Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Shattered glass

Pam at Blood Signs asks "Do you ever ask yourself if you are the same person you have always been?"

Yeah, I do, in those quiet moments before you fall asleep and in the morning right before you're completely awake. I'm not a morose or quiet person by nature. I like parties and activity and bright lights. I know how to turn it on even when I'm sick. I'm funny and wickedly witty and I like making friends. I am sincere. The dark side of me has only been shown to a few people I trust to handle the weight. And of course, to you all out there. I reveal a lot more in written word. I've recognized that when I expend a huge amount of energy, for example, when I'm acting or directing, I need some downtime. I crave quiet time and reflection at least once a year away from people pulling at me for attention. I like my own company. Yet after a short while I get bored silly and I crave connection. Idle hands are the devil's playground and all that. Purpose, direction, a sense of mission is important to me. Without this, I am like a fall leaf skittering across the sidewalk, slowly losing my bits.

When I was growing up, I lived in a neighbourhood that was divided by a river and a small valley. The working class (low to middle class) lived on one side. That was us. Both my parents worked full time. My dad was a cabinet maker and my mum worked in a factory. She was trained as a secretary but I'm sure discrimination kept her from office jobs. The bigger homes, the middle class and upper middle class lived on the other. We had provincial housing on our side, they did not. We had moved from provincial housing to a semi-detached 3 bedroom bungalow with a huge backyard. Between us and the brand new hospital, hydro lines loomed and buzzed during the hot summers. I later found out it was probably cicadas but I always thought it was the hydro lines.

I used to have dreams of dinosaurs breaking through the hydro lines and killing everyone but me. That's what happens when you watch Lost World (a really old cheesy kids program that featured time travellers trapped in the dinosaur age) too much. I wanted to be noticed, to matter, to be heard, to get the hell out of there so badly. Who were these people and why can't they just smarten up? We never seemed to have enough - we always had to choose between one thing and another. My mum would always split the Twinkies package in half for our bag lunches. One for me, one for my sister. Always half. She could stretch a dollar from here to Kookamunga. One good present (the rest was stuff you needed) at Christmas, though I remember it killed me when one time my sister got the Love's Baby Soft perfume instead of me.

There were a few black families around, one or 2 Chinese or East Indian, mainly Italian and other white folk. We lived quite civilly together. The ugliness of racism touched my life, here and there, but for the most part, I felt safe. I was shielded by my parents and the Canadian habit to be fairly quiet about their bigotry. I grew up with friends and good grades. We rode our bikes all over the place and had grape Lolas in the summer and played in refrigerator boxes. I daydreamed a lot and always had magnificent adventures. But I never could quite shake the feeling that I didn't belong there. I would look out over the hydro lines from my bedroom window over the frozen tundra known as my backyard, and I loathed where I was, waited for my real family to show up and claim me.

My parents were West Indian and were of the ilk that believed that children were to be seen and not heard. They told you what to wear, what to think, no back talk allowed. They never asked for your opinion, just your grades. Actual conversations were rare, we just sort of reported in our family. They worked hard and us girls were expected to be good and tow the line. They didn't want to hear if we were upset or angry or sad. Our job was to go to school, listen to the teachers and be GOOD and stay out of trouble. Be VERY GOOD, because if were were less than perfect, we would be judged more harshly than the white kids. Oddly enough, that actually seemed to be the case.

Mum worked very hard to keep her little girls well groomed and clean, always ribbons in our hair. Oh, our hair! Not long. That was not good. Our hair was very nappy and did not grow very much. The braids on my plaited head was only about 2 inches or so. Oh, the tragedy of not having "good" hair. However, unlike other black kids I knew, my parents didn't beat us if we misbehaved. Whew, lucky us. Well, we got the slipper on the back of our legs every now and then. My mother used her slipper like a boomerang, no matter how fast we ran, her magic slipper never missed its mark. And the cuckoo stick was waved around a lot. (Like a paint stirring stick, it was for making a porridge-like West Indian dish.) We giggled and ran from the cuckoo stick.

My parent's marriage may have started out well, but it deteriorated into acrimony, despair, and varying degrees of sadness. They fought constantly (none of this crap about not arguing in front of the kids); my mother's petty humiliations and degradations, my father's anger, stoicism and depression oozed from the floral wallpaper. Occasional violence broke out so we hid in our rooms. I had a dog back then, Eli, brown and white cute mutt with a big fluffy tail, I held him tight when they argued.

