Excerpt – Growing Up Weird

Growing Up Weird by Liz Maxwell Forbes

from the PREFACE

1947

It is two months before Christmas and my mother is teaching me to knit. My fingers are clumsy as I carefully loop the yellow wool over the Bakelite needles. I want to make my step-father a scarf for Christmas and to do that, I have to learn how to cast on stitches and knit both sides in one long never ending stretch of knitting. The stitches are wide and loose but I finally have ten rows done. My fingers are tired so I put the work down, jump on my bike and ride up to the corner store for a jawbreaker. I return to find my two year old sister playing with my knitting and all the stitches unravelled. My mother consoles me, drying my tears, telling me to start again. I refuse. I am not doing it again.

The next day when I come home from school she presents me with the scarf, ten perfect rows knitted in her even tight stitch and suggests I start from there. I finish the scarf with its long loose stretchy knitting with one tight even end and give it to my step-father for Christmas. He never commented on the imperfect knitting with the perfect end and proudly wore it with his Burberry to work every day for years.

Memories don’t come to us in a linear fashion. They arrive unbidden in a circular manner — triggered by smell or music and sometimes current events. And so it is that when nearly seventy years later I am knitting a scarf for my eldest son for Christmas I recall my eight year old self making my step-father’s Christmas scarf.

The pattern is the same: cast on twenty stitches and plain knit until I reach the length I like. This time I am using stripes in two colours, a muted grape and an air-force blue in a soft wool. The yellow Bakelite needles were my mother’s and are the same ones I used to knit my first scarf. I sit with my child self while I am knitting for my son and relax my mind as I remember my childhood years growing up in Oak Bay, and begin my story.

from CHAPTER TWO – SHIRLEY ELIZABETH MACLAGAN WEDDERBURN

My grandfather was one of the founding members of the Victoria chapter of The British Public Schools Club (a gentlemen’s club), and my grandmother played bridge. No one bothered much with my mother who roamed around the spacious mansion at Dumbleton’s in the company of the Chinese man servant. I have a small lead cat that she took off a guest’s dressing table when she wandered unseen into the woman’s bedroom. Mum felt guilty about taking the cat, afraid that the Chinese house ‘boy’ had been blamed.

Even as a child I was aware my grandparents weren’t well suited. Jim tried to leave the marriage once and I am sure he paid for it the rest of his life. Apparently Hilda was playing bridge with friends one evening while they were living at Dumbleton’s and Jim was supposedly at his club, when she received a phone call from an acquaintance saying she had seen Jim boarding the night boat to Vancouver with suitcases and a woman. Hilda called a taxi and dashed down to the CPR dock in Victoria harbour just in time for the boat to sail, and brought him home. Such a bare bones story — I wish I knew more.

My mother remembered taking art lessons from Emily Carr at the Carr’s private kindergarten on St. Andrew’s Street, run by Alice Carr, sister to Emily Carr. My grandmother’s widowed sister, Ida, soon after her arrival in Victoria in 1929, received an invitation for tea from Miss Emily Carr. Ida and her two young daughters had tea at the House of All Sorts. Nancy, one of the daughters recalled being afraid of Woo, the monkey and quite terrified of Emily herself, although she was very kind to the two young girls trying to draw them out but they were too shy to respond.

from CHAPTER FOUR – THE WAR YEARS

My black rages were mostly directed at my poor mother who called me bloody minded. Other people said I was stubborn and determined but happy and easy going for the most part. A psychiatrist I saw in adulthood who knew our family said I was terrier at heart and they tried to turn me into a cocker spaniel.

I was quite bloody minded when my grandfather brought me a sand bucket and shovel and promised to take me to the beach the next day. I wanted to go today — right now. I didn’t care it was supper time. The sun was shining, the day was hot and I stamped my feet and threw the bucket and got sent to bed, by my mother. The rest of them I know from later experience would be clutched in a group, hands clasped to their breasts, leaning towards me, making little noises with anxious puckered faces. Mum was the bad guy, using the hairbrush on my bottom she dragged me kicking and fighting to my crib.

