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4-H: Heart by William Matheson
Eastern Prince Edward Island, most children are down-to-earth types who
make good farmhands, apprentice fishermen or machinists, or grow into hairdressers
or office people working out of Montague or Charlottetown. While children,
they often get involved in Scouting, Guides, or minor league sport, especially
hockey or ringette. In that sense I don't suppose the children here are
much different from those in any other part of the Maritimes, if you allow
the Cape Bretoners to be friendlier and the Halagonians to work sexual
slang into their vocabulary a few years earlier.
But then there's me, my childhood, and what I am. I might make a good Quick Service Restaurant employee, but Wendy's hasn't called me back yet. I could be a waiter or a math student, but both my former boss and math teacher said something about having to do things with me that they didn't have to do with anybody else. Not to say that this alone could indicate that I was different as a child - better evidence for that would be that my parents didn't try to get me into Cub Scouts because they required that Cubs be able to tie their own shoelaces. On the other hand, my school wanted to put me straight into Grade 3 when I started Grade 1. On the other other hand, I couldn't read analogue clocks very well. So what was needed in my case was an involvement opportunity (which I saw as a way for my mother to leave me with less time to spend with Aunt Shirley and Grandma) that had a path for achievement but also a wallowing place for the unskilled and socially inept.
We thank Thee, Lord, for blessings great
On this our own fair land
Teach us to serve Thee gratefully
With Head, Heart, Health, and Hands
- The 4-H Grace
in 4-H meant undertaking productive endeavours involving the head, heart,
health, and hands, although they were usually willing to accommodate people
like me who had none of those things. My parents had become 4-H instructors
in the blink of an eye: my mother teaching Music and my father teaching
Horse & Pony. I was given the choice of what I wanted to sign up for,
and reluctant to try anything new I took Horse & Pony and Cow &
Calf with my father. I think we were required to take three things, though,
so I also signed up for Small Engine.
For better or for worse, though, this is not going to be a story about my experiences in Small Engine. In fact, I never made it to a single class. When the nights came to go to the McLennan's for Small Engine, there'd be no drive to Strathcona. Maybe I realized that Small Engine was probably not for me as I drove up and down our driveway on my bicycle again and again; since I was not permitted to drive on the road, my imagination was forced to divide the pavement into lanes and sectors. I even had tasks to accomplish, aided by my helmet and show sticki / lightsaber and the tall deciduous trees that lined the west fence. In reality I was probably fairly ineffective as a genius superhero, but if there was a rescue involving riding a bike up and down a driveway, Bike Brain could handle it.
This retreat into my imagination was precipitated by a sudden 1-2 punch exposure to Star Wars and Calvin and Hobbes. The former showed me the power of storytelling, and the escapist fantasy showed me that there could be a world outside of people wondering aloud if I was a boy or a girl. I was fascinated by every detail in those classic movies – I would watch them over and over and over again until I could recite every line from beginning to end of the trilogy. (This wasn't a goal in and of itself, but my strong rote memory proved useful when the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit game came out years later.) Before long I was attaching a ruler to a pen with a little clear tape and pretending I had my own little ship, and I'd spend hours upon hours flying it. This really annoyed my Grade 5 teacherii; I imagine he was probably jealous seeing that he was not nearly as interesting as the Great Beyond. In gym class, I'd try to emulate Han Solo's 'roll' move from Super Star Wars on my Super NES. It wasn't my favourite move, but turning like a log on a mat was about all the physical explosiveness I could manage.
