mama was a rolling stone
The light these days and the way it slowly yawns across the bedroom in the morning reminds me of when we moved into this house a little over a year ago, when we were in newborn territory and the dawns were early and the evenings were late but the light made everything better. And now, the days have turned long again, and we’re getting ready to put the house on the market, the house that we literally built from squat, the house that saw Wren roll over and sit up and crawl and walk. I don’t know when we’re moving out, exactly, but it will be sometime in the next six months, and I have no clue where we’re going next, except in England somewhere, within a couple of hours of London.
I’ve moved house 32 times in the past 33 years, if you include a couple of pit stops. This next move will be my 33rd, which means that I’ve moved on average once a year since the age of eight. I’ve lived in four countries, half the provinces in Canada, five different time zones. I’ve lived in tents on mountaintops and cabins by the sea and flats in fancy mews. I’ve lived in big cities and small towns and shacks in the woods; owned and rented and shared housing. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere (as an adult) is two years. No one can say that I’ve been sedentary, that’s for sure. Thirty-two times. Three times ten plus two. Thirty-two. That is a lot of moving, a lot of packing and unpacking of boxes, wrapping of glasses in newspaper, cleaning out of refrigerators.
They say moving is one of the top five stressors in life, right up there with divorce, the death of a loved one, major illnesses and losing a job. How is it that I’m still standing? I don’t have anyone to blame, really. The moves I did, I did all by myself. They were conscious decisions, some rash, some calculated, but for the most part, I made those choices. I suppose I was a bit of a rolling stone in my 20s but let me tell you, my forty-year-old self is ready to gather some motherfucking moss and set some roots, y’all. I’m officially, unequivocally tired of moving.
So much is uncertain about this impending move and I don’t do well with uncertainty so needless to say, I’ve kind of been freaking out lately. However, in an effort to rein it in and freak out a little less about the when, the where and the how, I thought I’d take a cathartic walk down memory lane and write about all the places I’ve lived. Don’t worry; I won’t blast you with all 32 places at once. Are you crazy? We’d collapse into a collective heap of exhaustion by the time we reached my university years. Instead, I’ve decided to write a five-or-six-part series: the early years, the college years, the gypsy years (part 1 and 2), the single/Montreal years and the married/London years. And because music is my gateway to memory, I’ve included the one song (and sometimes many songs) that defined that time in my life. The kind of song that brings me right back to that address, like a dropped pin.
So, without further ado, the early years.
Rue Tremblay, St-Barthélemy, Québec
Soundtrack: Jon & Vangelis – The Friends of Mr Cairo
You can’t even do a street view of this place on Google maps, it’s so far up in the sticks. Dans le fin fond de nowhere, as we say en bon Québécois. I must have been between five and eight when we lived there and so I have just enough actual memories of this time to be able to write about it.
We lived in a house in the woods; my dad spent an entire summer installing vinyl siding on that house and building the front porch. The siding was yellow, like butter. The porch was brown, the kind of brown you would expect of a porch. The house sat on a cinder block foundation and daddy longlegs used to gather there, on its cool surface. One time, my cousins came over and we spent hours plucking the legs off the daddy longlegs, putting each round abdomen into one jar and the long legs in another. My adult self is ashamed of my sadistic child self and I hope Wren never ever harms another creature.
I celebrated my First Communion in that house. I’m surprised God even let me take communion after my daddy-longleg sins. I don’t remember much about my First Communion but I do remember the pistachio ice cream cake my mom made for me, which was the colour of the Luna Moth we found on our screen door one morning.
We had two kittens, Misty and Midnight; one of them got attacked and eaten by the vicious dog that lived across the street. I feel like I hardly ever saw the dog, I just knew of his presence in the dark hole of his doghouse. And I don’t remember if anything happened to the dog after he ate our cat. I just know that we didn’t have cats for a very long time after that.
