The Soccer Game

My mother was a hoarder. I couldn’t ignore that fact anymore. And I don’t think she meant to be, but that’s what she became all the same. So when she decided she was too incapable of caring for her home, I went to help her pack up her belongings. What I found was a tsunami of her life spilling out of every corner. After pulling box after disintegrating box out of her closets, I realized it was worse than I thought. But we had to start somewhere so I brought the boxes to her so she could make her decisions.

We started by making stacks. This stack was things to keep, this one was things to give away, this one was things to throw away. But the number of piles grew larger and larger. This pile was for the senior’s center in Morinville. This pile was for her friend Cheryl who sews. This pile was for the art society. She knew all kinds of people who might use fabric or bees wax or magazines or dried flowers or puzzles. I don’t know how many lists I was given with instructions where to drop them off. I finally gave up and started hauling everything to the dump. Only she thinks I delivered them faithfully.

Then there were the more personal items, mainly photos of each of us kids over the years. School photos where we smiled artificial smiles into cameras with other students. I was never so uncomfortable as on picture day. My clothes were not as pretty as all the other girls clothes. I didn’t like the way I looked while the others proudly combed their hair and smiled through their braces, simulated curls bouncing around their heads.

Mum made stacks and stacks of photos. Photos that I didn’t even know had been taken. Pictures of me with my chipped front tooth. Pictures of me with an uneven haircut. Pictures of me taken with my eyes half closed. Pictures of me taken while I was competitive swimming, almost like she was proud of me. These were all from a time when we had to load film into a camera and take the film in for developing, waiting a week or more for the finished product. Then we threw half of them away because they were out of focus or had a thumb covering part of the lens or caught a funny expression. It’s not like today when we can do 25 selfies in a row and discard the ones that are not flattering into the nothing that is the digital garbage. The pool of emptiness where all energy goes to die.

Mum made stacks for me and my brother and my sister. Our own personal photo history. Each of us possessing a unique brand of awkwardness. School photos, class photos, baby photos, photo albums started but never finished. Photos in cheap plastic frames.

I picked up one of my school photos from grade 5. There was the much younger me, off to the side with my burnt orange sateen shirt, bowl haircut freshly washed, smiling as I was told to, standing as though I were uncomfortable in my own body. They always put me on the left side of the class. I don’t know why. There, in the middle, was the boy who shared my first name. He was in every one of my classes from kindergarten to grade 9. It led to me being called Dale-Ann for the first ten years of my life.

“Look Mum. There’s Jeff Gruber.” I pointed him out. She adjusted her glasses and leaned into the light, squinted.

“Which one is he?”

“He was the one who always won the intramurals for soccer. And there’s Karla Kovak and Sandra Lopez and Dean Popescu.” I pointed to each one in turn.

“How can you remember them all?” My mother asked. I felt a tiny boost of esteem that I had impressed her with my recall.

“I guess because I was in the same class with them for so many years.”

I looked at my face in the photo and thought the girl smiling back looked happy, well adjusted. I would never have thought she was awkward, shy, self-loathing. She looked like a nice kid. But because I had spent so much time inside of her, I knew differently.

I remember those school days. We were poor so we had to wait for the first day of school to buy supplies. My mother took the list of school supplies to the welfare office where they gave her a check to cover the cost. She purchased the cheapest items to be stretched over four kids. So I sat there with nothing for the first two or three days of classes while everyone else looked over at the empty space on my desk. They wrinkled up their noses as if they were smelling something bad. What they were smelling was my poverty. I reeked of it. The rich kids came equipped with all the supplies they’d ever need right there on the first day when I had nothing. Binders with zippers and pockets and dividers, reams of paper, scented pencils, felt pens, highlighters, stickers. They weren’t rich really, maybe upper middle class but they seemed to have everything that I never had. They seemed to be rich from my position in the mud.

