He did his best. 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.