(That’s me in my Sudbury life, second from the left with the blue bow in my hair.)
Mary Karr writes in her recent book, The Art of Memoir, that “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.” She also says that in the act of doing so, the task “wrenches at your insides.”
In writing my own memoir through this last year, that’s been me, knocking myself out with my fist and poking at my insides.
Today, I’d like to invite you to come inside this world.
Once upon a time, but not so long ago, my life was lurching to places I didn’t want to be. Unwittingly, I was repeating patterns I didn’t understand, let alone know how to change, that kept me in an endless loop with no arrival destination.
A quiet life by the Atlantic put a gentle pin in this unconscious living.
My coming-of-age story began at 52, though I hardly recognized it then for what it was. All I knew was that I’d been thrust back into past recollections of all that was haunting me. The stories were pretty and ugly and beautiful and sad and funny and terrible and painful, and sometimes, all at the same time.
Getting to my truth was to revisit each memory, and then consciously wrap the ghost it had left behind in meaning and perspective, one at a time.
It’s been gut-wrenching.
When I tell you my stories, know that I do not tell them with anger or sadness or a wretched desire to somehow change what was or to point a finger this way or that. I tell my stories to show how one woman was built, how she took herself apart, and how when she put herself back together again, equanimity and acceptance helped her lay each one of her ghosts to rest.
We all bump along together, either by birth or happenstance, and every one of us has our own backstory—our own hauntings. While I only know my own, I recognize that behind all bad behaviour, likely, lurks a ghost.
The excerpts I share are pieces of a much bigger story. There are no true villains, though in reading my shards, you may not always see it that way. Understanding, forgiveness and love follow all the ghost stories I will share. Where I cannot ask for or expect to receive these, I can at least try to give them. And though you will not see how or when I got to such a place in this particular excerpt, know that I did, and all of the story will be in my book.
Some nights, the voices in my head will not let me slip away. They hold me in a loop I call insomnia.
Pills don’t help, and drinks make it worse, except scotch. But I’ll have none of that now.
I watch the clock’s luminescent hands crawl in their interminable circle, praying for sleep during intervals between time checks.
But really, even if my thoughts could rest, there is a rain apocalypse outside and thunderclaps that make my windowpanes shiver.
“Count to find out how far away the storm is, ” my big brother Deighton had told me in a far-away place in a far-away time. “Each number is a mile. When the count between thunder and lightening starts to get longer, it means the storm is moving away.”
I count slowly—one thousand, two thousand, three, four, five, six thousand.
A strobe light sequence of flashes turns my darkened room into a disco den, chasing the mucky-muck of dark from my room.
First time I counted four, then five and now six.
“Good riddance,” I say to the storm and roll over in my bed.
But I see the clock, and it’s 3am, the witching hour. And tonight I decide to let in a ghost.
I live with my three brothers and one sister in the northern town of Sudbury.
Sudbury is my first love. I fell hard for its white-barked birch trees, fresh-water lakes, barren rock and the yearly turn of snow to no-snow. Between the Sudbury winter and summer is always the briefest smidge of spring , but it’s hardly worth mentioning.
Summer Sudbury is sweat and insects, mosquitos and black flies. It is blue skies mottled by the yellow fog, thick and heavy, that chugs out of the smoke stacks of the city’s economic engine, nickel mining. On hot, sulfur-soaked days when we can taste metal on our tongues, my mother sometimes herds us into the house, convinced that the smoke is a killer, the air dangerous, and that each breath taken of it will soon suffocate her children with its poison.
But I don’t care. I am in love with every bit of my north.
The ground is made not of earth but of rock. Sheets of rough, black granite dominate the landscape, slashed with cracks that invite refuge for the small and weak in the most adverse conditions. Grubbing from thin-seamed, dirt-lined crevices are blueberry bushes, their precious berries hidden beneath scrubby leaves. Blueberries teach me that the law of survival governs in spite of, rather than because of, no matter where you grow.
In the outskirts of town is a little village called Val Caron. And nestled just off a two-lane highway in that village is a settlement of about a fifty-odd houses, called Carol Richard Park. There’s nothing across from or around the subdivision, save lakes and bushes and miles of unending terrain.
And this is where I get to live.
Shoeless feet are made hard and leathery in summer days, by the will and endurance necessary to run quickly enough to escape mean boys and random dogs that come out of nowhere to nip at heels.
Rubber-booted feet investigate ponds and barely there marshes teeming with tadpoles. I bring the slithery creatures home with me by the dozens to be dumped from glass jar-prison into a water-filled wheelbarrow. Frog limbs will magically emerge from the nubs on the sides of their fish-like bodies, if they survive the wheelbarrow long enough for the process to finish that is.
Down the street is a corner store where my mother sends me for her cigarettes – Dumarier Menthol King Size. She lets me spend the change on Archie comic books, penny candies and black balls. Sometimes, I lock myself up in the bathroom with a tray of her spent, red lip-stick butts. I pose and preen in front of the mirror, flinging my long brown hair over my shoulders, expertly scissoring an uncrumpled butt between my index and forefinger.
