How It All Began
Dad was coaching in a huge high-school basketball game the night I was born in March of ’66, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, the sixth of seven children (eight, if Abby had lived. She was a stillborn baby between Matt and Mark). Dad was a Physical Education and French teacher hailing from a tiny little northern company town. He was a successful hockey player who would have probably made it into the NHL but, after making it into the Majors, he gave it all up because it wasn’t as prestigious to play hockey back then and education and family life took over.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Reid, and my dad were close friends and playing for the Walden Colts’ Junior ‘A’ hockey team in the 50s. Uncle Reid was from a neighbouring little company town. Periodically they would go home together. Both my mother and her sister, Do, vied for the attentions of my father who was quite the charming young man and who had a very good fashion sense. They met and started dating and it wasn’t long before they were married and my oldest sister, Eva was born.
Hockey would always play a big part of our lives. There was the skating rink every winter in the back yard and there were the mandatory shots on net that Job, Mark and Matt would have to take before being allowed back indoors. I can remember screaming in agony as my bright red toes thawed out after peeling off my too-tight, hand-me-down skates. Then there were the times when my three big brothers would play hockey and would get me to play too. One time Matt said to Mark that he would check me. I didn’t realize until minutes later that checking someone involved a good deal of pain. After that I never forgot it and still have flash backs when I watch professionals being rammed up against the boards. Those games usually ended with one or all of us bawling.
My earliest memories are of us living in a rented town house on Main Street West in Walden. Luke wasn’t born yet, so I would have been younger than three and a half and would have been the youngest of six then. The town house complex was called The Willows and ours had two floors and three bedrooms. Part of the time we were there, Mom and Dad slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room, while Amy and I slept in a double bed in one room, Eva had her own room and the three boys were in the large second bedroom. In another configuration Eva was behind a screen in our parents’ room, Amy and I were in the tiny room and the three boys were in the big room. There was one bathroom and it was busy a lot of the time, with so many family members.
It was then that Amy and I used to have fun sneaking around after the lights were out. Actually, it was Amy who would challenge me to sneak downstairs, past the living room where Mom and Dad were reading or watching TV, to steal an (gasp!) orange out of the crisper. I had no concept of the danger I was in if I were to be caught. Food was strictly doled out in our house of many mouths to feed. Besides that, I was supposed to have been fast asleep by then. When I would come back, Amy would be wide-eyed and relieved sitting on the bed waiting for me. She loved to roll the orange around and toss it at the wall to get it all juicy. Then she would take a bight of the peel from one end and we would squeeze all the juice out into our mouths until the orange was nothing but pulp. The best part was next: she would then split it open and we would sink our faces into the pulp until every last bit of the orange was devoured, and only the white and peel remained. I loved sharing a room with my fourteen-year-old sister whom I affectionately called, Amy-Wee-Wee. Going to bed was full of adventure and good-night stories and Amy would talk about how she was going to be a singer and guitar player when she got older. She would often sing me a song in her beautifully soft, soothing voice. She loved to sing, In the Ghetto by Elvis and another song that went, if I were a carpenter and you were a nail or something like that. Amy taught me to be quite conscientious of putting my dolls to bed. They would be laid at the foot of the bed and each one covered with a makeshift blanket. Then we would tuck each one in a give a kiss to each miniature cheek.
Mary Hat was Amy’s best girl-friend and she used to come over to our house quite a bit. I would sit and listen and watch as they discussed boys and hair styles and length of mini-skirts. Often, when Amy wasn’t watching, I would steal her nail-scissors, go out into the hallway, take a lock of my hair and snip it off. I did this so often that one day, Amy noticed that my hair was much longer on one side than on the other and I had to confess to cutting it myself. I was scolded, but, not very badly. Amy was so sweet to me and spoiled me rotten.
We moved into our six-bedroom red brick bungalow in Walden, Ontario on Hallowe’en day of 1970. An auspicious day. I was four years old and extremely excited! Our next door neighbours, The MacNeils, were a big family of eleven and Ben MacNeil was five years old — a built-in buddy right next door. And buddies we were. Within seconds of arriving Ben and I were fast friends and could be seen chasing each other around the outside of our new brick bungalow. I was gonna like it in this house. Ben and I spent almost every waking minute together. We played house and school and hide-and-go-seek. Often, because of the sheer number of kids between our two households, we would have huge games of Red Rover and British Bulldog, or 500-Up in the MacNeils’ huge back yard. One time, the MacNeils got a new game of Croquet. We played it non-stop for weeks. In the winter we would go sliding on the MacNeils’ very own sliding hill at the back of their house. It was a perfectly steep hill which led into the parking lot of an eight story apartment building that we called, imaginatively: the apartments. Sometimes there would be twenty or more kids out there in the dark, with just the reflection off the snow and a few parking lot lamps to light the path. At other times it would be just Ben, my younger brother, Luke, and Ben’s two younger siblings. We always had lots of fun and thrills. Afterward we usually had hot-chocolate at our house, the kind made with milk, and Mom would put a marshmallow in it. Pure bliss.
