I stumble down the overgrown path to the shore of Lake Ontario. I am unable to shake my dark thoughts. Trees lean over me disapprovingly. I turn as a branch snatches my cardigan from behind. The maple reaches out to me to return it. “Keep it, I won’t need it.” My shoe catches a tree root and the rough ground rises to meet me. Stones hurt and scrape as I skid to a stop. Winded, I suck at the air as I get up.
I slump onto a moss-covered boulder at the water’s edge. I look down at my drizzle-soaked sundress that is now torn and streaked with dirt. Suddenly, I’m crying. “I’m so bloody tired. They’re tearing me apart! I feel like an animal caught in a trap.” A job with long hours. An alcoholic husband who can’t control his temper, a deranged invalid mother, their constant fighting! I can’t get her shrill voice out of my head, screeching my name and shrieking at my husband, John. Now I’m the one shrieking. “Why can’t you just shut up? Why do you have to make her worse than she already is!?” I smack the limestone under me. “Why!” Smack. “WHY!”
The echoes fade as I quickly look around to make sure I’m alone. Only the swaying trees and grass are witness to my eruption. I take several deep breaths, then pull out the pen and paper from my pocket. ‘Dearest little Julia…’ The paper is too damp for the ink to stick. I throw both at the dirt in frustration. I wanted to tell Julia I’m sorry for the hard times at home. That I love her dearly – even if I seldom show it. That I wish, as her mother, I had done more for her, shared more with her… “Damn, I’ve done nothing right!”
I wish I could have been more like Isaac, my third father. A farmer. So gentle and kind. Taught me about nature and the beauty in animals, and then… “The only loving, solid parent in my life is ripped away by a heart attack, leaving me with Agnes!” I yell to the leaden sky.
Agnes! Just shouting the name stirs up so many sad and angry thoughts. Nothing nice at all. Why did she pick such an abusive first husband to bring me into the world with? I don’t even know if he left us or died. I hope for the latter. I think of the morning Agnes spoke to a condemning priest, then dragged me at five-years-old down to the water’s edge near our house in Birmingham, England with thoughts of ending our lives to assuage her guilt over the “sinful” life she was leading. If living common-law caused her so much guilt, why didn’t she just marry my second father, who was a decent man? “And years later when you left me and my little step-brothers, Clement and baby George, in a Catholic orphanage and took off to Canada on your own!” I grind my teeth. “What kind of mother leaves like that?! And then later, you only sent for me! Why not them?!” I begin to sob for little George. Hugging him that last time while he slept peacefully in his crib breaks my heart every time I visit the thought.
I get up and yank my shoes off and remember crossing the Atlantic by myself, at thirteen, on a ship bound for Canada during World War I. German subs were everywhere, sinking any ship not flying a German flag. After arriving safely, I had to help with the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic at the orphanage, where I’d wake some mornings to find some of my teachers and schoolmates had died in the night. We all were a sea of masked faces, skirting death. I step into the frigid water. Unseen rocks jab my feet. Why didn’t I die then, or when I was five? “Would have saved me the trouble today!”
When mother eventually picked me up from the Canadian orphanage, she was already married to Isaac and living on his farm. Tears fall as I recall the happiest times of my life before Isaac’s fatal heart attack. He left us the farm, which was his final kindness to us. But soon afterwards it was destroyed by fire. Lost to us forever, just like Isaac.
So many things lost, taken away, wasted. “Missed,” I whisper. I’m done yelling. I haven’t the energy now. I’ve released years of frustration and anger. Finally. It no longer explodes from me, but steadily trickles. My mind continues to wander. I think of the jobs I took in Toronto during the Depression to make ends meet. Working in service as a maid showed me just how demeaning some wealthy people could be. I worked long shifts cleaning their homes and they were supposed to feed their staff. Yet I often went hungry. Seeing their beautiful homes, how they lived, how they spoke and the clothes they wore all had an impact on me.
