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"Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all." When my bough broke, I had no one to catch me because my mother was a drug addicted alcoholic.
I was born in November of 1961. The first home I ever lived in was a place in Vancouver where the nuns looked after children whose mothers didn't know if they wanted to keep them or adopt them out. It took two months for my mother to decide, but in the end, I went home with her. Was it for the best? I'll let you decide.
According to the hospital records I saw as an adult, Social Services monitored us regularly. One of my earliest memories is when I was around four or five years old crying, "Mommy, I have an earache," or scratching myself until I bled from what I learned later on was a yeast infection.
"Quit your damned complaining," Mom hollered as her hand hit the back of my head.
My memories from those early years are like broken flashes, or maybe like little pieces of a nightmare you can't fully remember. They come back to me when I smell something, or hear a certain song. A lot of the music I heard back then I can't even listen to now without some sad memory attached to it.
During the 1960s the slums where we lived on the east side of Vancouver were gentler than they are today. The crime rate wasn't as high and there were fewer gangs.
There were plenty of drugs, though. The drug of choice was heroin because it was cheap and easy to get. The addicts shot up in private, never in the back alleys; they didn't want to draw any attention from the cops. If you weren't a heroin user but wanted a high, you smoked weed or hash.
There were always drunks hanging around outside on the streets, but I never knew what they drank because their booze was usually wrapped in a paper bag.
They were always so friendly. "Hey sweetie, what you doing out here all by yourself," they'd yell as I passed by.
"Nothin," I'd yell back as I hurried away from them. For some reason I never felt afraid because I felt like there was someone looking over me, keeping me safe.
Unlike today you hardly ever saw a drunk sleeping outside, because the police were quick to gather them up and put them in jail for the night.
Some things in the slums haven't changed. You can still see the hookers waiting for a car to pull up and offer them some work, the back alleys are still overflowing with garbage and the rats are busy trying to find their daily food supply.
Time on the skids is the same too because day and night are interchangeable. Sleep happens when you pass out regardless of the time of day. People randomly wander around twenty-four hours of the day, seven days a week and one day simply runs into another.
Really, for most it's a sad existence, but for some reason the slums attracted my mother; she was stuck to them like tar on pavement. It was the only place on earth she felt comfortable, and she lived in the slums no matter where she went, and I had to go with her.
* * *
I thought my mother was beautiful. She had black wavy hair, beautiful dark brown eyes, and smooth olive skin. She wore bright red lipstick, and I can't remember her wearing clothing any other color than black, especially when she went out. Black slacks or skirt, scarf, shoes, pantyhose and sunglasses—the only color on her was the red of her lipstick. If I had to pick a color to describe her, it would be black.
When she walked down the street heads turned, men gawked. It was always important for her to look her best, because she enjoyed the lingering looks and the whistles directed towards her. When we were at home, she usually wore a big shirt and nothing else. No underwear or pants just a big sloppy shirt.
I didn't get the dark wavy hair or olive skin. My hair was straight and blonde; my skin was fair and my eyes blue.
I remember one day taking a long drink of something in a cup left on the dresser because I was thirsty. I gulped and gulped and when I was done I had a little wet moustache above my lip. I let out a little burp and gave my mother a huge grin.
"You know Laura, you might not be so damned ugly if you didn't have those buck teeth hanging out of your mouth!" she said. It was the first time I'd ever thought about my own beauty, and her words defined me: I was ugly.
After that I became so self-conscious about my teeth. I seemed to have my hand permanently attached to the front of my mouth. I'd try to stretch my lips over my teeth, careful not to smile or laugh because they might slip out. Maybe if people couldn't see my teeth they might see the blondeness of my hair or the blueness of my eyes. Maybe I looked more like my dad, whoever he was.
I seldom saw Mom smile or laugh, especially where I was concerned, and when she did look at me, it was usually with disgust. She was either drunk or stoned most of the time, and slept any time during the day or night. I think even her dreams were nightmarish because when she woke up she always looked tired and miserable.
"Get out of my way, stupid. You're nothing but a pain in the ass." That is her voice. I hear it whenever I try to do anything. I never once heard her say she loved me and even if she had, her actions said something very different. She never fed me or kept me clean. She never held me or sang softly in my ear when I was sick. She never read me a book or played games with me when we were together. It was easy to pretend we were strangers.
* * *
Like many of the people on skid row, we were on social assistance and couldn't afford a nice place to live. The buildings we lived in were old and run down. The rats and the garbage that lined the streets also made their way into the buildings, making them smell awful.