The MacNeils lived in a mansion of a home. They had something like ten bedrooms, four bathrooms and a huge recreation room upstairs at the end of the house where parents never ventured. Their dining room had the longest table in it that I had ever seen. We would often do our homework at that table. I would marvel at how neatly Ben did his assignments. I aspired to be just like him. There was also a piano in there. We both took lessons but Ben went a lot farther than I, achieving levels of local celebrity status on piano. Ben’s older brother Noah was an idol of mine. He always had the most incredible ideas about what we should all do together. He would make up elaborate games or he would teach us how to be artistic. Sometimes we would get to play hide-and-go-seek in their house on the second floor and sometimes, when Mrs. MacNeil wasn’t aware, even in the Attic. There were secret hiding places and cupboards everywhere. Ben’s room had a secret room inside his closet. We spent hours in there. Their house was so much fun! During one game, we looked high and low for teen aged Ethan who would have been the same age as my brother Mark. No matter what we did, he was nowhere to be found. Finally, we checked the cupboards that ran along the top of the twelve foot walls in the rec-room. There he was. I could never understand how he had managed to get up there. I was impressed. Playing with the MacNeils was so much fun! We would never want to go home at the end of the evening, when it was time. We would hear Dr. MacNeil shout: it’s time for the Players to go home. We would quietly make our way home, back to our boring little bungalow next door.
The MacNeils had a cupboard in their kitchen that was stuffed full of cookies and sugary cereals. At our house, we had gingersnaps, and that was on a good day, and then only two each and they were never just sitting in the cupboard. They were hidden. The cereal choices at our place were simple: puffed wheat, puffed rice or shredded wheat. Sometimes, if we were good, we got plain Cheerios or Shreddies. After some of my older brothers and sisters moved out on their own though, the choices got better and they almost always included Shreddies and Cheerios and then CornFlakes! I can still conjure up the feeling of extreme privilege that came along with that cereal. We also got real milk then too. 2 %. Prior to that it was skim milk mixed from dry powder which later became powdered skim mixed with 2% milk. When it was just Luke and I at home, Dad started buying homogenized full fat milk. It was like drinking ice-cream. That was sheer luxury after the watered down and often involuntarily gag-producing taste of powdered skim. When Eva, Amy and Matt came back home for a supper meal, on occasion, they would comment on how spoiled we were now that we were being fed the higher quality groceries.
Mom bought groceries on a tight budget. We had simple but good meals. Things like sausages and tomato sauce, scalloped potatoes, shake-and-bake (the odd time), spaghetti and meat balls on Sunday night, Pate Chinois (pronounced pot-tay sheen-wa), which was my favourite meal) and we always had a green salad with supper, and then after all the plates were nearly licked clean, we were permitted dessert. Sometimes Dad would still be hungry and would finish off our meals for us. Other times he would angrily and loudly tell us to Eat Up! At least once per week, we would have left-overs or home-made soup–basically a huge pot of soup made from everything left in the fridge before the new grocery order was bought. We fondly referred to it as home-made poop because when you’re a kid, you don’t tend to like things to eat that aren’t completely decipherable. All we could decipher out of Mom’s soup was a pea here and there and perhaps a piece of carrot. The rest was left to the imagination. One time I absolutely refused to eat it and found myself still staring at it, while it congealed and turned cold, at around 8 o’clock that night. (Supper had always started at 5:30 SHARP as soon as Dad walked in the door and sat down at the table.) We tried to keep things calm at the supper table. Mom would bounce up and down from her chair getting this and that and, Mom, while you’re up, can you grab me a glass of water? Sometimes Dad would tell stories about Schollard Hall and put on his falsetto voice imitating one of his teachers. We would all laugh. Usually our meals were not calm though, someone would spill a glass of milk. Then Dad would pound the table and shaking his head and shout: I HAD NO BREAKFAST, A LOUSY LUNCH AND NOW I CAN’T EVEN EAT MY SON-OF-A-BITCH-OF-A SUPPER!
The MacNeils had their groceries DELIVERED from IGA on a Saturday afternoon. (It wasn’t until some years later, when I was living alone with Dad and doing the grocery shopping, that I found out that anyone, not just the MacNeils, could have their groceries delivered from IGA). Sometimes I would witness the arrival of the grocery truck backing up to the MacNeils kitchen door. I had never seen so many boxes of great food in my life. They even had a freezer full of popsicles and fudgsicles and they didn’t even have to ask before having one. In our house the groceries were pretty strictly rationed out. Cookies and other goodies were hidden away in special places that only Mom could find. Sometimes she’s hide something so well that even she couldn’t find it! Then we’d really get upset to think of the best food being lost in the house somewhere. Mom would say something like, I must be NERTS!. I now understand that Mom likely mostly pretended that she didn’t know where it was, just to get us to stop salivating over it.