One girl in particular, always brought an apple for the teacher on the first day so she became one of the favorites. That was Carla. Not Karla Kovak, Carla Anders. Carla must have been a popular name the year they were born because there were two more Carlas in my class making four total. Carla Anders’s house was just a ranch style home facing the school field but to me, it seemed like a rich person’s house. I’ve driven past it a number of times as an adult and I see its banality, just a square home almost exactly the same as the homes on either side of it. It wasn’t a rich home at all but the home of a middle class, hard working couple trying to give their little girl a good start in life.

Carla was in every class of mine since kindergarten but we weren’t friends. I remember going on a skiing trip with the class in grade six and she had a perfectly fitted, matching ski outfit in two shades of pink. How could I have been her friend with my large brown snow pants and grubby, blue/green jacket with faux fur around the hood that was shedding. I mean how does faux fur shed anyway? I saw her lavish clothing and looked down at my own, the rip that had started on the right knee, threads of polyester floating around like spider silk. I saw my clothing and realized how far beneath her I was. How money means everything to the people who don’t have it.

She had all the pretty girls as friends. There was a trio of them Madeline and Carla and Stephanie and the other girls circulated around them like planets around a star. They were the center of attention and happy to receive it. They were the source of warmth and light only-they really weren’t. It’s funny how that happens, how we accept the idea that other people are better just because they think so, not because they are. Imagine being a frumpy girl named Dale around pretty girls like Madeline or Carla, girls who wore nail polish every day, sometimes with glitter. They had their ears pierced and wore jewelry with half hearts, the other half given to a sister or best friend. Madeline and Carla wore half hearts like that, each one enchanted with the other and not afraid to let the whole world know. I couldn’t compete with them in any area except one.

The only way I excelled was creatively. I was the class leader in drawing and writing in every grade. For a couple of weeks in grade five, the boys were drawing pictures of cars and putting them on the wall near the back, above where the pencil sharpener was fixed to the wall, back by the coatroom and the cubbies. The girls didn’t put any pictures there. The girls didn’t really care. But I saw the pictures and knew I could do better. The boys gathered around the pictures and talked about them, about the different types of cars and the styles of the rear wings or the hood. That’s something that started early, boys discussing things with other boys. And even though they didn’t really know what they were talking about, they sounded like they did, nodding their heads, companionably in the style of boys from the beginning of time.

I wasn’t part of the group of boys, of course, but I knew I could draw a car. So I drew one in secret one day. And as I suspected, my drawing was far superior to the others. Mine was in proper perspective and had flames down the side and an engine that sat on the front hood of the car. I went to the back of the room to sharpen my pencil and looked around. Everyone’s heads were bent over their work, no one paid attention to me. So I pinned my picture to the wall by the others and nobody saw me do it. For some reason, I signed it “Barracuda.” I’m not sure why. But it was fun to watch them talking about who had drawn the red car with the flames. “I don’t know. I thought it was you.” they spoke in low voices, not wanting to sound too impressed. But I heard them and smiled to myself. Someone, I suspect Carla, suggested that I drew it which was met with disbelief. It had to be a boy who drew the car, never a girl. But it was easy. Easy for me at least. I could always draw anything.

Only one boy was not included in the group of males. His name escapes me. Poor fellow, it probably escaped everyone. He was fat and pale, like ghostly bread dough filling his pants to overflowing. His expressions were dull, occasionally he drooled and as far as I knew, he never spoke. One day he threw a temper tantrum and started crying. Nobody could figure out why. He rocked himself under his desk while Mrs. Collins crouched down on the floor beside him trying to talk him into some form of sanity. I don’t think she had any clue what to do with him. I remember feeling supremely embarrassed about the incident. And now, after many years of living, I only feel empathy for the poor boy who had no social skills and probably wanted someone as a friend but had no one. He wasn’t very good at school work either, or art. As far as I could see, he wasn’t very good at anything. But in the classroom, you can keep your head down and be part of the crowd. In the classroom, you don’t have to feel singled out. You can lay low and say nothing and be ignored. And that was my goal in school, to not be noticed. I think invisibility was the goal of most of the students.

