Continued from Legends of Myself 18
21.1 Mission, 1956-57, Pt. 1
The punishment for hitting your father. We raise children outside of nature and inside of society, and so society’s logic and promises define a child’s world. We teach children about sharing, fairness and the dialectics of justice—which is society—and add nature to the moral system by teaching the law of consequences.
Even gravity becomes a moralist.
If you run too fast, you fall. If you eat too much, you get a tummy ache. If you break the lamp, you get sent to your room.
A moral universe promises justice, or at least consistency. What does it mean to a boy then, when he loses his father? It feels like purgatory, a dark and lonely dungeon. Presuming justice—and what else could our young Teddy presume?—what crime could deserve such a punishment?
No, no, it’s too late to tell him now, the six-year-old moralist crying in his bed, that he was wrong to blame himself. Why, some philosophies say that blame doesn’t even apply here. It’s too late to tell him now that it was jaundice which sent his father to the hospital, and that where Teddy was sent to live wasn’t fashioned as a punishment at all.
But isn’t what feels like a punishment a punishment anyway? Teddy asks us. No, no. What fine distinctions adults get up to!
Teddy was the child he was then, understood what he understood then, and he could only apply the logic he had learned. Mutatis mutandis. The law of consequences says. You punch your father in anger, you lose your father….
It’s too late to tell Teddy now, that six-year-old who blamed his own angry fists for his separation from his father, who lived with that blame too long to ever reason it away. You should have told him then, you should have wrapped your arms around him, kissed his tears and soothed his guilt away, because ever since then that guilty six-year-old has never stopped pulling his punches.
You like non-violence? Many people consider it a virtue. Teddy made non-violence a lifetime penance for tantrums leading to homelessness.
The kindness of strangers. The orphan Smike said to Nicholas Nickleby, “You are my home,” as every child says to their parents, “You are my home.” It was homelessness I was exiled to, because every night among strangers, at least at the beginning, meant exactly that to me. The motherless child of African American song never felt more stranded and alone than I felt then.
Still, the place where I went to live in the Fraser Valley was meant as a sanctuary not a punishment. The people who took me in were friends of my father, Stó:lō, I guess, given their location, a farm somewhere outside of Mission. I can’t identify the place much more precisely than that. Even Mission itself, a place I remember we visited once in a while driving in from the farm, bears no resemblance to the town I have returned to as an adult.
About all I remember about the farm itself was the farmhouse, and behind it a barn with a derelict car in it. On one side of the house was a fence, not a very serious fence, more a boundary marker than a barrier, and beyond the fence an orchard of plum trees. During the single harvest season I was to pass on the farm, the trees yielded purple plums in an abundance exceeding appetite.
Three other children were also living there, I think, the natural children of my foster parents, one of which was a four year old girl. Mostly, I remember being just another kid among them. But memory thrives on tabloid headlines, and of course my most vivid recollection is all blood and scandal.
It’s involves the four-year-old and a blue cushion which I admit I had possession of.
“You have my cushion,” she complained to me—we were outside and standing behind the house—and she launched a Coke bottle in my direction.
Now in those days all Coca-Cola bottles were made of glass, never plastic, with bottoms of such famous thickness that people with thick glasses were commonly described as having “Coke-bottle glasses.” Continuing the ocular theme, Coca-Cola bottles held together in pairs often stood in for playtime binoculars. And my forehead can attest to just how sturdy those bottles were. There’s a scar in the centre of my forehead still, attesting to my beaning by a Coke-punting, deadeye accurate, four-year-old girl in 1956. I vividly remember a stream of blood spouting from my forehead.
If I’d known she was going to feel so strongly about it, I assure you, I would have just given her the blue cushion.
Still, in contradiction of that incident, my relationship with the kids in the house was otherwise friendly.
My relationship with the adults of the house could be inferred from a little incident involving cheese sandwiches. They were packed for my lunchbox in all innocence, I’m sure, without malice or agenda. But I didn’t like the sandwiches because cheese was too strong a flavour for me. I wasn’t used to it. So I took the cheese slices out and ate the bread and whatever else had been packed for my lunch, and the cheese was still there in the lunchbox when I took it home.
I remember my foster mother opening up the box and us both seeing the cheese slices sitting there on the bottom, a little question mark figuratively hovering over them. Guilty panic was not in this case, unfortunately, a spur to my imagination.
“Oh,” I said, tendering the weakest excuse in the whole history of cheese, “they must have fallen out.”
But my foster mother didn’t say anything. She didn’t challenge my flimsy fabrication in any way, either by smile or smirk or tease, whatever she may have said about it later on to others. But neither did she send me to school again with cheese sandwiches.
That’s gentleness, I think. I also think it’s a small example of the way Aboriginal people, and non-authoritarian cultures generally, relate to children. Almost universally, Aboriginal societies dote on children, granting respect and considerable latitude to their personhood and autonomy. Where a matter is not essential and optional, a child may choose an option as freely as an adult, as I was allowed to with my cheese sandwiches.
Most of my day to day in Mission has long ago faded from memory of course, but I do especially remember occasions when people were visiting—usually involving crowding in and staying over—occasions which I’ve since come to identify with Little Jimmy Dickens songs.
Admittedly the little Dickens was not an actual part of my soundtrack at the time, but he’s since joined the commentary.
Jimmy sings, “Take an old cold tater and wait,” and, as far as my life on the farm goes, he gets that part completely wrong. Reserving the good stuff and sweet parts for important adults while leaving the undesirable and unholy parts for the children was absolutely not the way I recall Aboriginal people acting. Little Jimmy was left with “the last part that went over the fence”, the part of the chicken I’ve heard referred to as “the pope’s nose.” In an Aboriginal household, if there was prosperity and feasting, children didn’t do worse, they feasted with the rest. When guests came over and adults greeted adults, tributes of nickels, dimes, quarters and sometimes candy also flowed to the children out of aunties’ purses and uncles’ pockets.
But Jimmy also sings, “Sleeping at the foot of the bed,” and he gets that one exactly right. When guests came over to a family farm, you fit them in wherever, as tangled as a nest of lizards, as many to a bed as you could possibly fit. Sometimes somebody, a small person usually, had to sleep sideways with feet in his face. It happened to Little Jimmy; it happened to me. And while it makes a funny song, I must admit it doesn’t really promote a good night’s rest.
Continued at Legends of Myself 20