Just to have a laugh or sing a song…. the poignant words of the ditty by the eighty-something Carol Burnett whom Paul adored. He said they both had a slight palsy in the side of their faces making their smiles a little crooked. He connected with her and so, once a week, we would sprawl on the Aikins’ wall-to-wall cream-coloured broadloom in front of their floor-model, mahogany encased TV in their living-room (the Aikins had cable!) enraptured by Carol Burnett And Friends. Jinx, their moody Siamese cat would sleep on top of the TV for its warmth, tail flicking even in her sleep.
Well folks, something horrible has happened. We have lost this amazing person. He is gone. Never to return except to live on in our memories.
Paul was five years old when we met, and I, four. We moved into the red brick bungalow next door. They lived in the brick mansion next to us. There were eleven kids in the Aikins family. We were seven kids. The sheer numbers of kids (and the lack of hand held devices and video games, ie: none) made for hilarious adventures and play times between the two homes.
We each had at least one member of the Aikins family to play with who was our age. We walked to school together. We played outdoors and in for hours together. It’s hard to believe that none of us ended up married to each other. I always believed Paul and I would be wed. Not to be.
Paul was one of those friends who was just simply THERE for me. I cannot recall a single argument with him. We discussed all manner of topics. I confided in him regarding my tough relationship with my dad. Consequently Paul would never address dad as Mister the way dad would have liked him to. This would irk dad every time. We would snicker about it later.
We competed in Miss Cuthbert’s typing class together at St Joe’s, typing as fast as we could in rhythm to Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach. Paul won. We did gymnastics
and music recitals together. Projects and fund-raisers. We decorated for dances and chaired meetings. I’ll never forget the amazingly fun times we managed to have with very little money but very large imaginations and unstop-ability. We would lip-synch to our fave tunes, throwing ourselves whole-heartedly into it and making each other double in two with laughter. Little did we know then that Paul would become this incredibly beloved teacher at Etobicoke School for the Arts.
For several years of our friendship, Paul would come by greyhound bus up to the camp on Lake Cecebe to hang with me there for a week or two. We would canoe, trampoline, clean cottages, paint docks and picnic tables together. It didn’t really matter what we were doing, we would just make it fun. My little brother emailed lately to remind me of this time that Paul and I were playing piano together in the office and he was imitating someone. Ricky rolled on the floor over that one, he recalls. Ricky also reminded me that Paul could imitate dad perfectly, especially the corny face Dad would put on when he was ushering mass at St Mary’s.
I remember the first time I felt that I had lost Paul. It was when they moved from next door to a few streets away on Eugenia Street. The second time I lost Paul was when I moved away for a year when my parents were in the midst of a horrible divorce. I missed him so badly that year. My buddy was too far away for my liking. It was a tough year because of this. He came to London by bus to visit once and we had a blast.
I remember one time he was hired to feed the cats at the convent on the corner of Berczy and Eugenia St in Barrie and I went with him to the massive, empty, dark gothic-style mysterious house with crucifixes affixed on nearly every wall. Well, of course we proceeded to hide behind doors and jump out at each other and to scare each other with a well placed ‘boo!’ several times so that we were frazzled nerves by the time we finished the chore.
Paul was a ball of positive and artistic fun and a fantastic old friend of mine. I will miss him dearly and am so sorry for the loss of this incredible person. I am sorry for his Mother and five brothers and four sisters and his adoring nieces and nephews. I am sorry for Fred, his partner of twenty plus years and how he must be reeling at the sudden and unexpected loss of Paul. I am sorry for his students and for all those whom he will not get the chance to teach. There are simply no words. I know though, that his inspiration will live on in the memories of all those who loved him.
Paul Aikins was an incredible light that shone for 54 years. I will miss him dearly. Rest in Peace dear Paul. Your work is done here but your legacy will live on powerfully and forever, for you have made a difference.
My family had this amazing situation: the seven of us (my brothers and sisters and I) plus our parents. We would leave the city behind for the two months of the summer and move two hours car ride north to the lake. At the lake, we would shed our footwear and mostly run around bare foot. It was incredible. We were fleet of foot. We would run through the tender green hay in the early summer which would be blond and tall by the late summer.
When I ponder that aspect of my childhood, I remember the immense sense of fortune at having this place as a retreat every summer and, when not doing morning chores, the sense of freedom and connection with nature that we all shared.
Most days, I would live in my bathing suit…no sunscreen, EVER – we didn’t even know what that was. No hat, no sunglasses, no shirt, and as stated, no shoes.
Our lakeside acres had patches of earth that I knew to always be damp and mossy. Patches that were warm and dry. Tough prickly grass in the big fields. Slimy slippery rocks like the ones on the path by cabin #1. Annoyingly painful gravel of the camp roads which would pry an ‘ouch!’ and a hobble out of me every time. The thick green moist grass outside of Grampa’s kitchen window where the sink water drained. The wet grainy sand of the beach as I would wade in for a swim, digging my toes in and enjoying the sensation. The soft tufts of maiden grass that grew in the yard up by the porch of #2 cabin. The baked planks of the redwood-painted docks. The bottom of the canoe as we would catch frogs in the cove and the sensation of gliding over water that I felt through the fiberglass.
I knew these things because I detected them with the soles of my feet time and again as I would nimbly move over our twenty lakeside acres all summer. Once, riding on the shoulders of my eldest sister’s future husband Peter, he remarked that I had leather-bottom feet. I shrugged. It was my normal.
I was betrayed by them a few times, my bare feet: I knew the agony of a piercing by a hawthorn, stepped on absentmindedly, chubby arms crossed across my round belly, shivering from swimming for hours, as I made my small way past the tool shed. I cried and bawled unabashedly with the pain, like little children do, and neighbours took me to have it removed by a doctor, such was my carrying on with it. (Mom and Dad were in town so the Pattersons came to my rescue – read a funny account of my brother Mark and the Pattersons in this story: The Camp).
Another betrayal of my barefoot days is in this story: Barefoot Heathens in which my Father forbids the ‘going to town’ barefoot. We had been discouraged from ruining our school shoes which would be passed down from older siblings until they were worn and gone.
My brother Jobe and I would race through the tall hay in the lower field arriving at the frog pond slowly, lest we scare the frogs away. We would creep the edges and wade carefully to grab an unsuspecting frog by its tiny waist just above its powerful legs. Now and then, our bare feet would betray us and one of us would slip down the slick clay bank of the frog pond and into its stagnant waters, the stink and slime on our skin. Once, we found ourselves a baby snapping turtle in that pond. Just the once. We held it like an Oreo cookie while it stretched its neck, beak and clawed feet doing its best to injure us while we ooohed and ahhed at how tiny and cute it was. Then carefully letting it dive back into its swampy home, as we did with all the little pond frogs we caught. (This wasn’t what we would do with the big, meaty bullfrogs we would catch in the cove though. Those guys became breakfast and a crisp dollar bill from the Pattersons for helping to quiet the cove where their tent trailer sat. The dozens of bullfrogs would ‘ribbit’ their love songs loudly all night long.)
These days, decades later, I find myself in my fifties and marvel at how we were back then. Mostly carefree. Mostly enjoying the simple things in life. We wouldn’t use a telephone all summer. Now we can’t be without one for a minute, carrying it on our person like it is a lifeline.
We would actually write letters on paper, stuffed into carefully addressed and licked 8 cent stamps on the envelopes, to friends in the city. S.W.A.K. loudly printed on the back flap: ‘Sealed With A Kiss’. If we were lucky, we would receive a hand-written letter from them a couple of weeks later, delivered by the mail truck guy into the big old aluminum mail box at the top of the gravel road. Its red flag up and encouraging us to come. Scurrying barefoot to check the mailbox each day until finally it was there: a letter for me! Savouring its every word and studying the envelope for clues as to when it was mailed from the city. The impossibility of receiving news from two hundred miles away.
Times sure have changed as I am about to post this story and knowing that it can be read world wide, in the blink of an eye. I am ever so glad to have made those simple but priceless memories at the lake, and through the soles of my leather-bottom feet.
(photo courtesy of google images and the last one was taken by my hubby)
When I was eight years old my brother Mark taught me how to smoke. He preferred Du Maurier which, at the time, were 75 cents a pack. He even gave me the confidence to buy them. I was to tell the store owner that they were for my Uncle. Things being the way they were then, this actually worked. Never mind that I was a little girl and that I was apparently sent to buy cigarettes by a loved uncle.
The other day, forty-four years later, I was biting into scorched popcorn and there it was. The forgotten taste of Du Maurier and all the memories of my ‘bad little girl’ summer when I tried my best to keep up with two of my older brothers and all of their mischievous adventures. That was the summer I learned how to lie to Mom and Dad and to be devious. I was normally a very well behaved child, so this new-found deviousness was a somewhat bitter pill of guilt and subsequent worry.
We would run through the field of long blond hay and go up to the abandoned barn next to our lake-side property where we spent every summer. There was an ancient hemp rope tied way up in the loft of the barn rafters. We would swing on that rope and then let go with abandon and tumble into the very dry hay below, our woops mostly held in due to the danger of being found out and sound carrying so well anywhere near the lake. Going into the barn was trespassing. We were forbidden by Dad to go there, but, we went there almost every day anyway. It was fabulously fun and exciting.
Later that summer, a large family arrived to rent #2 cabin for three weeks and we all became friends. Mark thought Maureen was quite something. She was very friendly and kind to me even though she was a teenager. When I told her that Mark liked her, she blushed and lowered her dark lashes and head of shiny hair. We were swimming at the time and so carried on with our game of back flips in the water. After that though, suddenly our simple swinging on the hemp rope turned into heated games of ‘spin the bottle’ and ‘strip poker’.
Maureen’s Dad had a pick-up truck and he would take a dozen of us into town to get ice-cream. Clutching a shiny quarter each, we would stand in the back of the pick-up, the little ones holding tight to the teens while the pick-up would bounce over the camp roads and then onto the highway to Maggie River, two miles away. Racing down the pretty country road, over the Trouble River bridge, bugs hitting us full tilt, eyes squinted while our hair parted crazily in the whistling wind. No shoes, no shirt, no hat, no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no cellphone. It was a carefree time.
At night we would have huge campfires with s’mores (graham crackers, chocolate and browned marshmallows) or we would boil corn and roast wieners on sticks or pop some popcorn, drinking spring water (fetched from the artesian spring down the road) directly from a huge thermos on the picnic table, bending and turning our heads to allow the cool water to splash right into our mouths. No bottled water. It wasn’t invented yet. We would sing all the old songs and there would always be a couple of guitars. The children would sit on blankets near the fire and the adults would be on the chairs or a stump of wood with a stubby of Molsen Golden. Many times I fell asleep by the campfire and one of my older brothers or sisters would wake me when it was time to go.
We would look up at the night sky to see a gazillion stars twinkling and then a lonesome loon would call on the lake. In the field the fireflies would flash, lighting our way to our beds. The copious crickets singing us to sleep. It was magical.
On rainy days we would play card games in one of the cabins or, sometimes we would play large games of Monopoly for hours or Rummoli and Euchre. No screens. Not a single one there in cottage country, not in 1974.
Other nights we would go around and gather all the kids, a couple of dozen all hailing from different cabins of large families. Then we would start a game of ‘sardines’. One kid would run and hide somewhere in the forest of the 20 lake-side acres. Then we would run around and try to find the hiding person. We would squish in with him or her, thus: sardines. Often I would play this game in bare-feet. My feet were very tough from the weeks of running shoe-less.
