilized world bakes in a heat wave, we shiver and huddle in our masses and homes, fires lit in the fire place, blankets abound and the umbrellas and nanny bonnets at the ready. (Nanny bonnet= rain bonnet old ladies wear to protect their permanents. These are Dollar store finds that the senior women use on windy, rainy days, currently in abundance these days. I threatened to don one yesterday as I headed out into torrential rain and 60km hour winds)
You may laugh at our inconsequential whining of ‘no summer weather’ however, we only get two months of summer-like temperatures to begin with. Now take away an entire month, and we are left hoping and desperately pleading with the weather gods to make August a more warmer and sunnier reprieve from the onslaught of winter. We know, we choose to live here, and most of us will not trade places with mainlanders, our island being our homeland as we remain stoically patriotic, however, that tends to wain as the days of rain, drizzle, fog wear on and our spirits begin to drag. A day in the sunshine is all we ask.
I hope with a new month beginning tomorrow, Summer will make an appearance in my driveway. I’ll remind the drivers to watch where they’re going so she can safely wave and maybe even stay for supper. I’ll turn on the barbeque….who wants a hamburger?