The children’s unit at St. Mary’s General Hospital is like any other. The playroom has a television on a shelf near the ceiling (why up so high?) and shelves are lined with more toys than Santa can fit in his sleigh. Alone in my room, I am given a crib instead of a regular bed. The metal on the crib is painted some khaki institutional colour: green, beige, or blue. I’m not especially happy to be here, but with my recent illness, I am told that I don’t have a choice, and besides, it’s only for a little while.
My grandmother had given me a doll as a gift, which I keep with me when I go to bed. It isn’t a Barbie-type doll; its body is larger, with some of its parts made of fabric. While I play with my doll, it slips out of my hands and I’m not fast enough. The doll ends up on the floor. I look around, and no one’s in sight that can come to her rescue. I stand up in my crib, carefully swinging one leg over the rail, and placing my toe on the bottom of it. Straddling the rail, I swing my other leg over and jump down onto the floor to rescue my fallen doll. As footsteps approach, I look up to find a nurse in a starched white uniform, hands on her hips, asking what on earth I’m up to. My pulse quickens and I can’t catch my breath as I try to explain. Quickly, I climb back over the rail and drop into my bed as she warns me not to try that again, or I’ll get a spanking.
I wasn’t doing anything wrong, was I? My parents were gone home, the nurses were busy, and I was alone. All I had was my doll, and the smell of my grandmother’s face make-up on its fabric. I could still see her wrinkled hands, swollen at the joints, handing it to me. Her face, the way it creased at the eyes when she smiled at me. My doll kept me sane between the prodding and poking of sharp needles and cold stethoscopes. I finally escaped those stark grey walls to finally be surrounded by my parents and sister.
For a time, my family lives in a small addition that had been built on the side of my grandmother’s farmhouse. There’s a large garden next to the house sprouting peas, carrots, potatoes. There’s a huge towering tree at the back of the garden, which will later become a favourite place to build a tree house. A wooden latch held in place with a rusty nail usually keeps the old creaky door of our place shut, and inside are two beds against one wall: one for my parents, the other for my sister and me. Two chairs sit neatly tucked under a tiny wooden table on the right, and straight ahead lies a kitchen smaller than a two-piece bathroom. In fact, that’s what it would eventually become after we moved out.
The toilet consists of an outhouse by day and a grey metal pail behind a small curtain by night. One evening, I groggily get up out of bed to use our “facilities.” My mother’s shrill voice resonates in my ears: “Be careful not to spill the pail!” Before I could barely finish calling back, some imaginary force tips over the bucket I’m sitting on – along with all of its contents – onto the rough wooden floor. My body tenses as I remain squatted, frozen, with wetness oozing around my stubby feet. My knuckles turn white as I keep my rumpled nightgown wrapped around my waist, fearing that the wetness will get at it as I hear my mother’s approaching footsteps. She doesn’t chastise me, but wets a cloth to clean my feet. The smell of disinfectant permeates the air as I sink deeper under the wool covers.
Our stay in that place was like the passing of a season. I didn’t know how we ended up in our next place, a small upstairs apartment. Early memories play tricks on the mind; it’s like trying to remember dreams. One minute you’re in one place, and the next, your surroundings are transformed and can be miles away, and the details aren’t always as clear as you’d like them to be. Anyway, somehow we ended up back up north, a four-hour drive on icy roads with nothing but jack pines on either side.
The new place has long outside stairs that lead to a large mudroom. It is scattered with a rainbow of coloured plastic toys and fuzzy animals. A thin metal door opens into a gleaming white kitchenette. Another doorway connects it to a slightly bigger living room, with barely enough room for the small sofa after the Christmas tree my father got from the bush is placed in one corner. On the opposite wall rests a small stand supporting a black and white television set with long metal rabbit ears extending to the ceiling. An upholstered chair sits in a corner, its metal feet scratching the hardwood floors beneath it. Lying on my stomach in my bed, I watch my father standing in front of the small mirror of the bathroom, turning the hot water faucet on and off as he shaves off the day’s stubble.
It’s Christmas Eve, and our home is bursting at the seams. I’m supposed to be asleep in my bed, waiting for Daddy to wake me for Midnight Mass, but through the noise and chatter of everyone filing in, I hear a distinct “Ho, ho, ho” coming from somewhere outside. My eyes pop open, and I can’t get up fast enough to greet Santa. I don’t know how many people come through our door, but it feels like an eternity as the jolly laugh gets louder. Standing just inside, I wave people through like a traffic cop, hurrying them forward with my hand so that I could get a glimpse. The moment is here, and a rush comes over me as I hear, once again, the jolly laugh. I dance from one foot to the other, rubbing my hands and craning my neck as far forward as my muscles will allow.
I’m usually happy to see my uncle. This time, however, he must have wondered why my shoulders dropped at the sight of him. After wishing me a Merry Christmas, I was whisked back to bed to await Midnight Mass, and the real jolly man in red.
I slip into my flannel peejays, feeling the softness and warmth on my skin. The pink and blue flowers on a white background make me feel dizzy if I stare at them too long. Eventually, I fall asleep, and the next thing I know I’m being shaken, “Get up Hunny, it’s time for Mass.” I jump out of bed and into my favourite dress and can’t help but to peek under the tree to see if maybe, just maybe, Santa might have passed through earlier than usual. This was Christmas, and this is our home.
These are three of my earliest memories meshed together. I took a non-fiction creative writing class last year (my very first), and this was our first assignment. It was a challenge to find a common thread to three separate memories and put it all into one piece. This was the result. What is your earliest memory?