Manners

In addition to The Robin’s Egg, I’ve been working on a humorous memoir about my years as a university recruitment officer. Ten and Two has been in the works for some time and is a tribute to the people who hit the road each fall to help high school students connect with their destiny. Recruitment is a strange job full of unexpected twists and turns. You set out each season looking for students and along the way you encounter beauty, wonder, loneliness, sorrow, friendship and even love. I dedicate this excerpt to my road family.

 

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”  Confucius

 

“Is this some kind of sick joke?” I thought, limping out of Northern Secondary School. What kind of sadistic city puts two schools with almost the same name less than a kilometer apart?

“Head out the side door and turn north,” said the guidance secretary. “North Toronto Collegiate will be on the south side of the road.”

“Can you repeat those instructions using left and right?”

“I can,” she said, her expression flat, “but you should really know your geography by now.”

I’m not usually late for school visits, but the heavy Toronto traffic defeated me. Exceeding the speed limit by ten kilometers, I zoomed in and abandoned my car in a one hour parking zone on Broadway St. Air Canada had knocked the wheels off my tiny recruitment suitcase, forcing me to drag it behind me like a stubborn child. On the way into what turned out to be the wrong school, I caught my stiletto in a crack in the pavement.

I tugged. The heel snapped off.

“Screw it,” I thought. “It’s going to be one of those days.”

It was late October and I was in the Toronto area recruiting for the University of King’s College. North Toronto Collegiate is one of the University’s biggest schools, which meant twenty to thirty kids would be waiting for me to appear. I had chosen the wrong day to be late.

As I approached my vehicle I noticed a man standing next to it. There was a contraption on the front, right wheel.

A boot?

“Excuse me officer. I’ve only been parked here a moment,” I said.

“No you haven’t,” he barked. “This car has been sitting here for a solid week.”

To my surprise, a white Pontiac G6 was parked behind my white Pontiac G6. The officer looked me over as I searched my mind for something to say.

“What happened to your shoe?” he asked.

Like a Mentos mint dropped into a bottle of Coke, I exploded. I had been on the road for eight solid weeks and was tired beyond reason.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You are clearly in the wrong profession. Would you like a university pamphlet so you can consider other options? You’ve booted the wrong car! Two white Pontiacs in a row? C’mon!”

As I stood in the middle of the street raging, my mind began to race.

Am I insane? Am I trying to get arrested? I look terrible in orange. My grandmother will be scrapbooking my mugshots next to my old running certificates and drama awards!

Bursting into tears, I ended my soliloquy on a dramatic note.

“In the Maritimes we have a little thing called manners. You should consider getting some!”

I turned and ran. Stress and adrenaline convinced me that was the only way to get to the school. As I hobbled down the street, dragging my suitcase like a dead body, the sky opened up. By the time I reached North Toronto Collegiate, I was drenched.

The guidance counselor blinked at me as I came in the door.

“Would you like a moment to compose yourself?”

In the mirror in the staff washroom I could see the mascara lines running down my face. My hair was shellacked to my head. I looked like I just crawled out of Tim Burton’s ass.

Somehow I managed to pull off a clear, concise presentation. No one seemed to mind that I was late or that I resembled The Crow. As I was leaving, the guidance secretary gave me left and right directions back to Northern Secondary School. My shoes were in a canvas bag with the rest of my recruitment materials. My dead suitcase was in the dumpster behind the school.

As I wandered down Broadway Street in my bare feet, it hit me: I lost my shit on an officer of the law. Surely that has consequences.

And it did. Pinned under my windshield wiper was a white piece of paper. Happy that the boot was gone, I removed the slip and braced myself for the damages.

On it was a phone number, and a message scribbled at the bottom.

In case you want to teach me some manners later.

On May 14th I will graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. The Robin’s Egg is near completion, though it will be a while before you see it in bookstores. Writing a memoir takes time and patience, but I promise it will be worth the wait. For now, I’ve been asked to talk about the process of writing this book and how it has impacted me as a person and as a writer.

In November 2012, I sat sipping tea in the kitchen of my friend’s family home.

“So what kind of book do you want to write,” her mother asked.

I told her I was preparing an application for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Program at the University of King’s College. In place of a thesis, I would write a nonfiction book.

“A memoir,” I responded.

“A memoir? What could you possibly have to say at thirty?”

We both laughed – her over the absurdity of a young adult having anything meaningful to say and me over the response I was crafting in my head but would never dare say.

“Nothing big really. Sexual abuse, child abduction – just run of the mill shit people experience before the age of thirty.”

It wasn’t her fault. I’d given her the impression I was from a nice, middle class family. I was still in the skeleton closet, trying to make sense of my past. I wanted to explain myself, I just wasn’t sure how. It was the reason I’d decided to write a memoir. I felt writing would give me an opportunity to explore my past and come to terms with my experiences. I was in search of truth and acceptance.

