In second grade I wanted to play the main part – the princess -- in our just announced class production of “The Princess Who Never Laughed.” I was confident. I was one of Mrs. Foster’s favorites, but when she announced the roles, she named a rabbity little girl as the princess. I would be the herald.
A herald. I had the part of a boy, not a princess. Something in me was not surprised. Though I wanted them, I was never going to be the kind of girl who got the princess parts. I didn’t have that kind of mother.
My mother knew how to dress me for the part of the herald – dark green tights and a tunic. She would not have known how to make me into a princess.
My mother grew up on a farm at the foot of the Rockie Mountains in British Columbia. Her father was a failed British businessman, her mother the Uruguayan girl he’d gotten pregnant. Striking out on a homestead on the frontier with four little children, three more to come and no farming experience was a desperate move. My grandfather became a local laughing stock – too stiff and refined to be a real farmer and a gruff, unfriendly man whose children avoided him. My mother says she felt sorry for him and sat with him after supper in his library of red-leatherbound classics.
Theirs was the only house in town with indoor plumbing. She and her six siblings walked to the one-room schoolhouse carrying their shoes to make them last longer. School went through eighth grade. After that pretty much everyone quit. My mother finished high school by correspondence, the only one in her family to do so except for the firstborn, a boy.
“Give her a plain name,” said my grandfather when she was born. “So she doesn’t take on airs.” My mother’s name is Joan.
Twice as a child I visited my mother’s family in British Columbia where each and every one of them lived. My mother was the only one to move away. Her sister, my aunt Moon, had a ranch out there, the family’s gathering place. Moon looked like a man, with short grey hair. She dressed like a man and kept house like a cowboy. These are my memories of the ranch, a place that is spoken of with affection and nostalgia amongst the cousins I hardly know.
I am six years old. A crowd of cousins is going to sleep outside in a tent, away from the house where the grown-ups are. I am the youngest. The rest, who all know each other from years of growing up together, are eight and ten and twelve. I have never slept in a tent or a sleeping bag. These kids have been doing it all their lives. In the tent they whisper and giggle about all the snakes outside. I dare not go out to pee or say a word. I wet the sleeping bag.
I sit on the top of a corral fence with a crowd of relatives. Inside the corral men wrestle calves to the ground to brand them with hot irons on their rear flanks. There is much laughter when a man sits in a mound of cow shit.
We swim in the pond outside my aunt’s house. When you come out you have to pull leeches off your arms and legs.
I am standing in the barn while cousins run above in the hay loft. I watch a foot break through the flooring.
When the grown-ups aren’t around my cousin John shoots a chicken then mashes its head into the ground with a rock.
I am left alone for a morning in my grandmother’s cottage which stands on the ranch within sight of my aunt’s house. A teenage boy who I’ve seen around, he’s working for my aunt for the summer, comes to the door. He comes in, asks me to take off my clothes and get into bed with him. I do.
This is where my mother comes from. She was not mean. But it was as if part of her had died. The soft part. She functioned, got three meals a day on the table, took us on walks, made sure we could swim and ride a bicycle. But she did not snuggle. She did not pause, she did not come close.
I came home from school one afternoon and she was in the kitchen, making my birthday cake. With the leftover icing she had written my name on a piece of wax paper in big loopy letters. I was delighted. It was as if someone else, not my mother, had done this beautiful dreamy thing.