Plucking Feathers (Jun 1993)

Many seniors tell me how much Mom’s photographs remind them of their earlier days of living on the farm. It seems the world is changing so quickly that the reminders of the past are appreciated. Some days, I feel like I am in a time warp. Sometimes I hear comments from people my age and I can’t relate to them. I wonder if my upbringing had anything to do with it? It seems that surviving physically is not enough any more and we must learn to work with the emotional body as well. So here is another glimpse into living history as I share another insight into why I am the way I am.

The front cover of this month’s ISSUES is a photo of me and my two older brothers David and Phillip plucking feathers from some ducks and geese to make ourselves a sleeping bag from an old parachute that Grandad had. Paul and Bill are the ones helping to stuff the feathers into a pillow case, quick like because the slightest bit of wind would blow away the goose down.

Last week, after the Spring Festival of Awareness came to another successful close, Urmi, my Children’s Festival Coordinator, said to me that she didn’t want anyone under the age of 14 years volunteering to help with supervising the younger children because she felt they needed time to be children, not adults. My brother Mike who lives in Terrace, a logging town forty miles from where we grew up, now has seven children. The oldest two are girls and Patty, Mike’s wife, depends on them for lots of assistance. When they attended my 41st Celebration of Life in February this year, Urmi said that she didn’t like hearing comments about what perfect little mothers they were. “It isn’t fair, if they have to act like adults before they are grown up; young children need to time to play,” she said. These words of wisdom sparked some deep thought in me. I had to work hard as a child to help my Mom look after my brothers, and I seem to have turned out all right. Doing the laundry and dishes, with no running water, for a family of ten was work and I didn’t always enjoy it, but I knew it had to be done, so I accepted my chores quite cheerfully and I got a lot of self-satisfaction in doing a good job. I can remember making mental notes about what I would do differently when I had a family and even as a child I promised myself that I would not raise my children as my parents where raising me. I remember making a conscious choice when I was about ten or eleven years old never to argue because it didn’t seem to be of any use to anyone. Mom and Dad had argued continuously for as many years as I could remember and I didn’t like it.

I was seldom criticized as a child, probably because I was the only girl, protected by my Mom’s wrath if Dad had any negative things to say. He chose instead to pick on Phillip, the brother who is one year older than me, for he was a big growing boy who was not as quick on his feet as David, the first born. Grandad Brousseau, Dad’s Dad, had taught him using ridicule and boasting and so Dad was trying to teach his young brood to survive in the only way that he knew. Mother was different: she liked to use the strap and usually demonstrated her power by doing it with all of us watching, the way she was taught in the convent. Her mother was too busy to raise her, and she was sent to a boarding school, which was the thing to do back in the thirties, if you could afford it. I don’t think my Mother has many happy memories of that era of her life. The little bit she does talk about is her summer vacation time, when she got to go home or visit with Grandma. As a child I learned very early in life that to survive you had to work hard, do as you were told and never argue. Grandad’s advice was, “Do your best, for life is what you make it.”

When I was about twelve years old, life seemed to get easier for me for a while. Mom decided she had had enough of Dad and took us kids and moved to town, leaving Dad to look after the homestead by himself. One day Dad showed up on the steps while Mother had gone grocery shopping and asked the boys if they wanted to go fishing. They zipped past me in a flash as I shouted that I was going to tell Mom. That was last I saw of my brothers for a few years, for Dad had train tickets back to the States, where his ten brothers and sister lived. I was thrilled for life got a lot easier for me, and I didn’t understand why my Mom cried. I sure didn’t miss my brothers and their being gone made it a little easier on her to make ends meet financially. After a few years and a few court battles, she got custody of the younger ones.

A short time later, Mom was in a trailer that exploded and she was given twenty-four hours to live or die. She lived, for she is a very determined, headstrong person and with the help of Aunt Cathy who stayed in the hospital and made her fresh carrot juice every day, her burns healed very quickly. While she was away, it was Grandad and I that looked after my three youngest brothers. I worked two part-time jobs and did babysitting to help pay the bills, as I continued my grade nine education. Grandad cooked, cleaned and kept the home fires burning. Mom’s brothers sent us money to keep the bank happy and many neighbours donated baked goods.

The following year, I met Rae, who had a car. I appreciated that because I no longer had to walk the two miles to school every day. I was still babysitting at night and working at Woolco on weekends, so we didn’t see much of each other except at school. But once in a while, we would go skating or swimming. I was never boy crazy as some of the girls in school were. After living with six brothers most of my life, boys that came closer than a ten foot pole seemed too close for my liking! But Rae was different from my brothers and he was teaching me to have fun. One fine spring day, we played hookey from school and I got pregnant.