Behind all of the fun, that summer, was my guilt at now being a ‘smoker’ with a two-smoke per week habit. I felt sick about it and just wanted to quit. Thankfully I found quitting a pretty easy task. I just stopped. My brother Mark however went on to smoke cigarettes for several decades. Thankfully he has now joined the ranks of non-smokers.
I don’t blame my brothers for dragging me into their mischief back then. Again, all this stuff had to happen to get me where I am today, in a happy life with a wonderful, albeit, small, family. It’s just that sometimes I think back on these things and can barely believe we lived that way. I haven’t exaggerated it either. Today we live so differently. Our controlled, safety-concerned, washed and dried lives of today where we now have to teach our children how to play outside.
We moved into our six-bedroom red brick bungalow in Barrie, Canada on Hallowe’en day of 1970. An auspicious day. I was four years old and extremely excited! Our next door neighbours, The MacNeil’s, were a big family of eleven and Ben MacNeil was five years old — a built-in buddy right next door. And buddies we were. Within seconds of arriving Ben and I were fast friends and could be seen chasing each other around the outside of our new brick bungalow. I was gonna like it in this house.
From that moment, Ben and I spent almost every waking minute together. We played house and school and hide-and-go-seek. Often, because of the sheer number of kids between our two households, we would have huge games of Red Rover and British Bulldog, or 500-Up in the MacNeils’ huge back yard. One time, the MacNeils got a new game of Croquet. We played it non-stop for days.
In the winter we would go sliding on the MacNeils’ very own sliding hill at the back of their house. It was a perfectly steep hill which led into the parking lot of an eight-story apartment building that we imaginatively called: ‘the apartments’. Sometimes there would be twenty or more kids out there in the dark, with just the reflection off the snow and a few parking lot lamps to light the path. At other times it would be just Ben, my younger brother, Luke, and Ben’s two younger siblings.
The MacNeils lived in a mansion. They had something like ten bedrooms, four bathrooms and a huge recreation room upstairs at the end of the house where parents never ventured. Their dining room had the longest table in it that I had ever seen. We would often do our homework at that table. I would marvel at how neatly Ben did his assignments. I aspired to be just like him.
There was also a piano in there. We both took lessons but Ben went a lot farther than I, achieving levels of local celebrity status on piano. Ben’s older brother Noah was an idol of mine. He always had the most incredible ideas about what we should all do together. He would make up elaborate games or he would teach us how to be artistic.
Sometimes we would get to play hide-and-go-seek in their house on the second floor and sometimes, when Mrs McNeil wasn’t aware, even in the Attic. There were secret hiding places and cupboards everywhere. Ben’s room had a secret room inside his closet. We spent hours in there. Their house was so much fun! During one game, we looked high and low for teen-aged Ethan who would have been the same age as my brother Mark. No matter what we did, he was nowhere to be found. Finally, we checked the cupboards that ran along the top of the twelve foot walls in the rec-room. There he was. I could never understand how he had managed to get up there. I was impressed. Playing with the MacNeils was so much fun! We would never want to go home at the end of the evening, when it was time. We would hear Dr. McNeil shout: ‘It’s time for the Players to go home!” We would quietly make our way home, back to our boring little bungalow next door.
The MacNeils had a cupboard in their kitchen that was stuffed full of cookies and sugary cereals. At our house, we had gingersnaps, and that was on a good day, and then only two each and they were never just sitting in the cupboard. They were hidden. The cereal choices at our place were simple: puffed wheat, puffed rice or shredded wheat. Sometimes, if we were good, we got plain Cheerios or Shreddies.
After some of my older brothers and sisters moved out on their own though, the choices got better and they almost always included Shreddies and Cheerios and then CornFlakes! I can still conjure up the feeling of extreme privilege that came along with that cereal. We also got real milk then too. 2%. Prior to that it was skim milk mixed from dry powder (blek!) which later became powdered skim mixed with 2% milk. When it was just Luke and I at home, Dad started buying homogenized full fat milk. It was like drinking ice-cream. That was sheer luxury after the watered down and often involuntarily gag-producing taste of powdered skim. When Eva, Amy and Matt came back home for a supper meal, on occasion, they would comment on how spoiled we were now that we were being fed the higher quality groceries.
Mom bought groceries on a tight budget. We had simple but good meals. Things like sausages and tomato sauce, scalloped potatoes, shake-and-bake (the odd time), spaghetti and meat balls on Sunday night, Pate Chinois (pronounced pot-tay sheen-wa), which was my favourite meal) and we always had a green salad with supper, and then after all the plates were nearly licked clean, we were permitted dessert. Sometimes Dad would still be hungry and would finish off our meals for us. Other times he would angrily and loudly tell us to Eat Up!
About twice per month, we would have left-overs or home-made soup–basically a huge pot of soup made from everything left in the fridge before the new grocery order was bought. We fondly referred to it as home-made poop because when you’re a kid, you don’t tend to like things to eat that aren’t completely decipherable. All we could decipher out of Mom’s soup was a pea here and there and perhaps a piece of carrot. The rest was left to the imagination. One time I absolutely refused to eat it and found myself still staring at it, while it congealed and turned cold, at around 7 o’clock that night.
Supper had always started at 5:30 SHARP as soon as Dad walked in the door and sat down at the table, sometimes pounding the table with his fists – an indication of his hunger.
We tried to keep things calm at the supper table. Mom would bounce up and down from her chair getting this and that and, ‘Mom, while you’re up, can you grab me a glass of water?’
Sometimes Dad would tell stories about Schollard Hall and put on his falsetto voice imitating one of his teachers. We would all laugh. Usually our meals were not calm though, someone would spill a glass of milk. Then Dad would pound the table and shaking his head and shout:
I HAD NO BREAKFAST,
A LOUSY LUNCH,
AND NOW I CAN’T EVEN EAT MY SON-OF-A-BITCH-OF-A DINNER!
The MacNeils had their groceries DELIVERED from IGA on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes I would witness the arrival of the grocery truck backing up to the MacNeils kitchen door. I had never seen so many boxes of great food in my life. They even had a freezer full of fudgsicles and they didn’t even have to ask before having one.
In our house the groceries were pretty strictly rationed out. Cookies and other goodies were hidden away in special places that only Mom could find. Sometimes she’s hide something so well that even she couldn’t find it!
At Christmas time we had special food in the house. We always got a crate of tangerines. They were the really sweet ones all individually wrapped in purple tissue paper. Mom would keep the carton under the couch. She was pretty generous with them compared to other stuff. We would also have a pound of real butter. Mom would buy two pounds, one for shortbread cookies and the other for us to have with turkey dinner. Wow it was good compared to the bright yellow margarine that came wrapped in waxed paper.
Christmas was great when Mom and Dad didn’t go to Florida. Mom always bought us a huge jigsaw puzzle to work on as a family under the Christmas tree. I’ll always remember how much I enjoyed that. We would also sing Christmas carols and play all kinds of board games during the holidays. Of course, most of the time, during the day, we would be outside in the snow or on the rink in the back yard. Often the door was locked and we were forced to stay outside and make our own fun for two hours or so.
There were always so many kids roaming around, it was easy to find something fun to do — climbing the snowbanks, rolling or sliding down hills, making a snowman or a snow-cave. In all those years though, I can not remember one adult being outside with us to play. We were completely unsupervised and it was only if we were bleeding or on fire that we would venture home to Mom who would take us in her arms and help us with our troubles.
When I was a teen, I played flute in the church choir. My close friend, Harris, was a loyal church-goer and she asked me to join her. We would play duets, or she would play solo and I would be able to turn the pages for her. She was much more talented than I but, nevertheless, if we were both there, of course we would be trying to make each other laugh the whole time. Some of the hymns we loved were: Be Not Afraid and Like a Sunflower. A song that still floats through my mind today when I am in the garden with my sunflowers.
Sometimes, while sitting in the choir area of the church beside Harris, way over to the left side of the altar, my mind would flit back to when I was a little girl in the choir of the Saturday Evening Folk Masses of the 1970s. My eldest sister Eva, with her amazing soprano voice, her leadership and enthusiasm for music, would lead the whole congregation through folk songs like: Here We Are; and Kumbaya and Jesus is a Soul Man. She would be right up front of the pews. Her long, straight hair flicking from side to side as she would stride around motioning to the congregation to sing louder and stronger, tapping her tambourine on her leg. The guitars strumming wildly. Pride would be welling up through my little body as I sat in awe of my teenage sister. Those folk masses were powerfully spiritual and I will never forget them. Sadly, almost half a century later, my beloved sister Eva, for some unknown neurological reason, completely lost her hearing and consequently a god given talent – her ability to sing soprano. It was a bitter pill to swallow for all of us who love her but, My God, especially for her. Thankfully, a few years later, Eva was fitted with a Cochlear Implant but, she will tell you, it is not the same as hearing with your own ears and her ability to sing has been diminished almost completely. Eva has told me that her voice no longer sounds like her own. Tragic!
One of the musical moves with a flute is a trill. It is rapid alternation between two notes. I learned that in music class. Because of music class, in which we were seated beside each other, and because Harris was not the typical 19-year old, we become friends even though she was two years my senior. We hit it off instantly and had so many fun times and laughs together. On a daily basis we would find something to laugh about and double over with the hilarity of it. Like the name I have chosen for her in this story. We were standing by her locker in the East wing of North High School when she told me about a classmate who called her ‘Harris’ by mistake. From then on, she was ‘Harris’. We would giggle every time it was said. She had this wonderful sense of humour, and still does, I am sure.
She too was from a large family – I’m fairly certain her family wasn’t any where near as crazy as mine, though. At the time we were friends, I was living down the basement of our bungalow with my Dad, with the upstairs rented out to strangers. My Mom had moved into an apartment with my little brother, Luke, and her alcoholic boy-friend, Earl-the-Pearl. I hated my home life with a great deal of passion. I would arrive at the house with a sense of dread upon entering. Ok, that is just wrong. It was a messed-up way to live. Consequently, Harris, and her wonderfully stable family were very important to me. I spent a lot of time with her and them that year. At one point I even dated her younger brother and we would all three hang out and sometimes their younger brother, Peer too, playing charades and the new game: Trivial Pursuit, which they were good at. Really good.
We did some very fun things together. One time, we canoed down a river near Walden. Her Dad dropped us off and picked us up at the other end hours later – something my Dad would not dream of doing. If it wasn’t about hockey, forget it. That canoe trip was a very special time for me. I loved that day with Harris and and her brother Fred. They had a way of making me feel like a special person to them. They knew how to treat me like a good friend. I cherished them.
The school put on the musical Anything Goes that year and Harris and I were chorus members and dancers together. We had an absolute blast with this. During part of the dance, I had to pick her up and swing her from one of my hips to the other. Try doing that without cracking up a few times. That musical turned out fantastically. I remember my Dad was very skeptical about it. He said I was wasting too much time on it. Well, he came to opening night, sat in the front row and laughed his head off. His booming laughter spurned others on and so the whole house was dying with laughter the whole night. My Dad and I share the love of laughter, for sure.
Harris and Fred came up to the camp that summer. They showed me how to gunnel-bob. Two of us standing on the gunnels, or the ends, of the canoe and then taking turns bending knees to make the canoe move down, then up in the water until one of you falls in. Oh my. That was so fun! We had a party in number eight cabin and although harmless, it got a bit loud. Dad kicked Harris and Fred out of the camp the next day. I was furious and sorely, blackly disappointed, not to mention embarrassed. To this day, I really think Dad may have just simply been jealous of my friendship with these wonderful people.