As for Calvin and Hobbes, the artwork and narrative had me finding Calvin's imaginary exploits involving time travel and transmogrification so appealing that I subconsciously decided to become Calvin myself so that I could experience those things. After all, Bill Watterson never drew Hobbes - nor Calvin's time travelling, transmogrifying or duplicating - as anything but real, and Calvin always spoke his mind about everything, just like I always did. Sensing a kindred spirit, I began to adopt his attitudes towards school and society. This was an even less positive step than being an eleven-year old sitting in a cardboard box might seem. My Grade 6 teacher did not find my Calvin-ish non-answers like my spaceship rescue alternate Old Yeller ending amusing, especially the part where I wrote, concerning the rest of the ending, “send check or money order to…” My guidance counsellor did not find my playing “Airplane” by myself (just like Calvin) in the schoolyard appropriate, though I wondered why anyone bothered to notice me running around with my arms outstretched and calling out flight numbers and landing instructions. What did they expect me to do with my time besides doing what felt right? I still have a powerful imagination, but lately it's been more original and it's usually constructive rather than escapist. I've got my own fantasy world now, with novels to write and trysts to live out; and there's a possibility that I could join many other people in making a living off applied imagination now that public school and the work-a-day world are becoming increasingly awful to our increasingly jaded or afflicted citizens.
When I say I had to do what felt right, I exclude what should have felt most right. Her name was Jena, and she put the ears on my Jar-Jar. At school I wanted to play with her and the other girls in the line of trees along the fence facing the church like we could get away with in Grade 3, but by now they had stopped playing and even though the taboo about associating with girls was starting to vanish, I still acted like I didn't like girls until Grade 11 because I thought that that was the right thing to do. I hope I never said I hated Jena, though I'll credit her with more than enough intelligence to have realized that I would have meant the opposite. Anyway, Jena was also involved in 4-H and I mean that in a more proactive sort of way – she accomplished many more things.
I remember watching Jena perform her public speaking exercise before some eager parents in the elementary school auditorium. (Incidentally, I had a speech that night involving that project animal – I had a lot of things to say about him, but I'll let bygones be bygones this time, seeing that he probably ended up constituting my hamburger.) Seeing someone you really like do something well is an experience that I can't possibly describe, and not just because of my limits as a writer. I watched enraptured from the bottom of the stairwell in the nearby corridor (I couldn't be seen watching Jena's speech; it would make it look like I liked her!).
She told us about her trip to Florida, which would have captivated us even if the speech were bland, because everyone in PEI loves Florida, though not many could afford to go. (My March Breaks were to sunny Boston or tropical Kitchener, but that's beside the point. Our trips were about family, and though I think family comes first in importance and in fun, it's still too bad none of them lived in Miami or Melbourne or something.) Every PEI kid dreams about Charlottetown, then Halifax, then Florida. Unfortunately, a few months off the Island will make those places seem not such a screaming deal anymore. And Jena would have been a tough act to follow – she probably took a fairly expensive trip, and at some point there was a Water Event which got her wet. You'll have to forgive me on the lack of detail, for I wasn't even supposed to be watching this speech in the first place, and I can't remember much besides the sound of her voice. We amble through our lives with only so much RAM, and we have to dump what's not important.
I do remember that she had humour and wit to match and exceed that of my own speech, and what she used was more elegantly applied. And she was blonde; I've only personally met two people as absurdly good-looking since she, even though the entire unrelationship did not centre around her looks so much as it did her smile. Next time she goes to Florida, she'll wear a hat – well! that certainly put people's hands together.
Horse & Pony at my farm was made all the more exciting by the presence of Jena and her friends. Most of my other experiences with non-relative non-friend peers on our farm were more on the negative side, such as the time I played tag with another such group. If you knew my physique at the time, you would realize that the game would soon become simply me chasing other people around. However, that wasn't the reason the game ended rather quickly; in this case, the people I was chasing ran into the northeast field, then clockwise around the back side of the old barn. I noticed that they had taken the corners of the east side of the barn quite widely, so to save time and maybe even catch up, I decided to run up the east side close to the wall. Unfortunately, it escaped my mind that there was probably a reason that they avoided the wall, and it also escaped my mind that the reason was that the area in front of the wall was a manure-filled boglet where we dumped all the manure from the old barn. By the time I was up to my chest in the stuff, I realized my mistake, and I was eventually rescued by my father and sent straight to the bathtub.