I remember the big thick doors to each room. They were hard for me to open because they were so heavy. They were full of scratches and dents from all the kicks they'd gotten over the years and I'm sure each of them could have told some sad stories.
A whole floor shared one dirty bathroom, and the smell of urine was always strong because the toilets never were cleaned. The bathtub was one of those old clawfoots, and had a constant ring or two around it. I always thought its four feet were trying to hold it up off the dirty floor.
Mom never used that bathroom. Instead, she peed in the sink in our room. She was too drunk to make the trek down the hall and the sink was handier. Maybe, that's why she never wore any underwear. It was one less hassle.
The rooms were old and the paint was cracked on all the walls. They usually had a greyish brown braided rug that smelled like stale booze, cigarettes, and mildew, and people there didn't have very much furniture. Most rooms had a sink, a dresser, and a double mattress on a metal frame that made a terrible creak when you moved.
The inside of our room was always dark. Mom never opened up the windows, curtains, or turned the lights on because she was so sensitive to the light. Sometimes, if I thought she was asleep, I'd creep to the window to look at what was going on outside.
"Shut that damn curtain!" she'd snarl. I'd close the curtain as fast as I could for fear she'd come after me with her fists. The moment I heard her voice I ran to the nearest corner and put my hands over my head.
Cleanliness was not on the top of Mom's list either. She never killed the cockroaches that scurried across the dirty floor or washed the sink after she peed in it. Not to mention the ants that were always busy trying to find any kind of crumb they could take home. There were tons of spider webs in the corners and dust on the ledges and she seldom washed our clothes. We lived in filth, but of course I didn't know that. I was five and everyone we knew lived like we did.
* * *
One thing I learned when I was five: when people are drunk, they go from best friends to worst enemies within a matter of minutes. Their laughter turns to yelling and they are no longer buddies.
Most of the time I ignored the fights because they didn't last long, and no one was badly hurt. Drunks in general have a hard time standing up, let alone aiming their fists at one another, but every once in awhile the fights got ugly.
I remember one time Mom was partying with a bunch of men, and I was sitting on the bed playing with an old pocket watch I'd found somewhere. I loved the feeling of the long metal chain as it slid from one finger to the next, and the sound of the constant ticking noise when I put it to my ear. It was a good distraction from the party noise.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. I don't know why, but something about that rhythm soothed me.
My Aunt's ex-fiancé, Ovey, who was also a friend of Mom's, was over for this particular party, and somehow everyone ended up in the hall. Even though they were cursing and yelling at one another, I never thought much of it until I could hear glass hitting the walls.
"What the hell are you doing?" I heard Mom yell.
I quietly got off the bed, and peeked into the hallway. My mother was trying to break up a fight between Ovey and another man. There was a huge struggle until the man I didn't recognize took a beer bottle, and smashed it up against one of the huge wooden doorframes. The glass went flying everywhere, but the top part of the bottle the man was holding looked like shark's teeth. To my horror, he shoved the jagged part right into Ovey's mouth. Ovey screamed in pain, and put his hands to his face. Blood streamed through his fingers, down his neck, and onto the carpet, and the world started to spin. There was blood squirting everywhere, and I felt like I couldn't move. I started to sob, and force myself to take small steps back to the bed.
The noise and commotion out in the hallway suddenly quieted down, and I could hear Mom yelling, "Ovey, are you okay? Talk to me!"
I could hear a gurgling sound as Ovey tried to spit glass out of his mouth. I grabbed the old pocket watch, placed it to my ear, and held it there until its constant ticking lulled me into a deep sleep.
I have no idea what happened to Ovey or the other man. No one ever stayed the whole night so I never saw them again. When I woke the next morning, Mom was sleeping beside me, and there were no other sounds besides her snoring. It was like the night before had never happened. All I wanted to do was get out of the room before Mom woke up, so I quietly got off the bed, and opened the door. Scattered across the floor I could still see the blood and the shattered glass all mixed together. I carefully walked around the mess, and went to the Hudson Bay. As soon as I entered the big sunny store, I forgot about the fight, and headed towards the Malt shop.
* * *
I loved the malts they made at the Bay, and so did everyone else by the looks on their faces.
When the woman who worked there saw me come in she said, "Hello sweetie, would you like a malt?"