Writing this book has stretched me in ways I never thought possible. Waking up at 6:00 a.m., going to bed at 1:00 a.m., working forty plus hours a week to pay the bills while somehow making time for family and friends. To write this book, I knew I’d have to schedule my life down to the millisecond and I believed I could balance the demands. That’s how I got through my undergraduate degree.

As one would imagine, writing about personal experiences is different than writing about Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. For starters, it involves reliving and reconstructing your experiences, sometimes to the detriment of your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Depression and fear were not challenges I anticipated and so my schedule did not include pockets of time for therapists, antidepressants or lying on the floor weeping for hours on end.

I didn’t understand what I was getting into and found myself in the middle of my own personal hell. Regardless of how I felt or what it was doing to me, I had to write. The book was my master thesis. Inability to meet deadlines would result in academic failure – a threat I’d never encountered as a type A, conscientious student. My place of employment was making my academic pursuit possible by waiving part of my tuition; so taking a leave of absence to deal with my emotional issues was off the table. With no room to fall and no margin for error, some days it felt like I was writing with a gun to my head.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the process was a gift. I gave more of myself than I would have allowed if I had been mentally capable of poise and diplomacy. In a state of extreme exhaustion, I pursued truth with reckless abandon. I fought for self-discovery, I fought for sanity and I did it in a raw, primal way. I left myself open to undignified feelings of anger, disappointment and shame and discovered my past was far more complex than I’d anticipated. My feelings of fear were justified. Terrible things did happen and I had a right to question them.

Placing my need to control and manage everything aside, I traveled around Ontario and New Brunswick, interviewing everyone directly and indirectly related to my abduction. I let their versions of truth shatter and reconstruct my reality over and over and accepted their criticisms in exchange for cooperation. There are people who don’t believe I should burden the world with my issues and others who think my work is a masturbatory cry for attention or an exploitation of my family for professional or monetary gain. Keeping on in the face of these facts was a challenge. I kept questioning my own motives and in doing so, connected with my project on a deeper level. I was in search of truth so I could achieve closure. I had to keep telling myself that.

By interviewing everyone involved, I gained a sense of what happened from a variety of different angles. For events that happened before I was born or when I was too young to remember, I used interviews to reconstruct scenes and dialogue. I also used interviews to fact check scenes I wrote from memory. I refrained from sharing my own memories or the memories of other family members while interviewing subjects. I let them speak and accepted their versions as universal truths in the moment. By doing so, I got to see which facts were consistent between stories and which weren’t. Studying the inconsistencies taught me a lot about human nature. Everyone is the hero in his or her own story.

I learned early on, while interviewing two family members simultaneously, that people try and reach consensus when they discover differences in stories. They change and bend their accounts until their versions of truth are lost in compromise. Before I began interviewing, I wrote a 50-page document outlining my memories in great detail so my original thoughts would be preserved. Reading back over the document upon the completion of my interviews, I was shocked to learn how much my perspective had changed as a result of the influence of other people’s thoughts. The process taught me two important lessons: memory is flawed and subjective to the point of nonexistence.

At times, my memory is all I have to work with. There are details I can’t fact check, such as the details of my sexual abuse. These instances are highlighted throughout the book. I suspect some will question how I can remember traumatic experiences so vividly even though I was a small child when they occurred. It’s a valid question. The best I can offer is this: if you live through a traumatic event, you remember. It comes back to you in your dreams. It shapes the way you see the world and becomes a critical part of who you are in a way that cannot be forgotten.

Countless hours of research went into the creation of this book. I checked weather forecasts, specific dates of holidays, release dates of songs, television episodes and movies. I combed through court documents, interviewed lawyers and judges and consulted psychologists for insight into my own actions and the actions of others. I read philosophical works, magazine articles and websites. I had no idea a memoir could involve so much reading and reflecting. I did these things as a means of adding another layer of authenticity to the work. I wanted the scenes I created to be as meticulously reconstructed as the dialogue and the sequence of events. I felt it was my ethical duty to bring the story as close to the truth as I could.

With that said, there are bits I’ve withheld. Through the process of researching, I discovered secrets so profound they had the potential to destroy families and change lives. In those cases, I had to consider the facts carefully. How relevant were they to the advancement of my story? How damaging were they? Could I withhold certain facts and still call my work a piece of nonfiction? After careful consideration, I decided I wasn’t obliged to talk about everything. Some stories aren’t mine to tell. The facts and events pertaining to my circumstances have been disclosed, making this, in my opinion, an authentic work of nonfiction.

I thought about abandoning this project on a daily basis. I was afraid it would destroy my relationship with my family and in some cases it has. There are people who aren’t ready to come to terms with the decisions they made. In exposing myself, I am also exposing them. Seeing them hurt has been difficult. My desire to confront my own demons has forced others to confront theirs as well. I’m hoping that over time they’ll come to terms with their actions and forgive themselves the way I have forgiven them. I’m also hoping they’ll be able to forgive me. I’ve chosen to work through my issues in the best way I know how – through writing.

