Regret

I buy my father something special that first Christmas after teacher’s college. I am at a loss as to what to get my father that year. I am in the downtown Hamilton Birk’s Jewelers looking for something for Jack’s mother when I see a tiny Royal Daulton figurine encased in a glass cabinet behind the till and ask the clerk if I might look at it more closely. The porcelain statute is about eight inches in height and fits in the palm of my hand. She is a little girl dressed in a white and pink nightie and wears her chestnut hair in pigtails. She stands sucking her left thumb, grasping a teddy bear in her right hand. As I turn the fragile figure over in my palm, I notice that she is called, Daddy’s Girl.

I buy it for my father though I wonder what a tough man like my dad will think of such a sentimental present. I guess that he will think it a waste of money. On Christmas Day my father opens my gift to him.

“That’s just from me to you, dad,” I tell him. He unwraps the figure from her box and tenderly turns her in his large, callused palms. “She’s called ‘Daddy’s Girl’,” I tell him.

He quickly rises and leaves the living-room, hurriedly retreating to the bedroom he shares with my mother. I stand alone in the kitchen a short time later and wash the dishes in the double sink. My father stalks behind me and taps me on the back with his sausage index finger.

MeandDad

Dad and me, ’70

“Ange,” he says and as I turn to face him I see that he is crying. He extends a handshake to me and says, “Thank you.”

I look down at his huge hand hovering in the air between us, waiting for me to slip my own into his. I dry my hands on a dishtowel and instead of shaking my father’s hand I embrace him. “You’re welcome, dad,” I whisper in his ear. “I love you.”

He nods and lets me go, hiding his tears from me, and he returns to his bedroom before my mother can see his show of emotion and chastise him for it. He regrets hitting me and all the anger that has been between us for too long begins to dissolve. He thinks that I hate him but I never hated my father. I love him and feel in that moment that he loves me too. It is myself I hate. That’s what happens to a child who is hit and abused. She hates herself. She cannot love herself, and she cannot love another nor accept love from another.

As I sort through financial documents to organize our marital finances later that year, I discover that my husband is in the wrong pay category and has been for five years before meeting and marrying me. When I ask him to go to his school board and ask that he be placed in the correct pay category on the Ontario teacher’s salary grid, and to request five years of back pay, he refuses.  Instead, I have to go to his school board superintendent to remedy the situation. Jack cannot bear the thought of someone not liking him and thinks it better that his wife fight his battles for him. I am not good at managing financial affairs, but Jack isn’t going to take charge and I have to do it.

“I’ve seen the boss’s job and I don’t want it,” he jokes in front of friends.

I don’t want the job either but there is no one else.

I feel as though it is I who am making all the transitory sacrifices in our marriage. I have to commute forty-five minutes to my work while he works around the corner from the house we have purchased by that time. He teaches Grade seven at the same school for the duration of our marriage while I never have employment stability due to financial constraints in education during that time. I am given glowing evaluations for six years in my school board; however, each year thirty-six young teachers, of which I am one, are given lay-off notices. We are eventually recalled for work in the fall or winter months during the following academic year but I am always sent to a new school and assigned a new position. In six years with that Catholic board I teach Grades two, seven, eight, a split seven/eight and high school English, Drama and Religious Studies. There is always a break in service so we thirty-seven teachers are frozen at zero years teaching experience on the salary grid despite six years of full-time service, and are returned to probationary status. I am evaluated every year, recommended for permanency and then laid off again only to repeat that unpleasant cycle the following year. It is a deeply distressing time for me professionally. I write an article about the lack of Catholic Social Justice within the city’s Catholic school board for the local paper and the editor, a golfing companion of one of my superintendents, sends my article to his friend rather than publish it. “I think one of your teachers is dissatisfied,” the editor writes to my superintendent, and I am threatened with dismissal. Technically still a probationary teacher because of the repeated breaks in service, my teachers’ federation will do nothing to fight for me so I fight for myself.

“Does it always have to be you, babe?” my husband asks me when I am reprimanded by the board fro writing the article. “Do you have to fight every battle?”