I was not to be deterred — when I wanted my way I got my way any way I could. And so, next morning I slipped out of the house before anyone was awake, quietly passed by my sleeping mother whose bed was on the front porch where it was cool, opened the front gate, turned the corner on to Oak Bay Avenue, past the post office in the confectionary store, past Oak Bay Hardware, my bare feet on the cool morning sidewalk and up to the end of the block of shops that made up the Avenue and across Monterey Avenue on my way to the beach. There was no one on the streets that early to notice a little girl with tousled hair, wearing a nightie and carrying a sand bucket but luckily people in the passing street car going into downtown Victoria noticed me and somehow a young Oak Bay constable was sent to pick me up. One of the people on that streetcar was Bill Brimblecombe, on his way to Work Point barracks in Esquimalt, the man whom my mother would later meet and marry.

All I remember of the whole escapade was walking confidently along Oak Bay Avenue and then being held in the police officer’s arms as he stood over my sleeping mother in her outside bed on the porch and the shocked look on her face when he woke her. Her false teeth were in a jar beside her bed. Mum, who was young, pretty and vain was more humiliated by being seen by the handsome young constable minus teeth than she was by not knowing I had slipped out unnoticed. She was very upset by the whole episode and relayed the story to my father in her next letter. Apparently I either didn’t know my address or wouldn’t tell the constable what it was. In John’s next letter to Mum he included a dog tag engraved with our address which I wore on a chain around my neck.

 from CHAPTER TEN – THE PARTY

An invitation arrived for a formal ball. It had been years since either of them had been to a dance, many house parties, but nothing grand like this. They decided to hold a drinks party before the dinner and ball and the usual people were invited: my real father’s brother Campbell and his wife Mae, the Shepherds, Fraser and Collie to name a few, and an exciting new addition, Torpedo.

“Really Bill,” my Mum said, “do we have to invite her? She drinks too much.”

“Yes, we do. She’s part of the theatre crowd, and they’ll all be at the dance. Did I tell you about the time she…?” I listened as he launched into an oft told story about Torpedo who was legendary in theatre circles. Daddy acted in a local theatre group in Vernon before the war — he had been in war time productions with Torpedo in Victoria, and I had heard of many of their escapades. Daddy wouldn’t tell me why she was called Torpedo, I thought it might have something to do with the stories of her peeing in potted palms in hotel lobbies when she couldn’t make it to the bathroom or peeing in the paint cans during a performance before she went on stage. Torpedo had a husband, who moved to a remote location up island to escape her antics and overindulgence. Apparently when she ran out of money and alcohol, she would hire a taxi that took her over the Malahat and on to Maple Bay in Cowichan, from where she hired a boat to her husband’s water front cabin in Sansum Narrows. She refused to leave his place until she got more money — then the first stop was the bootleggers where she stocked up for the 50 kilometre journey home to Victoria.

The day of the party came with lots of busyness. Mum made a dress for the event with a sleeveless top from a remnant of black velvet attached to a floor length skirt fashioned from old lace curtains in an antique white. She wore a strappy pair of shoes and with her amethyst necklace and earrings looked ravishing. Daddy bought her a white gardenia corsage, his traditional special event gift. There was a fuss of course, there was always a fuss. Daddy never did things quite right. This time it was the moth holes in his tuxedo. Mum wanted him to rent or borrow one—we couldn’t afford a new tuxedo. He said no, this one was perfectly fine and he would fix it. The only place it would show he reasoned was on the legs. So on the night of the party, he put on his crisp white shirt fresh from the dry cleaners, inserted his cuff links engraved with AOFB, (the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers), his long black socks attached to his garters and his holy pants. He gave me an indelible pencil, the kind you lick and stain your tongue purple blue and asked me to lick the tip of the pencil, poke it through the holes and mark his leg. This done, he took the pants off and mixed up some boot black from his theatrical make up kit, and covered his legs liberally with black in the pencil marked areas. I thought it was brilliant and have used variations of his camouflage technique myself over the years. Mum had a pruney look to her face.

Everything was ready, the fire crackling in the living room, drinks and snacks laid out. Mum looked lovely, her face lightly flushed, Daddy’s tuxedo hung nicely, with no flash of pink skin showing on the legs. The guests arrived with the long awaited Torpedo resplendent in an ancient leopard skin coat, cigarette in its gold holder waving in the air as her deep gravelly voice rang out, “Billy, be a dear and pour me a drink.” Daddy was in his element, offering drinks, charming his audience with his gracious manners and British public school accent. Mum’s smile looked strained as he and Torpedo shared a private joke.