There are days I fear I’ve given too much of myself in this book. All of my shortcomings are present to be considered and judged. Sometimes I wonder if I have the emotional fortitude to handle the inevitable criticism. Other days I’m bold and strong, feeling as though this process will help me gain the strength I need to get through the rest of my life and, perhaps, lend strength to others who’ve lived through similar experiences.

If I had been happy and well adjusted, I may not have been a writer. I have to thank adversity for making me who I am today. I’ve been sharing my story with friends who’ve known me for years and had no idea. Their acceptance and encouragement have gotten me through. The support of my mentors and peers has given me the courage and the tools to write with honesty and compassion.

When I began this journey, I thought I was going to write a story about a kidnapping. That fact has since become a footnote in a greater narrative about the intricacies of truth and memory. This book is true to the extent that truth can be known. Everyone has a different understanding of what happened the night I was taken and why. To try and piece a universal truth together would be like building Frankenstein – something forced and unnatural. Instead, I let every version of the truth remain for your consideration. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What happened? Why?

What could I possibly have to say at thirty?

I stopped entering blog posts in the middle of my trip this past November. I was overwhelmed. The Brampton entry received a lot of attention and I couldn’t emotionally keep up, but I continued to record my thoughts in a word document. I wrote this entry at a road-side motel in Napanee, Ontario.

This past week has been interesting. After my visit to Orillia and Barrie (blog posts pending) I flew to Ottawa to teach nonfiction lectures in grade 12 classrooms. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past five days. Three to four lectures a day on the ethics of nonfiction writing.

I left Ottawa on Wednesday to do a stint in Lakefield, then Kingston. My journey to Lakefield was an interesting one. A half hour outside Ottawa the median disappeared and highway 7 became a single lane highway. A half hour after that all traces of civilization disappeared. I was alone in the dead of night, bumping along a remote country highway. That’s when the snow started.

“That’s awesome,” I thought. “Budget couldn’t give me winter tires. I WOULD find myself in the middle of a blizzard.” I reduced speed, gripping the steering wheel for dear life. My GPS, Virgil, glowed like a candle against the darkness, guiding me through the storm. I named him Virgil after the character who led Dante through hell and purgatory in the book The Divine Comedy.

“In 500 meters, turn left,” he said.

“I can’t see my turnoff Virgil and I can’t see if there are cars coming in the left lane. I don’t want to turn onto another remote highway,” I protested.

I reluctantly followed Virgil’s instructions because I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t know where I was. I was going to have to trust that Virgil would deliver me safely (and quickly) to my hotel.

I had been praying for a rest stop. I needed to pee so bad my back teeth were floating. I had Virgil do a search for a gas station but he couldn’t locate anything near by. According to his calculations, all stations were at least 45 km away.

“You’re going to have to pull over and pee on the side of the highway,” I told myself as my situation became dire. “You can’t do this anymore.”

I was nervous as I pulled over to the shoulder. I needed to make sure the car was off the road but I didn’t want to get stuck in a ditch. I took my chances and it worked out. The car remained on solid ground. I flipped on my four-way flashers and opened the passenger side door to light my path into the woods.

Taking a few steps, I quickly founds myself in knee-deep snow. My feet were wet by the time I reached my destination. I didn’t venture very far in. I was in white out conditions and could barley see the car. I decided no one would see me from the highway.

I could only pull my pants down to my knees. I stomped around for a moment, trying to flatten the snow a little. I suspect I looked a little like a cat looking for the perfect place to pee in a litter box. Crouching down, my bare butt made contact with the cold snow. I jumped up for a minute, rethinking my squat. I needed to hover a little higher to avoid contact. Leaning my back against a tree for support, I adjusted my position then did a dummy check.

“Pants are out of the way? Check. Coat lifted? Check.”

I knew my stream needed to be clean and direct. My margin for error was small. I couldn’t afford to spray. My pants were too close to the scene of the crime. Baring down, I produced a solid jet. If I were in the pee Olympics the judges would have given me scores of ten.

That’s when the deer showed up. I didn’t see him at first. I was too busy concentrating on my task. As I looked around for a good toilet paper substitution I found him standing to my immediate left. He was so close I could have touched him.  I got the sense that he didn’t know I was there. He seemed to be staring at my car. I wasn’t sure what to do next.

So I did nothing.

Crouching quietly with my bare butt hovering inching above my own business in the snow, I waited for the deer to move on. He didn’t. He stayed where he was for what seemed like eternity. My legs were starting to fall asleep. The cold was creeping up my backside. I decided I couldn’t stay like that for much longer. I was going to have to do something.

So I coughed.

