“Better go on home, your mummy’s waiting!”
I turned away from the two little girls who had reached the road to their house. My hopes of making friends with these neighbor children dashed, I followed the right hand dirt road to the farm gate, where my mother stood. As I approached, she opened the gate and I passed through.
“Hi Julia. Did you have fun at school today?”
I hung my head.
“No, I hate this new school.” I pouted and mum patted my shoulder, as we walked to the old farmhouse. It was painted white, but the paint was peeling. There was an apple orchard behind the house.
Once inside, she led me to the kitchen, a dingy room with a wood cook stove along one wall, and a counter with aqua cupboards on the other. In the middle was a cracked white porcelain sink with a red metal hand pump. That’s how we got our water. The water was rusty and unappetizing. Probably not safe to drink, either, but I was only eight years old, and not aware of such things. My mother pumped the handle and filled a glass with water for me to drink.
I downed it in a couple of swallows, and set the glass on the counter.
“So how do you like your teacher?”
“She’s okay I guess.” I brightened a bit. “We played catch at recess. At lunchtime she had us all sit in a circle on the grass to eat.”
“Did she read the note I sent with you this morning?”
“Oh yes, I think so. She put it in her desk. And she sent me a note to give to you.” I set my red plaid lunch box on the old wood kitchen table and opened it. I brought a neatly folded piece of paper and handed it to mum. She opened it and read it over.
She looked up at me.
“Well, she wanted to know why I didn’t bring you to school myself this morning. I guess I better send a note back to her tomorrow and tell her that we don’t have a car so I let you ride the school bus by yourself.”
My mum bought my big brother a car with her welfare check last week, but he slept in every morning and wasn’t up in time to drive me to school. Besides, mum never ever came to any of the schools I attended. She always communicated with my teachers with a note.
My brother did take us for drives sometimes, and while it was mum who paid for the gas, he never offered to find a job. Finally, he had a breakdown, after mum told him he had to get work. He took off in the car, speeding around the apple trees, and into the hills surrounding the farmhouse. Mum and I watched. Then he returned to the house, got out of the car and yelled at mum. He stormed into the house and came out a while later with his travel bag. His jacket was slung over his shoulder.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m getting outta here.”
Before mum could say anything, he got into the car and drove away, dust swirling behind the car as he sped down the driveway.
Mum and I moved soon after. I think that she walked to the neighbors to call the welfare officer. By the time the school week was over, she had arranged a moving truck to come and haul our things away. We moved to a small town, and the cycle continued. I was given a note on Monday morning, to bring to my new teacher at the new school.
I hated starting a new school. I was big for my age and stood out because of that. Many of the kids thought I was mentally handicapped and had failed grades, and that was why I was big. I was painfully shy, too shy to raise my hand to answer the questions the teachers would ask in class. I knew the answers, but I was afraid. I didn’t want to be noticed by anyone. At the same time, though, I longed for a friend. Someone who would play with me at recess and eat her lunch with me at noon. Instead, I spent recess time standing alone, usually leaning against the brick wall of the school, watching the kids play. If, on some rare occasion, one of the children invited me to join them, I would invariably embarrass myself. Playing ball, I was uncoordinated and clumsy. If I ran, I fell down and scraped my knees. I was awkward and didn’t fit into the height to which I had grown.
I did well in school, getting high marks. My mother was proud of me, although she often said that I should be in church school. As a Seventh-day Adventist, she was told by the minister that I belonged there instead of in a “worldly” school. When we did finally move to a small city that had an SDA school, I hated it too. On my first morning in the class room, the teacher, Miss Pangthorn, had the janitor bring in a huge “big kids” desk. She made a great deal of positioning it at the back of the class, in the first row. I felt like a giant as I sat down, and the kids all giggled. So much for attending a religious school. I learned that these kids were no better than those in the “worldly” schools. I was still friendless.
It was winter, and at noon hour, the kids tobogganed down a hill behind the school building. The teacher invited me to join her on one of these rides, and I shook my head. I didn’t want the teacher to be my friend. It would be too embarrassing to have the other kids see me with her, instead of with other kids.
December came, and mum and I were invited to a Christmas dinner at the neighbors’ house. They were also Seventh-day Adventists and mum had met them at church. At the last minute, that morning, she told me that she would not go to the dinner, but I would have to attend. I panicked. I didn’t want to sit down with a bunch of adults and eat when my mum would not have the same fare. She convinced me to go, and when I arrived, the lady took my coat and hat and hung them up. She led me to the dining room, where a family of five or six were gathered at a large dining table. She showed me where to sit and I obliged. The meal began. I would not eat. I could not force myself to pick up the fork and put food into my mouth. Despite the coaxing, I remained seated and didn’t move. My mum was home and didn’t have a good meal to look forward to. How could I eat when she did without?
It came time to open presents, and to my surprise, there was a brightly wrapped package for me! It was in red and green paper, and I carefully removed the red bow on top before I tore the paper off of the box, for it was a box, and it held a small, shiny silver lantern. There were red and white and green lights on it! It reminded me of a lamp that a railroad man might have. I wondered if my dad had sent it to me. Soon, I was sent home, with the gift.
Mum stopped going to church. I would go, at her urging, and sit by myself through the church service. I never felt comfortable doing this and would hurry back home when the services were through.
