Monday, 19 December 2016

A Child's Christmases in Toronto 1: Prehistory

Knitting pattern good looks.
"My theme is memory," wrote Evelyn Waugh in the voice of Charles Ryder,"that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life--for we possess nothing certainly except the past--were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark's, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and a sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning."

 My first memory is a very early one indeed. It is from my crib, and therefore was formed before the end of the American war in Vietnam. Fittingly, it is of my mother, who was still in her mid-twenties, a beautiful girl with long, wavy chestnut hair, green eyes, a delicate nose and dark-framed spectacles. She is holding a yellow doll, probably homemade, whose body is merely a velvet hooded onesie to which a smiling plastic baby face has been attached. The name of this doll is, appropriately enough, Baby. The girl--whom I know to be my mother and my infant heart contracts with adoration--makes swooping movements with Baby.

"It's a bird," cries my mother. "It's a plane! It's----SUPERBABY!"

And down comes Baby into my crib, and I am delighted.  

Where this was exactly, I don't know. My young parents had a mildly peripatetic, rental-accommodation existence until shortly before my fifth birthday. Churchgoing Catholics, they married 13 months before I was born, and from an early age I have enjoyed looking at their wedding photos. 

They married in Advent, and my mother carried a bouquet of red poinsettia. Her maid-of-honour wore a dark red dress and carried white poinsettia. My mother's white wool "medieval" dress was trimmed with rabbit fur, and she wore a fur band in her wavy hair instead of a veil. Outside the church--built in 1856--the confetti on the newlywed's hair and shoulders looks like snow. In one photo, the 29-year-old groom puts on his homburg hat. He is tall and slim, has short, dark curly hair and looks like an Irish-American.* The groom is a doctoral student with teaching duties, and he has married during the university's Christmas break. The bride, I think, is a foreman at Dunlop Rubber & Co.--an unusual job for a woman at the time. Her career with Dunlop will be cut short by my own advent. While pregnant, she will type my father's PhD thesis. 

Besides the episode with Baby, I remember when my stuffed blue whale was new, and the arrival of a plaid octopus wearing a plaid cap. If these were Christmas presents, that is all I remember of that Christmas. I also have a very vague memory of a Christmas visit to the USA, and feeling uncomfortable and cross. 

As far as I know, there are no home movies of this visit, but I most certainly could be wrong. Very early on, my father took an interest in making home movies; these later filled me with mortification. The most embarrassing one is of my infant brother Nulli Secundus--probably on a Christmas Day--striving to reach a toy. His eyes are full of interest and joy, and he drags himself in an elementary crawl to the object. Just as he is about to reach for it, the plump red-haired toddler who was me notices his intent and takes the toy away. Ha ha ha. Hilarious.

My brain did not start accumulating memories in earnest until I was almost four and Nulli was two. My father, now an assistant or associate professor, took a sabbatical and signed on to do post-doctoral research at Cambridge University.  He brought along his young family and a number of steamer trunks. Going abroad for a year was enormously adventurous for my parents, and to my great disappointment, they never repeated the experiment. Possibly they were worried about the logistics of moving a growing family. I have a very vague memory of my brother being airsick on our first Atlantic crossing, and according to my mother, the very first words he ever uttered were "I want to go home." 

Not to be sentimental, but Cambridge became for me even more than a home. As the years went on, it figured in my imagination as a lost paradise. This is in part because our row house--married student housing--was built on the ruins of an old botanical garden, and woods, a common, and a raised duck pond all feature in my memories. I remember visiting one university quadrangle, and thus have an impression of old stone walls in my mind, but I was too young at four to understand that Cambridge University carried enormous significance for the world. When I did understand, I prided myself highly on having spent a year on its edges. 

It was also paradise because, although I knew there was God, I didn't know there was death. My merry Canadian grandfather (source of the red hair) was only 64, and no-one knew this was the last year of his life. Meanwhile, I don't remember a cross word from my mother--although two admonishments from my father, once because my brother and I were messing with his film canisters and once because we were marching around the breakfast table making a tremendous racket with toy instruments--or any quarrel with Nulli, who was a cheerful, friendly, easy-bossed little cherub. Strangely, we were allowed to roam freely in the woods and the common without any adult oversight. When my hair got caught in a climbing frame, I had to send Nulli for rescue. 