Horse & Pony was much more congenial, though Jena and I didn't talk much. The most social time at our farm was the annual Bull Sale. We had a liquor licence. We served hamburgers made from our own stock. We had live music. People from all over the area - people who didn't even own cattle - would come from all over the area just to socialize. It was probably the Albion Cross event of the year, which might sound impressive until you realize that Albion Cross consists only of twelve houses and a lot of fields. At any rate, we always had fun, especially in the earlier years when I didn't feel the least bit self-conscious about standing in our driveway with a double-sided STOP / Maximum 40 sign like you see in construction zones and stopping cars so as to tell their drivers where to park. One thing I miss about being a semi-autistic child is the way everyone saw everything I did as cute.
For instance, you'd be surprised to hear the silly things you can do in a country protestant church. At Nanny's church in Sherbrooke, I would always comment on being the only child walking to the front for Children's Time, and people would laugh. My favourite church anecdote, though, happened in Dundas, when the minister was preaching a Children's Time on the importance of our parents.
“Who dresses you?”
“Who taught you how to read?”
“Myself,” I answered. Close to the truth, though my small-n nanny Eva helped by reading to me quite a bit.
“Okay, but who gives you a bed to sleep on?”
I said, in my most enthusiastic tone, “I don't have a bed! I have to sleep in a sleeping bag!” The truth; we had Servasiii guests at the time.
The minister looked up and asked, “Is Brenda still here?” Laughter.
I don't miss the later days, especially of school, where I was looked upon as just another juvenile delinquent - when the facts and comments that used to earn smiles started making me into a target. (On the positive side, I'm sure that lots of people with nothing else in common were able to bond over the subject of me.) Everyone was either shouting at me over some inadequacy (even Nanny and Grampy would torment me endlessly about the way I ate), or my mother was forcing us all to Gaelic lessons (the results being that my father and I know exactly one word of Gaeliciv) – all the while telling me that I spent too much time with Aunt Shirley and Grandma. “William sometimes forgets where home is,” my mother would say to others, without a hint of humour.
Before Gaelic lessons I was forced to be part of a swim team in Montague. The only thing that could have been worse about it would be if it were in Halifax – there I would have been lucky to escape it alive. At least in Montague, people held their tongues about my physical limitations and excesses most of the time. I was made fun of to some extent, but for me the worst part was having to be criticized about laps, breathing, times (how I hated that dive clock!) – all these things that I had no real interest in, while being presented with a pool that I wasn't allowed to play in anymore. (Swimming lessons I didn't mind nearly so much; I made it to Maroon and would have progressed further had it not been for my fear of diving head-first.)
As a sign that the coach was making things more serious than the parents had been led to believe, swim team suddenly switched from the darkness of a weekday night to very early Saturday morning. Someone asked, “What about cartoons?” and we got something along the lines of, “The only cartoons you'll be watching are…” Cartoons, swimming just for fun… I think that's where a lot of our heads were at. I don't think any of us knew what we were getting into; most of my peers were probably just on the swim team because they weren't playing hockey. I noticed once that swim team for my age group was only supposed to last half the time that everyone else stayed, but apparently the only people who enjoyed half time were the coach's young (but only slightly younger than me) children. I wonder why I didn't say anything. Maybe I just feared my mother's reaction.
