The Power of Poetry
When I was growing up, my father would often refer to my mother’s side of the family as though he were speaking in parenthesis. “Your mother’s sister…” or “Your mother’s aunt…” and to be fair, my mother did the same with my dad. Even as a child, the differences between their two worlds were shocking. My mother, nicknamed “Showboat” by my fraternal Grandmother, was both a breath of fresh air and shocking to the strong British stock my father heralded from. There was nothing capricious about the Wadley’s. My grandfather was a train engineer. My grandmother raised five boys during the Depression. They attended Anglican church regularly, played bridge, and ate their meals every night together around the dining room table. My mother’s family was another story. My maternal grandmother, after having already been widowed twice, lived in “sin” with an Italian cook who worked for my great-grandmother in her restaurant. She had flaming red hair, wore tight dresses, and loved a good time. I can’t ever remember a year my Nana wasn’t on a diet. I never saw her read a book, or cook a single meal – ever. I think she lived for trips to Florida where she and my grandfather would spend days at the pool and nights at the bar.
My parents were a kind of Romeo and Juliet, defying their parent’s wishes for the sake of love. One glance at their wedding pictures tells the whole story. A happy bride and groom stand with their arms entwined while decidedly unhappy in-laws, barely cracking a smile, are photographed outside of the church.
By the time my brother and I were born, we had become the branch on both sides of the family tree that didn’t really belong to either. We were the odd ones out. My mother’s family couldn’t figure out how Anglican children had penetrated their ranks, and my father’s family were apoplectic when they discovered that my brother and I had been enrolled in Catholic school. At Christmas as we opened our gifts inside the home my father grew up in, my grandmother could be heard to comment on the amount, the cost and the suitability of every item. By dinner time, my mother was counting the minutes until we would leave.
The disparity between the two families was never more evident than when my parents would ship us off to a relative when they were going through a particularly difficult rough patch. Most often a relative I didn’t know. Usually a childless female or lonely widow who at a party said in passing something like, “Lezlie is so precocious. I’d love to know what goes on in her mind.”
“Really?” my mother would ask and the next thing I knew I was at my cousin Cheryl’s or my Aunt Gwen’s.
Cheryl was an attractive woman with wispy blond hair and fine features. A staunch Catholic, she insisted I put a doily on my head then dragged me off to church where I became nauseous from heat and incense. Like many such relatives, Cheryl saw the weekend with me as an opportunity for indoctrination and spent hours reading bible stories about Jonah in the whale and Noah’s ark. Somewhere she missed the memo that I was already reading A Wrinkle in Time and had moved beyond the old Testament to Madeleine L’Engle. I came home insisting my parents never subject me to her good intentions again. Cheryl, now having proven my father’s point about how crazy my mother’s relatives were, would cause him to simply smile and say, “See, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Aunt Gwen was another story altogether. Universally considered “weird” by all my relatives, Gwen lived in a rather nice apartment in the Beaches. She wasn’t religious at all, but an alcoholic who kept her apartment dark and sombre. She’d serve me processed food, that I didn’t like, and once, when I was three, she took me to a funeral parlour. About a month later as my parents were driving past the establishment I blurted out, “I saw a man sleeping in there.” My mother just looked at my father and rolled her eyes. Over time they started keeping score against each other and the points were racking up.
By the time I was in Grade 5 my parent’s marriage was, not surprisingly, on rocky ground. It was probably even before that, but it was Grade 5 when I noticed it for the first time. Both sides of the family were poised for what seemed an inevitable split as I began a new school and a new classroom with my first male teacher, Mr. Koerner. Mr. Koerner didn’t like me. Or maybe to put it more accurately, he preferred the other girls in my class and most notably my best friend, Trinka. Trinka was beautiful, and poised and loved to colour code her notebooks. She cared about her clothes and her nails and had perfect posture. When she started a Greek Mythology card catalogue, she shot up in Mr. Koerner’s estimation as practically perfect. In terms of rank, there was Trinka, Anila, Diane, and then me. I was (before the term had even been coined) the “Duff”. I wore glasses, spilled food on my clothes, and was a decidedly bad influence on my best friend. When Trinka and I wrote a radio play about a murderer who chopped up his victims and flushed them down the toilet only to back up the entire city’s sewer system, it was my parents, not Trinka’s who got the call about how disturbing it was. My mother and father knew full well that I was influenced by Creepy Magazine (a series of comic books I loved reading) and thought nothing more of it.
