age twenty-five I return to university for my
Bachelor of Education degree. Half way through
my studies my husband changes jobs, and we move
several hours away from the university. The university
residences are filled, so I call a friend of ours
who works near the campus. Does he have any leads?
After a moments consideration, he explains
that he knows of a teenager who is living with
a couple while her parents are abroad. No doubt
a "mature student" would be a positive
influence on this rebellious teen.
pursue this lead. For a mere three hundred and
fifty dollars a month I can have two meals a day,
be within walking distance of the university,
have a bedroom of my own, sharing bathroom and
sitting room. It sounds perfect. So I take it,
I see my accommodation for the first time, I think
this decision has been a bit hasty. We are miles
from campus. The sitting room is dark, with dingy
furniture and the owners eight year old
as he continuously plays Nintendo. But, my landlord,
Herb, seems friendly enough, helping me lug my
suitcases and books to my basement room. He introduces
me to the family dog, and Wanda, the teenager.
Wanda says a breezy hello, rummaging in her purse
for her last cigarette, before racing out the
door to meet friends for coffee.
son is going to call me for dinner, but by seven
oclock I have yet to be summoned. When dinner
is ready, I am starved and grouchy.
small, cluttered kitchen smells delicious.
calls a female voice from the hallway. It is Herbs
wife Clara, hanging up her coat. "Sorry things
are so late tonight. Im in real estate,
and its a job that can really muck up the
I say. "No problem."
large spinach salad sits in the middle of the
table, and I observe a pasta dish bubbling in
hope you like cannelloni," says Herb, taking
a long drag of his cigarette, pinching it between
thumb and forefinger. Sauntering to the fridge,
he plops two bottles of salad dressing on the
do you like fresh peach pie? I made one right
delicious", I say.
works for the city, collecting garbage. During
that first meal Herb tells Clara he has bought
a car for traveling to work, and a new bed for
Trevor. He has purchased these with my damage
deposit and first months rent; a total of four
hundred and fifty dollars.
he says earnestly. "The car might look pretty
beat up, but it purrs like a kitten." He
inhales deeply on a stubby cigarette before squashing
it in a flowered ashtray. "And remember that
cowboy I told you about, who speeds past me every
morning in his beamer? Now Ill just put
the peddle to the metal and leave him in my dust."
quickly fall into a comfortable routine at university.
Each Friday afternoon I drive three hours to reach
home, retracing my route early Monday morning
for my nine a.m. class. I find my professors,
fellow students, and courses interesting. My housemates
are interesting, too.
schedules permit us to visit only during dinner.
In their cramped kitchen, Herb prepares wonderful
meals - roast beef, delicious pastas, Chinese
with thinly sliced ginger. He calls us long before
the meal is ready, so Clara , Trevor, and Wanda
and I discuss the days events. Wanda shares
so much about her friends, her teachers, that
it is like being in my highschool cafeteria again.
However, while her stories are interesting, I
soon find Herb and Claras interaction with
Wanda truly fascinating. Sometimes they just let
Wanda talk. They nod, agree, gently question,
letting her chatter pass over them. Other times,
when the stakes were higher, they listen more
closely. They question her directly, challenging
her decisions. Wanda responds by being rude, almost
belligerent. Occasionally she agrees that they
the weeks pass, Wandas teenage charm wears
thin on me. Her music booms and thumps continuously
in the next room. In the bathroom she leaves spilt
water, gucky makeup and dirty clothes. Her idea
of studying is to copy her notes once with the
precision of a calligrapher, and then to leave
papers scattered in a heap on the floor, while
she babbles on the phone. Her ambitious career
plans and life goals change almost daily. She
knows with absolute certitude why her teachers
are lousy teachers. However, she sees absolutely
no connection between her chronic cough and her
habit of wearing bare feet inside canvas shoes
in subzero temperatures. I conclude that too much
interaction with Wanda is not what I want. Any
positive influence from me will simply have to
rub off onto her. So, I bite my tongue and smile.
this time, Clara and Herb are finding Wanda more
and more of a challenge. Monday dinners seem to
be pretty quiet. Wanda pouts. Clara looks uneasy,
and Herb is silent. As a result, Trevor gets to
share a lot about his day at Monday dinners. Tuesdays
and Wednesdays dinners are quiet too, with only
a little more conversation. It is not until Thursday
dinner, when Herb pours himself a couple of scotches
because he does not have to work the next day,
that Clara and Herb talk. Those are the times
I hear about what Wanda has been up to the weekend
has been a passenger in a stolen car, and is brought
home by the police. Her school marks are plummeting,
and her teachers are concerned about her attitude.
Wanda stays out well past her curfew, and they
are pretty sure she is drinking. Maybe even doing
drugs. Herb shakes his head, pacing between fridge
and table. Stopping in the middle of the kitchen,
he rocks on his heels, straightens his back, stretching
his shoulders. He says: "My own kids were
no angels, I swear." Sucking deeply on his
cigarette he adds, "But I never put up with
shenanigans like this."
listen, but have no suggestions.
and Herb are exhausted. They are at their wits
end. But Wanda has such potential, they keep saying.
If only she could get herself on track.
