Moons–memoir–chapters 1 & 2

These Many Moons Magnificent

A Memoir

Part One

Slivers

five to thirty-five

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Maya Angelou

Chapter 1

Geraldine

When I was nine years old, I was convinced that I had the wrong name. I had suspected it for a long time.

“What’s your name, honey?”

No response.

“Don’t you have a name?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what is it?”

Reluctantly, “Geraldine”.

“Oh, that’s a nice name.”

But it wasn’t a nice name. Not to me.

I preferred being called Gerry. It had only two syllables and somehow sounded better. Not so harsh as Geraldine. After I learned to read, I looked up the meaning of Geraldine. “Mighty spear-thrower.” Oh, how awful! I was tiny and could barely hold a tennis racket. How could I possibly hurl spears?

My grade three teacher announced that we’d be learning how to do cursive writing. How exciting! It must have something to do with cursing. Only grown-ups were allowed to swear and grown-ups wrote with joined-up letters. When I mastered this new skill, I too could say words like shit and damn. In 1956 only dyed-in-the-wool sinners used the F-word.

Preliminaries first. How to unscrew the cap from the ink pot. Some of the kids spilled the blue-black gunk all over their go-to-school clothes—a transgression just short of spilling it on your go-to-church clothes. But I had already opened my jar and set it into the perfect-sized hole drilled into the top right corner of the desk. The marred wooden surface bore inky testament to the hundreds of children who came before. Speaking of desks, mine had to be imported from the grade one classroom. I might have been humiliated; instead I was all delight—my feet touched the floor.

I inserted the sharp steel nib into the just-right slots of the slender red holder. Dip, wipe, write. Disaster. Nib legs splayed. Paper ripped. Miscellaneous blobs and illegible words decorated the page. Achieving the just-right pressure was impossible. I wondered, briefly, how the left-handers were faring. What numbskull decided that needle points and flimsy paper made good partners?

Day after day, I practised. I seldom gave up on anything. Certainly nothing this important. At last I got it.

“Gerry” I wrote. No blobs, no tears, perfectly readable. I peered at the name. Something was wrong. It didn’t look right. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t even smell right. I wrote, Gerrie. Jerry. Gerri. Geree. No matter how I spelled it, an inner voice whispered, “That’s not you”.

Chapter 2

The Near Death

Too young and too little, I didn’t know what to do with this knowing. For the next five years I simply accepted my name. Once or twice I did wonder if the wrong-name feeling began in earnest the day I almost died.

On a perfect summer afternoon, I clambered up to my assigned place in the family sedan—the ledge beneath the rear-view window. My much older sister and two older brothers filled the back seat. My parents occupied “the thrones”. Father drove—always.

We were going to the beach, not Peace Haven with its quiet water and jumping-bridge, but a lake so big it had no further shore.

My body didn’t work like other people’s. I was often cold. Lying in the heat of the window shelf was one of my most favourite things. Bathed in sunbeams, I closed my eyes and dreamed. Peaceful dreams. I smelled the sea first. Always I awoke just as the car crested the very last hill. Before me lay the water—a corduroy of moving ridges, white and blue.

A zillion colours crowded the shore. Beach blankets and umbrellas rich in design, bathing suits of every description, people pale or black or some colour in between. Mother, eagle-eyed, spied the ideal plot of sand. We children raced to claim it. Plaid blankets were duly laid down, picnic baskets and cooler set off to one side. Swim first. Eat later. My towel claimed and deposited nearby, I headed to the water.

I stand and watch. Over and over small waves slap the shore. They arrive on an angle and retrace their paths in their retreat. I wade in. Not too far. Bliss. I close my eyes. Warm water invites me further. I laugh. A gull, I spread my arms and fly above the sea. Walk on. One step more. Into the trough I fall. I flail and gasp. Can no one see me? Beneath the surface I sink. Into darkness. Into forever-ness.

But I refuse to die. Perhaps I pray. I don’t remember. A miracle. My foot touches sand. Up I climb. Out of the hollow. Find the sky above the sea. Gulp the air. Sob.

Shoreward I turn. Scan the beach for my parents relaxing on plaid blankets. Find them at last. Proceed with great caution. Arrive. Enfold myself in the huge pink towel. Sit.

And say nothing.

very young Geraldine

The Burgundy Bicycles–a testament to the tenacity of the young and not-so-young

The Second Burgundy Bicycle suspended for the winter

In early July of my seventh year, I planted my feet on the green tile floor, pressed fists to waist, thrust out my elbows, stuck out my chest and declared to my mother’s back, “I’m a big girl now. I need a big bike. Tricycles are for babies”.

In matter of fact I was not a big girl. Oh, big in spirit and very big in imagination, but quite small in stature. On a chart recording the height and weight of every six-and-three-quarter-year-old in every part of the world, I would have landed in the bottom five percentile.

