by John Tavares
There are many gaps and holes in the story, but my origins in as few words as possible must necessarily leave some sense of vagueness and incompleteness. Besides, big parts of the past feel like my mothers’ stories, which remain largely untold. I often feel on birthdays that the real person who should be celebrating your birthday is your mother, if she is still alive; she survived and suffered both the agony of your birth and the pain of your upbringing. Then, how do you feel when you make discoveries about your mothers, but no words do them justice, while your fathers remain in the background, cold, distant, aloof, indifferent, unsupportive? How do you feel when you finally realize you lack clarity, have no complete and utter truth, about your true families and every family member is relative, in different senses of the word, and you therefore question and doubt your own identity? Besides, I feel old and my hands and feet are cold, and my memory, and hence my life, is fading, but I am still strong and alive.
The details are sketchy, vague, and they happened in the late fifties in Toronto before the subway line had closed circuit video surveillance that scanned platforms, passageways, and commuters—in fact, it happened shortly after the first subway line in Toronto opened—before the city and municipal police, or even the provincial police, cared about indigenous persons, before the police even cared that much about different ethnic groups or immigrants—the assumption—somewhat presumptuous—being they care about these people today, and I’m no longer confident of that belief.
My mother was actually Portuguese on one side, her mother’s side, and Ojibway Indian, on her father’s side, at a time when such ethnic blending wasn’t that common in Canada, or at least in the small town in northwestern Ontario, where my mother was born and raised, since most of the Portuguese immigrants, particularly from the Azorean islands, didn’t immigrate until later—the sixties and seventies. In fact, there were actually not that many immigrants in Sioux Lookout, at that time, at least they were not of a varied variety, not as much of the dark or Mediterranean variety. I was also told then the natives tended to stay on their reserve, unless they needed to visit town to conduct business or shop for dry goods or visit the federal government hospital for health-care. (I’ve done some research, not solid empirical and scientific research of the university social science variety, but of the café, coffee shop, and barroom variety, and I’ve talked to some to some elders and betters in the town and city, and, when I finally found the nerve, visited Lac Seul reserve.)
My mother originally moved to the city because of me, in search of a better life, a safer, and more prosperous life, but the move from Sioux Lookout to the city of Toronto represented an attempt to follow the right path, the route of the sober.
Amalia took her daughter to Toronto and managed to find a job as a needle worker, sewing and stitching together rugged denim and leather, workwear, at a sweatshop and textile factory in the garment district, around Spadina and Queen Street West, not far from where she lived in a basement apartment in a small bungalow near Chinatown.
She heard about some of the attractions on Centre Island from co-workers at the garment factory, where she sewed on buttons, rivets, and zippers. So, she decided to take her little daughter for a stroll down Yonge Street in the morning after she rode the streetcar along Dundas Street West. They could take a short leisurely stroll down Yonge Street, with its showy attractions, to the ferry terminal on the waterfront with Lake Ontario and then ride the ferry across the harbour to the islands. On Centre Island she would show her daughter the festivities, the carnivalesque, the Ferris wheel, the rollercoaster, the carousel, and the other rides she would find in the amusement park along the main walkways, aside from the beaches. She packed a swimsuit for the beaches, if she decided to explore the island shoreline.
As sometimes happens in life, particularly in the life of Amalia, she took a wrong turn, on the route to the ferry docks. Instead of walking straight down Yonge Street to the harbour front and Lake Ontario, she turned on Front Street to Union Station, but didn’t continue walking south to Lake Ontario. She wandered around the front of Union Station with its bustling, busy Saturday crowd, visitors, shoppers, travellers, revellers. People ignored her every time she asked for directions to the ferry docks because she was an excitable woman, she looked indigenous, even though she had parts of the Mediterranean and Europe in her genetic background, and she had been drinking. She bought a long brown bag of buttered popcorn, candy apples, and ice cream cones for the day trip from a food truck and candy vendor. When she returned to the stairs and cement ledge, to the wagon, she discovered her daughter Lara had disappeared.
So, the frantic search began. But no-one heeded her or paid attention to her; it was literally as if she was invisible. Finally, the Toronto police were summoned for the excitable, agitated woman. By then not only had her daughter disappeared; in the frantic search that ensued her wagon was stolen as well, containing her bag of food and snacks for the weekend excursion with her daughter, me, to Toronto’s Centre Island. This crucial piece of missing evidence may have helped undermine her credibility.