You’d swear I set off a bomb. Bambi began thrashing around like a lunatic. Startled, I fell arse first into my own pee puddle as Bambi ran off into the night, leaving me alone to deal with my shame.

I needed to get away from the yellow slushie I’d made. I crawled forward on my hands and knees, bare bum to the sky. My pants were filled with snow but I didn’t care. I made a snow ball and quickly used it to clean my butt cheeks.

Clearing the snow out of my pants, I pulled them up and returned to the car. I turned on the butt warmer and directed the heat to my feet to dry them. I was approximately an hour away from my destination. I was soggy but my bladder was empty so I felt better.

Ten minutes later I passed a gas station.

“There was a washroom ten minutes away and you couldn’t find it!” I screamed, ready to toss my GPS out the window. “You’re an asshole, Virgil. We’re in a fight.”

Brampton

The second leg of my Epic Adventure brought me to Brampton. What I thought would be an easy and uneventful segment turned into a difficult, life changing one.

I stand with my hands resting on the counter, staring at myself in the mirror. I look worn, like an eraser that has tried to rub out too many mistakes. In five seconds I’m going to have to go down stairs and tell my Aunty Ruth the truth. I’m not looking forward to it.

When families feud children can be subjected to the most elaborate lies. When I was a child I was lead to believe my Aunty Ruth didn’t like me because of what I’d done. It seemed like a reasonable claim. I’d encountered many skeptics in my young life.

I was picked on by children at school. They would over hear their parents discussing my situation at night.  I never knew when an insult would be hurled my way. I felt like Super Mario. One minute I’d be walking in a world full of magic and wonder and then a Koopa would come flying out of nowhere, causing me to flee or fight.

That morning, in my aunt’s living room, I ran into Bowser. Flipping through her wedding album I found him there, staring back at me through his aviator glasses.

“Who’s this,” I asked, though I knew the answer.

“That’s Beau,” my Aunty Ruth replied.

My heart began to race. It was difficult to breath.

“What wrong,” she asked.

“Nothing,” I lied. “I’m going to go up and take a shower now. I’ll be back in a while.”

***

Crying in front of the bathroom mirror, I’m furious with myself. I don’t have time for this. Not at the beginning of my two week odyssey.

“You stop crying,” I tell myself. “In two hours you’re going to leave for your Aunt Debbie’s house and you cannot arrive looking like some messed up, blotchy little creature. Further, did you come to Ontario in the name of truth or are you here to be a pansy ass? You go down there and tell your aunt what happened.”

I decide to pack my bags first. My Aunty Ruth has always been good to me but I’m not sure how she’ll react to the news. I want to be ready in case she wants me to leave.

My Nanny was married to Beau for a number of years. He wasn’t my mother’s biological father but she called him Dad and I called him Poppy. He was well loved by the family. When he and my Nanny divorced in the late eighties many were devastated by the news.

Walking down the stair toward the living room I think of the lyrics to an Ani Difranco song.

everything I do is judged

and they mostly get it wrong

but oh well

‘cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged

and the woman who lives there can tell

the truth from the stuff that they say

and she looks me in the eye

and says would you prefer the easy way?

no, well o.k. then

don’t cry

The issue had been biting me in the ass for years. In 2006 a college boyfriend used it against me. He said I had a choice. I could get back together with him or he’d tell my secret to the entire campus community. Holding my friend Dani’s hand in my room on a Saturday afternoon, I decided to take the hard road.

That night one of his friends approached me at the campus bar.

“I’ve been told you don’t like it in the ass,” he sneered. He was just a boy. I wondered if he understood he was using my sexual abuse to blackmail me back into an abusive relationship with my ex boyfriend.

The weight of his words made me weak in the knees. I didn’t expect such a malicious attack. I grabbed on to the bar to keep myself up, trying to show strength. My friend Dani flung a string of expletives at the boy then helped me outside. Sitting down on the stairs of the Arts and Administration Building, she handed me my first cigarette.

“This always calms me down but don’t get addicted.”

We stared up at the moon in silence. I broke into a coughing fit a moment later and decided cigarettes were not for me.

“Do you suppose the sexual abuse will always be something someone can use against me?” I asked.

“I want to believe the world is a better place than that,” she said. “But perhaps you can get help so you never have to tell another man that story.”

I agreed with her. I hated doing it. But when my relationships progressed to love I had to tell my boyfriends what they were up against. I never imagined one would use the information as a sword to cut me.

***

Sitting next to my Aunty Ruth in her home in Brampton I decide to take a stand. I open the wedding album and point to the picture of Beau.

“Can I tell you something?” I ask.

“You can tell me anything,” she says.

“This man here? This is a very, very bad man.”

Tears stream down my face despite my desire to remain calm and confident. I tell her what he did to me before the age of five. I tell her he’s a pedophile.