At Christmas time we had special food in the house. We always got a crate of tangerines. They were the really sweet ones all individually wrapped in purple tissue paper. Mom would keep the carton under the couch. She was pretty generous with them compared to other stuff. We would also have a pound of real butter. Mom would buy two pounds, one for shortbread cookies and the other for us to have with turkey dinner. Wow it was good compared to the bright yellowish margarine that came wrapped in waxed paper and could have blocked the arteries of a racehorse. Christmas was great when Mom and Dad didn’t go to Florida. Mom always bought us a huge jigsaw puzzle to work on as a family under the Christmas tree. I’ll always remember how much I enjoyed that. We would also sing Christmas carols and play all kinds of board games during the holidays. Of course, most of the time, during the day, we would be outside in the snow or on the rink in the back yard. Mom and Dad would sometimes go to Florida at Christmas or March Break and would leave us at home with one of the eldest in charge. One year, Matt was left in charge. He and his new teen-age wife, June took care of we younger ones. Let’s just say that there were a few parties down the basement and sometimes we had really bad tasting spaghetti sauce, a la June. One time, June tried to pass off tomato soup as spaghetti sauce. It was so bad that not even Sammy, our faithful leftover and liver-eating dog, would eat it. I’ll never forget it because I ate most of it so that I wouldn’t hurt her feelings. Years later we broke it to her that it was awful. By then she had become a good cook though, or as her son would say: Mom’s a good cooker now, eh Dad?
The later years that Mom and Dad went to Florida saw us being taken care of by Mark. It got a little scarier then because Mark had some not-so-straight-laced friends like Byron Hedgeman and Minty. Byron Hedgeman scared me. I think he was continuously high on something or other. One time, when I was about eight years old or so Byron Hedgeman and I were playing a friendly game of checkers in the living room. Hedgeman was getting very upset because I kept using my kings to jump all his checkers. He began to ask me about my knowledge of Woodstock. I had not one idea of what he was talking about and innocently told him that. Hedgeman was irate. How could I not know about Woodstock? He then proceeded to educate me about it. I was eight. He told me of mass crowds of hippies who traveled for miles and miles to this place called Woodstock for the concert and drugged-out weekend-long bash of history. He told me of people being so stoned on acid, L.S.D. and mushrooms that they had no idea what they were doing. He told me of scores of hippies wondering around in the nude with caked-on mud as their only clothes – the farmer’s field had turned to pure mud. Then he and Mark started to recount all the stories they had ever heard about it. Mark talked about the bad acid and how there was an announcement made that the brown acid was bad and no one should do it, man. I was more than just a little scared after being party to this conversation which Mark and Hedgeman were reveling in the telling of. I was eight. I may have mentioned that.
One time Byron Hedgeman actually passed-out underneath Amy’s bed, down the basement. Mom and Dad were in Cancun but returned a day early than planned in order to surprise us. Matt and June were asleep in my parents’ bed. My Dad walked in and looked through the house for all of us. He told Mom that he could smell burning rope coming from downstairs. He walked into Amy’s basement room. She was fast asleep. However, he quickly noticed that there was a pair of Kodiak work boots sticking out from under her bed. He pulled on them and out slid Hedgeman. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Hedgeman somehow took off out of the house and down the hill. Dad called the police and told them, There’s a hoodlum running down Pearl Street and he’s so stoned he’s stunned!
One time, Mark and Job had a very rowdy party and when they started doing hot knives (smoking hash off of hot knives heated on the stove elements) I called Olive Quinn, one of my Mom’s best friends, and begged her to come and get Luke and I. It was after midnight but Van Halen’s Running with the Devil was still pounding, at top volume, throughout the house. The bass on the stereo was turned up to the maximum. She came to fetch us and take us to her house. The next day, Olive delivered us back to Pearl Street. I marveled that our six-foot fence that usually surrounded our back yard was now lying down of the grass. At those times I wished very badly that Mom and Dad had not gone to Florida for Christmas or Spring Break. At those times I also learned to truly appreciate our safe, religious and strict home. I don’t think my parents ever had a clue about the types of activities that went down while they were away. Chock it up to the 70s. Luke and I were sworn to secrecy lest we die by some tortuous death if we told on them. Years later we would learn, quite disturbingly, that Byron Hedgeman had died at Walden’s Royal Victoria Hospital, of AIDS.
(Top photo and final photo courtesy of Eva Player)