11/01/2006

Strangers With Chips

Something unexpected happened the year I turned 5. My parents gave me away. To strangers.

My mother had always suffered from what she called bad nerves and in 1969, she took her nerves to bed and brought my 2 year old sister along for company. Every time Mom took a pill, sis got a candy and I got more jealous.

My older sisters did what they could to keep the house running while my Dad worked as far around the dial as he could to keep us in food and hand-me-downs.

Friends of my parents suggested that their daughter and her new husband take one of us kids off their hands for a while to ease the strain of having 9 kids to clothe and feed. Somehow my parents agreed to this modest proposal and my adventures began.

Tricking me into a new life proved to be fairly simple. I was asked if I wanted to go for a drive in a car. Even though we were a little white trash and didn’t have a car of our own, I must have looked skeptical. They sweetened the deal with the promise of a big bag of potato chips. Now they were talking: the possibility of a treat I didn't have to share was more than I could resist. I was in the back seat of that car faster than a dog who doesn't yet know that sometimes, you end up at the vet's.

By the time I'd stuffed my small frame with chips, the novelty of a genuine car ride had worn off and I was ready for home. When I asked when we'd be going back, I got a smile in response and the answer that I'd be coming to live with them for a while and we were all going to have a great time. I got quiet and stayed that way for about the next 7 or 8 years. My car ride ended up taking a couple of days and landed me about 1000 miles away and in a town smaller even than the one I’d come from.

The isolated community consisted of a dotting of homes and stores, a small school, a church, and an Indian reservation nearby. Major food supplies were ordered from a catalogue and flown in every couple of months. I was enrolled in kindergarten at the school one of my guardians taught at.

The few other students in my class were native Indians and we regarded each other with wary interest. There were few words we had in common and so, we communicated mostly through suspicious looks and gestures.

When I excelled at such activities as putting together the 2 piece wooden puzzle of grapes and bananas, I was quickly promoted into Grade 1. Although still a stranger in a strange land, there were a few other kids there who could speak English.

After school, I came home alone, let myself in, did my homework and basically spent a lot of time waiting. When the surrogate parents got home and made dinner, it was then my job to do the dishes by standing on a chair. Months dragged by this way and my routine felt hopeless. I missed my family and cried myself to sleep many nights.

When Christmas rolled around and I was told I’d be going home, I was excited but worried that it might be a trick. The trip home took a couple of days and finally, I was dropped back into the chaos of my family. They weren’t where I left them but in a new house which was fun to explore; I'd never seen bunkbeds before and this place had them built right into the walls. I cried here too but with relief at being back.

As the rhythm of big family life started keeping time again in my body, they showed up again. My mother was still sick it seemed. I cried and begged not to be taken away again but I was loaded back in the car just the same and driven off again.

The next 3 months were spent in constant upset between crying, worrying and illness. At one point, I developed a case of croup so bad that I had to be airlifted to a larger city with a real hospital and an oxygen tent was my home for several days. When I was better, it was back to cold routine. I never seemed able to get warm.

My feelings of despair went on and on and as my crying jags increased in frequency and duration, my guardians just seemed puzzled. Eventually, they took me to see the local priest to see if he could offer any suggestions on my behaviour. He was a kindly old gentleman who I'd met once before when they ran a movie, my first, in the church basement. The film was Pinocchio and I was amazed by it, a small moment of joy.

Father spoke with the three of us in his large office and then asked to speak with me alone. He offered me a flat round butterscotch candy and then another and spoke to me in soothing tones. He asked me a question about whether I missed my family and had his answer in the half second it took for a pain cry to escape me. He comforted and consoled me and gave me more candy. He called my custodians back in and had me wait in the next room. When we got home, they barely spoke to me but I knew something had shifted.

A couple of days went by and it was close to Easter I recall. I was told that I should go over to my teacher's place and say good-bye because I'd be leaving school early and going home to my family. I raced over there and knocked on her door. She had papers for me to take to my school back home and wished me luck.

As though to erase any unhappy memories, there was a little party for me and the friends of my keepers came bearing gifts for me and chatted me up about my upcoming trip back. A bunch of new toys were proffered and packed into a large box.

