Birth order had a huge impact on my early development. I was born into a poor, mixed farming family, the middle of three sister, with my brother the first born. I was not only the middle sister, I was the ugly one, completely overshadowed by my older sister who outshone me in every way. She was the chosen one – the family beauty, the smart one, excelling in school, the one with personality plus. If you look at photos taken when we were babies, it is difficult to tell one from the other, and even as children, the only difference in looks was that her hair curled naturally while mine was straight and my nose was a bit longer – we were both flaxen blonde with blue eyes. But the differences were there, magnified and insurmountable.
My parents married while my Dad was a trapper in the Northwest Territories. He came to Edmonton for supplies, met Mom; three weeks later they were married and she flew back north with him. After Neil was born, they stayed near Fort Simpson one more year, then Mom left to stay with her family in Leduc. She found it too hard being alone for long periods of time while Dad was off on the trap line. Dad missed his family, so he moved back to Alberta. He bought the farm near Sunnybrook from my Uncle John for $1,000, and converted the big granary into a house by putting up interior walls insulated with sawdust, a ceiling, and a partition to make two rooms – the bedroom and the other room, separated by slabs of rough lumber with knotholes that you could peek through. Mom coated the interior walls with calcimine, which is like a mixture of chalk and water.
When my sister Joanne was born, everyone made a fuss over her. She was a beautiful, chubby baby with a round face, round china blue eyes, small features, a turned up nose, and hair that grew in blonde and curly. She also has personality plus, as she later boasted, right from birth. With her ready smile and charming ways, she won people over easily. All of the relatives – my Aunt Marie, uncles, grandmother and especially my dad were captivated by her charm and beauty. Dad doted on her. He was so proud of his beautiful baby girl that he had her portrait taken and sent to his relatives in Denmark when she was two years old.
I was three years younger and I wasn’t a beautiful baby. It was a difficult pregnancy for mom, and I was born a few weeks early with the help of forceps. They brought me to my mom, a skinny baby with a misshapen head and bruised face. She took one look, and said, “That’s not my baby. She’s too ugly. Take her away.” (My Aunt told me that years later).
Mom later did accept me with reluctance, but I remained ugly in her eyes and those of the rest of the family, completely overshadowed by my older sister..
My first year of existence was one of neglect. A woman on mom’s ward at the hospital came down with Scarlet Fever, and Mom brought the germs home with her when she brought me home on the bus. Mom, my brother, Neil, and my sister, Joanne, all came down with the disease, and the house was quarantined for several weeks. Mom was sick herself, had a new baby and two sick children to care for. She later said I was a very good baby. I just lay in the crib and didn’t even cry. I had learned not to ask for anything.
They recovered, but then Joanne developed yellow jaundice (hep A I believe) and again the quarantine and the sickness in the house. She recovered, then Mom’s teeth went – she developed abscesses and had to have them all pulled out. She was fitted with dentures that never quite fit properly. Because of her tooth problems, I was weaned from the breast at less than one year old even though my older siblings nursed for more than two years..
Neil turned seven that August and started school, walking a mile and a half (about two km.) to Sunnybrook School. He brought home chicken pox and measles, so once again the house was disease ridden. I had both before I was a year old. I was so sick with the measles that I was going into convulsions, but we all survived.
As a result of that rocky first year of life, my father never bonded with me, but having nearly lost her, his bond with Joanne strengthened. She was his golden child.
I remember breakfast. A small, thin child I was seated next to Mom on the bench at the side of the table. I wore a blue dress with darker blue stripes. In my hands I clutched a glass pop bottle one third filled with milk. A sheep nipple was stretched over the top.
Joanne sat on Dad’s lap at one end of the table, eating from his porridge bowl. She was wearing a matching striped dress. Mom had sewn the dresses from the material the 100 pound bags of flour came in.
Neil hunched at the foot of the table, a shock of dark hair half covering his eyes, solemn and quiet.
Mom laughed a mirthless laugh. I shrunk smaller. It was that nasty laugh she had when she was making fun of someone.
“Linda is so ugly with that long nose,” her laugh rose and peaked, “She looks mad when she is happy.
Joanne looked up into Dad’s face, smiled her cherubic smile, her doll like blue eyes meeting his darker blue eyes, secure in her own beauty. Dad smiled back. She giggled. Neil, in his place stretched his lips in a tentative smile, nodding in agreement, knowing which side was the safe one
I spooned porridge into my mouth waiting until they found something else to talk about.
And Mom soon did. She began her usual rant about how she hated Sunnybrook, she hated the farm – her list of woes was endless, repeated over and over, her voice a continuous backdrop to my childhood, rising and falling, sometimes punctuated with “Jisus, Maria!!, or some fancy word to describe my father “Priestunalets!”
Sometimes in her rants she threw herself onto the floor, and lay there kicking. Other times she lay inert in bed with her large dirty feet sticking out from under the covering feather tick.
I had no one.
I sat on the living room floor. Mom sat at the table, hunched over a cup of heavily sweetened coffee, her shoulders rounded forward beneath her green print housedress. Her face was half obscured by the bright printed kerchief she had tied over her hair. Between her fingers a thin spiral of smoke rose from a sloppily rolled cigarette.
The table was littered with spilled sugar, cigarette ash, pools of coffee and dirty dishes. Mom only washed dishes as needed to eat a meal – the rest of the time they stayed where they were, with flies crawling over their food stained surfaces. The floor around her bare, dirty feet was littered with newspapers, food wrapper, dirt, tracked in straw and manure from the barnyard and other debris. Dad never took off his work boots when he came in.
My wails rose. Dad came in from the fields. He took five quick steps towards me, bent over and scooped me up into his arms.
“I’ll give you something to cry about!” He marched into the bedroom and threw me face down on the bed.
Whack! His hand came down on my bard bottom. Whack! Whack!. Whack!
Stinging pain from his hard calloused hand.
Finally, he walked out. I lay whimpering mess on the bed.
I was three years old.
Mom roused from the table. She laughed mirthlessly – “Nothing wrong with Linda but the T’s.
She filled a plate with food and placed his dinner on the table for Dad.
Joanne was never spanked.