Sunday, September 12, 2010


“What is the biggest change of your life so far?” he asked. It was an inquiry made for interest’s sake by a genuinely curious person. Even if it hadn’t been some time around 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning, I expect it might have taken me a little time to sift through possible answers. My life so far is not nearly as short as it used to be.
Several possibilities presented themselves for evaluation. Could it have been when I started at the University of Alberta—the first time I ever did any serious walking on a daily basis? Could it have been my wedding day, or the year we moved to Calgary, or the day my Granny moved into the seniors’ lodge, or the day Mark was born—the first day of a permanent state of parenthood,, or the day Mom died? Well, really, it could have been any of those days, and maybe a dozen more. But I do believe that despite all the years, amid changes of various kinds, the biggest change of my life occurred when I was eleven—almost twelve. That is the time when I split in two. When I was eleven there was a little Alberta farm girl named Wendy. Her mother sewed her clothes and washed her hair in the kitchen sink and did her laundry in the basement, agitating it in the washing machine and feeding it carefully through the wringer before hanging it out to dry. Wendy played in the chicken yard, stroked her old dog, petted the barn cats, napped on the veranda, talked to the turkeys, rode bareback on Trixie, listened to country music and believed just about everything her parents told her. Farms were safe places, villages not quite as safe, small cities were scary, unless you had to visit big cities. Then small cities were safe.
Wendy went to school. She had a few friends to whose houses she was occasionally a visitor. But the main person in her life was her mother—solver of problems, arbiter of decisions, interpreter of life’s vagaries.
It was Mother who changed first. To her regular summer gardening, cooking, cleaning, chicken-tending, community volunteering duties she added one more—the job of getting Wendy ready to go away. Wendy was going to the Jericho Hill School for the Blind in Vancouver—a decision reached during conversations to which Wendy had not been a party. Much preparing had to be done.
She was fitted for dresses. Dresses, in Vancouver, were mandatory on school days. She was fitted for a raincoat. Raincoats, in Alberta, were not normally found in the closets of little girls. Her little purse—the first purse of her life—was filled with money—something she had never needed, not more than a quarter at a time. It also held cough drops in case she coughed, painkillers in case she got a headache, gum in case she wanted to chew and chocolate bars in case she got hungry. Her bag was packed tightly with Granny’s shortbread, rice Krispies squares and chocolate chip cookies. She had her own tube of toothpaste, her own bottle of shampoo. She even had a housecoat and slippers! But she was still Wendy.
Wendy and her mother rode an airplane to Vancouver, and a school bus to Jericho Hill School for the Blind. The matron took them aside for a private chat about the rules. Rules had never been a problem for Wendy. She had always been willing to obey.
The matron told them that the girls were not allowed to keep money because it might get stolen. They were not allowed to keep medications because they might be misused. They were not allowed to keep food. All food must be shared with everyone. When the matron left the room, Wendy’s mother told Wendy those rules were intended for children who were less responsible. She thought everyone would be happier if the matron were not burdened with too much troubling information about food, money or medicines Wendy might have in her possession. It was interesting to see the effect that one hour in a big city had on Wendy’s mother. But the change was only temporary. Wendy obeyed her mother.
Wendy’s mother went home to the farm. Wendy was homesick. Everything was foreign and strange. People were kind to her. Often they ignored her. She cried every day for the first twelve days, disciplining herself after the first week to cry a little less each day, hoping at some point to have a dry one.
Wendy did not last long at Jericho Hill. There were already two Wendy’s in the grade seven class at Jericho Hill. Wendy raised the count to three. To simplify the confusion, one of her teachers decided to call her Cooky, a derivative of her last name. He likely had not intended to create a new person. But Cooky was a new person. That made everything easier.
Cooky washed her clothes in an automatic washer and learned how to iron them. “I am not ironing for a girl your age,” the matron scolded. Cooky visited friends who had never been to an Alberta farm. With them she laughed at the habits of Alberta farm families. Wendy would never have seen the humour. Cooky swore—not a lot, but enough to make her popular. Wendy’s family would not have liked that at all. Cooky’s transistor radio was tuned to CFUN. CFUN did not play any country music.
Cooky got on a plane and went to visit Wendy’s family. They, expecting Wendy, had bought Barbie doll clothes for Christmas. Cooky did her best to hide her surprise. She was not a girl without manners. On vacations she did her best to accommodate herself to the life that had been so familiar to Wendy. But it was winter. The turkeys were on holiday tables and the chickens were hunkered down in the chickenhouse. Wendy’s dog had succumbed to old age. Still, Wendy inched out a little, feeling more at home with each passing day. But a Christmas break is a short break, and Cooky was anxious to get back to her friends.
Wendy’s mother never knew Cooky very well. Cooky was a teen-ager. To get to know a teen-ager, you need to be close enough to observe things so you know what questions to ask. She knew her daughter was often invited to spend weekends with other students. No information was purposefully withheld from her, but she never thought to ask, “How was the weekend you spent at the house where a drug-addicted uncle had to be lied to so he would not get angry and kick his mother down the stairs again?” It never occurred to her to inquire about the friend who had sex for the first time, or the one who had seen her brother assaulting the family dog.
Cooky’s life was brief—only three years in length. It waws a happy life and it was significant. It ended with one final plane ride. Educational trends mapped out the future. Wendy would go home to start Grade 10.
Cooky was gone, but not forgotten, not all at once anyway. For the first few months of high school Wendy had no friends. Sometimes she cried. Cooky tried to help, but she really couldn’t do much. She was too far from home. There was no place for her here. She had never been a farm girl.

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