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July 23, 2021

Leaving Caplan

Our family left Caplan because the English bosses where my father worked thought he would be more successful if he moved closer to the bigger centres. With my brother insisting on sitting between Mom and Dad in the front, the girls were secured into the back seat with the big family lunch box taking up half the seat. Since my younger sister tended to get carsick, she had to sit near the window, behind Dad. I was stuck in the middle with the little one in my arms. The lunch box was next to me behind Mom, who insisted on keeping it close for easy access. Three hundred kilometres spent listening to my brother asking Dad a thousand questions interspersed with “I have to pee,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty” and “when will we get to Ste-Flavie?” I’ll spare you, dear reader, the quibbling between the adults, the little one’s cries and my sister’s queasy stomach. 

Sainte-Flavie is a pretty town located 2 kilometres from the city of Rimouski and 200 kilometres from our first home. We still lived along Highway 132, beside the river, in a 3-story house that my mother hated when she first saw it. She found it too old and too big for our small crew. But, two days later, when the big truck arrived with our life’s trappings inside, we were all happy to be reunited with our things; especially me, who was worried about my modest writing notebooks that I had hidden among my underwear. The next day a neighbour knocked on the door offering to help us get settled. Mom refused, with her two bandaged hands covered in big rubber gloves.

- “That’s alright, my husband is arriving soon. He has everything planned.”

A little taken aback, the neighbour paused for a moment before extending an invitation to come over for supper at least.

- “I have 8 children,” she said, “they’ll enjoy getting to know you.”

 Mom still refused. 

She wanted to settle in before visiting the neighbours.

Yet the next day, the neighbour across the street, who owned the house we were renting, invited us again to come over. There, for the very first time in our lives, we watched television. My brother almost screamed in excitement and the 8-year-old me stared at Pepinot the puppet on the screen while Mom explained her illness to the strange creature with a cigarette in her mouth and bright red, diamond-studded glasses on her nose. Dad thought the TV would distract Mom, but she ignored it. Even when he installed one at the foot of their bed, in the big room downstairs in the roomy house that she didn’t like. We would climb onto the quilt that had belonged to Grandma Joséphine, with Mom curled up at the top of the bed, clucking happily away sometimes, other times staring at the ceiling. Us kids excitedly followed the adventures of Lassie, Zorro and Dr. Welby.

My brother often made his specialty of grilled cheese with bacon and we’d drink a pint of milk straight out of the bottle, passing it between us. Mom let us watch TV until late at night, sometimes even until the screen went snowy after the feathered Indian disappeared along with the final notes of “O Canada.”

At school, I caught the teacher’s attention; she’d hit my fingers to force me to write with my right hand. I wasted no time learning how to write with both hands. 

At the time (1955), I can still clearly recall constantly begging Dad for pennies to help save the "little Chinese" of Sainte-Enfance. Miss Bigaouette had placed a large cardboard box on the back wall of the classroom at eye level, on which she had drawn a 100-step staircase that began in the brown mud below and went all the way up to a beautiful blue sky that was supposed to represent Heaven. Each student in the class was given the picture of a poor Chinese child strung with a red cotton thread that ran from the bottom to top. Every time a child brought a penny to the teacher, they were allowed to move their little Chinese child up a step. When a student reached one dollar, the Chinese child climbed the last step and entered paradise. The teacher would then award the student with a beautiful holy image and thread another picture of a poor Chinese child.

In the schoolyard, we were allowed to exchange holy pictures if the one we received when our Chinese child entered Heaven was the same as the one we received for our first communion or as a reward for a good report card. 

One day, Aunt Olivette came to look after us when Mom was feeling unwell. She arrived with two new cousins that we hadn’t met before. We taught them to collect sea urchins on the shore, agates, pretty shells and pieces of driftwood fashioned by the sea into strange forms. Some evenings, the television was set up on the kitchen counter. We all sat around the table and watched it while eating our sandwiches of hard-boiled eggs mixed with plenty of mayonnaise. And one morning, our aunt, feeling the cold setting upon the town, placed a cotton pouch containing a piece of camphor around our necks. She threatened to make us chew cloves if we removed the scapular that she had also attached to the same string. 

Aunt Olivette also taught us her famous recipe for cough syrup. She quickly sliced up a few onions into large pieces, hurrying because the onions made her eyes water like a faucet. She put the slices in a glass jar and filled it with honey before placing the jar on the windowsill, above the sink, to sit. When the onion slices became transparent, she added a few good tablespoons of gin. The first person to cough, despite the pepper sprinkled into our woollen socks each morning, was administered some of the concoction.

By the middle of December, my mother was getting better. She started making cookies again. One evening, she went across the street to offer some to the Smiths. They reciprocated immediately, inviting us into their large living room to hear their daughter play the piano. They passed us pieces of fudge and my brother took several at the same time. Mom gently reprimanded him as Dr. Welby's wife would have done on TV. As for me, I wondered how Mom could have changed so much; she must be all better now.


(To be continued…)