101. 1961, Burnaby: Becoming a Family
As I said, the time at the Sunset Auto Court was a time when we were learning to become a family. If you had happened to ask me six months earlier, I would have probably said that a father and a boy was the perfect family unit, a perfection that did not need altering or improvement. Now I realized, seeing options I had not seen six months before, that a family with sisters was a very good idea, indeed.
But the problem was the sisters. Firstly, they were sisters, a gender issue I don’t remember having to face before. Secondly, they were older, an issue which my long experience being an only child didn’t prepare me to accept. And third, and by far the most important, my sisters had a long time relationship with each other which had persisted the entire time we had been apart. Sometimes that relationship showed up strongly, and I, standing on the outside, felt left out.
But I wasn’t going to accept it.
There is an incident which my sister Marylou remembers as “the time Teddy told on us to Dad.” What happened that day is that Irene and Marylou (I think, Irene as senior member and instigator) decided to wander off into Vancouver to do something I didn’t know what, and to leave me behind. I didn’t like being left behind and being left out. In defiance I followed them when they left, ducking behind telephone poles, keeping low and keeping secretive, and being as obvious as a little brother following you down the street. Somewhere, it wasn’t right away, they managed to shake me off. Thus I’d given up the chase and was home when my father came home, and when he asked me where my sisters were, I didn’t have any particular motivation to evade or plead ignorance. I told him.
Now loyalty is important in all age groups. We have to show it if we want people to trust us. That’s how it works. Adults are sometimes all too ready to undermine a child’s peer loyalty for purely adult purposes, to serve adult expediency, with the price being paid in the souls and reputations of the children themselves.
No kid wants to be called a fink. No kid should be encouraged to become one. Self-protection, protection against bullying and abuse, situations where informing is encouraged—and necessary—have to be carefully distinguished from ordinary policing, the agenda and function of parents and teachers and other adults.
I finked. More than half a century later I’m being called to account for it, so you can’t say it doesn’t matter. But I did it because my sisters were deliberately leaving me out, because to me, then, being left out mattered even more than peer loyalty. You don’t feel very loyal to a club you’ve just been kicked out of, no matter how temporary your exile.
My sister Irene probably had a very good teenage reason for wanting to be rid of her kid brother that day. Teenage reasons and teenage biochemistry were in danger of co-opting her entire personality around that time. I mentioned earlier her excessive regard for Elvis movies. That must have been a symptom of something, surely.
In fact, 11-year-old boys are not 15-year-old sisters, even if we had grown up together. Gender and age were sufficient by themselves to separate us.
For example, in respect of how I was looking at things about then, there was a girl Marilyn at the Auto Court who decided to be my special friend, and, worse, started to come around in the morning to walk me to school.
“Is Teddy home?”
Our little set of rooms didn’t have a back door, but it did have a back window that looked out on an alley. I stared so powerfully and longingly at that back window on those dismaying mornings that I can’t remember anymore whether I actually did climb out that back window to escape the girl calling at the front. Doing and strong imagining can blend seamlessly in old memories and I can’t trust the truth of it anymore. I went out of that window in my heart if not in actuality. Perhaps, perhaps not, in actuality. I know somehow, again I can’t say why, that I couldn’t have done it more than once. I suppose I didn’t even imagine that escape more than once. And I remember walking to school with Marilyn—to my chagrin and shame, and to the peril of my 11-year-old street cred.
No, I had no means of understanding what was happening to Irene. Growing up, being grown up, was ever more important to her. She complained about the clothes we got at the beginning of the school year. I thought she looked fine in them—we all did—but Irene didn’t like that her dress was brown. Too plain, I guess. I don’t remember much noticing what I myself wore.
