WHEN PROBLEMS WERE HUGE BUT SIMPLER
My face burned. I worried about tears.
Miss Thompson, the Grade 5 teacher, had asked me to stay after my class clattered off to lunch. I must have done something wrong. After all, she didn't call me Johnny.
Miss Thompson cleared her throat and shuffled stuff around on her big battered desk. She looked funny. "John", she said, "the crotch is gone out of your breeches. It's not decent. Tell your Grandmother that if they're not fixed, you can't come back."
She seemed as upset as I became. I walked the four blocks to our little home by the CN tracks where the passenger trains came twice a day. You could tell time from their whistles. It almost seemed they were coming into the house.
I was sicker with each step. What would I say? After all, I was only 9 and never really talked to Grandma.
Grandma and Grandpa had taken in us orphans after their daughter died of leukemia. They hadn't approved of the wedding. Their favourite girl had married a man more than twice her age, and not a Christian as far as they could tell.
I was told by my sisters that my father had been a doctor everyone liked in Toronto . They said he drank and smoked. And that was a big problem because Grandma and Grandpa hated that. Grandpa had left Holland after working in a distillery. He had become a born-again Christian who thought gin was the devil's work. So he had to come to Canada and a small town because Bols was the only employer in the suburb of Rotterdam and he couldn't find Christian work there.
He was trained as a stationary engineer but he couldn't understand enough English to get his papers here. So he worked in the big furniture factory, a tiny man hoisting up big desks to put on the final finish, and became a deacon, shouting out his amens from the fifth pew in the plain Baptist Church on the hill. We read a chapter from the Bible after every meal, except for the Songs of Solomon, and knelt beside the kitchen chairs in prayer. Church was the only thing he did beside his vegetables.
And now his girl, who had gone to Toronto Bible College, had married a man who never went to church. When Aunt Jean came in from the farm at Williamsford, I heard them talking about what they said was a May-December wedding that would not have worked if they had lived.
Dad had nicked himself during an operation and refused to have his arm cut off when it got infected. He said his night nurse saved his life. So he married her. Then he died, exhausted by house calls during a flu epidemic. Then Mom died of blood cancer, although when Grandma was really mad, she said Mom had got ill when I was born.
Grandma was old and tired and cranky. Her body hurt. Her legs had varicose veins which bled every few months while we searched for Dr. Morgan to come. Since Grandpa never had much to pay him, Dr. Morgan took his time. Grandma probably dreamed of being back on the neat streets and canals of Holland but she never talked to us about anything except the Scriptures and behaving.
Grandpa never said much because he was worn out from the heavy lifting at the factory but we were too poor for him to stop even when he was 72. But then no one in the town ever stopped working. On a few rare evenings, when Grandma had been agreeable, he would talk sadly about the old country. He never said but he missed his family. Once he confessed, and looked guilty, he and his brothers when they were young had fed the goat slops from the distillery and Billy had kept ramming a wall until he knocked himself out.
My grandparents never talked about the big city where we were born. They never talked about the relatives who lived there. Leaving our town of 1,800 to go to what the neighbour called the Big Smoke was not something they wanted to do even when my aunt living there said they would drive the four hours up and bring us back for a visit. Grandpa said all those people bothered him.
My sisters and I memorized all the wonderful things in the catalogues that we used to use in the outhouse before a toilet was put inside. Joyce even said how nice it would be to go to Eatons and Simpsons but Grandma said Heinmillers down on the main street was just fine for us.
I was careful going into the house for fear that Grandma would notice my torn breeks too. (Boys never called them breeches. ) At the least that would bring slaps or maybe Grandma would tell my reluctant Grandpa to give me the strap. I certainly wouldn’t be able to go out on Saturday afternoon to play (actually I snuck into the Roxy theatre for movies that were yelled about from the pulpit the next day.)
I knew saying that they had just worn out and that I hadn’t wrecked them wouldn’t work. And there was no way that my good breeks that I could wear only for visiting and church were used enough for school. The breeks were never comfortable. They scratched and pricked and had knee laces which were supposed to hold your socks up but didn't. There was now a cold draft, well you know, down there, and if you slid, snow came up, and it was really cold.
And now I had this problem that looked like the end of my world.
My sisters and I sat there eating the boiled potatoes and cabbage that we grew on the land squeezed between us and the tracks. We bought little at the store. There were thick slices of the brown bread which Grandma baked in the wood stove that also heated the house, sort of, and the water. The bread was good for a week but then it became so hard, you could use a slice as a tack hammer. We hated the bread when it got stale and the cabbage with the dead insects between the leaves.
We looked forward to the rare Sunday visitor when we would eat a chicken from the pen out back. Grandpa would choose the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order that was really thin and had started bleeding at the neck. He would grumble that Leghorns were great for eggs but there sure wasn’t much meat on them.
We seldom talked much at the table because Grandma would frown. But Joanne and Joyce figured something was wrong with me and asked why in whispers. They decided they had to save me because Grandma would be mad at everyone if she found out. They snuck out into the back kitchen and poked through a rag box for any scrap that was grey. Then we went up to my tiny bedroom which was away from the stove and was so cold in winter that frost etched lace on the inside of the window. They tried to sew in patches but the needle kept getting lost in the coarse corduroy.
"We need a darning needle, " Joyce, the big sister, said. Only Grandma had them. Grandma demanded what Joyce had done with the one she was given last week. Joyce had to listen to a talking to on waste but got a big needle. They stitched in some strips that almost matched. The ends hung down, however, along with a cobweb of threads.