We sit in silence for a few minutes. Aunty Ruth looks as though the wind has been nocked out of her. Turning to her album, she pulls the picture out and tears it in half. She places the half containing her image back into the album and tears the rest of the picture into tiny pieces. As she tears Beau apart, little pieces of me fused back together.

“I believe you Sweet Pea,” she says. “And I am so sorry that happened to you.”

She has no idea how long I’ve waited to hear those words.

 ***

When I was ten years old I confessed to what Beau had done. Other girls came forward too. We gave our testimonies and Beau was sentences to two and a half years in jail. I didn’t know my Ontario family at the time but I was told they weren’t happy with me for what I’d done to their friend.

When I met up with my mother’s side of the family at my Great Grand Daddy’s funeral many years later I didn’t know if I’d be welcome. I was shocked by the number of hugs I received and taken aback by the kindness. My family didn’t seem angry with me which was confusing and unsettling.

That’s when I understood I’d need to return to Ontario one day to address the issue.

Sitting with my Aunty Ruth, my pedophile resting in a tiny pile of defeat on the couch, I cried tears of relief. My inner child, who endured years of torture at the hands of a beast was finally free. I confessed and was met with love and acceptance. One of the big issues I hoped to address over the course of my trip had been seen to.

***

A few years ago Oprah had a group of pedophiles on her show. She wanted them to explain themselves. During the interview one said something that angered me to my core. He said he killed the person his victim could have become. He damaged her in ways she’d never come back from.

“Don’t flatter yourself asshole!” I screamed at the television. Shaking with anger, I sat down and composed the following poem:

You Cannot Have Me

Insanity

Insecurities of the highest order

You cannot have me

I am bigger than you

And stronger than you expected

Despite your best attempts

To defeat me

And I will be what I was to be

What I am

Before hands touched me

Before words cut me

Before everything was taken

And nothing was left

I am

Sturdy as though everything was solid

Complete as if nothing were broken

Pure, free, and vivacious

As the day I was born

I am not defaced

I am not tarnished

You have not killed

Anyone I am or should have been

I am who I am

Who I was always meant to be

And you cannot have me

My name is Terra Bruhm. I was sexually abused when I was a child and I am no longer afraid to tell you that.

Sarnia

My Ontario adventure began this Saturday in Sarnia. When I was taken from my father I lost contact with my mother’s extended family as well. Here is a vignette from the first leg of my two-week journey. The Watt family took me to a local pizza joint to hear their good friends perform.

His name is Dave Thomas. I’m not kidding. His wife, Miss Erin, is a red head. I resist the drunken urge to call her Wendy as I watch Dave’s fingers dance across his keyboard. Dave, a family friend, is playing a set at a local pizza joint. The establishment is a cross between a restaurant and a bar.

I’m sitting with the Watt clan at a table in front of the band. My Aunt Lu is my grandmother’s sister. She and my uncle Randy have welcomed me into their lives with open arms. They’ve agreed to answer important questions about the night I was taken from my father in September 1983. Swaying to the music, they keep my plate full of pizza and my cup full of beer. My cousins Debbie, Luanne and their husbands are with us too. I’ve only been with them for four hours and already we’re meshing as a family.

The bar lights above Dave’s head catch the diamond stud in his left ear, casting a tiny disco ball of light onto my left shoulder. He reminds me of Walter White, baldhead, goatee except instead of breaking bad he’s breaking into song.

When Dave’s not teaching music classes to local area children he’s playing it; giving birth to it in a way that makes you wonder why he’s performing in a pizza joint while people with less talent travel the world making millions. Dave is dressed in black patent leather shoes and a white button up shirt. He looks like a lyrical pirate of sorts, stealing our hearts through the words of Elton John.

“I’m not the man they think I am at home. Oh no no no…”

The lyrics touch me. I know what Elton is saying. It’s what my trip is all about. People know me as a certain person from a certain place and a certain family. They don’t know about the people I was taken from in 1983. Neither do I. That’s why I’m here.

Dave Thomas has a partner with him. Wulf Andrious Von Waldow. He’s a quiet fellow with intense eyes. He’s completely beige – hat, hair, knit sweater, pants, beard. He blends in with the brown walls of the bar with the exception of his black and grey Nike sneakers. Von Waldow is a perfect name for him, I whisper to uncle Randy. He’ll likely go missing between sets, blending in with the walls and everyone will have to look for him.

Where’s Von Waldow? Where’s Terra? I connect with him. We’re a part of the same game.

Von Waldow is a true artist. When he closes his eyes and put his saxophone to his lips the quiet introvert disappears. What was beige become black and grey. Watching him interact with his saxophone is like watching lovers. They stand to the left of the stage with their lips locked, making music. Von Waldow doesn’t need to talk. He says everything he needs to say to his saxophone and she, in turn, tells us what he’s thinking and feeling. She contextualized him. Von Waldow’s saxophone makes him feel found.

