A Canadian story of Adoption from the 1930s
The three year old two doors up our little street came to the door yesterday. Standing there in a diaper, leaning into his guardian angel sister who is carrying his peed upon pants and our yellow rubber duck. They had been playing in the creek out front, and though the sister knows they are simply returning the duck, this little man has other ideas. He is coming in now to play at our house. We tell him he can’t come in. We are “self-isolating” a term as new as the phenomenon the entire world is currently engulfed in, the Covid-19 crisis. Our little neighbour, who by now has wiggled his way quite deeply into our hearts cries like his heart would break. It is that cry that directs where I need to look as I try to understand how children grow into the people they become. Joseph Campbell, who wrote Myths To Live By was a student of how we tell the stories of our human experience. One is the Hero’s Journey which follows a story line beginning with Separation, centering on Orientation or Dis-integration, and ending with Return or Re-integration. Because of this journey, taken sometimes in as short a time as moments, and as long as a life time, a person may come to the place where he or she has gained or won gifts to enrich his or her own life and to share with others. Our little neighbour, with his cry of separation and dis-integration, gained a return of three consoling cookies to share with his sisters and through his tears, led me to a better understanding of the subject of this writing. Tony, a man now in his 80s, has won in his return, through the separations, the difficulties, the orientations and dis-integrations in his life, many more precious gifts for himself and others. This is Tony’s Hero’s Journey.
Tony is a big hulk of a man but a gentle man, nonetheless. During his long and varied working life, Tony engaged in the things an ordinary, middle-class man does: marrying and raising three children who have all gone on to successful lives, at times remortgaging his home as part of the bargain for maintaining this normal life. Tony has also invested years in civic projects in his community. It is not hard to imagine that over the span of his lifetime a proud display of photos would be found in his living room. What might be hard to imagine though is how such photos might have made it into the home of a man who is also a product of Canada’s adoption system as it was operated in the early part of the 20th century. How did a child cycled through the Canadian adoption system of the early part of the twentieth century become a good and gentle man, and more specifically, a man with a deep well of empathy for others?
In hopes that we Canadians will continue to be spurred toward better care of children who have lost family and to keep alive the memory of the Home Children and other children who have, at different times been given over to government care in Canada, Tony wrote down his memories of his personal experience. His writings, along with personal interviews Tony and I shared are the source of an exploration into how empathy was nurtured in a person whose opportunities for a normal nurturing of empathy were thwarted at pivotal opportunities in childhood. The writing will weave Tony’s memories around the adoption practices of the time. To set the stage for this exploration, we start with one quick check on the meaning of empathy: Google says empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another from within his or her frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., PH.D, whom I will be referring to at different points in the pages ahead, along with Maia Szalavitz, a science journalist, says much the same thing, “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts….When you empathize with someone, you try to see and feel the world from his or her perspective. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own…. You feel the other person’s pain. You’re feeling sorry ‘with’ them, not just ‘for’ them” ( 12). And I would add, you are spurred to reach out and ease their lives or mentor them in the things you have come to understand through the experiences of your own life.
Tony has a vivid memory of his first day of school– so much so, that he begins his record of his childhood with that day. Was it one of those little pluses of advanced age, the ability to recall the long ago past with more clarity? Or was it because the confusing but strong emotions of that day stamped the day on his heart and mind with unusual vividness, as trauma energized memories?
This was Tony’s first day of school in L-, a small Saskatchewan community to which the Children’s Aid society sent this young child.
It was a cold and dull day. There was a commotion and everyone seemed to be hollering, Steve, the hired hand, the old man and the old lady. I was dressed in better than normal clothing and given an oatmeal bag to carry. The old lady climbed up into the wagon box from the open back of the wagon and sat on the kitchen chair placed there for her. Steve lifted me into the wagon box, then he climbed up, stepping from the wooden wheel spokes across to the double tree, then up on to the wooden plank that fit across the wagon box. I tried several times before to sit on the plank but had a nasty fall back as the team lurched forward. There was also the fear of falling forward which would have landed me under the hooves of these plow horses. As we drove toward town I was unaware what the occasion was. I knew that something different was going to happen.
Steve brought the team to a halt next to the school gate. I jumped off the wagon while Steve set the chair on the ground so the old lady could step down. She took strong hold of my hand. I knew then that whatever was to happen, it applied to me.
The little school was large to me then. It had two rooms divided by the walls of a windowless hallway. Both sides of the hallway were lined with wooden pegs and brass hangers on the wall. I never saw such a mass of clothing of every color and description. There was this pungent odor that I had not experienced before. It was coming from the rough fir floor that was just oiled and all the semi-wet rubbers, sweaters and other clothing.
The old lady walked to a door, opened it with me in tow. This caused everyone in the three grades to stare at us intruders. I did not know or recognize anyone of them. I doubt if anyone knew me. There was a loud voice discussion with the teacher and the old lady. The old lady had a very limited understanding of spoken English. After some discussion, “He bad boy sometimes, give him stick”, I was led to the back of the room where I was seated in a desk with half the top missing. My oatmeal bag was taken and put on a shelf near the floor heat register. The old lady came over and kissed me. This caused great laughter. After this commotion, things settled down. The teacher, Miss R-, carried on with her grade two class. I saw everyone around me busy with paper and pencil. I sat and watched.
All of a sudden I heard this terrible noise I had never heard before. Immediately everyone scrambled out of the classroom. Also everyone ran out from the other room across the hall, where the grade four to eights had their room. I too crept out to see what was happening. The older boys ran down to the bush and the school barn, hollering “Fox, Geese, Fox, Geese”. Some played a game of throwing a ball over the roof of the woodshed and then raced around to catch someone who did not have the ball. Some girls walked hand in hand. Others snacked from their small Rodger’s syrup lunch cans. Now I knew what was in my oatmeal bag. I tried to open the knot on the bag but could not. I put it back on the shelf. Then I saw one of the older girls ringing a hand bell. For some reason, I knew this sound and what it meant. I had heard it before somewhere. Everyone raced to the outside door. Girls were in one row and boys were in the other. I followed and lined up with the boys. There was a lot of jostling, pushing and arguing in the boys’ line. I did not understand a word anyone said to me. They did not understand my muttering. I understood only Hungarian, a limited amount of that. When we settled down again, Miss R- had a sing song with us Grade Ones – Mary had a Little Lamb. After two or three tries, she moved to the grade twos. There they sang some folk songs with Miss R-. Then finally the grade threes had their turn. To me they were all so big, and could all sing by memory without Miss R- singing along. Miss R- would then come back to the grade ones and teach us spelling. We followed the spelling book: boy, school, girl, dog, cat, sun, apple. I became good at mouthing the words but I did not have a clue what the words meant at this time. Miss R- would come and say something to me. I would be in a terrible fright, and did not comprehend a word she said or what she wanted of me. There was a lot of giggling from the whole class. This was the first time I felt so embarrassed. I felt sick and ready to throw up.
The bell gave its horrible sound again. As before everyone scattered. This time lunch cans, leather knap sacks and some with neatly wrapped and string parcels are grabbed and out we went. I took my bag and tried to open it. The top was tied in a tight knot. One of the bigger boys took out his jack knife and wedged it out. There it was: two sandwiches, one plain butter and the other plain jam, and a cookie.
Some of the boys were playing catch with an orange, another with an apple. I thought they were great, I mean being able to catch something out of mid-air, after it was thrown at you. Another boy tossed an orange high in the air and caught it. I tried this with a pebble. After two or three tries, I got it. Finally I could do something they could do even though I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying.
There was a well-worn deep rut to the out houses. There were two out houses joined side by side for the girls. Another two were joined by a wall for the boys. Each section of the boys out houses was a ‘two holer’. The older boys took their turn first. The younger and smaller boys lined the wooden trough which was built to the wall. The odor here was putrid, but not as bad as the odor on the farm. Someone picked up a large lump of turf or dried horse bun and threw it against the girls’ out house. There was a lot of screaming from the girls. The boys had a good laugh. I felt I could do this. I picked up a good size rock and did the same. There was a good reaction and I repeated this several times. I saw one the older girls racing out from the school and everyone ran. I too took off and hid in the bluffs. It was no use. Miss R- found me, took a good grip of my arm and neck and dragged me into the class. There she said something, and took the ruler. She held my hand and I received several good whacks on the front and back of my hands. I was dumped in my desk where I was crying away until the class entered again. The second recess I was not allowed out. Miss R- gave me some picture book to look at and some toys she found in a cupboard. At home the old lady would have stayed mad until at least the next day.