We moved again, back to the small town where I had first attended school, Port Hope. I loved the town. I liked the big old brick buildings and the hilly main street. I walked up it every day to go to school. I liked my teachers here and while I didn’t have friends at school, when summer came, there were lots of kids in the neighborhood where mum and I lived in an upstairs apartment. We children played in the sunshine, and got ice cream treats from the mom and pop store near the apartment. I would beg mum to give me a few pennies so I could buy candy. It was cheap back then. She always seemed to have a bit of change to give me, even though we were living on welfare. Sometimes, we’d go hungry as the end of the month neared. We would occasionally walk, after dark, to the supermarket a couple of blocks away and rout through the discarded food behind the store. We found all sorts of vegetables and once even a sponge cake. We would take these finds home and eat.
At the end of one month, when the welfare check didn’t arrive as expected, on a Friday, we had little to eat. After the sun set on Saturday, mum dressed me up and we walked downtown to a restaurant. We went inside, and sat down at a booth. Mum asked the waitress if we could order a meal and pay for it on Monday when her check came in. The waitress refused, and we left the restaurant and walked home. I was so hungry!
Mum would let me play outside, with the other kids, but she warned me to stay out where she could see me. She often required me to come inside, and she would remind me to stay close. A few times, the group of kids would wander down by the lake, on the beach and back up towards the train tracks and a place where grapes grew on a homeowners’ fence. The grapes were sour!
When I got home from these little excursions, mum would be angry and tell me how worried she was if I wasn’t in sight. I was told to not wander off anymore.
I longed to be “like the other kids” whose parents are far more lenient.
I was always told to come right home after school, and I didn’t dare be late or I would get into trouble. Mum was not adverse to using a switch or wooden spoon on me if she was angry and wanted me to obey her.
She had a dog, a Cocker Spaniel, when I first started school. She soon gave it away, tiring of having to care for it. This happened time and time again, with her picking a dog advertised, say, on the radio swap shop, or in the newspaper, we’d have it for just long enough for me to grow attached to it, and then she would give it away again.
My older sister, who lived in Alberta and was a teacher, was also a fine seamstress. She made dresses for me and would mail them to me, several at a time. I loved getting the new clothes. They were all in style – pinafores and dresses in bright and pretty colors. When I wore one of the dresses to school, though, the other girls made fun of the apron which matched the dress. I couldn’t understand what was wrong or why the girls didn’t like me.
I wanted so badly to have a friend. Instead, I was teased and called names.
Somehow, the kids seemed to notice that the teacher always liked me. I was accused of being “teacher’s pet” and the words hurt. I was not sure why it was so wrong to be thought well of by the teacher. But why, oh why didn’t the teachers ever notice that they showed favoritism towards me and singled me out?
One of my favorite teachers embarrassed me. She seemed to have the SDA religion and Jehovah’s Witnesses mixed up. It was quite alright for SDA children to say the pledge and sing “God Save the Queen” and “Oh Canada” as the class did, every morning. The teacher forced me to wait in the cloakroom until the little ceremony was over every day. I felt singled out, and I hated it. I wanted to belong, and not be different.
Mum said, “But you are different. You are Seventh-day Adventist, and Seventh-day Adventists are not to belong to the world, or to fit in. They must stand apart as God’s true people.”
My older sister came to stay with us one Christmas when I was about six years old. She busied herself with making some clothes for me, and this included having to try on the clothes for fittings. As I was again asked to try on a dress, I sighed and made a face. My sister slapped my face. Mum intervened but the damage was done. I didn’t feel the same way about my sister or about the dresses she made after that.
My sister sent a small amount of money every month, to help us out. Mum spent the money on furniture for the apartment. When my sister learned what she had done, she immediately stopped sending it. She was scandalized that the money meant for food had been wasted on unnecessary things.
On the other hand, I later thought that Mum longed for nice things, and that, as impractical was her spending was, she was trying to fulfill her wants, albeit in an inappropriate fashion. At the same time, we went hungry partly because of Mum’s poor spending and planning habits.
Mum listened to me, when I begged her to not make me have vaccinations. These were done by the school nurse. The kids would line up and in assembly line fashion, receive their shots. I ended up contracting mumps, red measles, chicken pox and even tonsillitis. The tonsillitis would become so bad that the doctor decided I needed a tonsillectomy. I was ten years old when I had that done. I woke from the anesthetic to find that my arms were tied down to the bed. I had, according to the nurse, insisted, “I’m going home!” over and over. When tonsil removal was first discussed I had been promised ice cream after the surgery. When I woke and was offered it, I found my throat was far too sore to want to eat anything, including ice cream. I was annoyed by the “lies” I’d been told to reassure me about the surgery.
One day, while walking home from school, one of my classmates demanded that I remove my glasses. I did so and she peered at me. “Well, at least you don’t look like your mother,” she said. She and one of her friends had seen mum and me walking home a few days previously.
I was shocked and hurried home to mum. I knew that mum had been in a runaway wagon as a child, which had broken her nose and also may have caused brain damage to some extent. I felt so bad for her, that the kids were now picking on her as well as on me.
Some days, there was nothing to eat except pancakes with a bit of sugar on them. I got faint in school one morning at recess, and the teacher had me put my head down low to try to control it. Of course, I was probably faint from hunger. In later years I would be diagnosed with hypoglycemia.
Despite our poverty, mum dressed me well. Between the clothing my sister made and the orders from the catalogue, I was nicely dressed. I remember especially, the spring of 1963 when I got a white jacket with big white buttons. It only fit for a few weeks, as I was in another growth spurt, but I loved that jacket.
I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and I remember when John F. Kennedy was shot. It was reported at the school and I walked home to see the broadcast on television.
And as the school year ended, mum announced that we were going to move to Alberta, to be near my grandfather and aunts and my older sister. I was happy to hear that.
We would travel by train with tickets paid for by the rancher in southern Alberta, for whom my mum was going to be housekeeper.