The day finally came but this time, my journey home was a little different. I was put on a train, alone and met in Toronto by one of my aunts and I stayed overnight with her. She put me back on the train the following morning where in Montreal I was met by a family friend who made sure that I got on the correct train for the last leg of the journey home.

I made it back finally, in several pieces, but happy.

Most of my siblings don't remember a lot of the events around that time or claim not to and don’t like me to bring it up so I don’t anymore.

As an adult, I finally got up the nerve to ask my parents what the hell they were thinking. They could only apologize and say that they weren’t thinking clearly and didn’t realize that it would affect me so much.

At first I directed most of my anger at my mother and then decided that it was misplaced and held my father responsible for a time. I thought that I had more or less forgiven both of them and put it to rest until about the time of my parents’ 50th anniversary celebration.

You may recall that I’ve mentioned my mother to have little or no tact. Our whole family and extended family gathered from far flung corners for the big anniversary and my sisters who were in charge of putting together a special photo album, at the last minute asked me to do the honours.

I threw together a large and quite lovely scrapbook filled with photographs, funny family stories and so on. In the middle of one afternoon gathering at my parents’ place, the book was being passed around and generally praised. I did do a rather fine job on it.

Someone was laughing over a particular group of anecdotes I’d included and my mother turned to me in front of the 25 or so people gathered and loudly asked: Why didn’t you put in the story about the time we gave you away Dale? She laughed although thankfully nobody else did. The room immediately went silent as it would have to do and all eyes focused on me.

I calmly answered Because that wasn’t really a happy memory for me and the crowd resumed their chatter and my mother went on mingling.

I’d like to think that I grew up a lot in that moment, the moment when I didn’t kill my mother in front of a room full of witnesses.

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

You think you have problems? The cleaning ladies took three hours to clear away all the dust yesterday!

Coaster Punchman said...

Wow. That is quite a story. I wondered many things while reading it, such as "Why didn't they just tell you upfront that they wanted you to go stay with these nice people for a while instead of tricking you into the car?"; "isnt' 5 a little young to have to do the dishes all by yourself?"; "Were these people hoping they could adopt you and were disappointed when they realized you didn't want to stay with them?"; and most importantly, "Why don't you regularly torture your parents about this?" I would!

Bubs said...

I'd say you're a remarkable person to have handled it that way. Man.

haahnster said...

I'm struggling to find my usual, glib thing to say.

I'll leave it at "Holy Shit!" That is quite a story, Dale.

PinkFluffySlippers said...

Aw, honey. Geez.

Berry said...

Wow. I hope that's going in your memoirs.

I promise not to offer you any chips during our winter season movie fest.

ziggystardust73 said...

Dale, can I please marry you?

Pretty please?

gizmorox said...

Sweet Jesus.

These people couldn't have been too concerned with the raising of a child if let you go home alone every day at 5 years old. What were they thinking?

I'm glad you came through ok. And that you didn't kill your mom. Because I would have been tempted to.

justacoolcat said...

What a story.

You're writing this from prison aren't you?

Beth said...

Oh, damn, Dale. I read this and cried. Your story parallels my mother's story in so many ways ... except that she never heard from her mother again, not until I was a year old, and that (one and only) call was to sell my mom her cemetary plot. My mother and aunt were damaged by the desertion -- left with grandparents they barely knew -- and only recently has my mother come to terms with it. Now I understand now why you're so strong and have such a good heart.

Erik said...

If Ziggy deserts you, you know where to find me.

Seriously amazing, beautiful, heartbreaking entry.

Anonymous said...

it goes without saying (which is funny to say because we always say what we arent going to say after that little saying) you cant choose your parents. I can only say that all that you have gone through has made you into an outstandingly kind blogger that never fails to make me smile.

except today when i had to fight back tears.

lovelove!

Zed said...

You've left me speechless. And that's unheard of. :)

I'm glad you made it through all that as well as you have, Dale. Parents can just be so clueless as to what they do to their children. C-l-u-e-l-e-s-s!

Anonymous said...