The following year, Harris went away to University and although I would see her from time to time, it just never was the same. I was progressing into a more and more dysfunctional evolution of myself. I see now, that it wasn’t my fault. I was a teen-child and I wasn’t supported. Rather I was controlled and criticized and worse.
I will never forget the year that Harris and I were inseparable friends. She was a god-send.
Please allow me to introduce myself.
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year,
Stole many a man’s soul and faith.
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ,
Had his moment of doubt and pain.
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate…
I remember the days of girlhood when I could run forever, jump high, skip rope, swim the lake and turn cartwheels. I was this little girl with black curly hair, green eyes, a few freckles and a quick smile. I was full of energy, giggles and good ideas. I knew the rules and I almost always followed them. I went to church on Sundays and sang all the hymns, firmly clasping hands with my neighbours at the peace of Christ. I was the good girl.
So, when my new parish priest made an announcement inviting girls to be altar servers, I was so happy. I really wanted to be an altar server. I wanted to ring the bell, on the altar, during mass with the whole congregation watching, like I had watched the boys do so many times.
Training ensued with Father 0’Malley. There were ten of us and we needed to be taught what was what. How to wear the robe. How to prepare the altar. When to ring the bell. He was very strict and he taught us to be exact. Serious. Precise.
Then the day came for my debut as an altar server. It went well. I had been to hundreds of masses. I kinda had a sense of how it all worked, by then. I was on the schedule and looked forward to being the sole server during a week of early morning masses. I would ride my bike the mile to church, leaving home after breakfast at 7 am, making sure my school bag had my basketball uniform and shoes for practice after school. At 7 am the world wouldn’t even be awake yet. It was a fresh perspective. Funnily enough, it made me feel a little homesick. I shook it off an almost foreboding feeling and soldiered on.
Arriving at the church, I took a moment to notice the beautifully groomed grounds leading to the large polished oak door to the sacristy. The church was ultra modern, brick and wood with a non-steeple. Curved walk ways and parking lot surrounded by green, groomed lawns, shaded by tall mature hardwoods. I parked my bike – no helmets back then. I had tucked my pant leg into my socks to safeguard it from the chain. I righted this and as I did so, felt butterflies a flutter in my belly.
Opening the door I sniffed the familiar church scent of burning candles mixed with a slight residue of incense. On my left was a wall of smooth oak paneling. Or so it seemed. I found the hidden handle and pulled. Reluctantly, and with a sucking sound, the massive closet door opened and into it I put my school bag and jacket. As I closed the door, Father O’Malley appeared and somewhat startled me. He wore a big creepy smile as he approached, saying, ‘Good morning, Martha!’ He wrapped his large arm around my small shoulders, his man hand landing on my budding chest. In slow motion and with an out-of-body awareness, I witnessed and felt his large hand squeeze my young breast. Then both hands took my shoulders and he propelled me to the next cupboard which held my gown and hastened me to prepare for mass, perhaps not wanting me to dwell on what had just happened.
Later that day, as soon as I could get Mom alone, which wasn’t easy with so many siblings, I told her about it, not wanting to go back the next morning. She said, ‘Oh Mart, you must be mistaken. Father O’Malley is a priest. A priest would never do that.’ Then she encouraged me to be a good girl and go back the next day.
Every morning was a repeat performance by Father O’Malley: the smiley greeting, the man-hand grope, the hastening to mass. Years later, I began to wonder if he had orchestrated girl altar servers – the first in the history of the parish – so that he would have his pick of girls to fondle.
As soon as I could get away with it, I quit altar serving and eventually, I quit Catholicism. Any organization with forced celibacy is going to be a problem for someone.
All pics in this post found on google images. Thank you!
My brother Jobe who was number five in the family line-up was a pure handful from the moment he was born. He was a cuter-than-cute red-headed, freckled-face boy who even as a baby was making headlines around the bridge table as Mom would tell the other mothers how Job had climbed out of his crib already. This was before he could walk. It began there.
A couple of years later, when all was quiet and perhaps Mom was baking something in the small kitchen in the Willows (our crowded townhouse on the Main St of Walden, Ontario, ( Let the Games Begin 🏀 ), little industrious Job climbed up on the stylish chrome and Formica table in the dining room eager to touch the glass chandelier. In that same dining room sat our beautiful upright piano that Mom had stylishly mac-tacked with orange and purple-petaled flowers (It was the 70s, Man). Anyway, before he could stop himself, and with little pink tongue clamped to the right side of his mouth, he systematically dismantled the whole intricate chandelier, but not a piece of glass would touch the floor. Four year-old Job had very carefully clutched each glass piece in his little hands and put each one down on the table top he was standing on… in exact order of its place aloft. He took a three-dimensional glass chandelier and made it one-dimensional. All Mom had to do later was carefully hook it all back up. She was fascinated by his ability to do this, and so were we.
One time, at the camp where all nine of us moved for the summer months to be on the lake and running a tourist camp, when the lake was whipped up with white caps due to an off-shore wind, Jobe thought it would be interesting to push the twenty or so aluminum boats and canoes out into the water to watch the wind take them across the lake. Imagine the spectacle that was. A fleet of unmanned water craft afloat in a line across a choppy eight-mile lake. Little Jobe was fascinated, jumping up and down, clapping and laughing devilishly and pointing a chubby finger at what he had done. Mom and Dad and our four older siblings scrambled to get the boats back, some swimming out to them, some using a motorized boat to get them. Who would think of doing such a thing…JOBE! Corporal punishment ensued. (Corporal punishment was quite popular back then.)
In later years, Jobe would usually be the one getting into trouble and doing more and more high-risk things. He would dive off the top of the diving tower and off Echo Rock and the Locks — these were all very high dives and more than a little dangerous. Jobe was the only one of the seven of us to master the back-flip-and-a-half on the trampoline. And when it came to water-skiing, he was quite impressive – slalom-skiing beautifully and even starting from the dock or the water on one-ski, which took a great deal of strength, balance and coordination. His physicality was confident and true. He was physically gifted. Mr Laset attested to this fact when I called him last winter to casually affirm my Elementary school memories when forty years ago he had been our beloved coach. In gymnastics, Job would fly off the spring board, catching tons of air before his hands met the leather box-horse and with high hips he would execute a beautiful hand spring. At the lake, Jobe would even ski down the Trouble River a twisty-turny, black-watered mysterious river that we all thought of as bottomless due to scary stories that we would tell by the camp fire.
Some of Jobe’s escapades required funding that he just didn’t have, nor could he easily earn. Luckily, he had worked out a solution for his shortfall. But first, you need to know the layout of the cottage that we called ‘The Office’, because the layout was key. The Office had two bedrooms on the main level. In one room was Mom and Dad’s twin beds (stylish at the time, no idea why) and a crib where Luke would sleep when he was a baby. The neighbouring room had a double-bed where I and one or both of my sisters would sleep, and then above us, up a rickety ladder in the hallway, was ‘the loft’ where the three boys would usually sleep: Matt, Mark and Jobe. The sides of the loft were open, such that those up there could look down through the rafters into the two bedrooms below. Privacy? I think not. In fact, now that I am writing this, I remember a game in which we would reach way over on the rafters and then swing down over the beds below and drop down with a squeal, landing on the soft mattress, or anyone who happened to still be in bed. (This was a forbidden activity, so only done when the adults were out of the office.)
So…Jobe’s funding…right. Well, the ceiling was open into the loft, and when Dad would be inevitably taking a nap on a warm summer afternoon or on a rainy day, or on any day really, Jobe would spy Dad’s seldom-washed polyester double-knits hanging on the hook by the bedroom door. Stealthily, hazel eyes rolling this way and that, with a fishing rod, and pink tongue stuck out just so, he would hook said pants and reel them up, ever so quietly, stealing glances down at Dad who was crashed out on the twin bed. The pants would seemingly float up into the loft where he then would quickly reach his small sure hand into the right front pocket and take out the roll of cash from Dad’s polyester double-knits. (Every summer, Dad would busily sell various items to campers: ice, worms, fuel – all for cash. Cash being cash, it was untraceable, so Jobe would help himself to a twenty or two (a small fortune back then) and he would be set for his next escapade. Of course, his hazel eyes keenly watching Dad, face slightly flushed, he would then expertly reel the double-knits back down to the hanging place in Dad’s room, ensuring that any noise he made at all was made when the loudest cycle of the snore was emerging from Dad. With the money, Jobe and I would sometimes go horse-back riding which back then was $5 per hour! Or, Jobe would buy gas to put in the Budd family’s motor boat tank for ever more water skiing. We did get paid for chores at the camp, but not nearly enough for all that Jobe wanted to do.
One of the chores at the camp was the daily picking up of garbage using the big red wheel-barrow. We had to wheel over the gravel roads around the 21 acres to each of the campsites and to the nine cabins and ask at the door for their garbage. Then, to the upper or lower field, often rolling over a large rock and accidentally dumping the whole mound due to its precariousness in the wheel barrow. With gloves on (in theory). we had to then sort it: burn the burnables in a huge 40-gallon barrel and pitch the cans, jars and bottles into the old open trailer that Dad would take to the dump every few weeks. Sorting people’s garbage was really gross and more than a little dangerous; so was burning it, especially in a field of dry-as-bone hay. We were burning garbage in a huge barrel at tender ages. I would have been seven or eight and Jobe would have been ten or eleven. I have no idea how we didn’t all have 3rd degree burns or didn’t lose an eye because something would inevitably smash or blow up. Of course Job LIKED it when something smashed or blew up. He would often HELP it to smash or blow up and then he would exclaim, ‘Morgan did you SEE THAT?!’ or ‘WATCH THIS!!’…BANG… It terrified me. I was often cowering and inching away as Job had his maniacal fun. A side note: Jobe NEVER smashed beer bottles. They were refundable and provided yet another nice little stream of income.
Jobe’s temper was also famous. He would often be a happy-go-lucky youngster, looking for fun and loving to laugh. But, often, he was treated meanly by our father…he wasn’t the quiet, obedient academic-type that Dad wanted in a son, I guess. None of his sons were showing signs of being university types (at this point, Luke was too little to show the signs of his future studiousness). Dad could be downright mean with biting sarcasm and cruel comments. He would say things like, “Jobe, you could have been a good hockey player, but, then you got hard to handle.” Dad would also be quite physical, grabbing an arm, pulling hair or an ear to propel one of his children in the direction of his choosing. One Christmas, Dad wrapped up a used dictionary and put it under the tree for Jobe. On the inside cover he had written: Have a read of this once in awhile. You might learn something. From Dad.
I believe this treatment didn’t help Jobe to find his way very well. His temper would flare more and more as he got closer and closer to his teenage years. Perhaps he would be building something with hammer and nails, and if he missed that nail, there was a very good chance the hammer would end up in the lake and hopefully your noggin’ wasn’t in its flight path.
* * *
After Jobe got out of juvie, he went to live with our eldest sister Eva and her husband, Peter for a year due to he and Dad having serious personality conflicts. (A few years later, I would take a turn at living with Eva and Peter Not-So-Sweet Sixteen 🙏 ) While living there, we forever have the funny story of Jobe’s attempt at reeling a box of beer up to his upstairs bedroom (a two-four!). Unfortunately, he was caught due to its visibility when passing the main floor window. Peter looked up to see a box of Labatt’s Blue floating by and thought he had better investigate. He found Jobe leaning out his bedroom window, just about to haul in his case of beer. Peter put the kibosh to the beer party 17-year old Job was planning on having in his bedroom. Good try though.