Mom turned from her task at the kitchen sink, eyed me from top to toe, then toe to top. At last, she directed her gaze into my eyes. She must have seen my tough-little-girl determination because she said, “All right”.

We went outside to the storage space under the big veranda, its treasures not-quite hidden by hundreds of crisscrossed slats of white lattice. Mom dragged out a bulky burgundy bicycle. As I was the youngest of four siblings, a new bike was an impossibility. This one had belonged to my seven-years-older sister. The best thing was, that in 1954, girls simply did not ride boys bikes—I couldn’t inherit one of my brothers’.

Worn white letters on dark metal proclaimed CCM—Canada Cycle and Motor Company. Fat steel cylinders formed the frame—the front tube was elegantly curved. Very lady-like. The handlebars extended straight out from the centre then, at the same height, turned toward the rider. A proper-sized person riding the bike could sit up straight and enjoy the scenery.

Mother scanned the bicycle. Scanned me. Looked back at the bike. Looked back at me then re-entered the house. Out she emerged with a large pillow and one of my brothers’ belts. I trusted my Mom’s wisdom and allowed her to secure the cushion to my backside by tightly clinching it with the leather strap. Satisfied, Mom returned to her work in the kitchen.

I leaned the bike against the trellis wall and tried to climb onto the seat. The bustle made it hopeless. It became clear that even if I could get onto the saddle, my short legs would never permit my feet to touch the pedals. Thank goodness there was no crossbar. Standing on the rubber footholds, I wedged myself against the hard line of the wide silver shaft just below the seat. The cushion helped here. It kept me forward enough that the saddle didn’t puncture my neck. In this fashion I managed to push myself off the wall and travel a few wobbly feet. Over and over I practised how to balance the bike and move at the same time. Days later, the few feet became more feet, then a lot of feet, then actual yards. For some time, I thought that another purpose of the bustle was to protect me when I fell. Several tumbles later, I realized that no one falls off a bike onto her bum. Knees, shoulders, hands, elbows, shins, scalps and faces could be scraped raw, but never one’s backside. Further, because I gripped the handlebars so fiercely when the bike began to totter beyond my control, the heavy machine, without fail, fell on top of me. The pillow was quite useless against that problem as well.

We lived in a neighbourhood of red brick bungalows. Giant maples shaded its narrow streets. When finally I was able to ride the bike a reasonable distance without mishap, Mom allowed me to leave the property. However, she warned me not to ride on the walkways. I might kill someone. No helmets in those days. And thankfully, little traffic. In the first hours of my new-found freedom, I weaved over most of my lane and into the opposite one as well. But, with resolute persistence, I did learn to control the bicycle.

A lecturer from my university days spoke of “The Concept of Competence”. In brief, he defined the term as “the satisfaction a child feels when [she] has successfully mastered a new skill”. I reveled in my bike-riding accomplishment. I was then so much bigger than my backyard or the short distances my little legs could carry me.

…..

It is not possible that I outgrew the burgundy bike. I never got taller than five feet and five-eights of an inch. After I had ignored the bicycle for a few years, it disappeared. I imagine Mother did one of her regular, “donate stuff to charity” acts and the bike was part of the donation.

In my twenties I purchased a youth-sized Canadian Tire specimen. It was a boy’s bike and the crossbar sometimes caused me difficulties. Even so, I rode it for three decades. When my daughter moved to the big city she asked if she could have it. Apparently, old bikes were retro-smart. Besides, there was little likelihood of it being stolen. Although I had owned it longer, I never loved it as I had that first learn-to-ride bicycle. I let it go.

At the time I lived in a small hilly Ontario town on Georgian Bay. The steep slopes careened toward the shoreline where a smooth and level path circled the bay—an open invitation to cyclists. I missed having a bike. I paid a visit to a local cycle shop. A used bicycle had just been received. A Trek Navigator 2.0. Tubular steel, a gently curved front tube, burgundy in colour. I knew it had to be mine.

When we moved to Prince Edward Island five years ago, the second burgundy bike accompanied me. I ride it on the south shore road to collect eggs from a neighbour or deliver baked goods to the old school house. I avoid the hills. Even the gentle gradient that slopes upwards from the school corner to our house challenges my seventy-one year-old body. Once, riding home into a headwind, I considered dismounting and pushing the bike. Then, I remembered the six-year old me. I stood up on the pedals, leaned into the handlebars, pushed hard against the foot levers and rode on. Only when I reached the bottom of our driveway did I stop. Breathless and with pounding heart, I dismounted. Then, I stood still. I waited until breath and heart slowed. And in that pause, a smile began as a tickle in my belly, skipped to my heart, then burst into sunbeams over my face. I did it. I never gave up.

Prairie Wakerobin