I barely remembered my parents and siblings – all of whom were wrenched apart when I was two years old. My first memory is of a cramped room with several windows where half a dozen cots were laid out all around me. As a toddler, I had no comprehension of our impoverished lifestyle. Instead, I was more than happy to clamber up on a cot and fearlessly jump from one to the other giggling with glee.
In my 40’s, I found this house and wondered what it was like to live there with eight other people. Apparently, it wasn’t quite atrocious. Over the years, I learned that my family was chronic poor. My parents were heavy drinkers and got into many altercations. During one of their more intensive rows, the neighbors called the Hamilton Children’s Aid. In one night, I was divested of family and taken away. At the children’s aid I recall precariously climbing a long wooden staircase to my darkened bedroom upstairs. Laying in bed that first night, all was deafeningly quite – no yammering siblings or squabbling parents. I envisioned monsters popping out of every shadowy corner.
From the society’s main building, I was shuffled from one foster home to another. Some were tolerable, like the farmhouse where as a tot I was fond of playing hide and seek, climbing inside the chicken coups. I also remember eating raw rhubarb right out of the garden and dipped in sugar – a flavorsome and somewhat tangy treat on a hot summer day. On rainy days, the other children and I crammed into a small den to watch black and white television – such shows as Roy Rogers, Zorro and a variety of cartoons. Those memories are for the most part, pleasant ones, except for the occasions when I wet my pants. Being a particularly hypersensitive and nervous child, if someone yelled at me, that’s what inevitably happened, which then led to a spanking. All a part of childhood I guess.
At four years old, I recall being rushed to the hospital with excruciating pain in my throat. For several days, I hadn’t been able to eat and was told that I needed an operation to remove my tonsils. As I was being wheeled on a gurney down a long white corridor, I remember clutching the cold steel sidebars and a nurse pleasantly asking me which door I’d like to enter.
“That one,” I said pointing excitedly – as if some surprise awaited me on the other side with no precognition as to what was to come.
“Good, because that’s just where you’re going,” the nurse said smiling down at me.
Childhood memories are often foggy and distorted, especially when the old ‘gas the patient’ methods were used. I awoke after the operation in a crib – my arms outstretched and my hands tied to rails on either side. Naturally, my first instinct was to throw up – not an easy task when you’re prone flat on your back!
While some early memories warm my heart, there are others, such as the one that follows, that hurt me deep down in the soul. The Jensen’s lived in a brick ranch-style home a couple of blocks from Lake Ontario. At the time, I was five years old and their only child – a boy – was seven. As one would expect, the Jensen’s loved their son unconditionally. Needless to say, he could do no wrong, so whenever anything was broken or something adverse occurred, it was reasonably easy to determine who was to blame.
One day, he discovered me playing in the open garage with my Raggedy Ann doll in a baby carriage the Jensen’s had given me. Obviously incensed that I was still there treading on his territory, he ripped the carriage from my hands and tossed it across the driveway. One wheel bent outward, with its spokes splayed, bent and torn out of place. The canvas cover hung precariously to one side and looked like it had been run over. The tall and lean Mrs. Jenson was furious.
“How dare you ruin something so nice that we gave you,” she hollered. “You are a most ungrateful child.”
I rocked on my heels and wished I could meld into the woodwork or dissolve into space – anything to get far away from this ugly scene. As much as I protested, it was pointless. Their son was their pride and joy. I was an unwelcome newcomer, an interloper and a huge nuisance in the boy’s previously charmed life.
As the chill of winter set in, it brought mounds of fresh snow to the otherwise lush Ontario landscape and the lake froze over with shafts of ice jabbing at variance into the shoreline. I caught a cold and remained bedridden for days. My chest burned as I tried to breath and coughing was painful. Mrs. Jensen called a doctor, who came to the house to examine me. Imagine, doctors who made house calls!
“She has pneumonia,” he pronounced with apathetic indisputably. “She’ll need regular shots of penicillin.”
And there were many – far too many! Though the needles poked into my bony behind became more and more excruciating over time, I took comfort in collecting all the little rubber-topped bottles that once held the penicillin. I thought they were rather spiffy and used them to pretend-feed my Raggedy Ann under the soft down blanket as I lay so many days in bed.
One morning, Mrs. Jensen tip toed into the room and drew back the curtain. Unrestrained spring sunshine poured in as she moved to sit on the bed beside me. I struggled to prop myself up, my tiny lungs laboring to take each breath.
“I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid,” she began. “The doctor says you’re not getting any better and you have to go to the hospital.”
I eyed her with more than normal childlike discernment.
“I’m not coming back, am I?”
It was an immediate response. Even at five years old, I innately knew that I’d been enough of a discordant element to this otherwise close knit family and had overstayed my welcome.
“No, I’m afraid not,” she replied sheepishly and turned away so as not to look at me. “We live too close to the lake and the humid air isn’t good for you.”
Right. There was always a reason, I thought as hot tears poured down.
“Now, I’m going to pack your things,” she continued with disaffection and opened my miniature trunk.
A few pairs of underwear, socks, two tops and two pairs of pants – my life’s belongings –were neatly folded and tucked inside, along with my best friend - Raggedy Ann. The trunk, which was a mere twenty inches by perhaps twelve and lined with a rose printed cloth now sits in my older daughter’s basement – a sentimental reminder of my tumultuous early days.
While I hung precariously on the brink of life and death under an oxygen tent in the hospital, I managed to entirely miss my first year of school. One day, I awoke and became cognizant of a petite woman standing at the end of my bed. She wore a light gray suit jacket with matching skirt and hat, and looked rather regal for her tiny stature. Light brown curls framed her delicate features and bright blue eyes stared at me through the plastic. In my weakened state, I soon closed my eyes. When I finally opened them again, the wisp of a woman had disappeared and became just a faint memory - like a ghost that appeared and disappeared expeditiously.
The blog above is part of my biography that I am currently in the process of writing. For more of my work, please visit: