Legends of Myself 18

Posted on May 25, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 17

20.  Pinwheels & Regrets:  My Father and Vancouver, 1956

Scientists have measured love.  They can’t mix it up for you right there in the sink like the Gypsy with the gold-capped tooth, but they can quantify it for you.  Scientists tell us (they observed it in the wild) that parents answer almost twice as many questions when it’s their own children asking them.  Other people’s children almost invariably get handed a lesser measure of knowledge, and acknowledgement.

Thus every child asking questions is also polling for love.  The wisdom of children says that the people who answer the most questions must love them most of all.

I know I always loved my father because I knew—however it was that I knew; there is more than one measure of love—that he always loved me.  That was why it was so easy for me to settle down in Vancouver with him, to part from my grandmother and my old life.  My fickle young heart transferred my love and home from my grandmother to my father without an intimation of regret, because I knew, I knew that I belonged with my father.  And I guess my fickleness was a kind of mercy considering my grandmother’s impending death and what the emotional effect of that would have been otherwise.

Although my earlier move from Port Essington to Prince Rupert was a change in landscape, the move from Prince Rupert to Vancouver felt like much more than that.  Even the parks were as busy and crowded as train stations.  Such was my first impression of Stanley Park when my father brought me there shortly after my arrival in Vancouver.

Stanley Park, wrapped in harbour and seawall, is a thousand lush acres of gardens, woods, beaches, ponds and paths, with begging geese, begging squirrels and occasional planted stands of Northwest Coast crest poles.  Vancouverites are justly proud of it.  But in my first impression it might have been a carnival.

I remember first the bus loop at Lost Lagoon, and hanging onto my father’s hand as we got off the bus and threaded through the crowd.  I don’t remember the ducks and swans among the reeds which is my experience now of the Lagoon, but I remember keeping a jealous watch on the people rowing boats there.  I can’t be sure of feeding a peanut to a chipmunk, but I remember pigeons on the pavement and how they could be mysteriously immobilized with a little salt on their tails.  Unfortunately, I had no salt.  I remember concession stands, and my father buying hotdogs and popcorn, a ride on the miniature train, penguins and bears at the zoo, and taking home a pinwheel, the first I ever had ever seen, which, if you could not wave it about on the bus or stick it out the window, could still be powered by your own breath or your father’s.

I had seen a lot of trees and paths and water already in my life, I suppose, but crowds were still rare to me, and, if my first impression of Lord Stanley’s Park evoked fairgrounds and circuses more than urban nature preserve, that was to change.  But not right away.

In 1956 Bill Haley and the Comets introduced Brylcreemed kiss curls and “Rock Around the Clock” to 6000 hepcats at Kerrisdale Arena.  The Vancouver Sun called the concert “the ultimate in musical depravity.”  I missed it.  My own encounter with mid-century pop culture was more refried, Disneyfied, and could have happened anywhere that had cereal boxes.

Peter Pan was released in 1953.  20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was released in 1954.  I missed the movies, not because I didn’t go to movies (my father loved movies) but because Disney films—and especially Disney animations and special effects movies—didn’t generally make it to the second run movie theatres that my father favoured.  Thus, I encountered the Disney merchandizing without the Disney context.

That failure of context mattered particularly with my little plastic Tinker Bell toy, which, when you charged it with flour and waved it in the air, left a trail of flour behind it.  O my.  The flour was supposed to look like fairy dust, I guess—and that, I’m sure, is how it was sold in that smoky room where Disney merchandizing decisions were made—but to my critical six year old self, who hadn’t seen the movie, it just looked like a trail of flour.

Context didn’t matter as much with the toy plastic submarine, treasure of another cereal box, which bubble-powered itself across the sink, sort of, when you charged its interior with baking soda.  You didn’t need any special knowledge of Captain Nemo or underwater movie experiences to appreciate submarines, even ones that farted along rudderless at 0.00001 miles per hour.

More consequently, it was the summer of 1956 that I met my Aunt Grace for the first time, although it’s almost a ghost of a meeting.  I remember her arriving at our apartment, almost bashful, and bringing candy.  Candy, that was good, I thought.