I had thought this actress was going to be young and glamorous but she was old and squat, overly made up, yet she dominated the room with her voice and laughter. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. “She reeks of that god awful perfume, Taboo. Hideous old drunk,” Mum muttered to me as I helped her in the kitchen.

from CHAPTER FOURTEEN- A CAR CALLED ANDY

Sometimes we stayed at our friend Collie Shepherd’s summer cabin on the beach at Deep Cove in North Saanich. It was a long journey in the late 1940’s and we took the old roads, slow winding back roads that snaked through the Indian Reserves and Mum would point out Chief Thunderbird’s house and tell us about his great deeds. Then we would pass another native person’s house and have stories about him as well. Collie knew many of the native people, she fished with them and they had barged her house across Saanich Inlet from Bamberton Cement Works and put it on stilts above the beach in Deep Cove. She had a second cabin on top of the cliff above the water which is the one we stayed in. I loved our summers at Deep Cove where we swam, boated, fished for rock cod, dug clams and speared crab which we cooked over driftwood beach fires, dipping our catch in butter wedged in crevices in the rocks and eating with butter and sea food juice running down our arms.

The cabin had just enough room for Mum, Daddy and Kate so I slept outside in a hammock slung between two fir trees overlooking the water. Pippa slept beneath my hammock keeping me safe from the creatures that rustled in the dried silvery arbutus leaves. I was deep into my Nancy Drew mystery one evening, when I heard a faint booming noise in the distance. And then I heard chanting and more booms coming closer, slow rhythmic chanting and drumming. I peered into the darkness, the rising moon lit the ocean and coming around the point from Satellite Channel was a large boat—closer now, I saw people, native people in cloaks, woven hats, chanting, drumming in unison. The sound filled the cove and thundered through my head, the fir trees trembled and my hammock swayed slightly—closer, closer. They were calling, loud voices in a language I did not understand, I crouched in my hammock, transfixed with awe—the strange sounds were both thrilling and disturbing. I noticed fires on the shore, voices called back from the fires and the boat passed the bank where I huddled between the firs and pulled in at the Deep Cove Chalet. I could barely breathe. It was like nothing I had heard or seen before. I crept from my hammock, forgetting about the creatures in the bushes and tried to see along the curve of the bay but I was afraid of being seen and went back to bed. Finally, I slept fitfully while the drumming and chanting continued through the night.

Later, Mum told me everything she knew about the Native potlatch and its reinstatement after years of banning and took me to native cultural events in Thunderbird Park in Victoria and to the first Tzingquwa native opera with drumming, chanting and dancers. She showed me Emily Carr’s paintings hanging at the Dale Carnegie Library in downtown Victoria and Mum and I stood half way up the broad inside stairs and gazed at her majestic trees and looming totems. Mum told me how Emily Carr lived and worked among the west coast natives capturing the feel and mystery of their culture in her paintings. I imagined I understood how Carr felt and struggled to make sense of the longing that consumed me following my Deep Cove experience. I searched out secret places along the shores and high on rocky bluffs near my home and breathed in the mosses, ferns, wild flowers and Garry Oaks. Later, when I won art lessons in a Grade Eight school contest I spent my summer painting great brooding leafless trees, which Mum framed.

from CHAPTER TWENTY – DEFINITELY NOT THE PROM QUEEN

Lois and I walked together on our first day of Grade Nine at Oak Bay High School, September 1952, she from Linkleas Avenue and I from Island Road. It was a long walk; up McNeill Avenue to Newport and then Oak Bay Avenue, down Monterey Avenue to the Fire Hall and then left along the path by Bowker Creek where the older kids, half hidden in the bushes, grabbed furtive smokes before school, then over the foot bridge where not so many years ago Roger and I played pooh sticks and then another bend in the path, the cow gate and finally, the back of Oak Bay High School.

Some kids cycled to school, we wanted to but we had to look cool, so we never did.

High school was exciting and troubling at the same time—there were so many boys and there were new rules, unspoken, unwritten rules that made it difficult for me to find my place. The most unsettling were the girls from Willow’s Elementary. They were more sophisticated than our small group from Monterey School, compared to them we were naïve. The Willows girls seemed older, were dating and smoking already and formed a tight clique who appeared self -assured and having way more fun than I was.

