Thursday, April 20, 2006

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The teacher wrote this on the blackboard and looked at us expectantly. Her name was Miss March and she seemed nice enough, with her warm smile and fluttering hands. We rustled our papers nervously as our legs swung beneath our desks. It was the first day of the 3rd grade, and we had been assigned our first ever essay. We were to write 100 whole words about our summer vacations and turn them in first thing tomorrow morning. The task seemed monumental to me at the time, I wasn’t even sure if I knew 100 words, and on top of which, it meant homework on the first day!

I walked home after the 3 o’clock bell had rung, skulking, watching my patent leather Mary Janes travel over the gravel. I had scuffed them already. Mother would be mad. My knee socks that actually came just short of my skinny, scraped knees were grass stained, and she would be mad about that too. The ribbons in my hair, the ones that matched the plaid jumper I was wearing, had come loose during recess and I knew when I got home my mother would say (if she said anything to me at all) “Sarah, can’t you go one day without making a mess of yourself?” I was what mother called “a hopeless case.” I never got anything right.

I took the long way home, buying myself time, but also digging the hole deeper because if my older sister Jody arrived home before me, I would be berated for “dawdling” as well. I marched past the park, past the church, past the neighbours’ homes, my plastic lunch pail grazing my hip with each step. And then it happened. My lunch pail landed on my hip with a dull thud, hit just a tiny bit harder than the others had, but the clasp broke open, spilling the contents onto the side of the road. Before I could stoop to scoop them up, the bruised apple and the plastic thermos rolled down the ditch and splashed into the dirty water below. They sank out of sight.

I walked up the steps to our home with as much trepidation as a little girl could muster. I pulled up my slouching socks and smoothed my tousled hair as I walked through the front door, but mother was nowhere to be seen. I let out the breath I had been holding for some time. I felt a moment’s worth of relief before the look on Jody’s face wiped it away. Mother was in her room again with the door shut tight, emitting only the slightest of muffled noises. She was having another one of her ‘headaches,’ which meant Jody and I would be left to fend for ourselves, maybe for the night, maybe for longer. I hoped not too much longer.

Jody and I made some grilled cheese sandwiches, and took them to our separate rooms. I sat at my big wooden desk, formal and imposing in its size, dwarfing the other furniture in my room. I took out some paper and sharpened a pencil, watching the curling wood shavings drop off the blade and onto the pristine white paper, already making the first of many smudges. I wrote the title – What I Did On My Summer Vacation – followed by my name, in my massive, halting cursive. I was especially proud of my capital S. I had practiced it all summer long, and I hoped Miss March would notice it. She could hold my paper up in front of all the class and say “Look how Sarah has written the perfect cursive S,” and my classmates would pat me on the back and look at me with envy.

After the S, I was uninspired. The rest of the page remained blank as I stared dejectedly out the window. Some neighbourhood kids were out playing in the last of the sunny summer weather, chasing each other into the sunset and waiting for their mothers to call them in to dinner. I looked for my father’s car, nervous that he might be on his way home, and nervous that he might not. Lately, he had taken to disappearing for weeks at a time, and neither he nor Mother ever told us where he went. At any rate, I hoped that if he did come home, it would not be until I was fast asleep in my bed.

I couldn’t think of a single thing to write about. I knew my friend Janet would probably write about riding horses and going to visit her grandmother in Cape Breton. And even though I had never talked to him in my life, I also knew that Bradley across the street was likely to write about his trip to Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse. His mother had asked my mother to ‘keep an eye on the house’ while they were away, and my mother had dutifully sent me across the street each morning to collect their mail and newspapers.

I couldn’t very well write about collecting newspapers. I couldn’t write that my mother had spent a lot of the summer locked in her room. I couldn’t write that Daddy spent most of the summer sleeping at someone else’s house. I couldn’t write how Mother drank too much wine with supper and then fell asleep on the sofa, with the glow of the television casting sickly colours on her skin, or else phoned her friend Bernice and sobbed about how she could have married a dentist and had perfect blonde babies. I knew that above all, I could not write about the camping trip.

