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Outrunning Crazy – chapter two

CHAPTER 2 – Outrunning Crazy
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Cover: Amber Martin/countylive.ca

We grew up in Hawley – seven miles east of Spike’s Junction, five miles north of nowhere on a land share where four generations from my mother’s side had eked out a living. The red barns were in constant need of painting; a tractor stood in the middle of the cow pasture, stalled, left for years until a tree grew up around it. The cows used the rusted out seat as a salt lick. I can still see those stubborn immoveable beasts standing in the meadow in the field next to our farmhouse.

My family lived in the stucco house which people called the Old House. It had been Nana Mary and JD’s before they built their new ranch. Their new abode had a wheelchair ramp because Nana was convinced she’d end up having a stroke.

Our place was run-down, nothing special to look at. The best room in the place was the summer kitchen right off the wood shed. It’s where most of my good memories came from. An un-insulated extension off the regular part of the house, it was an architectural after- thought. It acted as a cold storage place for our baking in the winter. When company would come, she’d tell us to go out and get the brown jam cookies, the ones made of molasses with jam in the middle that popped up through the hole we made with a thimble. She hid them from us trying to save them for when visitors came. Being off limits made them all the more precious. Fights would break out over whom was going to go out and get them. We wanted to see how many we could shove into our mouths before coming back into the regular part of the house.

Easter weekend was when we moved everything from the larder in the regular kitchen to the cupboards in the summer one. The coffee pots and baking had to be brought out there for the next five months since it was where we would do everything as a family – all our eating and socializing went on there until the first frost. During the summer months, we only used the rest of the house for sleeping.

I loved waking up on cold mornings in the spring when the frost had left but still chilly so you had to pull the quilts up around your chin. The only thing that could pry me from bed was the smell of the woodstove burning. Alberta would have put the coffee pot on to perk and gone out to do the milking. There was nothing better than the smell of coffee perking on a wood stove. Tasting it was the real disappointment. It was dark and bitter so we had to load it up with Carnation milk and sugar. One sugar cube per teaspoon of coffee was the perfect ratio. We took forever to drink a cup of coffee; slopping it everywhere didn’t matter because there was something called an oilcloth. A brightly coloured piece of vinyl pulled across the old wooden table and secured by thumbtacks so it could be wiped up quick, and wouldn’t move when we played Euchre.

Fourhanded euchre was the game for summer. Nana sat in her lucky chair, the one with a hundred coats of paint on it, which she covered over every year in another absurd colour to make her feel she’d got some new furniture. We created all sorts of rituals to try and psyche out our opponents. Nana sat in the same direction as the bathtub. I’d wear lucky underwear, anything to improve my luck, so I’d be able to crack my knuckles hard on the table as I yelled out Euchre, trumped you! Read ‘em and weep.

When you live on a farm the war with the black flies was constant. Alberta spent most of the summer packing a bug pump of bug spray. She’d aim and fire it like an Uzi whether we were eating or not. The thing had so many pesticides it likely permanently changed our genetic coding forever. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did.

My mother Alberta was not someone you’d ever accuse of being affectionate. When she kissed us she made her lips flat, so there was no saliva. She was only nice if she thought you were retarded or dying. When I had the German measles my temperature spiked to 104O so I came close to the latter.

Out there in that summer kitchen she bathed me in cool water trying to get my fever to break, lying beside me all night, so I wouldn’t go into convulsions. I had the heartbreak of psoriasis so I got everything ten times worse than anybody else. Chicken pox, the measles – German and Red – all were a big ordeal for a sensitive person like me. My skin was a giant transmitter of pain. People liked to tell you that only nervous people get psoriasis. I must’ve been born nervous because I got it when I was nine months old.

I remember I was lying on King’s couch as Alberta brailed along my pockmarked skin with her hands that smelled like cow shit and Jergen’s lotion, the smell I knew as mother.

I can still see her standing there in her see-through white cotton nightgown with pink flowered underpants peeking through as she sang to me off-key. “I ain’t going to bed no more. I’m going to sleep on the hardwood floor. I’m a beeno.” It is a tune she made up to make me happy, but when she sang it to me I thought I was dying.

