Wearing neglect on your sleeve

Pokeshaw is so small most people drive through it without even knowing they’ve been there. It’s mostly fields, trees and long dirt roads. Many of the houses in the village are kilometres apart, and it takes an hour to get to the nearest school by bus. I ended up in Pokeshaw after my parents separated. My mother dragged us all the way from Ontario back to her native New Brunswick – and to the village of Pokeshaw, pop. 124. (One hundred and twenty seven after we arrived).


Most of the residents of Pokeshaw were old. It was a hard place for a kid to make friends. In my case, it didn’t help at all that my mother was the town drunk – and everybody knew it. People felt sorry for me. My clothes were shabby and when other kids were having dinner, my mom was usually passed out on the couch.

The only other kid in the village who was remotely like me was my older sister, Lacey. In a way, life was even harder for her. She was shy like me, but awkward too. Compared to her, I was the outgoing one. I was also pretty tough. I would beat up any kid who bullied Lacey at school, even though she was older than me. I took care of her at home too.   At night, I would sing to her to sleep. She liked Shania Twain songs. From this Moment was one of her favourites. She also liked it when I sang Christmas Carols, not only in December, but all through the year.

Life in the village could be deadly boring. There were no stores in Pokeshaw, no skating rink, no movie theatre. We didn’t even have cable. In fact, we had to wrap tinfoil around the antennae of our black and white TV just to get two channels – and one of them was French. One of the biggest events I can remember was when the local church set up a Cow Paddy Bingo Game. A nearby field was divided into a hundred little squares and people could buy them for five dollars each. If the cow fertilized one of your squares, you could win up to $1,000. My mom blew the grocery money buying eleven squares and almost broke even. Between Cow Paddy Bingo and the weekly card games at the seniors’ centre, there wasn’t much to talk about. You had to invent your own fun.

Our family of three lived in a little house at the end of a dirt road. My grandmother lived at the other end.   It was about 406 feet from our place to hers. I know that because my sister and I measured it. We counted every step, one by one, heel to toe.   My grandmother was just like those little old ladies you see in the grocery store taking too much time to put a few apples in a bag, or fumbling with a change purse at the cash cashier. But we loved her – and she loved us. While my mother was only interested in her next drink, my grandmother was selfless and considerate. She would do anything for us.

When I was 10, disaster struck. Late one October evening, my grandmother’s house burned down. She and my uncle were killed. Lacey and I were devastated, and my mom started drinking even more Pepsi and rum. She had a new boyfriend and she’d disappear with him, sometimes for days at a time. That’s when I really learned to take care of myself and my sister too. I still have a few scars from carrying firewood from the woodpile to our wood stove. I did all the cooking and the cleaning, and I made sure Lacey was ready for school in the morning.

When I looked at the other kids at school, I knew none of them had the kind of life I had. I felt my childhood had been taken away from me, but I hid my feelings of jealousy. I tried my best to fit in and I made a few friends. Sometimes that meant having to pretend I was one of the gang, just like them. I’d listen to their immature jokes and laugh.

Every summer, we would go to Toronto to visit my father. He’d stopped drinking and was successful, with his own contracting business. He never knew the way we lived back in Pokeshaw, and we never told him. My mother would be angry if we did. She also told us not to talk about what it was like to live with her. But my dad probably figured it out. We’d arrive smelling like smoke and dusty carpets – and he’d take us out to the shopping mall and buy us nice, new things. Everything my sister and I wore had been second-hand. One day, back at school, one of my friends said, “Hey, I like your pants.”

I’ll never forget it. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.

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