Sunday, April 1, 2012
Varney, Varney, one more mile
As much as I love to write, it often falls to the bottom of the priority list. Some time ago, I realized that I needed group support to sustain my writing efforts. And then, poof! an invitation came to join a group of friends who wanted to continue their own writing. Thank you to John, Norma and Joan for getting me back on track.
Imagine seven children, ages one to twelve, crammed into an old sage-green Rambler station wagon. In the back seat, two young boys sit on either side of the oldest child, their big sister. She jabs each of them with sharp elbows whenever they try to reach across her to slap one another with their striped towels. Three older boys jostle on the the rear-facing bench at the very back of the wagon. A red Coleman cooler doubles as a foot rest. No seat belts in this era. In the front seat, the parents, weary from the week's work of milking cows and night-shift nursing. Between them sits the one-year-old, sucking her thumb and fingering a doll, its copper hair springing wildly from a battered head, one blue glass eye staring fixedly at the car's push-button dashboard, the other eye permanently shut.
It's a hot Sunday afternoon in July during the mid-'60s. My family is heading for a picnic outing at Varney Conservation Area, a 20-minute drive from our farm near Mount Forest, Ontario.
Earlier that day, heading home after Sunday Mass, my father bent to my mother's will and agreed to the picnic. He would much have preferred to stay home – alone – enjoying a rare moment of quiet privacy. Now he drives without speaking, his eyes fixed on the road. He steers using one rough and calloused hand, the middle finger chopped off at the first knuckle after an accident with the hay baler. Occasionally he barks at us to stop fighting or to sit still. My mother rolls down her window, lights a cigarette, and watches the rows of bright green corn springing up out of the passing fields.
On my left side, my little brother Richie begins rocking back and forth, crooning, “Varney, Varney, one more mile.” He had composed this line after our first trip to Varney several years before, when he had asked, “Are we there yet?” and was told to wait until a road sign would tell him we were close. “Varney, Varney, one more mile,” he chants. Like a flock of crows, the rest of us pick up the refrain and soon the car rocks with our noisy squawking. Varney, Varney, one more mile, louder and louder until my exasperated father yells at us to shut up. It's impossible to suppress the giggles that burble through our clamped beaks. My father glares at us in the rear view mirror; my mother interrupts her dreamy smoking to turn around, scolding us with a stern look. Then, surprisingly, my father sticks out his long tongue at us, and our giggles are set free, dissolving the tension.
Finally, we pass the sign, green letters on a brown wooden board: Varney Conservation Area, one mile. Dad parks the car next to a crescent of cedar trees hugging a small pond. There's a sandy beach and a diving board on a wooden scaffolding. Parents serve as lifeguards. My brothers tumble out of the car and race for the water, blue and red swim trunks hanging from their bony hips. I help my parents unload the cooler with its cache of cheese and bologna sandwiches, a large plastic jug of cherry Koolaid, nine plastic beakers, a handful of paper napkins and two packages of Voortman's ginger spice cookies. Finding a clear spot some distance apart from the other families, my mother shakes a dark green plaid blanket onto the sand, one hand clutching her cigarette package, matches tucked into the flap. She places these next to the cooler, then steps out of her pink-striped cotton blouse and denim shorts to reveal a black swimsuit encasing generous breasts and a thickening waist. Scooping up the baby, she walks to the water, sets the child down, and then lies full-length on her stomach in the shallow water. My mother loves to swim. Patricia splashes and gurgles. My father folds himself into a lawn chair with a dented aluminium frame criss-crossed with frayed green and white webbing. He rolls up the bottoms of his dark brown trousers, exposing stark white ankles and bony feet. Settling into the chair, he takes off his socks and shoes and pushes his long toes deep into the sand in search of the coolest spot. He hates the water; in fact, never once in all my life did I ever see him swim.
My brothers splash up and down, flinging droplets from their hair like young puppies. One dives down to bring up a clump of muddy sand, and soon all five are slinging mud at each other. My father yells. The mud-slinging stops. Meanwhile, I walk self-consciously to the diving board, pulling down the seat of the new tangerine one-piecer that I bought after hours of poring through the Eatons' summer catalogue. I do a running dive, and practise my crawl till I reach a shallow spot, then stand on my hands, arching my legs as high as I can above the water's surface. I roll over and over, water rippling my body, my long brown hair streaming behind me. I'm a delicate mermaid and although he's not yet in sight, I'm convinced a handsome young prince is swimming towards me. I know he will immediately fall in love with me, astonished by my beauty and charm.
We swim for hours, until our fingers wrinkle, our lips turn blue and our teeth chatter with cold. My mother calls us out of the water, swaddling us in towels. We eat the sandwiches, slurp down the Koolaid, and steal one more cookie than allowed. Just five more minutes, we plead, and fall back into the water for one last swim.
The sun is sinking slowly behind the cedars as we pile back into the car. My mother leans over Patricia, sprawled on her lap, to turn on the radio to listen to the 6 o'clock news. There's some half-hearted pushing and shoving in the rear-facing seat, then, silence. Telephone poles flash by, and the pastures glow in the evening light. My brothers' heads nod. Some fall asleep. Richie stays awake, rocking back and forth as the fields spiral past. “Varney, Varney, one more mile,” he chants softly. Then his voice too trails off. He yawns and leans his head against my shoulder.