The police officer was skeptical of her claim and allegations, possibly because she had been drinking and it was not yet noon, and the wagon was stolen as well, with the baby dolls, toys, and clothes. In her emotional state, traumatized, Amalia was brought to the police division headquarters for questioning. The staff sergeant questioned her and garnered little bits and pieces of details about her identity and hometown. He had been to Sioux Lookout on a hunting expedition years ago. He decided to make some long-distance telephone calls to the provincial police detachment in Sioux Lookout, to help untangle this mess, determine the details, investigate the unsubstantiated allegations. He called the Sioux Lookout detachment. From the call the sergeant learned from a constable, on the other end of the long-distance line, in Sioux Lookout, Amalia had been arrested previously for public intoxication and mischief. Remember: this was the late fifties, and a long-distance telephone call was not cheap, even for a Toronto police officer calling a provincial police detachment in a remote town in Northwestern Ontario, and the inquiry had the potential to tick off and irk superior commanding officer since it crossed jurisdictional and territorial lines. A corporal transferred the call to a staff sergeant. The staff sergeant told the Toronto officer he knew the woman in question.
Amalia did not have a child, he said.
The sergeant added, though, she had accused several men of “roughhousing her,” after she resisted their “advances.” The police investigated, but the son of the local car dealer and the son of grocery store owner, were named, involved, and implicated, and became suspects. These young men were hockey coaches, members of the Rotary Club and even exchange students. The police decided not to pursue charges against these young men, because they came from good and important families, who had pricey lawyers from Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, and owned local businesses and because of their “exemplary moral character, volunteer service, and community leadership,” particularly in the areas of baseball and ice hockey coaching. Their friend, the unemployed mill worker, on the other hand, was rowdy and disrespectful towards his officers, and could not even skate. He was charged with drunk and disorderly conduct. After he spent a night in the drunk tank at the jail, he was released. Afterwards, since the sawmill wasn’t due to open until the following spring, he found gainful employment as a school bus driver, and the criminal charges were dropped.
The sergeant said he simply couldn’t abide by unjust and unfair criminal charges against up and comers, promising bright young men, strapping, handsome, athletic, prospective pillars of the community. Then, on another weekend night, the sergeant remembered, Amalia even accused a rookie police officer of making advances towards her after she was picked up on Front Street for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Although she was charged with mischief for making these accusations, she was never convicted.
I don’t think the police officer seriously entertained the notion or idea that what she described was true or even worse. He couldn’t conceive that an intoxicated woman could legitimately sustain an assault of a sexual nature.
The sergeant stared at the large commercial clock ticking above the booking officer’s desk. Now he had crimes to investigate, laws to enforce, and, although he enjoyed talking to a brother in the fraternal order of police from the north, a member of the provincial police force, which he actually held low in esteem, he looked for a way to politely end the long-distance telephone conversation. He couldn’t believe he had spent forty-five minutes discussing a native woman, who drank heavily, from northwestern Ontario, which he once described as a nightmare, during a moose hunting expedition that went haywire, when a conservation officer tried to charge his hunting party for abandoning a moose cow carcass and then, to add insult to injury, his outfitter refused to provide furnace oil to heat his cabin and insisted he burn chopped birch in the woodstove, and he vowed never to return to Northwestern Ontario again.
As soon as the Toronto sergeant heard about these accusations against the rookie provincial police officer, he seethed, spilled his coffee, broke his favorite mug, and sputtered with fury. He had a son in the provincial police force, at a detachment in the Muskokas, at Bracebridge, where his brother-in-law owned a motel.
When he finished the telephone call, his face was suffused with redness. He could barely control the trembling, dizziness, and chest pain from his anger and agitation, since he ignored the doctor’s advice about sugar, coffee, doughnuts, fried food, cholesterol, and his high blood pressure.
“Get her out of my sight,” he commanded the corporal, who rarely saw his superior that angry and worried about his health.
At least my mother wasn’t charged with mischief or obstruction of justice or assaulting a peace officer, but, if there was further investigation, her life and fate might have taken a different course. And so began my mother’s frantic, desperate search.
