A Story About an Old Story.
When I was six years old, we moved from Nanaimo to Victoria, 100 km south, still on Vancouver Island; my parents, my older brother, my baby brother and me. We were still newish immigrants, having moved to Canada from Ireland a few years before. Soon after our move to Victoria it was time for school to begin. I had been jealously watching my brother going to school without me, and now it was my turn.
The day before school began, my mother walked my brother and I to St. Patrick’s School to show us the way. Then, September 4, 1962, was The Big Day – the first day of school. I don’t remember much about that day, although I am sure that I was thrilled to be donning my new school uniform, and I probably had new notebooks and pencils, O Glory! I came to love my grade one teacher – Sister Mary Jerome. Her gentle face wrapped in her white wimple, and her dramatic flowing black robe and veil. She would be the one to teach me to read – a most precious gift. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.
Strangely, I do not remember any of these lovely things from that first day. The memory that stuck in my brain is the walk home from school that day. Somehow, I walked alone. And I got lost. I missed the turn onto Cranmore Road and ended up at a corner store on Cadboro Bay Rd., with no idea where I was. Fortunately for me, this was before the days of “stranger danger”, so I went into the store and told them that I was lost. The next thing I remember is a nice lady taking me to her apartment, and giving me a big glass of ginger ale with vanilla ice cream in it – a float. It was heavenly; I had never tasted anything so delicious. Then, mysteriously, my father showed up to take me home. This is all I remember of my first day of school.
It was not until I was a young adult that I thought much of this memory, but when I did, I was outraged. How could my mother have left me to walk home from school on my own? Negligence! Poor little me – carrying too much responsibility at such a tender age – how could my mother have left me so alone! I have been resentful about that day for decades.
Then, fast-forward to April 2020, I was rereading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Anger – Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. I came across a section entitled, “Healing the Wounded Child Within”. Here’s a paraphrase of Thich’s words:
Sometimes the wounded child in us needs all of our attention. If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice calling for help. Stop what you are doing and go back and tenderly embrace the wounded child within you.
“Breathing in, I go back to my wounded child.”
“Breathing out, I will take good care of my wounded child.”
Talk to her.
Listen with compassion.
The “wounded child within” that came into my mind was the one that was lost, on that first day of school, 58 years ago. As I prepared for my morning walk, I decided to imagine that I was walking my six-year-old self (Little Dee) home from school. So off I went, leaving our lovely home in Lantzville, on a sunny spring day in 2020. As I walked I pictured Little Dee in front of St. Patrick’s School, in her navy blue tunic, white short-sleeved blouse, tie and knee socks. She was about to leave on this fated walk home.
“Wait”, a new thought, “where was my older brother? Why was he not there to walk home with me?” Sixty-four-year-old me (Big D) had been walking for about 5 minutes when this revelation presented itself to me. That was fast! It had never occurred to me that my brother and I were meant to be walking home together. This shed a new light on the picture. Maybe my mother was not as neglectful as I had thought. In my imaginary walk, we had not even left the schoolyard.
In 2020, as I continued my walk, up into the Lantzville Foothills, I began to imagine my mother’s situation on that day. She had just moved to a new city, so she was trying to organize the house and find her way in a new city. She had a toddler at home and no car. Also, in her defense, it was 1962. The streets were not as the busy and dangerous as they are now. And, children were generally trusted to roam pretty freely without the frantic worry that plagues today’s parents. By today’s standards, most of us would have been considered neglected children. Also, It is quite possible that my mother had planned on meeting us after school and I told her, “No Mummy, I can do it by myself!” just as my own daughter told me many times when she was a young child.
O the judgment I had piled onto my mother! This was a story that I had told myself as a know-it-all twenty-something, before I had my own children. I had never stopped to question the version in my head or imagine my mother’s experience of that day. I continued to remember it that way until this week.
For the rest of my walk I imagine myself as Big D walking Little Dee home. When the hill got steep I gave her a piggyback, “I’ve got you Little Dee”. I told her that everything was going to work out all right in the end. I could guarantee it. By the time I was on my way back down the hill, we were swinging our arms and singing, “We are all just walking each other home” (Ram Dass).
Just now, as I write this story, I am looking down at my journal and reading the words that I wrote, a few days age, to describe myself as a young child:
“So serious, trying so hard to get it right, trying to please, frightened, alone”.
It strikes me, hard, that all those words probably describe my mother at that time of her life as well, only with big people problems. Now what I feel is compassion for my mother. She would have been thirty-five years old, alone with three young children, with out family or friends, in a new city and a new country. Poor Mum…
Ours was not an easy relationship, and her life got much harder as the years went by. Loneliness, more children, illness, and family mental health challenges made our life a struggle. But even still, the lens of compassion is a more constructive way to recall those times. Time to leave the lens of self-pity behind.
My mother and I did make our peace in the last years of her life. I wish I could ask her about that time, but she died several years ago. It’s is amazing and kind of shocking that I could carry anger about my first day of school for most of my adult life, without questioning the validity of my six-year-old’s perspective.