Legends of Myself 111

Posted on September 8, 2019


111. Steveston, 1962. French Horns, Phantom Allowances and the Issue of Standing

Family life for most children is not an audition. In a real family, in a real home, the issue of belonging is settled. For a foster child, however, belonging is not settled. It is the very nature of strangers that you don’t know where you stand with them. And a foster child is always a stranger among strangers. For a foster child, life is a continuing audition. And as time goes along, as they move from home to home, it’s an audition that they somehow always fail.

So how did my Steveston audition go? As I’ve suggested, it was considerably eased by the fact of my new foster mother recognizing my position as a displaced, lonely child, and doing her best to welcome me in. It was also helped by her ability to actually engage with me as a person, person to person, as when I came home one day with Oliver Twist under my arm, and she said, immediately dropping into character (inexplicable to me at that moment, since I yet knew nothing about the book), “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Dickens was, of course, part of her birthright. And I remember her teaching me “toodle-oo” as a sort of eccentric English greeting, and how to prepare fried eggs by frying them on one side and spooning bacon fat over them to cook the yolk and top, and the delights of fried tomatoes and crackling on pork roast, and how to cut your food the English way: knife in the right hand, fork in the left hand bringing the food to the mouth.

(Most people in North America use the cut and switch method, cutting the meat with their their right hand, switching implements, thus bringing food to the mouth with the right hand also. I remember once seeing an entire auditorium perform this action simultaneously, I swear, I being the only one not switching hands.)

I remember a conversation about the new-fangled black ice cream, and how the next you know, there’d be green ice cream. Only to go downtown the very next day (the tiny downtown was located on the street fronting fisherman’s wharf, then as now, I guess) to discover pistachio-flavour green ice cream, to the hilarious laughter of both of us.

I remember once her sending me to her local store and commenting on what she thought was a clever name, and a pun, the Dew Drop Inn.

None of this is very significant stuff in itself. But it was conversation without social weight to add tilt and agenda to it, conversation without a power struggle. Comfortable conversation. Conversation personalized. Here I am. How’s it with you? Conversation where you laugh because it’s pleasant and comfortable to laugh, and anything is funny. Conversation where no one is concerned with auditions, because you are already part of the band.

I know she was honestly trying to make a life and excavate a niche for me. And to actively protect me from hazards. For instance, our next door neighbours, a mother and grown-up daughter, were strongly evangelical Christians, who were luring me over with badminton games (played the two of them on one side of the net, me on the other side) in order to bring me within hearing of their ideas about Jesus. Well, I knew that, wink, wink. I was a convinced pagan who was wise and devious enough to hide my unconsecrated ideas from the neighbours (and from other folk who didn’t need to know,) the better in this instance to conjure partners for one of my favourite active sports. My foster mother tried to warn me against them, not herself understanding my complete immunity from their particular set of ideas. I didn’t hold her warning against her. She didn’t tell me to stay away from the neighbours. It wasn’t an order. It wasn’t an imposition on my freedom. The incident just illustrates that she didn’t really know me yet, and the limits of empathy acting without history.

Another thing was the matter of giving me an allowance. Now, I’d grown up in a culture of shared prosperity. If things were tough, then we all did tough together, and the child’s assurance came from the knowledge that the parents stole as much of the burden as they could carry, toughed as much of the tough as they could themselves handle. Because that was their job. And if things were good, then the kids got their fair share of that, too.

Foster homes had a completely different notion of apportioning prosperity. Money came with an agenda. If given out, it was seldom given freely. Sometimes it wasn’t given out at all. In the case of my Steveston foster mother—and I really do believe she meant well—it was not so much an allowance as an accounting practice.

To start with, it was only fifty cents a week. Even in 1962 money that wasn’t much. My father—who did not command a steady working class income and own a two-story house on a pleasant suburban street with a backyard and a dog—had offered a buck.

And immediately I was required to spend my fifty cents a week—at the rate of fifty cents a week—to pay for a bicycle I needed in order to ride to school. Oh, and later, with the remaining non-existent funds (their non-existence waved off as not worth addressing by my foster mother) I was to pay my monthly Boy Scout dues, after I was enrolled there.

Now I could see that I wasn’t actually getting an allowance. I appreciated the bicycle, creaky, slow, and old-fashioned technology though it was even then (three speeds were just starting to come in, which my bicycle was not.) Boy Scouts didn’t quite work out, because, well, it wasn’t really my culture, and the guys there, how can I say it? I’d met them before, I’m sure, and I kind of remember them as 1) a gang that 2) on one occasion were chasing me down the road, and 3) on another surrounding me to toss basketball sized snowballs at my head. (2) I got away. 3) I ducked. 1) They didn’t actually seem to recognize me when I showed up at their gang headquarters, that is, at the Boy Scouts meeting, which was fine with me.) Anyway, to return to my allowance, I was spending more money than I was actually receiving, and the money I was receiving I never actually received.

I think it was supposed to be a lesson in economics.