I am convinced, if she told the complete truth about me, and our own personal history, events and the situation might have possibly turned out differently. My life might have turned out entirely different—perhaps not as prosperous—but rewarding in other respects. When I am in a more skeptical mood, and I dwell and obsess on the past, I think if she told the complete and total truth she might have been arrested and faced even worse consequences and punishment, but, still, I would have been reported as missing.
For a year she searched for me throughout Toronto, and initially she made emotional pleas and scenes, but the fact that she had become my mother was supposed to have been a secret. She continued to work at the garment factory, sewing and stitching together heavy-duty leather and denim work clothes for labourers, on Spadina Avenue, near Chinatown. As she searched for me week nights and weekends in parks and playgrounds and department stores, as she learned about the seamier underside of the city, the massage parlors, the strip clubs, the exotic dancers, the street prostitutes, and the inner city neighbourhoods, including downtown, where street prostitutes, dressed gaudily and provocatively, congregated on corners in doorways and walked the streets, flaunting their bodies, peddling their wares, she arrived at the conclusion I had been abducted by a Yonge Street sex pervert.
Amalia gave up, surrendered, to fate, providence, she did not know, or understand, but she was in despair, defeated, again.
Meanwhile, sixty miles away, in another city, grittier, industrial, working class, my real parents, or the couple I came to consider my real parents were by the standards of the middle class decent and respectable and—to my benefit—white. Tucker and Astrid were both bank clerks and tellers at the main branch of the Commonwealth Bank on John Street in Hamilton. To help further their careers in banking, they travelled to Hamilton’s largest neighbouring city to explore the prospects of moving to Toronto. They considered buying a house in the Forest Hills neighbourhood specifically. When they found me alone on a wagon in a crowd at Union Station it was a no brainer for them. They tried to have a baby for the past ten years, a full decade. The moral equivalency for them was if a customer had left a wallet of cash on the counter beside the wicket, and they helped themselves, but, of course, that was forbidden, verboten, and with punitive consequences. Yes, my parents had been trying desperately for the past decade to conceive—they desperately wanted a child. Their despair blinded them morally. I am making excuses for them because thy were my parents, albeit adoptive. Now a solution was delivered straight to them as they emerged from the train station into the city for a brighter future.
They scooped me, picked me up in their arms, bundled me in my mother’s shawl, and took me on the next passenger train to Hamilton from Union station.
Time passed slowly and painfully for Amalia. Shortly afterwards, her sister Beatriz died from an overdose of alcohol and pills, barbiturates. When my mother’s mother was seriously ill, Amalia grudgingly answered a summons to care for Maria Jose and look after her house and household.
Flash forward decades, half a long lifetime, when my mother Astrid was dying in a private Toronto nursing home on Bayview Avenue. She finally confessed to me her and Tucker’s sin and my genesis and origins. I had been essentially taken, scooped, from a baby stroller, a wagon actually, on the busy boulevard in front of Union Station on a bright sunny Saturday at noon in the fifties. I was shocked and appalled, but it made sense. My parents were very rational and driven by an economic mentality of the social scientific construct of the rational man. My adoptive parents were also very white—I thought they were lily white and stereotypical WASPs. Meddlesome neighbours and nosey family friends described my appearance as exotic, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, which did not jive with the Nordic looks of my parents, Astrid and Tucker, who could have easily passed as twins. Was I Greek? Syrian? Native American?
My parents lived in Hamilton for another year until their promotions in the Commonwealth Bank came through; then they moved to Toronto for my father to assume a middle management executive position in small business and commercial loans. My mother was promoted to work in the accounting and auditing department. The bank paid for both to take night courses in economics, corporate finance, securities, and accounting in the business school at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. So, I lived a very Toronto life. The visible differences between myself and my parents was explained away by the fact that my mother assumed responsibility and took care of me, her niece, after my mother died. My mother, Astrid said, was Italian, and my biological father, her brother, was killed in the same fatal traffic accident, a head-on collision between a police cruiser and a civilian motor vehicle, my parents’ Buick Roadmaster Skylark, on Woodbine Avenue. When I later conducted some genealogical and ancestral research, I discovered the details of her brother’s death was partially correct, but the article made no mention of a passenger, a girlfriend, or wife, in his motor vehicle. Meanwhile, I was distracted and amazed by the number of traffic accident fatalities, particularly those involving police officers, in the north end of Woodbine Avenue in the Greater Toronto Area around that time. I do digress, but this explanation proved plausible; in this context in the late fifties and early sixties no questions were asked.
