The cedar shakes on the sides of our house were faded and worn, blackened by rain and mildewed with neglect. While the summer sun kissed the rest of the world, it came to rest on our house with a slight sense of distaste. Usually. This morning was different. This morning the sun would dance proudly on our dingy rooftop, tossing its’ bright orange smile over the coastal rain forest to introduce the rest of the day. And a very special day it was. This day there would be a concert, a jazz concert and I was up by five in the morning to make sure it didn’t slip by without me. I was six years old. I loved jazz.
When the sun finally licked the arbutus tree outside the window that connected my bedroom to the greens and blues of the forest outside, I had already been sitting on my bed, dressed in my only dress, for at least an hour. I laid it out carefully the night before, pale cream cotton with blue stitched cornflowers along the hem and armholes. White, almost white, knee socks were stuffed precisely in my scuffed white patent leather strapped shoes set parallel on the floor underneath the chair my dress rested upon.
My family, my mother, stepfather, half-brother and me had, in some divine, twisted jest, been propelled into the arms of the United Church and one of it’s summer camps as caretakers on the Vancouver Island east coast, in Nanoose, a nutmeg-sized hamlet wedged between Lantzville and Parksville. Nanoose had no “ville” except for maybe the gas station that fed out from the cedar-bowered country road snaking, seducing it’s path to the highway that skewered together all the towns and their outposts along the length of the Island. The humor in my family’s posting, as I was aware of in my early appreciation of irony, was that my mother and stepfather were anything but church material. Many a day and night saw the cedar shakes shaking with the rage that runs pandemic with the disillusionment of a lifetime of perceiving good fortune as something that happens to other people.
There was little empathy or loving or kindness hovering in our hallways, no gaiety that wasn’t squeezed from the dregs of a bottle in our living room. The flipside of this boozy mirth would invariably be evidenced under cream concealer, long-sleeved shirts and high-clouded faces that let just enough light in to notice but not enough to really see. My stepfather would sometimes sit on the chair my dress had been laid upon, snapping a folded leather belt in the middle of the night, looming and ominous as my brother and me held our breath in our bunk beds, rigidly praying he would get bored and leave. Or pass out.
In my own prayers I prayed that God would give me the strength to kill this man one day.
But today my soul rested in the arms of the sun and as it climbed, so did my energy. I sat trembling on the side of my bed until I could hear my mother stirring in the house, making coffee and stoking the blackened iron wood fire stove. The mornings and evenings were still cool this early in the summer, so we would get the fire roaring just before bedtime, then cover it with ashes so that in the morning we could just dust off the embers, add a piece of kindling wood and the house would be warm before you knew it.
I tiptoed out to the kitchen, not wanting to wake anyone else. “Hi Mom…” I whispered, not so much for the low volume but because I was afraid if I let too much energy out with my voice I might just blow up, and it was far too early in the day for that.
“Oh, hi honey…” she rasped, not looking up from the aluminum percolator that stood, underscored with sooty grease, on the iron grill of the stove. She had been singing on the beach with the campers until past their curfew last night and by the time I said goodnight she was well into a large bottle of her homemade dandelion wine. As the coffee bubbled she stared at it, eyes glazed, like a coyote would ogle a house cat before pouncing on it and consuming it whole.
We would eat breakfast later at the cook hall down the road. The camp consisted of several cabins, a small hall for gathering and church services, our house and the large cook hall, with a huge kitchen where my step-father, a baker, would make hundreds of pancakes every morning for all the hungry kids lining up at the long wooden tables to eat. For all his shortcomings, he was a very good cook.
My mother was pouring herself a cup of precious brew. “Can I go outside?” I asked, inching backwards toward the screen door, as she finally turned around to look at me. “What are you doing in that dress? You can’t go outside and play in it, you’ll get it filthy!”
“I want to be ready for the jazz concert!” I offered indignantly, “I won’t get it dirty, I promise!”
“The concert isn’t until this afternoon!”
“Mom, pleeeease! I promise!” We both heard my stepfather’s heavy feet shuffling in their bedroom. Mother groaned and rolled her eyes before closing them in apparent agony. “Just go! Make sure you show up for breakfast.”
I skipped out the door, running straight to the tire swing dangling off the mangy barked arbutus. It was there when we moved in and was one of my favourite places in the whole world to be. This wasn’t just any old tire swing. The arbutus was situated on a small hill out to the side and behind our house. The rope was long enough that you could sit in the tire and climb your way up to push off the highest part of the hill and out over “the valley” (the ditch between the hill and the road), high up into the air before swinging back past the tree. Then I would just sit there swinging, legs dangling, lost in the thousands of greens, reds and yellows pulsing in the forest around me, inhaling the flowering cottonwoods until the tire stopped and started slowly spinning in place, first one way and then another.