I nodded. She never once asked me for any money. I think she knew by the way I looked that I didn't have any. Mom seldom combed my hair and I was usually dressed in her clothes and wore her shoes, which were way too big for me. I'm not sure if she ever washed my face, but I could tell by the other kids in the shop I was different. Their clothes were clean and fit them and their hair was nicely combed. Maybe that is why the lady was so nice to me. She felt sorry for me because my mother didn't look after me like the other mothers did. Every time she gave me a malt both our eyes sparkled; when she handed me my malt, mine sparkled because she gave me a treat, and hers sparkled because I think she pitied me.
After my malt, I headed over to Woodward's for something more to eat. Other than the odd free malt, I ate very little because Mom never fed me. Usually I stole food from Woodward's downtown, or the nearest corner store. I used to go into the store and act like I was looking for my mother. Really I was deciding on what I wanted to steal and because I wasn't very tall, I took whatever I could reach.
When I saw what I wanted, I'd quickly take it off the shelf and hide it in my coat or under my shirt and take off.
Today was no different. I went into the store, found my favourite candy that was always on the bottom shelf, and hid it in my coat. I don't know why they had to wrap that candy in crinkly wrapping, it made a noise when I walked and it was a terrifying experience. By the time I got outside, my heart was pounding like a set of drums. I was so afraid that someone might catch me that my mouth dried out from all the nervous tension. I always had a hard time tasting or swallowing the food I'd stolen, because I'd eat it so fast I'd forget to chew. Then when I did swallow, it hurt my throat and the food sat like a rock in my stomach causing a huge stomach ache, but it was better than being hungry.
The fact I never got caught, made me think there really was someone watching over me who cared whether I lived or died.
* * *
We received food stamps once a month, and my favourite place to eat was the "White Lunch." It was so amazing because it was buffet style, and I could choose whatever I wanted! Hamburgers, fries, spaghetti, mashed potatoes—-the minute we walked into the restaurant, my mouth started watering, and I'd pile as much spaghetti as I could on my plate. Spaghetti was my favourite and I'd eat it until I was so full I couldn't swallow another bite. Mom, unlike me, put very little on her plate.
We always sat on the stools at the counter, and it seemed like it took hours for her to eat. She always chose a curried rice dish, and for some reason she'd eat with her hands, even though they had forks. She played with her food and took little tiny bites. She'd move her rice from one side of her plate to the other, getting her hands all dirty.
Then bang—she'd pass out from all the drugs and alcohol, and her face was in her plate! I hated looking at her with her face and hair all stuck together with the rice. As I looked around the restaurant, everyone was looking at us, staring, whispering and shaking their heads. It was embarrassing.
"Wake up, Mom, we need to go home," I said in my quietest voice. "Mom, you need to wake up!"
I'd shake her until finally her head wobbled up from her plate and she sat up in her chair. I'd brush the rice off her face and pick it out of her hair as she looked at me with her hollow, glassy eyes.
"Come on we need to go home. Just hang onto me and I'll help you, okay?" I helped her stand up. She always put her arm around me and used me to keep her balance. It wasn't easy because she was heavy, but somehow I managed.
"Don't forget your Jell-O," the waitress said as we headed out the door. She gave it to me in a cup so it was easier to carry.
Then she smiled at me. I knew she saw me and not just my drunken mother. It was good memories like that, which kept me going when things got bad.
Mom and I staggered down the sidewalk with me balancing her in one hand, and my Jell-O in the other. I didn't want to drop her or my treat on the pavement. As soon as we got home, I laid her on the bed, and ate my treat. I took little tiny bites and licks to make it last as long as possible, and I loved the sound it made when I squished it through my teeth.
* * *
Mom was a restless soul, always looking for something she couldn't find, so we never stayed in one place for long, making it hard for me to make any friends. However, there were lots of pigeons no matter where we lived in Vancouver, and they became my constant companions.
On my way to the fountain to visit the pigeons, I loved to look at how the outside world changed over time. During the winter, everything looked cold, even the trees. They'd lost their leaves leaving them naked and I used to feel sorry for them.
Because it rained most of the time I felt chilled to the bone anytime I was outside. I didn't have any coat or boots to keep me warm and between the wind and the rain it was hard to keep my teeth from chattering.
The pigeons didn't have any warm clothes either, but they didn't mind because the rain never stuck to them like it did to me for some reason. Sometimes I'd watch them for hours as they splashed in the puddles. They never seemed to mind the weather.
Excerpted from a little girl called Squeaks by Debbie Maddigan Copyright © 2011 by Debbie Maddigan. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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