When I was five, my mother took me for a test at the school near our house. I remember it was a sunny day and I wore a dress, hoping to add to the impression that I was capable of going into grade one instead of kindergarten. Why I was taking the test in the first place remains a mystery but I suspect my mother wanted me to start grade one early because after eleven children she simply needed her days alone and silent. I remember walking across the black asphalt of the playground afterwards and my mother beaming as she told me I had passed with ‘flying colours’.
So, at the age of five I entered grade one. Unfortunately, the night before my father cut off all my hair and I was crestfallen when I walked to school with a boy’s hairstyle. I’d had high hopes for my debut in grade one. Instead, I slinked along the back wall, furtively searching for my name on a desk and secretly hoping there’d been a mistake and that I hadn’t gained entry into this new and bewildering world and could go home and help my mom with washing the floor or laundry or sorting socks. And yet, there was my name, second row in, two desks from the end. MARGARET spelled neatly on an index card.
Behind me sat a boisterous girl with shiny thick black hair and luminous brown skin and mischievous eyes. She didn’t hesitate to speak up and raise her hand, unlike me who prayed I wasn’t singled out by the teacher for anything and hung my head low behind the student ahead of me. She quickly surmised I could be teased and with tremendous entertaining results. Her name was Sharon. She spoke fast and had a sharp wit and wielded it confidently like an adult; she noticed everything including my crappy shoes and the fact I’d forgotten the belt on my uniform. I longed to be her friend, mostly to avoid any deeper insights into my character becoming known to the rest of the class. Thankfully, she seemed to sense my desperation and let me into her safe zone as an ally despite my shortcomings.
Forty-three years later: we are sitting and drinking in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day beside the ocean. I find myself once again admiring her way with words, just as I had at age five, the sure and confident manner as she speaks to the waitress, her still beautiful brown eyes that are full of life, intelligence and humour. I notice they have more ‘life’ behind them now though, one that I am hearing as we, at first cautiously then with abandon, pull threads out of the stories of our lives and stitch together our past into a new shared story.
We had gone to school together until grade nine, during which time we’d shared dozens of sleepless sleepovers, elementary school dramas, walkathons, endless hours of Catholic prayers and the uncertainty of hormones and fears of growing from little girls into young women. Our friendship had started to wane just before we both left to go to the all-girl private school our mothers sent us to for grade eight. But I got caught up with ‘public school kids’, which was seen by my mother as the surest way to hell and, looking back, in some ways it was true.
My childhood seemed to have suddenly vanished and I was lost in a world without boys and the seemingly endless unspoken politics of daughters from the wealthy elite of Vancouver where my non-working-widow-mom and less-than clothes and accessories were wincingly noticed and graded as a fail. Eventually the wagons circled with me on the outside. By the second term of grade eight, I was defiantly taking off my uniform and dressing into jeans and a jean jacket in the bushes after school so I wouldn’t have to be ‘seen’ by my public school friends in the telltale uniform of Little Flower Academy. The fact was, I never could quite fit in and didn’t know how to but Sharon managed to find community and a place at the academy and made a success of her high school years there.
As we sat across from one another in the busy restaurant and slowly unravelled our lives I felt like almost no time had passed while simultaneously trying to take in the enormity of all that had happened to us over the many decades.
With more scar tissue than either one of us would liked to have acquired, we shared one story after another after another with ease and a frankness that was unexpected. The afternoon light changed, food plates were stacked and taken and replaced by drinks. A one-hour lunch stretched into three as our lives and the people in them were introduced or re-visited. Deaths, break-ups, love, children, parents—all got covered off in a matter-of-fact way but it was the small details, the understanding between us of the hopes and dreams we had as young children set against the tableaux of where we were now, sitting across from one another as women in the middle of our lives that kept me thinking for days after about the past.
In fact, the past had been calling me to pay attention all week, nudging me to listen, just as I was trying to let it go. Only the day before my lunch with Sharon, I had re-connected with my boyfriend I had been madly in love with in university. We met for lunch and appraised one another with smiles and delight, me noticing more crows feet and gray hair and the gestures I used to be so smitten with, he well, hopefully not noticing the crows feet so much. There’s a sweetness to seeing an old love, a tinge of melancholy mixed with joy and remembrance accentuated by oh fuck’s and awww’s and sighs and long looks of remembering what was and a quiet listening for what is.
My sister-in-law is always telling me to stop living in the past and I’ve come to see that not dwelling in the past makes the present so much more lived and full of potential. To be present is to edit your life with ferocity. Staying present is like working on the ab muscles of the soul. You have to practice it daily to have any strength in resisting maudlin moments.
Yet this week the past found me in my present and the movie of my life suddenly enlarged, went wide-screen, became richer with more characters and synapses and discoveries that didn’t pull me back into sadness or regret but instead, opened up like a new canvas. After all, I was alive wasn’t I? And my old friends were too. How lucky are we to get to share a meal with one another! This is the sweet grace of the past coming to revisit you. Life itself winks and you finally get it. Oh right, time is passing—forty five years just went by like that—so I’d better get on with it and do the absolute best I can with what remains.
I’d better sit up and take notice. What story do I want to tell forty years from now? This is the work at hand. Now.