This is a story sent to me by my childhood friend, Leslie, who now lives in Australia. She saw the blog about my sister Hanna, and wanted to contribute her memories. It’s a little bit long, but a touching story all the same.
In Dawson Creek, when I was ten years old and in grade six, I had two best friends. They were my only friends, but I did not notice that at the time. One girl lived up the street, and I felt lucky to have her for a friend. She and I were the only girls the same age on the street, and we were, serendipitously, in the same class. Both of our fathers were alcoholics, both of us had younger siblings, but other than that we had nothing in common except the need for a friend. We squabbled, we engaged in power struggles, we refused to share equally, and we humiliated each other in public.
We walked to school every day, a distance that was probably a bit over a mile from my house. On the way we sometimes stopped to pick up a third friend, Anneli, who lived very near the school. I don’t think this happened very often, because I’m not certain that Anneli’s parents encouraged visitors.
In any case, in northern Canada, where we lived, children stopping by in the early morning came in their snow boots, with two pairs of wet mittens, frost encrusted hats and scarves, lunch kits and homework books. If you invited the poor frostbitten waifs inside they would then stand and melt all over your clean floor, as you were desperately trying to urge your own brood out the door with all their correct bits and pieces. Visiting children might also begin to undress, and thus the parent has more children to dress, and less space to do so. Most homes were simply not big enough, no matter how kindly disposed a parent you were. And the visiting child might be late, as many perils exist between one home and another. So we usually walked on by, and met Anneli at school.
I was thoroughly infatuated with Anneli. She was passionate, intelligent, athletic, and kind. We talked about history and books, and argued about politics. She was truthful, ethical, painfully frank, and had a quiet, understated sense of humour. I was obsessed with her, but her old country parents were very strict, so we rarely saw each other except at school, but she made school a great pleasure.
One day Anneli’s niece appeared on my doorstep. I can’t remember her name. My friend from up the street brought her when she came to pick me up for the mile long trek to school. She probably came in early September, but I remember her from later, in full winter regalia, dressed for minus 20, standing in my mother’s living room where our friends waited for us. My mother always let everyone in, and often there would be three or four frozen friends melting on the tattered braided rug in front of the living room door, waiting for one of us to get dressed for outdoors.
“Who’s she?” I asked my friend.
“Anneli’s sister Hanna’s kid,” my friend said, “We have to take her with us.”
“Ok.” I said, with the utter indifference of one who was always, as an older girl, being given little kids to mind.
So off we set with this tiny child trudging along behind us, throughout that winter. My friend, who was in charge of this child, was conscientious, but never kind, and I often felt anxious about the little girl. Sometimes I tried to hold her hand, instead of making her trail along behind as my friend did, but my friend got angry and I think the little girl found it uncomfortable. In any case, holding hands with each of you wearing two pairs of snow mittens doesn’t work very well. So I’d let go, and she’d be so tired she’d lag behind, and when we judged she was too far away we’d wait until she caught up, then walk away from her again. If we had looked back and didn’t see her I have no idea what we would have done. Shouted at her to hurry, I expect.
As much as I try to remember, I cannot fathom why this five-year-old was entrusted to us. Perhaps she was being sent to Kindergarten, which was only offered at our school. Perhaps we were taking her to her grandmother for child care. I can’t even remember her name, or the process of handing her over to someone else’s care. I do remember that she never cried, never complained, and never gave us any cause to resist caring for her. I think that when it got really cold, her parents must have kept her home, because we certainly didn’t have her all year.
My devotion to Anneli continued for many years, and then we lost contact, reconnecting after 30 years, when I found myself as entranced as ever. We can still talk about history and books; still argue about politics, and she is still very funny. She has just written that her sister Hanna died last week, and her story has taken me back to my story, and the ways Hanna touched my life.
After the winter treks to kindergarten with her nameless daughter, I encountered Hanna in passing on my increasingly frequent visits to Anneli’s house. Over the years Anneli’s parents must have become able to tolerate my undisciplined behaviour, haphazard grooming, and brusque manners, and I spent some time in their kitchen, where I sometimes encountered Hanna. The girl up the street had long since moved on to boys, cars, and parties, leaving the two of us with our sport, our university dreaming, and our political arguments.
Anneli moved away from Dawson Creek to Vancouver Island midway through Grade 10. We wrote long 19th century letters to one another spilling our separate lives onto the paper, and our grief was such that she arranged for me to come to visit her during the summer holidays. Hanna and her family would be coming and would bring me as well. Then I would go to visit my eldest sister in the city, and make my own way home to Dawson Creek by bus.
My home was hard work. My youngest brother was a year old that summer, and he slept badly and was always ill, exhausting my mother and leaving her unable to provide more than rudimentary care for her other six children. I was a demanding adolescent, and a break from my arguing and quarrelling and criticism must have seemed very appealing. I was very excited. It was my first time away from home, and I was to be away for most of the two-month summer break.
This arrangement was of course identical to the arrangement with the child at kindergarten. I was handed over at age 14 to two strangers, who took me a very long way from home and relinquished me to another’s care. Hanna however was probably much kinder to me than I ever was to her daughter. The drive took two days, and I sat in the back seat with the little nameless girl, now 9. I think she had a brother, who may have been younger. They bought me all my meals and paid for my motel bed, and would not even consider accepting money. This was an entirely new experience for me, for my babysitting money had been commandeered by my father since I was twelve years old.
In the motel room I decided to put my hair in rollers, so it would be properly curled the following day. I had yet to learn that this task entailed hours of torture for minutes of reward. I spent the usual hour trying to roll my ragged home cut hair into large brush rollers that would stay in. I came out with the task complete and Hanna burst out laughing.
“Look at your rollers! They are a terrible mess! That will never work!”
“They always look like this,” I said.
She laughed again and took them out and redid my hair, with tight snug rollers and every hair tucked in. In truth it didn’t work any better, but nobody had ever helped me do my hair before, so I never forgot. I was embarrassed by the laughter, but I was far more accustomed to laughter than I was to hairdressing, so I got over it pretty quickly.
Today I look at the picture Anneli has sent of Hanna. She looks about eight and has braids in her hair, with every hair in place. She looks a bit like Anneli did when I first met her and a lot like one of Anneli’s little sisters. How amazed such a perfectly groomed woman must have been, to see a ragamuffin like me, dressed in hand-me-downs and with hair sticking out everywhere!
After we arrived, Hanna told the story of my hair to the whole family at Anneli’s house, and although she did it in fun, I was embarrassed again. But being ridiculed in front of a large group was a very common experience for me, and it made me feel completely at home. Perhaps she knew it would.
It was a lovely summer. I got badly sunburned, and nearly drowned diving off a raft. The ridiculous crush I developed on an older man vanished after a week, but not until we sent a jointly composed love letter, delivered with tumultuous giggles and exquisite shame. I read Peyton Place at my sister’s house, and got influenza on the 1500 km bus ride home, and found myself crawling to the toilets in the Prince George Bus Depot during an eight-hour stopover.
Like the little nameless child, I had to cope on my own. A myriad of things could have gone wrong, at such a great distance from our caregivers, but none of them did. So today I think of that brave little girl, who I am sure cannot remember my name, whose mother has just died and left her. I think of my 87-year-old mother thousands of kilometres away in Dawson Creek, many of her 8 children dispersed and gone, and I think of my beloved sisters, and Anneli and her sisters, and I weep for us all.