Nowadays, Jobe is a farmer out in B.C.. We definitely do not see enough of his big smile, good heart or jovial laugh but, we will always have these memories to cherish, laugh and wonder at. He certainly made memories, did my brother Jobe.
My baby, the one who arrived in a maelstrom back in 1999, well, he is now a tall young man. Intelligent, kind, fun-loving, adventurous, athletic and handsome. (But, this is his mother writing. What else would I say?)
He is finished high-school and getting set to go off on a huge adventure and then to University. I have five weeks left with him before he departs. My heart is breaking and I am tearful, scared and joyful all at the same time. I never thought I would be this way, but, then again, I never thought I would be in a straitjacket in D.C. either. That’s life, right?! It sneaks up on you and BAM!
Your son, your only, is leaving for University.
But, what about that big adventure you ask? Leo applied and was picked to be one of forty-five youth to assist as crew on a tall ship from Halifax to France. Yes, that’s right. Across the Atlantic. Thankfully, there is a professional crew as well and they will be teaching the youth the ropes, literally. They will do duties: watch, galley, cleaning and maintenance duties. I am sure there will be lots of time for fun too. They will dock in Le Havre in Normandy France and spend five days in France before flying home to Canada at the end of August.
About ten days later, Leo will leave our house for University.
What happened to the days of Buzz Lightyear? Or the days of hiking, just me and small him and the dogs in the parks, on the beaches, up the hills? The days where every playground became a wealth of potential fun and that he would point at and cry hopefully, “Can I play in the playground, Mom?” and inevitably exclaim: “Mom, I’m having SO fun!!”
The holding of my hand. His, so small and soft and warm. The moments of insecurity when he was a toddler and would wrap himself around one or both of my legs as I stood in conversation with someone. The morning greeting, “It’s morning time, Mom!” The sleepy, cuddly story-times, sweaty fevers, rosy-cheeked kisses and all the stuff we learned together. The tears are streaming as I ask, “Where did the time go? and WHY does this hurt so bad??!”
Oh dear, did I spend enough time with him? Did I do enough for him? Did I help to shape a good young man? Will he find his way? Will he find a love? Will he miss me?
He wrote his last exam of high-school today and had arranged with two good buddies to go camping in New Brunswick at Fundy National Park. Both my husband Dean and I were home for lunch (we come home every day for lunch due to our Simple East-Coast Life) and so we witnessed the flurry of activity in getting ready for the big out-trip.
Leo was walking back and forth to his room grabbing all that he could imagine needing for the trip. Meanwhile, I set up a sandwich-building smorgasbord on the kitchen island with large slices of buttered Italian bread, sliced cheese and tomato, ham, bologna, bacon, mustard, mayo, and lettuce fresh and green from the garden. While Leo ran around, I invited the two buds to build their sandwiches and dig in. I wouldn’t want to see them on their way without a good lunch.
The curious thing happened. While Leo ran around, his two friends and I had a nice little visit in the kitchen. Mainly talking about some hiking memories that Dean and I made at Fundy National Park while going Across Canada in Betsy (age 26) 🇨🇦 and then about their plans for the fall. Leo came out to the kitchen and snagged the last two slices of bacon for his sandwich, which I then volunteered to build for him, as I could see he wasn’t even close to being packed and ready yet.
Just then, we realized that Leo’s phone was vibrating on the corner cupboard. Leo looked at it, then reached for it. From where I stood, I noticed that his hand was slightly shaking as he reached for his phone. My heart caught in my chest to see that hand, the very one I knew so well and had held time and again…shaking. Looking at the display, he said, “Dad, this is the call about the summer job.” When he looked up, there was a nervous strain on his face that instantly caused an anxious reaction within me. You see, Leo is a very laid-back kinda guy as is evidenced here.
Almost nothing phases him. But, I had to remind myself to take stock: he just wrote an exam, the last of his high-school career; a couple of nights ago, he found out he was selected for the Tall Ship experience to cross the Atlantic; there was a summer job being negotiated; friends were waiting for him for a couple day out-trip; Prom in a few days; he would be leaving for University in late August and he hadn’t even eaten lunch yet. So, perhaps a slight tremor of the hand and bit of a strain on the face is understandable. Regardless, the reaction within me was hard to deny. All I wanted to do was make it better. Take away his strain and nerves. Jeepers. I’m gonna need to chill.
Prom was fantastic and the prom parade went off without a ‘hitch’ and is featured in this little video:
When we first moved to Halifax, we lost a second-trimester pregnancy, Leo’s little brother, and it was heartbreaking. So…I am really hoping that the ‘loss’ of Leo to the great wide world (although surely tough on me) will be wonderful. That we shall see him spread his wings and soar through life, having adventures, doing good and following his dreams….TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!
When 16 to 18, Dad and his new wife Wendy took my little brother, Luke and I, to Florida with them for Christmas break (our older five siblings were all moved out by then). Except for the first year, we drove down, all 2500 km in Dad’s Mercury Zephyr. Yes, there used to be a car called a Zephyr. Dad had a skin-tone coloured one. It was super sexy. Not.
The first year, however, Dad put Luke and I on a Greyhound bus for the forty hour trip. We had to change buses at 2 o’clock in the morning in Detroit, Michigan which is known to be one of the most dangerous cities in the US of A. Let’s face it, Grey Hound bus stations are not usually located in the nicest parts of town. I was 16 and Luke was 13. Dad’s best advice was to use my scarf to tie my purse tight to my body. Luke and I found a seat on the dingy molded plastic chairs and linked arms with eye-balls peeled. We were terrified. Since I am writing this today, I guess we survived the Detroit Bus Station, twice, actually. We were there on the way home too.
Ever organized, we packed this little cooler with things like hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cheese, bread so that we didn’t have to spend much on restaurant stops. All we wanted to do was get off that bus as much as possible and stretch our legs. A long Greyhound ride gets rather ripe, especially after eating one too many hard-boiled eggs. By the time we arrived at Valdosta, Georgia, we were overjoyed to see Palm trees, finally.
When we finally arrived in Fort Myers, we were picked up by our eldest brothers wife, June’s Mother, who’s name is also June (rest in peace), driving a huge caddy and telling us in a thick Southern accent that she would adopt while in Florida for the winter, how very dANgerous it was here: ‘Nevah take out your wallet in pahblic’, she advised. ‘Almost ahveryone has a GUUN so just be caheful’ and then she accelerated to get across a lane of traffic and screamed: ‘HANG ON!!’ June Senior was quite a character. She took us in and fed us (I remember one meal in particular was turkey necks — I had never had a meal of turkey necks before) and made sure we had everything we needed for the couple of days before Dad and Wen arrived and we would move into the motel that Dad had booked from afar.
Luke and I spent many hours on the beach and walking around the town of Fort Myers. We didn’t have much spending money so we would usually have an ice-cream and maybe some fries around lunch time. Then we would walk all the way back the couple miles to where we were staying with Dad and Wen. By that time, we were wiped. We had swam, sunbathed, played frisbee plus the walk to and from the beach. Luke would carry his boom box on his shoulder and play music for us all the way.
Sometimes we would eat supper all together or we would go to a very good value All-U-Can-Eat Buffet which are prevalent in Florida. The odd time Dad would say, you kids are on your own, we are going out for supper without you. After supper, Dad would get us into the car and we would drive through the well-to-do neighbourhoods looking at the Christmas lights. It was so strange to see this without snow. Sometimes Dad would take us to some random high school gym to watch basketball. There seemed to always be a basketball game on somewhere and both Luke and I were big fans of the game. Luke could even spin a basketball for a significant length of time on his finger, then bounce it off his knee and back to his finger. In basketball practice with Mr. Laset, ball-handling drills had been highly encouraged. Luke and I would often play hours of 21 in our driveway and when sitting watching a television program, we would often be holding and spinning the ball.
One day, we met this family on the beach. The Bates’. There was a boy my age, a girl one year older and they were from Indiana. We hung out. They were really nice and we loved their accent and they liked ours. They arranged for Luke and I to go out for supper with them at a Mexican restaurant. We had never eaten Mexican food and we were so eager to give it a try. That was a fun night. Especially trying hot sauces and pico de gallo for the first time. The virgin lime margarita was spectacular too. Sour, sweet and salty all at once. I still love margaritas today. We ended up staying over at their house, which was actually their relatives house, in Fort Myers, for the night. Luke and I slept on the couches in the den. I was astounded by their generosity. In fact, I have been astounded at the generosity of Americans again and again when I lived there over the decades. The Bates’ were good people and they liked us. It was a nice feeling. We kept in touch and saw them the next years too.
Wendy found this beach park for us to go explore. No one was there and it was gorgeous. We walked along the sand and found wee little treasures while a very relaxed Dad slept on a towel on the beach. Luke and I jokingly calling him a beached whale, when we were out of earshot. After a good snore, he awoke and sat up with sand all over the side of his face and pine needles in his hair. Oh my, we chuckled. Perhaps he did these things on purpose to get a reaction. I’m still not sure about that.
That pure white-sand crescent-shaped beach was just spectacular and I have always enjoyed, for some reason, the places where few people go, but which are incredible. I have also enjoyed the wondering. The wondering why they are not there.
When it was time to head North, I dreaded it. Going back to the cold, dark North after all this sun, sea and sand. The only cool thing would be showing off our sun-kissed tan skin to all of our pasty white friends.
Those trips to Florida were bittersweet. In one sense it was amazing to be with my little brother, Luke and be on an adventure together down to Florida, especially for three years in a row, making it almost a tradition. Luke and I were very close. In another sense it was tough to be trapped with our parents in a car for several days on a road trip. The travail of teenagers, perhaps?
In the car, Luke and I would be in the back seat finding any reason to laugh hysterically at Dad. Dad had these habits that drove us wild with hilarity. Every so often, he would reach up to daintily scratch his balding pate with just his middle sausage-shaped finger. Next he would be asking Wendy if she wanted to split a black coffee. He would pull into a gas station, struggle into his huge down coat, and pay a quarter for the gut-rot coffee on offer. With a big smile on his face he would come back to the Zephyr with a single styrofoam coffee cup which was barely visible in his large hand. Wendy would hold it.
Dad would pull out and get back onto the highway and only then would he take off his huge coat. Every time, while driving and with the three of us helping to get his coat off, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Another time, we were at some diner in a tiny little town, for some lunch. Dad asked the server a question about her hometown, the very town she had lived in her whole life. The server answers but her answer is not what Dad was expecting. Much to the embarrassment of Luke and I, and as we would have liked to slide off our chairs and hide under the table, Dad says, ‘Honey baby,’ waving his thumb at himself and Wendy, ‘We’re both teachers. You must have your facts mixed up. That can’t be right.‘
There was one thing about Dad. He was not boring and he enjoyed both a good argument and a good adventure, as long as he didn’t have to walk too far.
A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.
Forest E. Witcraft
Mr. Laset was the quintessential good coach: kind, unselfish, knowledgeable and competitive when necessary. He coached me throughout elementary school for cross country running, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball and track. We had practices after school every day of the week. He was consistently present and consistently good to me. Over the decades I have thought of Mr. Laset many times and, every time it has been with fond memories. Kelly would say, ‘Marn, give him a call and tell him thank you.’ I didn’t really think he would remember me.
