Anne M. Smith-Nochasak:
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In those days, a visit from the priest was a holy moment, and you could not receive sanctifying grace wearing shorts and clutching a cigarette. There were undisputed rules that governed you, but I recall the mischief and tongue in cheek of those moments. Perhaps that has helped me to grow old with a little honest grace, to see with both eyes open.
In the background there is a clattering and scraping as chairs are shoved back and ashtrays are flung beneath the sink. There is a glimpse of slim legs flashing up the stairs, shorts riding over thighs, as my mother and her younger sister, my dear Aunt Claudette, run gasping out of sight.
Now Father is standing on our driveway flanked by the Sisters, so much black fabric and Roman collar and wimple dazzling in the evening. My mother and Aunt Claudette pop through the screen door, breathless and delighted, now in swishing flowered skirts skimming just below the knee. There is a hint of hidden shorts in their eyes.
--Wasaya Journal of Rachel Hardy, A Canoer of Shorelines, pp. 19f.
In those days, a visit from the priest was a holy moment, and you could not receive sanctifying grace wearing shorts and clutching a cigarette. There were undisputed rules, but I recall the mischief and tongue in cheek of those moments. Perhaps that has helped me to grow old with a little honest grace, to see with both eyes open.
Rachel in A Canoer of Shorelines was born in the nineteen fifties, and so her formative years would be the sixties. This was my generation, too. Hers, like mine, was not a nostalgic journey through poodle skirts, marriage to a childhood sweetheart out of high school, and settling down to a modest bungalow with a neat lawn, doilies on the end tables, and years of dedication to church and community ahead. Nor was it a drifting into the sixties world of berets and esoteric jottings, later swirling with psychedelic colours and Trips!
We were innocent to the point of naiveté. We did as we were told. We did not dispute obscure truths like “Girls who talk like that wind up in the Convent of the Sacred Heart”, or “The Beatles won’t amount to much.” At the age of eight when I witnessed the rise of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I planted my shuffling feet firm, and scoffed at their disgraceful hair. In my secret heart, I was at the edge of the stage screaming my adulation, but I was not going to wind up in convent school.
I suppose that I could say that our parents manipulated us. However, in most instances it was for our own good. The woods, for example, are not a safe place for children to roam. Perhaps it was unfair of my parents to provide a particularly menacing version of a children’s song about picnicking teddy bears, but I know I never went into the woods alone – I had no desire to discover a swarm of glassy-eyed teddy bears lurching toward me from the shadows, zombie-like arms extended. Yes, that song stayed with me, a subliminal message planted by protective parents. I was sixteen and carrying a shotgun before I comfortably entered the woods on my own. The teddy bears were out there, at least until six o’clock when their parents took them home.
We did not question these things, but when it came to important truths we were not gullible.
Our access to television was limited to preserve our innocence, but our permitted shows were rife with violence and racism. Somehow, we accepted that what was happening was not real, and that if we drove off cliffs, we would not get up and start again. We had also seen real dynamite used in blasting stumps, and knew that if we stood on that stump, we would not wipe the soot and ashes from our faces and light the fuse again. We watched The Beverly Hillbillies, but did not emerge with a belief that grandmothers concocted moonshine and that mental challenges were a laughing matter. Personally, I worried over Jethro, and hoped that he would be safe.
We experienced things which touched us then ebbed away. In Grade one, we all sang with great gusto a most unusual song in which the protagonist mistook a man of colour for a horse. I felt puzzled, because the difference between a horse and a man should have been obvious. I recall that the teacher planned a float for our class in the parade, in which we would all be in dark face and seated in a watermelon patch. The plan was to make us look cute and funny. I was not comfortable; I thought this was an odd thing to do. We watched the original Peter Pan cartoon and were confused. Who were these strange beings pretending to be Indigenous and doing it so badly? Did they know how to work ash? The questions we should have asked were: “Who are the people that come up with these things? Why do they think these are funny? What are they telling us to believe? Who does believe them? Are they still among us?”
Did my parents sing racist songs, chuckle over racist movies, honestly believe that we were safe because they unsettled us with creepy songs? I do not think so. They were the types who greeted the priest with an impish smile, sinful shorts defiant under pious skirts. They were polite, but not intimidated. They were the moral compass that taught us to love the people of the world. I know that they were that moral compass because, by imitating them, I can be that moral compass for my grandchildren.
We can overcome our literal fifties naiveté; we do not have to be racists even if it was woven into our education. We can reach beyond the twisted stories, imitate the loving moments and the courageous moments that we were taught, and witness the birth of the world. For now, though, I must set this rambling aside. It is six o’clock, and I feel like a walk in the woods.