Memory blurs time. I’m not sure if it was the same night, she was standing under the yellow hue of the bug light near the sink, shaving her legs. We’re not a hairy people. I only have one thin line of hair on my shins and peach fuzz under my pits so I’ll never be one of those people who need to wax. Alberta only needed to shave a couple times a year.

By that time in the summer the cistern was almost empty so she would’ve been re-using water. I see her balancing one of her legs when King came in from locking up his workshop for the day. As he stood there sipping his coffee cup he watched her. They spoke in a soft way that reassures you when you’re young. The content doesn’t matter, just the sound of your parents’ voices made you feel loved. She must’ve nicked herself because I remember hearing her yelling. “Dang it, King, I’m bleeding.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. He always carried two, a clean one for his nose and a greasy one for the engines he tried to fix. With the unused one, he started dabbing the spot where she was bleeding. “My God, lover, I’ve seen vets come back from Korea looking better than this.” He then kissed her. I squinted to look as she swung her legs around and stood up and pulled him to her. Like the lamp salesman, King was short, so to kiss her he had to take off his shoes and stand on top of her feet.

For many years I told myself she hated him, but I now know better. Her lips became full and red when he kissed her but she didn’t like being that vulnerable. Sometimes after he hugged her she looked like Bambi when his mother had been shot.

They’d grown up near each other, her on one side of the river and him on the other. They must have run into each other before but King liked to say the day he saw her first she was standing up at the front of a classroom bossing little children. At seventeen she was already a teacher, having graduated from Normal School. If anybody could’ve gone to a school to be normal it would’ve been Alberta for she was as practical a person as you could possibly meet. There was no dreaming in her blood.

I was too troubled at that age to have commanded respect that early on. But when you’re tall, people think you know what you’re doing. Over six feet, one inch, she was so tall, if her height didn’t intimidate the kids, her hollering would. The mouth on her could bring in cows from three fields back.

King had come to drop off his younger brother who was starting Grade One. Bent over helping him tie up his shoes was when he first laid eyes on my mother. “Your mother’s size thirteen feet came into view. I knew right then and there those pontoons would carry me to shore.” King and his malarkey. He claimed he looked up, way up, and when he saw that pitch-black hair hanging down her back to her waist he knew she was a woman he could look up to. Being just under five six he was Sonny to her Cher.

King told us he didn’t move. He just stood there grinning ear to ear and that from the first time she saw him, she wanted to slap it off his face.

King didn’t have a serious bone in his body. He spent most of his life lying on that couch, cracking jokes. No matter how mad she got at him, no matter how much shit he got into every time she walked by, he’d slap her ass and every time she’d say, “No, King, not in front of the kids.” And every time she yelled “Not in front of the kids”, a few months later there’d be another baby.

He didn’t give her an engagement ring for two more years after they met. For one thing he had to save for it. And two, Babcock men are like that. They’d go around with a person for a while before they’d commit themselves. King went to a consignment sale the jewelry store was having and even convinced Suitcase Ray to let him have the ring before it had been paid off. I think he still owes money on it. He gave her the engagement ring on a Thursday night, and legend has it that when he got up the next morning, Grandma Babcock had poached him a couple of eggs.

“You won’t be eating any more meat on Friday,” she said, as she put the plate in front of him. “She’s a Cochrane. Cochranes are Catholic, to the core.” Everybody knew he’d convert; there was no way around it. At St Paul’s, they got married on a windy day in October, the kind of day where people have to hold on to their hats.

The priest stood at the front of the church and said, “Do you take King to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

Alberta adjusted her veil. “I do.”

Then he turned to King and asked him, “Do you take Alberta to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

And he puffed up his chest and said, “I do.”

“I now pronounce you king and queen of nowhere,” said the priest and King stood on his tiptoes to kiss her.

I was born nine and a half months later, making a dramatic entrance. She had wanted to be one of those women who went out to the field, popped out a kid, and was back on her feet before the end of the day. Obviously I didn’t get the memo because I was born three weeks late; lollygagging around inside of her like I’d walked in there and forgot what I went in for.

“What were you doing in there?” my mother asked me over and over again as she showed me her Cesarean scar one more time.

She waited and waited and waited until one day after she had a feed of liver and onions, she couldn’t quit belching. King said he knew right off that it was time for a baby to be born but she never listened to him because he was a damn man. After ten hours of belching and farting around she called the doctor, and he agreed with King’s prognosis. “You’re in labour, but the baby is in the wrong position so you’ll have to go in for a C-section.”