But, I searched for him and found a phone number and gave him a call…forty years later from three provinces away. I said, ‘this is Martha Valiquette, I am trying to find Lee Laset.’ His response:
‘How is my best point guard doing today?’
See, he said exactly the right thing! We had a wonderful chat on the phone. His memory is fabulous and we laughed about the old days. I thanked him again and again for all of the time and encouragement he gave me way back then.
Now my story about the Huronia Games…
When I was 10 years old, I was on the gymnastics team for St. Mary’s School. We would practise everyday after school and all day on Saturday during the gymnastics season. Mr. Laset prepared routines for the floor, finding music to suit the routine and then we would memorize and practice until we knew it cold. The routine for the balance beam and vault didn’t have music but all three apparatus had mandatory moves and lengths of routine.
There was a big meet coming downtown Barrie at Central High School. The day of the meet arrived. I caught a ride downtown with my teammate, Cassie, and her Mom. There were a lot of people there. Hundreds. The place was crawling with parents and gymnasts and coaches. Moms were fussing over their daughters’ hair. Dads were looking at schedules with their sons, a large arm encircling their small shoulders.
Gymnasts were warming up. When I stepped on the huge technical floor mat I was immediately impressed with its give. It seemed like I could bounce higher, split better, balance longer. I was in love with that mat. I watched some of the more talented gymnasts who belonged to clubs and wished I could one day be like them.
It came time for me to do my balance beam routine. I nailed the mount which required a lot of upper body strength, something I naturally had. I bounced off of the small spring board, placing both hands on the beam and then, with hips high, brought both feet into a wide straddle on either side of my body, but not touching the beam. I balanced that way for a few seconds and then placed my feet on the beam. From the wide straddle I made my way into the splits, held it with arms raised, fingers poised, then swung my back leg forward into a pike fold, then into the required back roll. From there, I gracefully transitioned into standing and went through the rest of my routine, conducting the required moves: standing balance with one foot held in my hand above my head; 360 degree spin and front roll and with various dance and rhythmic arm moves, made my way to the culminating move: the dismount. Mine was a front pike hand spring off the end of the beam. I did it and I stuck it. Arms up, arched back, chin high, head back. My teammates clapped and there were a couple of smiling, pretty moms I didn’t know who made me feel special. I walked off to find Mr. Laset who was working with some of my other teammates. Mr. Laset was spread thin watching over all of us.
Next up was the vault. Our score was the best out of three moves. I did a pike head-stand over, hand-stand over and high straddle over. I stuck all three pretty well and felt good about it. Mr. Laset patted me on the back and told me I had done well. So far so good.
After eating my brown-bag lunch, I checked the schedule and saw that it was almost time for me to do my floor routine. Again, I went to the mat for a warm-up and, again, I was impressed by the springy-ness of it. My music came on as I took my place on the mat. I
knew this routine cold so it was no problem to do it to the very best of my ability. The one toughest move was a hand-stand which was to be held for a few seconds and then a quarter turn down into the splits. I had practiced this move umpteen times in our basement rec-room. My friend Layla and I would put on music and dance and do gymnastics: cartwheels, hand springs, handstands, splits, rolls and often we would do this in the dark. Lucky we didn’t kick each other in the head.
Anyway, in my routine, I was wondering if I was ever going to actually be able to hold the handstand for five seconds. Guess what. I DID IT! Oh my, was I happy and very proud. After the splits, I turned forward and ended my routine with my elbows on the mat, my legs in a wide straddle, my dark, curly pony tailed head in my hands and a big smile on my face.
I would like to say the crowds went wild, but, no. There were very few spectators for me.
A little while later, we were rounded up and told that the closing ceremonies would be held and that we should quietly sit in our team. I sat down beside Cassie. She had had a good day and had completed all of her tough moves. She put her arm around me and told me that she had heard that I did REALLY well. I looked at her with a question on my face. How did she know that? She had been on the other side of the gym all day. She told me that her mom had seen my points. She said: ‘Martha, you’re in the medals’.
“WHAT???! What does THAT mean?’ I asked her frantically. ‘What do I need to do?’
‘You just need to go up there when they call your name’. Cassie said calmly. She was ultra experienced at this.
A couple of minutes later, I was called to the podium and a SILVER medal was placed around my neck. Holy cow!! I felt like a million bucks. Holy cow!! Mr. Laset patted my back and told me he was very proud of me. I had not expected this at all. I was shocked!
The meet was finished and it was time to go home with my silver medal. I imagined my family picking me up and hugging me wildly upon seeing it hanging around my neck. I imagined a celebratory supper of my favourite foods and my favourite dessert.
What actually happened was rather underwhelming and, as I write this now as a Mom, I feel quite sad for my ten-year old self who was somewhat neglected as a girl, at times. Nevertheless, I got out of the car and skipped up the driveway. Jumped up the front steps and bounced into the front door, my heavy silver medal swinging on my small chest, my curly pony tail flicking happily.
No one noticed my big smile or my big medal.
Mom and Dad were arguing in their room with the door closed and my three brothers were off in all corners of the house. My three eldest siblings would have moved out by then. No one asked about my big day. No one picked me up and hugged me wildly to celebrate my success. There was no celebration meal and no fun dessert. I had this great big family, but no one was there for me that day. No one watched me compete. No one watched me receive the silver medal. I was left wondering if it mattered. Did I matter? ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
One thing for sure is that this circle of neglect is broken. My husband Dean and I have one son, Leo. We have watched all of his sporting events and Dean has coached many of his soccer teams. My parents were very likely doing the best they could with what they had in their tank. I am ever thankful for people in my life who were there for me when my parents couldn’t be. One such person was Mr. Laset. Speaking to him earlier today after forty years, made my year. The gift of his calm, smooth voice knowing and remembering me and chit chatting about our sports days in the mid-70s will be cherished. When he said, ‘How is my best point guard doing?’ Those words were golden. He was important in the life of a child. That child was me.
In the 60s my parents buy a piece of lake-front property north of the Muskokas in Ontario, Canada where we move to every summer to live bare-foot at the lake: fishing, swimming, sunning and doing chores each day…
In 1960, the year Mark was a born, my parents with my paternal grand-parents, bought a 21-acre piece of lake-side property north of Huntsville, Ontario. The Camp, as we came fondly to call it, had ten cabins, each on private, wooded lots, most with their own water frontage and docks, on beautifully picturesque forested property beside the soft mineral waters of Eight-mile Lake. The lake is part of a very long and historic river system. The camp is still up and running but is now owned and operated (since the mid 80s) by my eldest sister, Eva and her family.
The Camp was an integral part of my childhood and it was instrumental in my love of the outdoors. You see, as soon as the school year finished, Mom and Dad would have us packed up in the huge boat they called a car and we would move, lock, stock and barrel, up to the camp for the two months of the summer holidays. We never returned to the city during the summer. The City, in the summer, was a place where the less fortunate had to live.
Driving to the camp was always an undertaking. There would often be five or six of us in one car at a time for two hours straight. Once we were in, it was the lake or bust. Dad didn’t dare stop for anything. He had already gassed-up the boat and if one of us had to pee, it would be at the side of the highway, no kidding. That two-hour drive seemed to last forever, such was my eagerness to get there. Once we would pass Gravenhurst, we would be into The Rocks where the Canadian Shield would start to show its lumpy head. The Rocks was the first milestone that proved we were making progress. The Rocks we would say to each other and grin and point, then poke at each other in anticipation of all the fun the summer would surely hold for us.
The lake was the best place in the world to be in the summer and oh, how we pitied, for once, our neighbours, The MacNeils who only got to go on a short summer holiday somewhere closer to Walden. One or two of the MacNeils would usually come to visit at the lake and stay for about a week. Never the whole family though.
Once at the lake, life became a little simpler and a lot more basic. We would shed our shoes and heavier clothing and run around for hours at a time in shorts, tee shirts or just bathing suits. I can remember days filled with hours of swimming, canoeing, running back and forth to the trampoline, playing outdoor games and having the time of my life. All of us became expert swimmers, canoeists, fishers and water-skiers thanks to the black, soft water of Eight-mile Lake. I was swimming by the time I was three. I would spend hours in the water and became such a great underwater swimmer that people would often think I had drowned because I could hold my breath and swim underwater for so long.
The Camp had a built-in source of friends every summer. Nine of the cabins would be rented out to various families who had usually made bookings for them in the winter months. The campsites would also be filled up with people on vacation from the hotter, muggier climes of southern Ontario and of the northern United States. The odd time we would have customers from somewhere exotic like Europe. We would make friends one summer and then see these same people and their families return for several summers to follow. Together, my friends and I would explore the camp and surrounding area. We would swim, trampoline, canoe or walk to town, go for a hike, go fishing, go bull-frog catching, play hide-and-go-seek and have amazing sing-songs around the camp fire and under the vast starry sky at night. We were constantly on the go. We had a lot of good times. On rainy days we would play board games and spin-the-bottle above the work-shed that we called The Shop. Dad didn’t like us to have friends into The Office where he was trying to conduct business. (There were many fights about keeping The Office – our house where we ate and slept – professional and quiet. It was very difficult to keep it so serene especially with the screen door always slamming on the way out.)
‘Slam it!’ Dad would sarcastically yell from his inevitably prone position on the couch, with the newspaper. Conducting business was exhausting work. Meanwhile, Mom had already probably cut three huge grassy cabin lots, cleaned and dug four grimy, foul outhouses and had nothing but an open-face sandwich, a cup of black coffee and a gingersnap for lunch. A calorie deficit was often bragged about for some reason.
Saturdays were the worst days of the week at the camp. Saturdays were turnover days. All of our friends would be leaving and because we had so many chores on Saturday, we often didn’t even get a chance to say our good-byes. From the crack of dawn, we would be tasked with cleaning the cottages, picking up the garbage, cutting the grass, painting and making repairs. Of course, we had many of these same tasks on a daily basis but on Saturday we had a new element involved: time constraint. We had to have it all done before the new customers would begin to arrive and would be expecting their cabin or site to be absolutely sublime. When I was little, I would work closely with Amy, Eva or my mom on cabin cleaning. I would marvel at how quickly and efficiently they could complete a task. I would wish and wish that I was older and more capable, and I would try very hard to keep up with these experts but, I was a child and had the attention span of a child so I would find myself wishing I were swimming instead. Mom knew my love of the water and so would give me a task that would take me down to the dock. I would be given a large blackened kettle to scrub with sand or told to sweep off the dock! A few years later though, I was in charge of cleaning some cabins on my own, or with Luke as my assistant. Wanting to do the very best job, we drew up a list of the various tasks that would have to be completed in each cabin. It went something like this:
Make the beds. Wipe the bedroom furniture down. Sweep out the bedrooms. Clean and sanitize the fridge. Remove any left food and bait. Organize the cupboards. Blacken the wood stove and empty the ashes. Sweep down the cobwebs. Clean and sanitize the sink. Clean out the outhouse and drop ashes down the hole. Sweep and mop the floor. Sweep the porch. Sweep the dock. Tidy up the outdoor fire-hole.
Dad was very proud of this list that we drew up and he would show it to some of his friends and they would all have a chuckle over it – especially the sweep down the cobwebs line. Even now, when I sometimes (actually very rarely due, sadly, to living a few provinces away) help Eva with the cleaning, I mentally run over this list as I lovingly go about the task of cleaning those rustic, very special but ancient cabins.
