Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis
Coming to Thunder Bay

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Reserve Champion by Jacqueline D’Arce

The first chapter of Thunder Bay's Jacqueline D'Arce's well-written memoir was very well received. On to Chapter Two. Hope you enjoy this superbly balanced  mix of present and past as she talks about both the dark and the bright side of a Thunder Bay childhood.  

Reserve Champion by Jacqueline D’Arce
Chapter Two

My memories of this time come in little fits and starts—no smooth flow of continuity. Also at this time I became conscious of a persistent, low-key dread, fear of my father. I felt like Joe Bfpbsk, a little character with a grey cloud over his head. He was in the cartoon L’il Abner in the funny papers, which UncaBill read to me from the newspaper every day. The cloud went wherever Joe went. I had a cloud too.

Then I was six and to my immense relief, dancing lessons were dropped. But piano was added. Yikes. Mother decided since I wasn’t going to be a star dancer on Broadway, I would instead be a concert pianist. Mother studied piano with Ethel Perrons from next door as a child and I always wanted to hear her play. I would beg and beg until eventually she opened the piano bench, took out some sheet music and sat with it open to the “Black Hawk Waltz.”  Her hands paused above the keyboard, delicately arched and then descended to the keys. Music peeled out. She commanded the entire keyboard, barely glancing at the music which was thick with black notes. I knew this meant it was difficult to play. She never made a mistake. Her hands swept back and forth while I watched and listened, spellbound. I couldn’t understand why, when she was so good, she wouldn’t play more.

Piano lessons proved worse torture than dance. One thing made them bearable: Every Saturday, Mother gave Jeffrey and I each a quarter. Dressed in our red and green coats, we walked to the piano lesson. Jeffrey waited for half an hour in a separate room, while Miss Wallace exhorted me to play without error. Errors were frequent. Each one was marked on the sheet music in red ink. One piece I played over and over was “The Maple Leaf Forever.”  It was bloody with error marks.

Eventually the half hour passed and I was free. Gleefully Jeffrey and I, holding hands, skipped down the street to downtown and the Royal theatre on Victoria Avenue. We paid fifteen cents to see the double-feature cowboy movies and used the remaining dime to buy popcorn. We couldn’t afford pop so we just bore with our thirst through the exciting movies.

Oh, how we loved them! All those horses! For by now Jeffrey also was horse crazy. I used to wish with all my might for just one of those horses. After all, they had so many, they wouldn’t hardly miss just one.

We pounded our fists on our thighs and yelled “Hurry! Hurry!” through the scenes where the bad guys chased the good guy. We were desperate for him to escape. Of course he did and Oh! What joy.

After the movie we walked to Grampa’s store, the Excel Cheese Shop, where finally we got something to drink. Gramma worked there part time and she minded the store while Grampa drove us home.

At this age I also started to work in the store. Mother had begun to confide in me, speaking over her pregnant belly, in an almost whisper about her fears. Money fears mostly. I didn’t understand all of it but I felt guilty to be a burden and I wanted to help. Working in the store for no pay was a way to help.

For the first few years all I did was wait on children and sometimes the firemen who came in daily for pastries and pop. The fire station was right across the street. They laughed a lot and teased me and I squirmed in joy at this good male attention.
They were a happy lot and often came in whistling. Wrong!  As soon as Grampa heard them he charged out from the back room yelling—“Stop that whistling!  I’ll have no whistling in my store.” And he stood, fists clenched at his sides, face red, breathing heavily. He never explained what was so terrible about whistling.

How Grampa managed to sire two gorgeous children is a mystery. He was a tall, pear-shaped man, always in a long white apron with a bib worn over his dress shirt, tie, braces and black trousers. His face was dominated by a large, hooked nose on which rimless glasses perched. The glasses were an aid for his watery hazel eyes. His hair was black and grey, what little remained, and he combed thin strands over his pate. (UncaBill became so traumatized at the thought of losing his hair he had Mother massage lanolin cream into his scalp every night. It must have worked. He had a thick head of hair all his life.)

