Non-Fiction & Memoir

The Day Things Were Askew

I can’t remember if I had lofty dreams of greatness when I was a kid. I don’t recall lying in the grass, picturing myself as a famous explorer, a tamer of wild animals, or Prime Minister of Canada. I think I was pretty normal. None of my friends told me that they had dreams of greatness at the age of 10. We were too busy with Brownies and playing with Barbies.

My childhood was normal by today’s standards.  No abuse. No neglect. Fair and even parenting. It was as close to white-bread Canada as damn was to swearing. Truth: there was a Wonder Bread factory on the next block from our house in London, Ontario. Aside: I swear that factory is the reason I am addicted to bread and anything with white flour in it; imagine waking up every morning to the smell of baking bread.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about our family. My parents worked hard at everything they did. The only bad habit between the two of them was cigarettes. The neighbours liked us. According to my ten-year old self, life was simple and fun.

I have one memory, around the age of eight, of things being slightly askew. A bit off kilter, so to speak. In my mind, my mother was June Cleaver. Always dressed in chic clothing, hair coiffed, baking us treats, getting our meals on the table, making sure we were good soldiers and went to bed on time. She sewed all of our clothes. Knit our winter hats and sweaters. Fed us hot breakfasts and hearty lunches. Hung our clean laundry on the line in the backyard and tended to her rose bushes while the sheets dried in the hot summer sun.

Looking back now, I know she overdid it. There was no sense of perfection in what she did, no indication of obsessive-type behaviour. She was just plain and simple a hard-worker, who grew up on a farm where the work never ended. When she wasn’t doing all the household chores, she was working full-time at a job, or going to school at night to get her high school diploma. The rare time she was sitting in front of the TV (with the ubiquitous cigarette) she would be knitting or crocheting. Her true down time was in bed, propped up with many pillows, and a good book. She was a voracious reader.

One thing I can’t leave out of the telling: she did all of this, raising four children, while my father was away on military business on average two hundred days a year. Which explains what caused the memory of that day when things went askew at our house on Maitland Street in London, Ontario.

Mom was sitting on the sofa when I came running in the door from school, my older sister behind me. My memory has me skidding to a stop like Wiley Coyote at the sight of mom actually sitting down, on the sofa, in the middle of the afternoon. She had a hammer in her hand.

(Did I mention that I had two younger siblings, who at this time would have been two and four years old?)

“Where are the kids?” I remember asking her.

“In the back bedroom,” she told us.

The back bedroom door was nailed shut with an electrical extension cord wrapped around the doorknob and tied to the door next to it. She had been determined that those kids weren’t coming out of the room. When my sister and I got the door open, the kids were fine, playing with some toys. Mom on the other hand, was not okay. Back then it was called a nervous breakdown. Nowadays, I don’t know what we call it. She was overloaded and two high spirited, independent toddlers had sent her over the edge. There wasn’t much talk of self-care back in those days, not like now when I hear young children expressing a desire for quiet time, and pre-teens wanting a ‘me day’.

I pushed a kitchen chair up against the wall, climbed up on it, and dialed my father’s office and told him he needed to come home. I knew something was slightly off-kilter in our normal home.

We never talked about the day mom hammered the door shut and locked the kids inside. Like most normal families, we didn’t talk about things that, at the time, were shameful and swept under the rug.