Oh, could she react. One time during communicant's class we had to leave the manse for a bit to come up to the church, possibly for rehearsal purposes. My mother, directing the choir, wanted me to stay in the church and wait for her. Fine, but I didn't want to – as far as I was concerned, the class wasn't officially over. I went back to the manse with everyone else, and the five minutes of freedom was paid for with fifteen minutes of being yelled at. She'd be on about the stupidest things. One time in Grade 2 I got a 75% on a test, (a fluke, really, most of the time I did better) and suddenly I was grounded. 75% happened to be the pass / fail point; it's kind of amusing to look back on that and think that, in a way, you could say that university has a lower standard of achievement than Grade 2, since here the pass mark is merely 50% when you'd think it'd be 99.5% by now. Anyway, my crafty relatives were able to circumvent my mother and get me to the family gathering the next evening – they sent a message to the school, and a classmate met me in the hall and told me to go to Grand Uncle Neil's (next door to the school) after school. My mother eventually caught up with me in my pyjamas at Grandma's, and the jig was up. “You were grounded.” Fine, your point? I didn't say anything like that, of course, because I didn't know any better than to have a neutral attitude back then. I used to want to go back in time and really tell her off at every incident like this, but I suppose then I wouldn't be a kid, and she'd probably be able to physically overpower me. B***h.
One day, a day we visited countless greenhouses at countless Greenhouses – towards the end of that day I said, “Look at all the greenhouses!” and got a severe reprimand. Apparently she thought I was talking about all the other Greenhouses we had been to earlier. Another time we were visiting an older couple in Pooles Corner and I thought to myself, okay, this time I'm going to say the right things – this time I'm not going to get yelled at all the way home. The woman gave me some cookies. I positively gushed with thanks. After that I probably went overboard, but if I did, I didn't realize it. I started to comment on everything, though unfortunately without differentiation. I was probably talking about their curtains, for chrissake. The disaster came when I ended up in a debate with my mother concerning their dusty, out-of-tune piano – I said that their piano was almost as good as Nanny's in Sherbrooke. Of course my mother could not leave well enough alone, maintaining (at least outwardly) that it was just as good, and this bone of contention continued for minutes on end.
Meanwhile, the older couple and Dad were oblivious and had a good impression of me anyway. My mother started tearing into me as soon as we hit Route 4, and then Dad said, “Gee, I thought he was pretty good.” But that didn't matter; with my mother it was always the principle of the thing – always principle rather than result, always belief rather than thought. Then again, we were both extremists in our own ways: I didn't realize that I was doing anything wrong, and she didn't realize that she'd have to let me develop my social skills on my own like every other kid. I'll admit that it's been a lifelong process, and I don't think I'm proud of that. Stretching the subject to dating (well, sooner or later, everything heads in that direction), I often look back on what my peers did in high school – how they went to dances, went on dates, went on camping trips – not that I want to go camping (and probably not swimming, after what I've told you – not even to be a part of the tragic drowning story told in Drama 11, to say that I had both a friend and the right to cry, for until now I've had neither), but seeing all these layers and interactions that they had, that I was oblivious to, is a matter of some regret.
Back in the swim team era, and before and beyond, I was blind to all that – reality and I had long since parted ways. Of course I had a special walking submarine mech imagination program for the pool, but beyond that I was just going through the motions and doing only what I had to. I maintain that while my state was my responsibility, I refuse to say it was my fault. This might seem a trivial distinction, but “fault” is such a negative word – it leads to blame and shame, and if everyone else is judged by their deviations from doing what feels right, why should I be judged for my deviations from ignoring what feels right? No one on Prince Edward Island knew anything about Asperger's Syndrome, but that's beside the point. All I really needed was room to breathe and something to aim for. I don't need medication, and I definitely don't need people around me who think they know better. Well, as much as I deride my mother, I probably did inherit her stubbornness.
One thing I might aim for were I forced into the swim team today would be to get my lap times down to where they would be comparable with my peers. It wasn't that I hated finishing last, but I hated being the symbol of it. One afternoon we hosted a bunch of ingrates from Truro (“Where's the pool? This ain't no pool!”), and we held a relay. So there I was, last in the relay, just turning around to come back as my opponent climbs out of his lane at the starting end. The entire way back I had to endure endless cheers and shouts on my behalf, then a rotten basketload of applause after I climbed out of the pool. Were they trying to make me feel happy, appreciated, or even proud? If so, I didn't feel those ways about it at all. I felt like some Special Olympian (and there were no doubt some who felt I belonged there) being congratulated for trying, which would be okay were I surrounded by Special Olympians who care as much about compassion as they do competition, but there I just felt like a hopeless freak.
