About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Set of One


You have to understand; I wasn't like the other girls. Growing up in the forties, I was expected to play with dolls, keep my clothes clean, and scream at the sight of a snake. Instead, I worked on my brother's Meccano set and ripped my dresses climbing trees. I went frog-catching with my brothers and filled my pockets with snakes.

My curiosity was unfeminine. I wanted to know things. I took clocks apart. I read about engines and dissected sea cucumbers. I came home smelling of fish. Not a proper girl, at all.

When I was in grade six, we moved to WhiteRock. We bought a house on Thrift Street, close to the centre of town; a house on a regular street, with neighbours on both sides and cars going by. Except for Christmas visits to the family in Toronto, I had never lived in town before.

It was hard to make friends in school that year. At recess and lunch hour, the boys played rough-and-tumble games; I often saw my brother Dave in the scrum, racing after a ball, muddy and scruffy-looking, with his jacket askew and his hair tousled. We girls stood around on the edges of the schoolyard, talking, sometimes taking turns skipping while the others chanted skipping rhymes. ""One, Two, Three, Out goes You." I was no good at skipping; my feet wouldn't behave. I was always "out".

Girls and boys in town generally ignored each other. Outside the classroom, we had no activities in common. Boys wouldn't skip, and girls couldn't kick a ball. I watched the boys at play; the other girls turned their backs.

One lunch hour early in the school year, a football rolled into the tall grass near our skipping place. The boy that came after it found a garter snake, besides. He held it up, yelling, "Look what I caught!" The snake curled around his arm, and he shook it off, holding it away from his body. Even writhing in its attempts to escape, it reached almost to the ground. I wished I had found it.

The girls in the skipping line-up saw the snake next. They screamed and scattered. The snake catcher turned in our direction. "Hey, girls!" he taunted, "Look at my nice snake!" The girls ran, squealing, leaving the skipping rope abandoned in the dust like a second, longer snake. I stood my ground, but the boy ignored me and chased the other girls, waving the snake.

He couldn't run as fast as the girls because the snake kept getting tangled around his legs, so finally he stopped, wound up his arm like a baseball pitcher, and tossed the snake high into the air. The girls zigged and zagged, pushing each other out of the way, still shrieking. The snake fell short.

I saw my opportunity. I ran and grabbbed the snake before it slithered under the fence. It was the fattest one I had ever caught; it was a pity to lose it, but I spun it around my head and threw it back at the boys.

A snake on the ground or in the hand is a different matter than a flying snake. The boys ran out from under it. Some of them even yelled.

"Sissies!" I shouted. "Babies!" I turned to join the rest of the girls.

Daydreams develop fast. I was already relishing my rôle as brave heroine, recipient of the other girls' admiration and gratitude. Now they would be friends with me. I admit that I swaggered a bit as I walked towards them. They all spoke at once.

"You touched the snake!"

"Ick!"

"Go away!"

"Don't touch us!"

"Scram!"

So it was that the students were divided into three sets: girls, boys, and me, a set of one. For a long time, I wandered alone, collecting chestnuts under the trees, enticing squirrels with crumbs from my lunch, listening for seagulls. Oh, to be at home -- my old home -- watching the gulls squabble on the beach, the empty beach!

The football season ended, and the boys turned to other pursuits. One noon hour, I found Dave and a few other boys kneeling in the dirt, shooting marbles. I stood and watched. No-one noticed me until, when a fresh circle was drawn for a new game, I said, "Can I play?"

Most of the boys looked at me strangely, but Dave just moved over to let me kneel beside him. He didn't think of me as an outsider nor, probably, even as a girl. One of the others started to protest, then thought better of it. Dave lent me a handful of marbles from his bag, to start with. "The cats-eye is a good shooter," he told me.

It was, and so was I. I won, over and over. "Beginner's luck," the boys called it that day, but after that I played every day and won a fair share of the games. It probably helped that I practiced obsessively at home, playing against Dave with the agreement that any marbles I won, I would give back. Any he won, he kept. Still, my bag was always full.

So I won a grudging respect from those few boys. On our knees in the mud, we were equals. Otherwise, they ignored me, like everyone else did.

The one other positive thing about that school year was my teacher. A man, young, brown-eyed, casual. He laughed easily and often. He sat on his desk. Once, wandering about the classroom, he got talking to the kid next to me and sat on my desk. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket, unbuttoned, and smelled of wool and tobacco. I pictured him at home with a pipe and a mournful hound, relaxing by the fireplace, reading Sherlock Holmes. I don't know if he was a good teacher; I do know I did my best work to earn his approval.

One afternoon, Mr. Donaldson assigned us an exercise in our spelling books, then said, "I have to be out of the classroom for a few minutes. You are to stay in your seats and work. No talking. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" In unison.

"And anyone I find out of their seat when I come back, will stay after school for half an hour. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

He left, and I set to work on my spelling, writing sentences out in my best handwriting, careful to keep my lines straight and my hands off the page until the ink dried. I could hear smothered giggles behind me. A desk scraped on the floor. I didn't turn around.

Then a hand clamped on my ankle, and someone yanked at my shoe. I kicked, but the shoe was gone. I turned around in my seat. The shoe was skittering down the aisle. One of the boys in back fielded it and waved it over his head.

"Susie, come get your shoe!"

"Give it back!"

"Come get it!"

"We're not allowed; give it back!"

Of course he wouldn't send the shoe back. I argued and pleaded. All the boys laughed. The girls looked uncomfortable, but kept quiet. I begged. Big joke.

I finally had to go down the aisle to get my shoe, but then the kids started to play catch with it, with me in the middle trying to snag it as it flew past. When Mr. Donaldson walked in, the last catcher kicked the shoe my way, leaving me standing there with no excuse.

The teacher was nice about it; I had to stay after school, since that was what he had said, but he didn't scold. At three thirty, he let me go. It didn't seem that long. I had spent the time looking at the map behind the desk, wondering how they had picked those colours for those countries. Why were the commonwealth countries pink?

The walk home was peaceful. No brothers to watch out for, no other kids to avoid. I had the streets to myself. I stopped on the way to look at flowers and to pet a cat. There was a dog in one house behind a sturdy fence. He always barked at the kids. Today, since no-one was watching, I stood and barked back at him until he was so mad there was white froth around the edges of his mouth. I detoured a block out of my route to look at a big house half-hidden behind ragged broom hedges. I wondered, again, who lived there; I never saw any movement around the house. Maybe it was haunted.

When I got home, Mom was waiting in the kitchen. "Why did you have to stay after school?" she asked.

"I don't know." I was still thinking about that haunted house; school wasn't important any more.

"You don't know? You don't know? What are you hiding?" Oops.

"I mean, nothing, I got in trouble for nothing."

Too late. Mom didn't believe me, even when I tried to explain. She accused me of lying and gave me three good whacks on the hand with the kindling. When I still insisted that all I had done was try to get my shoe back, she increased the punishment. I was sent to my room until suppertime. No reading, not even school books. No cat for company.

I lay on my bed under the eaves. I permitted myself to cry a little; it wasn't fair! Outside, the boys were shouting in the maple trees. I had to stay here, looking at the boring white ceiling and the plain white walls and my empty bookshelf. A tiny window, too high to see more than grey sky. Cracked and worn linoleum over warped floorboards  -- hmm. It would be a challenge to try and shoot a marble straight over that surface. Good practice. I dug the bag out of my jacket pocket and chose a shooter and a target. I had a whole hour before suppertime.

Stories of Childhood
Susannah Anderson, 2008

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