The final ring by the bell was a long one. There were already parents with buggies, and buckboards. Other, older boys and girls had their own buggies and riding ponies. I started walking toward home when I saw Steve with the wagon and team coming to pick me up. At home I had to rush and change into my old clothes and bring in the firewood. I was also very hungry. I found the porridge pot not clean yet. I scraped off the thick burned porridge from the bottom of the pot. There was also some burned milk in the bottom of another pot and I scraped this clean.
“What have you learned today at school?”, Old Daddy asked. I didn’t dare tell them of the strapping I received. I knew that I would get another worse one at home. I shook my head saying nothing, and they were disappointed.
Before we go on with Tony’s story, please note that here was a five or six year old child simply trying to do what he could to fit in. Others threw rocks. He tried to do so too. Why the strong reaction against him? Why is he the only one punished? Had the ‘old lady’ managed to set up a prejudice against him with “He bad boy sometimes”? Or was the school rooted in negative assumptions about adoptees? I once read a sweet observation in Quora written by a pre-kindergarten teacher. Two three-year-olds were becoming a bit of a concern because they were caught fighting with each other most days. The usual protocols were applied. At the point where the cliché, ‘Finally in exasperation…’, comes into play, the teacher asked the two why they were fighting. Could they try to be friends? With smiley, little faces, they said they were best friends. It took some contemplation, but this teacher came to the conclusion that they, with their little brains growing at top speed, were playing at fighting to investigate what it was all about, and quite happily too. They were not acting out because they were in some way “bad seed” or mentally unhealthy. Miss R- may have had some of the same sensibilities as the pre-kindergarten teacher writing in Quora, showing more kindness than Old Mama, yet to punish without guidance on the first day of school suggests some grave misunderstanding as well.
Tony was five when the adoptive society of the time placed him in the home of a couple whom the society felt would be appropriate for the ‘best interests of’ this five year old. By the time he entered grade one, the ‘old lady’ felt she had reason for telling the teacher on Day One, “He bad boy sometimes, give him stick”. And yes, on Day One, the teacher saw reason to “give him stick”. As Tony sees it, with no family support, he was someone easy to suspect. How does a 5-year-old boy find himself in the care of a couple who found childish behaviour aggravating to the point that gave them licence to bully and abuse?
Tony’s biological father, John M-, came to Canada in 1905 from Galicia, a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an area that was dissolved at the end of World War 1, suggesting the upheaval in the area that likely prompted John M-’s decision to emigrate. In fact, two of his brothers lost their lives in the struggle that was fermenting even before the war. M-, born in 1885, was 20 when he arrived in Canada hoping like any immigrant coming out of civil strife to build a new, more promising life in Canada. He found a homestead in the G- area of west, central Saskatchewan, a community about 100 kilometers from L-, Saskatchewan. It was good land, central to many natural resources.
M- built a small cabin and began to work the land, owning the homestead within 3 years. Tony’s brother and sister described the cabin in this way: The walls were chinked out properly and put together nicely and this was all done by hand and axe. There was a little living room and in the center they had a clay oven type of thing; and this would keep the house warm and as little kids we would be put on the box there. After that you could use it to keep warm and cook on it. And there was a good size lake there and there was also plenty of water and a good garden and horses and everything went well I guess. Tony is proud to add that when he and his brother John revisited the area the log cabin was still standing.
About a year after M- settled in Canada, he married a woman from his birthplace. So far so good. He had a house and work, and now he looked to turning that house into a home. We all know this can be a toss of the dice in a game of chance. M- entered a game that left him broken. His first wife for whatever reason did not get pregnant and threw it back in John’s face, letting the community know that she was leaving him because he was sterile. The community laughed. John who had only enough English to get by and no education, was trying to build a life in a foreign country, and now was the butt of community jokes. But he kept going. He wrote to another woman from his village in Hungry. This woman, whose name was Mary, was also interested in a better life in Canada. Gossip around her Hungarian community suggested John might be her ticket, but whatever fantasy that gossip conjured, homesteading and cuddling up in a little cabin as the Depression set in scuffed up the shine on her dream. Adding insult to injury, at the time, their religion did not recognize John’s divorce from his first wife, denying John and Mary a sanctioned marriage. To counter such religious edicts at the time required the expensive step of going before Parliament to request a divorce. Though John did not do so, he did garner one upside from their relationship for Mary stayed long enough to shut down the sterility jokes John had been facing. She arrived at the age of 28 in about 1928 and by 1934 the two had produced a son, two daughters and a set of twins, one male and one female. Tony and his twin sister Margaret were born August 28, 1934. There were actually 6 children born but one died after 3 days. On the downside though, due to the problem of securing a divorce at the time, the labels, ‘illegitimate’ or ‘bastard’, could be applied to each of the five children, if needed by the agencies which would in future days take over the care of these children.
A hopeful new wife had arrived in a new culture, in a new land, to enter the embrace of a man who had been badly used by the first woman he had taken as a wife. Whatever hope this couple had at the beginning of their union would only hold them together for about 6 years. A union that must partner in the face of the demands of homesteading hardly removed from the life she had left, religion’s condemnation of a union already likely stressed by each of their expectations of their partnership and possibly their age differences was now crushed by the weight of an economic disaster that ‘soured the dreams of millions’. The Wall Street crash came the year after she arrived, and then the Depression set in. And while Tony and I talk of this time, he also wonders if maybe Post-Partum depression set in for Mary.
Whatever the motivation, Tony and Margaret were 8 months old, yet Mary packed up and moved to Ontario, this time finding a man with a solid bank account. Mary later suggested to her children that her motivation was to re-establish herself and then come to rescue her children. Given the options for women at the time, that might have been true, but it was an argument Tony has difficulty accepting.
John, who was then in his 50s, tried to keep together this family of five children, all under the age of six. He could not manage for all the reasons we study in high school about the Depression Canadians went through. When the Crash came, of course, there was no work and there was a lot of problems in the family when there was no money. You had a large family and you couldn’t sell anything and the kids were running barefoot. They were destitute, totally destitute, not even money for flour or sugar or salt you know. Although they owed less than $200.00 on their line of credit, the storekeeper finally said no more, foreclosing on the homestead, as well as, refusing to extend credit for groceries. He did say that if M- wanted, he could clear a 30 acre piece of land and it would be his, but M- was 55 years old with no more than an axe for equipment, a worn out body, daily struggling to feed 5 children whose mother had walked. Seeing no other option, initially John M-farmed his older children out to neighbours. At some point that bit of relief must also have evaporated for with everyone struggling, potential foster families could not afford to feed more children, however they might have wanted to help. “They ate too much.” No one in the community was willing to step up to help either. Decades later, on a visit to the community, Tony asked different families why they didn’t try to help out when they saw what was happening. The response was, “Oh we couldn’t you know; times were hard for us too.” Today we have shelves of books, several of which I note in the References, that advocate for the role of the community in helping families in a community which is struggling. ‘It takes a village’ has become a banner. In our own community here in little, scrappy Port Alberni we often meet people who are finding ways to ease the burden of a work colleague or the family up the road. Admittedly, the Covid-19 is testing our willingness to reach out to each other, but even in the midst of this unparalleled experience, media show daily how individuals and communities are finding ways to support neighbours in stress. You can find a video of a man walking around inside a rubber donut with a radius of six feet. You can also find donations to food banks or neighbours picking up groceries for someone in self-isolation.
Perhaps we cannot compare a crisis today with the one facing the world in the 1930s. Times were hard in the 1930s. We know the stories history has focused on of heroic, stubborn fights against blinding dust and earth scorching grasshoppers, stories that strike at the economy. Less often do we hear stories of families who were not able to cope to the extent that they demanded the attention of community authorities. Those stories which strike at the fabric of society are there too. John M- and his children are one of these stories; one day the Saskatchewan Children’s Aid Society arrived to take the children from M-. M-‘s oldest son, Tony’s brother, was also named John. John and the oldest sister, Annie, were five and six at the time. They were fostered out to live and work for a nearby farmer. The family noticed John and Annie were running around and already five years old and six years old; they were running and out of diapers and that is exactly what you wanted on a farm. You didn’t want to look after somebody in diapers. You didn’t want to adopt children who were necessary to watch; you wanted to get them working right away and that was more common than we thought. Right off the bat they were expected to work. They were never adopted but as was more common earlier in the Depression, they remained in foster care with the fostering family paying a small amount to have them. They would never take on this family’s name or have any legal rights to normal family expectations. However, as we shall see as we look in more detail at the policies of the Children’s Aid Society, the money the family sent to the agency for fostering these children was supposed to be “held in trust for the child until he or she reaches the age of discretion”. Did John and Annie get this money? That we do not know, but we do know the Children’s Aid Society would visit as was required by the child protection agency. John later told Tony that he and Annie were sent to hide when the Children’s Aid Society visitors came but at least once from their hiding spot, the children spied on an agency staff member and one of their fostering family caregivers bouncing about in the back seat of the agency car parked in the yard. It can be assumed that the agency person sent to check up on John and Annie’s fostering situation more than filled the quota for checkup visits. When he was barely in his teens, John left to work but Annie remained and then married in the area.