I can still remember the shock that whitened my Mom’s face when I told her I was pregnant and the coldness of the silence when she refused to talk to me about it. But getting pregnant at seventeen and raising one small baby was the easiest thing I had done in a long time. I remember thinking to myself that marriage was a life of leisure compared to the full-time responsibility of looking after children just slightly younger than myself. Raising my own child was easy and I was doing it my way, which gave me great satisfaction.

As a teenager I was very naive. I still am in many ways, but back then, I thought I was doing what women were supposed to do. I knew Mom wanted me to go to college and become a teacher, but I knew I couldn’t afford college and she had no money to help. Rae offered me an option, not that I had been looking for one. I weighed all my choices very carefully for about two weeks after the doctor told me I was pregnant. Abortion and adoption were both out of the question as far as I was concerned. Rae seemed anxious to get married. Most of the girls who got pregnant in grade 11 got dumped by their boyfriends shortly after they heard the news, so I felt very fortunate that Rae wanted to marry me, because he didn’t have to. So I thought I would give it a try, and gave Dad a phone call because I knew my mother was not about to discuss the possibility. Dad was thrilled and agreed to sign and pay for the marriage licence. I took the $400 out of my bank account that I had been saving for the past few years and flew to Michigan with my three younger brothers, determined not to live in Terrace. When I arrived in Michigan, Eva, one of my aunts took a real liking to me. She made my wedding cake, did all the flower bouquets and helped me mail out party invitations to let the relatives know they were invited to the wedding. Dad paid for some cotton fabric so that I could make myself a long white dress, but as far as he was concerned this was just another party, so he wasn’t about to spend much money on it. The reception was held at the local beach with everybody bringing their own food. In the evening, my older brothers cleared out the garage and some local boys who had a band came over to play complete with a strobe light. The ritual that I didn’t understand was now over and I was glad. Rae’s relatives had offered Rae and me a cabin for two weeks in the hills near Montreal, so we decided to make that our honeymoon. Rae then found work with an elevator company in Montreal while we stayed in the spare room at his grandfather’s home. About a month later his parents phoned from Terrace and offered him a plane ticket home to help with some work at their bowling alley. I cried all that night for I knew it wouldn’t be long before he would send for me, and I didn’t want to go back to Terrace.

I knew, deep down I would do whatever was best for the baby. Several weeks later I took the train back to Terrace and adjusted quiet nicely to being a lady of leisure, for by now my belly was starting to swell. I borrowed an old guitar and tried to teach myself to play and sing and was quite happy doing very little. Rae went to work every morning and I made sure dinner was ready when he got home every night. I even had time to watch our black and white TV and read a few books. It was a time I thoroughly enjoyed for I never had morning sickness or anything else … I just moved a little slower than usual.

I remember how wonderful it felt to be doing so little other than breast-feeding a baby and preparing food for the two of us. Once our second child was born, things started to speed up, for by then we had purchased an old house with a large garden complete with ducks and chickens. Four years later our third child was born, I was now busier than ever, because my husband had decided to buy a garbage business and needed me to do the paperwork, answer the phones and be the back-up driver. At the same time I felt like my days consisted mainly of loading diapers into the washing machine and dishes into the dishwasher, but I still managed to find time to sew and quilt and fix up the old house.

Looking back, I am grateful for every minute of my life. I believe I am living an enchanted life, for all those years of training and working and organizing gave me the confidence to do what I am doing now. I am just starting to realize that I am perfect in my role as networker, and I am performing a service that is very dear to my heart. I also believe that my saving grace has been my deep connection to my soul. It speaks to me clearly and I usually pay attention. That knowingness gives me the power to resist peer group pressure, the wisdom to think twice about advice from my Mom, and the self-esteem to sing off-key the songs that I enjoy singing. My oldest boy, Gordon, my Mom and I howled as we watched the video tape of the Saturday Night Entertainment of this year’s festival, during which I told a Musing story and sang my Theme Song. I don’t think I would do it for strangers for they would not appreciate my lack of subtlety, as Laurel puts it, but I’m sending my heartfelt thanks once again for the round of cheers I received from those attending. I believe that my high self-esteem comes from my connection to my soul, and that connection gives me the knowingness that each of us is perfect and doing what we need to do, whatever that may be, whatever way we have chosen to learn it, unconsciously or consciously.