I feel found too. Sitting in the pizza parlor with my Aunt Lu, Uncle Randy and cousins I have a better sense of who I am and where I came from. I’m no longer a pair of black and grey shoes in a beige motif, complimentary but not quite right. My place within this clan is visible and understood. We heckle and adore Dave Thomas. We rib my cousin Luanne for ordering spaghetti in a pizza joint. My cousin Debbie has hiccups like a storybook drunk and we laugh as she slurs her words, telling us she never drinks this much (and she doesn’t). We’re the kind of people who notice the little things and used them to tease and appreciate one another. We celebrate big moments and leave ourselves open to extreme happiness, and on occasion, sorrow.

As the night draws to an end, Dave Thomas and I make eye contact. I give him a nod and he nods back. Registering what my heart means to say, he puts his hands to his keyboard and begins another song.

It’s perfect. I want to wrap it in a box and give it to my family. When they hear it I want them to feel every hug and kiss we missed for 31 years rush through them. I want them to know I love them from that place between your ribs, below year heart, that paramedics pump when they’re trying to bring you back to life.

Dave Thomas says it so well.

“I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind. That I put down in words. How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”

 

The Death of Arthur

This September, my cousin Arthur died of cancer. He was a loveable, yet controversial sort of character. Not knowing how the family will react to the publication of this story, I have changed his name to protect their privacy. I may not have known Artie for long but I know he’d want to be remembered in this way.

Rest in peace Arthur. You’re a redneck.

“You’re a redneck, you know.”

He was laid back on the couch, Christmas lights refracting off his bald head.

“I’m not a redneck.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I have all my teeth and I read books.”

He took the book out of my hand and read the title.

Le Morte D’Arthur. What the hell is this?”

“It’s French.”

“You’re a redneck because you live in a trailer and read French.”

My grandmother took a fit in the kitchen. She was doing Jell-O shooters with my mother and her boyfriend. Green and red blobs in tiny white Dixie cups purchased from the dollar store sat on a cookie tray in front of her.

“Artie, I swear to Jesus. If you call my mini home a trailer one more time I’ll skin ya.”

This was my introduction to Artie. Having grown up on the East Coast away from my biological family, I didn’t know Artie existed until he showed up in my living room on Christmas Day with his girlfriend and three Bichon dogs. The two girl dogs belonged to Artie’s mother. The boy dog was his.

“Where’s yer bitch, T-Roy?”

The little Bichon fetched a medium-sized stuffed toy from the corner of the room and started humping it. Artie laughed, forgetting we were in a fight.

“The book is in English, you know,” I finally said. “The title means The Death of Arthur.”

Remembering the book in his hand, he flipped through the pages.

“Why don’t they just write Death of Arthur on it, then?”

“Because…”

“Fuck it. You want a Jell-O shooter?”

There were eight adults, two children and three dogs crammed into a small 12’ by 16’ space. It was an introvert’s nightmare. Nowhere to hide. No quiet corners. My childhood home had morphed into a clown car of chaos.

“Yes, I would like a Jell-O shooter,” I decided.

Artie lead me to the kitchen as though I were his guest. He sat me at the table and placed two Jell-O shooters in front of me. I ate one. He ate the other.

“Where are all the Jell-O shooters?” he asked.

My grandmother’s teeth were beside her on the kitchen table. She was scrunching up her toothless face to make my mother and her boyfriend laugh. Artie decided to imitate her as she was cramming the last of the Jell-O shooters into her mother. Caught off guard, my grandmother started to laugh, spraying the contents of her Jell-O shooter across the kitchen table. A fragment landed in Artie’s gaping mouth.

“Ahhh! What the fuck! You may as well just stick your tongue in my mouth!”

Artie shook his head violently, wiping at his tongue with his hands.

“I didn’t come all this way to make out with my Aunt Lee!”

Artie had made the long trek from Erin, Ontario to Moncton, New Brunswick to satisfy his curiosity. His Aunt Lee, my grandmother, had moved to the east coast in the early eighties and he wanted to experience what Maritime life was like. So far, he had decided we were a bunch of booze guzzling rednecks.

“We’re running out of supplies! This is the east coast! Where’s the rest of the hooch?”

Artie searched frantically for something to drink. Having drained all the liquor bottles in the mini home, he decided a trip to the liquor store was in order

“It’s Christmas Day, Artie. The stores are closed.”

“Fuck it! I’m going to borrow some Jack.”

Artie stumbled to the front door. Sitting on the floor, he clumsily fumbled with his boots like a toddler.

“Artie! You can’t borrow a cup of Jack like a cup of sugar,” I said.

“Hell I can’t!”

Artie ran out of the house with the urgency of a superhero off to save the world. His coat and mittens rested in a heap by the door. I watched as he ran next door, plowing through waist-deep snow.

