When I was a child it’s possible I was just a tiny bit ADHD because I only stopped moving when I was sleeping. There was so much to do: climb trees until the trunks thinned and swayed with my weight, and walk barefoot on the rocks in tumbling creeks among spawning salmon. Proudly wearing a white straw cowboy hat rimmed with a pink sash and a plastic gold star and sitting on a red saddle I rode a mighty black Welsh pony. In the thick of summer when at night the air hasn’t cooled I played hide and go seek with my cousins at my grandmother’s while my Dad, aunts and uncles visited and laughed in the yard.
I’m the second child of four children, three girls and one boy. My brother was born first, in Germany, at home and delivered by a midwife, a usual occurrence in 1959. With the umbilical cord tightly wrapped around his neck he entered the world a “blue baby.” Growing up I heard the story of Jimmy’s birth and pictured my brother the color of a Smurf. Jimmy was beautiful, blonde and completely aloof, a baby who pulled away from touch. He spent his time most content when left alone, gazing off into space while rhythmically rocking his body. My brother is autistic.
My Dad joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and met my mother while stationed in Europe after the war. I have a favorite picture of my German and French speaking mother on a beach beside the Mediterranean Sea in Monaco. Her hair is ear length, beach day wavy, a natural auburn color; she’s curvy in a moss green, 1960s style two piece bathing suit. She’s on her knees, resting her forearms on her thighs, and showing a generous bosom. She wears sunglasses of that era, a little bit movie star, she’s completely in the moment, relaxed and happy. One of my father’s sisters had also been stationed in Europe. She told me my mother was European through and through, uninhibited, quick to laugh, her full lips turned up in a smile and easy to be friends with. My mother’s name was Ursula, and she was 30 years old when she died. I was five years old and remember very little about her.
My father was left a widower with four children, one autistic and one a newborn. I grew up knowing very little about my mother. There came into my possession years after my father’s death letters written in German from my mother’s family. The letters were translated for me. They asked, “Gerry, we miss you and the kinder (children). Why do you not contact us?”
There were no pictures of my mother in my childhood home. Most of what I know about my mother and any pictures I have was gleaned from relatives on my father’s side. During an unusually frank conversation with my father over 20 years after my mother’s death he told me his grief had been so great at the time of her death that if it wasn’t for his children being in the car with him he would have driven in front of a big truck and ended his own life.
Despite the gap in my genealogy my life has been full. But lately, in the last decade of my life, I’ve been feeling the hole, and I find myself more and more wondering how different my life would have been had my mother lived.
We were stationed in Ottawa when my mother died. My father was honorably discharged from the Royal Canadian Air Force. We relocated to Kamloops and with three children moved in with his mother, while an aunt and uncle took my new baby sister. My Dad went to work at the airport in Kamloops and took classes at night to become a radio technician. He was gone long hours. My grandmother was in her 70s and a tiny lady, I was already taller than her by the time I was nine years old, but she was a fierce disciplinarian. I once took my pogo stick to school when she told me I couldn’t. She was at the door with a stick when I got home. Yet, I remember sitting on her lap kneading the soft sag of skin that hung from the backs of her arms as she rocked me in her chair.
It became obvious from the way I parked myself close to the television set and put books inches from my nose that I needed my vision checked. Beginning in grade one school pictures show me wearing glasses. My life has been a love/hate relationship with them because my eyesight is so poor that the lenses, back then, were thick and chunky and made my nose sore from the weight. Then, the first time I put them on my world became clear and sharp and full of glorious detail, and now I’m useless without them.
I was six years old and it was my responsibility to take my brother and sister to the park so Grandma could rest. On one excursion my sister fell off and got her leg caught under the merry-go-round. With blood running down her leg from numerous scrapes, her tears and snot in my hair I carried her home on my back while chasing Jimmy as he deked this way and that, so prone was he to deviating from our route.
These were the few years of the ranch and my introduction to a lifelong passion: horses. My father and uncle ran a few horses and some cattle a couple hours of driving north of Kamloops. My beautiful black pony with the unique name of “Blackie” was purchased for $50 at a local auction. I spent more time on the ground than I did riding him. When I fell off my wildly bucking pony my father ordered me to get back on saying, “You can’t ride and cry at the same time.” There was no woman to soften some of my father’s lessons. I learned how to swim when he threw me off the end of a wharf. Ever seen babies swim? Swimming is instinctive. I’m fine in water until I take just one more step and I can’t touch bottom and it’s over my head, then I panic, but I can swim.
I believe I had a great childhood. My mind has let sad memories fade, while the good times remain clear and bright. When I think of the bad times it is more a feeling I recall, not so much the event itself. I remember my father’s grief, and my 70 year old grandmother’s tiredness and impatience raising young children, and how she would yank my ears hard when I misbehaved. I remember my brother’s temper but also his beautiful smile. If he hit me I hit him back, and sometimes I was the one who started our boxing matches.
I went to a Catholic school where the nuns rapped my knuckles raw with a ruler because I could never sit still at my desk. I wasn’t that unlike my older brother but his behaviors were deemed “not suitable” for the “special” school he went to during the day, and he was expelled. He was nine years old when he was put inside an institution. It seems that my father was told his mother had already raised eight of her own children. He was told that segregating “retarded” (the term at the time) people was more common than keeping them at home. Institutionalizing my brother weighed heavy on my father’s heart.
We went often to visit Jimmy at the end of a road after a long drive on the north shore of the Kamloops River. He lived in one of many large brick buildings that had been built years before during the time of tuberculosis. The buildings had high ceilings and were drafty. Voices echoed in the hallways and we sometimes heard people screaming. My little sister held tight to Dad’s hand while we followed my brother as he wandered. Jimmy had disappeared even more into his other world, sometimes stopping in mid walk to rock his body with his hands clasped together in front of him and a vacant look upon his face. If we reached out to touch him he would slide away or tug loose from our grasp.
I was nine when my father told me and my sister that he needed to talk to us. My sister and I thought we were in big trouble because I had talked her into helping me open every bottle of pop in a case of 24 and taking one sip each. Instead, he asked us what we thought about a lady he had been seeing, and if it would be a good idea to marry her. We were greatly relieved, and since we had spent some time with this lady in question we told him she was soft and smelled good.
My sister and I were flower girls at their wedding. We spent a long day in scratchy dresses, our long hair piled up on our heads and held with a net of hairspray and bobby pins, hard shoes that hurt our feet, and when the clock was close to a new day beginning and all we wanted to do was collapse into bed, the thing I remember when I look back, is Grandma insisting on pulling a comb through the snags and snarls in our hair. Then our new little family moved from Kamloops to Nelson, and I cried because I had to give up my pony.
It was nice to have a constant female presence we could call “Mom.” It showed in the feminine accents like doilies and candles, and pretty jars of nice smelling stuff in the bathroom next to Dad’s shaver and hairbrush. She cooked better than my grandmother who’d been on a sodium reduced diet, and didn’t use even a pinch of spice. My most tolerable meal at Grandma’s was boiled potatoes (every day…) speared with a bite of boiled salty wiener, one complimenting the other.
My Dad was the most happiest I’d seen him. But, quickly things changed as it sometimes happens in marriage, my new mother’s first, they began to argue. Within the first six months after the wedding, and now I was old enough to understand and remember, I saw my father cry. There began my earliest awareness of feeling fear and confusion, for both me and my sister, with parents who sometimes fought like cat and dog.
To be continued.
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Read Part One: Freaking Out & Choices Part One (click here)