One of my sisters and I don’t follow rules very well. We did go back. To our childhood home in SmallTown, Ontario. Where gossip and wild spaces and fresh garden vegetables and yes, even sexual innuendos, educated us city slickers in a way no other place could.
Like, I still hear the fire sirens in my brain. I was in Grade 5, Marlane in Grade 1. We shared a second-floor bedroom in a heritage brick home on Main Street: complete with a multi-angled ceiling, one small window, and a long no-door closet with steeple-shape interior.
It was 6 a.m. on a freezing morning. My father was up already, stoking coal into the basement furnace, before heading to his job via commuter car to the Big City.
Suddenly he burst into our bedroom where we were still sleeping. “Get up! Get out! Chimney fire! Forget dressing! Just get out!” Then he headed for our brother’s bedroom next to us.
That’s when I realized the fire sirens were heading to our house!
Marlane and Bro shot out of bed. Disappeared down the stairs.
But, me, well, I had rollers in my hair. Good grief, I couldn’t go outside with rollers in my hair! What if people saw me like this? I quickly crouched before the mirror whipping out the curling rollers, styling my hair into some sort of presentable shape.
“Good GAWD!” yelled my father as he tore back into my bedroom. (Fire engines stopped outside now. Sirens still howling. Firefighters scrambling out. Hoses unloaded. Hordes of spectators.)
Yanking my arm, he tore me away from the mirror. I stumbled down the stairs with him, out into the cold, onto the street before the searching eyes of curious onlookers.
Ah, but at least, I sighed within, there were no curlers in my hair.
Smalltown introduced me, Marlane, Bro and L’il Bro, to an entirely new world of life experiences.
Marlane’s blonde hair was fine and wispy when she was in Grade One. Yet she insisted my mother pull her strands into a ponytail. Except by the time we had walked to her Grade One class in the Old Town Hall, her wisps had escaped to fly around her cherub face. She never realized her pony tail had disappeared among dozens of bobby pins and coloured barrettes.
My Bro and I had to walk 5 km to and from the only elementary school in town on the other side of the railroad tracks. (“You live on the wrong side,” came the taunt). Bro, small for his age, was constantly bullied and taunted by a couple of local boys. He lived in terror each school day. My Bro is a big guy now. No-one would dare assault him.
I distinctly remember our Grade Five teacher. A tall, imposing man. Male teachers were most unusual at that time. His voice boomed like the wrath of God and his eagle eyes scanned the room for truant behaviour.
During one of our many tests, most of the class -- except for goodie-goodies -- cheated. We wrote the answers on a small piece of paper, placed it beside us on our desk seats, our heads down so we could scan our cheat sheet at the same time we were writing.
Suddenly there was a mighty whack as Man Teacher smacked his book down atop his desk. We all stopped writing immediately, terrified at the Judgement Day explosion.
He called up shivering Jamie, a small piglet of a boy who sat behind me. I could hear him whimpering as he slithered to the front of the class.
“CHEATER!” yelled Man Teacher, pointing to Piggy Jamie.
At once there was a quiet rustle of cheat sheets shoved into desks. There was also a collective increase in heartbeats.
Then Man Teacher ordered poor Jamie to open his hands. Each hand quivered.
Man Teacher whacked Piggy five times on each open palm; with each whack tears sprang into Piggy’s eyes.
At the expense of this poor kid, we all learned never to cheat again.
Little Lucy down the street was a child of incest. Her mother was her sister. It took me awhile to figure that one out but my best friend, Gayle, told me this was so.
Dumb Dougie, as we (cruelly) called him, sat on the front cement steps of his family’s frame home, rocking his body, his arms wrapped around his torso, singing to himself. Other kids nonchalantly called him ‘strange’ because of family in-breeding.
The tall cornfield across and behind the street homes was the perfect place to sexually explore yourself or your boyfriend. Deep in the heart of the patch was a flattened area with overhead intertwined cornstalks. The perfect hiding place. All kids knew about it. Today, I wonder whether the farmer suspected any improper shenanigans. He always left that patch fort intact.
The abandoned old Mill by the river was haunted. No-one dared venture inside this vacant decrepit building. Through its broken windows we could see massive cobwebs connecting strange shapes among abandoned machines. We thought about the serious size of those spiders. And other crimes that must have taken place there.
At a major corner on our side of the tracks was the blacksmith’s shop. Now long gone, his was the best place to hang around on a cold winter day. Especially when he let you get close to his fire to thaw frozen fingers.
On the way back to our past, Marlane and I easily found our Main Street home. It still stood as we remembered it, minus the barn and loft where we often jumped into piles of hay below. My bro’s rabbit hutch, built by my father and located next to the barn, contained one adorable black-spotted rabbit that thrived on excess greens from my mother’s garden.
My mother’s vegetable garden, once the pride of the neighbourhood, thrived in nutrient-rich soil. Unfortunately – and a sign of today’s world -- the present homeowners told us the soil in that spot is ‘absolutely no good’ for growing anything.
Marlane and I fondly recalled the old wood stove in the large kitchen on which my mother created from scratch her traditional Saturday evening meal: homemade baked beans, homemade brown bread, homemade ice cream whipped with the cream that rose to the top of the bottled milk.
Fresh milk was delivered each day from neighbouring farms via the milk wagon; the wagon was drawn by an aging nag with bony growths on his joints, his mouth covered with a feed bag of oats so he could munch while lumbering numbly through the same route each day.
No-one warned me. I was the new city slicker girl who had to find out for herself.
But I quickly learned about the DOM with WHT.
Subteen girls in our Smalltown avoided this particular shopkeeper of a general store. His reputation had spread. He was the DOM (Dirty Old Man) with WHT (Wandering Hand Trouble) who was hungry for ‘feeling up’ subteen girls.
DOM with WHT became the mantra among us grade fivers. Our parents could never understand why we refused to go into his store alone.
For Marlane and me, the visit to our past brought back some golden, some haunting, but forever vivid memories.
We also realized you CAN go back and find the past even more fascinating through adult eyes.