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Authors: Peggy Dymond Leavey

Finding My Own Way

BOOK: Finding My Own Way
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Finding
My Own Way

Peggy Dymond Leavey

Finding
My Own Way

Peggy Dymond Leavey

Text ©2001 by Peggy Dymond Leavey

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.

Cover art: Patty Gallinger

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program.

Napoleon Publishing
an imprint of TransMedia Enterprises Inc.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

05 04 03 02 01      5 4 3 2 1

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Leavey, Peggy Dymond, date-

Finding my own way

ISBN 0-929141-83-0

I. Title

PS8573.E2358F55 2001

jC813'.54

C2001-901972-6

PZ7.L4639Fi 2001

Dedicated
to my parents,
in loving memory.

A room without books
is as a body without a soul
.
—Cicero

One

One evening, late in May, I told my Aunt Irene that I was going home. Less than two hours away from where we were, my family home stood empty, waiting for me. I saw no reason not to go. I was seventeen, and it was almost summer.

Irene hesitated a moment, just long enough to make me think she might be considering it. “Home where?” she asked. She was threading elastic, on a safety pin, into the waistband of some old practice tights. Irene was a dancer.

“To Pinkney Corners, of course.” It's where I'd lived all my life. Or at least until eight months ago, when my mother had died of cancer, and I'd come to Toronto to live with Irene.

I moved closer to her, drawing the footstool up to her knees and perching on it. “Look, you didn't bargain for this. Your life was already full. And then, barn, you acquire a teenager to look after.”

“You've forgotten the promise I made your mother,” Irene said. “Do you think I take that lightly?”

“Of course not. You gave me a home like you promised. All I'm asking is for you to let me try it on my own for the summer. Can't you do that?”

“Spend two months back there in that house, all by yourself?” Irene's look was incredulous. “You must be out of your mind! There isn't even telephone at that place!”

“I can't afford a telephone. But I'll get my dog back. Ernie's a good watchdog, you know.”

“And just what would you live on?” my aunt persisted. “It costs money to keep a roof over one's head.”

“There's my inheritance.”

Irene sniffed. “You'd go through that in a hurry. Besides, it was meant for your future education.”

“Well, it would feed and clothe me till I found a job. The house is mine already.”

“Some house,” she muttered. “And what if you get sick?”

“Come on!” I straightened my spine. “How often am I sick? And if I do come down with something, I'll go see Dr. Russell, same as always. It doesn't cost much to live in Pinkney Corners, Irene. Not like here. Please? Just for the summer? If it doesn't work out I'll come back, I promise. I'll even go to business school, if that's what you want me to do.”

Irene fastened the other end of the elastic onto the safety pin. “Don't badger me, Libby,” she said. “Let me think about it.” She rolled up the tights and got to her feet. “You've got homework to do, haven't you? And I have a class at eight.”

Buoyed by that small seed of hope, I decided to say nothing more about it. When the door to the apartment shut behind her, I dutifully unzipped my binder on the kitchen table and drew out the geometry homework.

For over an hour, the clock on the wall of the black
and white kitchen made little scraping noises to accompany the sound of the pencil and the protractor, drawing angles on the page. Someone in the flat across the hall pulled a plug and water gushed through the pipes in the wall beside me.

1946

I must have been about five the first time I visited Irene's apartment. My mother had come to Toronto to meet with her publisher, and since my grandmother, whose house we shared at Pinkney Corners, had died the previous June, Alex had no choice but to bring me along.

It had been snowing the morning we left Pinkney Corners for Toronto. One of the neighbours gave us a lift, Alex never having owned a car. I knelt on the back seat and scraped at the ice on the rear window, peering out through the small hole at the snow swirling up behind the tires and settling back onto the road, as if we'd never passed that way. The fields of frozen corn stubble, the cedar-filled valleys and the glimpses of Lake Ontario, deep and cold in the distance, filled me with wonder.

Eventually, Alex and I were dropped off on a wind-blasted street corner, where traffic like I'd never seen before streamed past. We were going to the shop where my Aunt Irene sold sewing machines. Alex held my hand tightly as we hurried on, heads down against the bitter wind and snow that funnelled between the buildings.

We almost passed the shop before recognizing it—a doorway recessed between two grimy plate glass windows. “Here it is,” Alex gasped. A metal sign creaked
overhead. We tumbled through the door, out of breath and half-perished with cold. My church coat and leggings were not suited to sunless, city Decembers.

