REPORT A PROBLEM
Our English relatives often send us greeting cards with pictures of robins. The English robin is a much smaller bird than our Canadian variety, ours being more of a thrush. The birds are indicative of the general size differences between our countries. Houses, tomatoes, cars, roads and pop cans all are larger over here. There’s something precious about their diminutive bottles of dish washing liquid and tiny toothpaste tubes. I might also say that Canadians are fatter but from what I’ve witnessed it’s a close race. It could be because pints of beer and chocolate bars are the same size.
My father went through what I would call his Charles Bronson phase in 1967. It all began one night at The Temple, dad’s local watering hole. His shift at Chrysler’s finished, he just entered the place when he witnessed an old man being robbed by five thugs. He tried to intervene and got a colossal shellacking. But being the urban vigilante he was, got them all back in turn. Each one, mano a mano. I remember kneeling on the passenger’s seat of dad’s 1956 black Dodge, my tiny hands clutching the dash board when he ran over the last one.
When dad turned 80 we drove him from Calgary airport to Trail, British Columbia to see his brother Edward. Part of the deal was that Gerry had to endure four days at the Royal Tyrrell Museum so our son could finally get his dinosaur ya-yas out. And in exchange we would stay a week at Ed and Madeline’s. It was sheer bliss for the two men, both retired electricians, and they spent their entire week sitting side by side on a bench. Their speech was quiet, almost telepathic and conveyed much more than their opinions on rheostats and voltage limiters.
When I was growing up around Pike Creek, we would all go to Lyle’s store, each of us so packed with loose change we sounded like human rain-sticks. For us trailer park kids, the store was far enough to warrant a bike ride, but so close you could pedal bare feet. It wasn’t more than a shack surrounded by a dirt parking lot, but it had every candy within our limited means: Jars of mojos and pixie stix, cinnamon lips and caramels. And that grape flavored gum that looked like a purple cat turd. I still wonder who bought that.
I have said before that my style, which in its extreme lends towards the costumey, has now morphed into a Crouching Tiger Hidden Sprockets look. I love the construction of Asian garments but since I cut my sartorial teeth in the ‘eighties I am chained to black. It’s like I made a pact with Comrags or Carol Pope. Or both. Rich and I share a small closet and because we both dress in the same black-grey shades we cannot find a thing. Retrieving a dress shirt for the poor boy is like searching in an I Spy for German nihilists.
We live on a beautiful tree-lined street but in typical Toronto fashion, we’re also just one over from a very dodgey area. This location provides great live theatre for those willing to breach the social taboo of sitting on the front porch. Like the time Carl, the local Souse-hound left his home wearing only blue underwear. After a few tentative wobbles he fell backwards over a wooden fence, catching the elastic from his pants on a picket and in a single graceful backflip extricated himself from his Y-fronts, landed upright and carried on down the street as God made him.
I've never been one for public bathing. I know that unless I am willing to rock a 1920’s Flapper bathing costume, me and my ass will be out there. I usually hide in my clothes and from an early age hated the idea of a swimsuit. As a child I wore those aproned ones- the 1970 preserve of pregnant ladies and obese ‘tweens. Then in spite of its ridiculous infantilizing name I bought a tankini. It doesn’t help the glam factor that I swim like a buffoon. After a few dog paddles I am reduced to an exhausted snotty mess.
A red-headed girl in school had skin so translucent and pale she looked like a freckled bag of milk. People of my tribe, that is French Canadians who have been picking tomatoes under the Quebec sun for nearly four hundred years, have skin of Teflon, or so I thought. I spent ten seasons as an archeologist, resplendently and effortlessly tanned from the ankles up, my blemish-free skin an enviable mahogany. It’s only lately that I’ve developed a very close relationship with my skin specialist who periodically cuts the precancerous moles off of my body. At least I wore a hat.
By the last week of birthing classes I was inundated with images of vaginas. They came in a constant parade from discreet line drawings to ridiculously lurid diagrams. We saw charts and books full of them. The shape and nuance of each described with clinical relish by our enthusiastic birthing instructor. I had to escape and sought refuge in the ladies’ washroom until I closed the stall and there is was, ten times the size, staring back at me through the wood grain of the door. Massive and imposing, perhaps once belonging to Treebeard’s wife or Judy Chicago’s sun deck.
The Ursulines at Holy Rosary wore the full habit. I asked my mom why Sister Mary Diane wore a black veil. She thought about this for a moment, took a long pull from her cigarette, exhaled through her nose and said, “Ah, bien, that’s because she has eyes in back of her head, toi!” That night I dreamt I snuck up behind Sister Mary Diane and whipped off her headdress. To my horror she had eyes like a one-armed bandit and glared at me, multiple cherries and lemons and grapes spinning around in righteous indignation. I hadn’t gambled on that.
