Monday, July 19, 2010

Chudley to Buller

Three doors west and 12 east, within a hundred metres of the wartime house.

I was a middle child, trying to serve as a moderator in a rambunctious family in a rambunctious neighbourhood.

“Your bladder’s near your eyes!” my Nana would say.

“Don’t be so sensitive!” my Mom would coax me out of my turmoil over this or that. Destiny was not at my side.

I believed in a perfect world. Also because I was born in the middle of the baby boom, half of the boomers were older than me and half were younger. I was too young to be a hippie. I was always on the fringe. Most kids my age squeezed into the older groups, but not me. I looked three years younger than I was. I was always begging to fit in. It was exhausting.

Across the street, in a wartime house, the mirror image of ours, lived a family of thirteen. Yes. Thirteen. There were really old teenagers whom you hardly ever saw and there were kids in diapers, too. I never really thought about how they all fit into that house, but they did. They held the position of being the dirty family on the block, and they made the rest of us look good. I don’t know if they were dirty, but we thought they were. Belittling still is human nature. At the other end of the block there was another big family with mostly grown-up teenagers, but one girl was younger than me. They had nine. And up a block, there was a house with ten kids in it. There was only one house on our block with two kids and their yard, of course, was the nicest. Logically, I realized that the fewer kids a family had, the richer they were, and the nicer their house. The kids in families with only two kids, however, were shy and didn’t know how to hang out. They didn’t get into hide and go seek. They couldn’t stay out to play. They actually did homework. They wore sweaters and clean white socks. They might as well have lived across the river. They just didn’t belong, so they soon moved away, except for the soft-spoken Hogues, who did stay in Shaughnessy Heights.

Magical childhood is a fantasy. Neighbourhoods are full of envy and cruelty. Kids run home in tears if they can’t get tough. Other kids get tough for inexplicable reasons and hone their cruel behaviours in twos and threes.

In Shaughnessy Heights, the further east you went, the older the parents were. And the older the teenagers were. In my block, there were lots of us around the same age.

The back sheds of the wartime houses had no foundation. They were just sitting on wooden blocks, so we could crawl under, and we did. Why? Well, to play doctor, of course! It was perfect. You had to be lying down because there was not enough room to even sit. It was private. It was out of the rain or the heat. Actually, it was a very healing atmosphere for would-be body probers. We used bobby pins, and I guess we took turns. I never understood why I was always playing doctor with the older kids and playing school with the younger ones. The babysitter’s upstairs closet was another popular location for playing doctor. Those must have been the winter episodes. Perhaps that is how I ended up under the next-door neighbour’s clothesline stand, circled by a bevy of boys. The next-door neighbours had three boys, and there was my brother, and the two from across the street and the four from across the lane. And I was actually invited to play with them! I couldn’t believe they had invited me! They got me to crawl under and sent the youngest neighbour boy in to crawl on top of me. Of course, I get it now, but then I was totally clueless. I was probably four and very small for my age. They gave him instructions to put his thing into me. I couldn’t imagine where he was supposed to put it. The laughter got loud and raucous. There was pushing. It all became very intense and I started to become agitated. This game was no longer fun for me and I needed to get out of there.

And among the sheds and lanes and shadows of the neighbourhood there were plenty of attempts to exploit the child. On a hot summer afternoon on our way back from the Northwood wading pool, just after we crossed the tracks back into Shaughnessy Heights’ block of peacetime houses, we passed the house where the guy would stand bare naked in the window. It was like he was waiting for us. I must have seen it, at least once, because I have a memory of burgundy drapes pulled to the side and these big legs with a funny pile of flesh at the top. It’s possible too, that I didn’t see it. But I knew about it, and somehow our moms found out and someone put an end to it. I knew it was bad.

But as an Aquarian child, I was oblivious to a lot of the normal sexual socialization that the girls and boys around me giggled about. I didn’t wear a bra until grade nine.

Four years earlier, in grade five, they handed out “The Book” and showed us a film strip in a slide projector with a diagram of a uterus and fallopian tubes that looked to me like snakes escaping from a Grecian urn. There was no penis slide. I guess that was on the boys’ filmstrip.