Tuesday my husband is in the city for a meeting,
and telephones to say a quick hello. Clara answers,
and tells him I am out studying with some friends,
but doesnt he do some Counselling in his
line of work? If my husband has some time, could
he maybe come over and help them with Wanda? Unfortunately,
my husband explains, he has to return to his meeting
in a few minutes. Thats all right, says
Clara quickly. Maybe he can just give her some
ideas over the phone.
is time for my first teaching practicum, and then
I am off on Christmas break. When I return to
Claras and Herbs home in January I
discover that their kindness has been extended
to yet another teenager. At a local coffee shop
Clara has seen a girl two days in a row. The girl
, named Julie, has no place to live. And Clara
has done what comes naturally to Clara. She invites
Julie to stay at their house until she can get
on her feet.
admiration for Claras and Herbs kindness
is clouded by my displeasure at having to share
my living quarters with yet another person. This,
I think to myself, was not part of the bargain.
But I say nothing.
kitchen dinner table is crowded. Now when Herb
calls us for dinner, we hear news from both Wanda
and Julie. Clara has enrolled Julie in Wandas
high school, and while Julie is unable to pay
any rent, she promises to do so as soon as she
situation is wearing thin on Herb. One evening
the girls are away, and he talks.
know what sort of ticks me off?" says Herb,
standing at the stove and stirring gravy. "What
ticks me off is that Julie cant afford to
pay any rent, but she manages to have money for
the best shampoo, and new clothes." Shaking
his head, he sips gravy from the spoon, then chucks
the spoon into the sink. The gravy, it seems,
has met his approval.
continues. "And sometimes we have leftovers,
you know. I wrap them up to have for my lunch
the next day. I get up at six, and go to the fridge
to get my lunch, and - surprise, surprise - its
been all eaten up. You know, I dont mind
if they need a snack late at night, but when the
food is wrapped and in a paper bag marked "Herbs
Lunch", I sort of expect them to leave it
a carrot stick, I nod my head in agreement.
carefully pours gravy into a bowl. "But what
hurts, is when Julie comes into the kitchen in
the morning, clutching her robe close to her chin,
looking at me warily, like some sort of "Miss
Goody Two Shoes", and making me feel like
Im trying to see something. Like Im
some kind of pervert." He shrugs, shaking
his head and reaching for his cigarette. "What
pisses me off is she makes me feel like a Peeping
Tom, when I know from my buddy at work that she
did a striptease down at Bismarcks pub the
awkwardly, I dont know what to say.
well," he says "I guess it doesnt
take very long to make up another lunch."
months pass, and my formal university courses
are over. I remember my last dinner with Clara
and Herb. Since I have no commitments the next
day, I linger after dessert. It is a Thursday,
and Herb has a couple of drinks and feels talkative.
He used to be in the oil business, then drove
a taxi, but now he is pretty content to be a garbage
collector. They reminisce about the delivery of
their "after-thought baby"; eight year
old Trevor. How the whole birth experience was
so different from the birth of their twenty year
old children. Herb recalls trotting down the hospital
hallway carrying his new son, so that he could
rock Trevor to sleep and "bond". Blinking
back tears, Herb taps the end of his cigarette
butt. "It was amazing", he says softly.
enjoy listening to them, but soon it is late and
I still have packing to do. I thank them for their
hospitality, the great meals, and just as I am
heading downstairs, Herb thanks me for being so
patient with Julie and Wanda. He figures it hasnt
been easy for me to hear all their grand stories,
their loud music, to live with their sloppy habits.
But he really appreciates that I was always polite
problem," I say. "It was nothing."
years later, in early December of 1997, my husband
receives a long-distance phone call from a total
stranger. He is asked if he will act as an intermediary,
to deliver a letter from a young woman to her
birth mother who lives in our city. He agrees,
and a week later receives the letter. With feelings
of trepidation he dials the number of the birth
mother and asks for Ruth. When Ruth comes to the
phone he explains that he has a letter to give
to her from a young woman born on April 1, 1974.
Silence. Yes, she will receive the letter.
half an hour, Ruth and her husband arrive at our
house. I stay out of sight, wanting to give them
privacy. There is little conversation, but I hear
sniffing and a couple of sobs. As I nurse our
infant son, I am moved by the enormity of what
has just transpired.
August of 1998, I notice a young woman at a reception.
She looks vaguely familiar to me, and when she
laughs, I know it is Wanda. I approach to say
hello, and she barely knows who I am until I mention
our previous landlords.
ask her if she ever sees Clara and Herb, and she
says she lost touch with them a few years ago.
She looks neat and clean, and is wearing a smart
outfit. She is a computer specialist for the provincial
sure Clara and Herb would love to hear from you,"
I urge. "They would be so pleased to know
that you are doing so well."
agrees. She really should look them up and pay
them a visit.
brings you here?" I ask.
says: "My birth mother, Ruth, and I wanted
to thank the man who helped reunite us. He is
at this reception. Being reunited has been such
an awesome event in our lives, and now I have
this whole other family to love along with the
one I had before."
the bright sunshine of an August afternoon, Wanda
takes pictures of my family, standing with her
family. The camera clicks, recording a shared
moment in the lives of Wanda and Ruth. I am thankful
that my husband could help them. And I am thankful
that, years ago, I was polite to Wanda. Because,
truth be known, I did nothing else.
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