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Scarred for Life, Chapter Two
With Tyee at school in Vancouver, my parents spent a lot more time with John and Bernice to try and fill the empty gap that was usually occupied with caring for their son. Bernice was pleasant company for my mother, and they often spent their afternoons sewing in Bernice’s family room before the fire. Except when talking about the Indian schools, which would bring back the coldness and hostility between the two women, Bernice was quite cheerful. Her condition was starting to show a bit more, which became discussed frequently between them. Sometimes, when she saw the way Bernice rubbed her hands over her stomach and smiled as if her unborn child could see her and was returning the gesture, my mother would sometimes become saddened for she still bled every month and yearned for a child of her own.
Strangely, John isolated himself more and more from my parents. He taught my father how to cut holes in the ice that had now frozen the lake and how to catch the fish by weighing down a net with rocks, but he never went with my father except if it was to check his own net. He was even beginning to look more exhausted than usual: he had dark circles under his eyes, lost his temper a lot more than usual [which was never], and didn’t attend any of the meetings at the town hall, claiming that he was too tired from hunting or fishing.
But his catch had become depleted for many of the animals had taken shelter, sensing that the snow was on its way.
The snow came in late November and when my parents woke up each morning, they found the ground covered by a blanket of it. Donning on jackets made from caribou hides with hoods to protect their ears from freezing, my parents would stroll through the woods and marvel at the snow-covered pine trees, the frozen lake, and the tracks of a baby fox and its mother that remained in the snow long after they were gone. It was on one of these mornings in the middle of December that my mother brought up Tyee.
“I miss him, Luke,” my mother told my father as they stopped underneath a snow-covered maple tree that had been tapped for its sweet water that would be made into syrup later in the winter. The wooden bucket looked strange underneath the little device they used, but it collected the water very efficiently.
“So do I, Winona,” my father replied, taking her in his arms and holding her close. “But he is happy now at school. He can learn and become a man of knowledge. And it is not forever. Tyee will come soon and visit us when his school is let out for Christmas.”
“It is not just Tyee that has saddened me, husband,” Mother told him, sniffling a little. Father opened his mouth to reply, but then shut it as he understood what his wife was talking about.
“We will be blessed with a child soon, Winona,” he assured her. “We just have to keep trying.”
“I have not bled this month,” Mother said to Father, her face looking a bit hopeful. He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose.
“Let us pray that you do not bleed next month,” he answered, holding her tighter. “Maybe our prayers for a child are finally being answered.”
December came with a snowy, cold vengeance. Fires had to be kept burning all night long for fear of freezing to death as the wind howled and the temperature plummeted to at least 40 below 0. Icicles hung precariously from doorframes and roofs and already an elderly woman had been struck in the head by one and killed, the icicle slicing straight through her skull and brain. But despite the frigid cold, the snow, and the dangers, my parents were glad December had come, for it was the month that Tyee was supposed to come home for Christmas and New Year’s.
The weeks flew by and still no word came from Tyee or his school that he was either on his way home or was staying at the school for his holidays. Every day, either my mother or father went and checked at the post office if any letters had come for them, but the young man who worked there always shook his head. Then, one day, two days before Christmas, there was a smile on the postman’s face as he handed Mother a small envelope addressed to her and Father. She practically ran back to the house and Father’s expression changed from shock to joy when he saw the envelope in her hand. She handed it to him and he tore it open, drawing out a thin piece of paper folded in half. He opened it and read the following aloud:
Dear Mother and Father,
I hope you is are well and that winter not too cold. I cannot come for Christmas or New Year’s because my school too busy to let me come. I have been learning lot of new things since I come here. When I come home, you will be surprised at how much I learned.
I miss you both and maybe I can come for the summer if they allow me. The White men believe in a White man that drives a magic sled with deer and give children presents. I asked for a nice tomahawk for Christmas along with some chocolates. Could you send me some deer meat when you write? The school not have much food.
My teachers are nice and say that I will soon be civilized and educated like them. I want this to happen.
“Number 79?!” cried my mother in shock. “Who in the world is number 79?! We must’ve picked up another child’s letter by mistake!”
“No, it’s Tyee’s handwriting, I can tell from the “c”,” Father said calmly.
“But why didn’t he sign his name?” Mother inquired, brows furrowed.
“Maybe this is how they keep track of the students,” Father suggested. “They must have so many students sending letters home to their families that they have them sign them with numbers instead of their names. That way, when they check them, they can address them correctly.”
“They should have written his name on the envelope or something!” Mother replied crossly. “I nearly had a heart attack! It’s a good thing Bernice and John invited us for New Year’s dinner. At least we’ll get to meet their daughter, even though Tyee won’t see her until summer.”
“You aren’t trying to match them, are you?” my father asked playfully. Mother smiled.
“Can’t I be curious about a friend’s daughter?” she contradicted teasingly.
“Yes, but why is it of so much importance that Tyee see her as well?”
“Well, it would be nice for him to have a friend to come home to every summer after such a long school year. And, when he has gone through the rites of passage and becomes a man, he will want a wife. And he will look for someone he can trust, someone he has known for a long time. And who would be better than his friend, Lomasi? Besides, if she looks anything like her mother, he will be the envy of every man on the reserve!”
