North of 66 ~ A Trying Year in Polar River (age 27) 🙏

In 1993 we spent a year in a Northern Community. We had many good times but, there were at least three tragedies while we were there…

In early July 1993 we rolled into Polar River, just north of the Sixty-sixth parallel in the North West Territories.  We had been driving for several hot and dusty days on the road across Canada, from Newfoundland to Alberta and then straight North.  We passed through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon and then a full day up the gravel Dempster Highway, two hours beyond the Arctic Circle.  We had driven in tandem for a week, driving ‘Betsy’ our ’76 VW Van and our tiny Chevrolet Sprint we fondly called ‘Puny’. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t survive the trip.  Her engine blew in Whitehorse and, on a deadline to get to the job, we sold her body to a small Franco mechanic with the longest, most gorgeous ringlet hair we had ever seen.  His hair was way down his back and pure ringlets.  He saw me admiring it and said with a lop-sided grin: ‘the ladees, estee, they love my hairs, they are curly, non?’  I just wanted to touch it to verify that it was real. While in Whitehorse, we ate at a restaurant that is still there today: Sam N Andy’s. Interestingly and coincidentally, there is a very real chance we were served by my very good friend, Daisy, who lives and works in our current Nova Scotia town.  One day, decades later, Daisy and I came upon this nugget of truth while reminiscing about our Northern days.

Anyway, Dean had accepted a one-year contract position as Recreation Director for a tiny northern community of 150 First Nations Gwich’in people and roughly ten whites living in about 25 houses  built on pilings that were anchored into the permafrost.  There was a general store, an all levels school, a gym, two churches, a health centre and a community office on a hill overlooking the confluence of two icy rivers.  The setting was incredibly beautiful.  It felt like the final frontier.

The first thing we did was attend a community feast.  But, to call it a feast was a bit of a stretch.  It was simply hot dogs, pop and chips, but, we were so pleased to finally be there and soon to be on a payroll again, after more than a year, that we were all smiles and best intentions. The local children took our hands and tugged us along.  ‘How long will you be here?’ Charlie asked. They don’t mince words, I thought.  They also were intrigued with our little black lab puppy, ‘Dempster’ whom we had on a bright blue leash and matching collar.  Full of questions: ‘Why is he on leash?  Does he bite?  Why does he have a name? Do you feed him fish?  Will he be chained outside?’  And, of course questions directed at me like: ‘Is there a baby in your belly? Where are your children?’ These questions were telling.

At the feast, we met Allie, the daughter of the former old Chief Henry.  Allie was quite articulate and confident.  She told us of her recent huge adventure, trekking in Nepal. Little did we know then that we would be trekking in Nepal the following year, thanks to the seed planted by Allie at this little feast.

The Chief of Polar River, Gwen, was dysfunctional, mostly ineffective, extremely high maintenance and neurotic.  She expected Dean to be at the gym facility seven days a week, twenty-four hours per day. He was hired to do a job and she wanted him working non-stop.  Poor Dean, who is overly kind, was exhausted by her neediness in a couple of weeks. The gym, thankfully, was a very nice facility, a couple of minutes walk from our apartment, and was perched on the edge of the forest which was millions of acres of wilderness.  It was a state of the art building with a huge gym and fully stocked kitchen as well as Dean’s new office. Equipment galore: new, mats, rackets, nets.  New cross-country skis and new canoes came later when Dean applied for and received a grant for them, as well as money to hire an instructor to come up and teach canoeing. The instructor was this funny young guy from Manitoba.  He would exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I am being paid to teach the natives how to canoe’.

One of the main weekly events at the gym was the Wednesday night BINGO. Here was my husband with over seven years higher education and a former Army Captain, calling BINGO once per week.  It was comical, if a little sad.  It was a big event and it came with big winnings.  Hundreds of dollars were won each week.  I hung out in the kitchen, offering burgers and pop for sale, the proceeds going into the gym coffers. Dean was mandated to teach one of the local women how to run the gym facility and how to manage the budget and maintenance.  This young woman had four young children and a husband who played around on her.  Consequently, she wasn’t fully available.  Life in Polar River was both gritty and frustrating.  Like the day when one of the young kids who were always at the gym (free babysitting) told Dean, ‘I don’t have to listen to YOU, White Man’.  That child was about seven years old.