Working at Green Giant for the summer was almost as good as scoring a gig at one of the car plants. One season Mom worked there on the pea line. She befriended the woman next to her who affectionately called her a “Lo-etta”. It was warm and somehow appropriate as the name had a sort of southern corn-pone ring to it, as in “Oh look Big-Daddy, Lo-etta’s nearly finished the peas!” Before long everyone called mom by that name and weeks passed before she discovered that the Dymo label maker which printed out the nametags skipped the “r” in Loretta.
We Windsorites grew up going over to Mexican Village and Greektown with only a driver’s license as I.D. No matter what your real purpose was for risking life and limb on a junket to Detroit you told American customs “We’re just going over for dinner and some shopping. “ When you got back to Windsor, wearing three layers of new clothes, you always said, “We were just visiting my Aunt.” The Windsor officers, usually local kids who went through the college’s Law and Security course were cool. Really, our only danger was if we got one in a shitty mood.
Before she died, mom loved to play Pig, one of those card games best played by the very young, the very old or the very drunk. The ace and face cards of all four suits are shuffled and distributed among four players. Cards are passed face down clockwise. The first person with four of a kind signals by thumbing his nose. When players see this they quickly thumb theirs. The last to notice suffers the taunt “Pig” by the others and hilarity ensues. As always mom, oxygen hose insitu quietly signaled, waiting for the rest of us to catch on.
It’s probably because I’m an only child and have a predisposition towards conceit, but I am amazed at how many sidewalks are stamped 1962, the year I was born. Maybe there was a lot of public money available that year. Or politicians were so relieved that Kennedy hadn’t blown us to bits that they decided to lash out on civic improvement. These sidewalks are the old kind with big brown pebbles mixed into the concrete. Tough as anything and able to withstand nearly fifty years of snow and ice and rain and gob and ghostly stains of gum once chewed.
“Bottled bachelor” is that smell of sour washrags, dirty socks and black leather sectionals particular to straight, unmarried, middle-aged men. It emanates from an uncle’s apartment or the office of a university professor. “Scented Spinster” is its olfactory foil - a mélange of expensive breakfast cereals and dryer sheets. But these smells are just by-products of life, actions which keep the world in balance. Where our bachelor would just pluck yesterday’s underwear from the leg of his track pants, our spinster applies Newton’s Third Law of Motion by folding her bras in half, straps neatly tucked into their nesting cups.
I love Richard for many reasons, but one important one being that he is not Gil. When we met, Gil and I were both archaeologists in our early ‘twenties. We both did well at university and spent summers travelling around the province working on digs. Tent sex and archaeology. Doesn’t that sound romantic? And he was a beautiful looking man, tall and dark with considerable artistic talents. Unfortunately he was evil incarnate and within two years I was reduced to chewing on valiums. It’s lucky for our husbands that most of us women have had a Gil in their lives.
Mohawk Industrial School was nicknamed the Mush Hole by the ‘Nishnab survivors who attended it. Mush and potatoes, that’s what Eric ate. He was a tiny child when he arrived and the other kids called him Monkey Bran because he was so hungry he would eat cow feed. Industrial schools split the day; native children as young as five attended a half-day of classes then worked a full day in the fields, raising crops to sell to locals. This Dickensian nightmare continued on until the 1950’s and ‘60’s. A Canadian cautionary tale: starving children surrounded by a banquet of food.
Lenny Froome collected baculii, or penis bones. Most of his samples came from road kills, but once while on a tour of the Floridian everglades he spotted a dead crocodile. Slicing through the animal’s belly he tried to amputate the baculum. But the beast had been dead for sometime, so as he pulled on the bone, it refused to yield and snapped back in place. When the rest of the tour, comprised mostly of pensioners from West Bloomfield, realized Lenny was no longer with them they retraced their steps to find our hero locked in an onanistic battle of wills.
Lizette constantly trolled for male attention. She once bragged that her neighbour made a Super 8 of her boobs, just her boobs, which he entitled, “Lizette Ma Chouette”. Can you image bragging about this? My mom was her seamstress and sewed racy dresses for her out of stretch jersey. Lizette’s boobs fell out one day during the fitting of an off-the-shoulder red number. They were long and flat, like big boob tongues. It was soon revealed that the film-worthy décolletage was achieved only through an elaborate procedure of rolling and tucking, like a pink carpet runner or a cottage ham.
This will date me more than my 1980’s scrunchies, but back in the day we talked about a Virgin-Whore complex. It was always a good conversation starter for we head-up-our-asses graduate students and guaranteed to get a rise out of the Gender Historians among us. Tempers boiled and the fool who stirred that tautological turd was summarily chastised. Still, these gals were less radical than their Women Studies aunties who came before them, who sacrificed family and motherhood to study working class women and the evolution of speculums. Because of them both virgins and whores can attend university with impunity.
Christine and I took sailing lessons on a brigantine. We also each had a fling with a sailor, both local Kingston boys. Mine had the swashbuckling handle of Mike Cross. I believe he was one of the ship’s officers. He was in the process of explaining his important job to me, with all the gravitas unique to sixteen year old males when a seagull shit on his head. It was a colossal grainy shit that clung to his black hair like plaster. At the time I was wearing his cap and I’m not sure if that was a good thing.