An allowance of let’s pretend really is a lesson in economics, I guess, in an ironic, unintentional way. I know you’re thinking that trading my allowance for a bicycle looks just like trading it for a television, which you may remember all about. But back when that happened, it was a choice that my sisters and I actually made, an act of participatory democracy, not an accounting practice to explain why the pay envelope had gone all theoretical on us. My father—after it didn’t happen—didn’t continue to pretend that we kids were receiving an allowance. It was just understood that we’d consulted and so prioritized our spending as a family.

Anyway, the allowance thing, I think some ideas look better on paper, and maybe they work better if the person you’re trying it on doesn’t already have something to compare it to. Looking cheap doesn’t work. Pretending to do it and then not doing it doesn’t work. If in doubt, give the kid some spending money, already. Play is their work. School is their work. You’re their designated sugar mama—or sugar papa. Share some of the wealth. If any. A lesson in fake economics will not convince anyone.

The allowance was a failed lesson, but I wouldn’t grant it any more psychological significance than that. But there were other times when I think that my foster mother didn’t really understand my position. For instance, at my first week of school I found myself assigned to the music section that was intended to become the school band.

I’m going to be part of the band, I thought. Holy cow!

french hornThe music teacher described the nature of the instruments to be found in a band, one of which we were going to choose for ourselves. He talked about trumpet. He talked about saxophone. He talked about one of the more rare instruments in bands, the French horn, which nobody wanted to play anymore. And I thought, I want to play a French horn. I liked that it was rare, not considering at all why that might be.

I remember beginning to learn the notes on the G-cleft that day, FACE for the spaces, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge for the lines. I remember the music sheets for My Favourite Things, and becoming familiar for the first time with the words and melody. And in my imagination I was playing my French horn in the band—however that was played—“raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” and all that singing through my head, until when the teacher finally mentioned that we would have to buy our own instruments. And my orchestra fantasy sizzled and went out in the damp, and the whiskers on the kittens drooped in discouragement, and I transferred into another music section where I could afford to stay.

Eventually, somewhat later in September when it was already too late to do something about it, my foster mother found out what I had done. “Why didn’t you tell us? We would have bought your instrument,” she said.

That couldn’t happen. She didn’t understand, but that couldn’t happen. I didn’t have the standing. I didn’t have the trust. Maybe she thought so because it was true in her head, but there was no way that I could’ve asked them to buy me a horn. I knew all about having no standing. A stranger in the house doesn’t ask special favours. A stranger in the house doesn’t presume on the hospitality of their hosts. The rules a stranger child must follow were clearer to me than anyone. In someone else’s house, any step can be a misstep. Even failing to presume can be a misstep, as the present case proved, but that fact didn’t cancel or even challenge the rule against presumption. It just showed that when your standing is so obscure, sometimes the right move is not available to you.

(And yet, how often I have thought, with a life so obsessed with music, what it would have meant if I’d been allowed to start then. With my preposterous French horn, even. I don’t think it was ever a real possibility, but that day in band class started a lifetime of daydreaming regardless. What if….)

My Steveston foster mother also sometimes failed to understand how little, given my position as a stranger on probation, I felt free to be myself, and failed to understand how much I felt compelled to agree with her, to follow her lead even about things that didn’t matter very much. For instance, there was that TV thing.

Now back in the early 60s, television wasn’t a tenth the compelling medium it is now  with colour, with high-def, with huge flat screens, stereo sound and a thousand choices.  Compared to now, what was available then was pathetic.  But my foster mother still had a jaundiced view of what a cultural absence it represented, and what a waste of time, and she shared that attitude with me. Now I’d watched 3 months of television during the prior 5 years of my life, and it was a novelty to me that it wasn’t to her, but you can be sure I openly agreed with every word she said. Then we attempted to search a program to watch, at which it turned out that my particular 3 months of watching exactly matched the rerun schedule then available on television, and I was consequently exposed as a hypocrite.

Even a smile and nod can get you in trouble, when you don’t know the rules of the game. And when your foster parent fails to realize that cultivating a contempt for the luxuries of modern life is easy and natural only when you can reliably access those luxuries in the first place.

A similar thing happened one day when they asked me for the first time to act as a babysitter for the two toddlers. Now my own idea was that it really wasn’t much. I didn’t see any trouble with it. But after my foster parents sat down and talked about how important it was, and how much responsibility it took, and how I could agree not to do it if I wanted, they had succeeded in turning a job I had no personal trouble with into a job that I dare not take, given their extremely nervous attitude about the whole thing. I was just trying to read them, to do what was expected, but they had confused the issue so much I said no. And later on she bawled me out for doing so.

I couldn’t find a way to win that one, either.

The worst of these issues aren’t really important by themselves. They could have been worked out, I think, given time, given need, given other circumstances. But my foster mother in Steveston failed in one fundamental way, in a way that the system itself failed, in the way that all the caregivers that they chose for me failed, in being blind to the importance and necessity to me of my family, of my father. By failing there, she missed an opportunity to understand my position, to understand my actions.

I believe that failure was the fatal one.

I’ll return to that theme presently. For the next chapter, though, I want to discuss my return to school.