The black flies up there in the woods were bloodthirsty suckers. I’d sometimes play ballon poire on my own in the back yard and look down to see hundreds of little vampires crawling up my pant legs. Our school bus was a cross between Ferris Bueller and Twilight. Cliques of weird kids sitting on orange benches and small blood smears on the windows where black flies had been squished after sucking us dry.
Those were the years when I had chronic earaches and I’d wake up in the middle of the night in pain and mom would take me to the window and we’d watch the fireflies until I felt sleepy again. Back when mom used to bake the best chocolate chip cookies and make her own pizza dough and sew our Halloween costumes from scratch and make strawberry jam. Do you know how many margarine bowls of wild strawberries it takes to make a jar of jam? Let me tell you, we picked a ton of strawberries when we were kids. And raspberries under the electrical towers that sounded like giant cicadas.
We lived a few minutes from a lake, which is where we spent most of our summer days. Swimming and catching frogs and playing in the jewelweed that popped when you touched its seedpods. I am directly responsible for the propagation of jewelweed in that area.
My grand-ma lived near the lake. She had a dog named Sunshine. She hardly spoke a word of English and couldn’t pronounce his name properly so she called him Someshine. She should have called him Noshine. That damn dog didn’t shine at all. Someshine spent most of his life curled up on my grand-ma’s lap. He was a poodle and he had an under bite that, to my young eyes, made him look even scarier than he really was. In grand-ma’s basement, there were great big vats of caramel. My cousin Denis and I used to pretend to play down there but really, we were dipping our fingers in caramel, repeatedly. One day, we got caught and my aunt Carol forced us to open our mouths so she could smell the incriminating caramel on our breath, Someshine‘s beady eyes glaring at us from grand-ma’s lap. We were never allowed in the basement again.
Dad was a construction worker but he had a passion for photography so he’d sometimes set up a little studio in the house or we’d go out back into the woods when the trilliums were in bloom and he’d take photos while we picked wild garlic. In this day and age, when you can take a thousand photos a day, it’s hard to imagine not having a photographic and video record of your life, but back then things weren’t as easy and immediate and I’m so grateful that dad took the time. He bought the film, he loaded it, he framed the shots, he took gorgeous photos, he got them developed or developed them himself in his darkroom, and we now have direct access to years of memories thanks to him, albums we still sift through as adults and cherish.
I don’t remember why we moved but we did. One day, we were in a yellow house in the woods, and the next we were in an apartment building a few towns over.
Rue Saint Dominique, Berthierville, Québec
Soundtrack: Terrence Trent D’Arby – Wishing Well; Dire Straits – Money for Nothing; Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror; Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus; Corey Hart – Sunglasses at Night; Samantha Fox – Touch Me
We moved to Berthierville the summer before I started fourth grade. Having never been to a proper city before, this felt like a CITY, which of course it wasn’t. It was a small town. Population 3,000. We lived on the top floor of a three-storey apartment building, a five-minute walk from school and the pool and the park. It had a small porch. I used to stand on it when it rained and sing “Rain, rain go away, little Jeanine wants to play”. Or maybe I only did that once, with my cousins, and we took it in turns to say our names, truly believing that the Gods would hear our pleas and grant us a spot of sunshine.
When I think of my childhood, I don’t remember much about winter but I do remember my summers on Saint Dominique. During berry season, I spent most mornings picking strawberries. I earned a buck twenty-five a basket. Not to toot my own horn (toot toot), but I was one of the fastest pickers so I’d usually go home with about $15-$20 in my pocket, if it was a sunny day and the picking was good. After a hard morning’s work, shins itchy from kneeling on hay, I’d go to the Tabagie and buy myself a 75-cent Drumstick and one hundred sour patch kids for a dollar (back when you could count your own penny candy). Then I’d grab my book — usually a detective novel, Agatha Christie or Arsène Lupin — head to the pool with a bag of sunflower seeds, which I’d eat until the salt turned my mouth numb, and I’d spend the afternoon under the sun, reading, eating a ridiculous amount of sugar and swimming. When we were done swimming, we’d tie our towels to the monkey bars in the park, and sit in them, like hammocks.
