On Love, or Mem­o­ries of a Five-Year Old

Prairie Fire - - TA­BLE OF CON­TENTS - LISA COOKE RAVENSBERGEN

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

ten­dril

by

ten­dril.

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.

In­hale.

Ex­hale.

“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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.