She refused to like kid things, or what she thought were kid things. I remember that “Animal Farm” came on TV one night, the George Orwell fable about pigs betraying the revolution and replacing the oppressors. But because it was a cartoon, Irene wouldn’t watch it. Thus, she never learned that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
I rebelled against the absurdity of sisters and such arbitrary notions of adulthood. I vowed that I would never give up cartoons. And I never did. But then I didn’t really have to. Harold Hed and Heavy Metal and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and their brethren comics above and below ground, coupled with revolutions in technology and evolutions of culture unthought of in 1961, have long since moved animation to the adult mainstream. Maybe 15-year-old girls of today still, some of them, scorn animation, but that will be because of taste, and sometimes a scorning of boy-culture, not some long-expired association with children.
The TV sit-coms could have told you, and as everybody knew, part of growing up female in that era was learning to cook. Irene had already had her beginning lessons offstage, in her prior life. I remember the first time she cooked supper for our family. It was macaroni and cheese, baked in the oven, the cheese melted on top. I had never had it that way before, and though I liked the crust of cheese on the top, I didn’t like that most of the macaroni away from the crust had no cheese and no flavouring.
We divided that macaroni and cheese, as we did all meals, into four precisely equal portions. I found out many years later that my father didn’t really like us divvying it up that way.
“Your sisters were getting fat,” he said, “while you were getting skinnier and skinnier.”
Well, that was a growth spurt which would leave me lanky, weak and particularly unathletic for years to follow, but I guess it was hard for my father to watch.
In coming back into Vancouver, my father fell quickly into the political life that was going on there, both as related to the Fisherman’s Hall and in general. I remember him going to marches and rallies. It was the year of the Cuban missile crisis, and everybody was sort of edgy about atomic war. Ban the Bomb was the slogan. I recall a particular ban-the-bomb rally which took place that fall. My father came back from it (he usually just went to these events by himself) feeling fairly sure he’d been filmed by a television crew. I think he’d hurried home to catch the 6 o’clock news and we all watched it together. Sure enough, there he was, marching by in his corduroy coat. No face. I’m not sure we caught the sign he was carrying. But there he was for sure, or at least the big burn patch in his corduroy jacket, the one he’d got that night on the road when two chilly daughters crowding too close on the other side pushed him into the campfire. The television camera seemed to linger on the famous burn patch as my father walked by.
“Oh look, there’s the hole in your coat!”
Appearing today at the Ban the Bomb march.
That television cameo by Dad’s burn patch, whenever brought up during nostalgic reviews of family legends, is always guaranteed to add a hoot and howl to always raucous occasions.
Of course, politics was natural to my father, and rejoining the political life of the city was as natural to him as a wolf rejoining the woods. But he was less sure of his sudden new role as patriarch of the family. I think he wanted us to be proper family, no outsiders, no insiders, which meant that he couldn’t show preference to me. That had a particular consequence one time.
What the argument was about I can no longer remember in detail. We were disagreeing about chores, whose turn it was to do I-don’t-know-what. I said I’d already taken my turn. My sisters said no. I remember being quite positive, absolutely positive, and refusing to back down. For some reason, my father believed it was important not to take my side in this dispute. But not even my father could make me admit something I knew wasn’t true. I was stubborn, and in response my father did a thing he had never done before and never did again. He spanked me.
Afterward, he came and made up. He admitted I was right, but said that he had to do it. He lay down with me where I was crying on the bed, and he cuddled with me and apologized, I guess, again and again, but I remember lying with my back to him, sobbing, angry, refusing to give that forgiveness. Not because he had struck me, but because I was right, and it wasn’t fair. I was right.
My father never forgot that incident. To me, it was the only time. To him, it was a time too many. In 1988 when I was teaching up north in Kitsumkalem, he got sick. He was found lying on the floor of his apartment surrounded by vomited blood, and wound up in the hospital, feeling particularly mortal I suppose. (He would actually live until 2002.) My daughter’s mother, Jo, visited him there. “He’s really proud of you,” she reported to me afterward. And she heard about the spanking then. My father was still sorry for the time he hit Teddy. In a hospital bed after a near-fatal incident, and more than a quarter of a century after it happened, he had to apologize for it one more time.