Gym class was the worst. We were always judged by our physical capabilities of course. Sports were difficult for me because I was easy to intimidate. But I was athletic in a way. I was an excellent swimmer. I’d been swimming so long that I couldn’t remember not being able to swim. I could dive into the pool on one side and swim underwater for the entire length and come out on the other side. But land sports were a different thing. In competitive swimming, you don’t have to face your opponent, you swim side by side. With sports, when people ran towards me, I was cowed by their confidence, avoiding the confrontation that their approach implied. But if I were given some space, I could excel. One time, during a particular soccer game, a ball came towards me. No one else was there so I kicked it high over the heads of the other players and back onto the offenders side. I heard Dean Popescu say “Whoa,” and his head followed the track of the ball as it went to the other side of the field. I felt the subtle compliment he implied.

We weren’t allowed to participate if we wore a skirt either. So this rule only applied to girls. My mother said it was ridiculous because she went to a school that had a uniform and wore a skirt every day and played all kinds of sports. She didn’t make it a priority to make sure I had pants. But sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I only had so many clothes. And if the mountain of dirty laundry in the basement was still piled high, I could only wear the clean ones. Sometimes I had to dig into the pile to find the clothes that were marginally clean. And sometimes I had to wear the skirt because it was the only thing left. Mrs. Collins made me sit at the edge of the field in my skirt to watch everyone. In retrospect, I should have worn a skirt every gym day. Then I would never have had to participate. But I didn’t think of that at the time, I wanted to be good, to have everyone like me, including Mrs. Collins.

Every sporting event started with picking teams. We all took turns being the team captain. Mrs. Collins picked two students as captains and she rotated us so everyone had a chance. The team selection always seemed to be an adult approved form of humiliation. No matter who got to be captain, the same kids always got picked first and the same kids always got picked last. Sometimes players were picked because of their popularity. The girls would pick Carla or Madeline. If I picked them first, maybe they’d let me hang on to the exterior of their world, like a pet. Or they’d pick the most athletically gifted first. A much better strategy of course. Pick the athletic kids to win an athletic game. If there were a game where we competed in the arts they would have picked me first because I would have won. But it was a game with physical prowess being the deciding factor so they picked the tall ones with broad shoulders. The quick ones who might be a little leaner. But there was a group, maybe about 8 or 10 kids who always got picked last. They had to play because everyone had to, but no one really wanted them. When we got to the last 8 kids, the captains looked them over, rolling their eyes and deciding which was the least inept. I was one of the ones picked in the middle. But some were always picked last and I felt so bad for them looking uncomfortably aware of their low place in our lives.

I wanted them, for one time, just one time, to be picked first. I was sick of the way we selected players. So sick of the whole demeaning process that made some kids feel shamed, and always the same ones. So I developed a plan. I knew I’d be captain soon. I’d be captain and I’d be in charge. I’d be the boss. And I’d do something different. I was going to pick the worst kids first. I was going to let them hear their names picked first. Just one time, I wanted them to hear their names first. I thought maybe they’d have a boost of confidence. Maybe they’d rise to the occasion and show everyone up.

So Dean Popescu and I were captains. All the other kids lined up facing our way, looking expectantly to see who we’d pick. The kids who often got picked first seemed unconcerned, knowing they’d get chosen. This was their arena. Dean Popescu picked first and he picked Jeff Gruber, the tall guy with the large lower jaw, the one with the straight back, the one I had a crush on my entire childhood. Jeff walked over to the opposite side and all eyes turned to me. Usually, this is where the captains got competitive. We’d battle for the best and the fastest. Because picking the best meant winning and nothing was as important as winning.

“Craig,” I said.

Dean Popescu looked surprised because Craig was a skinny kid with coke bottle glasses and he usually got picked last.

“Fatima,” he said and the slender hipped Lebanese girl, the fastest runner, did a slow jog over to Dean’s team.

“David,” I said, picking the pale boy with the badly repaired cleft lip.

Dean must have thought I was incredibly stupid. He seemed to realize I was going to pick the worst of the worst and he couldn’t believe his luck. Starting with the ones at the bottom, I moved my way up. He started at the top and moved his way down. We met in the middle.