There was no HealthCare in those days, and no money to pay for an operation. So after thirteen hours and 300 dollars paid, I made my debut. All that time and money for something she felt she could have done at home was what she’d tell me, “The other kids knew enough to come out when they were supposed to, but not you.”

A lot of kids liked hearing their birth stories, but I didn’t.

King named me. He took one look at me and called me Tammy from that movie with Debbie Whatsername. I’ve since changed it to Tamara, but nobody in my family will call me that. They say I am being a big phony. “Your name is Tammy, it says so on your birth certificate.” Of course when I asked where my birth certificate was, Alberta claimed she couldn’t find it. I always longed to be adopted, to have royalty for parents, but no such luck as my mother’s face is pasted on mine.

There is also heaps of documentation of my early life, four photo albums of me crying, smiling and breathing. I am the oldest so the camera was always in their hands. My youngest brother, Bill the fifth one, has three pictures in total. Two of those were ones the school took. King said the camera was worn out by then. Bill gets bent out of shape about it, but it’s not my fault I was cute. It’s not easy being the oldest because there’s a lot of pressure when you’re the one everybody’s looking at.

I was round, plump and colicky. For six months I blatted like a calf. King bragged he was the only one who could settle me. He’d spend half the night walking the floors with me carrying on. He’d stick me up under his armpit, and I’d pass out. His pits smelled like sweet cut onion. When Alberta came out in the morning, we’d be nestled there together on the couch. Most mothers would’ve been happy they could have slept the night, but she claimed all she did was worry that he might roll over me and smother me in my sleep. If there was worrying to be done, Alberta was the one to do it.

She had her reasons to fret. King had trouble with regular work. At school when they asked me to write down what my father did for a living, I needed extra foolscaps. There’s just about nothing he didn’t do. Over his lifetime, he has run a mobile park, operated a bulldozer, a dump truck, and a front-end loader. He worked for the MTO one winter driving a snowplow. He tried to sell insurance, but he didn’t sell one policy. All he did was visit and ended up gaining twenty pounds because the old people thought he needed to put some meat on his bones. He had the scrawniest arse you ever saw.

There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t try. Once he tried his hand at being a blacksmith, but that was an expensive proposition because after he bought the horse he then never took the time to break it. It ran all over the neighborhood jumping fences. I can still see us chasing that damn thing down the side road, calling after it, showing everyone we didn’t have a clue. Finally Alberta sent it away to the gelatin factory. I tried boycotting Jell-O when she told me, tried imagining pony knuckle stirred into the Cool Whip, but I have no self-control. All I did was eat it faster so I wouldn’t think about what I was consuming.

Other jobs my father had were cleaning out eaves troughs and dry walling. He was a mechanic for a while, and then he became a plumber unplugging toilets and sump pumps for forty miles around. He was a great starter, but got bored easy. He had a head full of ideas, all of them bad. One of his all-time bad ideas is the reason we ended up back at the farm.

Alberta quit teaching soon after I came along. That’s what they did back then and she said Babcock men don’t like their women making more money than them. This created a quandary, as most of them were cash poor. They had moved into their apartment in town, a love nest is what King said he called it. It was a one-room apartment with the bathtub down the hall. Alberta had been looking in the paper day dreaming about them buying a house some day. She was just noodling out loud, but by the end of the week King had bought them one at an auction.

Alberta found out about it by chance when she went into McGrath’s Clothing Store to buy herself some shoes. She had been saving the baby bonus cheque for three months, and Marj, the clerk, said, “I hear King bought a house.” I find most people delight in telling you bad news, but Marj took it to a new level. She had dated King for a while in grade seven. That might be the reason he dropped out. If you saw Marj you’d run for the hills too. Even though she was the one that broke up with him. She said he was cute but un-educated; she always acted like Mom had come back from teacher’s college and stole him out from under her. Marj knew darn well she would never have married someone like him because of his crazy notions. She loved money about as much as she loved gossip. That woman herded tittle-tattle like sheep.

“I heard King went and bought the Findlay house.”

“I don’t think so.” Alberta hadn’t learned yet to keep her mouth shut until she got more information.

