Like A Serpent in The Belly


Angelo’s Roman nose was a monument on an otherwise slim, narrow face.  In the third grade he defended it against the taunts I hurled at him by pushing me and running away.  I threw a rock blindly, but was alarmed when the unintended victory struck the back of his head.  so I followed his tears home where I subjected myself to his parents’ reproach, and to their threat to tell my mom and dad.  Soon after, he and I became friends and together navigated the shoals and reefs of Catholic school.

Angelino was his baptismal name – a diminutive bestowed upon him by a mother who thought he was an angel – but we just called him Ange.  Both of us were skinny Italian kids, which no amount of pasta or homemade bread could fatten.  Our calories were rapidly burned in the rainforests of our parents’ adopted country, and we didn’t care if our supper was spoiled by the wild harvest of berries we found there.  We pulsed with energy and were curious about everything; we were feral chldren – dirty and gloriously alive.

Ange came to every one of my birthday parties with his accordion and played songs for us kids as we goofed around like puppies.  We were innocents who had not yet awakened to the snake in the garden – and in the third grade it bit Ange hard.  We were in Miss Night’s class, learning how to write cursive letters from the MacLean Method of Handwriting.  I’d already been nipped by this woman once and froze when she held up a sheet of foolscap to the class, mocking someone’s attempt at an assignment.

I remember her walking directly to Ange, taking him sternly by the arm and making him sit on a high-stool, facing a corner.  With a safety pin she attached the offence to his grey knit shirt – the one with the little black Indians woven into it – and publicly invited everyone to look at his transgression.  When I thought it was safe I walked up behind Ange but couldn’t identify the source of MIss Night’s mean spiritedness.  I heard him crying silently, his thin suspenders tracing the stoop of his shoulders, while his hand tried to staunch the drip of his noble Roman nose.

He wasn’t in the playground at recess, and when I saw hm the next day we never talked about it because we were not mature enough to understand the necessity of grieving.  We just went on – even when Miss Night, in the fourth grade, called a troublemaker to her desk and slapped his face fiercely with the belting that was supposed to be used only for hands and buttocks.  We just went on – trading comics, building forts and playing Cops and Robbers – our fear growing, like a serpent in the belly.

When my parents moved to another city Ange and I lost track of one another.  But years later a chance meeting with a boyhood friend told me that Ange still lived in our hometown, and that his great mark of distinction had become a vacuuum for cocaine.  He’d lost his business, had undergone therapy and was struggling.  Because of the gulf which time had torn between us I made no effort to contact him until a family vacation brought me back to his parents’ home.  Ange was out of town; but there, in the kitchen where his parents had threatened to disclose my misdeed, it all came back: the rock blindly thrown, Ange in the corner, his accordion, our romps in the wilderness – and Miss Night.

As I drove back along the highway, my young son played in the back while images of straps, belts, pointers and missiles paraded themselves in memory.  I felt a stirring in my belly and wondered if Ange had calmed his with coke.  In the rear view mirror my eight year old quietly read comics, and I asked myself: What in God’s name did Miss Night, and the others, think they were doing!

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Kissed by Spiders


Sister Mary Albert was a blackbird with a white throat.  Her habit flowed behind her tall gaunt exterior like a little black tail as she clicked down the school corridors on bird feet – her mean, suspicious beak seeking those whom it could peck.  Children were afraid of this nun and when I saw her approaching I would hold my breath.

When she spied a troublemaker – someone who had disobeyed some rule like running in the hall or wearing shoes instead of the slippers required upon entering the building – her scowl would tower over him while she fingered the dark brown rosary beads that hung from her waist like a flagellant’s precious perversion.  In particular, I remember her long, mottled fingers, which to this fifth grader were stilettos of pain.  While scolding me, her thumb and forefinger would pinch my scrawny arm to the bone – like a spider’s kiss.

She wasn’t always severe, this bride of Christ; sometimes she would smile and for a moment you could almost trust her.  The menacing clouds would retreat, the sun would shine and you’d be tempted to remove your storm gear.  On one occasion I remember her lighting up when I spontaneously donated ten cents for the Children’s Missions.  But in those days the little professor within me could not trust the interplay of cloud and sun in this love-starved woman.  Her short-lived invitation to lower my guard was never accepted.

Being scheduled into her classroom in the sixth grade provoked anxiety; after all, she was the Sister Superior, the principal – a martinet who let nothing slide by her.  When her glowering form entered the room all were expected to rise as one and proclaim, “Good morning, Sister Mary Albert!”  No one sat down until she did.  Everyone was expected to have his dictionary lying on the left hand side of his desk – not the right side.  When you were spoken to you rose, then sat when she nodded.  When she exited the room, all stood whether it was the end of class or not.

