Compassion

In Grade four I write my speech about suicide. I write about the famous Hollywood suicides like that of the beautiful Pier Angeli and Marilyn Monroe. Lina does hers on Canadian women suffragettes like Nellie McClung. I am selected to go in front of the school in the gymnasium for the finals though I feel that Lina’s speech is better than mine. For the months leading up to the final school-wide speech completion, my Grade four teacher, Mrs. Brea, asks me to practice it in front of the class. I always comply but as I say my speech various boys in the class jeer. I become increasingly uneasy as speech day approaches. Mrs. Brea often asks me to read to the class and she also encourages my writing, but some of my peers – the ones who struggle academically – come to resent my reading ability. As they gather at my feet to hear a story, I feel their resentment growing towards me. It is written all over their faces and expressed in their bored demeanor as they become engaged with fluff on the carpet or the back of the person seated on the floor before them. Their faces and behavior scream that I am not the teacher, and as they want to know, silently, just who it that I think myself to be. I daily practice my speech in front of my classmates in preparation for saying it in front of the school. Dwayne Dubee, whose father beats him with a dog chain, sings “Angie, Baby” to me every day and tries to pull me onto his fat lap and kiss me. He sneers at me when I go to the front of the class to practice my speech. He leads others in their jeers as I practice my public speaking.

On speech day, in the gymnasium, I freeze. I sit at the side with the other public-speaking candidates and when it is my turn to go before the entire school, I look at Mrs. Brea with tear-filled eyes and shake my head “no”. She nods to me in acknowledgement and then I sit there engulfed in shame for my refusal to go through with what I have been rehearsing for months.

Cissy is in the gym with her Grade seven class and she smirks at me when I sit crying in front of the entire school. She cannot wait to tell my mother that evening.

“Angela didn’t say her speech!” she gleefully declares.

I standbefore my mother and sister with my head down, tears of shame filling my eyes.

“Och! Away wi’ ye!” my mother screams at me, dismissing me with a flick of her fat wrist.

If I were secretly hoping for maternal tenderness or compassion, I do not find any. She yells and screams at me, deepening my sense of shame.

The next day at recess I am standing outside with my friends when my mother suddenly appears next to me on the playground. She grabs me and thrusts me against the brick wall.

“I telt yer daddy what ye did yesterday when he got hame frae his work last night! He says yer tae apologize tae yer class th’ day!”

Once she leaves I go inside the school and sit at my seat sobbing with my head on my desk. Mrs. Brea asks me what is wrong.

“My mom…says….I have to…apol…o…gize in front of the…claa…ass for not say…ing my speech yesterday,” I manage to get out.

That is the only time I see anger upon Mrs. Brea’s lovely face. She is a beautiful teacher. I think that she looks like one of Charlie’s Angels. She has long, blonde hair that hangs to her waist and big, blue eyes. She is tall and slender, but more than that she is a loving, gentle woman. I never hear her raise her voice or witness her losing her patience. She also likes me. She is the first teacher to like me. No other teacher has before or does in the future because I am not a likeable child. I am an angry, cheeky and outspoken child.

With her hand she strokes my hair gently and says, “Angela. You don’t owe anyone anything. If you want to tell your mother that you apologized to the class, I will say that you did. But you’re not getting up in front of them today to say anything.”

I love Mrs. Brea in that moment. I wish she were my mother. I crave the maternal softness Mrs. Brea possesses, the maternal tenderness of which my own mother is incapable.

Mrs. Brea is so loving that she cannot award me the class academic over my best friend. Lina and I are both very bright and we compete with one another when we are in school though we never vocalize this competition. I am always awarded the class academic award over my best friend, which suits my aggressive, competitive nature and pleases my mother to no end. When Lina and I are both awarded the class Academic in Grade four, my name is called first. Griffin comes after Caro but I am called first. I don’t think anything of being called first. I am just thrilled that my best friend is called after me. When I bring home my plaque that afternoon and tell my mother that Lina got one too, my mother asks me whose name was called first.

“Mine,” I tell her.

“That means you beat her!” my mother proclaims, her fat fist pounding the table.

That year I am a Brownie for approximately three hours. I quit hockey and I quit Brownies too. I always want to do whatever Cissy does. On our street Deirdre Royce and Shirley MacKirdie are doing the same things as Cissy. I am too young by a year or more to be on the same swim team as they, or social clubs. It exasperates me. The three of them all go to Brownies on a Tuesday night and I want to go too. But Cissy is a joiner, and I am not. She joins Brownies and does all that is required to climb the Brownie hierarchy. I quit after Brown Owl pulls me in a back room and makes me sit there alone until I memorize the Lord’s Prayer. I never go back after that first introduction to Brownie bullshit.

I play ice hockey when I am in Grade four. I want to do it for my dad but the parents are brutal as I try to learn the sport. They scream and catcall if I make an error or am out of position. One teammate, Sam Stoner, targets me in practice. I don’t know what a lesbian is then but I know now that she was one. She seems oddly attracted to me and so she makes my life hell on the ice the way a boy who has a crush on a girl will torment her.