The first tragic thing to happen to us that year occurred on a gorgeous evening a month after we arrived.  I had been walking our lab puppy Dempster who was scampering ahead of me over the beaten-earth pathways. I was just skipping along and watching bemusedly as he chased a rodent under a house.  That was the last time I saw him alive. He didn’t come out from under the house… that I knew of.  I was calling and whistling. Nothing.  Then, a dirty blue pick-up drove up.  A young Gwich’in man, Billy, rolled down his window and with a smoke in his mouth said, ‘Your dog’s dead’.  And drove off. I ran down to the gravel road beneath the hill where I was standing, hoping it was a cruel joke, and this is what I saw:  My precious black lab puppy lying on his side with a growing pool of blood around his puppy head.  I began to cry bitterly, hugging myself and bending at the waist in my grief, one hand over my mouth.  Suddenly, I was feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this new place.  How could this happen to me? How could he be so cruel? Looking back a quarter of century, I realize that I was dealing with culture shock and home-sickness, being so new in a very foreign place, albeit still in Canada. The killing of our puppy didn’t mean much to young Billy because in his culture, they didn’t keep dogs as pets the way we do in the South. Someone went and fetched Dean and he came and wrapped his strong arms around me consoling me. Someone picked up Dempster in an old blanket and we drove down the Water Lake Road and Dean buried him while I sat in the car, still too upset to move, still in mild shock.  A few days later, on a sunny afternoon, a nice local man brought us a very cute puppy from his new litter. Our new puppy had pointy ears and muzzle.  He was fuzzy black and white, wolfish looking and stunk of fish – the only kind of food he knew.  We called him Delta, after the River Delta where he was born.

Dean worked away at his position and I picked up some work, just finding odd things to do that no one else would.  I made pots of soup and trays of sandwiches for Band Meetings.  I took people to the big town of Inuvik for shopping and medical appointments.  I typed minutes to various meetings.  Then I was offered a full-time position in the Community Office doing payroll, payables and receivables.  Later, I picked up the part-time position of Medical Centre Coordinator.  There was this beautiful Medical Centre equipped with two examination rooms, incredible instruments and medications and a locked cupboard of narcotics. There was also a small apartment meant for a visiting doctor or nurse.

dempster highwayOne day,  I was out walking when someone ran up to me saying that little Suzy had been mauled by a dog.  This was the second tragic thing to go down.  I ran as fast I could to find her laying just out of reach of a big, mean Husky that was chained in the backyard of someone’s house.  She was bleeding profusely from the many open wounds in her legs.  I screamed at anyone to go get Dean and to call an ambulance to come from the neighbouring larger community, Pierson, which was an hour away.  I prayed, spoke calmly to her and pressed rags on her wounds until Dean rolled up in our vehicle.  To this day, I do not know where her parents, friends or relatives were even though we were in the middle of town.  She was eight. We drove as fast as we could toward the Pierson Health Centre and the ambulance met us halfway. We transferred little Suzy into the ambulance and then followed it.  She was put on the medical table and her ripped clothing was removed and as I watched the doctor poured hydrogen peroxide into her open wounds. She was laying on her belly  repeating, ‘Owieeeee! Owieeeee!’   It occurred to me that this little girl was no stranger to pain. She received several hundred stitches to close her wounds.  A year later, after returning from Nepal, I would find myself managing the medical clinic in Inuvik and working for that same doctor that stitched her wounds.

As Recreation Director, Dean had a major event to plan and carry out:  the Spring Carnival which included many different competitions including snowmobile races and dogsled races.  He spent days planning and coordinating this major event which would attract many visitors from out of town, and which had several thousand dollars in prize money. Very early on the day of the big event, we were still in bed sleeping when the phone rang.   I picked it up: ‘Hello?’

‘Jordy’s dead’, said a voice.

Click.

Holy shit.  ‘Dean!’ I screamed,  ‘Get up!  Jordy’s dead.’  We spent the next several hours sorting out Jordy’s body at his house.  The RCMP came from Pierson and asked me all manner of lame questions. It was pretty obvious, if you had a nose, to detect  how he died.  The poor tortured soul smelled like a distillery mixed with a chemical waste plant. He died sitting up on his couch.  Next, we took his body by truck to the medical centre and laid it out on one of the beds. I had to stay at the medical centre until the coffin guy from Inuvik showed up.  Also,  two of Jordy’s female relatives came in to clean up his body in preparation for burial.  Despite the tragedy, it was an astoundingly beautiful sunny spring day and snow was melting rapidly.  I was happy that Dean would have a successful carnival because of it, but the warmth wasn’t doing anything for Jordy’s body odor issue. For a while I talked to the coffin guy and his wife on the deck at the medical centre (there was no being inside with good ole Jordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.