There was a host of rules that were to be followed, and it was the red ink decree that I will never forget.  The rule was simple; it stated that you could not write in red ink; only Sister Mary Albert could do so because she marked your work in that colour; blue ink was mandatory for everything, but math, for which only pencil was to be used.  One day, when she surprised us with a quiz I found that my blue pen would not write.  Fearing a zero on the test, I decided to risk using the red one (You were not allowed to borrow from another student once she’d announced a test.).

When the tests had been collected, she quickly discovered my felony, confronted me before the class and told me to follow her.  She led me to a back room where she held out my hands and strapped them with some grey belting that was used in those days for punishment.  My hands shared ten swats, and when I began to cry she stopped and hugged me at which I righteously pushed her away.  She discounted my tears, told me to dry them and to get back to class.  I was later mollified by the knowledge that my classmates were about to leave in protest (A revolutionary act in those days.).

Soon after that incident which I never shared with my parents, our family moved to another city.  The years passed, I graduated from high school, and one summer as a junior in university I saw her standing alone at the entrance to a mall: still a blackbird whose hollow bones now seemed vacuum packed in skin.  Because I was now bigger, she no longer seemed a great heron with an edge…more a taught, vigilant sparrow surveying the terrain around her.  She recognized me, we shared some pleasantries, but there wasn’t much to say, so I wished her well and let her slide back into the humus of memories long past.

Forty-three years have elapsed since that mall encounter.  And as I write, I feel a strange tenderness for her, kindled by the sunny moments that peeked quickly from behind her storm.  I ask myself: Who was Sister Mary Albert?  Was she born wrapped in the black’n’white pinions of the Sisterhood?  Or was she once a sixth grader like me? – Someone with a name like Rachel or Cathy; a giggly young schoolgirl with a honey-blonde ponytail – her father’s little princess.  As a young woman had she ever fallen in love?  Or was it love betrayed that had made her so bitter?  Perhaps she was just passing something on when she kissed my skinny arms like a spider.  Perhaps she too had been kissed, by spiders greater than she.

We Were Feral Children


We were feral children, safely lost in the rainforest – tree forts high in the emerald canopy, half-naked, at war, raining cones on those who would climb to dislodge us.

We were urchins – immigrant children, crusty, irreverent, defying the trespass of strangers – amoral in our torture of earthworms, just to see what would happen.

We cussed and spit, and drank from cold rivulets that wound perfectly around moss-covered giants fallen centuries ago.

We dared to explore the secrets of our bodies – but not too far because we knew it was sacred – but far enough to be amazed.

We lost ourselves in our immortality.  We were endless beings who changed from one day to the next, leaping delighted and frisky like dolphins in the cold lakes of summer.

But then it happened – the little pencils that measured our height in the doorway, the unbidden changes that encroached relentlessly on our kingdom, and the girls, who had left in ages past, calling us from the edge of our enchantment.

They called us by names we could not resist.  We struggled as chrysalids struggle against the waves that release new birth.  We shook our hands above our heads like sea fans waving beneath the waters – and suddenly became no more – beings in an alien land weeping for dreams we could not remember.

The Great Invasion


I remember a time without television.  It was a time when we children played outdoors and our parents saw us primarily at lunch or at supper.  In the evening we read books and played board games – endlessly.  In 1962 I was living in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and we’d read in the newspaper that television was finally coming to our city.  Everyone was delighted but didn’t foresee the social changes that this medium would bring.  All we knew is that we would have entertainment nightly, instead of paying 50 cents for a movie and popcorn on weekends.

 

The night on which the great invasion was to occur, I was at my friend’s house because his father had bought a television for the expected event.  The picture was poor, and the programs were old pre-recorded series like Cannonball and Juliette which nowadays would be less entertaining that watching paint dry.  It was television created for simple minds with a fifth grade education.  But we didn’t care, and neither did my friend’s parents because it seemed magic – a silver screen that ushered us from the periphery of civilization into what we imagined to be the main stream.

 

In the middle of one of these programs my father called me to say that he too had bought a television.  I was delighted, and asked my friend’s father to take me home immediately.  When I arrived, I plunked myself down on the sofa before a grey cube that displayed muddy black and white pictures that sometimes were so dark I couldn’t see what was happening in the background.  But I didn’t care…it was television, and unbeknownst to us it would irredeemably change us forever.

