Habitants

On the day we left Scotland, I howled, kicked and screamed in my mother’s arms.

“You were not a happy bunny,” my mother’s youngest brother told me some years later. “You did not want to go.”

I was dressed in a pink coat that April day in 1966 at Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport. I was sixteen months old so t is doubtful that I knew what was happening. Perhaps I reacted to my parents’ trepidation as they left Scotland and all they knew for an unknown place and new life in Canada.

My mother bought me a new pair of shoes for the plane journey and by the time we arrived in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport I had worn out their leather soles.

“I wanted tae kill ye so I dud,” she told me. “Ye ran up and doon the plane squealing way delight for th’ entire journey.”

When we arrived in Canada, my glee continued. I ran through the airport as my mother wept from exhaustion and uncertainty, and my father sought out a luggage trolley and transportation from the airport. My mother was left alone to cope with two toddlers.  A kind man, who saw my mother’s obvious distress, swept me up into his arms and out of harm’s way.

“That man saved yer life that day,” she told me a hundred times.

My savior was a professor at Western University in London, Ontario, and his son went on to play for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL during the 1980s.

My parents stayed for a brief time in Toronto with my mother’s uncle and his family before heading to London with me and Cissy. They wanted a quieter place than Toronto in which to settle and raise their family. Our first night in London, Ontario was spent holed up in a cheap, downtown motel as an ice storm raged outside. My father turned on the hotel room’s small black and white television to discover an odd game featuring grown men on skates chasing a puck over ice.

“Stupid bloody game,” my father grumbled. He was missing Glasgow Celtic, his football club.

One of those Canadian ice hockey teams was the Montréal Canadiens. Coincidentally, our belongings had been shipped to Montréal, and were stranded there due to a six-week dock strike in that city. Despite his protests, my father became a lifelong fan of hockey and of the Montréal Canadiens, as did I.

We lived in new apartments on Hamilton Road for the first three years we lived in Canada.

“They were brand new when we lived in them,” my mother said each time we drove past the apartments later in life when they had become run-down.

A Dominion grocery store stood behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing the side of its mocha-coloured brick structure. The Thames River flowed through a forest nearby the apartments and that grocery store. Often I walked along a pathway leading from our tenement to the Dominion to shop for my mother’s messages.  No one would conceive of sending a three- or four-year-old child for groceries today, but my mother routinely sent me to the Dominion with money and a note for the store clerk crumpled in my small hand, likely to get me out of her hair as much as for her produce.

My parents were to repay their plane fares to the Canadian government within two years of working full-time in Canada. Many immigrants did not repay their fares, but my parents repaid that money immediately.

“We paid that money back within a few short months of landing in Canada, and we always kept oor plane fares in th’ bank in case we wanted tae gae hame,” my mother said.

My dad first worked in Excello. The April ice storm to which we had arrived quickly turned to blistering summer heat. My mother was at the local public pool, East Park Gardens, with us while my dad slogged it out in the plant in sweltering temperatures. My mother, busy working on her tan, loved Canada immediately. My father, stuck in an oppressive factory, took a bit longer to warm up to his new surroundings. He began to play soccer for Excello with other Brit ex-pats, and that seemed to make his adjustment to Canada a bit easier. I used to love to watch him play football. My father had dark hair, and big, blue eyes. He was handsome and very fit. He broke his wrist in a game once but played to the end favouring his hand only slightly. He was my hero.

As we settled in London, Ontario in the April of 1966, my mother met a woman named Pat Doan. Pat and her husband, Dan, were from Birmingham, England and had immigrated to Canada before we had. Mrs. Doan was part of a London, Ontario ex-pat welcome wagon, and she greeted my parents by helping my mother find a place to live and then furnish it with second hand furniture from local thrift shops. My father returned all of the second-hand furniture declaring it was junk, and demanded that his money returned, which it was.

My mom eventually took a job at the nearby hamburger joint, the A&W. When she had a shift she left me with various sitters who hit me as readily as did she. On one occasion she left me with an older woman who was also looking after her grandson. I had taken a small, handheld pinball machine to the sitter’s with me that day. I broke it open while we were playing in the back bedroom of her flat, and shook free its marbles. When her grandson put one of those marbles in his mouth the old woman spanked me. I was three. I asked her if I could go outside and play, and she all too willingly dressed me in my red snowsuit and sent me outdoors in the cold winter air. I walked with tears streaming down my face to our apartment, the snow crunching beneath my boots keeping time with my snivels. Our apartment was a bottom floor flat, and I used a bike to climb through the window. Once safely inside, I stripped off my snowsuit and cried myself to sleep. A partially deflated balloon, which I had obtained from a restaurant a day or two earlier, was tied to my bedpost and bopped sympathetically to my sobs. At one point, I awoke startled by the balloon which, in the twilight winter shadows of my room, appeared to be a stranger hovering above me.

My mom was notified that I was missing and she left work, driven by her A&W manager, to search for me. She refused to look into the river in the same way she could not bring herself to look out the open bedroom window on Scott Street when she failed to find Cissy in their Clydebank flat that day. She feared seeing my red snowsuit floating face down in the icy waters of the Thames. The police had been called and the London force used a helicopter to scour the landscape for me. When she found me in our apartment in my own bed, I am sure she spanked me though I have no memory of that. It is an assumption I make based on the fact that my mother was incapable of controlling her temper and often spanked me, her anger out of control, for the child-like misdemeanors I seemed to commit on a daily basis. Once I mimicked a toothpaste commercial I’d seen repeatedly on television by writing numbers on my tiny teeth. My mother smacked me and smacked me and smacked me for that, her hands landing on my legs, buttocks and face. I learned early to cover my head with my small hands and arms as she flailed on me regularly. After my Great Escape with that particular handsy sitter, my mother took me to work with her. I sat in a high chair in the A&W kitchen and ate baby burgers and drank root beer while she served other members of the London public hamburgers and soda pop.

