My mother was much more congenial in middle-age than ever she had been while we were growing up in that house. It must have been difficult for her to immigrate to a different country as a young wife and new mother, and raise her family without any of her own family about to offer a helping hand when needed. She didn’t cope well with stress. She was often flying into fits over the smallest of matters. The Scots’ call it getting up to high-doh, and my mother daily occupied the elevated emotional scale of doh-rae-mi-fa-so-la-ti-doh. She screamed and shouted and often let hands fly when we were wee, and always at the slightest provocation. Her own mother called her ‘the Black Bitch’ when she was growing up for my mother’s hair was black but so too was her raging temper. She accused me of being particularly bad all my life. Between the three of us – my two sisters and I – I was the worst, she said. I was branded by her my family’s problem child.
My mother had constantly threatened to wave two Canadian flags when I finally went off to kindergarten.
“When ye bloody-well gae tae school, lassie, I’ll wave two Canada flags in joyful anticipation, so I wull. Yer a wee bugger!”
The day I went on the margarine-coloured school bus for the first time, I sat alone in one of the green-pleather seats, looking out the window to where my mother stood smiling on the curb. I was choked with tears, the lump in my throat constricting my breathing, fearful of what awaited me at the end of this unfamiliar journey. Standing next to my mother was Rosalia MacKirdie, her long, dark, wavy hair tied in a loose ponytail that fell to her slender waist. My own stout, frizzy-haired mother drew out two small Canadian flags from her coat pockets and proceeded to wave them in anticipation of my imminent departure. Rosalia glanced down at my mother’s tubby hands, and saw what she was waving.
“Oh, you’re a bad bitch, Mairéad!” Rosalia said. I could read Mrs. MacKirdie’s lips.
Rosalia laughed and my mother stood laughing too, rather hysterically, her fat face pudged up in an expression of hilarity. I felt despised by the woman who had brought me into the world, and what’s more I knew that I felt the same disdain for her in my five-year-old heart. I knew that I hated my mother.
I went to Holy Rosary Catholic School for kindergarten and I immediately hated my teacher. Her name was Miss Fail. I met my best friend in kindergarten, Lina Caro. Shirley MacKirdie was my best friend on Cant Crescent, but Lina Caro was my best pal at school. She and I went all the way through high school together as pals. Lina, who was half-Irish and half-Italian, was a smart, quiet, gentle and beautiful person. I never knew why she wanted to be pals with me. I felt lucky to have her as my best friend.
At Christmastime, our kindergarten class was to perform in a pageant. I was to carry my stuffed Panda bear and sing a song. On the previous day, Miss Fail had taken our class down to the gymnasium to rehearse our performance. She left us standing in a line outside the classroom with the strict instructions not to talk while she investigated the gym. I talked. I talked to Lina and she tattled on me upon the teacher’s return. Lina meant no malice in it. She was a rule follower as much as I was a rule breaker. Miss Fail made me sit in the corner and took my snack away from me. I had my favourite kind of Peak and Freans biscuits – the vanilla custard creams with the red sugared jelly in the center – and I sat and cried at not being allowed my cookie snack with my peers. The fat-arsed old bag probably ate my cookies herself. I hated Miss Fail. When Lina and I grew into adulthood I reminded her of the day she tattled on me and I lost my snack and sobbed as a result. She said that she had no memory of it. I used to tell other people for a laugh when we had a few drinks with a crowd in high school and in adulthood. Lina said that she hated it when I told others that story, but I continued to tell it.
The night of the Holy Rosary School Christmas pageant, I was terrified. The glare of the hot lights blinded me as I stood on stage, clutching my Panda to my chest, singing with my peers. I scanned the crowd for my folks, but I couldn’t see any familiar faces. I saw only the silhouettes of 1970s housewives with bouffant hairdos beyond the bright stage lights.
