By the time I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of
Dodge Kitchener. Actually, that’s a lie – I’d been planning my escape since sometime in my early teens; it’s just that in my final semester of secondary school, my need to leave and branch out on my own was becoming dire. Part of it was that I just plain hated Kitchener (sorry, fellow Kitchenerites – I’ve since revised my opinion somewhat!); I was a pretentious kid who read French existentialists and smutty Leonard Cohen books, and I saw myself as being too big, too smart for my provincial hometown. Part of it was that I was sure that people only thought of me as a loser geek because they were accustomed to doing so; I thought that if I moved somewhere where no one knew me, my new peers would be sure to recognize me for the super smart intellectual with a killer fashion sense and razor sharp wit that I was. But probably the biggest reason for wanting to leave Kitchener was my family.
As the oldest child in a single parent family whose siblings were 6 and 11 years younger than her, things were, well, less than stellar. For one thing, I did a lot of free babysitting duty, which made it hard to get an after school job and earn a few dollars for myself. This, in turn, made it hard to keep up with classmates whose families were better off than mine; my clothes weren’t as nice as theirs, I didn’t always get to go along on class trips, and in my last year of school, I couldn’t afford the $20 student card, which meant that I didn’t qualify for any of the student awards. Because my mother only had a certain number of sick days per year, and because little kids tend to spend a lot of time getting sick, I was often the one to stay home with my sisters when they were running a fever or had the flu. Worst of all, or so it seemed to me, I was perpetually stuck in little-kid land. Our family television was occupied with an endless loop of Barney, The Lion King and (worst of all) Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen; I wasn’t allowed to watch any of the shows that I wanted, because they were all “inappropriate” (like, whatever, the X-Files is clearly fine for all age groups), and even just suggesting that we could turn the television off and enjoy some peace and quiet was met with a chorus of screams and protests.
I mean, sure, none of this seems that bad in retrospect, and some of it even makes me sound downright whiny, but when I was 16 all of this stuff felt like a Big Deal.
So when it came time to apply to universities, I pinned all of my hopes on one way out on the east coast, nearly 1,500 miles away from my mother’s house. I received an early offer of acceptance, which I jubilantly waved in my mother’s face. When my sisters asked if they could come visit me, I smiled and said, sure, but secretly I was thinking, so long suckers. Freedom was so close that I could taste it.
In September of that year, I packed a huge rubbermaid container full of clothing and books and set out on my 36 hour train trip to Halifax. As I hunkered down in my seat, staring at the Eastern Ontario woods and listening to Tori Amos on my discman, I thought about the fact that no one on that train knew who I was. I was finally free to be whoever I wanted to be.
University life, of course, wasn’t exactly the dreamland I’d pictured it to be. For one thing, it turned out that, even stripped of all my history and baggage, I was still a loser geek. After a few years in Halifax I would find a way to make that work for me, but that first semester was tough, sometimes bordering on downright awful. For one thing, while none of the people I met had any preconceived notions about my nerdiness, the flip side of that was that they didn’t have any positive associations with me, either. Determined to prove that I was just as cool as they were, I became unbearable, trying to show how smart I was by loudly talking over people, attempting to make “interesting” and “daring” fashion choices while actually making a fool of myself, using alcohol to get over my shyness and then spending the rest of the night throwing up in my dorm room sink. By the time late November rolled around, it was pretty clear to me that I was failing miserably at convincing everyone that I was witty and cool. Worst of all, I was surrounded by people who thought that I was a huge loser 24/7. I realized that there was something to be said for having a family who was obligated to love me unconditionally to come home to every night.
I distinctly remember the moment that I realized how homesick I was. I had a part-time job working in a clothing store, and one evening, as I was folding t-shirts, I started crying when Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas came on the radio. Although I tried to be discreet about wiping away my tears, my boss noticed that I was a snotty, sniffling mess and asked me what was wrong. “I miss my mom,” I howled, running towards the stock room to hide my shameful, babyish sobs. What the hell had happened to the hopeful, confident girl who had left Kitchener just a few months ago? I honestly didn’t know; the only thing that I was certain of was that I wanted to go home.
The day after I finished exams, I flew into Toronto’s Pearson airport, then from there took a bus to Kitchener. When my mother and sisters met me at the downtown bus station, I hugged them all tightly. I could tell by their faces how excited they were to see me, and I wondered how I could have ever left people who loved me so damn much.
Of course, a few weeks at home reminded me of all the little, irritating things that had driven me away in the first place, but when the new year rolled around and I left once again for Halifax, I had a better appreciation of all the good things I was leaving behind along with the bad.
My relationship with my mother and sisters has greatly improved over the last decade. Now I love coming home to visit; it’s hard to put into words the comfort of being around people who have had the same experiences as you, who speak the same family shorthand, who understand all the in-jokes. Of course, that also means that they probably know all, or at least most, of your excruciatingly embarrassing moments, but the further I get from my teenage years, the more those memories seem funny instead of painful. And, anyway, I know enough of my sisters’ embarrassing moments to give back as good as I get, which all part of how nature intended the family eco-system to stay in balance: everyone has dirt on everyone else, and dredging up your sister’s awkward past means that your own becomes fair game. This means that my family’s golden rule is, don’t dish it out unless you’re sure you can take it, and by “take it”, I mean, laugh at yourself.
Being home this year has reminded me of just how true the old adage about it taking a village to raise a child is. We’re pretty isolated, family-wise, in Toronto; getting some time to ourselves means a lot of planning and orchestration. We’re lucky to have several fantastic babysitters for Theo, but, of course, their fantastic-ness means that they’re in high demand, and it can be tricky to book time with them. And, of course, having to pay for someone to watch Theo whenever we want to go out to see a movie makes date night thrice as expensive as it used to be, so sometimes Matt-and-Anne time just isn’t financially feasible. Here, though, we can hand off Theo to his Gran and Aunties just about anytime we want, and they, of course, are delighted by the chance to spend time with the grandson/nephew that they rarely get to see. And Theo, of course, is downright thrilled to be around my mother and sisters. He loves his babysitters, of course, but there’s really no substitute for a grandmother, is there?
After a tough few months during which Matt and I were both pulling a lot of hours at work, coming home for Christmas this year feels a lot like it did in my freshman year. I thought we were doing fine on our own, I thought that we were free and independent and grown up, but being at my mother’s house has made me realize just how much I’ve missed my family.