When we finally left Polar River in July of 1994, we were happy to go – we had big plans to go travelling, but, we had many mixed feelings about the North. Yes, the Gwich’in of Polar River had hired us, but, did we really have any business nosing our way into a tiny First Nations community, for a year? Did we do any good at all, or did we just cause surreptitious upset, undermining and questioning of the old ways?  I really don’t know for sure but, I think that the people of Polar River could most likely run their own gym (especially now that Dean had taught his protege), their own BINGO nights, their own health centre and do their own payroll, if push came to shove.  I think that maybe they had this idea that we Southerners knew more and could organize better but, we were left feeling that it would be best for them to leave our Southern ways and instead, get back to a more traditional way of life.  We had spent some time with the Old Chief Henry.  He would come to our apartment door and want a cup of tea. He told us many stories of the old days and spending time on the trap line, drying fish and getting caribou for the whole community, going by dog sled over the snow.  The traditional jobs that would be carried out by the women and the young men. How the children would play, tumbling and were cherished and spoiled by their Elders.  Traditional feasts and celebrations.  His eyes would glisten with the memories behind them.  I was in awe of this man who had lead his people for over three decades.  If I had a wish for the Northern Peoples it would be to go back to those ways and to embrace them once again, even if just little by little.

Perhaps that is impossible, but, I’m gonna wish it anyway.

Across Canada in Betsy (age 26) 🇨🇦

In 1992 we spent four months traveling Canada and Alaska in our 1976 VW Van…

When Dean and I were honourably released from the military in 1992, we brought back a 1976 VW Van with us from Germany and called her Betsy.  We knew that travelling would be part of our lives, having already seen a lot of Europe and enjoying the experience of embracing other cultures and locals but, before seeing the rest of the wide world, we wanted to experience our huge, beautiful country first.  We would travel every Province and each Territory with the mandate of seeing at least one National Park in each of them.

Newfoundland boats
A community close to Dean’s home

We spent the spring with Dean’s parents in Newfoundland, which was sweet, as it gave us some quality time with truly wonderful and good people.  To be in the vicinity of my father-in-law when he laughed was magical.  He was like an elf with a sweet spirit and kind nature.  When he would laugh, his shoulders would come up and his body would shake while his laughing smile took over his whole face.  One couldn’t help but be drawn in.  Dean’s mom was an incredibly strong, kind and thoughtful matriarch. She worked tirelessly and subtly  for her family (which was ever expanding with more and more grand-children), supporting them with Sunday Jigg’s dinners, knitted and crocheted sweaters, table cloths, toques, mitts, socks, home-made pies, jams, chow and beets, baby-sitting and advice. Neither of them was given to showy acts of affection like hugs or spoken I love yous, but their love was obvious and ever present and seen in the way they looked at you, asked if you had had enough to eat or in the manner they would engage in conversation or try to help with a concern. Dean’s parents were the best kind of folks and it was my absolute pleasure to meet and live with them that spring.  I could see why my Dean was such a wonderful young man.

We had spent hours getting Betsy ready for the trip.  We wanted to be completely self-sufficient.  We had tons of storage space in her.  Under the seat in the back we neatly stored many containers of dried foods: a variety of beans, rice, lentils, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dehydrated vegetables, coffee, hot chocolate and sauces.  In the front top area we stored two dozen gallon jugs of water.  There was also a coleman stove, fuel, pots, plates, utensils, knives and a cutting board.  We packed her with our clothes, laundry soap, wash basin, books, candle lantern, down duvet, pillows, maps, hiking gear and more.  We were kitted out AND we had several bottles of preserves as well as home-made wine and Bailey’s thanks to our sister-in-law’s suggestion. (We would have never thought of that. Ever.)

We had already seen lots of Newfoundland and had hiked several hikes at Gross Morne and Blow Me Down so off we went to the ferry and arrived in Cape Breton and pointed Betsy up the Cabot Trail.  Its a highway trail that travels the edge of cliff for a few hundred kms with breath-taking scenery of the big blue below.  I have to say, the drive was terrifying.  I would lean way over toward Dean as he was driving, away from the certain death of driving off that cliff.

Next was P.E.I. where we camped on a red sand beach and, in the pouring rain went to a pub in Charlottetown to celebrate our anniversary.  A big indulgence which had the two of us feeling like gold.  On to New Brunswick where we stayed at Fundy National Park and walked on the ocean floor, marveling at the huge high tides, not knowing that a decade and a bit later we would be living in a tidal town just across the water.  Next was Quebec where we visited La Maurice National Park and where we had picked up an old friend and her two pre-school boys to travel and camp with us for a couple of days.  That was eye-opening.  The boys never stopped and consequentially, nor did their Mom.  We had been enjoying such decadence, doing whatever we pleased.  Now learning that, as a parent, it’s not all about you.  Who knew? It was a valuable lesson to behold.  At another park in Quebec we did an overnight canoe trip which was very scenic and physically challenging during the portages but, horrible in the torrential rain for hours.