The three younger children were sent to a Children’s Aid Society ‘shelter’ or orphanage; what Tony sometimes refers to as ‘welfare’. In the early years of childhood when parental care means not merely meeting the child’s physical needs, but indulging in cuddling and playing to help love and trust grow, Tony was institutionalized. In the institution, physical needs, as much as the Depression years allowed, were met. But daily staff rotation, more than even limited resources, would have made it difficult for trust, let alone love, to blossom. Dr. Bruce Perry writes of the impact of institutional care on the hearts, minds and lives of the children in such care. He notes that by about eight months, babies who have been with the same caregivers have built up associations strong enough that when they encounter a stranger, they experience fear (47). Tony was initially sent with his sisters to a group home. The mother, whose scent, voice and touch he had by then learned, was gone. Seldom is a child in an institution special to any one on a scheduled shift assignment. The impact of this kind of care: “If infants don’t get care from the same few people over and over, oxytocin can’t wire their unique attributes to comfort”(66). By showing kindness and care, a mother or the consistent caregiver nurtures soothing calm and trust in an infant, releasing oxytocin and vasopressin. Attachment is forming. It becomes uncomfortable to then be removed from the familiar caregiver. The love that comes with sufficient facilitation of oxytocin and vasopressin are not there to combat the stress of fear. In Born for Love, Perry refers to a study of children raised in orphanages and later adopted compared to children in lovingly consistent care. The study discovered that after even three years in the care of adoptive, and presumably loving families, these children when held by their parents showed lowered levels of vasopressin and oxytocin, the chemicals that develop “connections over time [consistent and repeated, over and over] between specific, familiar people and stress relief”(66).
Tony and Margaret were still in diapers; stating the obvious, they would not yet have been helpful to a family, just more mouths to feed, and although Sophie was somewhat older, she too was not ready to be considered for farm help. In what is certainly an unwritten definition for orphanages, the orphanage the three were sent to may have been set up by a government stretched with mounting needs to be a holding station as much as a permanent home for its charges. Margaret was soon adopted out by the shelter/orphanage to a family near B- who were educated and gave her a stable, though ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, start to life. Sophie was possibly the one Tony remembers as an older girl at the orphanage who was kind to him. He remembers her as having knee socks and plaid skirt and she seemed to always be present, even wiping his nose. Dr. Bruce Perry has seen that it is not so much that a child’s primary caregiver in the early years must be the mother, but the care giving needs to be consistent and nurturing. Perhaps to some extent this only slightly older child provided some of this needed consistency and nurturing attention for the time they were together at the orphanage. Be that as it may, in the earliest years of a life journey marked by one separation after another, one broken attachment after another, “To some extent” was all it was allowed to be. At some point, Tony, certainly by the time he was ‘out of diapers and running around’, was taken by train which in itself was frightening, a massive thing, breathing steam, smoke and heat. He was accompanied to a farm by a child protection staff woman who remained distant but evidently in charge. With him on this trip was a kind, older girl. Tony thinks she may have been Sophie. When they arrived at a farm for consideration as possible adoptees, Tony was frightened by the farm dog and Sophie was not.
Tony remembers sitting in a small house on a bench with the older girl. The adults were talking about something. I didn’t understand any of this. A dog barking outside was brought in. It was a huge black dog. It came over and licked me. I was terrified and screamed with fear. Even the huge tail of the dog wagging terrified me. The girl with me stood and patted the dog. We left again. This time only the [agency] lady and I left; the older girl stayed. Sophie got to stay and Tony was returned to the orphanage. Later Tony learned that when the war started, the father in this family joined up, leaving Sophie to be a very young nanny to the other children in the family.
“Dwell on the past and you lose one eye; forget the past and you lose two eyes” is a Russian proverb which heads a paper (both quoted and paraphrased) by two Saskatchewan social workers, Frank Dornstauder and David Macknak on the history of child protection services. It was written for the 100th anniversary of the first child welfare legislation in Saskatchewan, The Children’s Protection Act of 1908. The Act was “to encourage and assist in the organization and establishment in various parts of the province of societies for the protection of children from neglect or cruelty, and for the due care of neglected and abandoned children in temporary homes or shelters and the placing of such children in properly selected foster homes”. Previous to this Act, children caught in difficult circumstances were cared for within a community, a community often infused with moral values unshaken since the English Poor Laws. The prevailing opinion of early 1800s England was that unfortunate children are a direct result of being born into families who don’t live a proper, hardworking life, or are judged to lack good blood. The oft’ bandied phrase ‘in the blood’ is one unshakable, moralistic guideline, not always carefully balanced in the tussle between ‘nature and nurture’ as we work at understanding a human life. In consequence, of course, possibly even for good folk like the couple who adopted Margaret, the problem of a suspect heritage must be countered with a parenting style ordained in the Book of Proverbs that called for exacting conditions. “Spare the rod, spoil the child”. Thus, observe Dornstauder and Macknak, help was often given not because the needy individual was a person of value, but because to help was pleasing to a stern God, a duty as much as a privilege.
The Act detailed which children would be eligible for help: a child who is begging, who is wandering about at night and sleeping in the open, who is associating with a thief or drunkard or vagrant and allowed to grow up without salutary parental control, who lives in any disorderly house or in the company of reputed criminal or immoral or disorderly people, who is a destitute orphan deserted by lawful parents or guardians, who is guilty of petty crimes and likely to develop criminal tendencies, or who is habitually truant from school. A child is deemed to be any person actually or apparently under the age of sixteen years. Preference was given to childless couples or couples who had only one child who is lonely and in need of companionship.
If the child was taken simply to be fostered, there was a written agreement which required regular school attendance for the foster child, inspection of the home and right of the Superintendent to remove the child without notice. Application for foster care was to be in written form, accompanied by at least two references, one of which must be from clergy.
While requiring the foster parent to provide the child with kind treatment, board, lodging, washing, clothing, and necessaries, the foster parent was further required to pay the Society or Superintendent a small wage. This money was to be held in trust for the child until he or she reached the age of discretion. However, a foster child could not expect to use the fostering family’s surname, to have a right to inherit, or to have a long term commitment from the family.
Adoption legislation passed in Saskatchewan in 1922 required that the Commissioner of Child Protection consent to applications and that there be a supervised probationary period of one year with at least four visits to the home during that period. The application involved a “home study, determination of the suitability of the child for each home, a guarantee that the child is legally free for adoption, and an assurance that the birth registration is appropriately changed by Vital Statistics Branch”.
By 1930 six men and three women were employed by the Saskatchewan government to do the following (from a more lengthy list): investigate domestic trouble in the homes of children, ‘adjust trouble’ between foster parents and the Commissioner regarding wards who are behaviour problems, investigate referrals of cruelty and neglect by natural parents, visit wards in foster homes regularly, investigate willful neglect and desertion, escort children to and from foster homes, inspect prospective foster homes, and hold in-office interviews with people requiring information and assistance to adjust their ‘troubles’ in a province which had a sparse rural population, small urban centers, lack of a comprehensive transportation system and a predominately agricultural economy in the Depression years. I presume the same was true for adoption applications, at least for the probationary year. The paper offers the example of one young social worker, Alice Dales, who periodically boarded a train with a ‘bundle of babies’ to be delivered to waiting, approved, adoptive parents. She dropped them off as the train proceeded down the line. All of Saskatchewan was her territory and train transportation was the only secure method of travel available to her.
The exploitation of children as a source of cheap labor was a concern not to be ignored. Yet, with the small staff, the great distance with poor transportation options, and the many duties, we will have some explanation for the lack of regular government oversight and problems Tony encountered. The Great Depression seriously exacerbated these problems. “By 1937 seventy percent of the population is on relief. Government programs are curtailed and budgets are slashed, child welfare programs among them. This resulted in more reliance on the private agencies and even less government supervision” and because home care was taking less of the government’s allotted budget and usually provided a more normal, even healthy environment, the focus moved toward placing children in homes rather than caring for them in group homes or shelters as they may have been called, or even fostering them, possibly because the deposits the fostering family was required to set aside for the child when he or she aged out of the foster system had become onerous. During the ‘30s, the cost per day of care per child was 64 cents. Adoption sometimes garnered the government a ten dollar fee for the government but had no follow-up costs. Later in the Depression even the ten dollar fee was often waived. The courts were more concerned about the legal requirements around the transfer of guardianship. When natural parents refused to consent, as was required by law, it was necessary to establish that the parents were unfit and improper persons and that it was in the best interests of the child to grant the adoption. Was it convenient to bring forward the possible illegitimacy of John and Mary’s children at this time?
