HEATHER O’NEILLA Story Without Words
My dad was the youngest of nine children. My grandmother’s first husband, with whom she had four children, never returned from the First World War. They buried a little Canadian flag and his favourite hat in the backyard. Later, there were rumours that he had indeed come back and had changed his name and was living a few streets away from his family. The way my father tells it, he would be spotted on Saint Catherine Street dressed in a fur coat, swinging a cane around his finger, with his head thrown back, laughing.
My grandmother’s second husband – my grandfather – had a big laugh. He would stand on a table and sing. His name was Oscar, but he liked to be called Louis Louis. He gambled all his money away, but my grandmother said that they were never, ever hungry when he was around. He died when my father was only three years old. My grandmother was left to raise the nine children on her own in 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. Fathers were a bit of a mystery to my dad. They were legendary creatures that you stopped believing in after a certain age, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
One of my father’s brothers was run over by a horse-drawn beer carriage. The beer company offered to pay the costs of the funeral if the family didn’t press charges. My father and his brothers walked down the street in new little black suits. The whole neighbourhood came out to admire the little boys in their tailored suits.
It was an age in which children died all the time. There was a booming business in little white coffins back then. People were always at funerals. They had to rush home from work and school to go to funerals. My father’s mother was always dressed in black because she was always in mourning. Her cheeks were always as pink as roses from standing out in the cold at the graveyard every weekend. That was why she appeared so lovely to men. And her eyes were enormous from crying. Life was much, much more unfair back then. They cried all the time back then. They had proper things to cry about.
My grandmother made my father light candles in the church for all the little babies who had gone to heaven. He imagined heaven was filled with babies with ribbons in their little curls, clutching dolls in their round fists. The babies stood up shaking the bars of their cribs, crying in heaven. The babies wanted angels to pick them up and rock them the way their mothers had. But angels were very busy. Angels had to listen to all the petitions and prayers from insensitive people who would call on them to win a baseball game.
The priests would always ask my grandmother how she was coping, but she would hurry away. The only people she told her children not to talk to were priests. Eventually, they took two of my dad’s older brothers away and put them in orphanages when my grandmother wasn’t looking. The priests were always taking children away. They would get money from the government for every child they collected. The way my dad tells it, there were priests in their long black coats, hiding behind garbage cans with big butterfly nets waiting to swoop up unsuspecting babies. There was no point in trying to get your children back once they believed in God. They looked down on you and thought that you were mad. They insisted that you put your nickels in the collection plate.
In terror of the priests and death, my grandmother returned for a time to Prince Edward Island, where she was from. She had moved to Montreal looking for dashing men and wondrous fortune and she returned with nothing but hungry boys.
My dad doesn’t have many memories of Prince Edward Island. He says that a goose fell madly in love with him. It followed him everywhere he went. The goose was incredibly demanding. He could never love the goose the way it needed to be loved. Who can really love anybody the way that person needs to be loved? It’s hard enough now; it was impossible during the Depression. He and his mother spent the days going to big houses trying to get work, or charity. One old lady they were visiting handed my dad a plate of lemon cookies. He devoured them greedily. Afterwards, as they were walking home, his mother asked why he couldn’t have at least saved one cookie for her. He says he never felt so bad in all his life.
His mother decided to return to Montreal. The goose wept and wept when it heard the news. What could my father say? He never knew what happened to the goose. That’s the way things were back then. You lost one another so easily.
Back in Montreal, his mother found a job as a janitor. She worked every day washing the floors of Baron Byng high school on St. Urbain Street. One winter someone stole her coat. She couldn’t afford a new one, so she had to run to work every day. She never had anything new. She didn’t have any magic tricks for any of her boys. She couldn’t pull coins out of anyone’s ears. She had to yell all the time just to be able to get all the scolding done. She had to start yelling before she even opened her eyes in the morning. Who knows if she imagined anything? If she had time to sit around thinking about Prince Charming and frogs that begged to be kissed? The boys just stayed out of her way and hung out on the street corners and in the alleys of Montreal like cats sent out to roam.
Then my father started school with the other neighbourhood boys his age. On the first day of kindergarten, the teacher called out Patrice and Charles and Raymond. No one answered. They all thought that their names were Buddy and Itchy and Blackie and Pepe LePuke. His mother never packed him a lunch. Once his teacher gave him a sandwich to eat in the coat closet, so that the other children couldn’t see and he wouldn’t be embarrassed. Another time she asked him why he didn’t tie his shoelaces. He told her that no one had taught him. No one taught him anything.
Over the next four years at school, my dad wasn’t able to learn to read. The grade three teacher called his mother in and told her that he had trouble reading. His mother was humiliated. Single mothers are always easily humiliated. They identify too much with their children. They are too proud of their accomplishments and too ashamed of their failures. They are terrible for their children. She was mortified and didn’t want to be called into the school ever again. She decided that he shouldn’t go back to school at all. That was her way of solving the problem. So my dad left school in grade three. After that, he was always looking for a way to make enough money to get something to eat. He sometimes sold roses that he’d dug out of the graveyard garbage bin on the street corner. He tried selling newspapers but he would get beat up mercilessly by the older boys who worked the busy street corners. Finally he was left sitting on his pile of newspapers by the river with only the mice hopping by. Mice are not big newspaper readers.
He used to go with his cousin Marie to sing in a rich woman’s house. The woman would invite her friends over to watch the sweet poor children sing. They would sing little French songs. He would get dizzy from singing while hungry. She would always give them fancy treats to eat that they were crazy about. Candied apples and bags filled with cookies. They would eat them on the street corner feeling horribly guilty because they knew that they should be saving some for their mothers. One day the woman gave my dad a whole quarter as a reward for fainting at the end of his rendition of “Le Petit Navire.” When he saw the quarter in his palm, my dad could think of only one thing: he was going to go see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
He needed more than money to get into the movie, though. There had been a great fire in a movie theatre in Montreal several years before. Loads of little children were trampled to death or died of smoke inhalation. The mayor or the prime minister or the judges or the politicians decided that children couldn’t go to the theatre by themselves anymore. They had to be accompanied by an adult.
He stood outside the movie theatre, approaching adults going in. He asked if they would pretend that he was their child. Finally a man agreed to be his father, if just for a second, at St. Peter’s Gate. It was the first movie my dad had ever seen. My dad says it was so beautiful that he almost wept. It was like being in a garden of flowers that whispered, “I love you.” Butterflies were everywhere. He never wanted the movie to end. He didn’t want to grow up and be burned out by the world like his mother. He wanted to feel and feel and feel. He always wanted to feel the way he did while watching Snow White
One day my dad looked over a fence in an alleyway and saw a pretty little girl sitting in a backyard. She had a big basket of potatoes and a pot of water at her feet. She was pretending that the potatoes were her babies. She would pick up a potato and kiss it and beg it to stop crying. She would tell the potato that it was time to undress and get into bed. Then she would peel the potato and put it gently in the pot of water.
My dad climbed over the fence and introduced himself.
The girl said her name was Sally and asked if he wanted to play Bluebeard. They would pretend to get married and then he would chase her around the yard threatening to kill her. My dad had never heard of Bluebeard. He was worried that the little girl might be completely mad. His eldest brother had warned him about girls who are off their rockers. They lured you into their houses with sweet words and then locked you in and never let you leave. They forced you to have loads and loads of babies and then put a spell on you that made all the hair fall off your h...