In July of 1962, when I was three, Mom, Dad and I flew to Rome. On the flight over, while I looked at the clouds below us, I kept asking to go out and play in the snow. We went to the Vatican where all the cardinals were dressed in red robes. I thought they were all Santa Clauses. From Italy Mom and Dad took me to Ireland, England and France to visit family and the land they hadn’t touched for seven years. It was also their first chance to proudly show me off. I don’t recall much of meeting my relatives. What I do remember is being fussed over by my aunts who had anticipated meeting me for three years. After four weeks overseas we returned to Sudbury.
In August of 1963, I got my wish for a bigger family. Mom and Dad adopted Catharine when she was nine months old. Catharine was born on November 11, 1962 at the Memorial Hospital in Sudbury, Ontario, and put up for adoption from birth by an unwed mother – a common practice back then. She was a ward of the Children’s Aid Society. I vaguely remember the day two women from the CAS brought Catharine to us. With curiosity I watched this little baby girl lying in her pram as Mom and Dad spoke to the women. When they left Mom, Dad and I looked the baby lying in her pram. She was watching us.
“Is she staying tonight?”
“Yes Brian. She is your baby sister, Catharine,” Mom answered.
My sister! I smiled as my heart leapt with joy. Now I was like my friends.
Mom picked Catharine up and held her close to me. Wide-eyed with wonder I reached out as my hands clasped hers. I loved her immediately.
I watched Mom and Dad bathe, change, feed and comfort Catharine. Dad was unusual for a man from his era in that he didn’t mind giving his children baths or changing diapers. I wanted to help as much as I could. It took a few weeks for Catharine to settle into her new life, but she adjusted, and we became a family of four.
Until that time I had imaginary friends. One of them was Fred Flintstone whom I played with often. My imaginary friends were very real to me. One day Dad came home from work and sat down on the sofa. Straight away I cried out, “You sat on Fred Flintstone.” Dad quickly stood up apologizing to me and then turned to apologise to an invisible but squashed Fred Flintstone. The day Catharine arrived my imaginary friends disappeared. I had a sister now who filled up my playtime. I called her Kate. I can’t remember calling her anything else. That is except when we were mad at each other and then she was Catharine. But these times were rare.
Catharine and I enjoyed each other’s company and companionship. We shared many secrets and totally trusted each other. We had a strong bond between us.
Mom, Dad, Catharine and I would often go for walks by Lake Ramsey which is surrounded by the city of Sudbury. I climbed up the side of the life guard’s chair at the public beach as Dad watched. It was a tall climb up to the top for me but eye level for Dad. When I got there I proudly surveyed the houses and hills across the lake. Then Dad lifted me off the chair and put me down on the ground where I would turn around and climb up again.
When the four of us went swimming at Lake Ramsay we put our swim wear on under our clothes before we left home. We dropped our street clothes at the beach and be ready to go into the water. One time I ran off toward the deep water where the bigger boys were swimming. Dad had just dropped his pants when he saw me run off. He started to run after me only to be tripped by the shorts around his ankles. In the heart-stopping moments when Dad struggled to get the shorts off his ankles and scramble to his feet seconds turned to minutes. “Do you know how long it takes to get your shorts off?” he said reliving the moment. Dad had almost caught up with me as I jumped into the water. He leaped in after me and grabbed hold of me just as I was bobbing back to the surface spluttering and laughing. I was having a great time. Dad had his heart in his throat as did Mom who watched all of this from where she and Catharine stood.
Dad mainly read bedtime stories to Catharine and me. Dad would ask, “What story do you want me to read tonight?”
“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” It was my bedtime story of choice from Halloween until Easter. Even though I didn’t know what an elf was or had never seen a mouse in our house, that timeless rhyme would cast its spell every night.
The year Debbie, Jill and I turned five, our mothers took us to register for Kindergarten in the fall of 1964. Debbie and I would go to St. Bernadette’s and Jill to another school. During the summer tragedy would strike. Debbie and her family were out boating on Lake Wanapitei with another family when a storm blew up. The other family turned around making it safely to shore. Debbie and her family kept going. Their boat became swamped and all were drowned. Debbie and her father’s bodies were never recovered. As a five year old I couldn’t understand the tragic loss of life. All I knew was that Debbie was gone and her house was strangely quiet.
“She’s gone to Heaven, Brian,” Mom said softly.
I had no idea where Heaven was but I was comforted to know that Debbie was some place. I thought she would come back to see me.
When September came Mom saw me off on the school bus alone. As I climbed aboard I turned and cheerfully said, “Bye Mom.” We waved to each other through the window as the bus pulled away. What I remember most about school are the bus rides, the hallway skylights and the large rooms with all the desks which made the school building look different from any other I had seen. All the teachers were nuns who wore full habits. Three months after I started Kindergarten Dad accepted a job as the Clinical Chemist at McKellar General Hospital in Fort William (now Thunder Bay) in Northwestern Ontario. We had to move.
Mom and Dad held a going-away party for me one stormy winter evening in February before we left Sudbury. Naturally I invited my whole Kindergarten class plus all my friends. Nearly everybody came. It was hotdogs for everyone topped with the usual ketchup, mustard and relish. This was a time when all parties were special occasions. The girls wore dresses and the boys wore dress shirts and pants. Along with everyone dressing up they each had a present for me which included a kiss on the lips from Jill.
When the party was over Dad had the task of driving some of the kids home in his little VW Beatle at night in a snow storm. I had a wonderful time being the centre of attention. Little did I realize that along with the happy excitement I was saying good-bye.
In April, 1965, the morning of moving day came with a late winter snow storm. I remember the movers having to shovel snow off the floor and out the kitchen door as they loaded the house contents into the moving van. The house furnishings would follow us to Fort William. The four of us had an hour to look around the empty house before Jim, a family friend, arrived to drive us to the train station. As we got to his car in the driveway the neighbours from across the street and next door were outside to see us go. In the five years we were on Dublin Street we had made some close friends. We waved back as we drove off. At the train station Jim wished us well as we said good-bye and thanked him. “We’ll be in touch,” we said as the four of us boarded the Canadian Pacific Railway’s passenger train, The Canadian. As the train pulled away from the station I was full of excitement set to embark on my new adventure. The next chapter in my life was beginning. I could not have imagined how my life was about to change.