In Ontario, of course there were many visits to make to family members and friends residing there.  It was lovely to be greeted, questioned and welcomed and to bathe and launder our clothes was nice too.  In Ontario we visited Point Pelee National Park with it’s long boardwalk that traverses some wet lands on the way to the sandy beach of Lake Erie.  It is the southern most tip of Canada.

Point Pelee
Point Pelee National Park

From there we heading North and wow, Ontario is a big province.  We headed up to muskeg country and then across the top of Lake Superior.  We stopped in an unmanned provincial campground and met a couple of wonderful travelers.  A Dutch guy biking across Canada and a 65 year old Retired Naval Captain who was traveling and sleeping in his station wagon: John Shaughnessy.  We cooked up a simple pasta meal and invited them to join us at our picnic table.  It was a lovely evening of travel talk.  When we offered more food to the Dutch guy, he accepted.  John Shaughnessy would say: No, no. You go right ahead. Good answer, right?  Another thing we liked about John Shaughnessy is how he would greet new people.  It could be Joe Gas Pump Man, he would stick out his hand and say: Hello.  John Shaughnessy. How are you?  It was fascinating comparing military stories with him.  We had just gotten out of the Army and this was a retired US Naval Captain. That is four gold stripes to our two.  To us, that was something. He was bright, adventurous, charming and intelligent.  We would see him several more times over the next few months, partly because we encouraged him to travel our way. We all got along famously.

In Manitoba we visited Riding Mountain National Park and in Saskatchewan – Grasslands National Park.  One night, in Saskatchewan, we pulled over at the edge of a vast farmer’s field. There wasn’t a soul or a vehicle around. We could see for hours, so we knew that for sure.  We decided to camp there for the night and so, popped up the top of Betsy.  We used to call the top of Betsy upstairs, as in, I’m going upstairs to bed.  Watching the sun set in the West, we thought we had it all: each other; a wonderful adventure; good health; good humour (most of the time); and just when we thought that list was complete, we looked over to the other horizon to see the moon rising in the East.  Such a big beautiful sky in the prairies.  That was the first time I had ever seen both orbs in the sky.

bisonIn Alberta we
visited Elk Island National Park and it was here that we encountered a very large bison in the woods.  We had been simply hiking along quietly, on a hot, twisty trail through woods of young saplings.  Suddenly, looking up, we saw a huge snorting shape quietly staring at us and a bit beyond him, his harem lying on the ground. We retreated, rather hastily and then breathed a sigh of relief.

From there we headed north into to the bottom of North West Territories, stopping at Fort Simpson where, with John Shaughnessy, flew into Nahanni National Park in a tiny Cessna aircraft, puking all the way. No kidding.  The updrafts of warm air batted us around crazily.  Thank goodness for the airsick bag.  The scenery was gorgeous but I, for one, was way too nauseous to enjoy it. Once on the ground we hiked into the falls. Spectacular and quite noisy.  I immediately dunked my head in the freezing cold water, aiding the departure of the nausea. I should say here that John Shaughnessy sure as heck did not get sick.

Next we meandered our way to Alaska and decided upon a truly physically challenging adventure: hiking the the Chilkoot Trail at Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park starting in Skagway, Alaska and ending three to five days later in the ghost town of Bennett, BC.  It is the trail that had been used in the 1890s by the Goldrush crowd heading over White Pass to find their fortunes in gold.  John Shaughnessy bid us farewell, as it was not paprospectorsrt of his plan to do such a hike.  We would miss him.  The hike was challenging for sure.  The photo is of the prospectors in the late 1800s who were risking life and limb in the hopes of finding gold.  When I look at that angle they are hiking at, carrying huge loads, in ancient gear, I think: hopeful desperation.  Many died horrible deaths due to harsh conditions, starvation, tooth decay, frostbite and many other unpleasant issues. The line formed by the ant-sized black dots in the photo are heading up over the pass after having gone through The Scales.  At The Scales their amount of supplies were weighed and assessed. They had to have one ton of goods per person!! They had to have certain survival items, like a tent, frying pan and so many pounds of flour, sugar etc before being allowed over the pass.  Dean and I had a back pack each.  We were good. Three days later, Dean and I walked into the final camp ground of the hike.  It had been a physical test but it also had been eye candy and interesting to traverse the same path as those old fortune seekers.  We also met Michelle and Mike from Oz, whom we visited a couple of years later. (See post: We’re Not in Canada Anymore — this is Oz).