“Take the walkway you idiot!” my grandmother called after him, but Artie was a tank. He would not take the path of least resistance. He would blaze his own trail.

I felt like a middle school kid making prank calls. I ran to the front window and giggled excitedly as Artie knocked on the neighbor’s front door.

“I can’t believe he’s doing this,” I shrieked.

The mini home fell silent. Seven adults, two children and three dogs gathered in front of the living room window to watch. Nothing had captured our collective attention until that moment, not even the Christmas tree. Gift opening had been chaos, kids yelling, paper ripping; a far cry from the orderly agenda observed in most homes.

“Is Artie going to get arrested?” My little sister asked.

“Depends on his approach,” my grandfather decided. “How many Jell-O shooters has he had?”

“I think ten…or eleven… and three beer,” my mother answered.

“Don’t forget the hard liquor,” my grandmother added.

Leaning in, we waited to see what would happen. Artie noticed his following and gave us a thumbs up as the neighbor’s door opened. We held our breath.

I imagine the neighbor tells the story like this:

“I was eating Christmas dinner with my family when I heard a knock on my door. I thought it might be Aunt Gertrude stopping by after church. When I opened the door, I found this enormous bald guy slurring and swaying on the front porch. He looked like a wrestler. He was the personification of bedlam! He was panting and cock-eyed. He wasn’t wearing a jacket and had decided to plow through the snow bank in the front yard instead of using the walkway. He wanted to borrow a cup of Jack Daniel’s”

The neighbor disappeared into the house. When she returned, she handed a bottle to Artie. Turning toward us, he raised the bottle above his head and cheered. You’d swear he had just won the Stanley Cup. The family erupted into laughter and applause. Artie was a hero. Artie saved Christmas!

Plowing through the trail he blazed, Artie came home to pour his family a drink.

“I got a whole bottle. I provide for the people I love,” he said, handing out glasses.

“You’re a redneck because you borrow Jack Daniel’s from the neighbors on Christmas Day,” I said as he handed me a glass.

“I could get used to being a redneck in a trailer,” he said.

“Artie!” my grandmother yelled. “For the love of Jesus. Stop calling my mini home a trailer or I’ll kill you, you little shit!”

When I think back on these times
And the dreams we left behind
I’ll be glad ’cause I was blessed to get
To have you in my life ~ Faith Hill

Four years ago today someone dear left the world. I spent two years trying to figure out how to live without her and another two learning I shouldn’t expect so much. The truth is if you’re lucky, there are people you will never be over.

Every person who touches our lives teaches us something. Let me tell you what Dani taught me.

1.That thing you’ve always wanted to do– the one that scares you. Do it right now.

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2.That place you always wanted to go. Book the ticket.

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3.Don’t be a slave to your ambition. Stop and let things happen on occasion.

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4.Take a minute every day to look around and register how beautiful life is.

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5.Love deeply. You don’t have as much time as you think.

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My Dani was daring. She was adventurous. She sucked the marrow out of life and took time to see the beauty in simple things. Above all, she loved freely and deeply.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful soul with me Dani. I’ll keep you in my heart forever.

She’s a good writer but why does she have to write about that?

The words struck me hard. I wanted to cry on the spot. Instead, I told myself what nonfiction writers are supposed to tell themselves.

No one is making you do this, so suck it up princess. 

This first bit of criticism was delivered by one of my dearest and closest friends. She and her mother had been discussing my blog the night before. Confused, her mother questioned why I felt I needed to write a memoir. Why would I draw attention to what happened to me? Why make everyone so uncomfortable?

I know what this looks like. I think about it every day.

Girl exploits family in the name of art.

If there was a way for me to tell this story without having to involve others, I would. It just isn’t possible. I have no memory of the day I was taken or why. I need family members to help me fill in the gaps. 

Anyone who knows me knows I care deeply for others. I routinely put other people’s needs in front of my own. I’m a nurturing person who enjoys loving, appreciating and taking care of the people around me. Embarking on this journey of self-discovery has been hard for me because I know it may make the people I love uncomfortable. That’s not my role in life. My role is to make people happy. 

When I was little, my Nanny taught me to face my troubles. 

Terra-Lee. When you have an issue you should talk it out. That’s the only way to make things better. 

Dear friends: Please forgive me for this moment of self-indulgence. My life makes me uncomfortable and I need to talk it out. I need you to know that I’m sorry my mother lost her youth having a baby so young. I want to tell you I’m sorry my grandparents had to make so many sacrifices to make sure I was taken care of. I want to tell you I’m sorry I was taken from my father and even sorrier for being some weird little secret that crept back into his life 25 years later, making everyone uncomfortable with her fears and insecurities. There has always been something a little uncomfortable about me. I’m an exception people make. An obstacle to overcome. A mistake to come to terms with. A discomfort to adjust to.

