Legends of Myself 22

Posted on August 10, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 21

22. Vancouver 1957:  Names & Photographs

I have always felt there was some magic to my father’s return that time, climbing out of the stairwell to comfort my earache and my misery, a rescue as expected as if the stairwell had uncorked a genie.

Of course it must have been just an accident of timing.  He arrived downstairs at the doorway, likely unheralded, probably carrying a bag.  Were there even phones available for him to phone ahead?  My foster family probably said, “Teddy’s upstairs.  He has an earache.”

And my father rushed up and did what any parent would have done.

Yet such moments of rescue can write an indelible message on the human heart.  1957 was long ago.  But when that memory occasionally returns to me, I fall back into that day, into that bunk, my stomach heaves in relief and my eyes tear over.  The woeful seven-year-old of so long ago is still inside me being comforted.  He has never left.  Existing somehow in parallel to my adult self, my father’s arms around him, he lives in a state of permanent rescue.

My father’s return on that occasion was only a visit, although monumental to me.  I continued to stay on in Mission, I guess so that I could end out my school year there, which is what I did.

On the last day of the school, my teacher talked to me one last time.  I was still her pet, her favourite.  She was smiling at me and explaining.  I wonder if she knew that I wouldn’t be coming back the next September.  She told she was passing me into grade two, but that if she had her way, she would skip me through to grade three.  But that wasn’t the policy of that school district.

She wanted me to know.

I don’t recall what I might have said back to her.  I guess we said goodbye.  I wonder whether she remembered the little boy I was in the years afterwards, as I have always remembered that warm, excited teacher who welcomed me to my first year of school.  I suppose at least she remembered my name for a while, because it can be a profound connection between teacher and student, equally meaningful to both sides.  I wish I could remember her name, to mention it here.  But memory serves use, and what use is a name for a wandering child, referring to someone you will never meet again?  People can be and remain important, retain voice and meaning in memory, but names, names are just redundant when they have lost their use.

People who you will never meet again don’t need names.

I left that little schoolhouse in the country to move to Vancouver with my father, and I never did go back again.  I left behind that family who I lived with in Mission, and never met them again either, so far as I know.  The name of that family, like the name of my teacher, has long since been pruned from memory.

Of course, you can’t forget what you never knew.  Since he wasn’t there at the time, what happened to me on my last day of grade one was as much of a mystery to my father as what happened on the first.  I told him about both days in a conversation some forty or so years after the events.  And when I told him that my teacher wanted me to skip grade two, he was surprised.

You should understand that my father wasn’t usually one to be surprised by news that I’d done well in anything.  His most characteristic response would be, “Well, of course!”  But if he was surprised that I had done well in grade one, it must therefore mean that I did not do well in grade two.  I don’t remember either way myself, but I don’t the least doubt it’s true, given the turbulent year that I was going to have.  It was probably just as well that I did not skip a grade.

Still, I was living with my father, back in Vancouver, and my second year of schooling was still a summer holiday away.

I don’t remember much specifically about that summer, just flashes of scenes of the downtown eastside, Water and Cordova Street where we lived, and a brother and sister, she older than me, he younger than me, who were my usual companions.  I remember back streets, glass imbedded in sidewalks, undressed dummies in a dusty window display, a boy dummy the only one possessing genitals, and the girl teasing us about it.  I remember her singing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” and I noting to myself that the song was kind of boring because every verse was identical except for whatever “He” was holding.  It would have taken a lot more musical skill that we three had to rescue that melody and that lyrical scheme from boredom, even with Sunday school hand gestures supporting the world like a basketball.

I remember that I owned a Brownie camera, the essential starter camera of that era for children, that my father had bought me, I guess, for my birthday.  I probably took pictures of my friends, and they of me, and there would be random scenes of the Hastings Street neighbourhood from 1957.  Kid pictures.  Clumsy.  Eccentric.  This and that.  I have to guess and suppose, since no picture of any sort survives from that era.

“Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph…. Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you,” sang Simon and Garfunkel in the ‘60s.

I have often envied people with old sock drawers and albums filled with black and white photographs.  People with a tangible past.  For much of my early life, the only survival is my own worn-down half-memories, and there seldom seems much chance of improving the record.

Although, one time in the ‘60s it almost happened.

I was walking on warm afternoon with my father some place near Hastings and Main, when my father said, “You know that little boy and girl you used to play with downtown when you were a kid?  I think that’s the girl.”

Two things surprised me about what my father said.  First, it never occurred to me that I could make connection with anybody that I knew from that part of my life, or that I would even know it if I did.  Second, the person he pointed out wasn’t a little girl any more, oh no.  She was dressed in red, summoning by walking away, and I was a teenage boy.  I had two powerful reasons for wanting what my father said to be true.

But then he said, “No, that isn’t her.”

And I never did find my way back to that era of my life.  Or meet the girl.

Way back at the end of summer in 1957, that brief era of me and him together ended.  One of my final memories of the time was a magic show.

I don’t suppose he was Mandrake the Magician, but to my seven years of experience, he was as good as.  *Mandrake gestures magically.*  He tossed coins out into the audience and then caught them–click!–in his top hat.  He did a lot of things with that hat, putting things into it and taking other things out, all the while talking the talk.  There were rabbits involved, perhaps.  And almost certainly pigeons.  Unfortunately, too many magic shows have intervened since for me to absolutely trust the details.  But there was clearly mystery in that little hall.  My father and I were sitting in chairs of the type that somebody stacks and stores away after the show.  I sat on mine awestruck.  It was night when the show was over, and people were walking every which way, some starting cars, my father and I walking to a bus stop, with the show still buzzing in my head.

That is the last specific memory of my father that summer.  He became sick again, this time with a bleeding ulcer, something that had afflicted him since his time in the army.  My father wasn’t able this time to find a place for me to stay while he went to the hospital.  He had to rely for the first time on Children’s Aid, which in those days ran child welfare services for the government.  That is how I found myself beginning my second year of schooling in a new school in Cloverdale, living for the first time of my life in a home entirely without Aboriginal influence.

Was I already learning to lose my father?  This time I did not blame myself.

Continued at Legends of Myself 23

Posted in: autobiography