Something unexpected happened the year I turned 5. My parents gave me away. To strangers.
My mother had always suffered from what she called bad nerves and in 1969, she took her nerves to bed and brought my 2 year old sister along for company. Every time Mom took a pill, sis got a candy and I got more jealous.
My older sisters did what they could to keep the house running while my Dad worked as far around the dial as he could to keep us in food and hand-me-downs.
Friends of my parents suggested that their daughter and her new husband take one of us kids off their hands for a while to ease the strain of having 9 kids to clothe and feed. Somehow my parents agreed to this modest proposal and my adventures began.
Tricking me into a new life proved to be fairly simple. I was asked if I wanted to go for a drive in a car. Even though we were a little white trash and didn’t have a car of our own, I must have looked skeptical. They sweetened the deal with the promise of a big bag of potato chips. Now they were talking: the possibility of a treat I didn't have to share was more than I could resist. I was in the back seat of that car faster than a dog who doesn't yet know that sometimes, you end up at the vet's.
By the time I'd stuffed my small frame with chips, the novelty of a genuine car ride had worn off and I was ready for home. When I asked when we'd be going back, I got a smile in response and the answer that I'd be coming to live with them for a while and we were all going to have a great time. I got quiet and stayed that way for about the next 7 or 8 years. My car ride ended up taking a couple of days and landed me about 1000 miles away and in a town smaller even than the one I’d come from.
The isolated community consisted of a dotting of homes and stores, a small school, a church, and an Indian reservation nearby. Major food supplies were ordered from a catalogue and flown in every couple of months. I was enrolled in kindergarten at the school one of my guardians taught at.
The few other students in my class were native Indians and we regarded each other with wary interest. There were few words we had in common and so, we communicated mostly through suspicious looks and gestures.
When I excelled at such activities as putting together the 2 piece wooden puzzle of grapes and bananas, I was quickly promoted into Grade 1. Although still a stranger in a strange land, there were a few other kids there who could speak English.
After school, I came home alone, let myself in, did my homework and basically spent a lot of time waiting. When the surrogate parents got home and made dinner, it was then my job to do the dishes by standing on a chair. Months dragged by this way and my routine felt hopeless. I missed my family and cried myself to sleep many nights.
When Christmas rolled around and I was told I’d be going home, I was excited but worried that it might be a trick. The trip home took a couple of days and finally, I was dropped back into the chaos of my family. They weren’t where I left them but in a new house which was fun to explore; I'd never seen bunkbeds before and this place had them built right into the walls. I cried here too but with relief at being back.
As the rhythm of big family life started keeping time again in my body, they showed up again. My mother was still sick it seemed. I cried and begged not to be taken away again but I was loaded back in the car just the same and driven off again.
The next 3 months were spent in constant upset between crying, worrying and illness. At one point, I developed a case of croup so bad that I had to be airlifted to a larger city with a real hospital and an oxygen tent was my home for several days. When I was better, it was back to cold routine. I never seemed able to get warm.
My feelings of despair went on and on and as my crying jags increased in frequency and duration, my guardians just seemed puzzled. Eventually, they took me to see the local priest to see if he could offer any suggestions on my behaviour. He was a kindly old gentleman who I'd met once before when they ran a movie, my first, in the church basement. The film was Pinocchio and I was amazed by it, a small moment of joy.
Father spoke with the three of us in his large office and then asked to speak with me alone. He offered me a flat round butterscotch candy and then another and spoke to me in soothing tones. He asked me a question about whether I missed my family and had his answer in the half second it took for a pain cry to escape me. He comforted and consoled me and gave me more candy. He called my custodians back in and had me wait in the next room. When we got home, they barely spoke to me but I knew something had shifted.
A couple of days went by and it was close to Easter I recall. I was told that I should go over to my teacher's place and say good-bye because I'd be leaving school early and going home to my family. I raced over there and knocked on her door. She had papers for me to take to my school back home and wished me luck.
As though to erase any unhappy memories, there was a little party for me and the friends of my keepers came bearing gifts for me and chatted me up about my upcoming trip back. A bunch of new toys were proffered and packed into a large box.
The day finally came but this time, my journey home was a little different. I was put on a train, alone and met in Toronto by one of my aunts and I stayed overnight with her. She put me back on the train the following morning where in Montreal I was met by a family friend who made sure that I got on the correct train for the last leg of the journey home.
I made it back finally, in several pieces, but happy.
Most of my siblings don't remember a lot of the events around that time or claim not to and don’t like me to bring it up so I don’t anymore.
As an adult, I finally got up the nerve to ask my parents what the hell they were thinking. They could only apologize and say that they weren’t thinking clearly and didn’t realize that it would affect me so much.
At first I directed most of my anger at my mother and then decided that it was misplaced and held my father responsible for a time. I thought that I had more or less forgiven both of them and put it to rest until about the time of my parents’ 50th anniversary celebration.
You may recall that I’ve mentioned my mother to have little or no tact. Our whole family and extended family gathered from far flung corners for the big anniversary and my sisters who were in charge of putting together a special photo album, at the last minute asked me to do the honours.
I threw together a large and quite lovely scrapbook filled with photographs, funny family stories and so on. In the middle of one afternoon gathering at my parents’ place, the book was being passed around and generally praised. I did do a rather fine job on it.
Someone was laughing over a particular group of anecdotes I’d included and my mother turned to me in front of the 25 or so people gathered and loudly asked: Why didn’t you put in the story about the time we gave you away Dale? She laughed although thankfully nobody else did. The room immediately went silent as it would have to do and all eyes focused on me.
I calmly answered Because that wasn’t really a happy memory for me and the crowd resumed their chatter and my mother went on mingling.
I’d like to think that I grew up a lot in that moment, the moment when I didn’t kill my mother in front of a room full of witnesses.
Visit from Chuckie and family!
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