“When someone else fights the battle, I will have a wee rest,” I tell him. I mean him. When he decides to be a man and wage war on my behalf I will no longer have to. That day will never come. With all the transition that I face at work and in our personal life together, I need to come home and have at least some matters handled by him but that is impossible. Jack is incapable of leading.

Jack continues to suffer physically. That initial leg injury leads to a herniated disc and eventual back surgery for him. It takes years for the doctors to diagnose Jack’s herniated disc during which time he loses twenty-five pounds and is tested for various cancers. When he is tested for colon cancer he weeps with the pain of the procedure after which he is unable to have a normal bowel movement and has to pull his hard, white, chalky excrement from his anus. He cannot stand or lie down without feeling excruciating pain, and in those beginning years of our marriage he sleeps on the living-room floor with his elevated legs curled around a dining-room chair.

I drive to my school along the 403 and I hear a news report about the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Brantford’s favoured son is diagnosed with a herniated disc.

“It’s the most painful thing a person can suffer. He is to be rushed for emergency surgery tomorrow,” the announcer says.

The description of Gretzky’s symptoms sound like Jack’s and I wonder if perhaps Jack doesn’t have a herniated disc. As soon as I arrive at school, I contact our family doctor to ask that Jack be scheduled for an x-ray that will reveal this problem if indeed a herniated disc is the cause of J-’s pain. The doctor says he will call Jack with an appointment once his office has set one up, which he does. He gives Jack an appointment eight months down the road.

“You have to insist that you are seen earlier than that,” I say to Jack. “You are suffering.”

Jack will not ask for an earlier appointment so I go into the doctor’s office and demand that he be seen that week. The next day he is x-rayed after which he is scheduled for immediate emergency surgery to repair a herniated disc. This is the pattern of our lives together as a married couple. I am the fighter and he is well-liked by all, and pitied for being married to such a shrew. I know that it will be like that when children come too. I’ll always be the bad guy and he will be the saint loved by our children.

Jack and I fight after we go home to visit my family in London, always an abusive abyss that serves up liberal portions of shunning, screaming, shouting, recriminations, indictments and verdicts. I am so worked up in the car on our way back to Hamilton that Jack takes me to hospital when we get back into the city. I sit there sobbing in the hospital emergency room, trying to breathe normally. A kind doctor comes out to speak with me. He asks me if I want to stay the night but I refuse. I want to go home. Jack sits there helpless, watching and listening, his brow furrowed. He tells the doctor that it is visits or any communication with my family that puts me in that state.

“I’m helpless to protect her against them,” he says.

“Maybe you need to think about taking your wife far away from them,” the doctor advises.  “If she were my wife, I’d move her away from people who hurt her like this.”

I wish I were that doctor’s wife. I need someone to take care of me for a change, and if being married will not provide me with that, I don’t see the benefits of being someone’s wife. I want us to move far away from my family while Jack and I are married.

“Let’s go out to British Columbia and teach,” I say to him many times.

“Babe. I don’t want to live and die in Hamilton.”

“The only way you won’t live and die in Hamilton is if you leave,” I say. “I will never give birth in this city,” I tell him. I don’t want a child of mine to be saddled with Hamilton, Ontario as his or her birthplace. “I’ll go home to give birth,” I tell him and I mean Scotland not London, Ontario.

I hate Jack’s last name: Kunst. I hate being a Kunst. It sounds too close to the abhorrent c-word for female genitalia. His friends call him Kuner, which sounds like a racist slur normally lobbed at African-Americans. I am too stupid to realize that Kunst means art in German, which is a lovely last name. My husband works with a teacher who has a lovely the last name: St. Michael.

“What a gorgeous last name,” I say.

“Why don’t you take his name then, babe?”

“Maybe I will.”

Of course, had I loved Jack, none of these things would matter. We would laugh more together through unemployment, illness, injury, instability, transition, debt, poverty, familial discord, living in the asshole of Canada, and bearing a last name that might mean vagina or be construed as a racist term. We would go ahead and have our family despite our dire circumstances, our contaminated city of residence or bestowing upon children a sexually or racially charged last name.