Just as I was getting used to the idea of being involved with the swim team, my mother yanked me out of it. At first I was overjoyed. I thought, “Great! Now I have this time to myself again!” My mother, as if she read me, said, “You're going into Gaelic lessons – next week! You're not going to just do nothing! If you think that you're going to be spending weekends with Aunt Shirley and Grandma, then you've got another think coming!” And that's why I told you this story.
Defiantly, I clung to Aunt Shirley and Grandma even more in the darkest times because then it seemed like they were the only people who liked me, and they were the only people willing to let me be. Admittedly, it was good to have had my bad traits pointed out to me repeatedly so that I could remember them years later when I decided that I needed to develop as a person, but at that time I didn't need such negativity from my family – I got enough from my peers. Anyway, I eventually went to the Gaelic Festival at the Gaelic College at St. Ann's and won a bronze medal for my soprano rendition of “Bata Shamus.” God, I had to sing that song a hundred times. Clan Matheson reunion? Let's get William to sing “Bata Shamus!” All I know is that it's about a poor guy whose boat sinks. It's a hauntingly simple, elegant tune. The song could be about desperate childhood crushes.
I was socially permitted to talk to Jena in the early years of the Bull Sale, in the era of innocence. Somehow Jena, her friend Amy, and I ended up sitting on hay up near the rafters of the new barn, and they listened to me talk about how the whole farm worked. I remember their faces and eyes – smiling and glued to me, respectively. Amy said, "You know, this is really interesting!" and there was no doubt that she meant it, and I've only had a few experiences like that since then. Something special was happening there, although today I feel a little guilty for talking at them as opposed to trying to have a conversation with them, but back then I didn't know any better, and things were beautiful anyway. Unfortunately, my foster brother Carl soon came in and said that we had to leave, citing something about us scaring the cows. Looking back, I'm sure it was pure BS; he probably just wanted to smoke a cigarette, and he didn't want my mother to hear of it. Considering that his actions were in defiance of my mother, I happily forgive him.
There were other beautiful moments, anyway. One winter recess in second grade, I was playing in the snow next to someone who was throwing snowballs. My evil future third grade teacher came up (This is the one who reportedly, although I don't remember (and I don't remember a lot of grade three), smacked my head against my desk a few times when she found me uncooperative. This is also the one who phoned my parents when I numbered the words on my spelling test in roman numerals. I think she should have been impressed that I made it up to XL.) and screamed at us for throwing snowballs. Innocent, I began to cry right there, but she didn't buy it and the two of us got detention. Back in class after detention, people confirmed my innocence. I remember Amy in particular sticking up for me. I was vindicated by my peers; Ms. Christiansen be damned!
Another vindication occurred on the end-of-year field trip, when we went to this lame, run-down petting zoo twenty minutes south of Montague. The biggest attraction there was probably the pet / gift / junk food shop. I was standing near the pet bird cages when I noticed some kids from another school teasing the birds. I pointed to a sign and said, “Can't you read the sign? It says 'Do Not Tease The Birds!'” The kids ignored me. I repeated myself. The birds became agitated. Before I knew it, the proprietor tossed the three of us out. I told the woman that I was telling the other two not to tease the birds, but she didn't believe me. I was told not to come back inside under any circumstances. I sat down on the grass next to the door and cried. Suddenly I was surrounded by virtually all the girls in my class, all offering me candy, all overflowing with compassion. You have to be a kid for a moment like this to happen, and you have to be a kid to appreciate it the most. Today we adults understand that the world is not run on kindness alone, and we'd be ashamed to cry about such a petty thing. The magic of being a kid, though, is how one can take something fairly minor and throw so much emotion, throw everything, into the moment. Some parents worry about tantrums, perhaps to the extent that they fail to see the more positive sides of this youthful tendency, such as when five girls painted my psyche with rainbows just after I nearly drowned in a rain of despair. So much mileage out of such a small thing – I think it is the most elegant thing in the world.