Whether or not that term was considered useful, the paper says that every effort was made to establish paternity of illegitimate children placed for adoption, especially if it might aid in the financial burden for the child. Thus adoptive parents were given background information on the child.
In the introduction to their paper, Dornstauder and Macknak note that the attitude to child protection was often rooted in English Poor Laws. But with better education among child protection staff or because hard economic times forced a broad spectrum of people into poverty, they also slip in the counter balance that by the early 1930s, and even in the midst of the Depression, the government was beginning to acknowledge that some of the children in care did not come from parents who fit the description thrown at the poor since the 1830s to dismiss their struggles. Questions were considered around whether or not helping struggling families stay together might have better long term benefits. Here it is important to be aware that Tony’s biological father, John M-, was going on foot around the region seeking work as a farm labourer in order that he might gain word of his children. As Tony says, Oh my father, he went around searching for us. He lived by himself and he would go searching for us; he would go from farm to farm and in the summertime with stooking and this and that, he was trying to find us but of course nobody would tell him anything. The trend toward helping families stay together had not yet seeped into the thinking of the agency staff in this area perhaps.
That said, we must acknowledge Dornstauder and Macknak’s caveat as they conclude their introduction, “Everyone with an interest in child welfare seems to have a strong opinion on every issue: members of the public claim to know, sometimes swagger in their certainty, rant, praise, condemn — politicians promise, backtrack, spin, blame, reward, sometimes get it right, make progress — the media reports, under-reports, over-reports — agencies posture for influence, money to run their programs — the helping professions advocate, waffle, defend, promote, protest, complain, while their individual members do their best and fall prostrate from fatigue . ‘Clients’ wait and wonder why — a few, we hope, survive and thrive. All this while troubled families multiply, parents falter and more children come into the care of government agencies.
The history of child welfare in Saskatchewan shows periodic swings of increased demand for and innovation in child welfare services and growth in the number of children coming into care followed by periods of slow growth, even decline in numbers — in demand for action followed by public and political apathy….Yet there will always be doubt and the need for a bit of luck.” But as they remind us with the Russian proverb at the beginning, “Forget the past and you lose two eyes”.
Acknowledging these thoughts and with the background information of child welfare services in Saskatchewan in the time of Tony’s youth, let’s go on with his story for, from the time Tony was 8 months old and up until he was almost 12, Tony’s life was in the hands Saskatchewan’s orphanage/group home, adoption and fostering services.
While Tony’s mother threw up her hands and moved to greener pastures, Tony’s father as I mentioned earlier, never stopped trying to find his children. In fact, years later when Annie married, M- tried to come to her wedding but was chased off by her new in-laws with the warning not to cause trouble. So which of the conditions of eligibility outlined in the paper did Tony meet? He was not wandering the countryside or begging. Was he being neglected in a disorderly house? He was barely a toddler; his mother had packed up and moved to Ontario, taking none of the children. His older siblings were now living with a nearby farm family. His father had to be out all day working at whatever jobs he could find. Did someone in the neighbourhood complain about three children fending for themselves during the day? Did Tony’s father simply recognize that he needed help, accepting the only help available to him? However this step was initiated, the day came when the community authorities were alerted and these three children were taken from their father and initially put in group care. How then did Sophie, Tony, and Margaret become legally eligible for adoption? Did their father give his consent? Did he refuse, leading the authorities to malign him as unfit to parent. Tony seems to see this as the case as he notes that when his father couldn’t afford to go before Parliament to request a divorce, the children were then labelled ‘illegitimate’ and he believes that stamped with a negative label, the government more quickly optioned to adopt out the children than to assist in restoring the family.
A simple mix up of papers may have forced the door to adoption to open even wider. Tony has told me that when he and his sisters were taken into custody, their Ukrainian names were anglicized. Tony, who had been Antol, was recorded as being a twin with a girl named Evelyn who was actually born a month earlier. She and Tony were sent to the F- home as twins. Then again, because I have just finished reading one of the books on the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Before and After, I am allowing a few flags to pop up in my mind. This society was active at around the same time as the fledgling Child’s Aid Society of Saskatchewan. The mishandling of records at this Tennessee adoption agency was actively deceptive. Perhaps Margaret was a more attractive infant, and therefore more adoptable, than Evelyn. Or, as I mentioned earlier, years later, Tony’s biological mother, Mary, told the children that she also tried to look for her children in hopes of bringing them to Ontario. She said that she couldn’t pay for a lawyer early on when it would have been more viable. She may have also had difficulty finding her children because the children were given new names.
Now around 5 years old, out of diapers and ready to work, Tony was for the second time taking a train ride, this time to a community roughly 100 kilometers from his birthplace. He was being delivered now to L-, Saskatchewan, a short time after the girl recorded as his twin was sent to the same community and to the same couple, the F-s. He was separated from everyone in his biological family, and given to understand that Evelyn was his sister. It was winter in central Saskatchewan; he took the trip in knitted shorts, a tight, knitted sweater and uncomfortably tight, but shiny new shoes. Tony remembers looking down at the shoes and he remembers how shiny they were. He was met by the woman who would become his new mother; his about-to-be-father was not in town at the time. To welcome him she bought him a new snowsuit.
So let’s have a closer look at this couple the government accepted as parents for a five year old child who has lived in an orphanage for several years since being taken by Children’s Aid Society as a toddler. The father-to-be was born in Hungary in 1880 as was his spouse-to-be. His name was Steve F- and her name was Irene. With two years education, Steve F- was told by what may have been his school teacher that he was smart enough and did not need to go to school. He dropped out and became a geese herder. In time, he and his family, three brothers, two sisters and a brother-in-law, probably re-examined their prospects in Hungry and made the decision to emigrate to Canada, subsequently following previous Ukrainian immigrants to L-, Saskatchewan. The entire family lived together on the same farm in a supportive relationship for they were by now in their middle years. Enter Irene as Steve’s new bride and the three brothers, two sisters and one brother-in-law moved to their own places. From then on the F-s needed to rely on hired help. I should allow here that the siblings’ evacuation may not have been all at the new wife’s instigation, for apparently Steve F- owned the property and put to his siblings that he wanted it for himself and his bride.
Steve F- set about marrying Irene when he was about 60, writing back to Hungry for a bride as John M- had done. Described by Tony, he looked like Hapsburg aristocracy, with a big Adam’s apple and long, protruding chin. To which description I cannot hold back adding a news feed piece which popped up on the day of this writing about a study of the ‘Hapsburg Jaw’, a long and protruding chin characteristic of mostly males as a symptom of inbreeding (National Post). Steve F- did come from a small village,… just sayin’. While it would seem that a protruding jaw sitting above a big Adam’s apple would hardly be a cultivated aristocratic look, it turns out it just might have been de rigueur. He mostly ate oatmeal soup as meat made him nervous. I had to google that one: his eating habits must have come from a self-diagnosis, or he was easily frustrated chewing meat with the few fang-like teeth remaining in that aristocratic jaw. He was useless at mechanics but that would have been neither here nor there for he was nearly blind and needed someone to help him negotiate life. “He couldn’t cut his beard straight”; he is beginning to sound like you know who from Mary Shelley’s pen.
Tony describes Irene as a little, Slovak looking woman with mousy hair. It is less likely that Irene even got to grade two; nonetheless, in her response to Stephen F-’s marriage proposal, she apparently managed to burnish her marriage CV, saying she was a cook for a wealthy family in Hungary. She wasn’t, as affirmed by Tony’s critique of her cooking and also by information that later came to light. Irene F- had been a farm hand. While working the fields, she was raped. The baby or babies were taken from her or given away by her. As an uneducated woman, however feisty enough to embellish her story, it comes as no surprise that she ended up with a bad name, leaving her without even the hope of a marriage to relieve her bleak life. No one in her home area would marry her. Subsequent events as they say show that when Irene weighed her options, a marriage offer from a 60 year old man with poor eyesight and hearing loss was a bright enough prospect to encourage an uneducated female farmhand of around 40 to move to Canada. Feisty it seems can handle that. And yes, Irene was not someone about whom we should look to the Canadian immigration board at the time, and throw up our hands demanding, “What the hell, Canada?”. Canada was actively seeking farm folk from Europe to come to Canada and populate the Prairies. If teachers in Hungary knew that little education was needed to be a farmhand, officials in Canada did not expect more. Nor it appears did somewhat advanced age seem much of a barrier.