We knew how to dress; we had studied the older girls in our neighbourhood so wore our skirts long, just brushing the tops of our white triple roll bobby socks. I had asked for saddle oxfords, all the girls wore them, and Mum complied. The trouble was she bought them from Ingledews, good quality of course, but they were brown and off white instead of the in style blue and white. Mum did not believe in slavishly following the crowd. The white, in the blue and white shoes was a startling white. My shoes looked dull in comparison.

The first dance of the year was the Pre-Lim dance where the older grades welcome the grade nines at an afternoon sock hop. Huge anxiety. Our class from Monterey had only had two dances in Grade Eight, pathetic affairs and most of us did not know how to dance. For the weeks preceding the dance, there was more consultation on what to wear than there was on anything academic such as homework requirements. The accepted ‘uniform’ for the sock hop appeared to be, flat black shoes, nylons, a black taffeta circle skirt over two starched crinolines and on top a white nylon see through blouse over a pretty camisole. Most of the Willow’s girls had that outfit already. I gave my mother my list.

I had become an accomplished sewer so Mum did what she usually did; buy me the pattern and the material. She firmly presented me with a length of navy blue taffeta, saying, “you don’t want to look like everybody else.” But I did, I did. Aunt Nancy bought me a pretty see through blouse, with delicate white flocking over pale blue nylon. I was doomed. All the popular girls at the dance wore black skirts and white blouses while I, who was wearing a navy blue skirt and blue blouse, spent most of the dance sitting on the girls’ side of the room with the other wallflower’s. Even in the girl’s choice I miscalculated the aggressiveness of the girls as we all surged across the room to grab our boy of choice and I ended up with the sweaty pawed misfits.

 from CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – 1461 REVISITED

 Mum and I often went to open house’s and the first thing we always noticed was the energy of the house. Our house at 1461 Hampshire had good energy. The main floor rooms were generous in size. We had an entry hall bigger than the average living room that included a small fireplace and a broad stairway with white wooden banisters. All the dark wood in the house had been painted white and every room had exceptionally large windows making it feel light and airy. A large framed opening led from the entry hall into the living room which also had a fireplace. Another fireplace was in the dining room. This would have been the only source of heat when the house was built in the late 1800’s. Apparently our house was moved from Oak Bay Avenue around the corner to 1461 Hampshire in 1912 to make room for The Bell Block, a large retail and apartment block on Oak Bay Avenue.

The house even had a resident ghost. Not everyone was aware of her. She lingered on the stairs going to the second floor and held my mother prisoner in her bedroom. My mother had insomnia and often slipped down the stairs at night to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. On those nights when the ghost energy was strong, Mum reached for the bottle of scotch she kept hidden in the linen closet and stayed up stairs. My sister and I would find her bottles when we were searching for presents or when I was looking for a sweater to borrow. Mum said she hid the scotch from our father who would offer her good scotch to our guests. As far as she was concerned, the cheap scotch was good enough for friends with less discerning taste than she. Daddy still had the propensity to give away her favourite things.

Other nights, when the ghost’s despair felt less oppressive, Mum would talk to her gently and be able to pass by her on the way down the stairs. I remember waking at night and seeing the light streaming under her bedroom door—she would eventually fall asleep over her book, empty cup or glass at her side.

We didn’t think too much about the ghost, we were used to talk of the para-normal and she didn’t scare us—she was just there. Some people who came to our house—the ones who Mum met at séances and later, others like Irish, Kate Bloomfield, felt her presence immediately. Kate Bloomfield wanted to perform a cleansing ceremony for our ghost to help her let go and there was much talk about that over bottles of homemade brew consumed around the kitchen table in the big kitchen at the back of the house. My mother was sure our ghost was a woman—she speculated that the woman had witnessed a terrible tragedy or heard distressful news from where she stood near the top of the stairs and was forever locked in that spot.

I never saw the ghost, although I often felt a dark energy near my bedroom door long before I heard Mum talk about her. At times, when I was in my room at night, I was unable to leave, unable to open the door and cross the landing to the top hall that led to the bathroom. If I absolutely had to, I would open my door quickly and with heart pounding and taking care not to look down the stairs to my left, leap over the landing to the safety of the upstairs hallway and bathroom. After I left home, no one ever slept in my room — it was used for a sewing room, in the daytime only.