When I was four I saw a man walk on the moon on my neighbour’s black and white television set. I awoke that July night in 1969 in our hot and humid Hamilton Road flat to find both of my parents missing. In the darkness, I wandered our apartment calling out for them before going to wake Cissy, who was seven at the time. She too started to cry and the two of us – howling – walked hand-in-hand down the hallway to a neighbour’s flat. The neighbor often babysat us. She had black, frizzy hair and would serve us powdered milk, which I detested and refused to drink. She opened her door that night to find two hysterical children in summer pajamas crying for their mom and dad. She took us in and told us to sit in front of the television while she mixed us some powdered milk. That’s when I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in their living-room. I was transfixed on the diminutive astronaut in a puffy moon suit as I heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

My mother and father returned to an empty apartment and there must have been sheer pandemonium before they found the neighbour’s note to them on the kitchen table saying that we were with her. I am sure my mother would have murdered me that night but for my father being there.

Many years later my mother said, “I used to do silly things when I was a young mother.”

“Like what?” I asked her.

“Och. Like the night I telt yer daddy tae leave youse in yer beds and come tae pick me up at the A&W afta’ ma shift. I shouldnee’ve done that.”

That was the night we woke to find ourselves alone. That was the night I witnessed a tiny man walking on the moon.

In time, my dad landed a job in the Ford Automotive plant in St. Thomas where he would work for the next almost forty years. My mother stopped working outside the home. Instead, she took in another child to earn a little extra money. She babysat Garreth Royer. Garreth’s parents, Maud and Grant Royer, lived in the same flats on Hamilton Road with Garreth and his older sister, Deirdre. Maud Royer was Irish and Grant Royer was English. The Royers became life-long family friends like the Doans. Maud and Grant Royer moved to Cant Crescent the same time as did my family. My mother was annoyed and felt that Maud Royer had needed to follow us there. She said that Maud Royer had to “keep up with the Jones’s” and I wondered who were the Jones and where did they live on Cant Crescent. Deirdre Royer was the same age as Cissy, and she and Cissy went to the Catholic elementary school near the tenement building, St. Bernadette’s Separate School. Meanwhile, Garreth and I routinely engaged in toddler warfare in my home for which I was customarily corporally punished by my mother. My mother would spank her own children in her routine rages rather than discipline visiting children though occasionally they were the transgressors.

I had a friend at the Hamilton Road apartments by the name of Peggy. She was an overweight child and older than I. In fact, she was not so much my friend as she used to bully me. One day Peggy led me to a dumpster filled with discarded toys. As she and I peered over the lip of the dumpster at all of the toys no one wanted any longer, my mother stumbled upon us. With her left hand, my mother grabbed my arm and holding me by the wrist she reached back with her right hand and hit my buttocks over and over again as I cried that I was sorry. I was daily hit or screamed at or both by my mother in those years. I longed for the presence of my father during protracted days alone with my mother’s quick temper.  He wouldn’t have allowed her to strike me as she did.

When I had the Chicken Pox during that summer I was four, I would go to my dad for comfort. He would gather me in his strong arms and lovingly dab pink calamine lotion on my spots to relieve the itching. Then he would give me a sip of his beer. I didn’t really take a sip, but just let my lips touch the rim of the glass. I didn’t like the taste of beer but would never refuse what he offered me. My dad used to come home from the Ford plant with pictures of the Montréal Canadiens in his lunchbox. Torn from sports’ magazines there were pictures of all of my Habs’ heroes: Frank Mahovolich, Pete Mahovolich, Ken Dryden, and Jacques Lemaire.

I would wait for my dad’s homecoming each day, and run to greet him when he walked through the door. I hung about his neck often burnt from the sun, and I would grasp hold of his grey plastic lunch box and unclasp the metal latches on its front to see what he had for me inside. The box smelled of coffee, cigarettes, and stale wax paper. Beneath the sheet of wax paper he’d bring home to reuse, he would often have something for me. Once he had a small pink plastic tub with a baby doll in it. Her hair was blonde like mine and she had blue eyes like mine. She wore a pink floral dress and a white diaper and she had a pink bottle for juice and a white bottle for milk. But more often than not, beneath that wax paper I would find glossy pictures of the Montréal Canadiens, and I would run with them to my room and put them on my wall.

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Once recovered from the chicken pox my mother locked me out of the flat. I was making mud pies on the cement patio and my mother locked the sliding glass doors.  She was cleaning the apartment and didn’t want me underfoot. An aggressive queen bee was determined to sting me. I banged on the patio doors and screamed in terror as this gigantic bee pursued me, but my mother ignored my pleas for admittance. Despite my attempts to elude the queen bee or get my mother to permit me to enter the flat, I was stung. When my dad came home he saw a neighbor tending to the bee sting as I sat atop the kitchen table, my legs dangling over the edge of the Formica tabletop. My father was angry with my mother when he learned that she had left me outside and had ignored my cries to get in. He gently touched my leg, which was perceptively swollen from the severity of the queen’s sting, and soothed it with his thick, callused thumbs.

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