I point out their ages being myself of two minds on the issue of age and child-raising. I was 47 when my husband, age 40, and I adopted a four year old child. At the time we adopted, China was a popular country from which to adopt; they, venerating age, gave some preference to older couples. Russia drew the line at 40 for infants but was less concerned about older, and therefore less adoptable, children. So though youth offers the benefits of less rigidity physical, mental and emotional, age was not a huge hurdle. Oddly for different reasons, being childless was the more important issue, then and now. When we adopted, our social worker expressed concern that we were still trying to get pregnant as we were adopting for she felt it would be unfair to the adoptee. I immediately stopped the pill that had no hope of success anyway. Although it may sound cynical, looking to the in-your-face economic needs of Depression era society, an “in the best interest of the child” policy has the ring more of a rhetorical veneer than a hard and fast policy. It is hard to be surprised that childless couples in the 1930s would be given preference for adoption. Steve was in his early 60s and Irene was in her early 40s. They were going to qualify as childless. And while it is not always newsworthy now to have a child later in life, when with IVF, older women are having babies, having a child later in life, or not at all, was not particularly newsworthy back in the 1930s either. If a couple did decide not to have a child past 30, the reason was more likely economic anxiety. It is possible in Irene’s case the reason was simply age, but it is also possible that the reason had something to do with being raped. We do know that Irene started barring Steve from her bedroom early on in their marriage. And as we shall repeatedly see with the unfolding of Tony’s story, Irene was a force difficult to work with. From the time she arrived at the F- homestead, Steve F- and Irene struggled as often witnessed by Tony, neither showing themselves masters in the art of dealing with a marital relationship. F-, if he was not in a roaring slinging match with Irene, was probably quite regularly caught muttering in his beard, the crooked one, as he faced off against his new, but not so young bride.
Tony was witness to a skill Irene F- did possess. At home she was a harridan let loose, but even as child, Tony recognized her ability to pull herself together and come out as very nice or good at faking gracious behaviour in public, turning vicious and without compassion once again in private. He wondered if she might have been Bi-polar. A googled definition of Bipolar disorder is “a mental illness that brings severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior. People who have Bipolar disorder can have periods in which they feel overly happy and energized and other periods of feeling very sad, hopeless, and sluggish.” Because Tony shares no memories of Irene being happy –merely socially gracious-, or for that matter sluggish, it is more likely that she, given perhaps a personal disposition passed down from some generations of forbearers who struggled against difficult life experiences or given the early trauma in her own life, had tendencies on a neurodevelopmental mental, psycho or sociopathic spectrum. As Dr. Perry presents this spectrum, Irene’s interactions with others were manipulative and often bullying, or even cruel, seemingly without remorse. People fitting this description only care about how their interactions with others will affect them (The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, 127). It is, of course, not particularly important to find a label for Irene’s way of dealing with her world. Nor is it actually possible to make an uneducated, armchair diagnosis some 80 years later. Irene was not emotionally healthy, or at the least, had grown numb and unable to be empathetic to others, end of diagnosis. Having possibly single-handedly cleaned out F-’s family, her next adjustment of her marital circumstances was to readjust his reason for marriage. “I didn’t come here to lead around a blindie and deafie.” Because of F-’s infirmity and his new wife’s apparent lack of desire to be his literal right hand, F- now needed to look elsewhere for farm help. The year the war began, 1939, Tony was five.
Early in the Depression, it was easy enough to find farm help but the early labour pool was proving an unstable source of available help as the war approached for almost ironically war offered a better future for potential hired hands. Tony witnessed scenes that suggest it was also difficult for hired help to work with Irene, and F- himself did not offer competitive wages, or so it appeared to Tony based on the unhappy exchanges he witnessed when it came time to pay the hired hands at the end of a summer harvest. Thus ‘adoptee-as-employee’ over even ‘fostering-as- employee’ was the preferred option and was probably not an original idea with the F-s for others were also exploring the potential of adoption to find farm hands. And it didn’t die with them either. I remember working on an Alberta turkey farm one summer in the ‘70s. The family had also somehow obtained a man with Down’s Syndrome who took his meals and slept in a small backyard shed and yet was expected to help husband thousands of turkeys.
And so Tony found himself once again on a train. Neither he nor Evelyn were ever asked what they wanted, not then and not at any time in the future even though Tony saw people coming to visit who he believes were checking on his welfare. Again, according to the child protection paper, the adopting agency was expected to visit four times over a one year probation period. So maybe….
Initially though, the agency would have been required to escort children to the community of their adopting family. This is how Tony tells it. Notice how often it is the smells Tony remembers in his recollections. (A quick Google search here: when a person picks up a smell, it travels along a rather direct route to the hippocampus, the part of the limbic system or the area of the brain which regulates motivation, emotion, learning and memory, particularly memories of up close and personal autobiographical experiences.)
Again there was a train ride. The train had a strong smell inside. As I knelt on the seat the upholstery on the seat back had an added texture and very strong odor. I watched out the window and all was white. The fence posts went by very fast. It made me feel dizzy. Also the noise was horrendous. This older woman took me by the hand to a small door. She pushed me in. I saw the toilet seat and looked down. I saw the track and rail ties go by at a terrible speed. No way would I sit on that. I was sure to fall in.
The train came to a stop again. This time I was taken by the arm and led out. Again the man at exit lifted me down to the platform. There were many people on the station platform. It was sunny and bright. I didn’t feel cold even though there was snow everywhere. Several people came to talk to the lady who brought me here. An old lady grabbed me by the arms, lifted me up and bit me on the cheek and screamed: “kis frum”, “ kis frum”. I started crying again. I was then led to an odd looking big box to which a team of horses were hitched. Inside it was quite warm. I sat in the back with the old lady who gave me half an apple and some candy. After some time the team stopped. The man opened the side door of the caboose and I was taken into the house. There was a young girl my size. (This is the girl a month older than him but believed by all concerned to be his twin sister.) She seemed odd. Very bright red hair. There was a stove going and it felt very warm in the house. I first noticed the slop pail and all the things floating in it. There was another room with a large table and a round tin heater in the room. Every window sill in this room had plants on it. I sniffed one of these plants – it smelled awful. Geraniums still smell that way today.
The hired man (who like F-, is also named Steve) came in again. I saw the dog at the open door. I screamed with fright again. They brought in the dog. It limped and had a large wound on its hind leg. The wound was red and flesh covered. The little girl patted the dog. I tried to run and hide. The old lady grabbed my arm and took me to the dog and made me pat its back. “Jo kutcha, Jo kutcha”, she says. I was still screaming with fear.
I don’t remember my first meal. The heater in the dining room was lit. It made a great amount of noise- small explosive noises that seemed to move the heater. The girl, Evelyn, got into the cot behind the door. I was put in the opposite end of the same cot.
Next morning we were dressed in many garments and sent outside to play. The old lady tried to push me. I looked out the window first. I saw the dog and a horse in the yard. I refused to go out. I was pushed out and refused to leave the side walk a few feet from the door.
Every day we were made to go out and stay there until our cheeks were bright red. Also every evening we accompanied the old lady to the outhouse and each of us took our turn. Some times when it was really cold, we didn’t go as before to the outhouse but did our relieving near the woodshed on the hill of ice where the slop water from the dish washing was thrown just a few feet from the kitchen door.
In the afternoons, Evelyn and I trudged to the house carrying as much wood as our arms could hold. There was never enough and this became very boring. But the old lady kept sending us back for more. In the evening Steve came in and took the full slop pail for the pigs. Later on he brought in two pails of milk. He cranked the cream separator and then I tried to crank the handle but couldn’t reach to the top of the swing of the crank handle. After this chore there was supper. Evelyn and Old Mama sat on a bench at the table. I learned very quickly not to sit too close to the end of the bench. When others got up it acted as a teeter totter because of the way the bench was built. Later we all sat around the heater in the dark. Steve would make a cigarette and light up. I would watch him closely. He passed the cigarette to me. I puffed on it and promptly choked. The burning of my throat lasted quite a while. Steve later went out to feed the horses and calves in the barn. When he came in he put a few coats on the floor and lied down for his sleep. It was too cold to sleep out in the bunk house that night.
There seemed to be more excitement this one morning. Steve brought in several dead chickens. The old lady scalded the chickens over a pail and started plucking the feathers. This really smelt bad to me and I tried to bury my head in the bedding on the cot. We got dressed and rode in the caboose again. The old lady took the pails with chickens and sold them to different homes. She dragged us along, I guess to show us off to everyone. We also visited stores, and when it was dark, we headed for home. We were sitting in the back of the caboose and Steve was peering out the little window sliding it open at times to holler at the horses. All of a sudden the horses lurched forward. Steve hollers “Ho, Ho, Ho”. The caboose tipped over on to the side where the door was. The hot coals from the mini heater scattered about and there was a lot of smoke. I was terrified and was screaming as were Evelyn and the old lady. Finally everything stopped. Steve ripped open the canvas roof. He threw snow on the fire. There was steam and smoke. The old lady and Steve tipped the caboose back up right and we carried on. This time Steve walked ahead leading the team. There was a gaping big hole where the door used to be and it was very cold.
