This story begins with a lie. In Latin, mostly. With a bit of English and some franglais thrown in for the pew-fillers seeking refuge from the frigid bluster of a Montreal winter.
On January 19th, 1946, a pair of twenty-five-year-olds slipped into the vestibule of St. Anthony’s Parish church on rue Saint-Antoine. They stamped snow from their feet, hung their heavy coats in the cloakroom then milled about in the incense-scented dimness.
The bride wore white, of course. Pumps with silk stockings gifted from her Girl Guide troupe, a simple lace gown that cost a month’s wages and a filmy chapel veil tatted by Ma Wheattle, president of the Catholic Women’s League. Rail-thin, her work-chapped fingers scented and gloved, the bride clutched a posy of pale flowers and recited a silent prayer to her Guardian Angel. Clad in a natty, double-breasted suit, her silent companion adjusted his trouser creases and stared straight ahead.
The altar boys elbowed each other as they lit candles in the sanctuary. With a frowning shush, the elderly priest motioned to the groom. Spine soldier-straight, he strode to the altar rail. In the choir loft, the organ wheezed to life. An old family friend, an honorary uncle, proudly stood in for the bride’s long-dead parents. He hushed her three younger siblings, waved them to their places in the procession, then solemnly walked the bride up the long stone aisle to give her away.
Ah yes, the sacrament of holy matrimony. The ‘covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring’. In which a man and a woman were intended to cleave one to the other for a lifetime. Beatrice pledged to ‘forsake all others’, to be faithful and bear Anthony’s children.
She stared at his handsome face and with a tremulous smile, murmured, “I give you my all.”
She meant it. All the monthly novenas to Saint Joseph, the lonely prayers to St. Raphael, the scores of candles lit during those years scarred by grief and the Great Depression had been worth each hard-earned coin and calloused knee.
She had kept her small family together since the age of nineteen, after her mother died in the dentist’s chair. While Beatrice worked three jobs, the ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ of the Negro Community Centre fended off inquisitive social workers with orphanages on their agenda. She’d smile as she asked the butcher for ‘bones for the dog’ they did not have, then carefully eke soup or hash or a pot pie from the meat scraps. When the cupboards were nearly bare, the children were fed first; she was sustained by the rightness of what she was doing. And now she was getting married. In the house of her God. No matter that they hardly knew one another. They’d been brought together for a reason. Her faith had seen her through so far. Would see her through. No matter what, she believed.
Holding her hand in his calloused palm, Anthony took a deep breath then repeated Beatrice’s words. He slipped a gold circlet on her finger and said, without meeting his bride’s hopeful gaze, “I take thee for my lawful wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
If only. If only we could hit ‘rewind’. He lied. He had no all to give.
His vow was broken as the phrase left his lips. The lie was one of omission, but mendacious nevertheless. Beneath that tailored navy blue wool, the crisp white shirt and spit-shined brogues, Anthony was a ghost with a captivating smile. He had form. He had substance, too; just not enough.
What kind of person could he have been if his father’s legs hadn’t been cut off by a cane-hauling train in Cuba? If he hadn’t languished in a hard chair for three days at his sickly mother’s bedside, not leaving except to urinate behind their neat wooden house? Three days—forever for a ten-year-old boy—spent stroking her arm and begging her to awaken. But she’d already given up and died. What if he hadn’t been fostered by relatives who treated him like a human donkey? They’d threatened that sensitive, love-starved boy with the Bible and tried to thrash his artistry away. When they caught him reading the Classics, they starved him of food. Would there have been more of him to share if he hadn’t lied about his age and joined the Corps of Royal Engineers as a sapper? He’d trained in Chatham, Kent in England, where he wrote poetry on the backs of old envelopes. A curly-haired Land Girl in mufti taught him to dance. He learned that Satan didn’t care about him. And in the shadow of the Sphinx, what remained of his youth was blighted with sand flies and spattered with the blood of his falling comrades.
Who knew that only most of him would return from overseas to be demobbed in Montreal? Those two orphans were so hopeful. They tried as best they could. Dear God, how they tried.
