In Grade 6, Lois told me her mother lay on the couch all day, eating chocolates and crying. Astonishing. But not entirely. I believe I knew, deep down, that the place was filled with unhappy mothers. There were shadows. My Grade 5 teacher had a nervous breakdown. A professor who lived near us got divorced. And the world grew slowly but steadily less perfect, less safe. There were threats of nuclear attack; we had drills at school. An alarm would ring to indicate a nuclear weapon had come shooting over the North Pole toward Edmonton, aiming at the oil refineries. We hid under our desks for a while and then we all ran home. Where else was there to go?
There was no shelter, either, from what came to pass. Teddy Poole was first: he died in a car accident in Grade 9, before I moved away. In his 30s, Billy Shandro shot himself. Johnny Crocket died later of cancer. The Pike girl, who was a ski racer, became a bag lady. One of those falls did something to her head, people said.
Mildred/Jennie’s sunny backyard faces west over the river; it is a beautiful spot, so different from my narrow, horizon-less townhouse garden in Toronto. She and her kids order pizza for dinner. I call Carol Marshall, with whom I used to draw architectural house plans. We’re going out for dinner. I say goodbye to Jennie, but before we leave the neighbourhood we drive past “our” house. Yes, the fence dad built is still standing. It’s a good fence.
Only as we fly in Carol’s car across the bridge to a restaurant, a safe, anonymous haunt, do I finally shake the feeling that I am dreaming.
It was a wonderful dream. I am so glad I had it. I feel envious of my own past, of myself, that favoured, happy childhood in that golden world. How did this lucky-ness happen and give me a lifelong sense of being blessed? Women made that home, and women changed it. My mother, after all, sent me on that bus, while she—who would have loved to go places—stayed home. I mourn this place. I want the bus to stop longer. But the 10 minutes is up, and the bus sighs into motion.
To read the entire article, from the October 2005 issue, click here.
Govier revisits “A Trip Around the Bus Loop”:
“Women made that home, and women changed it.” This sentence stands out in the account of my return visit to the golden neighbourhood of my childhood.
I do remember the quiet expectancy of sitting on that bus heading off to ballet class and a discipline that linked me to far-off places for life. My mother put me on that bus. It was the ’50s. I was sent out into the world on an errand for my mother who was held back by the times. I doubt I will ever be extricated from that.
Then too, another day on the bus comes to mind. A smelly old man sat beside me and pushed his elbow into my crotch, harder and harder, grinning. I was too shy to scream or push him away but I knew to get myself out of there. I stood up, far before my stop, and got off the bus. I was in front of the Legislature building. I found my way back home by walking across the High Level Bridge. Long, dark and narrow, in the middle it stands 210 feet above the water, higher than Niagara Falls.
I say there is no shelter from the darkness when the world breaks through childhood’s aura. But I had more than most—my love of language, the optimism of the West, of my parents, of their parents, the belief in progress of that decade, the green youth of country.
At 21, about to leave Edmonton forever, I walked back across that bridge, this time on the train track above the roadway. Probably hundreds of daredevils and nitwits have done the same. It was tracks and nothing else; there was no escape if a train came. And trains did, in 1971. My friend and I bet our lives on the fact that one wouldn’t. Why, I do not know: it was an exhilarating final gesture that seemed to come out of nowhere. I wrote my first short story about that walk.
Maybe the place was not so perfect after all. If I were to ride around the bus loop anywhere in the world, I would pass hundreds of homes where women wept. I would pass by war, famine, drought, corruption, neglect and suffering.
None of those truly clouded my horizons those days in Windsor Park, though we seemed to be in rehearsal for their eventual occurrence. Reading my words again today I am further amazed and humbled at my good fortune to have inhabited that “perfect place,” and also to have escaped it.
Katherine Govier is the author of 10 novels.