My first husband had a similar experience, though his family was not quite so large. I can only say my heart surrounds you with love and understanding. Parents can be such humans beings sometimes. They don't understand that our little worlds depend on them solely. A child's love is so deep and pure and fragile.

Tough story to write, but I am honored and priviledged that you shared it with us.

Chancelucky said...

Dale,
First, I'm sorry you had to go through that at such a young age.

Second, I know you act like you don't take your own writing all that seriously, but I keep coming across posts over here that remind me that you write really well as in possibly "literary" whatever that is.

There are a lot of people who work very hard at "how things are said", but the much more unusual writing skill is to talk about things that matter and not let your words get in the way.

Most writers can't get there and even fewer bloggers even begin to go there because it is emotionally scary. Usually it involves saying things about people close to you that aren't necessarily completely positive.

It's very moving to come across a blog post that seems to be just telling the unadorned truth at a deeply personal level. Even if none of it were or is true, it comes across that way and that's really rare.

Anonymous said...

that story made me cry... Dale, you grew into a great and wonderful adult with all sorts of amazing and incredible qualities....

love ya lots and big hugs!

Melinda June said...

Wow, Dale.

Eloquent, beautiful post about something that can't have been easy to tell. Kudos to your talent, and to your character.

Tumuli said...

What a stunning, heart-wrenching story. The prevailing themes — loss, separation, confusion and fear, all in the mind of a lonely child — nearly brought me to tears.

Parents rarely realize how severely their choices affect their children. Even in hindsight they cannot fully comprehend the damage a hasty but well-intentioned decision can inflict on their offspring. But I know you are already well aware of that and have long since matured enough to discern the difference and heal others with your astonishing intelligence and compassion.

Echoing everyone else’s sentiments: I love you lots, and look forward to reading all of your incisive posts.

lulu said...

There isn't much to add, but "yeah, what they all said"

What an odd and painful experience for a child to have to go through. Really touching and well-written though.

Angela said...

Dale. Such a poignant and personal story. I can't even begin to imagine what you went through, but your words skillfully placed me in your shoes.

Thanks for sharing. I love you, man.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Dale, in total seriousness, that teared me up even while I was giggling helplessly at the vet line.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Also, 9 kids? Were you born during the days they were paying for population growth? Because the government threw my parents a few toonies for my little sis.

katie schwartz said...

oh my god, I think you're the bravest soul I know.

Dale said...

Tanya you ignorant slut. You're lucky you called me right after you commented and that you've heard this story before. Have fun in Vegas with Thurston and Lovey Howell!

I'm not sure why they didn't explain that to me beforehand either CP. If you can't reach the sink, you're too young to do dishes but they really weren't very nice people to begin with. I can't even begin to guess the motivation on their part although I know they did want children, later had one, and then split up. My parents knowing that they messed up and gave away the good one is torture enough for me. :-)

Thanks Bubs, people in general are pretty remarkable aren't they? It took me a long time to process it but it ended up alright.

Don't you hate it when that happens Haahnster? It's just one of those stories though I guess.

Thanks PFS. Your cello-y goodness is keeping me warm.

You know what Berry? I'm totally addicted to chips. It wasn't their fault!!

Ziggy, I'm going to put up the application form but beware, there are some pretty stringent requirements. The fact that you offered though may win points.

They were a little nuts Giz for sure. Oh, and do you need my mom's address? :-)

Haha JCC, I could have been but I chose to channel it all another way.

Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your Mom's story Beth. The few times I've told people about this, I've heard some pretty awful things about their lives or the lives of those close to them. Even when you feel alone, you're not really alone I guess.

Erik, you're too kind. You still have to go through the screening process like all the others though, no cutting the line man.

That's really nice of you to say Yas because as you know, I'm only occasionally kind. A lot of people go through much worse and more scarring things than I did but wait a minute, this is about me. Thank you.

It worked! Zed's speechless! Zed's dead baby! You really spelled it out. :-)

Every time I read your blog, I feel the same way Old Lady so I take that as high praise. You put it so beautifully there -- parents can be such human beings sometimes.