Customers often asked for a coke. “Coke!” Grampa thundered. “You’ll not find that swill in my store!  Coke bigwigs tried to push it down my throat and I had them pack up every single bottle of coke in the store and take them out.”

I had been there the day this happened. The coke delivery man came in whistling—big mistake—pushing a dolly with a promotional display on it.

“Where do you want it?” he innocently asked.

“What is this?” demanded my Grampa. “I didn’t order this. Take it out immediately.”

“But it’s a promotion! You’ve got to have it. Coke is doing this promotion nation-wide. Your customers will be looking for it—“

“Never mind telling me what my customers will want. They’ll want Pepsi! Now get it out of my store. And take the rest of the cokes out of the cooler while you’re at it!”

The man stared at him in silent disbelief for a few moments. “But you’ve got to have coke in your store, Mr. Montgomery. It’s the most popular drink there is!”

“I don’t care. Get it out of here before I call your boss.” And he extended his long arm and pointed at the door.

The coke man removed all the coke from the store and Grampa never carried it again. I grew to like Pepsi.

But Grampa had his good side. When I was six he took a day off in August and together we went to the CLE, the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition. We toured the buildings gazing at samples of prize pies, cakes, cookies, jams and jellies, quilts, and produce: giant marrows, huge pumpkins, even potatoes, beans and corn. Outside, we moved to the barns. There were chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats and, of course, horses. Most of the horses were there for the horse show and Grampa and I went to watch it. I sat on the grass right up against the chain link fence of the show ring, Grampa on a bench behind me beneath trees. It was glorious. Horses in western saddles and riders in cowboy gear. Other horses in English saddles with riders in boots, jackets and peaked velvet hats. Even the bread and milk delivery horses showed: all shined up and pulling their company wagon. I cheered for Kellogg’s. One year I took a picture of “Dixie,” a school teacher’s horse, and carried it in my wallet. Gram would look at it and say: “See, Jackie? Be a teacher when you grow up, then you can afford a horse and have the summer off to ride it.”

When I could I played outside with my new friends, Janice and Marlene. They came to my house and stood on the side kitchen steps and called out: “Jackie! Jaaakie!”  I ran to the door and joined them. Sometimes I still played with Billy. The rest of the time was work at the store, household chores and (shudder) piano practice.

Just now, I watched a version of “Mission Impossible” on my 48” Sony Smart TV. An opening scene was located in Vienna, Austria. It immediately took me back to my visit to Vienna with my daughter, Catherine, a few years ago.

We toured this splendid city and in the evening went to the hall of the Spanish Riding School to watch the Lipizzaner stallions perform their magnificent dressage routine—which is like a ballet on horseback. The hall was rectangular, with several gold and crystal chandeliers lighting it. Walls and the ceiling were creamy white. We sat high above the performers in a gallery, craning our necks over the edge the better to see. The riders, in their red, long-tailed coats, sat perfectly erect—no stirrups—and never seemed to move. Their hands, legs and bottoms did not jiggle or bounce. All of the white or grey stallions were exquisitely collected, arched necks sporting long silky manes. They walked, trotted, cantered in intricate movements flawlessly. The Spanish Riding School riders made this deceptively difficult display look easy.

In later years, I rode dressage on my silver Egyptian Arabian gelding, El Moez—“Mo”—so I appreciated the effort and skill it took. (By the way, “El Moez” translates from the Arabic roughly as “top banana.”) While quite young, Mo lost an eye. This was heartbreaking—he was such a good horse with great show ring potential. Mother and her friend, Sylvia, were visiting me in Louisiana. They sat outside in lawn chairs while I cantered around them on Mo. Sylvia sewed a black eye patch for him and he looked quite dashing in it in the show ring. He always performed as if he had perfect vision in both eyes. But he was barred from showing at the Arabian shows, so I asked my vet about an artificial eye for him. He came out and sedated Mo and made a plaster cast of the eye socket. Weeks later the eye arrived. It was very realistic looking and it simply popped into place. Happily we rode in Arabian shows after that. Judges never noticed his deficit. Once, in a Western Pleasure class I saw, to my horror, the eye fly out of his eye to land near the centre of the ring right behind the judge. Oops!  I rode on past the judge maintaining not just a poker face but a poker body while inside I was panicking. Mo didn’t miss a beat. Nelson, my husband, saw it too and he dashed out into the ring dodging competitors and snatched up the eye behind the judge’s back. We finished the class without the eye and won a reserve championship. Good boy, Mo!