So his team was made of the finest players, mine the worst. And my hope was they’d be bouyed by the novelty of being picked first and play like animals, like predators who finally found their teeth.

But that’s not what happened.

We were slaughtered. No goals at all. And a goalie with coke bottle glasses who was afraid of being hit by the ball. Offensive players who were consistently outrun. Defensive players who bent down to pick dandelions during the game. It was carnage. And I spent the entire game, disheartened because I wanted to prove to everyone that we could do better. But we didn’t. We only lived up to our reputations. I wanted them to feel wanted, to feel like somebody cared. I thought it would make them rise. But the truth is they were comfortable in their position on the lowest rung. It was the thing that was most familiar to them. They were used to their place and moving out of it distressed them until they performed even worse. I felt hopeless because when I saw they were unable to be better, I knew I could never be better myself. It made me feel like no one could ever surmount their circumstances. So I gave up trying. I accepted my place in the realm of the ignored, the ones who live on the fringes. I was just one of them and I had come to realize my place and know that I would never be anything else.

As an adult, looking back at the photo of all those innocent faces, I wondered what happened to them. I wondered if they remembered those days fondly or if they, like me, looked back, unsure how to feel. If they looked back to those days when we were small and had to find our way in a sometimes unkind world. I stood in my mother’s chaos and knew that she didn’t comprehend anything of my journey as a child. She was too preoccupied with the weight of four children who needed food and a home and clothes and doctors visits, forget about our need for love.

I look back and I wonder what has become of those faces in the photo. Some may be dead, some married, some successful, some not so. I wish I could still see what they’re up to in my quiet way, sitting back, hiding around a corner, listening to segments of conversations. I could watch them and hope they found happiness of a sort. And maybe they’re standing somewhere on the surface of our planet looking at the same photo and wondering what became of me.

I hope they’re all happy in their lives because so few are. We hold it apart from ourselves, happiness. We keep it at arms length, scared to let it graze against us. We worry about money, about faithfulness, about our weight, our prosperity, our place in the world. Worry about all these things keeps happiness distant. It shines on the horizon but rarely comes close enough to brush us with its colors. I hope they find it. I hope everyone does, Dean and Jeff and Fatima and all four Carlas. It’s never too late to open our arms and embrace it. Lets hope we all have the wisdom to do so.

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Midnight Raids

Imagine being fast asleep and abruptly pulled out of bed by an angry woman who is crying and shouting. “I’m sick of this. I’m sick of this.”

She smacks your rear and pushes you to the ground. “Now clean it up.” She shouts through tears.

Imagine being the reason your mother hates her life.

This didn’t happen often but often enough that my brother and sisters gave the episodes a name. We called them the midnight raids. And I don’t know why they happened at night but they did. Hateful and vindictive, my mother became another person, a predator who waited until we were at our most vulnerable to strike.

Our house was squeezed into a row of homes all connected by thin walls. A village built of desperation, a small fortress of despair. She tried to make our home more appealing, pretending for a short time that we didn’t live on government money. She planted sweet peas one summer and they grew along strings she tied up the side of the house. She played gospel music and sang along in her falsetto voice. She baked bread, sewed clothes for us, cut our hair into uneven bowl shapes, and she made jokes. If I called for her, she’d shout back. “I can’t come right now, I have a bone in my leg.” Or they way she told us she was 99 years old whenever we asked. She’d poke her finger into my arm and when I protested she’d say “I’m not poking you, I’m just resting my finger.” And that time we cut open a pineapple but it smelled like wine and tasted like syrup. It made us a little tipsy but she let us eat it anyway until we were giggling clowns. We had food three times a day and presents every Christmas. Poverty in Canada is different than other countries but it’s still poverty. We still felt the sting of what others had and what we didn’t. We felt the wall between us and all that we wanted as a barrier too high to surmount.

I think most times, my mother was neutral about her life. Most times she did what she had to for our care. But rarely, maybe once every couple of months, our destitution became too much for her and she burst like a blood clot dislodged and malignant searching for a place to burrow.