Dad had a few nicknames that were given to him by the older boys: Cheapskate, Tightwad, Lard-ass, Oaf, Ogre, Moose and Minnie. Moose and Minnie were the ones that stuck although, on occasion, when Job was mad about something, and he was often mad about something, he would refer to Dad as that cheap tightwad or that Lard-ass or something akin to that. Nicknames were big in our family. From the second my Dad laid eyes on me he nicknamed me. I had all this black hair and my skin was a little brownish in colour. I was not cute. I became known as Petite Laid, meaning little ugly and later this was shortened to just Titty. I can still feel the humiliation, as a young girl, perhaps just starting to develop, Eva would holler across the aisles of Woolworth’s, Titty, come over and take a look at this. Just the other day, when on the phone, long-distance with Eva, she slipped and called me Titty. Oh my God, where did that come from? she asked. We just had a chuckle over it. Now, a few of decades later, I think it is a cute nickname. Back then, we all had a nickname, except for Eva who only got one when she met her hubby who called her Tuda. Amy was Doobie and Big Sweets. Matt was Feebert and then Feb. Mark started out as Goobie-Goo and then got Bert (except for the summer he was Manic and got ‘Skeletor’ due to not eating or sleeping). Job got Bert as well. I got Titty and then Ditch. Luke got Bert then Bertrum Brothers then Buttox. Mom was Big Bubbles. She used to leave the kettle on until there were lots of big bubbles and Dad used to goad her about that calling it a waste of energy.
Raising a family of seven kids, on a teacher’s salary, means that frugality is necessary. One day, at the lake, My brother Job 🧡 climbs out of bed and down the ladder from the loft. He decides to cook up some breakfast before starting on his morning chores. Noting that Dad is on the riding-mower out front, he decides to take some extra time and savour the peace of being alone in the office. He can just about taste the crispy bacon and eggs he will make.
Job pulls a pound of bacon out to the fridge, takes one look at the generic brand, and is so disgusted by how fatty it is that he flies out the screen door and whips the pound of bacon at Dad on the riding mower. The pound of bacon hits Dad on the back of the head while Job yells, Minnie you’re such cheapskate!
Dad would try very hard to stick around The Office most of the day. He liked to be there to collect the mail and to answer the phone and to sell a bit of ice and worms or gasoline to the customers. Of course whoever paid in cash made him very happy. Dad had a perpetual role of twentys in his pocket and would often get one of us, especially me, because I was honest, to count it for him.
Anyway, during the warm afternoons while the Northern Canadian sun danced on the large south-facing windows of the office, and the house flies buzzed angrily on the fly-catchers, Dad could invariably be found snoozing on the couch with his newspaper on his chest. Dad had bought a couple of massive, partially rusted deep freezers second-hand and they lined the north-facing exterior walls of the office with ICE printed on front and each sporting a Yale pad lock. Dad would tediously freeze huge blocks of ice in discarded fridge crisper bins. He’d then put the bin up on its edge on the kitchen table and it would begin to thaw and drip on the kitchen floor and then finally, it would yawn and tumble out. Dad would most often be there to stop the block from smashing on the floor. Here we go kids, another couple of blocks of ice to sell. Make sure to tell the customers that we sell ice down here at the office.
Dad would then, almost lovingly, wrap the blocks in old newspaper and sell them to the customers for a buck or two, as inflation dictated. Dad seemed to enjoy the process of making and selling ice and could be seen smiling dreamily as he slid the beef-laden freezer baskets out of the way and lay another completed block in its bed in the bottom of the massive freezer.
One afternoon, while Dad was snoozing on his back on the couch, a slim, curly dark-haired, handsome seventeen-year-old Mark decided to have a steak dinner. At that point in time, Mark was on the outs with Dad and was staying in one of the unrented, less popular cabins. Mark or Job and even Matt were often on the outs with Dad. Usually it was over a lack of respect. Personally, I don’t think there was much respect flowing in either direction in these relationships. Mark sauntered up the office screen door, to verify what he suspected would be the scene at that point in the afternoon. He then whipped out a screwdriver and proceeded to work the screws out of the latches on one of the freezers. He was successful. He opened the freezer. Squeak, the old hinges complained loudly. Oh Shit! Sure enough, Dad had heard his freezer door opening when it had been locked. He was up and he was mad and he was coming out of the screen door. Mark had already snatched a couple of steaks and was running through the trailer park up into the camp and yelling, I got some! I got some! Dad never saw those steaks again. Dad didn’t like to run and especially didn’t like to make a scene in front of the trailer park.
The trailer park was located beside the office on the way up to the rest of the cabins and other wooded camping sites. There was one older couple who used to always take the first site and were, therefore, closest to the office. The Pattersons were excellent fishers and liked to be close to the office dock where their boat and motor was tied. Every time we would have an argument or a kafuffle in the office, which was usually a couple of times a day, Dad would say: Keep it down, The Pattersons will hear. One of these fights got pretty bad one day. Fights were about money, nick-names, laziness, poor grammar and lack of respect. This time the fight involved Mark and got extra bad and very loud. Lots of harsh words were screamed in each direction and, of course, Dad said: Shut up! The Pattersons will hear. At that point Mark flew out the front screen door, slammed it loudly, jumped off the porch, ran down past the shop and right past The Patterson’s tent-trailer and screamed, at the top of his lungs,
FUCK THE PATTERSONS!
A few years later Mr. Patterson died of a heart attack while seated in his lawn chair. He had been looking out at the lake. His ashes were scattered over his favourite fishing hole.
I started canoeing when I was tiny. Job and I would go out on the lake to catch bullfrogs and to explore the lily pads around the cove. We would often harvest a few lilies for Mom who would float them in a bowl of water on the table…
Last night I had a dream about canoeing at dusk on Eight Mile Lake in Ontario’s cottage country. The Camp ⛺️ I was over by number four cabin and the dark, soft familiar waters were choppy. I was solo. Suddenly I realized there was a lot of water coming into my canoe and it tipped over. I was in the drink. In real life, I have never capsized a canoe, not even while standing and lunging and reaching to catch bullfrogs as a child, never once did the canoe overturn. But in my dream last night, it did. The current became unusually strong and, still holding on to the overturned canoe, I was carried way down the narrows and into big part of the lake by Echo Rock. I was not afraid. Suddenly, I was overcome with a feeling of foreboding….but…then, I woke up.
I have many fond memories of canoeing on Eight Mile Lake. Like the late summer of 1983 after Fun and Foibles at the Camp 🎣 (18) when my little brother Luke would canoe into town to pick me up from my shift at the diner. He would slowly and quietly walk up from the dock in his male teenage body to the diner to get me. I would be in my uniform and with a carton of to-go food, I would follow him down to the dock and take up my place in the bow and eat while Luke would paddle and tell me about his day and usually about his struggles with Dad. After I would finish eating, we would sing for the rest of the trip. We would sing: Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad by Meatloaf:
Baby we can talk all night, but that ain’t getting us nowhere, I told you everything I possibly can, there’s nothing left inside of here. And maybe you can cry all night, but that’ll never change the way that I feel. The snow is really piling up outside. I wish you wouldn’t make me leave here…
Yep, we would sing that uplifting song. For some reason we knew all the words and, of course, various Bob Seger tunes and the odd Bob Dylan tune. Mom wasn’t at the lake that year. Dad and Mom had split up. We missed her very badly. Her light always shone so bright at the lake. It was her favourite place on earth. When Mom passed away in 2001, we sprinkled her ashes in the upper field of the camp, under a pine tree. Eva, Amy, Mark and I took turns saying a few words and Mark sang a song that he wrote for mom. It was simple but sweet. Rest in Peace, Mom. We miss you.
Mom loved to canoe the lake. She would gather us up and we would make a canoe convoy out around the point beyond number six cabin in order to see the sunset.
We would laugh and tease and splash each other all the way. On the way back we would sing various camp songs and Mom’s favorite: Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles. As kids, we loved to go see the sunset on Eight Mile Lake. It was a big event. And Mom was with us, which made it extra special.
When my friend Ben MacNeil would visit (my neighbour from the city, see post: Let the Games Begin 🏀), we would go out in the canoe every day and usually we would canoe across the lake and then over to town. Sometimes we would take a fishing rod each and some worms and tie-up near the footings of the lighthouse and try for perch, sunfish and bass. Squealing with delight when we would catch a fish, pulling it into the canoe to be taken home where mom would clean it and add it to the other catches to be eating for breakfast the next day. She would roll each piece of fish in flour and salt and pepper and fry them in the big cast-iron pan with lots of lard. There would be a stack of fish and frogs on the table for breakfast —the most important meal of the day! Mom would say and then after grace, we would begin, with gusto. I have to wonder about the current trend toward veganism — there was nothing so natural and better than availing ourselves of the fruits of the lake for our morning meal and that flour and lard made everything extra delicious. Not to mention, we would have had to BUY vegetables. We didn’t have to buy our lake goodies. There were no children as fit as us as we bent to our chores, swam, tumbled and canoed the summer days away.
On calm days we would be beckoned by the still waters of Eight Mile Lake to adventure out for a day in the canoe. Luke and I, or Job and I, or Mark and I would head down the mysterious Trouble River and follow all of its twists and turns seeing blue herons take flight as we rounded a corner or a beaver flapping its tail on the calm black bottomless water. The Trouble River was always so quiet and calm. There were stories about it and beliefs about the water because it was so black. People would say that it was bottomless. None of us wanted to swim in it, but mom would, no problem. Sometimes, every now and then, Job would water ski down the Trouble My brother Job 🧡. He loved the challenge of it but, it did scare him, although he would never admit it. I remember being proud of Job. He was so courageous.
If you get a chance to canoe, give it a try and then you can say that U CAN CANOE!!!
Dad was coaching in a huge high-school basketball game the night I was born in March of ’66, in Oshawa, Canada, the sixth of seven children. Dad was a Gym and French teacher hailing from a tiny northern company town. He was a successful hockey player who would have had a career in the NHL but, alas, there wasn’t much prestige in it back in the 50s and he chose to be a family man instead.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Reid, and my dad were close friends and playing for the Walden Colts’ Junior ‘A’ hockey team. Uncle Reid was from a neighbouring company town. Periodically they would go home together. Both my mother and her sister, Do, vied for the attentions of my father who was quite the charming young man and who had a very good fashion sense. They met and started dating. Mom was Dad’s biggest fan. She loved to cheer for him at his games. It wasn’t long before they were married and my oldest sister, Eva was born.
Hockey would always play a big part of our childhood lives. There was the skating rink every winter in the back yard and there were the mandatory shots on net that Jobe, Mark and Matt would have to take before being allowed back indoors. I can remember screaming in agony as my bright red toes thawed out after peeling off my too-tight, hand-me-down skates.
Then there were the times when my three big brothers would play hockey and would get me to play too. One time Matt said to Mark that he would check me. I didn’t realize until minutes later that checking someone involved a good deal of pain. After that I never forgot it and still have flash backs when I watch professionals being rammed up against the boards. Those childhood games usually ended with one or all of us bawling.
My earliest memories are of us living in a rented town house on Main Street West in Walden. Luke wasn’t born yet, so I would have been younger than three and a half and would have been the youngest of six then. The town house complex was called The Willows and ours had two floors, three bedrooms and one bathroom. Part of the time we were there, Mom and Dad slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room, while Amy and I slept in a double bed in one room, Eva had her own room and the three boys were in the large second bedroom. In another configuration Eva was behind a screen in our parents’ room, Amy and I were in the tiny room and the three boys were in the big room. The bathroom was busy a lot of the time, with so many family members.