From British Columbia to Kluane National Park in the Yukon and then to Banff, Alberta where we enjoyed the hub-bub of that city. It was in Banff that we were pulled over by the police which was puzzling because we had done nothing wrong.  The Mountie leaned into Betsy and asked: Are you Dean Joyce?  Dean’s face fell.  If a cop in Alberta knew your name, that couldn’t be good.  You need to call home as soon as possible.  Finding a pay phone and making the call, we were informed of the sad and tragic news that Dean’s father had suffered a massive heart attack.  We flew to Newfoundland the next day. After quite a battle, Dean’s father rallied and lived another ten wonderful years.

Fun and Foibles at the Camp 🎣 (18)

Oh when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever, And if I had the choice, Yeah, I’d always want to be there
Those were the best days of my life
~Bryan Adams
Summer of ’69

The summer I was 19 was the first summer that my eldest sister Eva owned the camp. I had just graduated from high school and would be attending University in the fall.  My best friend Flo was already studying Nursing.  Both of us needed a full-time job and had asked at July’s Diner if we could work there.  With a yes from July’s, we promptly began to plan.

We moved to the camp with my little brother Luke and with Eva’s middle child Jake, who was four, we started the opening clean up, just as Mom had taught me.  Start systematically at cabin number one and spend a whole day on each cabin.  In past years with Mom, we would work until noon then Mom would have Job build a small fire in the outdoor fire-pit of the cabin we were working on.  Job was good at that.  Mom would make soup and fried bologna or wieners over the fire.  After eating and much to our enjoyment, she would pop popcorn in lard over the fire.  We would just love those days with Mom.   I digress.  It was hard, dirty work and there was a lot to do: clean, dust, paint, move things, wipe down cupboards, count dishes and cutlery, ensure pots and pans were there, affix curtains, paint and tidy…it was endless.  One time, Flo reached up into a corner shelf and pulled out a stiff dead mouse by the tail, holding it horizontally while I squealed, having been startled by the oddity of it, so stiff and straight.  Flo just chuckled at my antics.  At the end of each full day, we all went out to July’s for a feed of fish and chips or something akin.  Little Jake was an angel who was constantly helpful and pleasant and a joy to have with us.

Early the following week, working on number nine, we decided it needed a lick of paint. It was a bright, warm sunny day.  Perfect for working on our tans at the same time and Luke had taken little Jake out fishing for the afternoon.  We had the boom box playing full tilt: BORN in the USA and SUMMER OF SIXTY NINE and JOURNEY tapes.  I should mention here that Flo was a tireless worker.  She would never stop and it was a pleasure and a joy to have her by my side for the summer, and she is still my oldest best friend today.  So, we got up on the long ladder and once up there, feeling the sun on our backs, decided it would be perfect for topless painting.  All was fine and good and we were working and singing, tanning and laughing.  Suddenly, between songs we heard the rumble of an approaching tractor. ANGUS BRECKNER!!!! Oh my god.  The very cute farm-boy of similar age to us, Angus was coming to cut the hay today.  You never saw us scramble so fast down those ladders to find our t-shirts, screaming all the way.

The season began and we slipped into a routine. A johnny cake breakfast with Eva and the three boys who would kneel on their chairs, their blond heads forming steps on one side of the table. Next, chores which usually consisted of garbage pick up plus other light maintenance or cleaning jobs. After chores there was time for swimming and a bit of sun-bathing and then it was time for work at the diner in town.  Sometimes we would bike to town but often we would get a ride from a friend, Angus or his buddy, or we would walk the two miles along the side of the highway.sunset

Come the weekend there would often be various camp-fires or pit parties to attend.  We also had friends of the male persuasion who would sometimes accompany us to Deer Hurst in Huntsville where we would dance and enjoy the house band being silly and celebrating our youthfulness.  The best song came out that year: N-N-N-N-Nineteen, Nineteen.  It was like it was written for us.

Another time we went out with our red-head friend Marvin.  There were a few of us in his little jeep.  We were driving pell mell along yet another dark, dirt, hilly, twisty turny country road for the sheer joy of the drive.  Flo and I were squealing and ooohing with each directional change.  Suddenly, Marvin slowed the jeep and driving close to the right side of the road, started to accelerate while turning sharply to the left.  The jeep leaned over on two tires, EEEEEEK!  It hesitated, as if deciding what to do, then over it went into the ditch, landing on its right side. There were a few expletives uttered at that point then Marvin said rather calmly and clearly in his deep voice: get out before she blows.  Oh Jesus did we scramble to get out.  The last person climbed out and let the door slam.  It slammed on my right thumb.  Marvin ran back and opened the door so I could escape. Whew.  That was a close one.  The jeep did not blow.

