Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: What Happens in 204 Stays in 204 and the Fine Art of Secret Keeping.

We couldn’t stop looking at him and he at us.

The older I get the better I get at keeping secrets.   I now understand how sacred secret keeping is.  What a privilege it is to have someone trust you so dearly with a confidence.  Even if they have shared their secret with someone else, it matters not.  This is your secret to keep. Held safe for as long as required.  It could be for a day, a week, a year.  A lifetime.  Some secrets I will take to the grave with me.

I’m from a family of secret keepers.  So perhaps this gives me a bit of an edge over those who are not so well practiced.  The biggest secret our family kept concerned The Old Man’s drinking.  Not just his alcoholism.  But his recurring rampages that terrorized our family. We were like visitors to Vegas.  What happened in 204 stayed in 204. This family secret, that I held close for over twenty years, was one of two that shaped the landscape of my youth. I looked out at the world, not with wide-eyed wonder, but with fear.  For the flip side of keeping secrets is disclosure.  I didn’t want anyone to know about The Old Man. Not even my best friend.

Some secrets are held in fear.  Others in shame.  This was at the heart of the second family secret.

Little back story.  When I was twenty-four I wanted to go to Europe.  I hadn’t travelled much.  Nor ventured far when I did.  Little trips with my family mostly.  Circle Route around Lake Superior.  Trips to Duluth, Minnesota.  Once as far as Minneapolis.  One quick secret disastrous trip to Toronto with my first love.   A cross country car ride to Victoria which included stops in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.  That was it.  My wayfaring adventures by age twenty-four.

We converted Ma’s sewing room into a nursery for a few years.

Many of my friends had already been to Europe.  Backpacking globe-trotters.  Nomads and gypsies.  Sophisticated and worldly.  I had been to Duluth.  I was green with envy and itching to gallivant.  This became the hot topic of conversation between my new boyfriend and I.  We made plans.  Beginning with acquiring passports.  We did all the appropriate paperwork and mailed off our applications to Ottawa.  This was a long time ago so the details of the process are a bit sketchy.  But to the best of my recollection, this is what we did.  Then we waited.  And waited.  It took weeks to hear anything.

Everything went smoothly for my boyfriend, who was far less new after weeks of waiting for passports. His knapsack was packed and he was good to go.  But this was not the case for me.

I never got my passport.  Instead, I got a letter from the government of Canada informing me that I did not exist.  ‘Don’t exist’ I cried.  ‘How is that possible?  I’m here aren’t I?  Look at me.  I’m right here.’  This occurred while I was living on the West Coast, the first time round.  I thought perhaps this mix-up had something to do with geography.  That I wasn’t actually nonexistent, just misplaced.

Determined to prove that I did indeed exist, I decided to go to the fountainhead.  Take it to the two people who were there right from the beginning.  The source of my genesis.  No, not God and Jesus. That would come later.  Ma and The Old Man.  But before doing so, I mentioned this misbegotten madness to my sister, who was also living on the West Coast.  I showed her the letter.  ‘Look at this,’ I uttered incredulously.  She read the letter.  Looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’

The Old Man and his grandson sharing a moment together.

Ma and The Old Man weren’t legally married.  There was nothing shocking about this revelation. I had suspected as much for years.  But it was a bit unsettling to hear those words said out loud for the first time.  This subject was taboo in our family.  Strictly off limits.  In truth, I was the only one not in on the secret.  The evidence was there of course.  For starters, Ma and The Old Man never celebrated their anniversary.  Yet she went by Mrs. M.  And she wore a wedding ring.  This was good enough for me.  When I was really young I didn’t understand such things.  When I was old enough to know, I didn’t want to.  By the time I figured it out, I didn’t care. By then, I was actually in on the secret.  But no one knew that I knew what they knew.

Once the proverbial cat was let out of the bag I called Ma.  There was no going back.  The silence was broken.  The Boogeyman was released and he wasn’t all that scary.  I felt free.  I wanted to liberate Ma as well.  The call went something like this.

‘Ma, a strange thing happened when I tried to get my passport.’

‘What’s that dear?’

‘I got this letter from the government saying I don’t exist.’

‘That’s impossible.’

‘G told me everything Ma.’

Silence followed.  By a pregnant pause.  By more silence.

‘Ma why didn’t you just put The Old Man’s name on my birth certificate?’

‘I didn’t know I could.’