“Well, I heard it this morning when I went over to the diner for coffee. People there were surprised. It looks like it’s a surprise to you, too?”

“Well, no. I mean…we wanted it…and well….” denied Alberta, putting her tongue in the hole where her wisdom tooth once was. “See, he’s been looking for a great real estate deal and…”

“Yes.”
“Well now, he’s got it and at such a great price.”

Marj continued, “Well, I wouldn’t say he got it for a good price. He got in a bit of a bidding war with Else Dowling. People said his hand kept going up and up like he had Turrets.”

“Well it’s likely worth every penny.” Alberta’s head was spinning.
“What are you two going to do now? Move in there or what?”

“No! Look Marj, we’ve got our hands full with quite a few things. The county is busting with business opportunities right now. I haven’t got time to discuss them with King because I have no shoes. And I’d like that pair. Those. Right there.” She pointed at the brown Oxfords on the shelf.

“They are awful pricy,” warned Marj.

“Well, you expect to pay a good dollar for quality.”

“Fine, but I think they might be too small.” Marj knew Alberta had canoes for feet, and those size tens she was pointing at would never fit her.

“Not at all. In fact I’ll take that other pair, right there, in black.” She squeezed the shoes on and slapped the last twenty from the baby allowance cheque on the counter and hobbled out of the store.

The way Nana tells the story is Alberta was so broke she didn’t have gas in the car, so she flew home on fury. When she opened the door to the apartment, he was sitting there in the Lazy Boy in his green flood pants, hunched over. Whenever he was going to catch shit, he sat forward on his knees like he couldn’t catch his breath.

“How was your day, King?” she asked.

“I did the damnedest thing.” That’s all he had to say before she would go ape shit, and say the same thing every time.

“My God. What were you thinking?” That sentence should be written on her tombstone.

King was thinking what he always thought, that money would suddenly appear out of nowhere, and he’d be able to buy her a house. He always wanted to do anything to please her, but he seemed to overlook the small fact that the cheque was going to bounce.

Alberta went back to Nana and JD and they were waiting for her. It’s like they lived for this. Watching their own kids screw up made them feel better about their own lives. The three of them sat around the table in the summer kitchen trying to figure out what caused King’s compulsions.

“Maybe he’s got some kind of mental problem,” proposed Nana. “There was a man in town buying garages back a few years ago, and then they found out he had a brain tumour.”

“If only we could be that lucky,” Alberta snorted.

“He doesn’t have the Big C, Mary,” said JD. My grandpa had no use for my Dad. Wouldn’t even speak to him for the first two years of courting Mom. “He’s a Babcock. That family doesn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

There they sat, all afternoon, giving Alberta advice. Un-helpful sayings like ‘you made your bed, now you can lie in it.’ When they got through raking her over the coals, they did what they always did they bailed her out. JD went to the Findlays and offered one of his best spring calves if they would just forget about the whole thing. He lost the deposit, which meant he had to cover the check, but he got King out of the deal. No bounced check, so he saved face. The Findlays forgave the rest of the matter. They may have forgotten but J.D. didn’t. That man would never give anybody something for nothing. He told Alberta she’d have to come home and move into the old farmhouse. He’d fund her to get some more milking cows so she could make a go of it. Since the two of them were young and with the right focus, they could make a go of it. He and Nana started building their dream house and no, he didn’t give her the farm outright. He was afraid King would screw up that deal, so he leased it to her like she was an indentured servant. She had all the responsibility and none of the freedom. For a long time she claimed that she didn’t mind at all, but that’s what people say when they’re forced into doing something they don’t want to do.

My mother’s and my lives were similar in that they both went ass over teakettle before we hit twenty. I was nine months old when we moved back to the farm. I took one look at it and broke out in a rash.
* * *
Visit  www.kimmett.ca to order the book.

Filed Under: Deborah Kimmett

About the Author: Deborah Kimmett is not just a funny face. She knows a thing or two about life. Whether on the stage, or in the conference room, this witty and wise woman knows laughing matters. With her hilarious stories and interactive exercises she ignites, inspires and offers strategies for success. Side Effects: You might get your sense of humor back. Visit her at www.kimmett.ca or on youtube at www.youtube.com/user/DebKimmett

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