A scant nine months after the wedding, their daughter was born. Anthony had taken ship from Southampton, England, arriving two weeks before. He had a trade and found work as a machinist. Master of his own house, he overflowed their bookshelves with leather Reader’s Digest volumes. Beatrice, a proud young matron, kept house in the old family apartment on St. James Street. Out of habit, she ‘made do’, using every part of a chicken except the squawk. They hosted potluck parties. Family and friends, music and food, debates and laughter. Three years later, a son arrived. Another boy—one whose background was shaded with mystery—was ‘adopted’. There were five around the table. She sewed and knit and taught herself to make preserves to keep the larder filled. For a time, it seemed like equilibrium had been restored.
Then Anthony bought a plot of land on the South Shore. Located in the middle of an empty field, the settlement of Mackayville would eventually grow into a suburb populated by rough-and-tumble labourers who favoured unfiltered cigarettes, driveway auto repair and large dogs. He drafted plans for a modest wood-framed house with a concrete block foundation, red Insulbrick siding and asbestos roof shingles. His buddies from work or from the nearby Caughnawaga Reserve would drop by to help. Even though he was more of a handyman than a builder, he couldn’t abide the sloppiness of well-meaning helpers fueled by Carling Black Label beer. Most weekends, he slept in a tent with his tools beside piles of two-by-fours.
When the house was ‘finished’, it resembled a sharecropper’s cottage more than anything else. There was a well in the back and a hand pump in the kitchen. An ice box sat in the lean-to pantry. Meals were prepared on a wood-burning cast iron cook stove. They had no phone and it was months before the electricity worked reliably. The place was drafty and the oil furnace smoked. Nothing but weeds grew in the yard: they were literally dirt poor. Something always wanted fixing or they needed another cord of wood. Everything was more expensive. In 1953, with three youngsters underfoot, Beatrice was a pioneer wife not thirty miles from her network of family and friends and the largest city in Canada.
She adjusted. Hadn’t she said, ‘for better or worse’? Being taunted for being coloured cut deep. The loneliness she kept at bay by keeping busy. She prayed relentlessly. Eighteen months’ later, ‘better’ returned. Her husband grew tired of commuting over the Jacques Cartier bridge, sold the do-it-yourselfer and moved them into a bright walk-up on Lusignan Street. Beatrice was back in her element. They had modern conveniences. No one called them names. The children were healthy and exuberant. Life became more stable, but Anthony chafed. He’d never known a ‘normal’ that lasted so long.
He swept into the apartment after work one Saturday afternoon in late 1954 and handed his wife a box of Cadbury’s Assorted Milk Chocolates.
“Thank you. But why?” It wasn’t her birthday or their anniversary. And Anthony wasn’t a spontaneous man.
With a shy smile, he announced that he wanted to start a coffee plantation. Or perhaps harvest rubber. The whole family could work their acreage. Where? The Republic of Liberia.
“Liberia? In Africa?” Beatrice said.
“Yes. The Motherland. Think of the opportunity. We’d be among our own people.”
She glanced around their neat apartment, at their children colouring at the kitchen table. At the handful of spring flowers in a jar by the new RCA Victor radio. She bowed her head for a moment then looked at the earnest face of her husband of seven years.
“We’d die there, so far away from everyone. From my family. Our people are here. No.”
He stared into her eyes then said, “I’m going to write some letters,” and left the room.
Beatrice was a good wife. She asked no questions. He talked about re-enlisting to fight in the Korean War. She reminded him of his family obligations. He buried himself in his papers. The familiar rhythms of life resumed. A few months later, the first of the pale blue aerogramme envelopes arrived.
On a rainy Friday evening the following June, Anthony announced he was going away for a few days. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back with a surprise. I promise.”
He returned on Sunday evening flourishing a thick Manila envelope, travel-weary but jubilant. He kissed his wife on the cheek, not something he usually did outside their bedroom.
Beatrice wiped her hands on her apron, relocated the cat from the chair to the floor, then sat and peered at the pages filled with legal jargon and map coordinates. Anthony shoved a photo into her hand. Indeed, he’d been too modest. The ‘surprise’ was cataclysmic.
At least this time, the house was already built. Red insulbrick again, but it looked sturdy, with two storeys covered by a shingled barn roof. Windows on each side of a front door with no stairs looked like empty eyes. There were apple trees in the front yard. A tractor was parked on the gravel driveway.