A common law marriage and an illegitimate child.  More secrets that consumed my parents.  Filled them with shame.  Followed by years of silence.  Humiliation.  Heads hung low.  I look back on their situation and my heart breaks for them.

By the time I was old enough to get married things were so different. Common law marriages.  People living together.  Shacking up.  It was happening all around me and no one cared.  Hippy chicks were having babies and wearing daisies in their hair.  Feminism had arrived.  Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were inspiring young women everywhere. Myself included.  There was nothing illegitimate about any of it.  More options and choices.  No judgement.  Different strokes for different folks, as Sly and The Family Stone sang.

What a burden my parents carried in their hearts all those years.  In the end, it was a relief to have the truth spoken.  Confession is good for the soul they say.  This held true for my parents, especially Ma.

I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than living in shame.  The joy that it robs. The dignity that it steals.  The humiliation it perpetrates.  The things we teach our children without even knowing.  Nor intending.  Passed down from one generation to the next, along with Grandma’s handmade quilt.  I understand the shame Ma felt.  Intimately.  I too carry this pain in my heart.  Sometimes I don’t even know why.  It’s like the elusive butterfly.  Impossible to grasp.

My passport awaits. I just have to fill out the forms.

After the birth of my son I experienced a fleeting moment of shame.  I thought I was beyond reproach, yet this stung.  He was only hours old and he filled my spirit with such wonder.  A Nurses Aid, who was old enough to be my mother, entered our room to check on us.  I was engaged in a gripping one-sided conversation with my son.  As she was adjusting my blankets and plumping my pillow, she referred to me as Mrs. M.  I immediately corrected her and explained that I wasn’t Mrs. M.  That was my mother.  Then as carelessly as she tossed a crumpled Kleenex into the wastebasket, she responded with, ‘That’s what we call girls like you dear.’  She wasn’t being malicious.  Nor did she intend to hurt me.  Just stating the facts.  Telling the truth.  Yet there I was.  Drowning in a puddle of shame. Maybe we hadn’t come a long way Baby.

But the hand of God touched me that day.  The hurt didn’t linger.  Thankfully.  Besides, I had a beautiful brown-eyed boy to love and protect.  I had to toughen up.

I still don’t have a passport.  I haven’t been consumed by wanderlust these past thirty years so it hasn’t really mattered.  Acquiring one fell off the to do list years ago. My life has been full and adventurous despite traveling abroad.  Yet a part of me often wonders if I’m stuck.  Fearful that if I apply for my passport I’ll be told I still don’t exist.  At least not as me.  The girl with the unpronounceable Finnish last name.  I have an official Birth Certificate containing Ma’s first husband’s surname.  I look at it and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Not me.  I look at the ancient tattered Registration of Birth that the Old Man altered and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Me.  Not sure how he did it.  But somehow he removed the official legal surname and typed in his.  It always looked right to me.  You see what you want to see I guess.  I never wanted to be anything but the Breadman’s daughter.

And with God’s grace I am.  Always will be.  Passport or not.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Stray Cats, Hitch Hikers and Under Dogs.

Some of the strays who found their way to 204.

I love stray cats.  I’m not talking about the feline variety, although I do like them.  Nor am I talking about the band from the eighties.  I like them too.  The stray cats I’m referring to are all the misfits of the world.  The ones who don’t belong.  Or haven’t found their home.  The square pegs. The oddballs.  Weirdos.  Freaks.  Under dogs.  The ones called last to the team.  Or not at all.  These are my favorites.  I have a huge place in my heart for this motley collection.

I don’t remember when my heart first opened up to let the strays in.  From the very beginning of me, it seems.  Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way.  I also think that Ma and The Old Man were born that way too.  Maybe it’s in our family DNA.

Little back story.  Over the years many stray cats found a place at the table at 204.  Or on the couch.  Sleeping bags in the backyard.  Rusted out vans in the driveway. Everyone from cute young hitchhikers to the lost girls I met at school.  The travelers.  The seekers.  The Emotionally wounded.  Those consumed by wanderlust.  And the temporarily homeless.  All were welcome.

Some travelers who camped out in the back of 204 for the night.

