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Authors: Plum Johnson

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BOOK: They Left Us Everything
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Dad carried a wicker chair and small table down to the bottom of the garden and placed them in the shade. Then he ordered me into the kitchen to prepare a tray of tea, complete with biscuits, jam, and our best silver cutlery. He sent Sandy to the mantelpiece to bring out a tin of Dad’s best pipe tobacco— and there Popeye sat, smoking his pipe, sipping his tea, paid by the hour until lunchtime. Dad supervised our work in the garden until it was time to drive Popeye back to the shelter. This went on every Saturday, for years. Dad told us to be kind to Popeye “because that could be you one day.”

On Sundays after lunch, while Mum wrote her letters, Dad took the five of us for hikes in the countryside. Dad had a particular way of walking. He took long strides with a bounce in each step, claiming that with this method even young children should be able to walk four miles in an hour. He showed us how to do it and clocked our speed with a stopwatch. While he strode ahead, swinging his walking stick like an army major, our Dalmatian, Scrappy, raced after him and we tried to keep up.

During these walks, Dad taught us how to make water wheels. In his pocket he brought corks, bits of paper, toothpicks, and rubber bands, and he made elaborate contraptions
that churned downstream in the Sixteen Mile Creek, rotating in the current like a Mississippi paddlewheel. He also taught us how to dig for worms, skewer them onto our hooks, and slosh around in the mud to catch crayfish in the watering hole.

When it came time to drive back, we piled into the station wagon. The road home was straight south, three miles down to the lake. Dad tied Scrappy to the outside of the car, knotting his leash to the back door handle. Then he started the engine. We fell silent and watched nervously out the back window as Scrappy began running as fast as he could. As Dad accelerated we saw Scrappy’s black spots blur, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, his leash taut against the handle, his body stretched like a greyhound. Robin and Sandy hung out the side window, gripping the ledges, their hair whipping straight back in the wind. In the front seat, Dad focused his view on the side mirror, checking Scrappy’s stamina, but I was focused on Dad. His dark side fascinated me. He had the same expression I saw when we sailed: pushing the limits of endurance, his jaw clenched and a hard glint in his eye. When we all landed safely at the back door, my heart was beating as fast as the dog’s. The rest of the day Scrappy lay in a heap on the verandah, Chris’s arms cuddled around him.

We weren’t allowed to use the telephone—a luxury that Dad insisted was reserved for adults—unless it was an emergency, and even then he stood beside us with an egg timer, shouting, “Say what you have to say and ring off!” Luckily my best friend, Diana, lived across the garden, so she and I strung a clothesline between properties—between her bedroom window and mine—and reeled across notes to each other, stuffed into empty soup tins. In our free time we created a theatre in the basement, writing scripts and making props
and auditioning neighbourhood children for our cast of characters. If we ran out of girls, we made wigs and conscripted my brothers. For dramatic scenes, we cut up onions to make ourselves cry. When I was ten the local library asked to mount one of our plays, and Mum was so excited she urged me to start writing a few plays like Shakespeare.

“If he could do it, why can’t you?” she said. “After all, you have the same twenty-six letters he had!” I heard Dad scoff behind his newspaper.

I hated to disappoint Mum, but nothing I wrote sounded like Shakespeare. I tried to imagine all his letters tossed out of my Parcheesi cup, scrambled like puzzle pieces onto the playground. What was his secret? It must have something to do with which letters he used … and how many of each. I spent months of frustration trying to count Shakespeare’s letters, to crack his code. Mum continued her enthusiastic support, but I discounted her praise. It was Dad’s I longed for because his was so hard to come by.

People were always saying “You’re so like your mother!” but I hated it when they said that. Dad hurled it at me like an insult, so I didn’t want to be like Mum. Besides, I inherited Dad’s shape—tall, lean, and flat—not Mum’s soft, cuddly, big-bosomed figure. It’s true that when I laughed my nose crinkled up, exposing crooked teeth exactly like hers, but I secretly hoped people might think I was more like Dad. I admired his reserve, his discipline, and his elegance—things Mum didn’t have.

Mum was the life of the party. Others were titillated by her individualism, but I hated being sucked into the centre of attention where she invariably stood. She was always pushing me forward, volunteering me for things as if I were an extension
of her:
“Plum would be happy to babysit/walk your child to school/ help at the church fair!”
If I complained, she’d say, “You need to reach out to people! Everyone feels shy, but shyness is a form of
selfishness
.” Then she’d add, “I know you better than anyone! Remember, I’m the only one who’s known you All Your Life,” implying that she knew me better than I knew myself.

Sometimes I used to cry on Dad’s shoulder. “Oh, Dad, she criticizes everything I do … sometimes I think she just hates me!”

“You’re wrong,” he’d say gently. “She admires you … she loves you … she wishes she could be just like you.” But I didn’t believe him. Why would she want to be like me?

Dad never disciplined me—he left that up to Mum and her silver hairbrush—but he occasionally disciplined the boys with a long thin bamboo cane that he kept in his closet for this purpose. It was supposed to be holding up his tomato vines.

“You’ll get three of the best!” he’d shout. “And if you cry, you’ll get three more!”

For me, the worst of it was the calm before the storm. Dad would order the boys to go to his bedroom, take down their pants, bend over the four-poster, and wait for him. The cruelty of it seared my heart, yet I felt powerless to stop it. When I took a bath with my brothers afterwards, I could see the angry blue stripes and red welts on their little backsides as they climbed gingerly into the tub. I remember the night when I’d finally heard enough.