Many years later, my mothers’ true stories required deeper research; a tiny article in the back pages of The Toronto Telegram, which I found scanning through pages of microfiche and spools of microfilm, indicated “an Indian woman” from an Ojibway reserve in Northwestern Ontario, was searching for her lost daughter, born in Sioux Lookout, after the police abandoned their investigation for undisclosed reasons. This single but crucial key clue unraveled pieces of the puzzle after long silent hours of archival research in the Toronto Reference Library, a few kilometres north on Yonge Street from where I originally disappeared in front of Union Station fifty years ago, several blocks from the high school where I worked as an economics and history teacher.
So, I took the passenger train to Sioux Lookout. By this time, I had retired from my career as a teacher. I recently retired from my school teaching position at Jarvis Collegiate Institute. I was still afraid of flying; consequently, I looked forward to my epic journey on a train, with a suitcase full of hardcover and paperback books, to the north in the summer.
Then I learned my own aged mother was gravely and chronically ill, shuffling back and forth between the hospital and her senior’s apartment, the Patricia Plaza in Sioux Lookout. Although Amalia was on oxygen and tube fed, she gradually and in incoherent bits and pieces told me the truth: She took me from my own biological parents, including her sister, when she believed Beatriz and her partner could no longer care for me after my brother died. Her boyfriend, who was a visual artist, may have been my father and he may not have been my father. Amalia didn’t think Morris was my father, and believed Beatriz’s boyfriend immediately preceding Morris may have been my father, but she never had the courage to ask Beatriz again. Beatriz told Amalia it was none of her business if Morris was my father or not. Still, I was her biological niece. Meanwhile, my own brother, my younger sibling, died in the back seat, possibly from heat and suffocation, possibly from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, while I bounced in the front seat, in the locked Ford Crestline, scribbling and coloring in the pages of the storybook with crayon, parked in the parking lot on the alley that ran behind the Hudson’s Bay Store and the Sioux Hotel on Front Street, streets and alleys I walked five decades later to get a sense of the town, my own connection to my birthplace, and my own niche in the grand scheme of things. My mother and her boyfriend, who may have been my father, but who was the father of my younger sibling, left us with a storybook in the locked car, in the parking lot of the Hudson’s Bay store, while they were drinking in the downstairs bar of the Sioux Hotel, which then had separate entrances for men and women. So, my Aunt decided to take me on a journey to a new start in life in the big city of Toronto, where, she hoped, life would be better and she would eventually stop drinking.
My mother and the man who may have been my father did and said nothing; Morris continued to paint bright canvases, symbolic, imaginative, mystical, but eventually he left my mother and moved to Vancouver, living in the parks and on the streets, as he painted in his own indigenous style, the Woodlands school, on sketch paper, cardboard, and canvas. Morris sold his works and canvases on the street to whomever would buy, but he also made the rounds of shop keepers and store owners, who, if they leapt at the opportunity, managed to purchase original indigenous artwork at a bargain basement price. My possible or probable father intrigued me, and I took a trip to Vancouver on the train during that first summer I spent in Sioux Lookout. I found samples of his artwork and his biography in a gallery on campus at the University of British Columbia. In the afternoon of sunny hot days, I sun tanned in the nude at the nearby clothing optional beach. If anybody in my past life as a public high school teacher knew I was sun tanning in the nude they would have been in a state of shocked disbelief.
While I sun bathed and read, I made long distance phone calls on a cellphone, a handy invention I finally embraced, calling over distance and time to whomever remembered and knew my true parents in Sioux Lookout. Most people didn’t want to talk about my biological mother. They were disappointed Amalia never lived up to what they considered her potential. They remembered how her own mother, my biological grandmother, Maria Jose, worked hard as a cook at the Zone Hospital, which served the indigenous people from reserves up north, and cultivated possibly Sioux Lookout’s largest vegetable garden in her backyard. She was also an excellent seamstress, particularly for the nuns, who depended on her fashion skills.
The confusion continued. One woman said my biological mother died from drink and pills, overdosing on the same medication that killed Marilyn Monroe; another said that she was dead from a rare blood disorder or possibly leukemia.