One girl comes to mind readily.  Although we haven’t spoken in decades, I have never forgotten her.  To the best of my recollection, and photographic evidence, we met for the first time in grade eight.  We were an unlikely pairing.  Yin and yang.  I was painfully shy, quiet and introverted.  She was naturally outgoing, loud and gregarious.  One day she would blossom into a beauty but in grade eight there was very little to suggest that this would ever happen.  That was an awkward age to begin with.  For all of us.  One look at our grade eight class photo says it all.  Not one raving beauty in the bunch.  In all fairness, we were transitioning through that God-awful uncomfortably homely stage where our body parts hadn’t quite jelled.  You could see it in our grim expressions.  If there were smiles at all, they looked tentative and forced.  We were a collective mess.

But in her case things were even worse.  Add a high forehead.  Acne.  Lazy eye.  Thick glasses.  Not a pretty picture no matter what lens you use.  Too bad there weren’t more crystal balls around back then so we could have seen the swan emerging.  There were hints of course.  Perfectly even white teeth, great smile and beautiful legs.  I didn’t have a lazy eye nor a high forehead but I did have acne flareups, thin lips and skinny bowed legs.  So I could relate.

Beneath her wise-cracking-gum-smacking-nothing-bothers-me veneer, she was also angry.   I was too.  Another thing we had in common.  Except she probably had more cause to be.  I was angry at the world for its lack of equitability.  I moaned and groaned at how unfair life was.  And she was my case in point.   Her mother died when she was a little girl leaving her and her older sister to be raised by their alcoholic father.  The Old Man was an alcoholic too but he was a saint next to this guy.  They lived in a tumbled down weather beaten house on the fringe of our neighborhood.  I don’t recall ever going inside.  The outside looked like one of those scary haunted houses in horror movies. That was enough for me.  The ramshackle nature of the place, and her father, both embarrassed and humiliated her.   Like many alcoholics, especially those who are gooned most of the time, he was unpredictable.  She often sought refuge at 204.  Like in the Dylan song, we gave her “shelter from the storm.”

Ma and The Old Man loved this girl.  Flaws and all.  They saw past the loud, often obnoxious behavior to the insecure girl crying out for love and attention.  And for whatever reason, I just plain flat-out liked her.  She was hilarious and fun.  Spontaneous and full of surprises.  Every day was a new adventure.  She took me places that I would never have gone otherwise.  Introduced me to people I never would have met.  Widened my circle.  Broadened my horizons.  Expanded my universe.  We may have had a few close calls along the way.  But it was worth it.  All relatively innocuous when I look back on it now.   She dressed up my drab life and I am grateful.

She added thrills and spills to my life and I kept her out of trouble.   When she went to the edge of darkness, I had her back.  Took care of her when she got drunk.  Held her hair out of her face when she threw up in the revolting toilets at the Arena where the weekly teen dances were held.  The smell of the urine soaked concrete is permanently imbedded in my head. I also made sure we got home safely to 204 before things went too far.

Ma saw herself in this motherless girl. She understood profoundly  the craving for a particular kind of love.  That only a mother could satisfy.  The truth is, this girl was a snap to love.  She was abundantly affectionate and demonstrative.  Hugged hard.  Squeezed the love right out of you.  She expressed her rainbow of feelings without hesitation or self-consciousness.  Who wouldn’t be drawn to a person like this?  Ma, The Old Man and I were like bees to honey.  She had us at the first hug and tight squeeze.

All were welcome at 204 even the cute ones.

Some people bring out the best in you.  Others just bring you out.  That’s what she did for me.  I always felt more courageous when I was with her.  Less inhibited.  More myself.  I liked who I was when she was around.  We may have been yin and yang but we were also two peas in a pod.  We were more alike than we were different.  I think that’s true of most people.  If we dare to peel back the layers.  We find ourselves there too.

It’s what’s on the inside that counts.  Most of us are taught that at our mother’s knee.  Tired cliche.  Overused platitude.  Hack-kneed homily.  But cliches don’t become cliches for nothing.  Within their lackluster facade are essences of truth and wisdom.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Another cliche.  Also true.  It’s hard not to judge people.  Especially when they are different.  All the more reason to pause and open your heart and mind to what it feels like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  Another cliche.  Again true.  It changes you when you do.  I have proof.  Sitting in the front row of our grade eight class picture. The only one wearing boots.  My unlikely friend.

What did Ma, The Old Man and I see in this girl?  Quite simply. Ourselves.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Growing The Compassion Muscle.

Me and The Old Man

At the start of every new year, I resolve.  I gave up resolving out-loud years ago, but I resolve none the less.  This year is no exception.