Mr. Koerner did not like my mother, most notably because of two incidents that went all the way to the Superintendent of the school board. The first one occurred one morning when I mentioned in class that she had allowed me to watch the movie “Gypsy.” Never overly concerned with our ability to process movies, my parents frequently watched sophisticated films with my brother and me. They were always available for questions if there was something we didn’t understand and they never subjected us to anything we didn’t want to watch. So, when I happily explained the plot to my classroom one Monday morning during current events, Mr. Koerner was aghast. In front of my class-mates he publicly castigated my parents and humiliated me for what he deemed to be an inappropriate movie for a child of my age to watch (He clearly took issue with strippers). The second incident and probably much worse was the way he insinuated himself into my life when I got my first pair of contact lenses. I’d been wearing glasses since I was two, and by the time I got into grade 5 wearing contact lenses became a viable option…one recommended by my optometrist. Mr. Koerner was shocked the first day I arrived without my spectacles. He told me I was vain and blamed my mother for a decision he thought was not in my best interest. At this point my father got involved. He stormed down to the school and, as I understand it, scared the bejeezus out of Mr. Koerner. For the first time in a long while, my parents were getting along. At night I’d hear them as they shared their common dislike for the man my mother referred to as, “Larry”. I suddenly felt like I was in a version of Disney’s The Parent Trap. What began as me dreading school, turned into me hoping “Larry” would put his foot in his mouth yet again so my parents would come together as a team.
Mr. Koerner had, among his many idiosyncrasies, a penchant for keeping scrapbooks. They weren’t for public consumption, but rather books compiled of our work for his personal pleasure. One day for an assignment, I turned in the following poem:
They’ve all left now
Gone their separate ways
This house once filled with laughter
Must now face empty days
A cold breeze taps my shoulder
And I blink and turn around
I only hope I’ll have such love
For the new home that I’ve found.
Mr. Koerner gave me 90% for the poem with instructions to have it signed by a parent and then returned.
“Returned.” my mother said, “What for?”
“His scrapbook.” I replied between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes.
“What scrapbook?” my father asked.
“The one he keeps our stuff in.” I nonchalantly replied.
“For what purpose?” my father queried.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Beats me. He’s got tons of Trinka’s stuff in there is all I know.”
“Well,” said my mother, “He’s not getting this back.”
I choked. “What do you mean? Everyone has to return their work once it’s been signed.”
“Not this time.” My father chimed in. And that was that.
I loved that my parents were taking a stand as a united front. I did not like being the messenger.
The next day I turned up for school without the poem, hoping Mr. Koerner wouldn’t notice. At the end of the day he stopped me before I could sneak out.
“Lezlie, do you have your poem signed by your parents?”
“Oh, gee, I forgot it. I’ll bring it tomorrow,” I said and left for home.
The next day it was the same. And the day after that. By the end of the week Mr. Koerner was getting wise that something was up.
“Lezlie,” he asked, “What’s going on with the poem? I gave it to you to have signed and then returned. If you don’t bring it back, I’ll have to dock you your mark.”
When I told my parents that I was perilously close to losing my grade if they didn’t return the poem, they were furious.
“He knows what the mark is,” my mother exclaimed.
“Surely he’s recorded your grade already,” my father stated. “What the heck’s up?
In the meantime, my mother had copied the poem and sent it to every member of both her side and my father’s side of the family, selecting to tell them that I had written it and that my teacher was threatening to dock me my mark if I didn’t return it to him. Could they believe the injustice of it all?
For the first time that I can ever remember, there was a universal uproar from both sides. Even my cousin Cheryl and my Aunt Gwen called to tell my mother how unfair it all was. And the following week, when he threatened once more to dock me my grade, both my mother and my father went to the school to visit him. It was one of those pivotal moments when you know that things will either be better or worse for you, but will definitely not remain as they have been. An hour later when they returned, my father simply said, “Well, that’s that.” Apparently, my dad told Mr. Koerner that if he ever threatened me again about anything, he’d make it his mission in life to have him transferred. After that, my teacher pretty much ignored me and never asked for a single item of mine for his “scrapbook” ever again.
That year my parents seemed to be closer than ever and the day I found out I had Mr. Koerner for grade 6, I was secretly thrilled.
When my parent’s marriage did, in fact, dissolve a few years later, there was no villain left to unite them. Lines were drawn in the sand and sides were picked. Our weird family of four that had never really belonged to either side of the family, were now a family of three and even more conspicuously out of step.
Still, for two brief years I enjoyed the unification of my parents as they fought to protect me against a terrible teacher. And somehow throughout it all, I learned about the incredible power of the written word along with a new found love of poetry.