Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved
I remember my room. It seemed cavernous to me but it wasn't. I was just small, five-years-old and scared of the dark. I slept on the second floor of the Ontario row house and the room looked out across our borrowed lawn and onto an adjoining graveyard. Odd in hindsight but not surprising that a military base was tucked behind a suburban cemetery, separated by death from the rest of the community, somehow, seeming appropriate.
I liked the thrill it gave me, even though I needed a nightlight, watching the sheer curtains blow in with summer breezes, the ghosts that I imagined were just outside my window. The sound of crickets my only reassurance that nothing had killed me yet.
Often, I would lay awake at night, studying the assorted lumps of dark that in the daytime were my dressers and toy trunks. Like most little girls, my furniture was white, each piece glowing on full moon evenings like quiet sentinels waiting for the night to begin. There was little in the room, it was stark with my mother's ongoing effort to relieve my allergies. No ruffles, no frills. No carpet, no stuffed creatures for comfort, walls bare but for a dainty plaque above my bed with a kneeling pair of toddlers in matching sleepers. One pink, one blue, the cursive type I couldn't yet read above their bent heads praying for their souls' to be taken by God if they should die before they wake. It was the only thing in the house that hinted at religion. It was a gift.
For a while I believe my mother said the prayer with me, maybe with a strained sense of obligation to, at the very least, expose me to the option of God. But as soon as it was memorized and slipped easily from my lips as I climbed beneath cotton and leaned into my hypoallergenic pillows, I noticed my mother's mouth had stilled.
I was an only child and in the series of haunted bedrooms I inhabited I often felt alone. Like the last person on earth, waiting. Waiting for sleep, waiting for life. Confused by how simple it all seemed when I just laid there - staring. And sometimes the unease I felt with just being afraid stretched and grew until it echoed through my almost-barren room. Until I called for my mother.
She was always there for me. There was never a night when she didn't rise from her own bed and traipse down the hall in response. But sometimes she was annoyed. The delicate skin of her cheeks creased from her pillow, the set of her lips, firmer than I had hoped for.
As an adult, roughly the age she was then, it is suddenly clear: she wasn't a natural.
My mother would take a deep breath and sigh loudly, her lips finally curling into what I'm sure she believed was a reassuring smile. She herself didn't look convinced, and I remember as she'd cross the room and settle to sit next to me on the bed, that neither was I.
But she would try.
I'm scared. I would whine.
There's nothing to be afraid of. She would reason.
Sing me a song. I would ask.
Not tonight. She would rebuff, refuse quietly.
Oh. I would exhale, my tiny pink lips forming the shape as well as the sound of the word, blinking in disbelief at my mother's rejection. And she would cringe subtly and offer to read me a story.
My small dark head would wobble its own refusal.
And then she'd just have to do it.
I could see, as she hovered uncomfortably against my ribs, that she had that same look on her face when she wanted a cigarette. My mother loved me with an intensity that made us both nervous, and as I watched her in the moonlight swallow her discomfort, I could feel my heartbeat and imagine hers.
If she had been smoking (by then Du Maruiers) this was when she would have crossed one knee over the other and leaned elegantly forward to put it out. Snuffing the glowing end neatly against the tin surface of her ashtray. And then she would have taken a deep breath and dropped her shoulders allowing the nicotine to wash away the fact that she felt silly.
But she had no cigarette - no drug coursing through her to give her courage and erase the awkward tremor in her voice.
Clearing her throat and in a whisper full of embarrassed pleasure, she would start to sing, always the same song. Quietly, shaking through the first line (This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine) she would breathe deeply and pause: she always forgot the part about the finger.
Then, reaching to find my hand and hold it up with hers, she would bend all but my forefinger into my palm and bounce it along to the simple song she could only remember the first half of. As she would blow on the imaginary light at the end of my finger and hers, pressed together in warmth, (mine small and brown with my father's tan, hers straight and pink from washing dishes), she would look relieved.
I would raise eyebrows too dark for my tiny face and laugh but willingly slide beneath my covers and let her smooth the bangs from my forehead. And then she would leave. Extinguishing the hall light with a snap of the switch, my eyes adjusting to find the familiar bearings of my room. And sleep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracy Boychuk grew up in various parts of Canada with the words "how many boys could a Boychuk chuck if a Boychuk could chuck boys" following her. She has recently begun to write about the residual effects. She is an art director with the Broken Wrist Project.