Tony was warmly welcomed at the train station, the old lady making a great show for the agency staff. She brought winter clothes for Tony. But where did she ever get the idea that a bite on the cheek was a sweet touch? And yes, the warm welcome lasted until the railway station was obliterated by the dust of the old horse wagon. Tony was there because Steve F- needed someone to lead him around and to take care of chores that F- would have had difficulty doing on his own. Evelyn was there because F-’s wife needed someone to help her in the house. Although I have not yet been able to find anything official regarding age requirements other than that adopters needed to be at least 18, Tony seems to think that the F-s would not have been acceptable because of their ages. He says that both F-s had to lie about their age in order to be considered for adoption. It would have been amusing to see how the adoption agency officials processed the lies about the old lady’s age on the application form when they met her at the station. Was this again feisty Irene daring anyone to question the age she wrote on the application form? By the time Tony and Evelyn reached their new home with their new mother, she was already operating by a principle Tony believes was the Hungarian attitude to raising children, coined in the word ‘didigal’ (or a reasonable facsimile I hope). The word apparently represents the idea that caregivers or parents should constantly be bossing children because with age people know under God this is how they are to raise their children. Irene F- was now Tony’s ‘Old Mama’.
By the time this newly assembled family settled in together, Old Mama had also offered Tony her distorted version of a maxim strongly recommended to adopters: parents should begin to help adoptees understand as quickly as possible that they have come into their new families specially chosen. Old Mama told Tony that his mother was a whore who ‘pooped’ him out in a ditch and left him until dear Old Mama came along and rescued him. Tony would be coupled with his biological mother when Old Mama dished out her scorn, telling Tony he was just as bad as his whore of a mother– and would end up in jail and then the hanging tree. All I did was eat, totally useless. Tony remembers a school picnic near the end of one year. The teacher had bought one wiener for each student. There was one wiener left for the man who had set the picnic up. I swiped it. The teacher reached in my pocket and found it. I ran home embarrassed. I wouldn’t go back to school for rest of that year. Old Mama found out about this and told everybody what a thief I was. I would end up on a hanging tree.
Consequently, Tony was expected to be obedient and grateful for food and shelter. If you call ‘cleaning out the porridge pot when I get home from school’ food to be grateful for. And as for the adoption stipulation that children must be given their own bed, how is that visiting staff in the probation period did not ask about two adoptees sleeping end to end on one cot, Depression economy notwithstanding? When we adopted our son, we lived in a standard size, suburban home built in the ‘50s. We set up the master bedroom for our son because of stipulations we read about in a policy for adoption in the ‘90s. The staff person who came to inspect our home made no mention of the work we had put into the room to make it child friendly for one; instead she expressed concern that it might not be big enough. Until then it had accommodated the two of us quite nicely.
The daily routine of being sent outside during the day and then carrying wood into the house or going to town to sell plucked and cleaned chickens was punctuated by a particularly abhorrent task Tony remembered by its awful stench: the dreaded wash day. This episode seemed to take several days. All the dirty clothes and sheets were brought in from the woodshed. This was washed once in the hand operated washing machine. The wooden washing tub would leak badly and I was delegated to keep wiping up the floor. Next all the clothes were boiled in a long copper boiler on the stove. Endless amounts of wood were hauled in to keep the stove going. This washing was followed by another washing with some items getting scrub board attention, after which all were wrung out again and given a further rinse. The white sheets got the ‘bluing’ treatment before all the clothes were hung up outside on a wash line, fences and carragana bushes. There would not be any proper meals cooked. And everybody was in a bad mood. When the clothes were brought in everything was stiff and hard. Again everything had to be thawed out and then dried inside. There were clothes and sheets hanging on every available space. There were plenty of places to play hide and seek. This too caused problems as I would break down a ‘line’ and down came a pile of clothes. Evelyn and I would both get slapped in the face and had to stay on the cot.
And it got worse. The job this very young child still in the probationary period of adoption hated more than any was when he must follow Old Mama down into the cellar from which another bad smell emanated. Old Mama lit a lamp and went down. She called for me to come down. I climbed down the steep ladder to the dark and bad smelling place. There were rows of jars or fruit on the shelves. Many of these jars were oozing out their juices. Some had fuzzy green blue mould hanging down their sides. I was shown how to sort the potatoes and break off the long sprouts. Many times I grabbed a rotten one. Also the window holes were filled with manure and this makes the stink worse.
As for other stipulations in the Children’s Aid Society policy: being properly clothed, being schooled, receiving kind treatment, having four staff visits during the probation period, here are Tony’s comments, comments he was never asked to express to child protection staff. Old Mama did greet him at the station with a new snow suit but Tony also talks of coming home to a beating for getting his clothes wet or dirty and then having to hang his socks to dry, ready for the next day. Yes, drying socks each night, because the child didn’t have an Ikea basket dedicated solely to socks, was a ritual for many Depression-era children, loved or barely tolerated. In a googled paper on the Depression, a United Church minister reminded the reader that “many farm families lacked underwear, bedding and even shoes for the children, so that these could attend school”. It is the beatings that make Tony’s Depression era experience stand out. Tony, still a young child, quickly learned, even when he was having fun in the snow, yet got his clothes wet that I didn’t dare tell Old Mama that I had wet socks for this made her very mad. I waited until it was dark and took off one pair and dried them behind the stove. When these were dry, I took off the second pair. It worked a few times. Not only were socks in scarce supply, Old Mama was paranoid about using shoes which were to be worn only when going to town or church. I was going barefoot from the time the snow melted to freeze up. I couldn’t stand on black dirt for it was so hot but my feet became callused. I could walk on anything but large lesions broke out, then healed. After freeze up I was wearing moccasins that would break apart when dried over the stove at night or gum boots with a couple of socks or rags wrapped around my feet and rubber sealer rings to hold on to the rubbers. My feet were always cold. I was going to school with ears and hands frost bitten; I would rub my hands and ears with snow – now there’s pain. And would you believe, because I came home with wet boots or moccasins, I would get a beating. Old Mama was constantly scrounging in the town’s garbage and bringing home old thrown away clothes and making me wear them, a pair of overalls with no fly, just a slit in the crotch and long leggings with buttons, most embarrassing. No one in town wore them. The young ones had never seen such pants.
Tony was sent to school as specified by the policy set out for adopting. However, I was nearly always late getting to school. Old Mama was determined that I must get chores done first before going to school. Sometimes I would wait until the first recess was out and then join in. Classroom affairs were becoming dull, especially in the afternoon, since games and singing were in the morning. I could not understand anything that I read from my High Roads reading book. I could mouth and pronounce the words but could not comprehend the meaning of the sentences or paragraphs. On nice days when the school back door was open, I would sneak out and throw rocks at the telephone line insulators. No one ever seemed to mind or care. On bad days I would crawl behind boxes at the back of the classroom and have a sleep at times.
Tony also speaks of being made to stand in a corner as punishment and of being hit with a rolling pin. His memories of being made to stand in a corner probably were no different than end of the 20th century ideas of ‘time out’, but the only other person I have ever known to have been hit with a rolling pin has struggled through life. Tony struggled for some years with seizures, so much that an army doctor later found what he called residue from injury and for which he prescribed medication. Old Mama’s diagnosis when Tony would have convulsions: Jesus was punishing him for being so bad.
Tony did not meet his Old Daddy until sometime later. One day a big car came into the yard. Old Mama went out to talk to him. Then he talked to me. I didn’t know what he was saying. He had a black hat and a mustache, a few long stained teeth and had a hoarse voice. Finally he got out of the car and Old Mama said, “This is your daddy and you should kiss him.” I reluctantly went to him but I didn’t understand.
Maybe Old Daddy tempered things somewhat for Tony. He was not hollered at so often but here are some comments Tony has made about how Old Daddy saw his relationship with Tony – a servant and whipping boy. For supper he had boiled milk and broke in pieces of dry bread. I had some too and it tasted good to me. It was better than Old Mama’s soup. I hated her soup. It burned my throat from the spices. It seemed better with Old Daddy around. I didn’t get hollered at so often or get those daily lickings. But hey, though perhaps Old Daddy’s way of dealing with his world differed from Old Mama’s somewhat, Tony was not a loved son but a hired hand, It would start getting dark and he would say, “You don’t have enough wood in” so I would have to go and pile the wood up by the door because opening the door and closing the door was no good. I would open the door once and bring all the wood in, haul water for the cooking and water the plants. Just constantly going. I was a chore boy; they wanted a little horse. Old Daddy couldn’t see at night and had to be led out of the barn to the house. There was no time to play and yet I was still not worthy. If Old Daddy wanted to steal ripening tomatoes from Old Mama’s garden with impunity, Old Daddy directed the blame in Tony’s direction. Tony was the available whipping boy.