While I was in Vancouver researching my possible or probable father’s life, my other mother, my aunt, Amalia, a life long smoker and drinker, finally succumbed to liver cirrhosis and lung cancer. I returned to Sioux Lookout and attended her funeral. And I cried when I saw nobody attended the funeral. The pallbearers were funeral home employees. Afterwards, I met with the funeral director, went to the local branch of my bank, cashed in a guaranteed investment certificate, and paid for her funeral.
Then I spent seven days in the library, going through back issues of community newspapers and local and regional government documents, searching for more evidence of my family in the town. I enjoyed my library research. The librarians said nothing when I brought in a takeout coffee from the highway motel or a fine downtown café. I found the article I was searching for finally—a brief story, in an old yellowing clipping, about my brother’s death, in the basement, the storeroom, of the municipal library. When I proudly showed the librarian my discovery, she told me back issues of the weekly community newspaper from that era had been scanned and digitized, converted to portable document format on library’s new photocopier. Organized chronically, the library then posted these digital files on their computer server and posted them online in the archive section of the library’s website. If I had simply entered the correct terms in the search engine the results would have popped up.
So, I Googled my baby brother’s death and the same article from the community newspaper popped up faster than the twitching and blinking of my aging eyes as well as a Winnipeg Free press article that provided details about the parking lot, the suffocating, stifling heat, the locked car, the unanswered questions. Awestruck, I decided to blindly search online to try to find where he might be buried. That online search proved futile.
Then I inquired at the town hall, asking the municipal clerk if there was any way possible to find my brother’s burial site. The municipal clerk, my age, with empathy but without an Ontario school teachers’ pension, took time out from her busy day, peering over counters and desktops at irate taxpayers with her stylish half-moon glasses. She drove me in a municipal service vehicle to the northern cemetery, beside the Catholic school, on the side of a gently sloping hill, with tall jack pines and black spruce trees, interspersed with birch and aspen saplings, and scattered tombstones and crosses, at the edge of a rock outcrop and ride. She said guiding me was not in her job description, but she showed me where she believed my infant brother was buried, alongside several other indigenous children and youth who died around the same time. But there were no grave markers or tombstones. When I made that observation, she apologized. Waving her arms about in resignation, she said this was the best she could do. And what of my biological mother, Beatriz?
“You’re confusing me,” she joked.
But I could not see how this woman could be confused; having been born, raised, and lived her entire life in Sioux Lookout, she seemed to know everyone and everything in the town. Still, she apologized and said my Aunt Beatriz was buried in a grave in the cemetery in the Lac Seul reservation. She told me Morris’s ashes had been scattered alone the shoreline of Lac Seul where elders said he received divine inspiration to pursue his artwork. Then, without prompting, she showed me the gravesite of my mother’s mother, Maria Jose, whom she remembered in her backyard, gardening. We stood beside my grandmother’s tombstone, in that scenic Northwestern Ontario cemetery was the only tombstone inscribed in a Latin language, which, I assumed, was Portuguese.
As we talked in the August sun, billowed by the gusting breeze, buffeted by the greenery, the municipal clerk told me the residential school near Sioux Lookout was in desperate need of qualified school teachers. The residential school paid their teachers and teachers’ assistant well. When I said I thought the government and native organizations had gotten rid of residential schools, the town clerk said Pelican Falls school was run and managed by the indigenous organization. I later learned the starting salary was identical to what I earned at the public high school in downtown Toronto, during my last year of teaching before I retired.
I was hired without an interview, although I think administration they did their due diligence. In a year the road to the school, bumpy, with a washboard dirt surface, winding through the Canadian Shield, near scenic falls and rapids, ruined my car’s suspension. I sold my house in East York, and bought a larger house, with a yard more than double the size, at a fraction of the Toronto price, in Sioux Lookout. With my teacher’s pension, and a second salary, money became the least of my concerns and worries. I needed to escape the feeling my life was winding down, meaningless. My existence may indeed have become without purpose or consequence, and this may have been truer particularly in the larger scheme of things, but I needed the perception or self-perception, this belief was false. In moving and learning about my past and starting my life afresh in the place where I originated nearly six decades ago, I was starting afresh again.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from the arts and science program at Humber College and journalism at Centennial College, but, more recently, earned a Specialized Honors BA in English from York University. His short fiction has been published in a wide variety of print and online journals and magazines in the USA, Canada, and internationally. His many passions include journalism, literature, photography, writing, and coffee.