My little sister, Lil, had terrible allergies. We shared a room after Sissy, my older sister, insisted I be moved from our shared room to Lil’s nursery. I could not sleep with Lil’s nightly coughing, snoring and wheezing. I was suffering from a lack of sleep, which exacerbated stress at school. My dad came into the living-room one night to find me asleep on the sofa and nudged me awake.
“Come on, hen. Back tae yer bed.”
Taking my hand, he escorted me to my room where the wheezing, snoring and coughing of my unconscious little sister prevailed.
“It’s her noises from her allergies, dad,” I sobbed. “I can’t sleep in here. I sleep on the couch once everyone else goes to bed.” I was crying in frustration and noticed that he too had tears in his eyes.
“Ye know yer th’ apple o’ ma eye, don’t ye?” my father said to me.
His lower lip quivered, and he looked away from me discomfited by his show of emotion. I stared at my dad’s beautiful face. I hadn’t known that. How could I? He never said it or even told me that he loved me.
After I confided in my father that I could not share a room with Lil’s allergies, my dad set about making me a bedroom in the basement. Though that room would never have overhead electricity, finished beading, curtains on the tiny, basement window or closet doors, it was my haven in that hellish home. It was a place all my own.
The best Christmas that I ever had occurred that same year. In 1975, we spent Christmas in Scotland. We were surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. I felt part of a family during that holiday in a way that I never felt with my own family in Canada.
My Grandfather Creron died that year. I was in Grade five at St. Francis Separate School. Grade five was already a dreadful year for me because there was division between the girls in my class. Everyone who had developed breasts and had their periods joined together and sex became the focal point of their discussions. My close friends, Lina and Nikki – both Italian and early bloomers – were firmly entrenched in the camp that had breasts. I stood with Marina, who though half-Italian herself was as flat-chested as I, in the detachment that didn’t yet need a brassiere. Marina and I continued to shoot hoops with the boys at recess, while the other half of our peer group stood about the playground discussing periods, bras, boys and shaving practices. Neither I nor Marina had anything to add to these topics. I was happy to have Marina still with me as my friend, but I missed my best friend, Lina Caro.
A French Canadian girl joined our class that year. Soire had short blonde hair, angular facial features, green eyes, and she was a figure-skater. Many of the girls seemed drawn to her and I felt that my power as their leader was threatened. In French class, Soire would draw dirty pictures and send them around the room. I refused to laugh at her filthy figures, and I wanted to shove her out of the group because I felt threatened by her overt sexuality and the affection the girls held for her, particularly Lina.
My teacher that year was a short, dumpy Italian. Ms. Baldassio was in her late thirties or early forties, single, bitter and flirted shamelessly with all of the male teachers in the building. She regularly falsely accused me of cheating on reading tasks and tests, and the more I proclaimed my innocence the greater convinced was she of my guilt. As she indicted me, I towered above her in height and looked down at her, focused on her crooked teeth and droopy, Italian gold earrings. Of course, she loved my Italian friends, Lina and Nikki, and she discouraged them from remaining friends with me.
“I don’t think Angela is the best choice for you,” Ms. Baldassio told them. Apart from her personal comments she also made similar remarks to the entire class. “Angela might not be the best choice for leader in this room,” Ms. Baldassio told the class.
Ms. Baldassio had taught Sissy, and thought the world of her in large part because my older sister was content to be a wallflower in life in ways I never could be. Sissy was a plain Jane with freckles, a capped front tooth, and she wore granny glasses. The kids actually called her Granny; Granny was Sissy’s nickname. I’d punched a kid in the face for calling Sissy Granny. I was a blue-eyed, blonde, athletic girl who also excelled academically and had lots of friends. I stood out in ways that irked my dwarf-teacher, and she seemed to resent me for shining though I was a child. Whatever the reason, Ms. Baldassio worked to tear me down.
“Angela’s not her sister,” Ms. Baldassio told my mother during parent-teacher interview night. She was laughing.
“No. Angela isnee her sister,” my mother said annoyed with this teacher’s veiled criticism of her second daughter. “Angela is Angela. She’s her aine person. She’s always been her aine person, and always w’ull be.”
My mother recounted this story to me later. “Bloody bitch! I didnee miss her and hit th’ bloody wall. I telt her. Yer yer aine person, so you are.”
Ms. Baldassio handed out to every girl in our class a small lilac and pink booklet with a lavender cartoon woman with cherry bouffant hair on the cover, that told us about the physical process of becoming a woman. The boys were sent out for recess while we remained inside to receive our booklets. I turned to look out the classroom window and saw the boys, some climbing over the backs of shorter boys in front, straining to get a look inside the classroom at the girls still at our desks. They were curious as to why we were held back from recess. I viewed the small booklet and felt embarrassed of my still undeveloped body and lack of menstrual cycle. As the female division within our class continued to deepen, my grades began to fall and I started to sleep in and arrive late to school each day. I was coming later in large part to avoid the teacher who hated me, but my daily tardiness caused my teacher to harass me further, which only added to my anxiety of being a student in her classroom.