And when I watch my reflection, it is with the knowing that one day, when I am old enough to buy my own cigarettes, I will be probably be grown up and far away from my Sudbury.
One summer night, I am awake in bed. Music, floating under the door and into the room, had woken me. “Here, There and Everywhere” is playing on the hi-fi, and I hum along. When it ends, I don’t mind because “Colour Your World” is next, and I love that song the best.
“So you can colour your world with sunshine yellow each day.” My mother joins in singing, so loud that she almost drowns out Petula Clark. “Sunshine yellow, orange blossoms, smiling faces everywhere.”
I lay in the night, listening, and I look over at my sister in her bed. She is sleeping, a big sausage lump under her sheets.
I throw off my covers for I cannot stand not seeing what is going on out there.
I’d watched my mother get ready for the party earlier, after she’d returned from the hairdresser, long, red-gold curls spun atop her head like candy floss.
She let me lay on her bed while she put on her face, a routine I knew by heart: cold cream first and lipstick blot at the end. Sandwiched between, she applied eyeshadow, mascara, blush, powder and perfume. My favourite part was when she twisted the bottom of the shiny gold lipstick tube, and the red bullet zoomed up. I watched her lean close to the mirror, tracing dips and valleys, making her mouth so very red.
She tried out a smile for the mirror, and then stretched her arm across the white vanity to the night table and fished around for the tissue box, for the blot, of course. But the box was empty.
“Go to the bathroom and bring me a tissue,” she ordered.
I jumped to the bottom of the bed and rolled to the floor, twisting onto my belly. Slithering along the carpet, pulling my body by elbows and arms, I let my legs drag behind.
She looked down at me and said, “Don’t be silly,”
“But I’m a mermaid,” I explained. “Can’t you tell?”
By the time I’d retrieved a tissue, she was in the living room, perched on the square arm of the aqua couch, flicking through a heap of records she held piled on her lap.
She was wearing my favourite long, flowery, sleeveless dress. It had slit at the side where the fabric parted, showing her legs, one crossed over the other. As she hummed, she swung the top leg back and forth, and I couldn’t stop staring.
My mother was unlike any other mother. My mother was movie-magazine magnificent. Looking at her sometimes made me ache inside.
Without moving her eyes from the records, she said, “Pass me a tissue, and get your pajamas on.”
I am at my bedroom door, and I open it a crack. The air stinks of cigarettes, and the smoke invades my nose. I slip out of my room, closing the door behind me as slowly and quietly as possible. If my sister wakes up, she’ll tell.
I dart across the hall and go right into the front closet. Inside, I squish in with the coats, and in the darkness, I feel around to find and clutch my mother’s coat, the soft furry one that feels like velvet. I tug, and it flops off the hanger. I make a nest of it beneath me.
I am a spy now, the one who has planned this hideout caper all along.
The closet door must be left open a crack, so I can see when people come in the hall. So I don’t shut it all the way and line my eyes up in the right spot. My tummy is whining, and I think of the chips and the dip that my mother had put out before anyone got there, hoping there will be some left in the morning.
“Tony, change the music,” I hear my mother call out in her sing-song way. My father’s voice rises through the din and he shouts back, “Yes Ada.”
The music stops, mid-song, and I hear steel drums. They’re loud. Then I see my father rush out of the living room, and he passes by me, where I am hidden in the closet.
He goes into his bedroom, comes back out with the limbo stick and walks by again, back to the party.
The music gets louder, and the noise crazier. And soon I hear the chanting, “Lower. Lower. Lower.”
I love limbo, and I love calypso music. Its beat makes me want to get up and dance, but in my lair, all I can do is tap to the drumming with toes and feet.
My father comes in the hall, but he’s not alone. I recognize one of my mother’s friends with him. They walk past the closet, then stop, fully in the sight of the closet door crack. My father pushes his finger into her belly, and she steps back, flattening herself against the wall. Her dress has no sleeves, and naked arms slither up my father’s shoulders and snake around his back. He leans his head down to her, until I can’t see her face.
“Tony,” she says, “Here? I don’t think…”
My father stops her from speaking.
There is a drop in my tummy like when I am in the car and my father drives too fast over a hill.
On the way to our cottage, he would do it on purpose sometimes. Just as he crested the top, he’d press the gas and we’d zoom down the hill. A bubble would drop inside my belly in the most delicious way, and I would scream “Wheeeeee” until the car reached the bottom.
What I never knew, though, is that the drop could happen without a hill and that it could be something not happy.
If only I’d stayed in bed, like my sister.
I twist my head from the crack—away from my father, away from the woman—and press my cheek into my mother’s velvety coat.
The morning light wakes me when it slips in through the slats of my window blind.
So I slept then, and the witching hour, long passed, took the storm with it. I listen to its last few raindrops plopping outside, in no particular rhythm.
I get out of bed, dress and head into the hall where I reach into the front closet for my shoes and jacket. Slipping my feet into my runners, when I crouch down to lace them, it occurs to me that the little girl from Sudbury—the one who once hid inside a closet—is no where to be seen.