“Sixteen acres of orchards. Sour cherries, peaches, pears. Grape vines. A cistern. All the farm equipment. Our own creek.” His brown eyes crinkled with delight.
‘Our’. Beatrice hadn’t seen him so happy in years. He kept saying, ‘our’. Nothing changed. Except that everything had changed. She knew she should try to share his joy, but with every word he spoke, her heart shriveled.
Glancing at the picture again, she said, “Where?”
He unfolded a worn map. Province of Ontario. He jabbed at a speck of letters: Beamsville.
“Our future. It will be good.”
That was a lie.
Beatrice gazed at the relentless green of forest and fields, wondering at the resolve of this man beside her who was more of a stranger than before. She shivered. Every place she’d ever known, everyone she’d loved except for her children, was out of reach. Even the cat had run off before the last box of books was packed in the Studebaker’s trunk. Anthony wheeled the car from a tarred country road past a battered aluminum mailbox on a post by the ditch and up a narrow lane to their new home. They had groceries to tide them over for a few days and as many personal goods as they could cram in.
Six months before, he’d read an advertisement offering ‘productive farmland for sale’. He’d driven eight hours each way from Montreal—four hundred miles—to buy his dream with the last of their savings. During the intervening months, he’d been so sweet. Tried out intermittent little gestures, as if he’d been practicing. Promised to teach her to drive. Told her they wouldn’t be pinching pennies forever. She’d wept in private, begged her friends to come visit, and stopped going to Mass. Why bother? God had forsaken her. They’d arrived in rural nowhere as night was falling, exhausted and numb.
While the children slept in the back seat, Anthony grabbed Beatrice’s hand and tugged her up the six worn planks at the side entrance. She looked askance at the sagging clothes line attached to the wall and the path leading to a narrow shed at the edge of the orchard. The entrance door opened with a shriek. Inside smelled of old dog and stale heat. Their footfalls echoed on the red and yellow linoleum. There was no other sound but the buzz of flies trapped between the screen and panes of glass in the double windows. He flicked the light switch.
“Guess they forgot to turn on the power,” he said, taking a flashlight from his pocket. She slid her hand from his and fingered a gingham curtain the colour of old blood.
They toured the house. It was so much less than Beatrice had hoped, but just about what she’d come to expect. There was a green Formica table and four chairs in the kitchen, an electric stove and refrigerator. But instead of a faucet and taps by the cast iron sink, there was a hand pump. She blinked back tears as she climbed a flight of wooden stairs to the bedrooms. When she looked up at the uninsulated ceiling, she saw slivers of moon through the wooden slats.
“I’ll go get the children,” she said, and trudged into the blur of her future.
The day school started, sun blazed in the autumn sky. Beatrice’s morning sickness was over. She’d learned how to operate the wringer washer in the dirt-floored cellar without mangling her arms. And in the heat of summer, hanging load upon load of damp laundry hadn’t been so bad.
‘For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’.
Weary of housework, back aching from picking rocks from the cherry orchard, she decided to repaint their name on the mailbox. The red flag was up; fresh mail. Tucking the paintbrush into her hair and the bottle of India ink into the crook of her elbow, Beatrice flipped open the box and pulled out some utility bills, a postcard from her just-married sister in New York and a blue airmail envelope. Curious, she flipped it over. The return address was Mosely, Birmingham, England, written in a school-marmish hand. A woman’s hand. A black cat had been drawn across the envelope flap. Underneath the tail was printed a tiny number XXVI. She’d seen that handwriting before. Years before, actually, when she’d been searching in a desk drawer for their cheque book. A stack of crisp envelopes secured with a rubber band. On top of a studio portrait of a curly-haired blond cuddling a little dog under her chin.
Beatrice gasped. The bottle of ink tumbled down her side, leaving a wet gash of black along her flowered house dress and staining the outside of her calf. When, exactly? Her gaze shifted to the patch of devil’s paintbrush growing in the culvert at her feet as she sifted through her memory. It had been a few months after she’d refused to move the family to Liberia. She kicked the empty bottle into the ditch, raced back to the house and turned the heat on under the kettle, praying that Anthony’s correspondent had used permanent ink.