This morning I tucked myself through the tire hole after carefully brushing away the perpetual dust rising from the scantily graveled road and laid there, my feet piloting me in circles. I saw a stick and propelled myself over to get it, and after falling back to center, I started drawing in the dirt. I knew at that moment that time was not my friend. Every time I wanted it to go faster, it dug its’ heels in and stuck it’s tongue out at me and took a nap. Every time I wanted it to go slower, it didn’t even stop to taunt me, it just shook the dust off and fled. How could you love something with that kind of attitude?
As I scratched away with my stick I could hear the stirrings of the camp. There was the breaking of twigs and a shallow throat-clearing cough on the way to the outhouse. Birds were gathering and flitting, disgruntled crows hopping and challenging, robins fishing their way through the grassy patches. The morning engine of the camp was idling as the world heated up. Then to the forward motion of the day, always forward, never in reverse. I felt restless and trapped into the passenger seat of this destiny car in the O of my tire swing. So I left.
Wandering down the shadowy forest path to the beach, I found myself seeking out just the right rocks to turn over, hoping to surprise a few tiny, scurrying crabs. The tide was well away from the shore and the seaweed-mottled rocks were slimy and slippery as I teetered my way out to where I knew the best crab rocks to be. Problem was, after you lifted a rock a few times over a week or so, the crabs would move on, tired of the interruptions. Guess I would be tired of staying too if I had some monster girl in a cream dress with blue cornflowers staring down at me. Just as I was smiling to myself at the thought of a giant girl lifting up our sad old house I slipped on the green slime, sliding onto my butt as the skirt of my dress puffed up around me. When I lifted my right foot out of the shallow murky, salty puddle it had slipped into, I knew there would be trouble. I stood up shakily, terrified, checking out the damage to my dress and shoes. The dress would be all right; there was only a faint wet ring around the hem that would be dry in no time, but the shoe and the soaking sock inside it were a problem. I didn’t even want to think about my underpants and the seaweed smeared on the back of them!
I was on my way back to the camp, one foot squelching, feeling very uncomfortable walking crab-legged with my wet underpants drooping off me when I heard the breakfast bell ringing, signaling the exodus of fifty or so kids and counselors from their cabins to the Cook Hall. My mother, stepfather and brother would already be at the hall but I didn’t want to take a chance that I might run into one of the eagle-eyed Camp Counselors so I ducked off the road, peeling away my underwear, shoes and socks furtively in the salaal bushes and crouched down to wait.
When the camp was quiet again, except for the dull throb of voices from the Cook Hall, I crept back onto the path and ran as fast as I could past the hall, back to our house, carrying my soiled shoes, socks and underwear in a bundle clasped tightly in my arms. I hardly felt the pebbles and small sticks digging into my feet as I ran, but then if it were up to me I’d never wear shoes, especially in the summer. I liked the feel of the earth directly beneath my toes. It made me feel like I was rooted in something more reliable than humanity.
Back at the house the screen door slammed behind me as I ran to my bedroom and grabbed a clean pair of underwear from the drawer under my bed. Phew! So far so good. I stood, winded, looking at my bundle. The socks and underwear would find refuge in the laundry hamper until the jazz concert was over, but the shoes needed work.
Under the kitchen sink I found the white paint I had seen my mother use on my stepfather’s white chef’s shoes, and after rinsing my muddy shoe and drying it on the tea towel, I painted both my shoes all over with the stuff, cleaning off the pasty drips from the black heels with the now muddy tea towel. The laundry hamper obliged once again by eating up the towel after I used it one final time to polish my shoes when the paint had dried.
Turning them from side to side, I eyed my shoes critically, deciding that although they weren’t perfect, they would do unless someone was going to hold them right up close for inspection like I was doing now. Still without socks, I slipped my shoes back on and raced to breakfast at the Cook Hall.
Some of the campers were already taking their syrupy, empty plates back to the big plastic soapy tubs sitting on the tables that separated the kitchen from the eating hall where they were dumped, clattering and clanging to be washed before rinsing in the kitchen sink. I held my breath, trying to shrink in it’s absence as I slinked past the tubs and my dishwashing mother, my shoes clacking softly on the wooden floor in the midst of a sea of flip flops and running shoes.