When my mom’s brother called with the news that their father had died, my mother made high pitched wailing sounds and rolled on the living-room floor clutching the phone to her breast. I stood watching her from the hallway that ran opposite the kitchen not knowing how I might comfort her.
“Oh no, no, no,” she wailed. “No, no, no.”
My mom decided not to fly home for her father’s funeral. She decided instead that we would go home for Christmas as a family to fill the void left by his passing for my grandmother. I loved the idea of going home to Scotland for Christmas to be surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. We had no family in Canada to speak of, and my own sisters wanted nothing to do with me. As we were going for four weeks, I was doubly pleased to get an additional two weeks off from Baldassio’s class.
My mom took us to Scotland ahead of my dad because he could only come for two weeks. When we arrived at my Gran’s, my mother discovered that she couldn’t find her traveler’s cheques. Immediately the yelling, screaming and wailing started. My grandmother came into the sitting room.
“God’s sake. What is it, Mairéad?”
“Shut up, mother!” my mother snapped at hers.
We were told to get on our knees and pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, which we did. Shortly thereafter, my father called to say that he had found the traveler’s cheques. The family dog, an intelligent, chocolate-brown poodle named Nöel, had taken them under my parents’ bed and had chewed them up. The crisis was over but not before my mother’s sharp tongue stripped each of us of our humanity. My mother, of course, never apologized for her harsh words or raging temper.
During that holiday, I counted the minutes until my father would join us in Scotland. My mother’s youngest sister took me on my own Christmas shopping for my father in the Glasgow markets called the Barrows so called because vendors sell their wares out of the back of wheelbarrows in the streets. I bought a watch for my dad for a five pound note. I loved the Scottish money. I loved the hexagon-shaped fifty pence piece, the large pennies or two pence pieces, and the wide pound notes. I was so proud of the watch but my mother laughed at the cheapness of it. It stopped working the day after I’d purchased it and my auntie set it on top of my gran’s television to make it run again. I was heart-broken and my mother laughed at my cheap gift that didn’t work.
“Oor Angela paid a fiver fer that watch!” she mocked. “A watch that doesnee werk. They saw her comin’ so they dud!”
My auntie and I bought black crepe paper for the crèche, and I helped her make the radio portal at my Gran’s into the nativity manger. Once the paper was affixed to the walls of the alcove, I was allowed to spray it with canned snow that smelled like sickening sweet Styrofoam. When I went to place the infant Jesus in the manger, my auntie stopped me.
“Och no. You have tae wait until after midnight on Christmas Eve,” she said.
“Can I place Him in there then?” I asked, afraid that honour might be bestowed upon the eldest or the youngest rather than the middle child.
“Och, aye. You can dae it, hen,” she told me.
I made certain I’d have the honour by pocketing the baby Jesus. I didn’t let Jesus out of my sight until it was time to place Him in the manger after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Finally, it was time for my father to arrive. One of my mom’s brothers took Sissy, me and his youngest daughter, my cousin Mary-Cate, to meet my dad at the airport. Mary-Cate was a year older than I. Mary-Cate was a pretty little girl with dark hair and blue eyes who talked non-stop. My mother often said, “Will that lassie ever shut up?” She never did for as long as I knew her. “She’s a bloody yap like her mother,” my mom said. My mother hated Mary-Cate’s mother. On the way to the airport to collect my dad, Uncle John stopped to get petrol. Mary-Cate and I were lying down in the backseat of my uncle’s car and she was blethering away. Being in a car at night still soothed me. I loved the sound of my uncle’s quiet engine as we drove down the highway. I loved the drone of the passing vehicles and the twinkling of street lights that flashed through the windows. Mary-Cate told me to close my eyes and pressed a small toy into my hand.
“Okay. Open them,” she said.
In my palm was a small, apricot-coloured poodle with a green and white check cape. It reminded me of our pet poodle at home. I missed Nöel during that holiday, and I was delighted with the present as I clutched it in my hands in the backseat of my uncle’s car. I continued to hold onto it in the airport lounge while we waited for my father. My dad’s flight was delayed because of a snowstorm over London, England so my uncle pulled steel- rimmed, pleather seats and benches together to give us a place to sleep for the night.
“We’ll camp oot here th’ night,” he said.
There were round swivel seats with small televisions attached to them but we couldn’t get any programs on them even after we put in our fifty pence to make them play. We ran wild through the deserted airport, playing tag and hide-and-seek, until we felt hungry at which time my uncle bought all sorts of junk food from the airport vending machines, and we had a late night picnic consisting of crisps, sandwiches, chocolate bars and coca-cola.
My dad’s plane landed at seven the next morning. When I saw him walk through the arrival gate I broke away from the pack and leapt into my father’s open arms. I clung to his neck as he carried me and walked toward Sissy, my uncle and cousin. Sissy clutched onto our dad’s grey raincoat pocket as we walked to the car. He said he had been put up overnight at a hotel in Heathrow due to inclement weather.