During other summers, from time to time a high school friend would come up and stay at the camp. When Sue (a boy named Sue, just like in the Johnny Cash song), arrived with his family, I was quite happy to see him. I enjoyed his company and we had had many good times together.  As my sister Amy would say: he was a good head. (That’s a compliment).

One night we had heard about a campfire out off the Cane Road.  Amy was at the camp with her car and, always generous, allowed us to use it.  In we piled.  There was Sue, Karrie from across the lake, a friend named Faye from the narrows, and myself. However, after a bit, I was a tad worried about Sue who was drinking large amounts of rye, thanks to Doug, the host, and he was getting quite drunk.  We finally got him into the car after pulling him out of the ditch and started down the gravel, country road toward the camp.  Suddenly, without much warning, except to ask that the window be rolled down, which it wasn’t, Sue got sick all over Faye.  He had projectile vomited such that there was vomit on the car wall and window with a silhouette of Faye where her head and body had received it rather than the wall.  We should have seen it coming.  I pulled over and quickly asked Karrie to open the rear door.  Sue tumbled out head first and landed in the ditch for the second time.  He was moaning, groaning and puking.  He waved at us saying just leave me here, just leave me here. Ya, no.  I would not be leaving Sue there in some ditch on some god-forsaken, dark, forest-edged road. I yelled at him to get sick once more then to climb into the car.

The next morning I was cleaning number one cabin when I heard some commotion by the men’s outhouse.  There was Sue.  His large teenage male body was standing, slightly stooped, in the open door of the outhouse, his back to me.  He was holding a Pocket Fisherman (for a split second my mind reeled back to the time, years prior, when I had wanted so badly to use Eva’s husband Peter’s Pocket Fisherman and he so generously indulged me.  Next, I promptly raised my right arm to cast the line and then somehow dropped it into an unfamiliar dark lake and just watched it sink.  Frozen in horror at what I had just done.  Peter had very graciously just waved it away, neither one of us wanting to go in after it.)

Anyway, Sue was holding the Pocket Fisherman the line of which was down the hole.  He appeared to be fishing something out of the shitter.  This was going to be interesting.  I asked him what he was up to. Sue turned and his face was green.  His front teeth were missing.  He hesitated and seemed to argue with himself for a split second but, finally admitted that he was fishing his partial denture out of the shitter.  It had fallen out when he was sick…..

Later, Amy and I saw him with his teeth in place.  He told us he had boiled his denture for three hours. Poor Sue. That was a rough turn of events because after fishing his denture out of the poop, and then sterilizing it, he then had to go clean up Amy’s car which we had closed the night before and left in the sun. Not pretty.

sunset2The summer went on with canoeing, swimming, jumping off the rocks into the lake, exploring, campfires, chores and fun. Then we met Len, the son of a hockey great who had a cottage near the camp and to call it a cottage was a vast understatement.  It was massive with double doors leading into a great room with a double staircase heading up to a landing then splitting in two, heading in opposite directions around a upper story landing with several bedroom doors visible from below.  There was no electricity and the whole place was made of weathered wood, but was new and in perfect repair.  I could not stop looking at everything.  Up at the top of the wall there were a few posters of the hockey legend, taken in his day.

Len had all the toys and a boathouse and a boat, skis and all the gear.  The top of the boathouse was a games room with pool table, table tennis, shuffle board, darts and a cooler full of pop.  The boathouse had a balcony from which we would jump or dive into the lake below.  It was teenager heaven.  He would invite us over sometimes to water ski. We would have a ball! Mysteriously, whenever I told Dad I was going to hang out with Len, he would jump up off the couch and offer me a ride.  I think he would have been quite happy if I had gotten serious with the son of a hockey legend.  Imagine.

dock

Bringing Home the Bacon 🥓

Every summer all nine of us would move to the lake where we had a ten-cabin campground. We would have daily paid chores then run barefoot, swimming, boating, fishing and playing. It was idyllic…almost always.