“You’re late.” The words came just as I thought I had cleared her gaze and so, startled, I turned around to see her looking up from the tub, red-faced and shiny from the steam. There was no explanation that she wanted to hear so I stayed silent, looking up at her for my sentence. “Come help me with the dishes. If you weren’t hungry enough to get to breakfast on time, you can wait awhile more until these dishes are done before you eat.”
I began ferrying the soapy washed dishes to the sink for rinsing, relieved to be present and breathing again. I had seen my mother’s eyes take me in from top to bottom and back again, and she hadn’t mentioned my shoes or the absence of socks. But with my stepfather scrubbing the grill a few feet away, if she had noticed anything she would have kept it to herself. No telling what could set him off these days. In my mother’s world, avoidance had been elevated to a high art, along with self-interest and preservation.
As I helped clean up, I saw some of the campers playing with my little brother, chasing him around the tables, his blond curly hair bouncing and his baby pearl teeth bared in a wild and unhinged smile as he laughed and screamed, dodging their tagging hands. In another corner they were singing to a few stragglers working on their second helping of pancakes, “Mable, Mable, elbows on the table, this is not a horse’s stable!”
The morning was still moving far too slowly for my liking. Although I hadn’t eaten yet, I wasn’t that hungry as I finished rinsing the last of the dishes, standing on an old milk carton and humming to myself. I took my time. My mother, stepfather and brother had all gone back to the house, the campers and counselors had all laughed and chattered through the woods to their cabins and then to the beach to row the little boats waiting there out to Scripp’s Island, just outside of the bay.
I had gone to the island by myself once. Just got into a rowboat and started rowing like I’d seen the campers do. It took awhile, but I finally made it to the island and pulled my boat up onto the smooth, rocky shore. As I explored the island, I found fruit trees almost buried in fields of high grass and brambles. There was an old cottage, sagging with vines slowly choking out all the memories of whoever had built it so long ago. An old well, or the remnants of the stone wall and crank of an old well stood just inside a split-beam fence. The fence didn’t make sense to me. Was it keeping someone in or something out? The island was so small, only about ten acres or so, surrounded by the ocean. Surely a fence was superfluous?
But then there I was, poking about and maybe whoever had built the cottage had grown weary of people like me and the church campers rowing up to their island and the fence was their way of saying, “Please go away”. I reckoned if they were living on such an island in the first place, they probably weren’t big fans of small talk.
After I stacked the last of the dried dishes on the counter and stowed the milk box under the sink, I clacked my way to the door, heel to toe, heel to toe then tap-danced a little like I’d seen Sammy Davis Jr. doing on the Dean Martin show. I thought there could be no cooler thing in life than singing and dancing on a show like that! And Dean Martin! He was smooth and warm, like hot milk when the rain turns cold. When I grew up I was going to find him and get on that show, one way or another and that was it!
Tap-tap…tap-e-dy tap-tap! I listened to the sound my shoes made on the wood planks by the door, and then stepped back a few feet to where the floor sounded deeper. Tap-tap-tap…edy tap! Then back and forth I tapped, or tried to tap. I had never had a lesson but I watched like a hawk when anyone tapped on television. My mother said there was no one around here to teach tap, but there was an accordion teacher living in a cabin on the property next door to the church camp. He came around sometimes and played for the campfire sing-a-longs while my mother sang songs like “Oh Sinner Man”, which for the longest time I thought was “Oh Cinnamon”. Seemed like a lot of gloom and doom in that song for a silly old spice.
The accordion teacher, Bob, gave me an accordion for a while, but one night my mother and stepfather started screaming and yelling and he called her a slut and a whore and stomped out. The next morning he was quiet, seething, cooking breakfast as usual, but the accordion was gone. I didn’t mind too much though. It’s really tough to play jazz on an accordion.
I tapped my way down the stairs onto the wooded path that made my soles go whumph and stopped, deliberating my options. If I went home to eat, I might find a darkness lurking there that I could not reconcile with the sunshine of this day. As long as my chores were done and I showed up for lunch, there would be no inquisition into my adventures, I could do what I liked. I took a moment to figure out what that was.
I couldn’t go get my brother to play with. He had just recovered from a very bad allergic reaction to a bee sting. Head swollen up like a watermelon and fists purple with blood and venom we raced him to the hospital in Nanaimo for shots of adrenalin and the chance to extend his life beyond the five years already served. No, after that and the running around in the Cook Hall this morning, he would be in for an early nap right about now.
