I am from away. I live in a place different than where I was born.
I was born in Scotland in 1965. When you’re Scottish, you are never truly anything else. Yet, when you are taken out of Scotland as a child, you are never fully Scots either. You are forevermore without a country, and whenever you are in one of those places in the future – the country of your birth or the nation in which you grow up – you inevitably feel homesick for the other place. You are destined to be an outsider in both places. You are forevermore without a home.
In 1960s Scotland, expectant mothers went into hospital to give birth only if they were ill. My mother suffered from toxemia when she carried my big sister, Sissy, so she was admitted to hospital to deliver her first-born child in 1962. But my mother is physically healthy while pregnant with me so she gives birth to me in my grandmother’s house, her mother’s home, at 79 Dalhousie Avenue in Dalmuir, Scotland. It is the last day in January – a Sunday – and it is the only Sunday my father ever misses Mass. He misses Mass awaiting my arrival.
I am ten pounds, four ounces when I am born. It takes two days for me to be dragged into the world, the doctor using forceps to pull me the rest of the way into it. Those surgical steel instruments leave dents on either side of my tender, newborn head. When I do finally debut, my Grandmother Creron brings the attending physician, Dr. Halfferty, a shot of whiskey. When he refuses the dram, my grandmother, who claims to be tea-total, throws it back herself. I remain the biggest baby Halfferty ever delivers throughout his medical career.
“How’s the fightin’ man?” Dr. Halfferty asks my Auntie Jeannie, my mother’s youngest sister, who is a mid-wife and a nurse and who works with Dr. Halferty on occasion after we emigrate. Dr. Halfferty is referring to my father who threw him against a wall during my delivery because my dad was worried over my mother and me, and the good doctor never forgets my father, the fightin’ man.
When we go back home to Scotland for a visit in the summer of 1972, Auntie Jeannie takes me to meet the doctor responsible for my arrival in Scotland. The doctor looks like Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, the rotund wizard with the funny moustache. He doesn’t seem that excited to meet me when my aunt marches me into his Dalmuir office. The only thing he says to me is, “How’s the fightin’ man?” And I don’t know who that is.
My mother blames me for my natal girth, but my mother never met a fish supper wrapped in greasy newsprint that she didn’t like. While pregnant with me, she craves grease and the smells of tar and gasoline. She walks the streets of Clydebank, my big sister, Sissy, in her stroller, and stops by construction sites to inhale the fumes of hot tar. She rambles by gas stations in the same manner to breathe in petrol fumes. It’s a miracle I am born with any working brain cells at all.
While the rest of the family awaits my arrival, my Grandfather Creron, my mother’s father, takes Sissy out for the day. My grandfather and Sissy visit the bookies and then the horse races, my sister’s invisible friend, Paul, in tow. Sissy roars on the buses if anyone sits where Paul is sitting when she is up the town with my mother and her imperceptible pal, Paul.
“Ahhhhh! She’s sitting on Paul! That lady’s sitting on Paul!” Sissy wails.
When my grandfather, Sissy (and Paul) return that Sunday, Sissy finds my mother cradling the newborn that is me in her arms. Sissy, who is two-and-a-half at the time, flies into a rage, “Get that baby out of here! Get that baby out of here! I hate that baby!”
This story is meant to be funny family folklore, and would be had love developed between Sissy and me, but it never does. Sissy never allows herself to love me despite my futile attempts to win her throughout the first five decades of my life.
My mother says I am advanced for my age. She says I was talking at ten months and walking at twelve. “Yer first word was ‘Angela’. Ye were lyin’ back on th’ sofa and saying yer name tae yerself and ma mother asked me what ye were sayin’. ‘What dae ye think she’s sayin’?’ I asked ma mother. ‘Angela,’ she said. ‘Aye. Well, right enough. That’s what she’s sayin’. And ye’ve been talkin’ aboot yerself e’er since,” she concludes.
I crawl for my dad’s paper and slippers when he comes in from work. Sissy had done this before there was me and now I race her on my knees, shoving her aside to do it myself. I’m trying to become part of things, part of that routine Sissy and my father established together, but my mother remembers it in a more sinister fashion as though I am capable of malicious forethought as a wee tot barely able to crawl.
“Yer big sista stepped aside and let ye dae it all on yer aine todd so she dud.”
As newlyweds in Scotland my parents buy a flat on Scott Street at a time when the Scots simply do not buy homes but rent living accommodations all of their lives. Even then, living in Scotland, my mother is ambitious for better for her own children. The flat is in a three-story walk-up tenement building. One day Sissy hides behind the wardrobe in my parents’ bedroom. She may be playing a game, but it is more likely that she is hiding from my mother who is undoubtedly in one of her black moods. My mother calls for my sister, but cannot find her anywhere. The bedroom curtains billow in the gentle spring breeze blowing in from the open window. My mother freezes in fear at the sight of that open bedroom window. She cannot peer outside frightened that Sissy is splat on the pavement below. My sister still does not answer my mother’s screams. My mother is crying hysterically and Sissy finally reveals herself. When she does poke out from behind the wardrobe, my mother batters my sister who is not yet three.
At that time in Presbyterian Scotland, it is difficult for Catholics to find work. On job applications you have to write ‘R.C.’ for Roman Catholic and that is the end of it. When my father is laid off from yet another job, he goes down to the Labour Exchange and demands work in his own country. The clerk holds a job ticket close to his chest so my father cannot see the name of the plant looking for labourers.
“Let me see it!” my father shouts.
When the clerk continues to refuse to show my father the job slip, the fighting man who is my father leaps over the counter and grabs the wee man about his starched collar. My dad is flung out of the employment office, but later that night the clerk comes to my parents’ flat on Scott Street and gives my father the information he had earlier requested. My father goes after the job the next day and once again finds himself gainfully employed. My dad takes a bus, train and boat to get to his work. Everything but a plane. When that job ends, as they all do because of a sluggish economy and discrimination against Catholics, my father walks into Canada House in Glasgow to find out about this place: Canada.
There are billboard ads, radio spots and television commercials telling folk to come to Canada. Everywhere you went, you were hit in the face with an invitation to immigrate to Canada where you could make a better life for your family. My dad goes to Canada House on a day when he feels particularly vulnerable because of the erratic employment situation in Scotland. He wants to ask some simple questions about Canada, but before he can ask anyone anything, a man comes out from the back of the room and tells my father to step behind a curtain and take off his shirt so that they can take a chest X-ray. The Canada House representative then rolls a map of Canada in front of my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do.
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute, Sonny Jim! I’m only wantin’ tae fun oot aboot this place. I’m no ready tae go th’ day, like!”
Despite these protests delivered in his thick Glaswegian bur, the irony isn’t lost on my father. Scotland has no place for him. There is no work in his home country while this expansive country called Canada is spreading herself before him like an eager Proverbs’ bride offering him hope, prosperity and a future that has always been denied him in Scotland. It doesn’t take my parents long to decide to give Canada a chance. The Canadian government pays their plane fares across the Atlantic, and we are off to Canada to begin a new life as a young family – my parents, Sissy and I. We’re away.