We tried pulling and breaking but the cocoon of patches threatened to come apart. We needed scissors, and in our house real big scissors were not for children. So Joanne screwed up her courage and asked Grandma, fibbing that she had a picture of Princess Margaret that she wanted to cut out of an old newspaper for her scrapbook. Grandma handed them over with a frown. At least she didn't want to see the page.
My sisters tugged and trimmed. I said the best stuff would have to be at the front and top so when Miss Thompson looked down, she wouldn't see the tangle. Finally they were done. I tugged on the pants and did up the fly. That was hard because now the buttons and the button holes didn’t match without a fight. Then I walked carefully down the stairs, afraid that any jerk would snap a thread.
Out into the cold. The steaming draft horses plodded by on their hourly routine of dragging a sleigh full of sawdust from the sawmill to the furnace that heated the Krug Bros. factory. Normally I would sneak in behind and ride a runner, the fastest way to school if the driver didn't spot you. I couldn't risk that today.
Down the hill I went, sort of knock-kneed. Past the driving shed where the farmers stabled their teams and sleighs in winter when they came to town. The horses stood patiently in the dark, searching for hay, stamping their hoofs, rippling their skin in the cold. I always went in to pat one, but there was no time because I was moving as slowly and stiffly as a turtle. I couldn’t be late today.
No snowball fights in the schoolyard. I didn't dare. Through the heavy scuffed doors of the Boys’ Entrance into Chesley's old school. Along the dark cloakroom ripe with wet scarves and chewed mittens and soaked rubber boots. It was like running one of those things we were taught about Indians, a gauntlet. Our cloakroom was a gauntlet of bad smells. When it was filled with kids, everyone was pushing and shoving because scarves and boots got mixed together in a tangle and there was always one kid missing one glove or stinky rubber boot.
If the teacher was mad at you, you had to stand there in the dark and listen to your friends dimly recite on the other side of the wall plastered with coats. And if she was really mad, it was the principal's office. Mr. Sanderson looked like he could be God. No one dared much if Mr. Sanderson was watching. Because he believed in the strap. He would hit you so hard, his shirt buttons would pop off.
Then the classroom, with its picture of the king looking stern, and some drawings by the girls who always got gold stars on their scribblers when the inspector came and the teacher got really nervous and repeated an old lesson. I sort of tiptoed to my desk. I was in the first row because Miss Thompson always put the boys who she said acted up where she could watch them.
So far, so good. The lessons began. My crotch started to sweat and itch under all the ragged ends. The classroom was always warm in winter because the big furnace somewhere in the basement where we weren't allowed to go either made the school too hot or too cold. And all the women teachers preferred too hot. An hour passed. I started to relax. I might make it to 4. And then something might save me in the evening. After all, they talked in Sunday School about miracles. And I had been good. Lately!
Then came Current Events, my favourite. Each morning at 8 I listened to Jim Hunter far away in Toronto and memorized all the fires and floods and sinkings. And if Mr. Hunter didn't have good stuff, I made it up. Miss Thompson didn't know because she didn't listen to CFRB but to CFOS in Owen Sound.
I kept my hand down because I was afraid what would happen if I stood only a few feet from her. This puzzled her. ''Why Johnny," Miss Thompson said, "you have no news. You always do." "No," I said, sinking lower behind my desk.
"John", she said, "you know in this school we always stand when we talk to the teacher," My chums smirked in anticipation. I had told Rod Matheson and he had blabbed to all the boys. They knew of the fragile state of my breeks. I slowly rose. Flowers growing in a greenhouse would have beaten me. I squeezed my legs together so tightly I could feel the lumpy darning on my long socks. I tried staying behind the desk but it would be suspicious if I didn't stand straight.
"Miss Thompson," I lied, "the radio didn't work this morning. I have no news." No one rescued me by raising a hand. By now my chums were choking back laughs, but even a loud giggle would have meant the cloakroom.
Suddenly I could see that Miss Thompson remembered. She surveyed me slowly. From the bottom of the breeks to my crotch and then up, no back, then up and over the sweater that I wore for the entire year to my sweaty face and the bristle of my brush cut. And I waited. And all the boys waited. Then she turned to the blackboard, thank God, and said she expected more participation in Current Events tomorrow. My crisis had passed, for now.
That night my sisters tackled my breeks again. But we were all afraid to tinker too much with a cloth concoction that had survived its first test. For a few days I moved carefully, scuttling across the playground like a crayfish in the Saugeen River beside the school. Then I was tackled in a snowball fight and as I rolled in the snow with my shrieking attacker, I heard a tear.
‘Damn it,” I said, and then some worse words while my friends shrank at the profanity, looking around for a teacher.. But it was only my knee. No problem. It wasn’t in the delicate place that the girls giggled about when my chum Rod boldly told on me to a clutch of them one noon. My sisters and I could deal easily with a patch like that.
Finally after months of careful manoeuvring, it was spring and I was released from the scratchy prison of the breeks to the short pants where I seemed almost naked by comparison. By fall, I was too big for my britches and almost too big for the Sunday pants. And then came the glories of long pants and a belt, and farewell to suspenders and those stiff descendants of pantaloons and those stockings that always drooped. Hated by all boys and loved, apparently, by all moms, and one grandmother.
So I found salvation that Grade 5 only through the miracle of time. And my faithful sisters, ready to risk the wrath of Hades just to help out a smelly kid. Saved by time, and the insistence then that all girls had to take Home Ec.