I can't for the life of me think of what it is I love about you Chancelucky! I had a conversation about that very thing the other day - getting your point across without using all the 10 cent words I love. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Sure, now you let me out of the cage for a hug Shroomy. I heart you right back.

I've been told I'm a character Melinda June, thanks for the nice words. Not easy to tell but necessary to tell for me I think.

Tumuli, thanks so much, you're eloquence always bowls me over. I'm sure my next ten posts will be so puerile, you'll think, hey! where'd he go?

Thanks Lulu, I appreciate it. It was just the strangest time as you can well imagine.

Angela, love you too man.

Dale said...

Hey Monkey, I couldn't figure out if that line worked or not but hearing that you teared up and giggled makes me feel like maybe it did. We were a good dumb Catholic family is all the explanation I think is required though.

Blair's braver than I am for writing all that pap Katie. Thanks though.

chelene said...

Dale, when Oprah wants to make you a Book Club selection, don't dis her like Jonathan Franzen did, okay? The best revenge is a million dollar advance and a book tour.

Wonderful post, sugar.

jin said...

Awww...Dale.
Am sorry. :-(
Some people really shouldn't have kids...
...course if they hadn't there wouldn't be a
"Passion of the Dale" blog. ;-)
So, glad for that, but sorry about having to go through all that shit.

They say, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

{{{{{Cyber Hugs}}}}}

Holly said...

Dale, sweetie, you are a better son than your mother deserves.

I wish I could buy you a nice big bag of chips every day for the next couple of weeks.

Dale said...

Chelene, you know I wouldn't diss her publicly because then how would I get my secret wish to come true? There I am on Oprah's couch when she leans in and says: Now Dale, I read what you wrote but let me aks you this...

I'm just strong enough Jin. Thanks for the cyberbrackets!

But Holly, what happens a few weeks in? Do I just let the chips fall where they may? :-)

KLee said...

Dale, the fact that you lived through such a terrible experience is a testament to your inner strength. Of course, I think you also showed admirable restraint at not smacking your mother soundly about the head and neck for her callous comment. The fact that you have to have a license to fish, but just anyone can pop out a kid or three never ceases to amaze me.

No wonder you got in the car -- I would've gone with them merely to escape all the siblings!

Seriously, though...I'm glad that you made it through such a scarring and emotionally damaging period in your life. I know it's not funny, and I know it's not something that you look back on fondly, but you tell the story with humor enough that we all can appreciate.

wonderturtle said...

Damn.

You have a lot to say, and you know how to say it. That's rare, man.

Dale said...

Hi KLee, very nice words and the post on your blog about dear old Mom was quite something too. I can laugh now of course but at the time, it was a whole lotta no fun!

Thanks Wonderturtle. I appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

I dunno what happened to my post but I promise not to slap your Mom. Still this post made me cry anyway.

justacoolcat said...

Hmmm, after your reply to Tanya and since I am court ordered not to call you I guess it's a good thing my original comment wasn't "All that and a bag of chips"

Reese said...

Daley, you're sooo New Brunswick.

Very nicely written. I like the way you always end your stories with a little joke ;-)

Geeti Das said...

! ! !

Wow. I don't really know what to say... But, to take something like that, and do what you do with it... well, wow. Dealing with it must be hard enough, but to do it so beautifully, with such warmth and humour. Damn.

"Every time Mom took a pill, sis got a candy and I got more jealous." Gut-wrenching. Stunning.

Damn you, Dale, for making me get sappy.

mellowlee said...

Im glad you posted this story Dale. I've been wondering about it ever since you briefly mentioned it a while back.

I think not only do our experiences shape us, but show the world what we are made of. You are made of some pretty great stuff Daleio *HUGS*

blog Portland said...

Fuck all that. I think you have every right to be mad. Nonetheless, the way you've dealt with it and handled yourself says a lot (of good things) about you. You're lucky you don't curl up in the fetal position every time someone offers you a Dorito.

thetruthisthelight said...

There are so many un-wanted children in this world. I remember taking care of a child at psychiatric hospital during my clinicals. Mother had held child's hands on a burning hot stove because child had eaten a peice of candy mother said she couldn't have. I wanted to drop kick mother across the room! :-. You had this negative experience in your life. How you let it affect you is entirely up to you. Have you ever considered becoming a Big Brother to a child? Out of evil can come good.

Dale said...

It's good of you to take the high road Bluez. My mom's cheek thanks you.

Haha, I love that Coolcat. And now I'm hungry.

Thanks Reese, and yes I am. I never know how to finish them off so rather than go ...and then when I was 7, I go haha.

And I got you to use 3 !!! just like that Geeti Das. And every time you comment I get to say Geeti Das which I like saying. Thanks for the nice punctuation. :-)

Thanks Lee. I mentioned it in my 5 things post as a way of forcing myself to write something about that time. I at least threw a few bare bones at it and appreciate your warm hugs.

I was definitely mad for a long time Blog Portland, probably because curling into the fetal position over Doritos can be so embarrassing and I'm all about appearances. My current awful chip obsession is for Lay's Smoky Bacon.

Hello long named person. That's such an awful thing to process. There's definitely a lot of evil in the world but I agree that how you let things ultimately affect you is a matter of choice.

Johnny Yen said...

Okay, I will never, ever complain about my parents again.

Tenacious S said...

Dale,
And you wonder why you are so glib? I think that is a testament to your character. You could have been so much worse than glib. Besides, glib is usually funny. Do you have trust issues? I sure would. Honestly, I'm so sorry this happened to you. Children endure all kinds of pain at the hands of their very own parents. It ought to be a crime.

Anonymous said...

Although I also already knew this story, it still breaks my cold iron heart. As someone who also had to deal with some scarring family issues (of a different type!) I have had to learn that even though the years have brought some measure of peace, there is always a part of me that will never get over it. With time and different experiences, though, those terrible times no longer make up the majority of my perception of my life's fabric.

You are you no matter what happened, and even if it made you stronger or whatever, it still would have been better had it not happened.

I will always love you. A.

Grant Miller said...

That's really something.

Dale said...

My folks are nice enough Johnny Yen but they clearly were not thinking a lot at the time. Go ahead and complain!

Hmm, I guess I do have a bit of a trust issue Tenacious S. Once someone really lets me down, it's a tough crawl back to sure footing.

I love you right back my wise and Anonymous friend but I know your cold iron heart ain't so cold at all really. I know just what you mean too, it's always there but it's not the only thing that is. Thanks for your words.

It really truly is Mr. Miller.

thetruthisthelight said...

LOL @ 'long named person'. Just call me Susan. :)

X. Dell said...

It seems like that time was a painful one for everyone in your family, and still is. Your mom seems to deal with it the only way she can, and your siblings keep throwing dirt over it.

What I find truly amazing, however, is that you beat the croup, you servived the exile, and your family is still together. A lot of people wouldn't be able to handle that.

One thing that strikes me, that I hadn't noticed before: the isolation of that particular community. I kinda thing of you as an urbanite.

Dale said...

Hi Susan, I'll just consider the other one your middle name.

You may be right on your first point there X. Dell. The city I grew up in was about 10,000 people but the town I moved to had about 2000 people. When I got the chance I headed for the bright lights and haven't looked back. Well, okay, I kind of moved to the burbs but I still love, need and use the big city nearby.

Bella Rossa said...

Oh, my god, Dale, I can't believe that I never knew this about you, and that it actually happened.

Utterly, utterly heartbreaking. I just cry for the little boy that you were with all of this pain and quietness.

I second the person who says no wonder you are so sweet as a grown man. Well, sweet and wickedly glib. Jesus.

This part especially kills me: I got quiet and stayed that way for about the next 7 or 8 years.

And to think that they sent you off, brought you home, and then sent you off again?!

And then took you to a priest to find out what was wrong with you? Um, how about you were yo-yo'd in and out of your family with no explanation? Unfathomable.

Dale said...

It was a perplexing and strange thing for sure Bella and I've never had much more of an explanation than I've written about here. Don't worry, after I got quiet for a few years, I got plenty mouthy! I could expand this story with a fair bit more detail but it was difficult enough to write in even this form. Thanks for your kind words.