I was eleven years old, hiding behind the curtains in my bedroom. I had my hands to my ears trying to block out the screams of Sandy and Robin in the bedroom next door. Every swish of the cane as it whooshed through the air landed on the beat of Dad’s forceful words.
“You—can’tmake—strongsteel—without—ahot—fire!” he bellowed, as if he were trying to convince himself. Then I heard him say, “This hurts me more than it does you!”

When Dad finally emerged from the bedroom, his shoulders were slumped and the cane dangled loosely in one hand. He looked exhausted. But I was waiting for him. I leapt at his chest, attacking him with my fists.

“You cruel, cruel man!” I shouted, surprising myself.

I fled down the stairs, out the verandah door, and down to the lake in the dark, throwing myself into the depths of the lilac bushes that towered over the path.

Dad had looked momentarily confused, startled by my outburst, and only then did I realize it wouldn’t have taken much to stop him. I understood in that moment that it wasn’t something he wanted to do … it was something he felt he had to do, some version of misguided discipline he’d experienced in his own childhood. He must have been beaten hard at boarding school.

I heard Dad calling for me but I didn’t answer. I wanted him to worry.

Upstairs, Mum was at the boys’ bedsides trying to soothe their tears—but we all knew that it was she who’d brought this on. When Dad arrived home from the office, it was Mum who told him of the boys’ transgressions; she of the comfortingkisses-after-the-fact knew exactly what punishment she was setting them up for. Why would she do this? Why didn’t she know better? I could never understand it. She seemed to have no trouble standing up to Dad on other occasions.

Some nights, after we were tucked in bed, Mum sneaked out to art class, and when she came home Dad would crumple up her drawings and throw them in the fireplace, raging that
she should have stayed home and washed the dishes instead. I’d hear her slam a cupboard door and yell, “There’s plenty more where those came from!” Then I’d hear her pour herself a drink and shout, “And while you’re at it, you should thank me … because I’m going to be supplying paper for your fire for the rest of the winter!” I’d hear the metal ice cube tray clatter into the sink as she stormed out of the room.

Almost every other year I skipped a grade at elementary school, so that by the time I graduated to grade nine at the public high school, I was only twelve years old. Many of my classmates were sixteen—including Ernie, who worked after school as a gas jockey at the corner Esso station. Ernie had greasy, slicked-back hair and a comb sticking out of his back pocket. He always wore a leather bomber jacket, pointy shoes, and white socks.

At the end of grade nine Ernie cornered me at the back of art class. He pulled out his switchblade, and as he slowly cleaned his fingernails with the tip of his knife, he explained that he needed my final art project to hand in as his own. Naturally, I gave it to him. When Mum and Dad found out why I’d failed art, they packed me off to a boarding school in Toronto. I didn’t understand why I had to live away. Dad drove into Toronto every day—why couldn’t I come home every night with him? Mum said it was because it was time for me to “be around girls.” Dad said boarding school would “build my character.” I knew what that meant—courage in the face of adversity—but I figured Dad already gave us enough of that at home. I pleaded with him not to send me away, but he was unmoved.

“There are some things in life we all have to do, whether we like it or not!” he thundered. “You just have to learn to suck it in.” He took his big white hanky out of his pocket and handed it to me.

Dad’s rules were far stricter than those imposed by the school. When boarders went home on weekends, Dad insisted I stay in, like the girls from Venezuela and Abu Dhabi. When we lined up on Fridays to receive our allowance issued by the school bursar, Dad instructed them to give me only half, complaining that the recommended amount was far too generous. And he wouldn’t allow me to call home. Sometimes the matron took pity and offered her phone, but in those days Oakville was long distance and I had to reverse the charges. Collect calls were intercepted by the operator; I couldn’t communicate directly with Dad unless he agreed to accept, so the operator always had a longer conversation with him than I did.

“I have a collect call from your daughter, sir, will you accept the charges?”

“Why does my daughter wish to speak to me?”

“Your father wants to know why you’re calling.”

“Tell him I’m sick! I’m in the infirmary! I want to speak to my mother!”

“Your daughter is sick, sir.”

“Nonsense! Tell her to pull herself together.”

“But she’s in the infirmary, sir.”

“She’s in good hands.”

“Sir? Could she speak to her mother?”

“No! I give her quite enough allowance and I will not accept collect calls.”

“But …”

“Over and out!”

Then I’d hear the operator say, “I’m so sorry, dear … I hope you feel better soon.”

On stormy days Dad took us sailing in his Snipe. It was a two-person racing dinghy, but he crammed all five of us into it. He stuffed me in the hull—“for ballast,” he said. We wore heavy orange life jackets made of kapok, which were so waterlogged they were like lead weights. They would have drowned us for sure, had we ever tipped.

Dad carried the wood centreboard down the street, five blocks to the harbour, and we lagged behind, lugging the heavy canvas bags stuffed with sails. After scrubbing the boat clean, we spent ages preparing the sails—sliding their tiny metal clips one by one into the narrow brass channels on both sides of the mast before finally hoisting them up and casting off.

Dad preferred sailing when seven-force gales churned the water as rough as the ocean. He shouted nautical orders at us
(“Hard-a-lee!”)
and then sat at the helm with his hand gripping the bucking tiller, forcing the bow into the wind, heeling the boat over, the mast almost parallel to the water. His face mirrored the tension of the sails: jaw set tight, facing the icy spray head-on, daring us to capsize. The boys in their bloated life jackets hunkered down for the ride, but I was stuffed inside, upside down, pressed against the wooden ribs, paralyzed with fear. Occasionally he’d pull me out to wave to Mum. She’d be on the verandah, anxiously peering through her binoculars.

BOOK: They Left Us Everything
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