Continued from Legends of Myself 56
57. Port Essington, 1958-59: A Picture on the Schoolhouse Steps
Some final images of Spaksuut, perhaps. Packages of bluing above the washing machine, to make bedsheets cleaner than clean, 1950s fashion. Penny loafers with pennies in them. Gelatine capsules of cod liver oil, a little nutritional redundancy on top of a diet already oozing in sea oils from a thoroughly modern Auntie not quite clear on the concept. An excursion berrying in the hills behind the house, a dry-footed walk leaving behind the soft muddy floor which sat beneath all of Essington. An experiment in magic on my cousins’ Ouija board—inconclusive. The day that the teacher was telling us about the different kinds of beans there were, pinto beans and kidney beans and lima beans, and I suggested human beans as a variant example. Then encountering Trudy’s Grade One Dick and Jane Reader on the kitchen table and discovering that a year’s patient scholastic mastication, word by word, page by page, in Grade One, could be consumed in one long swallow by Grade Three me. Oh, and finding out that my cousins’ birthstone, diamond, outranked mine, emerald, after which green became my favourite colour—until I realized that it wasn’t (except in plural.)
Yet I still think emeralds are prettier.
Of course somewhere near the end of the story was the watch my father gave me for my birthday. It stayed on my wrist all along the boardwalk to Finntown, but fell off in the tall wild grasses where we were playing hide and seek, not to be discovered for a year, long after I had left Spaksuut. Given and lost on my birthday.
And then there was that final photograph on the schoolhouse steps. In subsequent years, end-of-the-year photographs were taken solo, and everyone’s photo package was different. But the portrait in 1959 was of that thoroughly old-fashioned sort, just like my father’s class picture in front of his own Port Essington school in 1930, which had the whole class standing on the schoolhouse steps. The school teacher’s camera had a timer and a tripod. I remember him finding the focus and framing the picture through the camera, clicking the timer, then hurrying to stand behind us. I suppose there was a flash. Somebody said, “Say cheese,” like everyone did in those days.
I owned that picture for years, until it disappeared again. I imagine it still exists in a few people’s dresser drawers, a momento for other lives, of other students from that year, a quaint picture from the family photo album. There I am in the photograph, Teddy, back in the left hand corner, my head tilted a little, looking a little tentative, the smile on my face looking ingratiating but not quite convincing.
I have never photographed well while being told to smile. I smile easily except when asked. Then I smile uneasily.
I think my inability to act naturally when asked to act naturally is a function of a childhood spent traveling alone. By 1959, I had been traveling alone for the better part of three years already, and it had been a difficult year even if, at another level, it really wasn’t.
I hope my previous chapters on Essington, which are intended to be as true as I could make them, show that it shouldn’t have been a difficult year at all. I lived in a child-centred household in a village that welcomed its children. A village that was a child’s playground in and of itself.
And yet, I remember the me who stood on the schoolhouse steps, as tentative inside as the smile I showed.
I think my Auntie Grace liked Artie and Rainie more than me. I wasn’t inclined to say she was wrong. I loved them too. They were handsome, talented and quick. Art could do amazing drawings, and after many years at other careers, he at last pursued it. I found out when an adult that Reynold was a remarkable artist as well.
And while I was wired 0.9, slightly slower and clumsier in my motions than other humans, my cousins were wired 1.5. Every destination was a race. I remember one time Irene called us all downstairs for something, and Art and Reynold rat-tat-tatted down the staircase ahead and I strolled half a staircase behind, maintaining my dignity by declining a race I had no chance of competing in. They were one and two years older than me, of course, but even if I had been the eldest, I would still be in the back of the race maintaining my dignity.
That one time Auntie Irene was summoning us down to help with the dishes—punk’d!—Auntie just laughed—so that one time my being last was an advantage. That’s probably why I remember it and forget the hundreds of times when the advantage went to my cousins.
But I didn’t resent them. That wasn’t it. My cousins’ superior wiring and habitual competitiveness contained no element of meanness or condescension, and I always felt part of the group with them.