Jody and I knew enough to dread the yearly camping trip, and we did. Here it was only early September, and I was already dreading the next year’s. Jody and I knew that we were not like other families, and that spending ‘quality time’ together, as Mother called it, was not a good thing. But mother insisted, cried over it, and gave Daddy the silent treatment every year until he agreed to it, for as far back as Jody or I could remember. This year had been different. Daddy piled the camping gear into the back of the station wagon, tucked Jody and I in amongst all the trappings and luggage, and off we went, toward nature, toward the mountains, and toward a long week that all four of us would unfailingly come to hate.

The first hour of driving started out cheerily enough, like it had many times before. It was a false sense of security, but we enjoyed it while it lasted. Mother turned on the radio, Jody read her Judy Blume, and I coloured and played with my dolls. It was almost nice. But then Jody read aloud to me some outrageous line from her book that set both of us to giggling, and Daddy shot us a stern look in the rearview mirror. That was the first warning. We sat silently for a good while, watching the trees speed by through the window, feeling the hot wind on our faces, but then I forgot myself and shouted that I had seen a deer, and a license plate from Alberta, and Daddy’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. That was the second warning. Jody and I could not and would not relax again until the car ride was safely over and done with. We sat stiff and uncomfortable in our seats for the duration. I was hungry, and hot, and tired, and probably Jody was too, but we kept it to ourselves. It was Mother who broke the code of silence, mumbling something about needing a rest stop or grabbing a bite to eat. I felt beads of sweat on my brow, and it wasn’t just from the heat. Daddy predictably got off the highway at the next chance he got, and Jody and I rolled up our windows and braced ourselves for what was to come. He stopped the car in a parking lot, unbuckled, and turned in his seat. He yelled at us until he turned red in the face and little gobs of spit came flying out of his mouth. We knew better than to talk back. We didn’t cry or look away, that would only make things worse. We sat there, all three of us, and waited until he tired of yelling. Then he left to get himself a cold drink before finishing the drive to the campground. We were all dead silent for the rest of the trip.

The rest of the week was much the same. We were slapped for getting too dirty, yelled at for just sitting around and ‘wasting’ the trip, hit for straying too far away, belittled for not playing quietly enough, punished for making a sloppy bedroll. At the campsite, there was no reprieve from Daddy. I tried to hide in the tent to play with my cut-out dolls, but there was no safe place. He found me eventually, dragged me out of my quiet corner, and screamed.

“Look what you’ve done, you’ve tracked dirt into the tent again, you little brat. You’re worse than your good-for nothing mother.”

He grabbed me by the shoulders and rattled me until I felt ready to fall apart. Jody looked at me with her sad eyes and wisely stayed out of the way, and Mother, in the only way she ever chose to acknowledge these scenes, said simply “Tom.”

Just “Tom.” Just his name.

More often than not, this would earn her a slap from him, but all the same, I wished she would say more. I wished she would say “Tom, stop.”

Or “Tom, she’s just a little girl.”

Or “Tom, you’re hurting her.”

Or “Tom, leave her alone.”

I hated her for not saying more, for not sticking up for me, as much as I hated him for hurting me in the first place. I likewise hated the vacations we took, hated the unforgiving stretches of summers, hated my life. And I hated how the other campers stayed away, asked to switch sites, and how the children played elsewhere and the grownups gave us pitying looks.

No, I couldn’t write about the camping trip, that’s not the kind of thing teachers want from their students. I sat at the big desk and wrote about a lovely trip to Ottawa instead. It wasn’t true, it was a pack of lies, and I felt bad about making it up, but I hoped Miss March would like it all the same. I hoped Miss March would like my first essay. I hoped Miss March would like my fancy cursive S. I hoped Miss March would like me.


At 1:57 AM, Blogger Beaman said...

I like your story. The innocent beginning followed by the brutal realities of the little girls home life are well conveyed.
You might have pointed it out in an earlier post but do you mind if I ask where you got your inspiration for this piece from?

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Marie said...

I liked your story too.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Jay said...

Of the thousands of children in Canada who are exposed to abuse, only a small portion of them are protected by Children's Aid.
The vast majority remain in the home, go to school, turn in work, try to make friends. None of this comes easily.


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