Our apartment complex backed onto a soccer field. This is where I mastered my skills as a four-leafed-clover finder. I spent hours in that field, sat in the grass, training my eye, obsessively searching for four-leaved clovers. I don’t know how or why the obsession began but to this day, I can walk down the street and spot a four-leaved clover on the go. It’s hard to believe that I haven’t won the lotto yet.
In the fall, we built leaf forts, in the winter, snow forts. In December, they turned part of the soccer field into a skating rink. I used to go there on my own, when the sun went down and the lights came on and I’d skate to Johnny Come Home by the Fine Young Cannibals and Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat and I felt like Jayne Torvill.
This was about the age when I really got into music. I had a cassette tape player and would spend hours listening to CHOM and Mix 96, waiting for my favourite song to come on so I could record it on my Maxell tape, over the previous week’s Top 40. Imagine having to wait hours for your favourite song to come on. The anticipation! Life was so much slower back then. This was also about the time we got a Commodore 64, which happened to be our family safe word should anyone try to abduct us. I still remember it to this day.
We had a washing machine in that apartment that went absolutely berserk on the spin cycle. So my sisters and I would take it in turns to sit on it, like it was some kind of bucking bronco that needed to be tamed lest it spin its way down the hall and right out of the flat.
Those years on Saint Dominique were both good and bad years. The man next door used to beat up his wife. We’d hear him shout at her and the wall would shake when he pushed her against it. I sometimes worried that she’d come flying right through the wall and into our living room. I avoided walking near their front door and took the other set of stairs instead.
When I was in sixth grade, I suddenly became obsessed with bathing and washing my hair every single night. My teacher had made a comment about hygiene and he happened to be standing next to me when he said it and I’d got caught in a downpour on my way to school that morning so I naturally assumed the comment was directed at me because I was “poor” and therefore, probably unhygienic. I have a lot to say about the power of teachers on young, impressionable minds, but I’ll save that for another day.
My best friend at the time was Hélène. She lived down the street, on Crémazie. She was a tough girl and my dad thought maybe she was a bad influence on me. Dad was generally a good judge of character. I went from being a grade A student to smoking the occasional cigarette and drinking the odd beer from her dad’s stash and maybe stealing a few things from the local K-Mart, but otherwise we were pretty harmless. I was essentially becoming a teenager and testing boundaries and breaking the rules like most teenagers do. I can see, however, how that would have worried dad. For all his fuck-ups, the last thing he wanted was for us to end up like him.
Dad had a great job and was making great money but then he lost his good job, and left a note on the table and went away for a while. The electricity was cut off for a night and our aunts came over with brown paper bags filled with food (which was terribly exciting because they brought stuff mom and dad never bought like Cocoa Puffs instead of Puffed Wheat), and then dad suddenly came back and it was all a bit confusing.
Not too long after – a week, a month, who knows, chronology is fuzzy when you’re a kid – he left again, this time to go to rehab. I know this because we visited him there. Although I didn’t quite understand why he was there and what drugs were, my worries quickly vanished when he gave us coins for the vending machine and told us we could buy WHATEVER WE WANTED. I hesitated to write about this because I didn’t want to paint dad in a bad light. But life isn’t always sunny and we’ve all got dark shadows and shit in our closets and besides, it was the 80s, wasn’t everyone and their grand-mother doing coke? It’s not an excuse and, as a parent, it’s not the kind of thing I would ever want to expose Wren to, but I’ve long forgiven dad for his shortcomings, just as I’ve learned to be grateful for all the wonderful parts of him, of which there were many.
We left Saint Dominique shortly after. I lost touch with Hélène. I also lost all of my grand-parent’s letters in that move. Grand-pa wrote in ALL CAPS and grand-ma wrote in perfect cursive on dotted lines. It’s the one thing in the world I still wish I had. That, and my dad.