Whenever I am asked to think back to a young age, say during an acting exercise, I am often left with blanks. Sometimes I can remember certain things or moods if I have an old photo in my mind's eye, but most of the time, I can't remember. I am sure it's because I spent a lot of time willing myself to forget, and all I can recall is the fact that I didn't really enjoy childhood. We were taught to never speak about what goes on in the home. Don't tell people your business. Not even to each other. So I didn't. For many, many years. I didn't tell when my dad put dog shit on my mother's bed because she didn't always have the time to pick it up. I didn't tell the time he shoved her outside in her bra in the wintertime. I didn't tell when he put his knee through the bedroom door when he felt we were ignoring him. I didn't tell my mother finally left him and moved us to a townhouse. I didn't tell when he broke in and he put his hands around her neck and choked her on the patio in front of a bunch of people while my sister and I tried to beat him off of her. One man in the crowd finally dragged him off of her. The police came, but in those days, they just gave the man a good talking to and that was that.

I'm pretty sure that was on THAT day, the path of who I was supposed to be changed. That was the day I felt true rage. Impotent rage. I was 11 yrs old. I was outraged to discover that life was unfair. I remember us coming in and finding broken mirror glass all over the place, the beloved TV missing. In that moment my father sprung out from the darkness and terrorized my mother, that sense of peace disappeared. A long time family friend was there, perhaps he had been helping us move, I don't know, but he stood back and did nothing. Nothing. What my father never realized that though my mother survived with only fingerprints on her neck, he might as well have been strangling me that day. For her audacious crime of wanting to live with her children without misery and pain, she deserved to be strangled in front of her female children and in front of strangers. He didn't love her, respect her or want her, but she had dared to sneak away from him and take his TV, his furniture, his children. My mother couldn't make it on her own and after a couple of months, we moved back home. And on THAT day, who I was changed again. I wasn't one of those kids who wanted their parents together at all costs. I could see my mother's suffering and I loathed her for being so weak, so helpless without a man. I hated my father for condemning us to live as hostages. I could barely conceal my contempt for both of them, but I learned to swallow rage. I smiled and carried on being GOOD.

Decades later, I learned more about them, understood them, I even forgave them for being flawed human beings. But sometimes I still wonder who I might have been.


Wordgirl said...


I'm sorry it took me nearly a week to catch up here..

This is so lovely -- and the hair on my arm and at the back of my neck is still prickling, the tears in my eyes -- because -- (and there another wave goes) this is so familiar to me...I hear your voice, the impotent rage, the yearning for something beyond that frozen tundra of a backyard, the father banging on the door (though ours was a sliding glass door to our apartment -- and yes, the police just let him go: 'lady this is his house')Swallowing rage and being good and telling yourself that at least this, this creative gift came of it -- I could've written this -- (though I shy away these days from parties and lights...I used to, when comfortable, love the company)

I wish we lived closer -- in fact, for our sakes, I wish we lived in some place gorgeous and Mediterranean.



OHN said...

I have written this same post in my head. A few of the details are different, I was 6, the weapon was my fathers fists, or his gun and my mother in a puddle of blood on the kitchen floor. Those are images that never go away. She did have the courage to leave and stay away but those years formed me into the person I am now. When a piece of you dies in your childhood, you can never get that back but you can break the cycle to prevent another child from that heartbreak.

Guera! said...

One thing I find similar between my story and yours is that there is so much I do not remember. Events that I was actively a part of, people who were actively involved in our lives, places, names, that I should remember I just don't. I always attributed that to being in a fog of depression for all those years.
Thanks for sharing something so deeply personal.

annacyclopedia said...


I'm listening. With gratitude and awe - for your courage to share this so honestly, and for the splendid woman you so clearly are (because or in spite of, it does not matter.) I'm listening.

luna said...

wow. just sitting here speechless, also in awe and admiration for the lovely strong compassionate woman you have become. in spite or perhaps because of it all.

Natika said...

What the hell was wrong with the men in the 60's, 70's, early 80's? There was so much of that behavior by fathers back then it's unreal.

Maybe now it's changed thanks to Prozac. Laws that protect against that type of violence.

Deathstar said...

Sad to say Natika, but domestic violence still continues and women die at the hands of their men every day.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful, powerful post you have written. I really hope that you experience feelings of catharsis in the sharing. My family is also of West Indian descent. And while my grandfather was not physically abusive to my grandmother, there was the whole playing around and expecting her to deal with it crap that went on.

My mother and aunt, after being raised in that environment, both loved their parents, yet developed a strong sense of not being financially dependent on a partner for their or their family's survival. They knew how much such fiscal dependency had cost my grandmother and they didn't want it for themselves or their children.

It is so important that we hold men accountable for such heinous actions. But we must also prepare our daughters to be financially self-sufficient so that they are never trapped in cycles of abuse.

Thank you for sharing this piece of yourself.