When I was eleven, I went to live with my Gram and Granddad.
It was a sullen day, clouds hovering morosely, the air heavy with the promise of rain. Gram embraced me, and I drew in the sweet smell of her, bread, soap, and sun-dried laundry.
Stray drops of rain smattered in the dust.
“Let’s go see your Granddad, John. He’s been waiting for you.”
Gram told me to set my cheap suitcase in the front room and took me through to the kitchen, where the kettle bubbled on the woodburning range, and a new loaf cooled on the table.
If the grey haired man in the overstuffed armchair heard, he didn’t let on. A silver strand of spittle hung from his chin, and Gram wiped it away gently.
The boy’s face is damp. Is he crying? Can’t blame him, coming to live in a new place. I was the same age when those do-gooders swiped me off the street in Liverpool and put me on a ship. Barely out of knee pants. A new life, they said. Consider yourself blessed. What was so blessed about retching up my insides into the sea? I cried, for my ma and my sister.
I hadn’t seen Granddad since the stroke, before the war, which seemed to have stolen so much. My father, lost in the Pacific. Then, my mother, from something spoken of only in whispers, not appropriate for a boy’s ears.
Gram poured a cup of steaming tea and stirred in sugar and cream.
“Jam, John?” She slathered a thick slice of bread with raspberry jam for me, its fruity fragrance making my mouth ache.
I watched as Gram soaked pieces of bread in milky tea and fed Granddad with a spoon. I hid my face in my tea, welcoming the smart as it burned my tongue.
It’s okay, John, my boy, look away. There are worse things than being fed pap like a baby. A new life, all right, with a cruel man who worked me from dark to dark. All well and fine, but hard for a mite of a boy. I ate scraps from the dog’s plate, if he left me any. I wasn’t welcome at the family table. Your Gram’s bread is mighty fine, very fine indeed.
“Are you still hungry, John?”
“I’m fine, thank you, Gram.”
“Then, let’s get you settled.” Gram leaned down to Granddad. “I’m taking our John to his room.”
Granddad just stared at the floor. I retrieved the cardboard suitcase containing all my earthly possessions and followed Gram.
You probably don’t think you have much, John, but you’re going to sleep in a warm bed tonight, and every night from now on. The people who got me from the train got free labour, didn’t even spare me a bed, just straw in a corner of the barn. Thank God, I can give you more.
“When you’re rested, John, we’ll go walking. Tonight, tomorrow. Get you started on chores. School.”
“It’s a good school. You’ll like Miss Bennett.”
You’ll love Miss Bennett, John. She makes books come alive and she teaches about faraway places, like where your dad was when he was killed. I never had any schooling. Taught myself to read after I was married. Embarrassing to be grown up and not read.
I looked at Granddad, sitting silently. He hadn’t moved at all since I’d arrived, still staring at the same spot.
“Gram, does Granddad ever talk?”
“Not since the stroke. But I’m sure he understands everything.”
I looked at Granddad doubtfully.
“He had a terrible childhood, John. I know he’s glad you’re here now. He wants the best for you.”
“Did his parents die, too?”
“In a way. They were lost to him. He could have been bitter, but he became gentle and kind instead. You remember your Granddad. He’s still the same man.”
Not the same, my love. Wiser.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I didn’t hate the family that took me in. But they were church going folks, so I learned about loving those who persecute you, heaping coals of fire on their heads, praying for them. I didn’t like it, but it doesn’t say anything about liking it, just doing it. I learned plenty about forgiveness and grace living with those folks.
I looked into Granddad’s eyes. I think he looked back at me.
Over 100 000 Home Children were brought to Canada between 1833 and 1939, with good intentions but often tragic results. It’s estimated that 12% of Canadians are descended from Home Children.
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