My grandparents return the favour of our 1972 summer holiday in Scotland by travelling to Canada for a thirteen-week holiday during the summer of ’73. They bring with them my cousin, Morag. I stand in the buttercream kitchen of our Cant Crescent home awaiting the arrival of my Scottish relatives. The back screen door opens with the familiar squeak of a rusty spring, and in walks my grandfather. He looks as I remembered him. He is a small man of about five-feet-five. His brown pants are loose, secured about his wide hips with a well-worn, brown leather belt. His shirt is white and crisp, meticulously ironed and smells of a sweet, clean cotton. On his head sits a straw bonnet pulled down over his blackish eyes, two searing coals that burn black from his brow. He immediately turns on the kitchen faucet full blast.
“They’re all crazy! They should all be oot in Canada,” he says of his other children.
Conversely my grandmother remarks, “I guess Scotland wasnee gade enough for yer mammy. Scotland has th’ best beef and the best wattah in th’ world. Scotland takes care of its auld people unlike any other country in th’ world.”
Earlier in the year, I am removed from the bedroom that I had share with Cissy since the move to 39 Cant Crescent. Lil is an infant sleeping in a crib, and she occupies the third bedroom in the three-bedroom house. I feel terribly hurt by another obvious rejection by Cissy. She hates me with an intensity that I cannot explain as a child. It is decided, without any input from me, that I am to be moved out of Cissy’s room and into Lil’s though there are only two-and-a-half years between me and Cissy whereas five years separate Lil and I.
During the thirteen-week stay of my mother’s parents and niece, people are moved about to billet the sleeping arrangements of eight people in a three-bedroom bungalow. My mother decides that she and my father will sleep on a pullout sofa in the basement, and that one of us will double-up with our cousin in their upstairs bedroom. Our grandparents are to sleep in Cissy’s room on a double bed that my mother has moved in there to accommodate them. Cissy refuses to sleep next to Morag, though she is closest in age to our Scottish cousin. She also refuses to share a room with me. She prefers to sleep in next to Lil so she takes over my single bed in the room that I share with Lil. Though I protest and say that I want to sleep in my own bed, I am ignored. My mom puts me in her bed with Morag, and my teenage cousin proceeds to molest me every night that we sleep in my parents’ bed together throughout her thirteen-week stay. I am sacrificed again. I don’t matter in that family. Only my dad cares for me.
My granny smells terrible, like rotting flesh. I hate using the toilet after she has been in there, especially in the mornings, and I hold my breath and pee as quickly as I can so that I might escape her odour. In fact, I start getting up as early as I can to get away from Morag, and to use the toilet before my granny gets out of bed. My gran notices that I am doing this and tells my mother what I am up to. She is always trying to get me in trouble but I manage to find trouble on my own. I don’t need her help. We walk together to the corner store, and I have to run back to the house to get something I forgot. My granny is so fat that I decide it best if she waits for me where we are while I race home. As she stands awaiting my return, the neighbour’s lawn sprinklers burst on soaking her. She accuses me of plotting the entire thing but I am not that clever. I would have orchestrated that was I smart enough to do so, but it is just a quirky (and joyful for me) coincidence that I choose to leave her where timed sprinklers are set to spring into action. The more I proclaim the truth and my innocence, the more I am called a liar. I hate my mother’s mother. She repulses me. I don’t know it then but with time and age I come to see that my mother put three thousand miles between herself and Scotland to escape her old bitch of a mother just as I will move three thousand miles away to escape my own.
My Scottish grandfather is somewhat of an enigma to me. He sends a birthday card to me each year from Scotland. On the envelope and inside the card my name is shrouded in a beautiful scroll that he draws and fills with soft etchings of vines, roses and calligraphy. As an adult, I imitate this design when I give cards to students, friends and family. When they ask me how I thought to do this ornate design about their names I simply respond that I learned it from my grandfather. I remember him teaching me to ride the scooter out front of his Dalmuir residence the previous summer as the rest of the house still slept, and us sharing Cornflakes together with the milkman’s delivery before the chill of the milk could warm. Those are my most poignant memories of him up until the summer of ’73.
