This week, we have a realist account by Michael Chouinard of a dysfunctional family; the beauty of the account is in its small, finely tuned details that most can recognise as hallmarks of their own family’s dynamics.
My mom chattered during the whole car trip. She was an American by birth, which might’ve explained why the need to voice every single fleeting thought she had. I remember her babbling about some poor boy that had drowned in the canyon, about the weather, about how much better traffic on the Lion’s Gate was moving now, but I could see traffic wasn’t moving quickly enough for my dad. He frowned, remained silent and kept his fingers locked on the steering wheel while we made our way south on the highway through Vancouver, Richmond, Delta, on towards the border. I was daddy’s girl, and I think one of the reasons this man that had shown me how to skip stones enjoyed my company so much was that I talked so little.
This was a Sunday afternoon in May 1952, and my family was heading over the line to the town of Bellingham, Washington to see my mom’s sister and mother. I knew my dad ranked these visits with the relatives on par with trips to the dentist, though arrival at our destination would at least mean we could get away from the pressing claustrophobia inside the car.
While my dad drove on and my mom talked away, my two little brothers, finger in nose or thumb in mouth, were propped beside me in the back seat, each dumber than a sack of hammers. I already knew girls matured more quickly than boys, but these two half-wits seemed like a different species altogether. Usually they’d pass the time on car trips by throwing and dodging feeble, little-boy punches, at least until I would be ordered to separate the pair. I hated these excursions, and I would attempt to stay sane by making up stories in my mind to pass what seemed like an eternity.
When I saw a highway sign for the United States, I felt a sense of relief and guessed that we were near White Rock, close to the border, with Bellingham not far off in the distance, but soon our station wagon became lodged in a massive line-up of cars, as if we’d driven into quicksand. My dad pulled over to the shoulder and said, “Come on, Betty Boop, let’s go see what’s all the commotion.” I was thrilled. I gave the two half-wits the raspberry and slipped out of the car.
It looked as if a whole city of vehicles was parked for miles along the route, and everyone was getting out to make their way towards some destination. A man of few words and stubborn resolve, my dad never bothered to ask where anyone was going. Instead the two of us walked in step with all the others, trudging our way south.
Soon we could see the white columns of the Peace Arch near the border, and I breathed in a lungful of the sea air as if drinking through my nose. A large crowd had gathered, and I could hear the echoes of music in the distance. There was a man singing. A deep mournful voice, like nothing I’d heard before or since, but we were still too far away to see what was happening.
“Heck of a place for a songfest,” my dad said, squinting to get a better look. “I better find a payphone to tell your aunt we’ll be delayed. Darn, I am never going to hear the end of this from those two. You stay put until I get back, and stay out of trouble.”
I nodded, as he turned and began to push his way towards the Douglas Border Crossing headquarters, finally dissolving into a sea of bobbing heads so expansive it could have filled the Strait of Georgia.
Despite my dad’s direct order to stay put, I couldn’t resist elbowing my way closer to that voice. The singer looked part preacher, part Paul Bunyan, only he was Negro, as people said in those days. Surrounded by throngs of onlookers, he stood on the back of a truck parked on the American side of the border, which acted as a stage. Some of his songs seemed familiar, like what we’d sing in church. “Ev’ry time I feel de spirit, movin’ in my heart, I will pray,” he sang with a voice that resonated like a bass violin. “O ev’ry time I feel de spirit, movin’ in my heart, I will pray….”
Other songs sounded made-up, but it didn’t matter. Each one sprang from deep inside this man, like a well that needed to burst up through layers of solid rock towards the surface.
In front of me, two men were talking about how unjust it was that the singer was not allowed to travel wherever he wanted. They used words I didn’t understand at the time. Blacklist.
“Who is he?” I asked one.
“That’s Paul Robeson, little girl. He’s a singer and actor. A scholar and athlete too. A great man, but he can’t come to Canada.”
“It’s hard to explain. He wants to help the working man, see, and he was supposed to sing in Vancouver, but his own country won’t let him outside its borders. But, no miss, you can’t stop the great Paul Robeson. They just parked that old flatbed right over there in Washington and let him sing. Isn’t he something?”
“He sure is. His voice is swell,” I said. “Real skookum.”
As my eyes fixed on this Mr. Robeson, I tried to listen harder, more intently, to try to understand what his songs meant, and in those minutes that passed I forgot all about my father, my mother’s monologues, the two half-wits in the back seat. I felt a warmth from this great and powerful man. When I looked at all the smiling faces throughout the crowd, I sensed everyone felt the same way, and I realized that it was the happiest I’d felt all day, even more than when my dad had invited me to accompany him on his mission. If I’d had any hopes that we could stay there instead of going to visit the relatives, I realized in an instant that we were going to be on our way. It felt like my arm was being yanked out of its socket.
Giving no explanation, my dad made straight for the car, dragging me in tow, acting as if someone was about to kidnap us. I was certain he was going to scold me for disobeying him, but he said nothing. I craned my neck to look back at the man on the flatbed truck, straining to catch the notes pouring from his mouth like holy water. With that deep, dark voice fading behind me, I could still make out the words that Mr. Robeson sang. “No more auction block for me. No more, no more….”
When we had covered enough ground to see the car up ahead, my dad let go of my arm and started walking at a more measured pace. He stopped for a second to light a cigarette and spat on the pavement. “That Hottentot! Godless Commie acts like he’s Christ our Lord. I tell you I didn’t fight the Huns, so he and his kind could take over,” he said, then spat once more.
He exhaled puffs of a smoke from his mouth after each drag, then tossed the cigarette to the roadside, and while we continued along the highway back to the car, I didn’t open my mouth once. I didn’t dare. There were so many things I wanted to ask him at that moment – so many things I could say now – but I’d been taught that there were times to be silent and this was one of them, and the only thing I could do was look away from this image of my father so that I not see him as he began to crumble into fine particles right before my eyes.
The piece is all about contrasts; of love and hate, of unwaverable belief and unjustifiable flaws and how we can reconcile these feelings in the vaster realm of human experience.
Come back next week for more examples of these experiences!