Picking up a long, reedy piece of grass from beside the path to chew on, I headed toward the dandelion field. The day we first choked our new old Vauxhall down the gravel road of the Moorcroft United Church Camp, we were fresh from San Francisco, via Oregon, Washington and the rail line that pierced the northwest. For two days we ate whatever came with the price of passage, augmented by a bag of Oreo cookies. Those Oreo cookies were the currency of our journey, a gold standard of behavior to be traded, bribed and bartered across the miles to our new home.
My mother had been excited about the trip. It was a new beginning, away from her twisted, broken family and the debris of her past. The idea of moving to Canada, to this Church Camp on Vancouver Island, had never really been a conversation. It was more instantaneous, an opportunity to be out of cement and upwind from the stink of the Viet Nam War and the anger spreading amongst the disenchanted. The towering firs and cedars would shelter us and nature would nurture us and all would be paradise.
As we neared the house for the first time, my little brother looked out the window and then stuck his pudgy finger against it and shouted “OOOK! Fowers!” and when we looked we could see a field to the left of the car, almost completely covered in dandelions. My stepfather stopped the car so we could get out and run through the field, picking dandelions and making them into necklaces and wreathes for our hair. That day seemed very far away from me now as I crossed the gravel path to climb the small hill that entranced the field.
It turns out that paradise isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Not all dreams become familiar with reality, and just because you travel a thousand miles away from all you’ve ever known doesn’t mean you’ve left anything behind, especially if the dog that always seems to be sniffing at your heels is bedded down in your own soul. It was only a few weeks before my mother’s dream started gradually unraveling and was left to rust on the side of the house with the old tractor parts left there by caretakers past.
A few days ago my brother and I had been called to the kitchen of the house just after lunch. I could hear the ticking of the wind-up clock on the window ledge and the creaking of the floor by the table as my mother sat down and motioned my brother to her lap and stared across at me, tired and puffy eyes blinking against the afternoon sun blazing through the open screen door. My stepfather stood rigid, face turned aside somewhat behind her, as distant as someone could be while standing in the same room with you.
“Your father and I have decided to separate.” Separate? What was separate? “We need you to decide who you would rather live with. After this summer I’m going to move to Nanaimo and your father will be moving to Vancouver. So. What do you think?”
My brother had started to cry. Even though he wasn’t sure what was going on, he knew it was big, bigger than a little guy like him was ready to handle. He got down off our mother’s lap and threw his arms around me tightly. “I wanna go where you go!!” I could feel his tears hot on my arm as he buried his face into my side. I stared back at my mother. Was this a joke? Did she really believe she was giving us a choice? I glared at her, dry-eyed and silent. In my mind I saw an invisible line in the sand that I knew she had crossed. And she knew as I tried not to blink that once again the dogs had come to rest in our collective souls and there would be no future here free of the past.
As I entered the field this time I saw the dandelions were starting to go to seed. Throwing away my half-chewed lump of grass I picked a long green stem with a giant cloud of seeds and blew them away into the breeze. One after another the dandelions fell, and seconds and minutes and hours tumbled with the dandelion seeds, until tired, dusty and hungry I headed back to the house sure that it must be almost time for the concert. The jazz concert!
I heard the lunch bell ringing and my empty stomach lurched at the prospect of food. I could smell the hamburgers and hotdogs on the huge outdoor grill and hear the campers, laughing down the trails after their trip to Scripp’s Island. Running through the shortcut I had carved over the months through the scrub brush and wild roses I emerged a few feet away from the outdoor cook pit where I joined the line had already formed for plates and cutlery. I helped myself to a hotdog from the huge heap on the table. My mother didn’t notice as I slid by this time, and took my plate to a stump by the picnic tables to eat.
All around me the campers chatted animatedly. They were having a blast! I ate my hotdog quietly, watching them, soaking up their happiness as if it were my own. I was watching one particularly pretty girl and marveling at the way her long brown hair seemed to just naturally fall perfectly into place every time as she turned this way and that to talk to her friends when a boy, not much older than me, tripped over an exposed tree root beside me and on his way down, he hit my arm, knocking the last half of my hotdog out of my hand and onto my lap.
A terror seized my soul as I watched helplessly the mustard and katsup pooling and streaking on the white cotton of my dress. As one of the counselors helped the boy up, brushing him off lightly and checking for damage, I slowly rose, trying to hold the folds of my dress so they covered the stains and backing up numbly as a scrape was found on his elbow and someone was sent for the first aid kit. My mother came quickly to the boy’s side and after a cursory glance at his wound she caught me trying to disappear into the forest once again.
