Legends of Myself 12

Posted on March 19, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 11

12.  Port Essington, 1954:  Separations

I cannot remember him putting it there, and maybe, yes, it was planted a little crooked, but my slightly obsessive relationship with the Roly Poly was the result of an idea which my father—standing in the parlour just out of view of memory—had cultivated in my brain.

And the central significance of “Goodnight, Irene” was not roots music and Lead Belly, really, but the relationship I had—which all of us children had—to the parent at the hub of our universe.

Love illuminates memory.  But love is like the calm.  And it’s the disturbances on the edge of love somehow, etched by love lost, journeys and lightning, which we most clearly remember.

In only my second yet somehow final scene of Irene and Marylou in Port Essington, captured through a crack in the door, I can see my sisters locked in my grandmother’s room, put there for punishment.  I am outside the room, my heart in deep rebellion towards Granny Alice and her punishments.

In the scene my sisters are sitting with heads tilted toward each other, talking.  They are quiet, far at the back of the room, out of earshot.  And they are obviously not aware of me and my sympathetic eye behind the crack of the door, or my gallant and secret plan of rescue.

I would unfasten the latch and let them out.

We’d make a break and head for Spain.

But my plans are to be baffled by the high up, high-tech, too tightly lodged, hook and eye latch which secures the door.  It’s too high for fingers and tiptoes to manage.  I can’t properly reach it, and the door remains fastened.  I fail to help my sisters escape.

Peering through a crack in the door, I am lonely and defeated and not a hero at all.

Adults are always locking doors.  Adults are always making choices that, very young, you are not consulted on and know nothing about.

At age four I didn’t know my sisters were already chosen to live in Aiyansh, that they were only my temporary visiting sisters.  Why would I expect them to be separated from me?  At age four I knew nothing about residential schools—which the government chose as the fate of Aboriginal children—or the residential school in Alberta, outside of Edmonton, which the government chose as the fate of my sisters.

I knew nothing about the decisions that had been made which would so soon and so irrevocably rend my family.

It wasn’t just grandma punishing the girls in the bedroom.  It wasn’t just children losing their choices.   Sometimes it’s whole communities losing their choices, sometimes losing everything that matters.

I heard a story from my cousin Georgina, which she had heard from my father.  One day my father came back to Port Essington in his boat.  He had me with him, had tied up at the float and was bringing me home.  Then he became aware of screaming, crying, breaking out all over, all around, from all directions.  And he realized that the police and the Indian agents had come.  It was that day, that time of year, late August, early September, when they came to harvest Indigenous children in Essington for the residential schools.  The crying, the screaming was the children being kidnapped from their parents, from their homes, by strangers.

Children losing their parents.  Parents losing their children.  On the orders of the government.

My father turned around, fled.  He didn’t want me hearing what was going on.  He brought me back to the boat, as far away from the crying and screaming as he could get.  But he could still hear it, he said, even down by the boat.

Still, if his goal was to protect me from that memory, in that he succeeded.  I have no memory of it happening.  But he could not protect me on a larger scale from a world that so lightly, so thoughtlessly, stole Indigenous children, that stole sisters, for instance, from brothers.

As someone very young, you are always tag-along, bring along.  You are where you are brought.  One day you are away from Essington, traveling by boat.  Then you arrive at someplace with railroad tracks, and suddenly in fact the train is there, rattling the tracks, slowing, stopping.  A conductor in a uniform and cap opens the door, gets down, sets down a footstool to help people climb on and off.  The conductor is there—you forget about the footstool, the uniform, the cap—to oversee when your sisters start to climb aboard.

You try to follow, but they won’t let you get on with them.  Nobody will let you.

As best you can outside the train, you follow your sisters’ progress to their seats, which fortunately turn out to be located on the side of the train closest to you.  After they sit down, they see you outside, say something to each other in pantomime, wave to you.  Why won’t the grownups let you in to join them?  Suddenly, the train jerks, stretches, adjusts, begins to move.  You follow it.  You follow the window where your sisters are sitting, first at a walk, then a trot, then a run.

They watch you outside the glass, tears streaking on your cheeks, their little four year old brother running faster and faster beside the train.

No one of us understands what is going on.  Marylou, Irene, me—we are just children, what could we know?  Except we understand that we can do nothing about it.

My sisters know as they sit on the train looking out that I will fall behind the window and out of sight.

And I know, even at four years old I know, that no matter how much my heart yearns, no matter how much my heart shouts, no matter how much I cry and how fast I run, the window will pull away from me, and my sisters will be taken away from me and they will be gone.

Someone had made decisions.  Someone had bought tickets.

My sisters, taking the train to hell and residential school, had no choice.

I, running and weeping, extending my final glimpse of my two lost and stolen sisters, had by running beside the train expended all the choice I had.

My sisters were gone.

Someone had decided.

And I was not to see them again for seven years.


Continued at Legends of Myself 13

Posted in: autobiography