There were hardly any other houses on Cant Crescent when we moved into number 39 in 1970. My parents were home owners within four years of arriving to Canada’s great shores from Scotland. My mother took my dad to the bank to sign mortgage papers for a new house when he was coming off of the night shift at the Ford Automotive plant, where he worked on the assembly line for over thirty years. He was still half asleep as he signed the mortgage papers. He went home to bed after leaving his signature with the bank, and woke later that day a Canadian homeowner.
We had wide open fields in which to play and one flat pitch to the right of our home was made into a skating rink for the neighbourhood children, of which there were still few at that time. One dark, soft, snowy night a family of four moved in across the road from our house. I greeted their children – a boy and a girl – with flying snowballs. The girl had long blonde hair, and she wore a red and white striped toque that stretched to her waist. She squealed and hid behind her older brother. Soon the boy and I were exchanging rapid fire in the form of white, round, ice-cold snowballs. The new children were called inside by their mother, thus initiating a temporary cease fire. We’d just met the MacKirdies.
Jemmy MacKirdie favoured his daughter, Shirley, whom he perceived as perfect, and Rosalia MacKirdie revered her son, Dicky, who in her eyes could do no wrong. Shirley and Dicky MacKirdie went to the public school because they were Protestants, my mom told me. Shirley MacKirdie was a year older than I, and we became fast pals on the street. My big sister, Cissy, had developed a crush on Dicky who was the same age as she, very handsome and athletic. Dicky’s and Shirley’s parents were from Ayrshire, Scotland – Robbie Burns’ country – and I hardly understood a word they said because of their Ayrshire slang. “Ken” meant “know” and “weans” meant children. Apart from that, as a child I understood little of what they said in the Ayrshire dialect until I grew to understand their speech.
Rosalia MacKirdie was beautiful. She had long, thick, black wavy hair that hung down her back, and big, brown eyes. Her smile was lovely and she flashed gold fillings in her back molars when she laughed, which was often. Most importantly she was slim. She wore faded blue jeans and a t-shirt or sleeveless blouse and she looked wonderful while my own mother hid her expansive bulk beneath caftans.
I had noticed that Rosalia had a chunk of flesh missing from her slender left arm, and asked my mother about it once.
“What’s that mark on Rosalia’s arm?”
“Shush! Dan’t ye ev’r ask Rosalia aboot that!” she warned me.
I never asked Rosalia why her arm looked like that, but when I was older my mother told me that Rosalia had once had a tattoo that she had removed. Her husband, Jemmy, had a tattoo of a ship’s anchor on his forearm. Maybe they got them together.
In the summer, Rosalia wore a red and white polka dot bikini, and big, yellow, rubber gloves as she cleaned her in-ground swimming pool. Twice those yellow, rubber gloves saved her life when she was struck by lightning while cleaning her pool during huge electrical storms. London, Ontario is the thunderstorm capital of the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Rosalia always wore gold hoop earrings, and as a child I vowed to wear gold hoop earrings when I was older. A pair of thick, gold hoop earrings was the first thing I bought for myself after I graduated from university and was working full-time. I was in awe of Rosalia MacKirdie and later her younger sister, Vivianna, who came to stay with Shirley’s family from England. Both Rosalia and Vivianna looked like beautiful gypsies with their slender bodies, long, wavy locks and enormous, dark eyes. Vivianna looked like a white Diana Ross but more beautiful still. She walked on her heels, rolling her lithe figure as she moved sensually in her perfect, cocoa-buttered skin.
Rosalia had the dark temperament of my own mother though. I came to fear her outbursts in the same way I feared my mother’s though Rosalia never hit me. Rosalia would grit her perfect teeth together and her big eyes grew larger with fury as she spewed forth Ayrshire curses at Shirley and me.
“Ye basterin’ weans!” she’d scream. “Get th’ bloody hell oot o’ th’ basterin hoose!”
I never saw her strike Shirley and we never spoke of whether or not we were physically punished in our homes. Rosalia did, however, shame Shirley for still wetting the bed well into her adolescence. Shirley had to sleep with a rubber sheet on her mattress even when she was a teen. She often had to squat to hold herself when she and I got laughing really hard. She may have had a bladder problem that went undiagnosed. Instead, her incontinence was chalked up to toilet laziness, childish forgetfulness and irresponsibility.
Rosalia would give us a buck for Woolco, the local department store, if we cleaned her house on a Saturday morning. Once we completed our chores Shirley and I would set off for Woolco and buy things like an ice cream cone for twenty-five cents and a 45-rpm record for fifty cents. We would fight over which one of us would date Paul of the Beatles if ever given the chance. I eventually relinquished Paul for John Lennon, though I was never completely satisfied with John. We never did decide which one of us would get Elvis. We eventually agreed that we had to stop debating which one of us would get off with Elvis if we were to remain friends. Shirley and I would run wild through the shopping mall and get into mischief. White Oaks Shopping Mall was newly constructed and always celebrating some store’s grand opening. If such a shop were giving out free gift bags to mark its arrival to the mall, Shirley and I would keep going back for more swag until the clerks caught on and chased us away. If the Pepsi Challenge was set up in the mall, Shirley and I would get in line and repeatedly choose Coke until we were chased from there too.
“Youse are a pair of buggers,” Rosalia told us often, but always with a half-smile on her full lips and a twinkling in her lovely, dark eyes.
Still, it was with her rejection that Rosalia injured Shirley and I when she felt fed up with us, and her screaming and swearing directed at us (more Shirley than me) unnerved me. My mother also openly rejected me, especially if I went looking for a cuddle or goodnight kiss.
“Och. Away wi’ ye. Yer tae old fer that!” She’d push me from her lap and I’d land on the floor, heartbroken. My mother would do the same if I went to my dad for physical affection. “Och. Away!” she’d shout and I felt ashamed for wanting my father’s kiss or touch.
Touch was forbidden in our home by my mother, and seemed to be prohibited in Shirley’s home by Rosalia. My mother and Rosalia MacKirdie were both fierce Scots’ women. My father and Jemmy MacKirdie were passive in comparison although no one could accuse them of being refined gentlemen. They both worked in the Ford plant and were hard men in many ways, but each man adored his wife, and those wives – my mother and Rosalia – were in charge of their households. My father’s workmates at Ford ordered a woman’s plaid skirt from the Sears catalogue and sent it to our home for my father intimating that he didn’t wear the pants in his marriage. My mother was deeply offended by that cruel practical joke, but his workmates were correct. He didn’t wear the pants in his home, my mother did. There was no mistaking it.