My dad loves that I am athletic. Neither of my sisters are. He always comes to watch me play basketball and is proud of me on the court. When I quit hockey my dad stops speaking to me for what feels like forever. He is ashamed of me for quitting and shuns me with his silence. That year is so painful for me. My best friend, Lina, and the other girls in my class turn on me. I have not developed breasts yet, and my Italian friends have. Lina is only half-Italian but that half grows breasts early. I play basketball with the boys and Marina Pico who, despite her Italian-Maltese heritage, is as flat chested as I. The other girls are either jealous of the fact that the boys want us playing with them on the court or think that we are weird for still playing sports with the boys rather than standing in the playground shade with them talking about kissing boys, wearing bras and suffering menstrual cycles. I have never kissed a boy, I don’t wear a bra and I will not get my period until I am in Grade eight. I have nothing to contribute to the discussions of the prematurely developed.

That Christmas my parents surprise us with a puppy. She is a chocolate brown poodle, and I refuse to even look at the dog initially. I don’t want to risk loving her and have her reject me in time so I exclude her first. It is as if she knows that she has to win me over to be part of the Griffin pack, and the wee dog follows me everywhere I go in those initial days. If I leave the table to get the milk or butter Nöel trots along after me, brushing against my ankles. She sits at my feet until I can no longer resist her charms.

“She’s following you, Angela,” my mother laughs. “Ye’ll no ignore her fer very long.”

I continue to refuse to love her openly, but as usual, my mother is correct. By the end of Christmas dinner I am in love with the newest addition to the Griffin clan.

“What should we call her?” my mother asks.

My sisters suggest a few names and then I say, “What about Nöel? It’s French for Christmas, and she’s a French poodle.”

“Aye. Right enough,” my mother says. “Nöel it is.”

As the holidays progress I just want to be with the little dog. I am besotted by her. At night, my mother puts her downstairs, outside my basement bedroom door, to train her to sleep there. I do not have a door on my room at that time, and my mom puts a large piece of wood across the bottom of the door to keep Nöel out of my room. Nöel cries that puppy whimper beyond the plywood barrier and my heart aches to bring her into my bed. She jumps on the bottom of the panel and the sheet comes crashing down on her. I leap from my bed to see if the board has struck her, and thankfully it has not. I sweep her up into my arms and take her into my bed with me reveling in that pabulum puppy smell.

I protest when we are to go to the Royces’ for a holiday dinner. I don’t want to leave the dog, but my mother forces me to go. I eat as quickly as I can and then sneak back to our own house to snuggle with Nöel in the absence of the rest of the family. I put her in the deepest part of the basket chair in the rec room and lay with her there. When the rest of the family returns from dinner Cissy starts screaming,

“I knew you were here with Nöel. Hogging her! I knew it!”

My sister is jealous if I cuddle Nöel and she loudly protests each time I hold the dog. She does need to worry. As time wears on, Nöel starts to run from me.

“I know you just want to love her,” my mom says. “But you’re turning her against you. Leave her. Let her come to you like she did when she was a new pup.”

I can’t leave her though. I need her love. The more I try to make her love me the more she runs from me. Nöel chooses my dad over all of us and since I cannot be loved by her the way I need to be, I torment her in order to get her attention and make her come to me. I dress her in dolls’ clothes or pester her with her toys. She has a rubber cat that squeaks. She thinks it is her baby and drags it with her wherever she goes. If she leaves it behind I squeeze it until she comes running towards me to retrieve her baby, and then I grab Nöel and kiss her as she tries to bite me. We share a love/hate relationship. It becomes just as I’d feared: I love her and she grows to hate me.

My mom takes us to tour a convent.

“I’m gonna leave ye here,” she jokes with me, but her words sting.

It is the monastery of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. I don’t want to go but the entire family is going. The nuns are very nice. They are dressed in their grey and white habits and smile readily. They show us an indoor basketball court and these long tables where the baked Eucharist host are left to dry. There are tables and tables of Holy Eucharist. I stray from the tour and start to shoot hoops on the nuns’ court. When I look up from my lay-ups I see that I am alone. I panick believing I have been left behind as my mother threatened. I start to cry out and I run for the door. I find my mother laughing. She revels in my distress.

It is that year that I go with my mother to buy a new swimsuit. I have that odd body shape that young girls have at that age. I am shapeless but pear-shaped on the verge of developing. The sales girl brings me a swimsuit but it is too small.

“She’s a bit chunky, isn’t she?” she says to my mother as I stand in my panties and undershirt with my mother in the dressing room, and my mother bursts out laughing.

The sales clerk goes to get a bigger size and my mother howls with laughter as I tear up and begin to quietly cry. The salesgirl’s words sting and lead me to stop eating in a healthy way, and to become increasingly self-conscious of my changing body. My mother’s laughter and the sales clerk’s careless comment contribute to a life-long eating disorder. My mother tells everyone about that encounter. She thinks it is funny. As a female who has been chunky herself all of her life it gives my mother immense pleasure to have others perceive the daughter always described as beautiful in this way. She is jealous of her own daughter. She resents it when I am perceived as attractive and is quick to point out all of my flaws to counter any favourable impressions others may have of me.

That is the year, I become aware of the fact that the nun who teaches Grade seven at St. Francis knows my name. At Communion during school masses she says, “Body of Christ, Angela.”

With Jesus on my tongue my mind races.

“She said, ‘Angela’! How does she know my name?”

When Marina and I shoot hoops outside with the boys, Sister Maureen stands on the sidelines and cheers for me, “Go, Angela! Go!”

I am a marked woman.

 


 


 

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