I don’t want to be these things anymore. I want to be Terra and I can’t be Terra until everyone knows who Terra is. Writing this book is helping me find the people I love, and it’s helping me find myself. 

 

 

Don’t Let it Go

In the crossfire there’s a story

And how it ends I don’t know – Beck

 

I’m on a mission. In November I’ll travel to Ontario to meet family members I’ve never met and some I’ve only known a few years. My journey will take me to Kingston, Brampton, Sarnia, Barrie and Orillia to name a few places. I’ll cruise highways, sleep in truck stop parking lots and ask complete strangers personal questions that will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of who I am and where I come from. I’ll see my nose on different people’s faces. I’ll see my teeth in different people’s mouths. Perhaps I’ll glance across a dinner table and find an aunt or cousin nervously picking at her lip the way I do. I’m picking my lip between sentences as I write this entry.

I’m an introvert. My house is immaculate. I thrive on routine and order. At the same time, I have this burning desire to know and understand. It pulls me. It demands I confront what confuses or scares me. I live in a constant state of fear and wonder. This trip horrifies and fascinates me.

Adopted kids understand what I’m saying. We don’t necessarily go seeking because we’re displeased with our lives. We seek because we crave the closeness of our tribe. Encountering someone with the same funny birth mark for the first time is magical. Understanding why you had to grow up without that person is heart breaking but necessary. At least that’s how I see it.

I made a similar journey last November. I traveled to Moncton to interview my mother, grandmother and the honorary family members who helped raise me. I was nervous before that trip too, but in a different way. I worried my questions would offend them.  

Do you consider what you did kidnapping? Do you think you were a good parent?

I was surprised when my questions were answered honestly and without hesitation. I gained greater insight and was able to write the first half of my book. 

The second half of my book will be more complicated. 

How did it feel to lose me? Do you think we can recover what we’ve lost?

I won’t know how my story ends until I live this next phase of my journey. 

 

Lovers in a Dangerous Time

“What kind of post-publication letters or messages would make the year of work worthwhile for you?”

– Stephen Kimber

I’m sprawled out on my office floor with an ice cream sandwich in one hand and a tumbler of single malt scotch in the other. The Barenaked Ladies’ version of Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time is pulsing through my speakers.

I’ve been staring at my computer screen all summer trying to think of something original and profound to say. In five days, I owe Stephen Kimber a 500-word response.

“I’m not sure I want letters,” I think to myself, setting down my scotch to pick a Care Bear sticker off the side of my ancient book case. The yellow bear curls in on itself, revealing a shiny silver back. I roll the sticker between my fingers and remember the day I stuck it to my shelf.

***

I’m five years old. My mom and my nanny are screaming at one another in the hallway of our three-bedroom apartment. I’m lying on my bedroom floor in a pink fuzzy sweater, covering my book case in stickers. Tears streak the lenses of my thick, Coke bottle glasses.

“You were never there!” my mother yells.

“I had to work to support you.” my nanny replies.

I run out into the hallway and throw myself between them.

“Stop fighting!” I scream. “PLEASE. STOP. FIGHTING!”

They continue as though they don’t hear me. I’m overlooked like the silver backs of my stickers.

***

The ice cream sandwich melting in my hand pulls me back to reality. I lick the drippings as the Barenaked Ladies croon:

Lovers in a Dangerous Time

“Why am I writing this book?” I ask myself. “Why am I putting myself and my family through this?” The Barenaked Ladies respond:

Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight

Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

I ponder the words for several minutes. I’ve consumed enough scotch to believe the universe is trying to communicate with me.

“For years, I’ve been struggling to be heard,” I think to myself. “Writing is the only thing that makes me feel brave. My writing is the shiny side of my sticker. It’s the luminous interior sandwiched between a book shelf and a picture of a Care Bear.”

I think about my broken family; my mother who can’t forgive my nanny for years of abandonment; my biological father who can’t forgive my mother and nanny for kidnapping me. I’ll never be able to mend the broken bridges but I can explain why they fell. I’m the only one they all speak to. I’m the only one who knows the story from every perspective.

For a moment, I’m happy. The ceiling spins like a baby mobile. I’m drunk off scotch and optimism.

“I’m going to bring peace to everyone,” I think. “I’m going to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight!”

I pull myself into my computer chair and begin to type.

***

A few hours later, I wake up at my desk with a pounding headache. I squint at the computer screen and find a 500-word response.

“Oh boy,” I think, “This should be interesting.”

I read over the content, chastise myself for being an optimist then decide to leave the response untouched.

“This is nonfiction,” I think to myself. “Possession of realistic expectations is not the assignment. I’ve been asked to write what’s true.”

So here it is.

I want to receive letters from my mother, my nanny and my father. I want them to tell me my book provided them with clarity. I want them to forgive themselves and each other.

I want my book to set them free.