On the other hand, that woman kicked me out on false pretences, and then made a bundle on candy. But considering the attention I got, I'll forgive the proprietress like I forgave Carl. She soon lost the business anyway.
Also in that golden era, there were birthday parties, epic birthday parties. I remember all the girls' that I was invited to – Amy had a party, Lindsey had a party, and Jena, yes, Jena had a party magnificent above all others, but not just because Jena was there. Jena's party was different, most of it was outside. We played games for ribbons; I didn't win any, but Jena's parents gave me one anyway. Jena's other relatives weren't quite so nice; a few very nearly succeeded in getting me to sit on an anthill. They were too excited to wait until I was fully seated to announce, “You're sitting on red ants!” The remainder was more congenial.
In third grade, Ms. Christiansen kept track of people's birthdays on the blackboard. When I saw that Jena and Lindsey were coming up, somewhat close together, I said, “Wow, there'll be so many parties for me to go to!”
They smiled, but maybe I shouldn't have said that.
Like the conversation, like the parties, the good times of childhood eventually came to a crashing halt. If I thought swim team was bad, that was nothing now: during later Bull Sales, the girls simply formed a posse – I tried to approach them, once, but I was fended off, probably by Amy who had long since joined the camp of people who thought I was too weird to associate with. If Jena was a holdout (my evidence being that she still smiled at every funny thing I said in class – stealing a glance to her was my favourite thing to do – though, on the other hand, the birthday invitations stopped coming), she was in secret. I went back to the darkness of the trees bordering the west field and listened to my friend Thomas explain why girls were worthless and troublesome: among other things, he was frustrated that boys were expected to pay for everything. I might have feigned agreement, but inside I just wanted Jena to smile at me; no, I wanted to talk to Jena, and I would only have two more conversations with her – maybe if I knew that then I would have tried harder, or maybe I would have just cried in despair. And this time there would be no rainbows.
The farm itself was also starting to disintegrate; my parents were divorcing, although, the divorce itself didn't affect my emotions at all – it was the secondary effects such as the end of the cattle operation that dug into my heart. As I watched the cows get trucked away, the only thing I that registered in my mind was that Jena wouldn't be coming over to our farm anymore. The auction was not social; it was cold and devoid of hope or promise.
I don't think I ever thought, “Oh, woe is me; my parents are getting a divorce.” However, their tension rained down upon me and made things miserable at times anyway. To speak of one such tension event, there was the time I was abducted from Nanny and Grampy's house in Sherbrooke. I woke up one sunny summer morning to see my father hastily packing my things into my bags. At first I was like, “Oh, there's Dad,” but that quickly turned to “Dad? What are you doing?” Before I knew it I was stuffed into his tiny Nissan pick-up, still wearing my pyjamas. He stopped along the Saint Mary's River to let me change, though he wouldn't let me leave the truck. I was crying by then. Dad said something about it being due time for me to come back home. We stopped for breakfast at a Smitty's pancake house in New Glasgow. He told me he had taken the 5:30am boat from Wood Islands. He asked if the breakfast made up for the traumatic departure. I don't remember what I told him, and I don't think I knew if it was or not. I saw it as apples and oranges.
Nanny and Grampy are still a little shocked about the incident to this day. My father said not one word to them through the entire procedure. As my father stuffed me into the truck, I heard Nanny say, “But he likes it here!” True. But maybe she was missing the point, or afraid to state it: I ought to have had at least some partial consent into this departure, but my father had it planted in his mind that he was going to come and do this, and by golly, he did it. I didn't mind too much by the time I got settled into PEI again, but I don't think my father had any business frightening older people like that.