Jack and I go to Mass most Sundays while we are married, but I have no concept of trusting my life to God. As a cradle Catholic, I have been raised with the moral aspects of religion and to believe that when I am bad (which seems to be all the time according to my family) I deserve to be punished. I don’t know about the protective and unconditional love of God. I certainly have not been told that God loves me except perhaps by my Catholic teachers at school who deliver this message rather unconvincingly. I am told the opposite by my family. I am told God is perpetually disappointed in me and is fed up with me. I am never led to believe that He will help me. Had I known that God would take care of all of our needs perhaps I would have been able to relax more in my marriage to Jack, and I would have been able to bear our trials with some semblance of grace. Instead, I turn to my mother for financial help during my marriage to Jack when my teaching position ends in a lay-off each year. I also go back to waitressing and bartending. Men hit on me as I serve them liquor from behind the bar. One of them notices my wedding rings on my left hand.

“Are you married, sweetheart?”

“Yes.”

“If you were my wife you wouldn’t be working in no bar,” he says.

I wonder why it never bothers Jack when I put on high heels and a short skirt to work in a Hamilton bar at night. My father clothed his muscular frame in a t-shirt and blue jean and  went to work in the Ford plant where he could earn a decent salary to support his wife and three children though he hated working there. My mother worked in a factory too though she needn’t have. My dad didn’t want her to work but she wanted to so that my dad could retire earlier than he would have been able to had she not worked. My parents also stayed in the same small house they bought when we were young after others from the street had moved to more prestigious addresses. It was more important to my folks to be debt free and to live within their means than it was for them to try to keep up with the Joneses, as my mother would say. It is my blue collar parents that bail out Jack and me every month because they have the means to do so through hard work and humble living. My father would never have permitted my mother to dress provocatively and serve strange men alcohol into the wee hours of the morning. Jack never worries about me meeting strange men or straying in our marriage.

I admire my father’s determination to provide for his family but I also know that he beat me whereas Jack would never raise his hand to me. I still lose respect for Jack as a man when he refuses to look for part-time work to support us as I am doing. I feel that he had no right to ask and then beg me to marry him when he wasn’t capable of supporting a wife and family. He will not even teach summer school as I am commuting to do.

“I need my summers off, babe.”

He has no idea that my parents are subsidizing our mortgage payment each month, because he doesn’t want to know. I hate asking my parents for financial help, but see no other way. I take what money there is and give my husband an allowance each week – the way my mother has always done with my father – and Jack goes and blissfully spends it oblivious to our dire financial situation. He goes golfing with his three brothers like they are the Kennedys and leaves me to worry about our finances each month. Other male teachers pick tobacco every summer to support their families. They aren’t above doing manual labour, or refereeing and tutoring on the side during the school year, to make ends meet. When I asked Jack to find a second job during the school year he says that he’d feel too humiliated to wait on his students or their parents if he worked in a restaurant as I was doing.

“That would kill me,” he says. “I’m a teacher.”

I come home after a bar shift reeking of the liquor I spill on my clothes, my hair stinking of tobacco from the smokers who line the bar, to find my gentle husband sleeping soundly as though he hasn’t a care in the world, and he doesn’t. I shoulder the burden of our reality and feel that I will continue to do so throughout our married life together even once children come.

Jack desperately wants us to have a family together, and though I want children I don’t want them with him. I am so exhausted that the thought of creating little people with Jack that I will have to care for as I have been caring for my husband terrifies me. I ask him to go and get his principal’s papers so that he can earn better money as an administrator if he wants to have a family with me.

“When I have kids I want to stay home with them until they go to school,” I tell him. “I am not dropping an infant off at a daycare. If you work as an administrator, I will be able to stay home with our children.”

It is a great advantage for children to have a loving mother at home. Jack’s brothers and their working wives drop off their babies at daycare, and the parents are always stressed and their kids are perpetually sick with colds, flus and ear infections. I am not getting on that post-natal Disney ride.

“I don’t want to be a principal,” he tells me. “You go and get your principal’s papers and I will stay home with the kids.”

“If you think I’m going to go through nine months of pregnancy so that I can rush back to work and you can stay home with our kids, you have another think coming.”

I directly ask Jack for what I need and he refuses to provide it. Suffice it to say that I am relieved when my period comes each month when we are still having sex. In time, I stop sleeping with him altogether.


 

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