 

Sweet Sixteen


I remember a time when gender roles were rigid.  Women wore jeans with side zippers while a man’s rose up the centre;  men had their hair cut in barber shops – by male-only barbers – while women had theirs cut in beauty parlours; men swore because it was tough while female lips never uttered obscenities.  There was a peace about this demarcation of gender – at least for the men – a sense of knowing who you were in the greater scheme of social relations.  But this division also had its dark side which often brutalized women as well as men. 

I remember accompanying my mother on a shopping trip to downtown Prince George where she decided to enter a clothing store for young women called Sweet Sixteen.  I never went in with her because males in those days would not have been caught dead in a ladies’ boutique.  It was bad enough being fourteen and being caught shopping, downtown with your mother.

There are many examples that arise in my mind about gender roles in those days, and the prevailing sensibility that suffused male-female interaction.  I remember the braggadoccio that was typical of those times among emerging young males.  Immature and lacking confidence in what it meant to be a man we would say things like: “In the North, a man is a man, and a woman is glad of it.”  Nowadays, things have changed enough so that we can say: “In the North, A man is a man, and a woman is a man.”

I confess that I have a certain nostalgia about the old gender roles that governed our relationships.  I am not suggesting that we return to the sexism of the 1950s and early ’60s, but I think that, at least ceremonially, I prefer a culture of gender that celebrates and highlights our unique strengths.  Androgyny is not my preference.

But I digress…this article is dedicated to the past when there were two entrances to beer parlours – one for men, and one for men and their escorts; women would not be caught dead in a pool hall; a man’s hair was always short; men could wear whatever colour of suit they wanted, provided it was black; occupationallly, women were streamed to become homemakers, nurses or librarians…the list of now obsolescent manners and sensibilities is inifinite.

Yes, gender roles were rigid; but have we made any real progress during the great social revolutions of the past sixty years?  Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? – never mind that nowadays, as I read in the newspapers, men are getting pregnant too.

Swearing Around Girls


I remember a time when teenage boys didn’t swear around girls.  If someone did, the other guys would scold the malefactor with a sharp “Hey!  There’s girls here!”  and he would stop.  That all changed around 1967 when “Fuck” became the word without which young women could not be cool.  Girls and guys became indistinguishable not only in the way they dressed but also in the way they related sexually.  Once upon a time guys had their feet on the accelerator while girls had theirs on the brake; now, they both press on the gas…and here we are.

The Age of Oakley


Dr. Oakley’s baggy eyes looked directly at me as he searched my chest with the cold, round instrument.  Rubber hoses flowed from it, into his hairy ears.  And I looked back in fear, wondering if he would give me a needle.  At seven years of age, I was terrified of needles, and when my father escorted him to my bedroom, the surrounding comfort of comic books and electric train could not ease the fear I felt within.

The ritual was the same each visit: If he dropped the cold thing into his black leather bag, I would not be pierced; but if he placed it on my bed, then…oh then.  I watched him withdraw the probe from my ribbed cage and saw the jowls above me respond to the good news his meaty lips spoke to my anxious mother: the pneumonia had receded; I was getting better.  Thank God…I was saved.

As was his habit, my father invited him to stay a moment to share a glass of wine.  And I could hear them from the bedroom, chatting in broken English telling him how much they appreciated him.  And before he left for his next home visit, my parents would insist, despite his best efforts to decline, that he receive an offer of their best wine.  Every time he came, he always left with a gallon of appreciation.

Nowadays, home visits – let alone a gift of wine – would never happen.  Dr. Oakley’s home visits were more than professional service.  They were the essence of community life in those days, and the warmth of one heart giving to another.  People helped each other, they were fluent in the art of conversation, and built community on the principle of give and take.

I remember the kitchen-parties in our home: Italian immigrants in faded suits: card-playing, wine-drinking, hearty eaters who would spontaneously burst out in songs from the old country; beefy men who cried at Christmas because they were so far from home; smotherly hens who would cluck at their children to behave; and the graciousness extended to strangers.  Everyone was equal in those days, because everyone was poor. 

But some time in my teens, everything changed.  We moved to a different, larger city.  And when my father called our new physician, a young fellow from the South,  the doctor refused to come.  In hindsight, I can understand the decision of that new breed; but it’s a sad understanding informed by the realities of a cooler way of healing.

In high school I learned that Dr. Oakley had died of a heart attack.  And despite my memories of his black bag and needles, I missed him and the laughter he shared with my mother and father.  The age of Oakley in the healng profession is over, as is its warmth.  And I wonder whether we have lost more than we have gained in our trade with the cool steel of science and technology.  The age of kitchen-parties, like those I knew, are over too.  We discareded them, like faded suits, for Armani and stainless steel appliances.