I bet I was the only ten-year-old kid who knew that the address of The Toronto Star was 1 Yonge Street, Toronto.  I knew this piece of completely useless information because at the tender age of five years old, I had a paper route – The Toronto Star.  I exaggerate slightly.  The route was actually my older brother’s but, I had been given the responsibility of delivering a single paper to one out-of-the-way customer:  Mrs. Wilson– about ten doors north of our house.  I got paid a hefty 5 cents per week for such a tough job.  It was much to my embarrassment though, when the phone would ring while all nine of us were all ensconced at the supper table and Mom would look at me and say, Morgan, did you deliver your paper?  Invariably I had forgotten.  I would have been too busy at play to think of it.  I had to then drop my fork and run off with Mrs. Wilson’s paper.  As the years went by I was given more and more papers to deliver and customers to collect from and one day I found that the whole route was mine – handed down from Matt to Mark to Job and finally, to me.

The Saturday Star was so heavy that, in order for me to be able to deliver all the papers from one load, I had to lug the bag to the top of our front, concrete stoop.  I would sit on the third step and back into the head-sling of the loaded paper bag and then, leaning way over until my nose was almost touching the ground, I would stagger forward and allow the full weight of the bag to sit on my back.  I often wondered how badly I could injure my neck if I were to just fall the wrong way or, if I were to stumble, out-of-control onto the street, would the car that hit me be damaged by the sack of papers on my back or would I just simply be crushed beneath them?

Most of my paper route, thankfully, was in The Apartments, an eight-story apartment building, just down the hill from us.  When I was still quite little, I wasn’t able to reach the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors on the elevator’s button panel.  Alas, I had the ultimate solution.  I would lumber into the elevator and somehow drop my paper bag off my head, without wrenching my wee neck, and stand on the full paper bag in order to reach the button for the top floor.  I would then deliver the papers on the descending floors, using the heavy bag to hold the elevator door open as I progressed.  When the bag was no longer heavy enough to hold the elevator door open, I would carry the bag, deliver the papers and then take the flight of stairs down to the next floor. The whole process was quite an art.  I may have been the most efficient little papergirl there was.

My career as an earner started then.  I was a papergirl until I was 15.  I started to baby-sit at the age of 12.  I worked as a bus-girl at The Crock & Block Restaurant at the age of 15 while living with my sister Eva.  I then had various waitressing jobs: Lafayette, O’Toole’s, Silky’s, and July’s Restaurant for five summers until joining the army at 19 (see post I’m In The Army Now).  Dad did not believe in giving us an allowance.  We had to earn everything we ever got.  As a Player you learned the value of a dollar at a young age and, you never forgot it.

It was at Silky’s in Walden that I experienced working for the most dysfunctional couple of crazy people I have ever encountered.  I hated working there because of it and dreaded each shift.  Tom, the chief cook and owner would SCREAM at his wife, Darlene all the live long day:  BUTTER RIGHT TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD FOR FUCK SAKES! RIGHT TO THE FUCKIN EDGE!!! AND GET IT OUT HOT!!! YOU BLOODY STUPID BITCH.  Oh Lord did I detest that place.  The tension should have been on the menu because it was the most abundant item they produced. I just now googled the place.  It is still open.  Unbelievable.  The food was good though.

Why work there?  I was in grade 12 and needed a job.  My sister Amy had helped me get the job through a friend of a friend and I was ever so grateful.  Amy always had so many connections made through her work as a hairstylist. By this time, Mom was living in a tiny apartment with her alcoholic boyfriend and working as a server for minimum wage at cafeteria-style restaurant in Woolworth downtown.  I would go visit her and she would look so tired.  So worn out.  Oh god.  It would break my heart. This was her reality after raising seven children and keeping a wonderful home for us for 26 years.  She did not come out of the divorce well. I could not ask her for a penny.  She worked so hard and made so little.

At that time, my younger brother and I had a bedroom each in the basement of our bungalow and Dad was upstairs. I had been getting a couple of shifts per week at O’Toole’s Roadhouse Restaurant, but, it went bankrupt and it wasn’t long before I was without money.  One particular day, having spent my savings, I had to ask Dad for money for necessities: menstrual pads.

He turned my down.  He would not give me five bucks for pads.  I was seething.  I hated him.

I was forced to use cotton t-shirts cut into rags.  Nice.  God I hated him.  It was incredible how much I hated him.  I feel that hatred even now, decades later.  And not giving me money, when he had plenty of money, for necessities, was just one of his many faults.  The others were worse. Like when he would come barging into my room, even though my door was closed, and catch me half-dressed or naked but with the old sorry, sorry.  I didn’t know you were dressing.  Or he would forcibly hold me down and lick my face with his very wet, warm tongue – his bad breath washing over me as I would struggle — I just want to give my daughter a little kiss.  Or, he would comment on my developing body you’re getting rather hippy, Morgan, you better watch it, you don’t want to get fat.  Or, he would routinely reach out and touch my bum as I would be walking past him and then exclaim yippee in a falsetto voice.  Then there were the many times his robe would mysteriously open and there would be hairy, wrinkled genitals for all to see.  Oh god.  I would be mortified when he would inevitably do this with teenaged Flo and Sally visiting.  Show us his penis, by accident, of course, and then giggle about it as he snuck away back to his fart-stinking room.  With all that I have read, learned and experienced in life regarding body image (see The Body Positive post) and now as a parent, here is one truism: never comment on a child’s body except to say how lucky we are to have one that does so much for us.  Our body is truly a marvel which should be loved, respected, adorned, nourished, cleaned, clothed and loved some more.