But at times Tony got his revenge on them. Old Daddy had his money hidden down in the cellar in a long leather purse full of bills. Being forced to work down in that dank cellar, and being a child, he seemed to have done some snooping around. Finding a leather pouch containing money and having only a tenuous attachment to these people, is it surprising Tony took some change? What is surprising to me is that a child bought drawing paper with the money. Another time Old Daddy bought himself some grapes, hiding them in the barn. Tony found the grapes and pigged out on them, but ended up getting sick and puking. Old Daddy saw the grapes –another good reason for a beating.
Old Daddy did buy him skates for two dollars. Another time for some reason Old Mama took away Tony’s clothes. Old Daddy got mad and went to town to buy him new overalls and socks and a shirt. It was the first time Tony had anything new and men’s socks, at that. He went to school in his new clothes and everyone stared at him. Inexplicably that garnered Tony a beating with a razor strap when he got home that night. Tony also speaks of some childhood play time, most of it at school, where sports days were times of great excitement, with kids coming from nearby schools to compete with Tony’s school in soft ball matches. Another time he talks of foot races at school and the day ending with a great tug of war. He headed home. The red-winged black birds were doing their evening outburst in the willows by the slough. I knew I was late again. I had to change fast when I got home and if I got some of the chores done, I might get away with only a severe scolding. Again no such luck. When the winter days became warmer, recess offered times to build snow forts and get caught up in snowball wars. We smaller children learned very quickly to keep out of the throwing distance of older children. And there were sleigh rides. I experienced my first ride of terror on the sleigh. I was shown how to lie down on a sleigh and given a fast ride. The thing was to pull the green kid at a fast rate and then whip the sleigh around a nearby ditch or snow bank. The rider would go flying off. Later it was sheer fun as the object was to hang on and not get thrown off even if dragged upside down. And Christmas concerts, there seemed to be great activity in school now. The teacher from the higher grades and Miss Roberts were preparing a Christmas concert. Most of the children were involved. I was not and could not understand why. When at last the big event came, the town dance hall was decorated. I convinced myself that I was also involved and did not go home from school that day. While the play was on I saw Old Mama who had come to town looking for me. I got my better than normal beating for this.
Although most pleasures were a mixed blessing, fun moments ending with barely explicable beatings, even in the home of this old couple, there were times for boyhood pleasures. Tony mentions that several of the hired hands were kind to him. On Christmas day, Steve was dressed much nicer than usual. He wore black pants with a belt. He gave me an orange for a Christmas present. A neighbour farmer also dropped by on horseback. He gave me a shiny coin. I think it was a twenty-five cent piece. With an admonishing wag of the finger he told me not to lose it or spend it or he would never give me another one. I put this coin in my mouth and remember accidentally swallowing it. Another terrifying few hours. What strikes me here, in these positive memories, is that Tony is showing empathy. He is not emotionally empty or stuck in victimization. He notices the good things coming his way. Recently on a phone call, Tony wanted me to know more about the land around L- as he remembered it. As he talked I heard echoes of a love for this land that was the back drop for so many difficult experiences. He wanted me to know about the sand hills around Royal Lake that took on a bluish shade from a distance, prairie chickens drumming in the evening, meadow larks and red wind blackbirds, the crocuses and wild strawberries a child might take to the teacher. Did Tony take a bunch to Miss Roberts? Appreciation for good things, and therefore, empathy come through time and again from these memories Tony shares.
There were times to go rafting on the slough. Tony remembers one time on the way home, the wind must have gotten a bit too powerful for he started to drift away and had to dive into the slough to get back to his starting point. By the time he got home only his socks were still wet. So OK, that time Tony escaped a beating but more often, every day was terror when I got home. My socks and pants would be wet and frozen, as were my mitts. Each night I would get severely scolded and slapped for getting myself wet. No matter how I tried not to get wet, I always was. The beatings were constant. He says he didn’t feel pain unless a broken broom handle was used. Old Mama was always trying to slap him in the face. She insisted that face slapping was the proper punishment for children. And I was very bad for trying to prevent her from doing this. Other times the razor strap was used. His head would be bloodied, his hair matted with dried blood. His comment: flies would bother him in this condition. Tony also speaks of times when he soiled his pants. Old Mama’s toilet training included rubbing the soiled underpants in Tony’s face. Remember when house breaking a dog involved (for some experts) rubbing its poop in its face. I mentioned to Tony that I was going to include Old Mama’s toilet training technique in this writing. He sighed, “Yeah I had to put in some of the awful stuff of that insane woman but others things are too horrible to put on paper.” He went on to say that during the years he lived with this couple he would struggle with his “evacuation”, but once he left their home the problem only returned when he had job stresses or when he would have to face coming home to his wife in the years they struggled to live together. The problem continued until his by then ex-wife died.
And I am adding this little vignette because were I a child in Tony’s situation or even an adult for that matter, I would have struggled to control my gag reflex. But for a child, who has neither love nor gratitude for the woman who abuses him, this expectation is more than hard to appreciate. Tony was forced to wash the old lady’s back, dead skin coming off in rolls. And as for initiation into the wonders of the opposite sex, Tony’s first experience was when she would bathe in the summer in an old tin tub by the well so it was warmed up by the sun. I watched from inside the house while she went out to bathe, with her large skinny tits swaying as she filled the tub. If visitors came, she would have to make a dash for the house, big fat ass and long swinging tits flapping. No love, respect, attachment or even a sense of loyalty register with this childhood memory. And yet as his memories of kindnesses show, the good things that did come his way were not forgotten or ignored.
I think, when Tony draws comparisons between Old Mama and Old Daddy’s treatment of their adopted children with the way the First Nations people in the area treated their horses and adds his observations of how the Metis living on the road allotments enjoyed their children, he asks us to stop and notice. Is this another of the moments in his life where his own sense of empathy was sparked into life, by watching how others in his community related to each other? Certainly there was no opportunity once his family was broken up for empathy to be developed in his interactions with any of his caregivers except perhaps, as noted earlier, during the time with the girl in the orphanage he thinks was his sister, Sophie.
Dr. Perry reminds his readers that empathy is a developmental process. Over the years as the brain is growing into full capacity, sometimes, at least a cognitive awareness of empathy, if not an emotion based empathy, may be sparked when children experience chance or intended opportunities to see or become involved in moments of kindness, despite their experiencing constantly disrupted attachments and abuse(The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog). However, Perry is suggesting that only when abused children find loving relationships do they have the opportunity to mitigate the losses which come with inconsistent and unkind interactions. He does not suggest that mere observations of kindness and care will entirely mitigate the loss of opportunities to develop empathy. For that I direct you to Dr. Brian Goldman’s book, The Power of Kindness. He went out to search for an understanding of empathy. One of the things he discovered was that empathy can be taught from life experiences. If a person predisposed by life to have a negative view of someone or something is given the opportunity to experience a reason to like someone or something, it works on his or her brain as an electric shock. You dislike a certain group of people, and then one of them does something you see as kind. Bam! Your concept of them changes (249). Tony had been given a negative view by Old Mama of the First Nations and Metis nearby. Old Mama talked with disgust of the Indians. Although this wasn’t the case when they came to help with the haying for then she needed their help. I thought maybe those who came to help were different Indians. On occasion when I went with Old Daddy to get the cows, I could see the children playing. They even had a tall swing. I was told that they were lazy; that’s why they were poor. But they were always playing and happy whenever we went by their place. The kids could just run around in the yard and they would play and the parents were laughing at them that they could do different tricks. His young heart knowing only abusive relationships witnessed their kindness to each other and Bam! There could be only one reason Tony included the following comparison in his writing; he was beginning to discover what love is or could be. First Nations people in their love for their families and their care for their animals gave Tony a window into love and empathy found a pathway.