It was then that Amy and I used to have fun sneaking around after the lights were out. Actually, it was Amy who would challenge me to sneak downstairs, past the living room where Mom and Dad were reading or watching TV, to steal an (gasp!) orange out of the crisper. I had no concept of the danger I was in if I were to be caught. Food was strictly doled out in our house of many mouths to feed. Besides that, I was supposed to have been fast asleep by then.
When I would come back, Amy would be wide-eyed and relieved sitting on the bed waiting for me. She loved to roll the orange around and even toss it at the wall to get it all soft and juicy. Then she would take a bight of the peel from one end and we would squeeze all the juice out into our mouths until the orange was nothing but pulp. The best part was next: she would then split it open and we would sink our faces into the pulp until every last bit of the orange was devoured, and only the white and peel remained. I loved sharing a room with my fourteen-year-old sister whom I affectionately called, Amy-Wee-Wee.
Going to bed was full of adventure and good-night stories and Amy would talk about how she was going to be a singer and guitar player when she got older. She would often sing me a song in her beautifully soft, soothing voice. She loved to sing, In the Ghetto by Elvis and or Billy Don’t Be a Hero by Paper Lace.
Mary Hat was Amy’s best girl-friend and she used to come over to our house quite a bit. I would sit and listen and watch as they discussed boys and hair styles and length of mini-skirts. Often, when Amy wasn’t watching, I would steal her nail-scissors, go out into the hallway, take a lock of my hair and snip it off. I did this so often that one day, Amy noticed that my hair was much longer on one side than on the other and I had to confess to cutting it myself. I was scolded, but, not very badly.
Amy was so sweet to me and spoiled me rotten. We are now heading past middle age and we are still close siblings and friends with multiple calls, texts, messages per week. It’s only when I receive an email rather than a phone call from Amy that I know I’m in trouble. Too outspoken or too impatient with our brothers will get me that email…
I bet I was the only ten-year-old kid who knew that the address of The Toronto Star was 1 Yonge Street, Toronto. I knew this piece of completely useless information because at the tender age of five years old, I had a paper route – The Toronto Star. I exaggerate slightly. The route was actually my older brother’s but, I had been given the responsibility of delivering a single paper to one out-of-the-way customer: Mrs. Wilson– about ten doors north of our house. I got paid a hefty 5 cents per week for this. It was much to my embarrassment though, when the phone would ring while all nine of us were ensconced at the supper table and Mom would look at me and say, Martha, did you deliver your paper? Invariably I had forgotten. I would have been too busy at play to think of it. I had to then drop my fork and run off with Mrs. Wilson’s paper. As the years went by I was given more and more of the route to deliver and customers to collect from and one day I found that the whole route was mine – handed down from Matt to Mark to Job and finally, to me.
The Saturday Star was so heavy that, in order for me to be able to deliver all the papers from one load, I had to lug the bag to the top of our front, concrete stoop. I would sit on the third step and back into the head-sling of the loaded paper bag and then, leaning way over until my nose was almost touching the ground, I would stagger forward and allow the full weight of the bag to sit on my back. Not a parent-figure in site to worry about me injuring my neck. I often wondered how badly off I would be if I were to just fall the wrong way? Or, if I were to stumble, out-of-control onto the street, would the car that hit me be damaged by the sack of papers on my back or would I just simply be crushed beneath them?
Most of my paper route, thankfully, was in an eight-story apartment building, just down the hill from us that we imaginatively called, ‘The Apartments’. When I was still quite little, I wasn’t able to reach the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors on the elevator’s button panel. Alas, I had the ultimate solution. I would lumber into the elevator and somehow drop my paper bag off my head, without wrenching my wee neck, and stand on the full paper bag in order to reach the button for the top floor. I would then deliver the papers on the descending floors, using the heavy bag to hold the elevator door open as I progressed. When the bag was no longer heavy enough to hold the elevator door open, I would carry the bag, deliver the papers and then take the flight of stairs down to the next floor. The whole process was quite an art.
My career as an earner started then. I was a papergirl until I was 15. I started to baby-sit at the age of 12. I worked as a bus-girl at The Crock & Block Restaurant at the age of 15 while living with my sister Eva. I then had various serving jobs: Lafayette, O’Toole’s, Silky’s, and July’s Restaurant for five summers until joining the army at 19. Dad did not believe in giving us an allowance. We had to earn everything we ever got.
It was at Fancy’s in Barrie that I experienced working for the most dysfunctional couple of crazy people I have ever encountered. I hated working there because of it and dreaded each shift. Tom, the chief cook and owner would SCREAM at his wife, Darlene all the live long day: BUTTER RIGHT TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD FOR FUCK SAKES! RIGHT TO THE FUCKIN’ EDGE!!! AND GET IT OUT HOT!!! YOU BLOODY STUPID BITCH. Oh Lord did I detest that place. The tension should have been on the menu because it was the most abundant item they produced. I just now googled the place. It is still open. Unbelievable. The food was good fairly good though, unfortunately.
Why work there? I was in grade 12 and needed a job. My sister Amy had helped me get the job through a friend of a friend and I was ever so grateful. Amy always had so many connections made through her work as a hairstylist. By this time, Mom was living in a tiny apartment with her alcoholic boyfriend and working as a server for minimum wage at cafeteria-style restaurant in Woolworth downtown. I would go visit her and she would look so tired. So worn out. Oh god. It would break my heart. This was her reality after raising seven children and keeping a wonderful home for us for 26 years. She did not come out of the divorce nor the annulment well. I could not ask her for a penny. She worked so hard and made so little.
At that time, my younger brother and I had a bedroom each in the basement of our bungalow and Dad was upstairs. I had been getting a couple of shifts per week at O’Toole’s Roadhouse Restaurant, but, it went bankrupt and it wasn’t long before I was without money. One particular day, having spent my savings, I had to ask Dad for money for necessities: menstrual pads.
He turned my down. He would not give me five bucks for pads. I was seething. I hated him.
I was forced to use cotton t-shirts cut into rags. Nice. God I hated him. It was incredible how much I hated him. I feel that hatred even now, decades later. And not giving me money, when he had plenty of money, for necessities, was just one of his many faults. The others were worse. Like when he would come barging into my room, even though my door was closed, and catch me half-dressed or naked but with the old sorry, sorry. I didn’t know you were dressing. Or he would forcibly hold me down and lick my face with his very wet, gross, warm tongue – his bad breath washing over me as I would struggle — I just want to give my daughter a little kiss. Or, he would comment on my developing body you’re getting rather hippy, Martha, you better watch it, you don’t want to get fat. Or, he would routinely reach out and touch my bum as I would be walking past him and then exclaim yippee in a falsetto voice. Then there were the many times his robe would mysteriously open and there would be hairy, wrinkled member for all to see. Oh god. I would be mortified when he would inevitably do this with teen-aged Kelly and Sally visiting. Show us his penis, by accident, of course, and then giggle about it as he would sneak away back to his fart-stinking room.
With all that I have read, learned and experienced in life regarding body image (see The Body Positive 🙃) and now as a parent, here is one truism: never comment on a child’s body except to say how lucky we are to have one that does so much for us. Our body is truly a marvel which should be loved, respected, adorned, nourished, cleaned, clothed and loved some more.
So, my relationship with Dad was love / hate for sure. At times I would love him for his silliness and his zest for life and enthusiasm about certain topics: sport, recreation, small business, celebration. Dad loved to laugh. He would often have us all in stitches at the supper table, recounting his Skollard Hall days in a falsetto voice. He liked that falsetto voice. I do truly think he was doing his best to father us the best way he could, considering the factors at play in his upbringing and his generation and with the added factor of the Catholic guilt monitoring all that he did. Another factor in the break down of his marriage was mental illness.
Mom had been a classic Bipolar 1 (Definition: A person with bipolar 1 will experience a full manic episode usually leading to psychosis). When she was pregnant or nursing, which was a lot of the time until she was 42 and weened Luke, she did not have symptoms of mental illness. But, then it hit and it hit hard. She was hospitalized with full on psychosis several times in the seventies. I remember waking up around age six and walking around looking for mom. No one would tell me that she had been taken to the hospital: 5C – the psyche ward. (Who would know then that in thirty years time, I would have my first big struggle with mental illness: Locked Up in D.C. 🔐) She was there for weeks. We would go visit her and it was like she was a different person. She was in a fog. It was heart wrenching. I missed her so badly. I just wanted my mommy back. I would cry myself to sleep missing her so much. She would sometimes be smoking when we visited. I couldn’t believe my eyes. (Back then you could smoke in parts of the hospital.)
In the summer, at the lake, Mom would become more and more manic. Her manic energy was put to good use with cleaning and maintaining the ten cabins of The Camp ⛺️that we moved to every summer. Lock, stock and barrel, all nine of us would move two hours North to the camp and live on the lake all summer – running the tourist resort – as it used to be known. It was truly beautiful there: 21 forested acres, half-mile of lake frontage, only 2 miles from a village for supplies, ten antique, rustic cabins on private lots with tall trees, most cabins on the water with their own dock and a sandy beach.
For many years we even had a diving tower and trampoline over the water. Dad’s idea. Dad being a teacher, had envisioned the need for a business and an escape from the city. (We would have killed each other staying in the city all summer. No doubt about it.) It was pure genius and is one of those things I loved about my Dad. He had these great ideas at times. We enjoyed idyllic summers – running around barefoot, swimming, boating, water-skiing, canoeing and socializing with all the campers. Yes, we had work and chores, but, we were paid for them as a business expense and it was just a couple of hours a day. Our summers at the camp were the envy of my friends. In fact, many of my friends would come to the camp, either to stay with us in the office or as paying guests and stay in a cabin or tent.
I remember waking up early to find mom’s twin bed empty. She would already be out there working. Dad was much more sedentary. He would do all of the business-end of things: letters, bills, payments, promotions. All this to say, that mom’s mental illness was raging on, unchecked for several years. From reading I have done, because I too am bipolar 1 (Crazy Train 🚂 (part 1)…All ABOARD, Crazy Train 🚂 (part 2) ) the more episodes there are the more easily an episode will occur. The brain makes these pathways that become easier and easier to follow and so sanity slips further and further away. So, to be fair, it could not have been easy dealing with this major impediment. When Mom finally went on lithium, and stayed on lithium, things were so much better. She was stable. Stable is good.
I wasn’t the first in my family to work at July’s Restaurant up at the Lake. My older sister Eva had worked there a decade prior to me. Eva would sometime recount one of her most embarrassing moments while working there. This man would come into the restaurant almost daily. He would take a seat beside the coffee maker in the kitchen in the mid-afternoon when it wasn’t too busy. He would just sit and chat up the kitchen staff and the servers as they would come and go from the kitchen. So, Eva walks into the kitchen this one day and slaps Buddy on the back and asks him how the heck he is doing today. That would have been all fine except that when she slapped him on the back his toupee went flying off his head and landed a few feet away on the kitchen floor.
You could have heard a mosquito outside the window. After a split second hesitation and with a very red face, Eva quickly grabbed the toupee off the floor. Put it back on Buddy’s head. Smoothed it out. Told him: ‘You have very nice hair.’ Then, turned on her heel into the dining room.