That Christmas I asked for a Swingy doll. She wore a Go-Go dress and white Go-Go boots and had blonde curls that tumbled over her shoulders. Her mini-skirt was pink and yellow pleats, and she had a battery pack. When she was switched on, the doll walked swinging her arms and legs and twisting her head, her blonde hair swaying as she pranced. On Christmas morning, just after I unwrapped her from under the tree, I set her on top of the tall boy dresser in my room, and let her walk off. She plummeted to her death. I went running to my mom and told her Swingy was broken.
“Och, Angela! How did ye break her?” my mother asked.
“She just broke,” I lied. I was afraid I’d be smacked for letting Swingy walk the plank.
When the shops opened again after the holiday, my dad took Swingy back and got me another. This one I took with me into the bath to wash her lovely, blonde curls. I broke her again. I went to tell my mother.
“Och, lassie! How did ye break her?” my mother shouted.
“I washed her hair,” I confessed.
My dad returned the second broken doll and brought home a third Swingy.
“If ye bloody break tha’ wan, yer no getting’ another wan!” my mom screamed at me.
I am not sure what I did to that one, but she stopped working too.
Cissy got Dancerina that same Christmas. Dancerina was a ballerina. Her blonde hair was in a tight bun atop her head beneath a see through pink, plastic crown. When you pressed that pink plastic crown on Dancerina’s head she twirled. She wasn’t as much fun as Swingy. She wasn’t as cool-looking either. A ballerina with a bun is not a Go-Go dancer with swinging blonde curls, swaying mini-skirt, and electric-white Go-Go boots. Cissy’s Dancerina remained in pristine condition throughout our lives together. When my Swingy broke and there was to be no replacement, I tried to commandeer Cissy’s Dancerina since she rarely played with her, but Cissy would have none of that. I was mechanical doll-less.
As kindergarten drew to a close, I stood for Show and Tell.
“Last night my mom gave my sister a fat lip.”
Miss Fail went into Cissy’s Grade three classroom and checked her over. Sure as God Cissy sported a fat lip. Miss Fail then called my mother to ask about Cissy’s lip. My mother, of course, denied everything and accused me of being a liar with a great imagination. I was always accused of lying. The more truth I told about my mother’s temper, the more I was accused of being a liar.
My mom had given my sister a fat lip the previous night. Cissy had done something and my mother flew into one of her customary rages and chased her into the laundry room downstairs. My dad was at work and my mother hammered my sister. I ran in after my mom pleading with her to stop hitting my sister, which she eventually did. The school didn’t do anything to pursue the matter further. Back then it was called ‘parenting’ whereas today it would be characterized as ‘child abuse’, which it was and is.
My mother lived in denial publicly, but as I became an adult I often wondered if she ever admitted her dark truth to her God, and to herself in quiet, solitary moments of Catholic conscience self-examination.
“I was very hard on yer big sista’ when she was wee. Very hard,” my mother often confided in me when I was an adult.
I asked her what she meant, but she’d say no more. Rather, she’d mash her bottom lip between her index finger and thumb, but I knew what she meant. She beat my sister in her rages just as she beat me when I was left alone with her. When Cissy was at school and dad was at work, my mother couldn’t cope with being a new mother. She routinely flew into rages, and struck me for exhibiting ordinary childhood curiosities.
“Yer faither telt me when ye came alang that I wouldnee break yer spirit th’ way I broke yer sista’s! He hasnee anywan but hi’self tae blame fer th’ way ye bloody turned oot, lassie! Ye’ve been a strong-willed wee bugger since th’ day youse was born!” she shrieked at me often.
In my mother’s mind, I was a terrible child. Often in childhood, I would retreat to the backyard and cry my heart out to God. I’d look to the heavens and long for a paternal presence to soothe me. A falling star might streak across a night sky, a cricket might chirp next to my toes, or a soft breeze might caress my cheek still moistened from my tears, and in that moment I felt that I was not alone, nor was I forgotten by my heavenly Father. Those encounters with creation would give me the strength to face another day in that home. Now my mother, this soft woman who brought me cups of tea, chockie biscuits and called me by ‘hen’, was unrecognizable to me. She was not the mother of my childhood and youth.