“Dearest Tony,” she read. He’d always insisted Beatrice call him Anthony. “Thank you for the pretty hankies. Mam and Sis appreciated the thoughtful gifts. I bought a lovely new blouse with the five pounds you sent. Eddie and the blokes from the pub were asking after you. The printing plant and metalworks factory are running adverts in the paper for maintenance men. They’re giving preferences to vets still, so think about that. Our Alice and I went dancing at the Palais last weekend. It’s not the same without you, though.”
Beatrice clutched her belly and sank into a chair. Tears ran down her cheeks. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn something lovely and new. No, she did remember. Her wedding day.
‘Forsaking all others.’ She’d never had an ‘other’ to forsake.
It was the shouts of the children in the yard that brought her out of her stupor. Leaping to her feet, she scrubbed the ink from her skin with a dishrag then grabbed a bottle of mucilage, pressed a thin line of adhesive to the letter flap and pressed it shut with the flat of her wedding band. She made a bundle of the fresh mail and some opened envelopes, crumpling it between her fingers before tossing everything down and dragging it across the tiles with the toe of her shoe. She picked the papers from the floor and organized them into a tidy pile. If Anthony asked what happened, she’d make something up. She’d dropped the mail in the yard and had to grab the letters before the wind blew everything away. But he didn’t ask.
Beatrice stopped keeping track. The children were always hungry. As darkness came earlier and earlier, being housebound made them more rambunctious. Except for the walleyed egg man and the milkman who still drove a horse and buggy, she had no visitors. The Ukrainian and Polish farmers’ wives in the vicinity had twice as many children. Even if they’d understood English, there was no time or energy for socializing. Never-ending mending. Air leaked through chinks in the walls and shovels of coal had to be fed into the furnace around the clock. Anthony worked overtime, read three books a week and wrote poetry and letters every day. His nightmares returned; he often slept on the couch. They didn’t talk much, but the children’s chatter and his melancholy filled the spaces where marital congeniality had been. On New Year’s Day, she slipped carrying a pail from the indoor privy to the outhouse. He found her in the trampled snow half an hour later, big belly-up, spattered with frozen shit, tears pooled beneath her shuttered eyes like icy commas.
Their last child was delivered in hospital, in the midst of a blizzard. Beatrice was glad for the week of enforced rest. The cards from her family and the tug of that sweet fat boy at her breast reminded her of love. She’d been faithful. The Lord would provide. She pressed the heads of the flowers her husband brought her between the pages of her Sunday Missal and got on with it.
Anthony never got around to teaching his wife to drive the car. It was lonely for her on the farm. Those were the reasons he gave when, during Easter dinner two years later, he announced he was selling the property. They were moving into an apartment above the pharmacy in town. The children balked at leaving school and friends and the freedom of roaming the countryside. He sent them to bed without dessert. Beatrice looked forward to starting afresh with hot and cold running water, flush toilets and steam heat. No more wrestling with the tractor while Anthony wielded the sprayer. No more packing fruit in frilly purple cups for hours on end, getting stung by wasps. No more bathing last in a tin tub of lukewarm soap-scummed water.
For a time, the family rubbed along in the small apartment, lulled by town comforts like a laundromat, a public library, playgrounds and sweets from the Italian bakery. Anthony got a second job. Beatrice joined the Catholic Women’s League and knit socks for prisoners of war in Korea. He bought a newer used car and more books. She got a second-hand sewing machine. There were four stacks of airmail envelopes in the desk: she’d checked. While the ties that should have bound them frayed, Beatrice kept silent. She had no experience with couple-hood and feared whatever she did or said would be wrong. His moody silences she could endure. He didn’t beat her or booze it up. So what if their bed had grown cold? There was no knock-down, drag-out fighting in front of the children. They’d manage.
And they did, until she discovered the large dark suitcase—half-packed with his poems, the letters and his good clothes—under their bed.
‘Until death us do part’.
He’d hung his head and paced the room like it was a cage. She wrung her hands and begged him to think of the children.
“It’s all too much,” he moaned, waving his arms. “The noise, the demands. I can’t take it.”
“When?” Dry-eyed, she closed the door and leaned against the jamb. “What will we do?”
“I have a ticket. For the day after tomorrow.” He tried on a smile. Beatrice looked away. “Don’t worry, it will just be for a while.”
Their story ended with a lie, too.