Like a lot of people, I’ve resolved to lose –  weight, toxic relationship, bad habits, double chin, muffin top.  And to gain – more knowledge, more money, more fun, more wisdom, more sleep.  This year I thought I’d try something new.  I have resolved to grow.   Not a garden full of tomatoes nor my bank account nor my hair.  The focus will be on one very specific muscle, which really isn’t a muscle at all, but I like to think of it that way. Compassion.  It’s right next to the heart muscle. Not really.  But for argument’s sake, let’s say it is.  Anyway, I want to grow this in a big way.  I want it to be so large I’ll have to give it a name and buy it a wardrobe.

I wish I had resolved to do this sooner.  About ten years sooner, while my father was still alive.  Or probably further back than that so it could have actually had some affect on our relationship.

Little back story.  As far back as I can remember I had this love-hate relationship with my Old Man.  That’s what my siblings and I called him, not to his face of course.  Actually we referred to him as “The” Old Man.  He didn’t even warrant a personal pronoun.  Looking back, that disrespectful name-calling makes me sad.  I guess my compassion muscle is already starting to grow.  In our defense, referring to your father as your Old Man was pretty common back then, even amongst offspring who revered their fathers.

There were reasons for my love-hate relationship with The Old Man.  First and foremost, he was an alcoholic.  And it wasn’t pretty.  He wasn’t the life of the party, the fun guy when he drank.  He was mean and miserable and terrorized my timid mother and her four kids. I being the youngest, and his only biological child had no memory of a father who didn’t drink.  Not that it’s any consolation, but my siblings had a few good years without an alcoholic in their midst prior to my parents meeting and falling in love.  Okay, that’s the hate part –  the ‘I wish he’d drop dead’ silent prayers.

The love part goes like this.  The Old Man was a sweet, shy, funny, give you the shirt off your back guy – when he was sober.  That father took me with him when he delivered bread, went to my parent-teacher nights, took me to baseball games that he umpired, brought home pastries from the bakery, bought me my first teddy bear when I was sick (that I still have), took us for Sunday drives in the country, on trips to Duluth, taught me to drive, hugged me when my heart was broken, yelled at drivers who sped down our street for fear one would hit me, spit on my warts every morning because he’d heard this was a cure, took me to church, loved me unconditionally, thought I was beautiful.  And so much more.

My father’s alcoholism got in the way of things.  It especially interfered with my ability to love him like a daughter.  As I grew older, so did my resentment and impatience.  Even long after he had found sobriety, my detachment and lack of interest in my father’s thoughts or feelings was ever-present and my inability to forgive was paramount.  As he became elderly, he also grew cantankerous and ornery, demanding of my mother.  This was just fodder for the chasm that lay between us.  Even as his hands shook and his gate faltered, his hearing went and his eyes clouded over, as he developed Diabetes, Parkinson’s and Petit Mal Seizures I was unmoved, detached and lacking in compassion.  None of this touched my heart, or if it did, I wasn’t about to tell him.  I was over it, past all that. Emotionally bankrupt.

Of course, I’m not over it.  And probably never will be.  I also have regrets.  I wish I had spent more time with him that last year of his life.  I wish I hadn’t scolded him for sneaking cookies and cake, threatening that  it would send him into a diabetic coma.  I wish I had listened better to his stories at the dinner table.  I wish I hadn’t looked away, called him an asshole under my breath.  I wish I had told him I loved him more often.  I wish I had said ‘thank you.’

My father died of a broken heart five weeks after my mother.  I had this crazy thought in my head when my sister-in-law called to tell me the news.  I was relieved.  Not because my prayer for him to drop dead had finally been answered but because I took comfort in the thought that perhaps he was with my mother.  For the five weeks prior to his death, I worried about her being all alone “out there” and now she wasn’t.

A few months after he died my sister-in-law sent me a small box of his stuff.  There wasn’t much in it – his wallet, watch, ring, a few photos, a Finnish Bible and a Song Book that belonged to his mother and some newspaper clippings which included his obituary and an article on his days driving a horse-drawn bread wagon, the last of his kind.

In his wallet was a photograph taken by my mother of The Old Man and I when I was about three months old.  It was tattered, torn and cracked, barely recognizable.  I didn’t know it existed.  He had carried it with him my entire life. I love that photo.  My heart expands when I look at it.  As does my compassion muscle.