I soon realize that he does not say much and rarely smiles, but he is always calm and gentle towards to me. He sits by the pool’s edge at East Park Golf Gardens, reading his paper and smoking his old clay pipe. He looks up occasionally and lets his small, dark eyes fall upon me, then without a smile or a word, serenely puffs on his pipe and returns to his paper. Once finished with his paper, he fashions for us triangular paper hats from its pages. He tells us to sit on our big, fat granny in our wet swimsuits and we willingly comply because we hate her. I see true emotion coming from this man only once that summer. It is the time my family goes to Clearwater Lake for a brilliant July day picnic at the beach.
My father teaches me how to swim after we emigrate from Scotland in ’66. I am two when I first take to the water. By age eight I can swim Canada’s Clearwater Lake when my family picnics there during the summer. It is a scorching July day in ’73 and we take my mother’s parents and my cousin, Morag, to Clearwater Beach. Morag is fifteen and incomprehensibly incapable of swimming. She lives on the island upon which my mother was raised and we are always aware that my mother is in jeopardy of drowning for she tells us so regularly. My mother speaks again of her own peril of drowning as she inflates a black inner-tube for my cousin.
“Just haud ontae this, hen,” my mother advises Morag. Long, black, curly hairs sprout from the place where my mother’s fat thighs press together at the V of her blue, floral one-piece.
Whenever we go to Clearwater, I like to swim the lake to a small island at its opposite shore. I am looking forward to that solo sojourn again that day.
“Angela! Yer nae tae leave Morag alane under any circumstances. Dae ye understand me, lassie?”
I understand that if I answer the call of my island when her sandy shores beckon, I will meet with certain demise upon my return at the hands of what will by then be my banshee mother.
Morag is shrieking before we leave shallow water. Her boney, knobbly-kneed legs are so white they looked translucent as blue veins poke through milky flesh. My tan, lean and athletic legs flutter against the current as if in slow motion, but it is not long before my fascination with my own physics wears thin. I tell Morag that she will be fine as I swim to the island.
“Yer mammy said yer no tae gae!”
“Just don’t let go of the inner-tube.”
“Don’t you bloody leave me you wee bugger! Don’t you bloody leave me!”
I do the front crawl away from Morag, leaving my face in the water for three strokes, and lifting my head to the side on the fourth to inhale just as my father taught me. My small hands slice into the cool water neatly and swiftly as the sound of my breath competes with the cawing of seagulls overhead, Morag’s screeches, and my mother’s cries now rising from the distant shore. Soon I am out of earshot of all Scots squawking.
When Lil is young she cannot say Angela so she called me ‘El’. I christen my island, ‘El’s Island’ in honour of that moniker. The lake flirts with the sands of El’s Island as I reach its banks. I sit in the tide-line letting the soft sand squish between my toes as the sun cast its warmth upon my golden shoulders, I feel a light breeze soothing my fatigued flesh. I raise my hand to shield my eyes from the sun as I look across the still, blue water to rising family choler. A beating awaits me when I cross again, and I know that there is no point in rushing back. Enveloped in quiet and solitude, I lie back and rest my tired limbs.
The better part of the day is behind me when I make the return sojourn. I am perhaps not quite half-way across the lake when I notice my granddad – characteristically dressed in meticulous shirt, belted, brown slacks, and summer straw hat pulled down over an expressionless face except for eyes that burned black – studying my strokes from the opposite shore drawing on his clay pipe. He must find that Canadian July day to be blistering as he begins to run the shoreline in front of where my mother too stalks my return. As I lift my head for a breath, I hear him cheering me on.
“Swim, lassie! Swim!!!” I am hearing his voice properly for the first time and it is deep and rich.
