Legends of Myself 13

Posted on March 21, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 12

15.  Two Sisters on a Train, 1954

With my crinkled face and tears and my abandonment beside the railway tracks on the day my sisters were taken away, I knew nothing about how fortunate I was to be left behind.  Perhaps, yes, my family was thinning out a little more.  Perhaps I furiously longed for my stolen sisters.  But I was the only, the chosen child, the one who was kept behind.

It was my sisters who were stranded on that train.

I had lost them.  But they had also lost me.  But they had also lost my father, Old Pop, Granny Alice.  But they had also lost a home.

They went away to another story, not really mine to tell, not really known to me.  In all the years since, my sister Irene has never spoken of residential school to me.  She said something once, though, about what it meant, finally, to sit on that train, 8 years old, with her 5 year old sister beside her.

They were alone and stranded as two little children ever could be.  Someone needed to be in charge, to be the pilot, the navigator.  Children need someone to hold their hand, to protect them.  Someone on that train had to be nurse-guardian-sister-mother.  Marylou leaned in and chose that it would be Irene.

Where else would she look, Little Les, always so sad?  Who else would protect her?

And that moment on the train, Little Les leaning in, maybe holding Irene’s hand, that moment stretched to hours, weeks and years, stretched from years to decades.  That moment became a lifetime.  A lifetime of pressing close, hiding from the rattle, the loneliness, the dark and strangeness outside the train window.

A lifetime—and finally last year, after going through a period of personal healing, Irene spoke to me.  “I have to tell Marylou that she has to stop leaning on me,” she said.  “I’m only two and a half years older than her.  I can’t be her mother anymore.”

After 56 years of carrying the burden, little Irene, a tiny little girl carried away on a train with her even smaller younger sister sitting beside her, was finally ready to put the burden down.

And Marylou?  Perhaps she had a notion of what residential school was like, of what she was going to on that train, I don’t know.  Stories may have been shared that she may have heard.  But after she arrived, she knew—oh, she knew—that she had to escape.  And some of the other kids told her how.

“I heard that if you were really bad, they’d kick you out,” Marylou said to me more than half a century after these events occurred, “so I became completely bad.  I turned stubborn.  I refused to go along with anything.  I threw tantrums and fits.  I became such a stubborn, nasty little brat that they finally did kick me out. — But you know, Teddy,” –Marylou from childhood to now has never lost the habit of calling me Teddy—“I think what I did changed me.  I never stopped acting that way.  I never stopped being that stubborn little brat.  I think I’ve been that stubborn little brat my whole life.”

So Little Les did finally engineer an escape from the residential school which awaited her at the end of that long-ago train ride—and that should have been a victory—but she never could escape from the person she had to become in order to do so.

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Continued at Legends of Myself 14

Posted in: autobiography