I wrote an article about all of this and titled it An Eye for an Eye and it was published along with photos by Nelson in the international horse magazine, Equus.
The mountain outside my window now is purple-grey, brindled with snow—gone the brilliant goldenrod yellow of the leaves on trees. Also, my back is holding up fairly well for the moment. A nurse, Wendy, has gone after applying medicated lotions to my belly and breasts and petting James Bond, so I will go back to the past.

I started kindergarten at age five. I recall there was some flap about it. I think the school authorities wanted me to begin when I was six but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. She rampaged over to Drew Street School and dressed the principal down. He caved in and let me start. Who could resist a gorgeous redhead with a fiery temper?  Even if she was pregnant. I was proud of her. The other mothers looked dowdy, Mother looked like a fashion model.

I remember sitting at a communal table with other children in a room with many windows and brightly coloured paper and paints. What a wealth of art supplies!  The paints were powders we mixed with water:  cobalt blue, red, yellow, green, purple, brown, black. There were pencils and fat paint brushes to use. All of it was cheerful. My cloud evaporated in that room. I discovered that I loved reading and art. I did well and progressed to the first grade.

At home now, on Saturday morning (before I went to piano lessons) I did chores. It was then that I think I developed my lifelong aversion to housework. One task I particularly hated was to polish the dining room chairs. There were ten of them and I had to crawl around on the floor, cloth in hand and wipe the rungs and legs. Then I stepped up on a chair and cleaned the rest of the chair. They were very heavy and moving them around was difficult. I hated those chairs. After months of that I hated all housework.

Mother approached piano playing quite differently from dancing. She insisted I practise for an hour a day and she picked housework to do near the piano in the living room. She was alert to mistakes and ready to rush over and slap me across the side of my head. If I cried (and I always did—those slaps knocked me sideways) she slapped me again for crying. I got slapped every time I made a mistake and I made lots of mistakes. The more she hit me the more mistakes I made.

Once, Tom Perrons, a tall portly man who looked like Raymond Burr from the TV shows Perry Mason and Ironsides, came in and sat on the chesterfield behind the piano. He was our next-door neighbour. I sneaked a look back at him: he winked at me. When the piano practise ended he took me by the hand, me still sobbing, and walked with me to the corner store. He bought each of us a vanilla ice cream cone.

We were great friends. I spent hours at his house sitting cross-legged on the carpet at his feet, Jeffrey beside me, while he told brilliant stories. He sat on his green chesterfield next to a pedestal ashtray overflowing with Players cigarette butts. There was a piano on the right side of the room and glassed-in bookcases on the left. His wife Ethel puttered around in the kitchen usually making pork pies, Tom’s favourite. Ethel had taught Mother how to play the piano.

Jeffrey and I listened to the stories he told. He was from Nottingham, England and still retained his English accent. He had been apprenticed to a lace maker at twelve but ran away at fifteen and came to Canada on a cattle boat. Eventually he was hired by the railroad and still worked there as an engineer for the CPR—the Canadian Pacific Railway. His crowning glory (pun intended) was when he drove the royal train with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay. He told me the conductor alerted him as to when their Majesties were going to take a bath. So he went particularly slow while they bathed.

He also told us that all that remained of Sherwood Forest, haunt of Robin Hood, was a single oak tree.

And many many years later, after I had “told” of my father’s abuse, Mother suddenly announced that Tom had abused her when she was little. This hurt. It tarnished the reputation of one of the few men in my life that I trusted. I didn’t believe her. Also, if he was a child abuser why did she leave me alone with him so frequently?  I think she saw all the attention I was getting and she wanted some too.

