Shortly after the visit from my new family, I went home with them to live. I must have ‘begged’ prettily enough for them to chose me. I don’t remember all the ins and outs. I was seven. But, I do remember the event that set off the all-out-war between my new sister and I. Ironically, that same memory holds one of the two most precious memories I have of my new mother showing any genuine affection towards me.
The Smiths (no, not really) lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in St.Catharine’s. A very private, secluded, tree lined figure eight paved with smooth white-gray asphalt. It contained an assortment of beautiful, stylish homes both small and grand, each lawn dotted with massive, majestic Maples that shaded us in summer. It was, and still is, one of the nicest neighborhoods I’ve seen. Nearly all the homes had children. Shiny, squeaky clean, white children of unquestionable birth. I stood out. I was brown. I was an orphan. I was to be pitied. I didn’t belong there. And was reminded daily. Not always intentionally, but I was reminded just the same.
I will never understand what my white skinned parents were thinking when they adopted brown skinned me. I have to believe it was with the purest of intention and hope for my future…
I remember pulling into the driveway of a mottled, brown and beige stone house, one of the smaller ones in the neighborhood actually, but appearing like a castle to me in that moment. I don’t remember who showed me to my new bedroom on the second floor, to be shared with my sister, but most likely it was she. I do remember the two twin beds with their simple but pretty flowered sheets and woolen blankets folded neatly at the foot. Close enough to inspire late night whispering and girlish giggles muffled in the fluffy white pillows; if two such sisters resided in that room.
The night table between the beds had a lamp and a lime green AM radio. There was a large desk and a dresser with a huge mirror, tucked neatly into an arched alcove facing the front of the house. Pretty ruffled curtains lifted in the summer breeze and the sound of the wind in leaves of our own massive Maple would soon became a familiar and comforting lullaby to me. A second window faced the brown, flat-roofed garage at the side of the house, and a few years later would be used as an escape route for my 16 year old sister to sneak off in the dead of night and run away with an older, married man. For 48 hours anyhow.
As was normal for the kids of my generation, we were sent outside to play. So, after a quick tour of the house, a light lunch and an encouraging smile from my mother, I was shooed out the back door with my sister and brother to greet the curious and gawking eyes of the neighborhood. No doubt news of my impending arrival spread like wildfire from home to home days, if not weeks beforehand, for it wasn’t only the children waiting patiently on the street to see the new addition to the Smith family. Nope. Kids, adults and even dogs were just-happening-to-pass-by as we made our way around to front of the house.
They were polite enough, friendly enough, cordial enough – the adults I mean. And the kids? Well, kids will be kids. The novelty of the color of my skin and coarseness of my hair wore off soon enough – (this was small town Ontario in 1968 after-all) – and they resumed their regular play. The sidewalk leading to our house had two small steps near the street. I sat there and watched, for the most part. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play. I desperately wanted to join the laughter and chasing and childish antics, but I was afraid to get too involved. To get too comfortable. And God forbid, happy. I had no idea how long I was actually going to remain with this family. It was too soon to let my guard down.
Eventually, I did get up and play. Quietly. Precociously. And when I realized the kids were actually treating me as if I were one of them, I did start to relax and have a little fun. I think I even laughed out loud once or twice.
Of course, that’s when all hell broke loose.
I’m not sure how it came about exactly, but during some nonsensical conversation with the kids, I said something that sounded like the word “shit”. I swear to this day that I didn’t actually say the word ‘shit’, but it’s quite possible that I did. The youth I had been exposed to up to that point in my life were, shall we say, of questionable character. Rough and tumble, hardened and lost, I had met many children with mouths in need of soap and a vocabulary that would shock a nun. Not all of them, but most of them. I may have picked up a slang or two along the way.
Either way, my sister threw out her arm and pointed her finger in my face. “You swore!” she gasped, eyes as round as saucers. “I’m. Telling. My. Mother!”
“I did not!” I defended.
“Yes you did! I heard you!” Accusing green eyes narrowed into slits. A smug smile curled her lips. She turned and headed quickly towards the back of the house.
“I did not!” I yelled even louder, stumbling behind her. I was terrified. It was over before it had even begun. They were going to throw me away.
“Mom! Mom! Patti swore!” she cried out, yanking on the screen door and letting it slam in my face.
I started crying. Loud, heart wrenching, body wracking sobs that I couldn’t control. I was devastated. I just stood there, tears running down my face, snotty nosed and defeated.
My mother opened the screen door and took my hand. She led me up the few stairs and into the kitchen and sat me down in a chair at the table. Quietly, she knelt down in front of me, eye level with my down-turned, crumpled face. I just couldn’t stop crying. My shoulders shook, my heart actually hurt. I was inconsolable.
My sister wasn’t letting it go. She stamped her foot and yelled her accusation again. “She swore! She said the “s” word! I heard her!”
“Ronnie, go back outside. I will handle this.”
“Well, she did.” my sister protested.
“I did not!” I wailed at the floor.
“Yes you did!”
“Outside. Now Ronnie.” My mother’s tone brooked no argument. With a loud ‘huff’ my sister begrudgingly went back outside.
My mother reached out and lifted my chin. Her eyes were soft and brown and her smile was gentle.
“Why are you so upset?” She pulled out the ever-ready-tissue all mothers seem to have on hand and began wiping my face.
“Because I know you won’t believe me!” I cried even harder. I was nearly hysterical.
“Well, Patti. Did you swear?”
“No I didn’t!” I looked her in the eye and with as much conviction as my 7 year old self could muster I said, “But I know you’ll believe her and not me.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because she is yours and I’m not.” I said quietly and dropped my head again.
In retrospect, I can only imagine the anguish she must have felt when I declared my truth. It would have broken my heart if I had been the adult. But my mother has always been as cool as a cucumber and without missing a beat, she tilted my chin, and eye to eye she told me, “Patti, you are my daughter as well. And if you tell me you didn’t swear, then I will believe you. Okay?”
I blinked back my tears and waited for her to say more. But she didn’t. She didn’t need too. It was over.
Hallelujah! Choirs of angels rejoiced! Rays of sunshine beamed through the window and a brilliant halo encircled her head. Her smile was mother and all I wanted was to bask in what felt like love and stay there forever. It was quite possibly the most genuine moment of compassion I have ever experienced in my life. And in that moment I loved that Mrs Smith woman; the nearest thing to a mother I had ever known. And I think, in that moment, that she loved me too.
Armed with a peck on the cheek and a Popsicle in hand, she sent me back out to play. I sat on the front steps at the end of our sidewalk, watched the children play, licked my frozen purple treat and held fast to the wonderfully warm feeling of being wanted. Which was really, really difficult when I caught my sisters eye and without saying a word, she told me just how much she hated me.