People get married. People get divorced. It seemed like no big deal to me, though maybe it did bother me a little. I had the right to choose which parent to stay with for the duration of the upcoming school year. For Grade 6, I stayed with my father on what had been the farm. It turned out to be a pretty peaceful year. I had a pretty good teacher, and my father made good fried-egg-and-ketchup sandwiches. We'd have disagreements, but we tolerated each other's presence rather well. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to last.
I moved to Halifax for Grade 7, lured by the promise of the City. I was anxious to meet all the sophisticated city kids, but it turned out that the only thing they were sophisticated in was sexual harassment. Things that escaped the notice of the people in my country elementary school were given full attention in the suburban junior high – "Chatterbox!" became "Get a bra, man!" or "You've got bigger boobs than my sister." Tag became a sick game of Keep Away played with belongings grabbed from me while I was at my locker. People asked me if I "beat my meat," and all I could say is that we usually used steak knives.
I somehow survived Grade 7 and went back to Prince Edward Island for the summer. Everything was changing on me. My future stepmother came into my life and suddenly I wasn't able to see Thomas and his brother David anymore and I couldn't stay out with my relatives, the only other people I was able to have fun with, past 9 pm. I was grounded for a week as soon as I came over one summer because I didn't give my father enough notice of my ferry's arrival time (Uncle Shane lent me some books to ease the pain of it). Another time he grounded me in front of his older sister Shirley, who had accompanied me into the house at my request after dropping me off past curfew – I had begged her to take me home before the fun times at Greenwich (when you could still walk up and down the dunes) were over, but she wouldn't listen. It used to be that I could just be myself and things would work out – I wouldn't have to deal with so many conflicting messages. I wasn't mentally equipped enough to decide the difference between pretending not to like girls and really not liking girls, and even though the need for the difference disappeared by the time I started Grade 7, I didn't know anything else but to hang onto it until Grade 11, so that in the end, not only did I miss out on Jena, but I missed out on three more great people, plus another Jena. Today I realize that feelings are fickle and fragile things - difficult to sustain, but easy to find ground provided that one has his or her life together and doesn't walk abound feeling undesirable due to history. I'm just learning this now, but it's easy to make up for lost time; I've been on so many dates this year that I can barely remember them all. All the women I have ever mentioned were very special at their time, but it's a tragedy of life that they are replaceable. It is a necessity; imagine how unhappy we would all be if there was only “One” possible person out there for us. We'd screw it up 99% of the time – you've seen me do it repeatedly – and life would be just one long pining groan. Maybe such a utopia wouldn't contain conflicting messages, though. If that were the case, I might subscribe to those ideas anyway, just because they're cute. If wishes were horses…
When my father and stepmother were to be married, I wasn't worried about missing anything. I wasn't worried about missing the photo shoot, and I took my father's orders not to go as a plain, though important, request. The photo shoot didn't really interest me that much, so I decided to obey him. What I didn't count on was getting a conflicting message from Aunt Shirley, Uncle Shane, and Grandma immediately after the wedding. They wanted me to come to the photo shoot with them. I told them that I would head straight to the reception as per instructions. They wouldn't listen, and not wanting to displease the people who loved me, I got into the car and went to Fortune Beach with them.
I don't think I've done a more stupid thing in my life.
My arrival was hardly auspicious. My father and stepmother came running up; they were angry. As my stepmother put it, “You're ruining my wedding!” My father told me to get into the back of the truck so I could be dealt with later. Then after that there was probably a lot of talking and whatnot going on between the “adults,” though I was oblivious because I was just a stupid child crying in the back seat of my father's truck. Soon I was taken out and put on my feet, my new stepgrandfather told me something about people being immature sometimes, and Uncle Shane took the pictures.
The way back to the reception was brutal. I was forced to ride with my father and stepmother. They hadn't calmed down; in fact, they were even angrier than before. They yelled and screamed about the horrible thing I had done, and my father asked me why I couldn't follow simple directions. I probably ventured to make a smart-ish remark about it being okay since Grandma and Aunt Shirley said it was, and then my father downshifted the truck and prepared to pull over. My stepmother's hand touched his hand that was upon the gearshift. “George,” she said softly. I shuddered, but I was glad to know that I wasn't going to suffer any physical consequences that day.