When I got a little older he introduced me to the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Classics and I began borrowing them. The first one I read was the story of “The Little Mermaid” who fell in love with a human and to go ashore to be with him she walked barefoot (her mermaid’s tail having been changed to feet) and each step hurt as though knives were stabbing into her soles. Sometimes I felt like I was living ashore at 544 Wiley Street, because omnipresent, loomed the shadow of my father. The grey cloud hovered above my head. Daily I worried. Would he come after me again?  I lived in fear, double fear because now I had to watch and see that he did not touch Jeffrey. It occurred to me to tell my mother but I reasoned that if I told she would have him leave and then we would really be poor. The children would starve.

Another oddity no one talked about was Grampa in the night. At this time Jeffrey and I were in bunk beds upstairs. Every night, Grampa came into our room in the dark. He wore only a pyjama top. He came to me first, in the bottom bunk, and pulled the covers up to my chin. I pretended to be asleep, but I couldn’t help peeking. I could see, in the shadows, his male appendage backed by two round wobbly objects. This triad became even more visible when he climbed the ladder up to Jeffrey in the top bunk. He came night after night. It was probably quite innocent; he must have thought we couldn’t see anything in the dark. I didn’t feel threatened by him like I did by Father. No one ever said a word about this strange behaviour and he never touched us children inappropriately.

I had a devastating doctor’s appointment yesterday. I am still shaking from it and find it difficult to write, but write I must.

She, Dr. Naqi, told me she is taking me off my pain medications—morphine and Percocet—which I have been on for eight years. Why do I take pain medications?  I have gross degenerative osteoarthritis in my lower back. I have also broken my back five times, twice in the last year, the second-last break, which was high up between my shoulder blades, was extremely painful and made it difficult to walk. I went from walker to wheelchair. I also broke my pelvis last year. No obvious cause—I just woke up and my back and my pelvis were broken. But to go off my pain medications means agony for me. First, from the sheer pain and second, I will suffer from withdrawal. I don’t think I can take it. I’m just too old. The doctor said she would put me on Tylenol and physio. I tried both years ago. They did nothing. The pain cripples me emotionally and mentally. I cannot write, have a conversation, watch TV—it is a living death.

I must write while I can. I see her in four weeks. Can I possibly convince her to keep me on my pain medications?

Maybe it is because of Tom that I have had a lifelong love of trains. Every Christmas I begged for a pony and a train set. I never got either. The pony because we lived in town (at least that was the parental excuse) and the train set because I was a girl. Only boys played with trains.

I had my first train ride when I was six. An adult was with me. I think it was my grandmother but I’m not certain. Thrilled, I sat on the edge of my seat while the forest and rock landscape rushed by. Our destination was the small town of Ignace, one hundred and sixty miles west of Fort William, notable for its beautiful, sandy-beached lake, Lake Agimak. To add to the excitement, I knew Tom was up front in the big black steam engine, driving the train.

Our destination was a small lake cabin owned by Tom. Now photos take over and serve for memory. They show a white cabin perched on the shore and me in a bathing suit with a little pail and shovel digging in the sand.

We went to Ignace with great regularity. Soon after my train ride Tom commissioned the building of a log cabin on the other side of the lake, its front windows facing west toward orange and purple sunsets.

I adored Lake Agimak perhaps in part because my father only came there once. He did not like Tom and his dislike continued when a few years later Uncle Bill bought the log cabin from Tom.

Father and Uncle Bill despised one another. I adored Uncle Bill, my mother’s brother. He was over six feet tall with brown hair and blue eyes. He was handsome with well-defined features like the actor Charlton Heston. But my adoration was tinged with fear. You dared not make a mistake or you would receive an angry lecture. 