I remember Aunt Irene rising from her stool behind the counter, a look of amazement on her clear, round face at seeing her only two living relatives so far from home on such a wintery day.

The two sisters were as different as day and night. Irene, with dark hair and olive skin, was rather short, her body rounded and curvaceous. Alex, on the other hand, was tall and willowy, looking as if she should be the dancer. Her skin was fair and covered in golden freckles. She was the older by almost three years.

“Alex! Libby!” Irene cried. “What are you doing here?”

“I'm on my way to see my publisher,” Alex explained. “And I hoped you could keep an eye on Libby for a few hours.”

“Of course, of course. I told you, any time at all.” Aunt Irene unwound the scarf from my face. “I'm just so surprised to see you. Mother would never leave home in winter for fear of her precious pipes freezing.”

“If ever they had, Irene,” said Alex, shaking snow from her hat, “then you would have appreciated her concern.” She bent to pull off my mittens.

“Poor little thing,” Irene purred. “You're blue with cold. Come back here, Libby, by the heater.”

Curtained off from the shop, the small room behind the counter where she led us was warm and cozy. Thick layers of newspaper and half a dozen rag rugs insulated the floor. There was a sagging couch, a chrome table
stacked with magazines and tins of food, and a wooden clotheshorse in front of the electric heater where we draped our mittens and scarves to dry. A collection of heavy coats hung over the door to the alley. They belonged to no one in particular, Irene told me when I asked. They served to keep out draughts.

Before Alex left for her meeting, Irene made us tea, lacing mine well with milk from a can into which she poked two holes with a leather punch, before wiping it on her smock and returning it to the store shelves.

I spent the rest of the day in the shop with Irene, watching her measure out fabric against a brass yardstick embedded in the counter. Irene kept up an easy banter with all her customers, even those who came in only to buy a packet of needles or one spool of thread. She didn't sell a single sewing machine all afternoon.

Later in the day when Alex returned, it was decided that after Irene closed the shop, they would take me to see the Christmas windows in the big department stores downtown.

It took two streetcars to get to our destination, and I was terrified that they would leave before I could get all my limbs on board. We swayed along the tracks on the yellow straw seats, the car filled with the gritty shuffle of feet, the squeal of the wheels and the crackle of electricity overhead, the smell of damp wool and cold night air. I looked out at the blank expressions on the faces of people sitting in the lighted windows of streetcars passing us in the other direction, close enough to touch.

In the centre of the city, Eaton's and Simpson's each had a full block of decorated Christmas windows. We
took in the busy scenes of Santa Claus' workshop that filled the windows of one of the stores. Then, Irene on one side and Alex on the other, they hurried me across the street, swinging me, laughing, over the tracks to see the windows on the other side. Here was a woodland Christmas, and I moved eagerly from one end of the plate glass to the other.

Greedy for more, I rounded the corner of the block and discovered, to my disappointment, that this side was given over to windows of unsmiling mannequins, modelling what ladies would be wearing at parties held to ring in the New Year, 1947. Neither Irene nor Alex could afford such finery and pretended not to be interested. What to me was most amazing was that all this had been happening every Christmas, just two hours away from Pinkney Corners.

As a final treat, we had supper at the lunch counter in Woolworth's. Sitting on a stool, I had canned spaghetti on toast while the sisters ate bacon and tomato sandwiches. Then it was back on the streetcars to Irene's flat over the music store.

Irene's rooms were at the top of a steep flight of stairs that rose from a door directly off the sidewalk. Inside 2376B a long, ill-lit hallway of dark wood led to a kitchen floored with dizzying little squares of black and white tiles.

On that first visit I slept on the floor beside my mother, who refused to put Irene out of her narrow cot. I would have slept on top of the icebox, I was so happy to be there.

The next morning, we were up early, as I remember it. I could hear Aunt Irene in the kitchen when I awoke
and found her filling the kettle, dressed in a belted bathrobe that looked as if it should belong to a man.

I snapped the rings on my binder shut and looked around that same kitchen. Twelve and a half years had passed, and everything had changed. Alex was dead, and I was living in this place with Aunt Irene. But maybe, I thought with a surge of anticipation, not for much longer.

BOOK: Finding My Own Way
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