This I remember very well on my own, even without the often repeated story of how Nulli burst in on my mother crying "Dorothy duck" and thus my mother flew in a panic to the duck pond. I was very lonely there on the bit of green, stuck to the climbing frame. I passed the time by moaning and blowing spit bubbles. It was drizzling. I sank into a luxurious depression. Typically, I remember my sufferings but not my rescue. 

Our Cambridge Christmas I do not remember. Instead there are photographs which explain the origins of common objects in our resumed Toronto life. One is of my father in a highly unfashionable red nightshirt and nightcap. The nightcap had a white pompom and became the "elf hat" that distinguishes whoever's job it is to hand out the Christmas presents. Others feature the woolly elephants my mother knitted for her children, complete with our first initial sewn to the elephants' jumpers. Nulli's hair is thick, straight and platinum. My hair is soft, wavy and strawberry blonde. We looked like British knitting pattern child models, and we were dressed like them too. Possibly we sounded like them; we played with local children on their common and picked up their working-class accents. 

There was one serpent in this paradise, and it was a supernatural being I called The Weatherman. I was terribly frightened of him, and I thought he was responsible for the strange coloured dots and squiggles I could see in the dark of my room when I went to bed. If pressed to identify him, I would have said he was an invisible wizard. He was certainly evil and meant me no good. Although as I got older I dismissed these impressions as sheer imagination, I wonder now if this was not some very early recognition of the Enemy of Mankind. Perhaps I unconsciously sensed his presence in news reports. Although I myself was entirely sheltered from the concept of death, there were constant IRA bombings that year--so many that there was palpable anti-Catholic (to say nothing of anti-Irish) feeling in Cambridge. According to family legend, a neighbour saw us emerging from church and snarled "Catholic bastards." 

Fortunately, I do not remember this at all, and unfortunately, I now know exactly how he felt because right after I watched the Twin Towers fall--live--on television, my eye fell upon a perfectly innocent and harmless woman in hijab walking along an Ontario street and I felt murderous rage. Thank God I didn't say anything. 

Unless I am mistaken, our year in the UK was from September to July or August. When we returned to Canada, my mother was heavily pregnant and my parents began to purchase a house. Before we moved in, we stayed with my mother's parents---devoted Gladys and funny George. I believe I remember sitting on one end of a "teeter-totter" swing with my grandfather on the other end. If so, this is my only memory of him, as he died in early September, shortly before my sister Tertia was born. 

My grandmother was devastated, but again we children were protected as much as possible from the sorrows of adult life. Either my brother or I--or both of us--drew a picture or pictures [entirely fictional] of our late grandfather being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. We were admonished not to show this (or these) to our grandmother, as she would be sad. Thinking about this as an older child, I was shocked by our insensitivity, but now I understand this is simply a way children process tragic events beyond their comprehension. Meanwhile, my parents' and grandmother's sorrow did not throw the slightest hint of shadow on our Christmas three months later. However, that is a story for tomorrow. Another thing I wish to say about Cambridge is that when I first set foot in the Historical House, I smelled the ancient-damp-British-house-smell for the first time in over 30 years. In a strange but real way, I felt I had come home. Meanwhile, I have no idea what cleaning products they use, but when, a few years later, I walked into the local library loo, I was transported to the WC of my Cambridge nursery school and remembered all the bottles of milk lined up before the frosted window.

Once when I was naughty, I was given my milk--a government-funded ration, incidentally--but not my daily cookies. My brother Nulli voluntarily--and happily--shared his. If I possess any memories the day I die, I am sure that will be one of them.  My brother has given me many presents over the years, but nothing has made a deeper impression than that spontaneous, joyful, authority-thwarting act of loyalty. According to family legend, when (in Cambridge) I was informed that I would soon have a new sister or brother, I was terribly troubled, thinking this meant I would have to give up Nulli in exchange.

*This is hard to explain, but if you have male relations who are at least 75% Irish-American, you can guess what I mean.  

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