And my Uncle Gus was gentle and generous and perfect, I loved him, except I saw a moment of meanness in him—I can’t even recall what it was in relation to. It was just a passing moment on an afternoon in the parlour—a moment which I attributed to the influence of Auntie Irene—and it went away quickly. After a flash of cold, like wind blowing in from outside, that door was quickly shut. Uncle Gus was warm again.
Of course, I always knew that Auntie Irene was at the centre of my dissatisfaction at Port Essington. Given the nostalgic magic of the place, I never liked to complain. This is not a complaint, either, I hope, but an explanation.
My Auntie was vain and beautiful, as I think I mentioned in an earlier chapter. She was especially proud of her feet. The size of someone’s feet has never mattered to me, but she boasted enough about her small feet for me take notice and remember at eight or nine years old. I believe they were size four. They looked just like feet to me, but what did I know?
I would not be surprised if Aunt Irene were not also a part of Uncle Gus’s ambition, a part of the reason he worked so hard, and why that branch of the family prospered. She had expectations, and her personality was large and loud.
I often thought that maybe, maybe, that was the problem too. I was a little overshadowed in that household, my personality crowded into a corner by a personality that couldn’t help taking up a lot of the room.
If you grow up large, it quickly becomes obvious that it affects the way people treat you, and so sometimes really big people develop gentle personalities to compensate for their size. I met this in people I have known. I understand that André the Giant, already over six feet tall while hardly out of elementary school, developed such a personality.
But if you grow up with a personality, not a person, which is large, you don’t always remember to hide it. I’m aware of having a large personality myself sometimes. I sometimes do succeed in hiding it. Not always. But if I have a success sometimes it’s because hiding is one of those skills you often learn when traveling alone.
Traveling alone. Here’s the nub of it, I think. Traveling alone.—Added to ideas about the sacred and the profane which some might think are just philosophical concepts but in fact are much more real than that.
By traveling alone, I mean a child living without family, which, by 1959, I had been doing for three years already. If you have a father with you, or a grandmother, a grandfather, a brother or sister, or even, I suppose, a mother, then you are not traveling alone. (You know I never knew a mother, right?) You may be meeting a lot of strangers along the way, always stressful, but it’s always easier if you can do it with traveling companions.
But alone, that’s another matter. Alone, whether you know it, you need a plan. Alone, whether you say so to yourself, you need an angle. Some sense of importance, some sense of preciousness. Something to clothe yourself in, because traveling alone is a naked act.
In Mission in 1956 and 1957, I was precious at school. I had tamed my teacher. I was a teacher’s pet. In 1957 and 1958, in New Westminster, I was a child under the protection of my cousin Georgina, with whom all children were sacred. In Prince Rupert, before I left for Port Essington, I was under the care of Old Pop who also held all children as precious and me, Tat, as the most precious of all.
When I came to Port Essington, I came to save the school. That was what made it possible to leave Pop behind, something I wouldn’t have volunteered to do even to go back to Essington. Being the essential 10th child, the one responsible for the school opening, the one who brought the teacher in, was the kind of extra thing you needed to keep the spine straight while voyaging solo.
But was it possible that I wasn’t a hero? Was it possible to read my situation a different way? It never occurred to me at first. But then in the fall, I guess the late fall in 1958, my father came to visit.
I remember my father’s voice in the other room. It should have just made me happy. But Gus’ voice was lower, and I guess I’d gotten used to it. And for a moment, my father’s voice seemed high, slightly unmanly, and I didn’t like it. I felt embarrassed by it. The moment went away, but I still remembered it.
Then later that evening, Auntie Irene started talking about support payments for me. She was probably just being direct, and talking in a getting-down-to-business way. But I don’t think she really knew how forcefully she presented herself. I remember my father looking a little abashed, seeming a little diminished.
He was diminished. I was diminished by proxy.