I didn't even consider doing Grade 8 in Dundas. Maybe that was their goal. I wasn't prepared to face a school year of being careful not to mention Nova Scotia, of dreading and inevitably suffering the consequences of careless but innocent words. It was bad enough having to worry about all this on vacation.
I suppose everyone has their childhood traumatically torn away from them; it's a common part of growing up. What I'd like to ask any right-wing types out there who think that it's 'natural' is, does that make it any better? Anyway, to answer a question often put to me: no, the divorce itself, the simple separation of my parents, did not bother me in the least. However, I really could have done without all the associated fallout.
The social landscape, or whatever little speck of dust of it I stood on, was changing along with the family's. The last time I saw Jena, she was watching some pigs in the 4-H display at the Dundas Plowing Match during the summer before Grade 8. She asked me what I'd been up to concerning school. Soon there was silence. Noting the pigs, I said that I had to go, to see if they had ham sandwiches at the canteen. She smiled and said, "Oh, William." My sense of humour has perhaps grown up since, but it almost doesn't matter how much I've developed because I never saw her again. Every time I go to the Plowing Match in these times of a new stability where I've learned how to be happy again (too late for the benefit of anyone but my relatives, but they say they enjoy it), I look for her and other people from the old, dark era, but deep inside I know they've all grown up and moved on. As far as my family goes, I must say that things are better than they ever were even when I was little, but I sometimes long for a connection between myself and my PEI peers that is never going to exist.
My Grand Uncle Neil's farm surrounds the elementary school; when I'm there, I often revisit the school with my much younger cousins who still like to play, or I go over and sit on the swings with my slightly younger cousins who now like to converse as well. The playground is greener and the equipment brighter than it used to be, and I think that's appropriate considering that I feel like my old life has been more overwritten than extrapolated from the past – the old orange paint doesn't contribute to the new green paint, and I didn't become who I am today just by refining my elementary school personality. There simply wasn't anything to work with. The trees, though, aren't overwritten: they grow organically. They're too thick and too close to the fence to play in now, just as my peers have been beyond playing for years – the only sadness is that for me there was nothing between “playing” and “college.” Jena won't get up from her seated classmates and run around to where I'm standing just to whisper "Stay," like she did on the day our class was sitting outside in the sun and I told everyone I was going to Halifax. The place is empty, devoid; the only sound of activity is the school's vociferous ventilation system.
4-H, Gaelic class, piano lessons, voice lessons, and swimming lessons are all behind me. My Dad and stepmother now have two adorable girls, and they've since learned to be reasonable, pleasant people. The girls are still growing up. I still don't have a Head, though I can get passing marks in two of the other three, and about Heart, all I can say is that I hope I finally have the right one again – one that someone can pick up off a shelf, and about it say, “This is what I want!” I like not having to count on Jena to do it, and I enjoy taking responsibility for my place in life – I think people just need to grant it that life has a bit of a learning curve.
[i] - This
is what you use in cattle exhibitions to guide your project animal around
a show ring; mine was long, sleek and light and wrapped in black electrical
tape. The show stick was never used for its original purpose; my project
kicked me in the thigh the night before the exhibition in Charlottetown,
so my father did all the guiding.
[ii] - I wasn’t ever sure what he wanted from me. He seemed to keep insisting that life wasn’t just fun and games. One day he took me to the rink in Georgetown in his car, and I programmed the memory buttons on his radio, and then he told my parents that he wondered why I wouldn’t simply talk to him. Well, his memory buttons weren’t set, that’s why!
[iii] - Servas is an international, non-governmental organization based on understanding, tolerance and world peace. It is a network of hosts and travellers. Both of my parents continue to be hosts. See: www.servas.org
[iv] - We know how to say ‘heel’ to our dogs, as in, “Heek, Shamus!”
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