As children, small and lacking in understanding, we did what we could during the midnight raids. We crawled around on the floor gathering toys, avoiding eye contact, not really sure what she wanted. Not really sure what we could do to make her happy. Just certain that we were the center of all her regrets, the very reason she gave up happiness the day we slipped into the world. Silently, we crawled around picking up broken toys and clothing to show that we were doing something but we didn’t really know what she wanted. Sorry for causing such pain but not knowing how to help. We crawled aimlessly on the floor until her door slammed shut and we heard her weeping from her room.

And the next morning, it was like nothing happened.

As adults, my siblings refuse to acknowledge the presence of the midnight raids in our childhood. Only one sister talks about them and she usually shouts the information to my elderly mother over the phone at two in the morning, swear words mixed with accusations. She makes midnight raids of her own, violations designed to attack when our mother is at her most vulnerable. I understand her desire to make my mother responsible for what she did. But three decades has passed since we suffered and how long can she wait to forgive a desperate woman who found herself lacking?

There are four of us. My older brother who never had a long term relationship with any woman. He suffers from depression and anxiety and anger issues and has to be medicated. There’s me who stayed in an unhappy marriage for 23 years even when I should have left, desperate to prove to the world that I’m loved by someone. Then my sister, sickly all her life and still is. During her illness, she had her only positive attention from our mother so she got sick-a lot. Then there’s the baby. My youngest sister who says she doesn’t remember the midnight raids although she was part of them. I can picture her crawling over the floor in silent bewilderment just like I did. But she’s also 200 pounds overweight. She turned to food, eating her unhappiness, eating her own self destruction. Part of her must be a remnant of those frightening nights where we were made to feel like the culprits for everything, the broad end of my mother’s dissatisfaction, the sharp side of her resentment.

I remember those nights even if I hated her for them at the time. How angry can I stay at a woman who is kind to my own children though she wasn’t kind to me?

She’s older now, my mother, and she smiles all the time. Age has given her happiness that she never had as a young woman. She still lives in her deluded world, the world where she’s right all the time and everyone else is wrong. Where she’s better than everyone else even if she had bastard children raised on welfare and couldn’t live with the man she loved without violence.

When I look at her now, I see a woman crippled in body as much as she was crippled in spirit. As if she became the physical equivalent of her own unfulfilled desires. And though I understand her angry moments, I vowed never to become her. But with a flourish of poetic irony, I did just that. I became my mother and I see now how it happened. I see the years of worry and hard living and being unappreciated and forgotten. I see how it happened with the arms pulling on me, the love gone awry, the husband with a bottle, the smell of vomit and the taste of time gone bad. Aspirations rotting in the sun, underbellies exposed to the ravages of time.

This is the reality of who we are. Each day slipping away from us like beads off a string and falling away into nothing. We try and hold on so we can find the truth of the truth and the why of the why. We carry baggage that should be left behind. We storm when we should float. We push away when we should embrace. And we hold onto things that hurt only ourselves. Why do we spend so much of our precious time with our arms wrapped so tightly around dissatisfaction? And why is it that children wear the skin of their parents unhappiness?

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The Brightness of Remembered Love

The story opens with a little girl about 9 years old running out of her house to play hide and seek. The little girl was me, of course. Of all the memories I have in my collection, I keep the cherished ones in a jewel encrusted, hand carved wooden box that sits just up and to the left of my heart. My children’s birth, my marriage, my Father’s death. All of these are contained within that small box. I only open it on special occasions to shake off layers of dust and admire again, the brightness of remembered love.

This is one of those memories.

Playing hide and seek may sound a little mundane but it wasn’t. All together, there were about 50 kids who ran around the subsidized housing complex that summer. And we all played the game. During the day we kept to our own small group of friends. But when night fell, we returned to our roots, crawling out of the primordial soup on wobbly legs, learning to walk, splitting into species, gaining the power of thought, dancing raucously around a fire, eating roast beast, painting our bodies, and running around naked under the stars. Well, maybe not that so much, but we did play hide and seek.