Married life with John was not what I had hoped it would be. I loved him. He was kind, interesting and hardworking. But he drank and gambled. And by then I had become Agnes’ keeper. I liked the lives those wealthy people had. I wanted a life like theirs. So, I created as much of it as I could for myself. I began to wear clothes like them, spoke like them and filled my house with things like theirs that I could afford – nice place settings, tea sets, crystal and as many things bright and cheery as I was able. I acted as if I had a life like them. Like everything was going well and perfect. I hoped that somehow, if I did these things, my life would become like theirs, for real. Up until about an hour ago. Up until the undercurrent of my ‘real’ life leaked through and stained everything. Agnes and John. Can’t even remember what today’s fight was about. Always something stupid! They’re like children, the both of them. It’s hard to remember where the line was drawn that divided my mother trying to care for me, and me caring for my mother.
Shivering, I inch my way a little deeper into the water. I can no longer feel my feet. I realize now that I’ve created a life that’s not really mine, and I’m left with fragments of my real life that I don’t want. I sigh heavily and shake my head. I’ve been lost all these years and I don’t know where to find myself. I wonder, again, why I didn’t die when I was five. What was it I said to my mother to convince her not to end our lives? I remember. “Mommy, God doesn’t want children to go away!” Instantly, I’m sobbing again. I think of my dear son, Michael John, who was malformed and died shortly after being born. I cry for not wanting to see him. Too horrified. Too scared. And I cry for my sweet foster baby, Muriel. A poorly treated baby who needed a home, and probably still does. I longed to adopt her as my own, but I gave her back because Agnes didn’t want to hear her cries anymore. John was so upset. He loves children dearly. I hate myself for allowing it to happen. For letting her go.
I didn’t let everything go, though. My daughter, Julia, is still with me. I didn’t bring her down to the water to die with me. I want her to live! I want her to have her own life! All at once I remember another thing I told my mother when I was five. “I’m going to live until I’m a hundred years old!” I said matter-of-factly. “You are my mother and mothers help their children or else God gets mad! Very mad!” Why do I suddenly remember that? I wonder if, perhaps, what I said is partly why I feel I must always help people. Feed them, clothe them and give them more than I have to give! Putting their needs before my own to the point where I’m barely looking after myself. Agnes did that also, especially during the Depression. Funny how that used to irritate me to no end, and now I’m doing it myself! A cloud shifts in the sky, allowing rays of light to touch the water. Amazingly, the murky water turns a brilliant blue. I stop to watch the sun sparkling on the water.
I ponder why God gave me such a crazy mother. As soon as I think this, the answer comes to me. I can even see it. A large, powerful hand gripping my mother by her hair and whacking her head against the kitchen wall over and over and over… She’s not crazy! She was normal before! ‘Brain damaged’ after! Abused by my first father, Walter. I realize now that my mother helped her children as best she could, but she just wasn’t capable. His fault. Not hers. None of it has ever been her fault. Instantly, my anger is gone. The point in my life when I began to care for my mother was when her head made contact with that kitchen wall. The result is why I am standing in this lake. But I’ve survived so far, haven’t I?
My mind has cleared, and I’m tired… so very tired. I struggle to stay upright. Suddenly a robin with a worm in its beak swoops past me and disappears into the trees. To feed its young. “Oh my God!” I gasp. “Julia!” What was I thinking! Who would have cared for her? Two sick, damaged, bickering people?! I fight my way out of the water, as if the lake were death itself. For once I am relieved I have not succeeded in doing something I’ve set out to do. I put on my shoes, fix my hair, smooth my dress, turn and march back up the hill. I know now that I will, indeed, live to be one hundred years old. My five-year-old self knew it then, and I know it now. I will rise above this day! And from now on, anyone who gets in my way will wish they hadn’t!
I am a SURVIVOR!
Story written by Tori Jones
copywrite 2010 Tori Jones