On Love, or Memories of a Five-Year Old
OnLove,orMemories of a Five-Year Old
MY FATHER IS DYING. He’s not being nearly as accommodating as my mother would like him to be. “Your father can do more, it’s like he just can’t be bothered. He wants help—does he need us to do it all for him?” When I suggest to her that it may have something to do with, you know, him dying, she sighs, “I know. It’s just, well, I’m tired.” Sometimes she cries after she says this. Sometimes we cry together. We usually hang up shortly afterwards. What she doesn’t say is what matters here. What they don’t say to each other matters more.
My parents have been married for nearly fifty years. They met when they were twelve. This was right near the beginning of the Sixties Scoop—yet another shiny chapter in Canada’s colonial history. My father and his siblings were eight of approximately 20,000 Indigenous children who were removed from their birth families between the ’60s and the ’80s and placed in non-Indigenous homes, usually for foster care, often for adoption.
My granny, my mother’s mother, was a foster parent. Two of my father’s younger brothers had been placed with her and had become my mother’s foster brothers. In those days, when “Indian” kids were taken into care with multiple siblings, they were separated, oftentimes never seeing their birth family again. At twelve, my father—being the oldest boy—took it upon himself to find his siblings. He hitchhiked into town every Saturday and Sunday from the foster home he was living in six miles down the Trans-Canada Highway. “And no one helped him,” my mother reminds me. He spent from mid-May to
the end of August searching for his siblings going from playground to playground, asking “Have you seen any Indians?” and following leads until he bumped into two of his brothers one sunny August afternoon. It took a few years to find everyone else. When my uncles brought Walter home to my granny, “She fell instantly in love with your dad, just like everyone does,” says my mother with her characteristically warm grin. “Just like I did.”
“The Scoop” was one of many efforts the government has used to solve what Duncan Campbell Scott called “the Indian problem” in 1920 when proposing a bill to (dis)enfranchise status Indians without their consent:
I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone.
That is my whole point. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian problem and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…1
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), as an arm of the government, enacted the Scoop and forbade familial visits between Indigenous parents and their children. In my family’s case, the CAS found them living in the bush, down the tracks, outside of Geraldton, Ontario. My grandparents moved into town to prevent the kids from being taken to the residential school. They started drinking once they moved into town. My father and his siblings were eventually all scooped up. “Probably the people in Geraldton complained,” says my mother. “I can see people doing that.”
In that weird we-survived way, my family was lucky; my granny was an ally before that was even a Thing, which meant sneaking my nokomis, my father’s mother, into my granny’s foster home for visits. As my mother tells it, “Your granny wouldn’t let the Children’s Aid tell her what to do. She did what she knew was decent; she made sure a mother had connection with her children.” My granny also ensured that my nokomis’s letters reached her children and slowly, as my father found the rest of his siblings, they all claimed an informal place at the table in my mother’s childhood home.
I am five years old. I’ve awoken in the middle of the night to the usual sound of crashing glass and harsh voices. “Shhhhh, the kids!” and a slap. Thuds. Whimpers and begging. This night, this cold winter night, I look out the back window and watch my mother run barefoot through the snow. Her white blouse is torn and streaked with blood. Her long dark hair blows behind her, as if the house is pulling her back
She runs through the solitary shaft of light beaming down from my parents’ bedroom window. It is the first time I have the thought, “Mommy’s running fast. She’s going to die tonight.”
Neither of my parents has ever freely offered any acknowledgement of these dark days in our family’s history. Any time I’ve asked questions or offered my own recollections, I’m met with a variety of responses—none of which actually address the tale at hand. It doesn’t help that my two younger brothers have wildly differing memories (or lack thereof). When speaking to a friend about this unfathomable history-gap, she reminds me that there was a time when the term “domestic violence” wasn’t a Thing.2
When I pick up the phone in the middle of my very busy day, my mother is ready to rant. She itemizes the ways in which my father won’t contribute to even the simplest of household tasks, how he refuses to take a bath, how he won’t wear his hearing aids, and when he’s not sleeping, how he just sits and stares at her, watching her every move without acknowledging what she’s doing to literally keep him alive. I tell her that I see a man who is afraid and loving her with his eyes. He’s told me that he fears he’s become a burden, and when he cries, I don’t realize it at first—I’ve never seen him cry, and it’s like the tears come straight out of his cheeks—nothing drips.
“Dying is hard work, Mum,” I say.
“I think it’s harder on the living,” she replies.
I’m almost six. My birthday is coming up and I’m looking forward to the bunny cake my mother’s promised me. When I open my eyes, it is dark and quiet. Too quiet. I’m suddenly wide awake. In a panic, I
touch both my sleeping brothers on their eyelids—it’s the best way to get an immediate response, to know they’re alright. The baby mewls and fusses. He smells like Ivory soap—fresh and clean and loved. I rub his round-round tummy. “Shhhh…” I tiptoe into the hallway to get him a fresh bottle. All the lights are on. I can see red lights flashing through the front window. It looks like my mother has pulled every item in the kitchen and thrown it. When I try to clean the blood splatters on the wall, they smear into a long streak of red that scare me.
About five years ago when I told my father that I was processing the events of my childhood, he was genuinely surprised and then confused by my anger. “I never drank and I wasn’t a drunk! And if I did drink, it was only sometimes and never around you kids … maybe socially sometimes but that was it.” My memories are false, he reassured me. I was making stories up because something was seriously wrong with me, with my head. I was too young to know what was going on, anyway. I looked in his eyes then and I saw my mother’s silence.
“Okay, Dad, sure. Thanks for the ride, I appreciate the help. I love you.”
“Okay, Litz, me, too. Me, too.”
i learned about love with a capital ‘L’ in the school of hard knocks and my, how he’d knock (her) and roll (her)
down the stairs teeth chitter chittter chitter
down another heating vent in the floor gumless linoleum under my feet
shuffle shuffle shuff
i learned in Love you have to please
Love means saying I’m sorry
and cleaning up after yourself and when you give
when you beg even when you run
Love means never leaving and why bother hiding it always finds a way to hold you
down turn you inside out
hard if you want it
hard if you like it
hard you ask for it all this L-L-Love
and at night when the street lights shine
down on cracks
of red of pavement splashed red siren red rights read it’s Love that reaches
down it’s Love that picks up the pieces
and carries you home.