I shouldn’t have been allowed to witness that conversation. (Go back in time with your time machine. Escort Teddy out of the room.) I believe it affected my relationship with my Aunt for the rest of my life, standing at the back of every judgement I made of her from then on. I’m not saying it was fair. I’m not saying that forever wasn’t too harsh a judgement. But feelings have their own momentum. Whether, objectively, it was fair, it was, in my analysis, what in fact happened. I didn’t will it so, but it was so.
You see, there really is a difference between the sacred and the profane, a difference seen and acted on by the person within, and shaping our thoughts, our feelings, our responses. Benevolent organizations can measure that difference in dollars. People who solicit for charities know that statistics don’t work, that one child with a name will provoke more giving than a thousand nameless children. Numbers dissect the soul. Numbers erode the sacred.
A child traveling alone needs to be sacred. They need their sacred icons protected. My father was sacred and I saw him diminished. Which diminished me. I saw my fate bargained over, a price placed on my position in the household.
But didn’t I come there to save the school? No, I was the charity case, the poor relative, whose father was slow to make support payments.
I wasn’t sacred after all. I wasn’t a hero. I was a line on a ledger book that had to be balanced. Did anyone notice that I was resentful too much after that conversation, joyful perhaps a touch too little?
That conversation in long ago Port Essington put me in a place I didn’t want to be. It made me resent things I don’t remember resenting in other places. I didn’t like being poor, helplessly envious of Art’s toy steam engine at Christmas, the quick steel blades and the steering handles on my cousins’ sleds when I only had a toboggan.
Wasn’t the incident with the blankets all out of proportion? Does anybody else even remember? My father as his contribution brought two blankets for the boy’s beds, a dull grey wool one, another with a leopard print. My Auntie put the leopard print on my cousin’s bed, the dull grey one on mine. The injustice of those blankets rankled me for years. My father had contributed them. Shouldn’t the leopard print have gone on my bed?
Nobody made me live in a cupboard under the stairs. Nobody fed me leftovers and made me clean the cinders from the grate. Nobody called me names or left me out, teased me, hurt me, or let me go hungry. I simply had my confidence stolen. And, traveling alone, that is one of the most important things of all.
When Richard Nixon wanted to oppose creating a holiday honouring Martin Luther King, he put a price on it because the very act of naming a price undermined the sacredness of what was being discussed. He didn’t want the holiday to be measured as something sacred because he knew he could not win on that level. But when he started talking price—the cost of a public holiday to business interests and the nation—it was a canny psychological tactic attempting to change the very nature of the discussion.
Nixon understood that price is like acid splashed on sacredness. It can insult it deeply, even wash it away.
I should not have witnessed my aunt talking to my father that day. (Where is that time machine?) Business needs to be done, but as a child traveling alone, I should have been sheltered from it.
At home, being sacred is never a question. Traveling alone, it is always a question. Do I belong? Or, as a child might ask it in his heart, am I precious?
I saw, I felt that I was not precious. I saw, I felt that there was a price on me. I saw, I felt that even my father—the centre of my universe—was faltering there. It weakened me. It made me petty, smaller than I usually was able to be. And somewhere deep down inside of me, it laid out blame. At a fundamental level, and for a reason that only recently I have come to terms with, I lost my trust of my Aunt Irene.
Maybe that judgment is gone now. Maybe if she were still around and I could meet her again, I understand things enough now to let those feelings go. I believe she loved her little nephew. I believe there was a generosity in her spirit, deep down.
But my little eight-year-old self was the one who encountered her and the one who judged her. And that judgment, born on an unfortunate day in Port Essington, was what shaped a lifetime of feeling. I lost my shield of sacredness, and in consequence my whole time at my Aunt and Uncle’s was, just a little bit, behind it all, a naked time. I was battered, my soul just a little worn and tired that final day on the school steps, posing for a photograph.
My confidence did regrow. Fairly or not, my trust of my Aunt Irene never did, not really. I paid too dearly for losing it, even if, as I think is probably true, she never intended it to happen. Or even intended harm at all.