It was curious that we all played together at night when we didn’t during the day. After nightfall, any child was welcome to the game. The big kids, big enough to smoke cigarettes and steal from their parent’s liquor cabinet. And young kids, young enough to need someone to hold their hands when they crossed the street. A truce fell over the legions of the young on those nights. Youthful energy came together in a frenzy when darkness wrapped its wings over the sky.

And I was a master of the game. Somehow, I knew instinctively that if I turned my eyes away from my captor, they wouldn’t see me. I knew that looking at them would draw their eyes to me so I kept my eyes trained at the ground and froze my body like I was fixed in death. Stillness came to me out of some glimmer of innate knowledge that I didn’t understand. Most nights, I was the last one hiding. The big kids didn’t know my name but they called me “that girl.” As in “Did you see where that girl went?” And I might be only a few feet away from them but they couldn’t find me. I was a ninja in a child’s game, a game that did nothing to further the cause of humanity but brought us all together under the stars.

One memorable night, a night that I keep in that little wooden box next to my heart, I saw those glorious northern lights. I was crouched beside a wooden fence, the one that separated Mrs. Lee’s house from the strip mall parking lot. And I happened to look up and notice the lights. Anyone who has ever seen them will never will never forget their splendor. Looking up, sky black as coal, colors streaming across the heavens like the fine silk hair of a Goddess draped over the cosmos and crackling like twigs on a fire.

I sat by the fence and noticed that the shouting of the game had stopped.

Around the side of the house, I saw everyone abandoning their hiding places. We stood in the street with our heads held back, looking up at the sky. We watched the lights streak across the stars. The hide and seek game was finished for the night and we all knew it, and none of us cared.

“Mum. Mum. Come see the lights.” I shouted to her when the northern lights were so brilliant that even the most boorish of the bullies had to stop and admire them.

“I’ve seen northern lights before.” Her voice tired, annoyed. But we’re from the Yukon so I imagine that was true. I had probably seen them as well though I didn’t remember.

“No Mum, come see.” I insisted.

She came to the door, warm light glowing from the inside like a lantern. She walked outside without looking down, her eyes trained on the sky like mine. She let go of the door absently and it squealed shut. And I saw the look of astonishment on her face and I smiled. She wasn’t a cheerful woman when we were young, often tired, often angry, often bitter. But on that night she shared something with me that was only communicated with a look. We smiled at each other and I felt like I gave her the most precious of gifts. Like I had magicked up the lights just for her, just to give her a break in her narrow life.

I remember thinking it was odd on those summer nights that my mother let us play so late into the night. And I’m surprised to realize, with adult clarity, that it was a moment of kindness. I can imagine the ghost of my mother wandering to the door to call us in on a warm July night. But when she saw us playing with all the kids in the neighborhood, she let us continue. Sometimes the games went on until past midnight. And she was happy to let us play. I wasn’t grateful then, but I look back now and see that I should have been.

I took this memory of my youth and many others and slipped them into that box near my heart as if I knew, even as a child, that I would need them. I collected them as people collect salt and pepper shakers or commemorative spoons. I carry my collection inside of me because one day I will no longer be here. And I don’t want to feel like my journey will disappear into the air like smoke although that’s exactly what will happen.

That night with the lights, I belonged to everyone else as much as they belonged to me. All of us, tiny dots on the surface of a rock flying through the chasm of space, an almost invisible streak over the black that means nothing to any force in the universe save us. At that moment, we were one. We were happy to be insignificant, to be the small ants on an anthill together. All the tiny ways we try to best one another, try to exert our independence, argue, bicker, fighting our way to the top to some unknown end. This all disappeared under the lights. We weren’t adversaries anymore. We were all just creatures standing together and it lasted as long as the lights glowed. And it lasted the span of my life. The next day the bullies would be bullies again, the fraidy-cats would be fraidy-cats. We would all resume our place on the totem pole of child seniority. My mother would once again be a tired, angry woman with four ungrateful children. But on that summer night, we each wore one another’s skin and felt the warm trickle of companionship that takes away our differences.

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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book, Zoo of Human Frailties, for $2.99 USD https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY