Friday, November 30, 2012

Growing Up a Valley Kid in the 1980's

I grew up in a small Northern Ontario town called Hanmer, north of Sudbury with a population of about 10,000 people.  It was divided between French and English.  The kids who went to French school didn't often associate with the kids who went to English school.  My dad was French and my mom was English.  I went to English school because my brothers and sisters went there.

Fifth Birthday - no French kids that year!  
I played with anyone, I didn't care what their main language was.  My birthday fell at the end of summer which meant most of my school friends were enjoying the last long weekend of the holiday so had to invite the French kids to my birthday parties.  It was strange being the odd man out at your own birthday.  It was nice of them to come but since we only hung out once a year I wasn't in their circle.  I'd watch them play the games speaking French to each other while I topped up their glasses of orange Fanta.  Everyone knows, the French love a good party.

Growing up in Hanmer in the 80's was pretty amazing.  It was also known as Valley East.  We were "Valley Kids".  We had ultimate freedom.  The neighbourhoods were generally safe, kids were free to roam.  There were acres of bush land to explore.  One of my favourite things to do was to play in the bush with my best friend Laura. We'd build forts and set traps for the imaginary Indians.  We played for hours out there with no one knowing where we were or what we were doing.  It was our own private world that we didn't share with adults.

We'd hop on our bikes and ride for miles through a series of dirt tracks in the bush which were made by dirt bike riders (and in the winter time, snowmobile tracks).  These were called the monkey trails.  There was an element of fear and thrill, you could easily get lost in the monkey trail maze.  We loved the idea of someone sending a search party for us.  We'd pick wild blueberries and raspberries, pack a picnic, our Barbie dolls, and play all day out there.  Not a care in the world.

Laura and I at the age of 13 hitch hiked into the city.
Laura and I were pretty creative.  We didn't spend a lot of time indoors unless we were choreographing dances which we would perform on the front lawn for people out on their evening walk, we'd insist they they stop to watch. We would hold random craft markets where we'd sell our handmade macrame plant holders and bracelets.  We had a lemonade stand.  We'd decorate our bikes, recruit other kids and have parades around the neighbourhood.  We even dressed up on random occasions and went trick or treating in the middle of April.  That was our most ingenious idea ever.  Why suffer from sugar withdrawal when we can entertain for candy?  It was hard to resist our charm.  We were unique kids full of ideas.  I was the ring leader which won't surprise any of you who know me.  I was Batgirl, Laura was Robin.  Our parents didn't drive us anywhere like kids today, if we wanted to go somewhere we had to figure it out for ourselves.  At the age of 13 we started hitch hiking into Sudbury on Saturday mornings (I don't think our parents knew where we were).  We'd dress up in our coolest clothes and spend the day hanging out at Sudbury Shopping Mall.  We were pretty cool, at least we thought we were.

Laura went to French Immersion - both her parents were English but they wanted their girls to learn to speak French.  I went to the English Catholic school down the road - St. Anne's.  It was a great school.  I loved my teachers.  I loved school, period.  I was a straight A student but I rarely studied.  I was Valedictorian of my class.  Some people thought I was teacher's pet - and maybe I was.  I respected my teachers and it made me feel really good being reliable and conscientious.  I guess I'd be classified as a brown noser.
8th Grade Graduation - Pretty in Pink

My oldest sister taught me to sew.  She was an amazing seamstress herself.  I learned to make my own clothes.  The pink dress I wore to Graduation was the first fancy dress I made.  I hand beaded it and everything.  I was very proud of it.  I'm so lucky I had my sister.  She was the only person who kept an eye on me, she was my main role model.   She instilled a sense of decorum and style.  She used to dress me up like a doll and do my hair and make up like one of those little perverse beauty pageant entries they have in the USA.  I loved it.

But it wasn't all roses growing up with so much freedom.  It not a nice feeling being invisible and having no rules.  Boundaries and rules give you a sense of security. It was standard for me to come home from school to an empty house on a Friday afternoon, leave a note for my mom to tell her that I was at Laura's and I wouldn't come home until Sunday night.  This was at just 8 years old.  Prior to that age, my brothers and sisters were there but as they became teenagers I hardly saw them.  My mom worked to support 5 kids on her own.  To me this was normal.  She worked hard to put food on the table and I took it for granted that she gave me practically anything I asked for.  We didn't have much.  She always put our needs first.  She drank to hide her sadness.  A lot of my friend's parents drank.  That was also somewhat normal.  They didn't all fall asleep in the chair in the living room without making dinner... that set me apart from the rest.

Me and Al 1986
My best school friend was Allison.  I loved going to Al's place for weekend sleepovers.  Thinking back, I wasn't home much on weekends, I was always sleeping over somewhere. Allison's mom and dad were really fun and they treated me like I was part of the family.  I thought Al was so lucky.  They had a lot of parties which meant Al and I could to do anything we wanted.  We'd often stay up late watching movies that were inappropriate for our age.  I watched every scary 80's horror film at Al's house.  Allison had very few rules too.  Her parents trusted her implicitely and gave her the freedom to make her own choices.  The main differences between us was she had a dad and her parents openly adored her and drove her absolutely everywhere.  They took me and Al to Canada's Wonderland on a day trip.  It was 3 hours one way.  Unheard of in my world.  Allison's parents were fun drunks, vastly different from my mom who drank in her chair and passed out.

Laura's parent's were strict and I was intimidated by her dad, not because he was mean, in fact he was generous and very good to me.  I just wasn't used to strong male figures.  We had to do what he said, I couldn't get away with anything there and I tried, oh I tried!  I used to get Laura into so much trouble!  Bless her.  I think she spent half her summers grounded because of me.  Her dad often forbade her from hanging out with me, but we'd sneak around behind his back so he gave up trying.

My mom was lucky, because I was such a social kid, I was often invited to stay for dinner and weekends with friends.  It was an amazing way to grow up.  I was everyone's foster child.  I had motivation for this.  I was looking for love.

Sleepover at my house.  
As I said, children need boundaries to feel secure.  Having that kind of freedom left me openly vulnerable.  I was targeted by older boys who thought I was cute and who would bully me into doing things I didn't want to do.  I was abused by a number of babysitters in my younger years.

My first sitter, our next door neighbour, used to look after me when I finished my half day at kindergarten.  I would get off the bus and walk to her house for lunch.  My mom specifically told her that I liked peanut butter and jam sandwiches and that the only thing I would not eat was mushroom soup.  For two years that woman gave me mushroom soup for lunch.  While she was watching the Price is Right in the other room, I'd allow the soup to cool and then I'd pour it down my pants.  Why I chose to pour it down my pants and not down the drain, I don't know.  I didn't want to leave any evidence and risk punishment.  I'd excuse myself quickly before the soup ran down my leg,   I'd go home, change my clothes and play outside until my mom came home from work. This happened daily from the age of 4.  I thought I'd get in trouble for not eating my lunch so I didn't say anything to my mom.  I thought she knew, and I was getting away with it without getting a spanking. I could never understand why this lady blatantly ignored my mom's instructions.  Maybe she heard my mom wrong.  Or maybe she thought she'd convert me into a mushroom soup lover. I know it sounds odd, how I didn't say anything or tell my mom that I wasn't eating my lunch. I was afraid.  I was taught to eat what was put in front of me.  I sat for many hours staring at cold food (especially at Laura's house).  We weren't allowed to move from the table until it was all gone.  It was easier to pretend, hide the evidence, say thank you and leave.  I got good at sneaking food into my underwear or my big chipmunk cheeks.  At home, I just had to wait until my mom was asleep in her chair and then flush the evidence down the toilet.