Father chuckled and shook his head, as if wondering how he could have married such a woman.
“Marriages never work between a man and his female friend,” warned Father. Mother’s face became mockingly stern.
“I married you, didn’t I?” she challenged. “And you were one of the closest friends I ever had.” Father smiled and let the subject go.
“Alright,” he said, throwing his hands in the air in a sign of surrender. “We’ll talk about this later. Right now, it’s time to prepare something to take over to their home on New Year’s Eve. Something that will be able to repay the kindness they’ve shown to us.”
“I know exactly what to make,” Mother supplied, her eyes falling on the pile of freshly gutted salmon which lay on a long board near the washbasin. Father followed her gaze until he realized what she was looking at.
“What did you have in mind?” he questioned, a smile coming on to his face. Mother mirrored it and tapped him on the nose lovingly.
“Don’t you worry about it, dear! By New Year’s Eve, I’ll have a dish fit for a king and all his court to feast on! Just leave it to me!”
It was traditional that all the members of the reserve gather at a person’s home to see the old year out and welcome the new one. This year, John’s house had been selected by the Council of Elders as the place to hold their New Year’s celebration. So when Mother and Father arrived there, they found lots of people walking about and chatting with one another.
“Ah, Luke!” cried a familiar voice. Turning around, the couple saw John making his way towards them. With his beard and the dark circles gone, he looked completely rejuvenated and more like he had when they’d first arrived in October.
“Join the party and get to know some of the others!” John urged cheerily. “And Winona, you can put that lovely dish in the kitchen with the others! Why, how on Earth did you get the salmon to stand up like that? It’s truly remarkable!”
“A little fish paste was all it took,” replied Mother modestly, blushing at the attention her dish was getting from their host. “I wanted to create something that would be worthy of your thanks.”
“Well, I thank you very much,” John replied, smiling, “but my wife will have to answer for herself. She’s in the kitchen.”
Mother took the dish into the kitchen and was met with a hug from Bernice who took one look at the dish and widened her eyes so much, Mother wondered why they didn’t pop out of her head.
“Oh Winona! I love it!” Bernice exclaimed happily. “It’s very nice, and it looks too pretty to eat! I think I’ll keep it forever!”
“Would your daughter like to live in a house that smelled of rotting salmon all the day long?” Mother chuckled aloud. But then she noticed that Bernice’s face had become hard once again. Her mouth was set in a grim line, and her eyes had a far-away look in them.
“Even if my house smelled like rotting fish, I’m sure my daughter would have liked it just the same,” Bernice said to no one in particular. “Home is home, after all.”
“I’m so sorry, Bernice,” Mother apologized. “I didn’t know. When did you find out that she wasn’t coming?”
“Christmas morning, when John and I went down to the train station. The conductor told us that no Indians were coming on any of the trains from Westminster, where her school is. Oh, Winona, you can’t imagine how disappointed we were! Now she won’t see her baby brother until summer!”
“She wouldn’t have seen him now, anyway,” Mother reminded her.
“That’s not the point!” snapped Bernice harshly. “When you have children of your own blood, then come and talk to me about things like that!” Mother’s face must have revealed how hurt she was, because Bernice burst into tears and apologized for what she’d said.
“I am,” Mother said quietly.
“You’re what?” Bernice inquired through her tears, looking at my mother.
“I am going to have a child of my own blood,” she told Bernice plainly, trying her hardest not to smile, but failing. “This summer.” The two women squealed with joy and hugged each other, not too tightly though.
“Have you told Luke yet?!” asked Bernice eagerly. Mother shook her head.
“I was waiting for the right time,” Mother answered shyly. Bernice seized her friend by the hand and dragged her back towards the living room. Grabbing two glasses of wine from the nearby drinks table, Bernice shoved one into Mother’s hand and raised her own aloft.
“Everyone!” she shouted at the top of her voice. “Could everyone please be silent?! I have a few toasts to make and it’s almost midnight!” The room became as quiet as a graveyard in only seconds.
“First, I would like to toast our men for coming back from the war and defending our nation from danger!” Cheers and loud applause erupted from the guests and filled every corner of the room. “Second,” she continued when the commotion died down, “I would like to toast Luke and Winona, the newest members of our community, and who will be giving us an additional new member along with myself and John this summer.” The crowd of people cheered and clapped again. Mother caught sight of the joy and disbelief on Father’s face and winked at him, signaling that she would explain later.
“And third, I would like Winona to give the last toast before we raise our glasses and ring in the New Year. Winona?”
Mother stepped forward and raised her glass of wine to the sky.
“I would like to toast our children!” she declared proudly. “Although they are not with us now, I know that when we celebrate the beginning of 1921 with them, they and their new siblings will be beside us and our families will be whole again! To our children!”
“To our children,” replied the mass of people half-heartedly. Then, they drained their glasses in one gulp at different times and re-commenced the chatter. Perhaps having their children absent during the holidays was too painful to be joyful and toast to. But Mother thought it there was more to it than that.