Throughout that two week Christmas holiday, we gathered for sing songs and we received simple presents from some of our relatives. Uncle Laurel’s wife gave me lavender scented notepaper that year. I loved that beautiful box of purple paper and used it all up to write my cousins once we returned to Canada. Sissy got scented notepaper too. Hers was white and green, and apple-scented. I asked for Sissy’s paper once mine was gone, but she refused to give it to me though she never wrote to anyone back home or anywhere else. That box of paper sat unused well into adulthood at which time it lost its scent, became discoloured and was thrown out. We got beaded craft dolls, Sissy and I, and we made them over the holiday in Scotland. Sissy’s was a yellow-gowned Spanish senorita and mine was a red-headed Scottish lass. I finished mine in less than twenty minutes then ran out to play. Sissy took days to complete hers, painstakingly placing every bead with precision. We walked as a family to St. Stephen’s church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and then came home to the sound of pealing bells, the clock having struck one. I placed baby Jesus in the manger as soon as I burst through my gran’s front door.
On Christmas Day we had a special dinner. Before eating, we snapped open Christmas crackers to get yellow, red, green, purple, orange and pink tissue-paper hats, which we wore at the table as knells of laughter competed with my grandmother’s weeping for my granddad.
“Ma mon, ma mon, ma poor deid mon,” she cried.
My mom looked embarrassed at her mother’s show of emotion. “Och, mother,” she said. “For goodness sake!”
My grandmother never gave my grandfather a minute’s peace when he was alive. They were always fighting. He would hide the playing cards on her, under his seat, and she would turn the house upside down looking for them, her vast backside sticking in the air as she searched for the cards.
“Gae me them flamin’ cards ye auld bugger, ye!” she’d shriek at him and eventually he would throw the pack of cards at her from across the room, and then go back to his pipe and paper. After he died she would wail for “her mon, her mon, her poor deid mon.” I didn’t get it.
The same auntie who gave me scented notepaper took us to a pantomime that Christmas. I didn’t enjoy it but they served ice cream and sweets at intermission, which I did enjoy. At a fair on St. Stephen’s Day, we went on rides with another of my uncle’s kids. Those cousins lived in Liverpool and talked like the Beatles. My father’s birthday was December 31stand my gran baked him a birthday Christmas pudding. We wrapped coins in paper and inserted them into the cake before it went into the oven. We had a party for his birthday on Hogmanay with New Year’s horns and whistles. The cousins were allowed to bang pots and pans in the street on Durban Avenue at midnight as we awaited a tall, dark and handsome stranger to First Foot my gran. If one came, we were informed, she would have good luck all year.
My father had to depart for home before us after that holiday. The night he was to fly home, I was asleep with my Creron cousins in my gran’s back bedroom. Six of us slept head to toe in a double-bed, as the adults continued to have a farewell party for my dad in the front room. When my father went up the road to say cheerio to the Cannon sisters, my grandmother locked him out of the house. No one could convince her to let him in as he chapped the door softly so as to not wake the children in the back bedroom, nor could they get the big iron key off of her to open the door to him. When I heard the commotion I crept out of bed and watched the turmoil from the hallway. My mom’s youngest sister had her arms on either side of my granny’s sizable girth as my grandmother held something behind her back. My dad’s face was visible through the frosted glass of the front door, and I realized that my dad was locked out in the cold and that my auntie was trying to get the long, iron key off of my gran who held it behind her back. I started to scream for someone to open the door to him. My gran turned to see me hollering and, embarrassed, quickly handed my auntie the key. My father was admitted and he rushed towards me to calm me sweeping me up in his arms.
“I want to come with you, Dad,” I cried. “Take me home with you!”
My dad shushed me, gently stroking my back. He lifted me back to bed and I, all the while, begged him to take me with him. I hated my grandmother for the way she treated my father. She treated him like that because he never held a grudge against her but always soothed her and forgave her, just as he did that night though I thought he should have telt th’ auld bitch tae gae straight tae hell.
When I returned to school after our trip home to Scotland, I saw Lina in class. She didn’t speak to me all day but at the end of the day she walked over to me carrying a bag.
“This is for you,” she handed me the bag. Inside was a brightly wrapped Christmas present. Her mom probably bought it for her to give to me.
“Thanks,” I said. “I brought you a souvenir from Scotland.” I handed Lina a Scottish doll that I had bought for her in Glasgow. It was encased in a clear plastic cylinder. The doll wore a white bearskin hat, a red and white kilt and white boots.
“Thanks,” she said holding the clear cylinder in her hands and admiring the doll from all directions. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”
She walked away and then she turned to face me again. “Maybe we can eat lunch together tomorrow or something,” she said.
“Okay.” I said smiling. “That would be good.”
With that, the St. Francis Grade five feud finally finished, and all that was left was my sadness for losing a grandfather I had just come to know a year or so before he died. That was my best Christmas ever. Despite everything, I wasn’t lonely that year at Christmas. I was surrounded by kin and I had my father’s love.