His enthusiasm this day is unprecedented. Smiling, I put my face back in the water and swim toward him, his arms flailing madly in the hot summer breeze. I want to leap out of the water and into my grandfather’s cheering arms, but another awaits my return to shore. Rather than run into my grandfather’s outstretched arms, I voluntarily wrinkle in the water until it is time to leave. Next to me in the water is a young girl in a yellow polka-dot bikini. I watch her shove a multi-coloured beach-ball beneath the surf. The further she pushes the ball under the water, the greater the velocity with which it erupts to the surface.
By the time my mom shouts on me to come because it is time to leave, I am shivering from cold in the water. Normally I ask my mom or dad to carry me from the shore to prevent the hot sand from sticking to my wet feet when I come out of the water. There is no way in hell anyone is going to bundle me in a beach towel and carry me across the hot sands to the family picnic blanket after I abandoned cousin Morag in the lake. I will have to walk, or run as it were, now that it is time to head for home, and the sand will attach itself to the moisture on my skin, which I hate.
The early morning routine my granddad and I had establish in Scotland continues during his visit to Canada. He puts out my Cornflakes making certain sugar is sprinkled liberally over the cereal. We go outside and sit in the cool of the front porch as I eat my Cornflakes and granddad puffs silently on his pipe. After my swim to El’s Island, my granddad tells me of the day he stowed away aboard a ship to America on just such a morning.
“I was eighteen and I tried to make my way to Philadelphia where I had cousins.” He sits forward a little, drawing me in with the sweet smell of tobacco and his gentle manner. He places his right hand on his pipe’s stem and his left hand on his right forearm. “They caught me when the ship docked in New York. That’s when I saw her.”
“Lady Liberty. I looked from the ship’s portal and there she was.”
“Och…I was pulled above deck by the ship’s crew. But I dove o’er th’ side of th’ ship and swam tae shore.” His dark eyes look longingly in the distance. “The American authorities caught me when I emerged from the dark waters of New York’s port-of-entry in the wee hours o’ the morning. That water was bloody cauld.”
“If the water was warmer, you could have stayed in,” I offer. He looks at me curiously. “Like I did that day mom wanted to kill me. I stayed in the water and wrinkled.” I stuff another spoonful of sugary cereal into my mouth. “It was better than getting hit,” I say with a full mouth and conviction.
He looks at me, his eyes squinting against the morning sunlight, before he throws his head back and lets escape a full laugh.
“Aye, lass! Aye! I could’ve done, right enough!” He says that Lady Liberty is all he saw of New York through the bars of his Ellis Island cell where he was detained until a boat could return him to Glasgow. “I never ventured outside o’ Scotland again until this trip across th’ wattah tae see ma daughter’s family in Canada. I built ships ma whole life at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. I helped build the Queen Mary,” he says wistfully and I pretend to know what or who the Queen Mary is. “But in Scotland I remained until this wee holiday.”
I think that a three-month-one-week stay during which my mother is even more cross than usual and regularly stands in the basement laundry room to control her temper after my grandmother has upset her is hardly a wee holiday, but I don’t say this. Instead, I slip my small hand through his arm, and brush my sun-bleached hair from my eyes by dragging my face across his arm, my head eventually settling into his crisply ironed shirt that smell of a sweet, clean cotton.
I want to tell my granddad then. I want to tell him that Cousin Morag touches me at night in places that are for me alone, and insists that I touch her. She does it when everyone else is asleep. I want to tell him how I hate her, how her touching me makes me feel sick to my stomach and bad. But instead I keep my head on his shoulder as we watch the neighbours’ sprinkler dance across a green-velvet lawn. It is the same sprinkler that my grandmother accused me of telling her to wait in front of with malice forethought as we walked to the corner store one day.
“You’re a mighty fine swimmer, lass! Mighty fine!” my grandfather tells me that day.
The corners of his eyes crinkle in a quiet smile as he draws on his pipe, and I sense that he feels pride in his Canadian granddaughter who is such a strong and fearless swimmer. I choose not to destroy the esteem he seems to hold me in. I never tell him what my cousin does to me nightly. I never tell anyone. For four decades of my life, it is a secret that makes me ill.