Anyone who attended a Southwestern Ontario Catholic high school in the 'seventies and 'eighties probably was forced to make a COR weekend. Usually held in a venue worthy of a Mentos ad, COR brought folksy priests and nuns together with teenagers to rap about Jesus their personal Savior. But for most of us it was a way to get out of Grade 13 Religion class. As a final coup de grace, a heartfelt letter from your parents capped off a weekend of wholesome and guilt-laden activities. Dad, who penned mine, sent me a three-page letter evaluating my driving skills.
My son’s friend gave Dan some Cowboys and Indians action figures. This was long before years of video gaming wore down my resolve never to have violent toys in the house. Dan sat and watched me cut off all the cowboys’ rifles. “What’s this?” His little confused face scrunched into a disapproving ball as he held a tiny crouched figure the stump of its hand pointed at an unknown enemy. “The men are doing Tai Chi.” He picked up an Indian still holding its spear. “You left the weapons on the Indians.” That’s when I told him about Sitting Bull.
Sergio lived with three other art students in Morgantown. In preparation for our arrival they painted the third storey from floor to ceiling a dove grey. Gauzy white curtains hung in the windows and the couch was covered in yards of grey canvas and wrapped in twine. A huge industrial fan sat in the corner and made the curtains move as if underwater. It was more installation art than decorating. We descended or rather ascended on a Friday. By Sunday morning the space was ruined. But it was beautiful and all the more precious because it was over so quickly.
Kathy was the first girl to befriend me when we moved from Windsor to Pike Creek. She also gave me my initiation into country humour, the kind reserved for city people: She told me that her house did not have a toilet so I had to go pee in the barn alongside the cows. Unaccustomed to the locals and afraid to offend lest I end up inside a wicker effigy and burned to death, I acquiesced. I really had to go. I can still hear her laughter ring out over the cornfield as I sat, my ass blazed with straw.
I enjoyed being a new mom, I just didn’t like hanging around other new mothers. They were mostly gals with spurious CBC jobs, bemoaning their 36 weeks maternity leave. Once, I nearly got into an argument -something I only do with friends -at an Aqua Tot’s swimming lesson. Two women were having a cat fest over a third, unconnected to our group. She had a tiny girl with pierced ears. “Foreign.” One of them sniffed. “So cruel!” Returned the other. After casting a final disapproving look they returned to stuffing their little boys’ circumcised penises into their respective waterproof Kushies.
Once on a kindergarten walkabout down Drouillard Road Sister Mary Diane chastised me for shouting “There’s my Daddy’s Vitamins!” as we passed the Brewer’s Retail. But that’s what mom told me. Salt, sugar, lard, beer and tobacco were the five food groups. What a difference from how I raised Dan. He was vegetarian until a chicken drumstick seduced him at my goddaughter’s First Communion dinner. He missed a childhood full of cheese slices, Pop Tarts and roast pork sandwiches, Cap’n Crunch and Uncle Ben’s rice. And my mother’s ever-present Benson and Hedges burning away in the background like French-Canadian incense.
The thought of camping fills me with dread. Lumpy ground, cold stinky tent. The washroom, if it exists, is filthy, with a wet, dirty floor covered in flip-flop marks, and an impressive collection of dead deer flies. Or it’s a spider-infested, shit-laden outhouse. But is this suburban camping? Maybe the real Tabasco can be found further afield away from loud-mouthed fellow campers and their ghetto blasters. Pitching a tent on a clear smooth rock overlooking a pristine spring-fed lake with only the chorus of loons and frogs lulling you to sleep could be both beautiful and soul-nurturing. For some people.
Some women give up coffee, others don’t drink, but for me, the height of maternal sacrifice came when my doctor advised me to take either showers or tepid baths throughout my pregnancy. Maybe when it’s stinking hot out, but for most of the year I’m completely frozen by 11 pm and our meager dribbling excuse for a shower just adds to the discomfort. There’s nothing like stepping into water just a tad too hot and laying back hearing that thump-thump-thump as your blood pressure rises up to your ears, and you know within minutes you’ll be as warm as anything.
Bill and Joe are just regular guys. John seeks out a hooker. Where I come from, crazy people acted like Mels. Or worse, if you pulled a Hector you got caught jerking off in a public washroom. Where do we get these names? Was there really a retarded Mel or a generic Bill who lacked any discernable features? Hector left an indelible impression in the prurient pea-brains of Essex County high school kids. Stan Rogers, had he lived, would have written a ballad about him. I’ll bet Hector never even did it. I’ll bet he changed his name to Joe.
We named our boy Daniel because it sounded good both in French and English. I wanted to name him Damase, a name that’s been passed through five generations on my mother’s side. Rich refused to call our child a name that could be pronounced Dumb-Ass. We also decided not to christen him but instead accepted our neighbours’ offer to give him a Hindu name, chosen specifically for him based on his time and date of birth. So today Daniel Patrick Deepak Haynes turns fifteen and in spite of the twenty-two hours of labour I cherish the day he was born.
The Tip Jar