She also figured—absently—in another story.  My father and I were walking somewhere in the city, going I know not where, when he pointed out a certain glass door with stairs behind it.  That was where Aunt Grace lived, he told me.  I memorized the landmark for future reference—a glass door with a metal bar diagonally crossing it—utterly distinctive I believed.  But then I noticed for weeks afterward how glass doors with diagonal metal bars had sprung up over the entire Vancouver landscape.

I also met my Uncle Jim for the first time that summer.  His absent limb and artificial hand were curiosities, of course, but more interesting on that first visit was how he leaned back in his chair, peeled an onion and started eating it like an apple.  My father didn’t like how Uncle Jim so casually chowed down on his onions, as he admitted to me many years later.  But they were brothers who had grown up together and could still be irritated by each other.  To me my uncle’s act was so eccentric as to be beyond criticism.  He’s still the only person I ever saw eat onions like apples.  He could also eat a chicken completely—meat, gristle, bones and all—but I never saw him do that.

That summer I got sick with the measles, the only childhood disease I was ever affected by.  I remember lying about at home, little red dots all over me, with ice cream to keep my morale up.

At some point late in the summer I also began going to daycare, what was then called nursery school.  I took an orange everyday for my snack—I distinctly remember demanding that it be brought—and then there was naptime, where we all lay down on mats and were expected to go to sleep.  And—I recall being surprised by it—we actually did go to sleep.  I remember the women who looked after us spooning medicine out of a jar for each of the children, a medicine I hated because it was oversweet.

I was settling in, or settled in, I guess.  Only one incident tells me I wasn’t fully acclimatized to Vancouver.  I think it must have been August, but that’s just an impression; it’s still difficult to sequence many of these early memories.  It was a hot Vancouver day, hotter than ever happens in Port Essington or Prince Rupert.  North coast summers most closely resemble September in Vancouver, and September remains my favourite month in the city.  Maybe my internal thermostat was locked in early because Julys and Augusts I still often find oppressively hot in Vancouver, and at age six, naturally, I felt the heat even more.

My father had brought me downtown, and I guess he was doing what adults do, stopping and chatting whenever he met someone he knew on the street, very fine from the adult point of view but often quite dull for the child attached to the end of that adult’s arm.  And where he had brought me was grey, dull and ugly, buildings and sidewalks and pavement with the concrete and traffic amplifying the heat.  I hated the heat, the place, the ugliness, and I wanted to get out of there.  I started swinging my fists, throwing a tantrum, hitting my father.  I didn’t know how to tell him.  I wanted him to take me away from that place.  I didn’t want him to stop and talk.

To this day I can still see him looking down at me.  “Why are you hitting your Daddy?” he asked me, not because I was hurting him, of course, except maybe his feelings.

How many times have I heard that sentence in my head?

“Why are you hitting your Daddy?”

He didn’t mean anything particular by saying it.  It was just a moment on a hot day, a six year old cranky in the sun, and I wonder if my father even remembered it a month later.

But children have their own way of remembering the world, according to how they understand or don’t understand what is happening in it.  I remember the sudden guilt that day of hitting my father.  I remember the guilt coming back when I heard my Daddy was sick, sick in the stomach and had to go into the hospital.  He couldn’t take care of me while he was in there.  I had to go live with some other people.

I remember the loneliness and crying at the end of that summer as my father and my home were taken away from me, and—my grandmother now being dead—I went to live for the first time of my life among strangers.  How many times did I cry, missing him?  How many times did I think of that hot day on the street, my fists hitting my father’s stomach—his stomach was as high as my fists could reach—and him looking down at me.

“Why are you hitting your Daddy?”

How many times did I think that if I could have my home back again, that I would never hit my Daddy again?  How many times did I think that if I could have my Daddy back, I would never hit anyone ever again?  Never again.

I promise.  I promise.

But my father and home and family were already gone.

Continued at Legends of Myself 19

Posted in: autobiography