I built the snowman but invited the French kids over for a photo.
Another babysitter used to punish me regularly by locking me in a bedroom for hours and hours.  Sometimes she'd lock her psychotic son in there with me and he'd bite me.  I'd often pee my pants, out of fear and the fact that the door was locked and we couldn't get out to use the bathroom.  Then she'd spank me... but it wasn't just a spanking.  It left welts. I didn't tell my mom about this either.  I thought she knew.  I seriously thought this babysitter told my mom how bad I was and my mom was okay with it.  I had an active, creative imagination to escape the reality.  I wanted to be anywhere but where I was.  This is when I began to meditate.  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I learned from an early age I had to rely on myself.

Decades later I spoke to my mom about these incidences.  As you can imagine, I was pretty upset with her for leaving me with incompetent people.  But talking to her made me realize she really had no idea.  She was desperate to find anyone willing to look after me while she went to work.  She didn't have much money to pay and these sitters were cheap.  I asked, "Didn't you notice the mushroom soup in my clothes?"  She said she thought I was a messy eater.  She also thought I had separation anxiety.   She admitted she didn't like leaving me with sitters and was glad when I made my own babysitting arrangements.

Playing in the mud age 3.
It didn't make me a victim.  In fact, it made me incredibly resilient and resourceful.  I would not be where I am today if I didn't grow up the way I did.  I'm grateful for every lesson life threw at me.

I often talk to friends of mine who say that they envy my natural sense of freedom and the fact that I picked up and moved to the other side of the world.  They would love to do it, but they can't leave their family or the familiar comforts they grew up with.  Some friends even have parents who would make them feel guilty for leaving.  This is where I'm grateful for being raised to be independent.  My mother may have been negligent at times but she did the best she could given her own personal circumstance.  She ended up giving me the greatest gift - freedom to experience life, good and bad.  This has allowed me to find my own path, draw up my own conclusions and live life how I want.  When I was 16 years old I wrote in one of my journals that I wanted to live in Paradise.  A place where it never snowed but I could still go skiing on a mountain.  I visualized it and now here I am living the dream.

I choose to hold onto the good memories.  I had an amazing childhood.  I was given wings to fly... and look how far those wings have carried me!


Laurie said...

I remember S C A M news TV and being envious of all the kick ass wigs you had...and also feeling bad having to keep pouring the ketchup in your mouth and. Trisha's just to get the perfect end shot.

I remember being jealous of all the stories of awesome bush parties from the previous weekend as I was just to chicken to go..afraid I would get caught.

And I remember the winters...I mean the REAL winters where you would have to be careful not to sniff because your nostrils would sick together it was so cold...and your eyelashes would be frozen closed when you would blink.

Some of the most fun I had was sneaking on to the slopes at Adanac at night to go go down at mach 10 and just pray you could negotiate that first turn otherwise it was about a 20 foot drop in the bushes....and I know first hand how that felt. what a rush! I'm guessing they have that place locked down like fort Knox now...

I was in such a hurry to leave the valley and funny thing is...I find myself searching for ways to live the north again. Funny how life works sometimes.

Sandy Paquette said...

Ohhh you forgot about how you taught me to use my imagination and create my very own smurf village. I believed every word you said!! You and Laura also gave me my first experoence with ouiga boards ( in still afraid of those things)Along with the macramae plant holders we sold the spider plants to go in them. Imagine instead of a lemonade stand we had a spider plant stand...we destroyed Laura's mom' s plant for this purpose.
The bush explorations are probably my fondest memories of growing up in our neighbourhood. We would spend hours running the trails, picking berries, and using our imaginations to the fullest. Unfortunately with such growth in the Valley my own children do not get to experience the "bush" as we did.
You were the older cool girl a couple houses down. I looked up to you for you had no fear in my eyes. I loved we you came knocking on my door to play.....
I wouldn't have wanted to grow up anywhere else but the valley. I am a true Valley Girl for life and proud of it!!!


Jamie said...

T, you really are a great storyteller, because its so authentic. Life is gritty, but we can choose to build sandcastles (and snowmen) or be a stuck in the mud. Ever since you entered my life you have been this ray of sunshine and learning about your childhood stories I see how you have brought the light to so many lives, ever since you were just a little girl. Like you say, what doesn't girl you makes you stronger. And so so much wiser hey! Thank you for sharing. Jamie xo