There was another strange thing about Uncle Bill. He would sit in the living room during the day rubbing his hands together and talking out loud. There was no one in the room to talk to yet he spoke vehemently as if arguing something with this invisible entity. We all just tiptoed around him when he was having one of these spells. It was scary. Years later I described this behaviour to a therapist and she labelled it “schizophrenic.”  In time, he stopped doing it.

His good side was what I adored. He rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He was resplendent in leather pants, boots, jacket and helmet. He perched me in front of him on the huge noisy bike and slowly drove around the block, to give me a thrilling ride.

Once he rode with a friend all the way to Mexico. When he returned, he entered the sunny kitchen with a flourish, unzipped his leather jacket and shrugged it off. He towered above me. I hopped up and down with excitement. I knew he had a surprise for me. I hoped for a pony. Mother was there. I don’t remember where Jeffrey and Tracy were; they must have been there. Then he reached down into the front of his leather pants and pulled out a green cowboy shirt. Next he withdrew a small pair of blue jeans. My first-ever pair. I took the shirt and jeans and thanked him over and over. I think Jeffrey got a similar outfit. I could not resist asking: “But where’s the pony?”

Mother and Uncle Bill roared with laughter.

“He wouldn’t fit on the motorcycle,” chuckled Uncle Bill. (Uncle Bill is actually pronounced “UncaBill” all one word. Around the neighbourhood the kids called him UncaBill. He repaired their toys and fixed their bikes.)

After UncaBill bought the log cabin with its timbered ceiling, logs shiny with varnish, he and it became the center of my being for the entire summer. We played in the water for hours. Once I sunburned so badly I got sunstroke. I remember lying on a bed, a cold cloth on my forehead, watching the room dance around me. After that, I had to wear a man’s long-sleeved shirt over my bathing suit every time I went swimming. There was no such thing as sun block in those days.

Jeffrey and I concocted a strange little game where we were crocodiles or maybe seahorses and lying on our bellies in the warm shallows on the soft sand we let the waves wash us up on shore while we chanted:  “Purple sand…seahorse…Suzie.” Whatever that meant. It must have had some meaning back then.

UncaBill took us on boat rides and fishing. He awakened Jeffrey and I with whispers early in the morning before anyone else was up. We each grabbed oranges from the fridge and tiptoed out to the boat that UncaBill had built and had named “JeeJaa.”  Jee for Jeffrey and Jaa for Jackie. She was eighteen feet long, wood, with a red and white fibre glassed hull. Often the lake was mirror-still, islands reflected upside down in the water and a morning mist rising. The smell of the water was intoxicating. UncaBill pushed us out a distance, standing in the boat using an oar to pole us along. The water rippled along the sides of the boat. Then he sat down by the motor—a 35 horsepower Evinrude—pulled the cord and the motor roared to life. We set out across the lake to the far side, a frothy wake following us. It was a trip of several miles and we only slowed when we came to the distant shore.

He got the fishing poles out for us and attached a lure called a “Lazy-Dazy.” We each took a pole and fed out some line then settled in to troll around steep granite cliffs of islands striated with grooves carved by glaciers. The water was deep and black. We were quiet and relaxed, but we expected any second to feel the tug of a caught fish. We hoped for pickerel because they were the best for eating but didn’t mind catching a pike. They were great fighters. The scent of the lake, the gasoline oily in rainbow colours on the water, the fragrance of spruce, cedar and balsam from the islands, the rising sun on our faces—I can smell and feel it all to this day.

Then someone yelled: “Got one!” and quickly UncaBill cut the motor, while we reeled in our lines, the lucky fisherman standing to reel. We watched in breathless excitement. Then there was the fish!  Right up against the hull, flopping and struggling on the line. UncaBill crouched forward and scooped up the fish with a net. If it was a pickerel, we’d rejoice. A pike and UncaBill would gently disengage the Lazy-Dazy from its mouth and tenderly set it back in the water.

When we caught our limit, we’d motor back to camp where UncaBill cleaned the fish. Mother fried them up for breakfast.

Rusty always accompanied us on these clandestine trips. He’d bark with excitement as the fish flopped around on the floor of the boat.