Part-time jobs were an absolute necessity in the my family. We each had one, early in life, and a paper route. There never seemed to be enough money to go around…at one point in the 70s, my eldest brother Matt was the manager of the A&W fast food joint in Barrie, Canada. He would have been 17 at the time. While in that position, he managed to hire three of our siblings: Eva age 19, Amy 18 and Mark 14 (Mark lied about his age). So, four of us were working there and those were the days of delivery to the car window by waitresses in uniform. The tray would hang off the window and would be filled with the order of those in the car: root beer, burgers, fries, that kind of thing.
One time, Matt was working with Mark and with a friend, who is now deceased due to drugs, Byron Hedgeman. Hedgeman had been cleaning the stainless steel counters with a mixture of bleach and water when a bus pulled up and there was a massive order placed. Everyone was working madly to fill the order. Sadly, the javex and water combination got wiped up in a rather cavalier way. Then, Matt slid a burger to Hedgeman who put it in the bun and the burger must have gone through the javex. The next day a man came into the front of the A&W and this man’s face was green. He had ‘bags under bags under bags’ beneath his eyes (My brother Matt tells this story and his huge sausage fingers come up to form the semi-circle under each of his eyes indicating just how sick and tired the customer appeared to be — whenever Matt does this we roll laughing because of his sausages and because of the unfortunate look on his face).
The man then tells Matt that he was deathly sick, throwing up all night, after eating the burger from A&W. Matt looks at Hedgeman and they are sure of what must have happened to this man’s burger. The javex! Matt offers the guy a couple of coupons for free burgers. The man looks at Matt and says: are you kidding? I will NEVER eat in thiseffing place again!!
One very good thing came of the A&W days…Matt met June and they have been happily married since June was 19 and Matt was 20. They have two adult children and four, grandchildren.
A little while after meeting and falling in love with June, it became apparent that Dad did not approve of the relationship. Matt would spend hours talking to June on the phone. He had a basement bedroom in our family bungalow on Pearl Street in Barrie. Matt was serious about his phone calling so he got himself his own extension phone, a trick we all thought was quite outstanding because at the time, teens NEVER had their own phone.
In his day, Dad had been a very skilled hockey player and that was before the players wore helmets. His nose was broken a handful of times and was nearly flattened to his face because of it. Dad lived for hockey and he had an ambition to produce another serious player from one of his four sons. To that end, Dad and Mom would make us a back-yard rink every winter and Dad would force the boys to take a hundred shots a day. Of course there would always be broken kitchen windows and neighbours’ windows too, sometimes. Almost all of us could skate, holding a chair, before we could walk. Luke was quite little but he managed to memorize hockey stats and NHL teams and rosters. It was impressive. How’s that for true Canadians, eh? So, Matt had been doing well with his hockey. Dad bought him a new pair of CCM Super Tacks skates.
These would have been very expensive on a teacher’s salary who has seven children. Whenever these skates were spoken of, a hush would fall over the room. They were absolutely the ticket to the NHL. They were the very best skates to own back then.
Dad, not approving of Matt and June’s relationship, sat Matt down one day and said he wanted him to move out. Matt was 17. Matt asked why. Dad said Matt was a bad influence on the other children. He then took back the skates. Matt asked why he would do that. Dad said he knew Matt wasn’t seriously into hockey if he was going to take up with a girl. Matt said it was crazy to take them back but, Dad did anyway. He took them back and put them in a well-known hiding place: under the head of his bed. Matt found them a few days later and took them back.
So Matt and June found a small apartment in a really old house in downtown Barrie. They paid $70 per month rent and Matt was making that much in one week at A&W. Matt could see that he would be needing to do something more lucrative in order to live a more comfortable life. While living in that first apartment, Matt had a pair of leather shoes, just one pair. He would wear them to work. Soon, the sole started to come unattached from one of the shoes. Always a quick problem solver, Matt found a thumb tack to hold his shoe together so he could still wear them to work. One day, he couldn’t find this all-important tack for his shoe. He was running around with his shoe sole flapping yelling, ‘June, help me find my tack!! I’m gonna be late!’ He finally found the tack and got off to work just in time.
Matt went on to get his papers in Electrical Contracting. He worked for decades in downtown Toronto and all over the city in commercial Electricity making a very good living. He worked hard and he always had lots of work. June managed the business office and, in so doing, had the flexibility to be home to raise their two children. Sam was a honeymoon baby and ended up playing in the show (yes, the NHL – Dad got his wish but one generation removed). Sam now does commentating and consulting. Sally is a restaurateur and city counselor for her city. All this wonderful success happened due to the A&W days.
And here they are now. Such a wonderful couple who are the best of friends.
My two big sisters were Irish twins — born ten months apart. They had the most awesome bedrooms down the basement of our little red-brick bungalow in Barrie. Their faux wood paneled walls and wall-to-wall carpeted bedrooms were not only super cool and trendy, but they were adjoined so that if you wanted to go into Eva’s room, you had to first walk through Amy’s. Eva had a single bed in her room with an afghan on it that she crocheted herself. She was (and still is) very creative and multi-talented – always making something, or writing a poem, baking, painting a paint-by-number or organizing a get-together. Eva’s zest for life is contagious. People flock to Eva, wanting to be apart of her exciting and enthusiastic life.
Eva also had throw cushions on the bed with hand-stitched whimsical hippos, frogs and turtles. Her room was so interesting that I would love to just sit and look at everything and wonder at how she must have made it. Eva was twelve years my senior, my God-mother and I adored her. I was so lucky.
Amy’s room sported a double bed and a walk-in closet that had its very own light and light switch. As a little girl I would imagine it to be my play house and I would wish I was big enough to wear some of Amy’s great clothes. Amy is a very gentle soul. She has many friends and many we call Amy’s Men. She listens well and can empathize with just about everyone she meets. She hears her clients all day while she expertly works on their hair and makes them feel good about themselves. People love Amy from the moment they meet her and look into her beautiful blue, kind eyes. She is one of those soft-spoken, nice people that everyone wants to associate with. Amy 11 years older than I and I also adored her, she was the most beautiful woman, on the inside and out, that I knew and I was very proud to be her little sister. Amy and Eva pretty much raised me from the time I was a tiny.
One night when I was seven years old, I was curled up beside Amy who was reading her homework assignment to me aloud. She was attending the Barrie School of Hairdressing at the time. I shared Amy’s double bed with her. Eva walked in, all excited, and announced that she was going to Windsor to attend Mark’s graduation from Law School. Mark was a school friend of hers who lived down the hill and who just loved Eva. He wanted her as a girlfriend but, unfortunately, Eva really never could muster up those kinds of feelings for him. Eva however, still really liked him as a friend and was looking forward to the adventure of going down to Windsor to attend his grad. We would, of course, stay with our relatives and not at his apartment (which he shared with some other guy). I guess I was a type of chaperone for this mission and would keep Eva, my big sister that I was in awe of, company while she drove.
We started out early in the day in Eva’s new, green, 1974 Maverick –“The Mav”. The plan was that we would pull off the highway about once every hour so that Eva wouldn’t be too tired by the time we got there. It’s about a 6-hour road trip to Windsor and sure enough we pulled off for a break each hour. Eva would buy us a treat and we would sometimes gas up the Mav and then we would be on the road again. The trip took us on multi-lane, fast 400-series highways all the way to Windsor which is situated on the border with The States. We sung all kinds of great tunes. Eva is a talented singer and loves to entertain. We sang Band On the Run, Country Roads, Out on a Date, Maggie May and more. My big sister Eve was so much fun! I could hardly believe the adventure I was having and how lucky I was (compared to my four brothers and Amy who had to stay at home).
We arrived in good time and I was amazed at the absolutely largest bridge I had ever laid eyes on. Eva said that was the bridge to The States and that it was a mile long.
Holy Cow! I thought.
We found Mark’s apartment and he and his roomie welcomed us in with open arms. There was lots of smiling and some cute flirting going on. Eva was an expert joker and loved to wittingly poke fun. Mark would get all shy, blush, wave his hand and say,
He opened the fridge to offer us a refreshment. Eva politely declined but, I couldn’t help but notice that all of their food, even the peanut butter was in there. Yuck! Cold peanut butter, I thought. We were big peanut butter eaters in our household. Mom would buy peanut butter by the gallon bucket and it would be gone in a week. We would usually find a butter knife in the emptying bucket. One of us had just left it in there.
We NEVER put peanut butter in the fridge!
I had to ask. I was so curious. Why do you have all that food in the fridge? It turned out that their apartment, which was actually in a really old huge brick house, probably out of the Victorian era, had bugs – cock roaches. Keeping food in the fridge deterred these pests.
Suddenly I had to use the toilet.
Eva said she would come in with me to freshen up while I used the toilet. As we walked into the bathroom I noticed that the bathtub was different from our late 70s model in our brick bungalow at home. This tub had feet. Everything looked different and old, but really neat at the same time. Eva explained antiques to me as she applied some blush, mascara, then some blue eye-shadow and a bit of pinkish lipstick. I can remember feeling like I was learning a lot on this trip.
I did a poop, wiped, and hopped off the toilet, yanking up my jeans and turning to look at it. There, in the bowl, was the biggest, fattest poop I had ever produced, or seen produced, in my young life. It was huge and it curled all the way around the toilet bowl! I was pointing at it and saying:
Wow, Eva, take a look at this!
When I noticed the look of utter horror on my big sister’s face.
Flush it, Martha! she ordered, before it stinks up this place really bad!
I reached over and pulled on the ancient flushing lever. I couldn’t figure out why my oldest sister wasn’t as amazed by what I had produced as I was. The massive, man-poop was going to be gone in an instant so I watched it closely as it was going to disappear down the hole. Around and around and around it went but…
Instead it proceeded to float up higher to the rim of the bowl. Geez! I was amazed at its size and bulk.
Eva hadn’t been watching. She had been brushing her long, dazzling hair.
Look Eva, it’s not going down. I said. I wasn’t the least bit disturbed by this.
Oh NO Martha, she said in dismay as she pushed her shiny, straight brown hair behind her ears, They’re gonna think I did that! indicating with her head nod my big prize poop.
Oh never mind, you’re too young to understand. We’ve got to do something before they wonder what the heck is going on in here!
Eva looked frantically around the bathroom until her eyes fell on a scoop beside the toilet that had been fashioned out of an old bleach bottle.
The rest of it happened pretty quickly.
She opened the window.
She grabbed the scoop.
She fished out the huge poop coil and,
she tossed it straight out the window!!!!
When I looked out to see where it landed, there it was: a large brown lump, below the window, on a small roof, about ten feet away from my wide-eyed wondering face.
Eva simply closed the window and the curtain, took one last glance in the mirror and quickly washed her hands. She then plastered a somewhat nervous looking smile on her face, took my hand and opened the bathroom door.
Years later, after recounting this story to my best girl friend Kelly, she was doubled over laughing then stood straight up and while smiling widely said,
Who says pigs can’t fly?
We both laughed some more.
When in Australia in 1994, I told this story to a group of women with whom I was working at a tomato and garlic farm. (At the time, Dean and I were doing our best to make money in order to be able to continue our travels to Nepal and India.) We were standing in a circle around a huge wooden crate of fresh picked garlic and we were cleaning it of it’s extra layers and roots. It was mind-numbingly boring work, but better in the barn doing this work than out under the scorching sun. Anyway, I asked the ladies if they wanted to hear a story. Of course they did and said, ‘Ah mate. Let’s hear it!’. A few minutes later they were bent over double laughing at this story. Some manager came over to ask if everyone was okay. They all waved at him that we were fine, breathless with hilarity. I was quite pleased that they found it that funny. Anyway, I will never forget relating this story to those ladies in the Ozzie barn.