When I was a kid at West Prep, I longed for summer, the space between the beginning and end of school. I wasn’t a bad student, just maybe disinterested. Vacation was a space that suggested freedom. Yet as I remember back, it was not two long months of lazying out on beaches. I often fantasized about attending at a fancy camps as most of the Forest Hill kids did and sunning and swimming at golf clubs: all of those destinations that held magical mystery for me.
My mother eventually sent me to Mr. Salmon, the West Prep’s principal, summer camp, where those fantasies should have dissipated after my two week’s stay. I was surrounded by my two cousins, Rima and Carol, somehow engineered by my mother for staying with me. The memories except for listening to Nancy Drew at dark were not good and I so resented sharing the bags of pistachios brought on Visitor’s Day by my parents: an extravagant gift from them. I received a stingy 2-3, following, even then, the rules of handing over the bounty I longed to gobble all by myself.
With the exception of the above sojourn, I would help out at the free summer programs at West Prep, swing on the swings there, dawdle a bit, daydream in the school yard , the same place where I endured the rest of the year.
Usually in late July or early August, for a week to ten days, we would take a family vacation which meant my father driving somewhere and my mother dragging the heavy suitcases in and out of motels.
Once we headed to Florida where all of us, except my father who did not sunbathe, were fried hot red in the sun. Only cooling watermelon in Georgia seemed the salve for even burning bubbled lips. Howard Johnson Motels had just opened up in the 50’s and the price must have been affordable because we did stay there- but only for one night as the point of the trip, it seemed, was to drive to a specific location, and turn right around and head back. On reflection, it may have been a way for my mother to rationalize we were like all other families; and for my father, to DRIVE, and pretend he was as capable of the same mobility as all other dads. Or perhaps, more truthfully, he truly enjoyed the feel of driving and being on the open road, even as his kids, meaning me, squabbled and complained in the back seat.
During those trips, I think I did develop a love of seeing new things. We were introduced to the Hayden Planetarium , the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York, a gigantic replica of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ausable Canyon also in New York, our special toy store in Rochester, and any place that featured science museums or musical associations.
My sister was a terrible traveller and occasionally would puke. She was always accompanied by her stuffed toy, Bow-Wow Woof Woof for whom we once had to double back to some small town because she had left him beneath the covers. I used to announce at regular intervals, “I’m bored” and was repeatedly instructed to look out the window. I was still bored and harboured no understanding of how houses flying past or straight highways were supposed to assuage that tedium. I just wanted to reach our destination, throw off my sweaty clothes and heave myself into a pool. My parents would play the usual games with us“ I spy something with my little eye” or the geography one. All for me were continually boring, particularly as my competitive sister would jump in and know all the answers.
Once I recall an incredible treat as a hotel had a small cache of magazines and candies for sale at the checkin. My father let me choose whatever I wanted and I selected “ Jack and Jill”, a magazine much like Readers Digest . I cherished it because my father had offered me such an incredible prize and he had seemed to have melted a bit from what I considered his hard façade. Of course, I read it from cover to cover , beyond incredulous that my father had been so magnanimous to allow me such a treat. Holding it close was like a warm hug or kiss from him.
We greedily anticipated these summer outings, these trips that like a straight line reached its target and then doubled back home. For my father, I suppose it was the freedom of the open road, his car replacing his legs claimed by his illness. He had created a special hand control with which he could feed gas, a forerunner really of cruise control. Yet even as a boy he had followed the train tracks, fascinated and delighted by all things that moved electrically. My mother wondered if he had picked up the polio bug working on the radios in ambulances.
For my mother, she was always the uncomplaining slave, lugging, carrying, managing every aspect of our lives whether at home or on the road. I think of her as the porter, the go-between, the co-ordinator, her head turned out towards the window as the scenery flashed by. I do not recall resentment on her part or perhaps I was too young to empathize or understand the burdens weighing on her physically and emotionally: in her attempts to render our life “ as normal” as possible in a constructed world where my father’s disability had altered every aspect of her life.
Was he embarrassed not to be able to load or unload the trunk. Probably, but he hid it well in a gruffness that often turned to ridicule at me, particularly my being too sensitive. He had this bitter sarcasm—at life, I think that had felled him to his knees.
She made up for everything, or at least tried to smooth out the numerous wrinkles so we might grow up thinking we were an ordinary family: our lessons, our trips, our achievements at school. Both fact and fantasy. I’ve said it before: she was the glue that held our lives together.
Still I wonder at my longing for summer between kindergarten and Grade 7, away from the hot confines of school rooms in June , not being made to redo my sums.
Thinking harder about life at West Prep, I do recall the square dances in Grade 3 with Joey Marano, and being asked to read my story about a monkey who ate artificial cherries off an old ladies hat at a Friday morning auditorium assembly- before the entire school population. I remember with a rush of embarrassment, a movie called “Personally Yours” about getting your period, and a boy throwing my briefcase into the boys’ washroom. I recall signing all my valentine cards with the moniker ” Anonymous” in Grade 6 and then wishing I had identified myself, especially to Harold Goldstein in my class. I remember the music listening test to differentiate higher and lower tones where some children were identified for playing musical instruments, and I was not. I remember auditioning for a talent show singing, “ Around the world I searched for you ”, and not being chosen. And of course, I recall mean Mrs. Young in Grade one in her lace up oxfords, raking her nails through my hair when I could not perform a simple cutting task. A hodge podge of memories.
What shines through, though, is the summer vacation, the image of our family in the car: mother, father, sister and me.