So, my relationship with Dad was love / hate for sure.  At times I would love him for his silliness and his zest for life and enthusiasm about certain topics: sport, recreation, small business, celebration.  Dad loved to laugh.  He would often have us all in stitches at the supper table, recounting his Skollard Hall days in a falsetto voice.  He liked that falsetto voice.  I do truly think he was doing his best to father us the best way he could, considering the factors at play in his upbringing and his generation and with the added factor of the Catholic guilt monitoring all that he did.  Another factor in the break down of his marriage was mental illness.

Mom had been a classic Bipolar 1.  When she was pregnant or nursing, which was a lot of the time until she was 42 and weened Luke, she did not have symptoms of mental illness.  But, then it hit and it hit hard.  She was hospitalised with full on psychosis several times in the seventies.  I remember waking up around age six and walking around looking for mom.  No one would tell me that she had been taken to the hospital: 5C – the psyche ward.  She was there for weeks.  We would go visit her and it was like she was a different person.  She was in a fog.  It was heart wrenching.  I missed her so bad.  I just wanted my mommy back.  I would cry myself to sleep missing her so much. She would sometimes be smoking when we visited.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  (Back then you could smoke in parts of the hospital. Yep.  Unbelievable, right?)

In the summer, at the lake, Mom would become more and more manic.  Her manic energy was put to good use with cleaning and maintaining the ten cabins of the camp that we moved to every summer.  Lock, stock and barrel, all nine of us would move two hours North to the camp and live on the lake all summer – running the tourist resort – as it used to be known.  It was truly beautiful there: 21 forested acres, half-mile of lake frontage, only 2 miles from a village for supplies, ten antique, rustic cabins on private lots with tall trees, most cabins on the water with their own dock and a sandy beach.  For many years we even had a diving tower and trampoline over the water.  Dad’s idea.  Dad being a teacher, had envisioned the need for a business and an escape from the city.  (We would have killed each other staying in the city all summer.  No doubt about it.) It was pure genius and is one of those things I loved about my Dad.  He had these great ideas at times.  We enjoyed idyllic summers – running around barefoot, swimming, boating, water-skiing, canoeing and socializing with all the campers.  Yes, we had work and chores, but, we were paid for them and it was just a couple of hours a day.  Our summers at the camp were the envy of my friends.  In fact, many of my friends would come to the camp, either to stay with us in the office or as paying guests and stay in a cabin or tent.

So, Mom would become manic and work, work, work.  I remember waking up early to find her bed empty.  She would already be out there working.  Dad was much more sedentary.  He would do all of the business-end of things: letters, bills, payments, promotions.  All this to say, that mom’s mental illness was raging on, unchecked for several years.  From reading I have done, because I too am bipolar 1 (read: Locked Up in DC), the more episodes there are the more easily an episode will occur.  The brain makes these pathways that become easier and easier to follow and so sanity slips further and further away.  So, to be fair, it could not have been easy dealing with this major impediment.  When Mom finally went on lithium, and stayed on lithium, things were so much better.  She was stable.  Stable is good.

***

I wasn’t the first in my family to work at July’s Restaurant up at the Lake.  My older sister Eva had worked there a decade prior to me.  Eva would sometime recount one of her most embarrassing moments while working there.  This man would come into the restaurant almost daily.  He would take a seat beside the coffee maker in the kitchen in the mid-afternoon when it wasn’t too busy.  He would just sit and chat up the kitchen staff and the servers as they would come and go from the kitchen.  So, Eva walks into the kitchen this one day and slaps Buddy on the back and asks him how the heck he is doing today.  That would have been all fine except that when she slapped him on the back his toupee went flying off his head and landed a few feet away on the kitchen floor.

Silence.

You could have heard a mosquito tapping on the window.  After a split second hesitation and with a very red face, Eva quickly grabbed the toupee off the floor.  Put it back on Buddy’s head.  Smoothed it out.  Told him: you have very nice hair. Then, turned on her heel to walk out.