Legends of Myself 23

Posted on August 22, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 22

 

23.  Cloverdale, 1957:  I Move to Pluto. 

The fall of 1957 brought me to a dairy farm in Cloverdale, a place not at all like Vancouver and not at all like Mission.  The hayfields in that Cloverdale farm marched in lockstep.  Everything that could be made tidy was made tidy, made efficient, rendered modern, except—in tacit contradiction to the rest of the landscape—a little area left untamed below the house where a creek ran through.

The cows roamed, chewed their cuds and mooed and maaed in featureless meadows which had electric fences wrapped around them to rein-in too much randomness.  –Don’t touch the wires, I was warned.

They didn’t post signs facing inward.  The cows had to learn about electricity from experience.  Not meant to harm or leave a cow in dismay.  An unnatural tickle with intimations of a hornet’s buzz.

The Cloverdale farm, you see, was a modern dairy.  No milk maids with buckets dabbling in the dew, alas.  In long low industrial barns with scatterings of straw on the floor, the cows mooed restively in the stalls while being milked, chug-chug, by machines.

From the farmhouse to the road I have a sense of space and distance.  The road ran on the other side of a far wooden fence, and you could see the occasional cars way over there moving like oversized purposive beetles past the farm.  A driveway led from the farmhouse to the road, and at the end of the driveway there was a mailbox, which, if there was mail in it, the mailman would twist, letting you know whether it was worth a walk down the lane to investigate.  I recall that I was sometimes was sent to take that walk.  A little flag, a twist, I imagine rural mail routes operate pretty much the same today, where they haven’t been centralized with post box stations.

The farmhouse itself was antiseptic and orderly in a way I had never experienced.  I was given my own little room there, with curtains and light and tidiness.  I had never had my own room before, nor asked or expected one.  The whole house was bright inside, with spaces around things, framing them, emphasizing their discreteness.  Nothing was allowed to tumble together.  Stews and chaos were banished.  This was here and that was there.  Vegetables were on a different part of the plate than the meat.  Food was chewed with the mouth closed, lips sealed to prevent escape.

Other people have grown up in such houses and consequently never think twice about it.  I who had until then grown up in much different houses felt like I had moved to Pluto.  That was fine.  I was raised in tolerance.  I was open to difference.  But tolerance in concept and theory couldn’t prepare our Teddy for the Plutonians themselves.

The people in that house were unlike any I had known before.

I knew White people.  Old Pop was French, from Europe, but he was uniquely himself and he was also my grandfather.  Grandparents often have a milder relationship with children than parents even in hierarchical, authoritarian cultures.  And anyway, it had been Granny Alice who defined my care and culture when I lived with her and Pop.

In Cloverdale (or was it Pluto?) I first met with the notion of a favoured child who was not myself.  In Mission, while it was clear to me and all that I had a different set of parents than the other children, not once did I have the sense of being apart, of being different in a sense where that difference was undesirable.  In Cloverdale there were foster children and there was the natural son, and that was that.  They were not the same.


We’re not talking about anything blatant or notorious, mind.  No Cinderellas or Cinderpetes sweeping out the grate, living on table scraps and waiting for the fairy godmother to return from the pumpkin patch.  If anything, the people on that farm were exceptionally kind.  But the observation remains the same.  The psychological reality was pinned like a note to my pillow.  Children are important here but some children are more important than others. 

It was hardly a healthy message, but fortunately I was not to be there long, and all I lost because of it was my Brownie camera.

The favoured son of Pluto (or was it Cloverdale?) took a liking to it and decided he wanted to trade my camera for a cheap viewer toy he no longer wanted—worth, generously, one-tenth of the camera’s value.  He was two or three years older than me, cocky and pushy.  I’m sure he was as aware of his social superiority as I was.  And a sense of superiority can provide its own justification for unequal bargains.

Of course I made a better bargain.  I’m superior.

I was seven years old and vague on the difference in value between my Brownie camera and the thing he was trying to trade for it, but the fact was, I didn’t really want to surrender the camera.  It was the most precious thing I owned, and the only thing I owned of value.  I loved taking pictures.  And furthermore, adding to its sacredness, my father had given it to me.

However, the boy kept at it, pressuring and bullying me—I suppose he imagined it was salesmanship—until I finally gave in.  He walked away with my camera in triumph.

My father called it theft.  He never forgot or forgave the family who were commissioned to protect his son in 1957, but never returned his Brownie camera when they returned him.

Of course, you can’t judge a family by one unfortunate incident.  They actually were a family of high reputation among child care workers in that region, a fact which I discovered accidentally while talking to a social worker at some workshop or other.  She was able to identify the particular family I had stayed with, and even describe for me in confirmation the Cloverdale farm as it then appeared.  (The social worker also mentioned the family’s name, but—even if I was inclined to tell it here—I didn’t manage to catch it.  As usual.)

Still I have to say, on behalf of Teddy and all the foster children who were not consulted when everybody’s reputations were handed out:  even in the most beneficent of circumstances, with a friendly lodgekeeper, with a well-groomed bed and a full table–being a child and second rate is still an assault on the soul.  It’s simply not healthy for a child to believe they are not as important as other children.

And for me, even if there hadn’t been a favoured child occupying the social tier above me, I would have felt living on that farm as a demotion.  However one may judge it as a way of raising children, the Indigenous way produces children of a particular worldview and with certain expectations of how they will be treated.

I expected unconditional love.  I expected my autonomy to be respected.

Authoritarian cultures sometimes add conditions to love, especially when involving social inferiors.

Be thankful for your gruel, boy!

Authoritarian cultures are very poor at respecting children’s autonomy.

In Cloverdale I remember once I was lying in my bed, and it occurred to me that I’d failed to get my glass of milk before bedtime, something already established as a necessary ritual.

I heard my foster parent moving about in the other room—I think the kitchen—and I called out to her, “We forgot to have my m-i-l-k,” I said, spelling out my desires in order to add that little extra dollop of seven-year-old coyness and charm to my statement.

And then, as if I had stepped confidently on solid ground and suddenly found that the ground wasn’t there:

“What!” she called out from the other room, “are you still awake!”

The affect on me was like reaching for a kiss and getting a slap.

I thought we were getting along.  I thought we were flirting.  And then suddenly I was in trouble.  Where did the ground go?

And my crime was incomprehensible to me.  In trouble for being awake?  My understanding of the world couldn’t account for such an arbitrary concept.  If I was awake I was awake, that was all.  Was it possible to be in trouble for merely being what I was?

A child raised in an environment where such encounters are commonplace would understand, would shrug it off, pull up the blankets and go to sleep.  To me it was a like a buzz from an electric fence.  I had been sheltered within Aboriginal cultural gentleness toward children, within a non-authoritarian ethic.  I had never in all my life had an adult talk to me with that level of emotional violence.

A shock.  Not enough to harm or leave me in dismay.

Enough to send a shiver through my worldview.  Enough to create a memory that is among the most vivid of my childhood.  Enough to tell young Teddy that he was not in Kansas anymore, oh no.

Continued at Legends of Myself 24

Posted in: autobiography