It never was quite clear whose dog Rusty was. My father and UncaBill wrestled over ownership. Both claimed him. My father took him on hunting trips, me in tow, and UncaBill cleaned his ears and inspected him closely for fleas. Secretly, I considered him my dog.

On the hunting trips I gamely trudged along behind my father—always keeping a safe distance from him—while Rusty ranged ahead seeking to flush partridge. While we walked Father stopped often to pick up stones. He would announce its geological name and hand it to me so I could learn. He had gone prospecting with his father as a child. In fact when Grandfather Cryderman was losing his eyesight, he sent my father on ahead through the bush so he could follow father’s white towhead, which was visible to him.

Father was a good shot and it wasn’t too long before we had our limit of birds. Once Father shot more than the limit. He acted very afraid of the game warden. He wrapped the birds in old cloth and pried off a hubcap. He tucked the birds into the wheel and snapped the hubcap back in place. I was nervous all the way home but we made it safely. I promptly went down to the basement and cleaned the birds. Father taught me how at an early age. I saved their beautiful tails, shaped like fans in brown and grey feathers.

Mother cooked the little partridges in a pressure cooker with mushrooms and potatoes and served them with a gravy sauce. They tasted wonderful.

As a hunting dog Rusty was famous for his courageous retrieves in iced-over water. He’d break through the ice and swim rapidly to downed ducks, bringing them in one at a time. More than once people approached my father about breeding to him. I remember going to a house to see a litter of puppies sired by Rusty. We had the pick of the litter and father let me make the pick. I selected a chocolate and white female and named her Jill. Jill was a squirmy happy little puppy. I took her out to play with me every day. One day, I was waiting in the back lane leading to Ogden Street when Jill suddenly dashed out onto the road. She was hit by a car and killed instantly. I rushed to her and picked up her warm little body, sobbing. I took her home and we buried her under a tall tamarack tree on the two and a half acres Father had bought in the country. He was building us a house there.

He spent every evening after work in the back yard mixing cement and pouring it into a mold. This made a cement block used to build the house in the country. Weekends the dried blocks were transported to the property. We really needed that house because babies kept arriving and 544 Wiley was uncomfortably overcrowded. When I was seven, I slept on the chesterfield for ages. The adults gathered in the kitchen laughing and talking while I tried to sleep in the darkened room.

Only one story from my father’s childhood made me feel sympathy toward him. When he was six, it was his job to water the horses. They had several, as Grandfather Cryderman was a noted horseman, famous for healing lame racehorses. It was winter and little Jack thought he could simplify this chore by leading the horses down to the river, rather than hauling buckets back to the barn. He took a couple of horses by their leads and went to the river. The river was iced over. The horses pawed at it to break the ice. One horse walked a bit further out. Suddenly the ice gave way and the horse fell through. Struggling, it sank into deeper waters. Its head sank and Father could see the drowning horse beneath the ice. The horse died. Father got a licking. After that, he never liked horses.

I am awaiting news from the new Mountdale Family Health Clinic to see if I have been selected as a patient. They are right in my neighbourhood. It would save me from an eighty-dollar taxi ride to Port Arthur to see Dr. Naqi. Also, just in case Dr. Naqi doesn’t renew my prescriptions for pain medications. But I tell myself she will, she has always been so kind and compassionate.

 I filled out an application online yesterday and as soon as I submitted it, I felt a wonderful peace come over me. My mind was wiped clean of racing thoughts and worry. This morning I decided to send them a little note, in case they might be prejudiced against older people. I wrote that people always mistook me for a sixty-year old even though I am seventy-four and that I am writing my sixth book. I hoped they would select me. Now I wait, working to keep a clear, peaceful mind, not always successfully. When I am writing, my mind is unclouded filled with joy at the happy parts, dread at the bad parts.

To be clear, even though I have lost significant mobility, I am happy most of the time now, a state it has taken me years to achieve. I choose not to miss the things I can no longer do. I have acceptance. Eighty per cent of the time.

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