We moved to Rue Lamarche the year I turned 13. The house on Lamarche was known as the castle in the village because, as the name implies, it looked like a castle. Several days a week, after supper in the summertime, I’d walk around the block with mom. We called it a block because it was the shape of a block – four straight sides and four right angles – but it wasn’t your standard city block; it was a good hour-long walk. I did it partly to spend time with mom but mainly because I hoped to catch a glimpse of Michel Désy (sorry mom). Michel Désy was the son of a farmer and he had hay-coloured hair and tanned arms and I had a massive crush on him. BIG crush. I really did think at one point in my life that I would become a farmer’s wife. Sometimes I’d see him heading to the barn in his wellies, or out on the tractor in the field and if he did happen to be out and if he did happen to strike up a conversation, I would let my mom do most of the talking. Because: BIG crush.
Summers on Lamarche were spent reading all of Stephen King’s novels on our front porch and watching the locals play baseball and practicing for the annual lip-synching contest, which we rocked because, being the only English kids in a French town, we were the only ones who actually knew the words to the songs. Something about those contests brought out the extrovert in me and they are some of my favourite childhood memories.
Most of my time, however, was spent biking up to my friend Isabelle’s house on Saint-Joachim. Every summer, her mom would pay us $200 to do a massive spring cleaning/painting/fixing of the house. We’d spend hours working, then hours sitting by the pool, working on our tan and talking about boys. And then, at the start of the school year, we’d take our $200 and go on a massive shopping spree at the mall half an hour away.
The summer of ’89, I got into a fistfight with a girl named Julie, the village bully. I say fist fight, but what really happened was that I provoked her with a minor insult on the bus in the morning so I knew I had it coming when we got off the bus that afternoon because she said “You just wait until we get off the bus this afternoon.” I was, naturally, scared shitless, though I’d never admit it, so instead I said, “I’m not going to hit you Julie, I am a pacifist.” to which she replied with a bitch slap that left my entire cheek numb. And before I knew it my sister, the ninja, jumped on Julie’s back and yanked on her hair like a rabid monkey. Both my sisters were, and still are, tough as nails. From that moment on, I became tough too. Nobody ever bullied me again.
Dad got into a road accident one year and totalled the car. I think it was the only new car we’d ever had. I remember the late-night knock on the door, like something out of the movies. He broke one of his ribs, which stuck out for the rest of his life, like a third elbow. And I don’t think his sense of smell ever came back again. That was one of his lives. There were at least another eight after that. He was a true cat, my dad.
There was a field of tall grasses behind our house, behind our long vegetable patch, which lead to the ball park, and which was bordered by a row of lilac trees to the North. I’d spend hours lying in the tall grasses, reading, watching the clouds go by and daydreaming about living in another time. I was obsessed with the end of the 19th century for a while (probably because of a television show called Les Filles de Caleb) and then with the 60s — the clothes, the music, the peace and love.
When I turned 16, I got a job at the plastic recycling plant in Berthierville. Dad would drop me off in whatever lemon we owned at the time and then pick me up at the end of the day. That was the year I met my first proper boyfriend. He was my manager, the son of the owner. He had a car, a Ford Festiva, and his own apartment. He was a bit of a goon, but I loved him. Okay, he was a lot of a goon. Everyone thought so but nobody said so (he once bought a toy roulette wheel and spent hours drinking milk and eating an entire box of Roulé Suisse and jotting down the odds in a notebook; this went on for days). I think, maybe, he was trying to strike it rich like his dad. I think, maybe, he was my ticket out of that small town.
When I left Rue Lamarche, it was to leave the nest. I was 17. Moving out of that small town was the start of me finding my place in the world, and what a big world it has been.
PS. I can’t believe how long it took me to write this post (I was meant to post it on Sunday). The thing about taking a walk down memory lane is that it’s not a lane at all. There are so many junctions and forks and speed bumps that before you know it, you are miles away from where you started. Memories popping up like dandelions. They just kept coming and they still are. But I have to stop somewhere and so there you go, those were my early years. Back next week with the college years.