“Look at you! LOOK AT YOU!! I told you this would happen but you NEVER LISTEN!!” She grabbed my shoulder and shook it as she pushed me toward the path to the road. “Go home, I’ll deal with you there.” Rage crackled over her face like lightning. I was too frightened and embarrassed to cry as I turned and ran away from the staring campers, down the road into the silently weeping house and my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
I ripped off my dress in an angry frenzy and stomped around the room. Angry at my mother, angry at the boy, angry at the world, I threw myself on my bed in my underwear and pounded the wall beside me with the palm of my hand until it hurt, until I finally took a deep breath and waited for my mother to come.
The fierceness of my soul got caught up in the undertow of my brother’s bunk bed above me. I stared at the support bars, my eyes crossing unwillingly in the fight to stay open as my world passed into a dream. In what seemed like seconds I was startled out of the darkness, my eyelids jolted wide apart.
I looked around the room from my bed. My face was wet on one side with the permanence of sound sleep. I was displaced, unsure. This had not been in my plan. It was quiet, very quiet. Too quiet.
Picking up my dress I walked to the window and looked past the arbutus tree to see no one. There was no one anywhere. A gloom settled into my heart as I hurriedly pulled my stained dress back on and ran, barefoot this time, out on to the road and toward the hall. As I came around the corner I froze. People were pouring out of yellow doors onto the deck and the forest paths leading to the road. Three men were just finishing loading their red and white Volkswagen van with large black drum cases and a big case that looked like a casket with curves. I watched as they shut the back doors and climbed into the front seats and the van started rolling slowly down the hill with campers and counselors following, flanking, thanking and laughing. All of them laughing. My mother laughing too.
I had slept through the jazz concert. The realization hit me like a typhoon and the warm, piercing teardrops stung my cheeks before I knew the storm had hit. My mother was walking beside the van, chatting with one of the musicians through the open window when the floodgates really opened. “You didn’t come!! You didn’t wake me up! You – let – me — miss— the – jazz — concert!!” I sputtered, convulsing on the gravel road as the van came to a stop a few feet away. My mother opened her mouth to push the new clouds forming on my face away, but I stopped her. “No! NO! You knew! You KNEW!” I couldn’t finish my thought before a tall man got out of the van and walked past my mother, who was stunned mute on the side of the road as everyone gradually faded into the labyrinth of forest paths, leaving me, my mother and the jazz trio to sort things out in the blazing afternoon sun.
He stepped long steps, lazy steps and came to rest bending his tall, lean frame down to allow his eyes and mine to meet. The world hushed. “What’s your name, little one?” he breathed softly, reedy like a saxophone. Feeling the kindness of his soul only served to spur my tears. It had been so long since I had felt that kind of warmth. “A—bi-gail…”, I mumbled wetly, staring at my dusty bare feet. “Well my name’s Jimmy. You like jazz?” he asked, incredulous, half a smile creeping up his chocolate face. “Yeah.” My heart and my tears were slowing down at the same time. He laughed, “Where’d a little girl like you go getting a taste for jazz?”
“When I lived with my Granny, she always listened to jazz, back in San Francisco on the radio in her sewing room…” I trailed off, suddenly insecure and bared.
“Did your Granny have a favorite jazz song?”
I looked up into his toffee eyes, consoling eyes. “She really likes Sweet Georgia Brown, but she likes Summertime too…she says there’s no finer thing to make the blues go away than Ella Fitzgerald singing Lemon Drop.”
Jimmy started laughing and I wasn’t sure why, but I was sure he wasn’t being mean. “I don’t think we’re ready to play Lemon Drop today, but boys, whadya think about playing a couple of tunes for Miss Abigail right here, right now?”
In a few minutes they set up a bass drum, snare and hi hat on the side of the road, and as the bass player pulled his bass from it’s case, Jimmy strapped an acoustic guitar across his shoulder and strummed a few quick chords to check it’s tuning. My mother stood by the van’s open doors, mute and astonished as Jimmy counted in Sweet Georgia Brown.
As the first chords and cadences rolled through the heat I slowly melted down, white dress be damned at this point, and let the dust settle down on the road around me as I sat cross-legged in a state of euphoria. Note after note washed away the dirt and the sadness and the joy that was contagious to the music overwhelmed my little soul and made the world a gentler place for now. At this moment, in this place I embraced time for what it was, a stroke of a stick, the pluck of a string and a voice, content and soaring for a little girl in the middle of the woods. I thought of my Granny, so far away but so close to me right now, hugging me and reassuring me that this new place would be a paradise, maybe not now, but someday. And as Jimmy and his trio slipped into Summertime and the late afternoon sun toasted my back and the rest of the day, I had no choice but to believe that she was right.