I had no hint of breasts. I was still wearing size six-X and had no hint of body hair past the nape of my neck. But my best friend Beverley did. By grade six, she had a C-cup and a string of boyfriends. I was invited to their camper trailer at Falcon Beach in the summer and got to watch her neck on the park bench for hours on end. There was not a tickle of sexual awareness in me. I was definitely her decoy. That winter, I went over to her house to play every day after school, and her grade eight boyfriend Bob came, too. They would clamp faces on the chesterfield in the basement and stay like that until it was time for me to leave. I’d just play alone, reading books that I didn’t have at home. Playing pin-the-tail-on-the donkey, by myself. Not a tickle in me. I was completely uninformed. But her mom must have thought her girl was safe, if I was with her. Bev had two kids before I finished high school.

And Shelley’s big sister already had a kid! Now that was a real eye opener for me. I’d never been around a baby and hadn’t put any thought into how they came to be part of Shaughnessy Heights.

Every wartime house came fully equipped with a spring-loaded mail slot on the inside door. The mailman would shove the mail through the slot where it would get walked on with wet and muddy shoes before anyone thought to pick it up. More often than not, the mail slot would be used as a megaphone. “Can Shelley come out to play?” we’d holler through the slot. Or we’d lock out our brothers and sisters and they’d scream and yell and threaten us through that mail slot.

At that stage, I was about eleven years old and there were actually two new babies at Shelley’s house. Her mom also had one, so there were lots of shitty diapers around. There were three of us running together through the neighbourhood that fall. The third musketeer, Susan, lived on Magnus. To get to her house, I ran across the street, through Shelley’s yard, across the lane, through another yard and across Magnus, to her place. Her backyard went right out into the fields, until The Development was built. So back and forth we’d run. Keeping in touch. Hanging out. Walking fences. Jumping fences. That’s probably when we started smoking. But we were always home by dark.

On this day, we rounded the corner to the front of Shelley’s house with some urgent and specific intention and found the door locked. Bang! Bang! Bang! Shelley hammered on the door, knowing her older sister was in there with her boyfriend. She opened the mail slot to yell and instead took a peek. Then, inexplicably, she started crying! I looked and saw some guy’s bare ass, some guy up on his knees supporting himself with his arms on the edge of the chesterfield in the front room. I didn’t get it, but I could see from Shelley’s reaction that this was bad news. Not a tickle felt I. Shelley’s sister married the guy, and Shelley herself had her first kid right after grade 12. I was completely oblivious to this mating ritual.

There was absolutely no explanation coming from home. No internet education. No TV beyond Father Knows Best scandals. Not a whisper. Sex Ed hadn’t really been invented yet. My first period came on a Christmas Eve. Lucky me. We were on our way out the door for our annual visit to see mom’s friend Ada and her girls. They had no dad. This was well before the invention of adhesive maxi pads or tampons of any shape, and as my luck continued, the stores were closed that night and our house was completely padless. I was a real gusher, so there was no pretending that it this wasn’t happening. Mom came into the bathroom with a sanitary belt. I still blush when I say the words. It was a tangled mess of elastic with metal triangular hooks hanging from loops that were threaded through some other metal buckles of some sort. It was a complicated contraption and had brownish stains on the ends of the elastic that held the hooks.

“Here. Just use this.”


I had absolutely no clue. The only thing I recognized was the smell. There had been a girl in grade six who came from a farm. She always smelled that way. She got teased for it, too, but really, it was disgusting.

Mom handed me a strip of a torn-up sheet. She rolled it up so that it was about eighteen inches long and six inches wide.

“Watch.” She was in a hurry. We had to get going. After Ada’s we had to go to Helen’s and then get back here in time for the cousins to come to our place. It was Christmas Eve and we had traditions.

She somehow whipped one end of this rag through this triangular hook and handed me the contraption, now complete with a rag hanging on it.

“Put this on. That’ll do.” That was the extent of my sex ed. I still didn’t have it figured out, so I spent the entire Christmas Eve sitting in fear that whatever I had shoved into my underpants would fall out on the floor. I was given no instructions about what to do with the rags after they were soaked. It was all just a matter of figuring it out as I went along.

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