Steve had corralled two horses and was trying to put halters on them. He tried to entice the horses by slapping a pail of oats. As the horses sniffed the oats, Steve tried to grab their manes and put on the halters. They just knocked him over and ran away. One day a man with a really brown face rode into the yard. His pony had only a blanket instead of a saddle. I had seen some of these people in town. They were the Indians who had a reserve a few miles west of our farm. This man had moccasins with leggings. He bounced so easily off his horse. He went with Steve to the corral and they seemed to be talking about the horses. Steve gave him the halter and pail and the Indian leapt over the corral by just putting his hand to the top rail. The horse nuzzled the pail and the halter was slipped on at the same time. There was a bit of a scuffle and rearing, but the rope was tied to the corral post. With the Indian leading the horse and Steve behind it with a stick, they got the horse to the barn door. Here again there was a struggle to get the horse in. Once the head of the horse was in the barn, Steve beat on it from the rear and pretty soon the horse was in and tied to its stall. There was a lot of kicking of the barn wall. I didn’t dare go inside. The Indian left. He put a hand on his pony’s mane and he was on and riding. All the white people I ever saw always had a degree of difficulty mounting a horse, especially without a saddle. The Indians, regardless of age, just put one hand on the horse’s mane and they were mounted. Even the small children clasped their father’s hand and with one motion were safely mounted behind. It seemed so easy for them. I watched Steve get on a horse. He had to take the horse to the corral where he climbed up the rails and tried to get on that way. Usually the horse moved away to face him. Again as usual loud, bad words were said. And men would come around and you would see what they were doing; they were not educated men so I would see them beating the horse, and like them, when Steve tried to handle the horse, the horse kicked and he took the pitchfork and poked the horse and beat the horse tied in the stall. I would look at that and then I would do that and now when I think about that and how ruthless it was, I know it was wrong but there was nobody to tell me that an animal was a feeling creature. There was no one to tell me to give him a little turnip and he would love me and he would do anything for me and he would come to me from anywhere, but what we did was, we used to chase him and tie him down and do all these horrible things to him. In contrast, the Indians there would come and say what horse do you want broken and they would go up to the horse and talk to him –Tony uses the Cree word for ‘Come’ -and the horse would be quivering its nose and he would walk away and let it smell his hand and so forth and put his hand on his neck and then just leave it. Next day he would come back and – ‘ashtum, ashtum’-and he would put his hand on his neck with the bridle and everything and walk him around with the bridle for a couple of weeks and the horse would be quivering and ever so gently–ashtum, ashtum-and the horse would look up and start walking towards him. It was that simple. The people I was with chased it and put a heavy load on it and whipped it. They were no more compassionate with their dogs. The F- dog was tied to a crow bar in the middle of the yard. The dog, not being free to move about the yard, had to dig a hole to have its pups. No matter to Old Daddy it seemed; he came along, took the pups and drowned them. Yes, this was common perhaps because there were few humane ways to deal with more mouths than a family was prepared to handle even up to the time when I was young, but like Tony I too remember being aware of some faint concern or questioning of this treatment of tiny puppies. It bothered Tony; it bothered me. Is this another indication of the stirrings of empathy in a young soul? Is this why emotional empathy is also called primitive empathy, an automatic rather than conscious drive to respond with compassion? Sometime later this dog broke from its chain one night. Old Daddy noticed a dead turkey the next morning, got his gun and shot the dog. For reasons already suggested about Old Daddy, he was not able to kill the dog outright and left it to die. Tony remembers holding its head as it died.
As Tony observed among First Nations families, animals need care and a little kid needs attention and he needs to know that he is part of the family. Being given clean clothes and a clean bed and making sure he has three meals a day is not quite enough. There is a lot more to life than that. When I was younger man I would see these older guys; I never realized they too were abused by lack of attention or physical abuse or mental or verbal abuse. Some of them were adopted or born out of wedlock and the whole gamut. These were the ones who were straying all over the place and from the little bits I could squeeze out of them, (because I was thinking about it more; I was talking about it more) I found they had more or less the same experience as I. They thought they were unwanted, deprived of things that their own children were given. They were left out; they weren’t accepted or they didn’t feel they were accepted, so they were wandering around lonely. There was a common denominator I found out from talking with them and from my reading. I went once to a birthday party and there was a cake and when I bit into it, there was a dime and I thought this was wonderful. The home I was in never did this. They thought it was a waste of time.
Being a loving parent to a child who was not a blood relation was never the plan in Old Mama or Old Daddy’s minds. They requested children with the explicit intention of raising them to work on the farm; Irene would be working in the kitchen and doing all the chores there and Tony would be learning to do what had to be done outside. And beyond this and again in gratitude for food and shelter, the old couple expected the contract they were writing with these children to include showing gratitude by remaining with them even into their old age, presumably as servants. They feared they would be left alone. It boggles my mind trying to understand how this couple could think their expectation of these children was a good deal for Tony or Evelyn. In fact, their last will and testament stated that at the end of their lives, this couple for whom a contract to love a child held only the meaning they gave it, left everything they had to their nieces and nephews. So much for their gratitude to these hired hands they expected to take care of them until the end of their days. Fyodor Dostoevsky tried to explain a lack of love for others this way: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him and so loses respect for himself. And having no respect, he ceases to love.”
That in the adoption process they were even quizzed about a basic knowledge of children and their needs is improbable. As Angelina Jolie once noted, adoption today is far more complicated than giving birth to a child. Having a biological baby is now usually a decision that comes hopefully after some discussion between the two adults planning to parent, although it has been known to come simply as an ‘oops’ after a romp. Adoption, on the other hand, has for many decades now become a more demanding process with extensive interviews involving doctors, financial advisers and social workers sifting through the desire of the couple. Check out social media sources like Quora for comments on adoption to get a current barrage of what is involved. But not so much in Tony’s childhood for all the reasons mentioned earlier. And it is unlikely they were pulling the wool over the eyes of anyone in authority. Convenience alone in the difficult years of the Depression would have made authorities willing to be complicit in allowing the Fabians to adopt. In the year of probation that required four visits by child care staff, Tony remembers a man coming into his school. Is this why Tony remembers Old Mama taking gifts to the teacher? Was bribery involved? Was she encouraging the teacher to give her a positive reference when the Children’s Aid society staff came to fulfill their required probation period checkups? Apparently the Principal, Mr. C-, did sign papers affirming that the F-s were good people in order that the formal adoption could go forward. And so the proceeding did go forward. One day a man, who definitely was not a farmer walked into our classroom. Everyone seemed to know that we must be perfectly quiet. He sat at the desk with Miss R-. They were examining the school register. Miss R- looked up and pointed to me. He looked at me for a while and then carried on. Later in the day this man asked some of the students questions and did some blackboard arithmetic exercise. I was terrified that I was going to be asked to respond. He left and everything went back to normal.
The teacher pointed Tony out to this person, but Tony was not approached by the man. Was this one of the four required visits? Was another of the visits at the family home? One sunny day a man came to the house. He laughed a lot and seemed to pay attention to me. Evelyn and I were dressed in our best clothes. A chair was taken out to the front door. With Old Mama sitting on the chair, Evelyn and I on either side of her, we had our picture taken. After this visit we changed back to our old clothes and everything was as usual. I wished this man could stay as there was a tasty meal made and no angry discipline took place at the table.
According to the policy papers, the adopting couple needed references from clergy and people held in regard in the community. Those asked to give a reference must see that the adopting couple were people who would be the best help for a child in need. Tony said Old Mama was skilled at charm; in a village as small as L-, the F-s would have been known by the community. Irene went to church, and she sold farm produce to the community. It would help if the referees believed that the child was difficult. Tony senses that he would have gotten little concern about his situation from the clergy. They took me to church and the preacher always seemed to be looking at me; this disobedient child will burn in hell. It scared me. It was no better with the school principal. I broke the window of a house across from school. Principal Mr. C- sent a note home about paying for the window pane – seventy cents. I hid the note. I told C- that Old Mama couldn’t read English and he got mad. Old Mama got the word and came to see C-. Another teacher, Mr. C-, was no more sympathetic to Tony’s penchant for throwing rocks, threatening Tony. He demonstrated to me how hard he could hit with a strap. It was a neck yoke of a horse harness, cut horizontal like rabbit ears. C- wolluped the desk. I can still hear the thaawhaap as the strap hit the desk. A little dust poofed up between the floor board and desk as the desk jumped off the floor a bit when the strap hit it. I just about passed out from fear… I didn’t stop throwing rocks. Throwing rocks turned out to be the one sure thing Tony learned in primary school, starting on the first day of school. (I recognize that more could be said about a young boy, marginalized in a grade one classroom who slips off to throw rocks – self sabotaging or seeking attention or in frustration. More could be said about a young boy who has learned not to open his mouth for fear of a beating. I am not prepared to do so.)
While driving into town one day I caught snatches of a CBC interview with a person who as a black child in a predominantly white school was constantly being hauled into the principal’s office for being disruptive. His mother advocated as best she could and eventually he was tested as very intelligent and simply frustrated with his school experience. As an adult he made this comment about how his acting out was dealt with: no one ever asked me what I was upset about. It was always, “What’s wrong with you?”, a condemnation that assumed they had the answer before their eyes. Tony’s perspective: When you don’t have a relative, you are the stray dog in town, so you get picked on.” Tony does add though that when he was bullied at school, Old Mama would tell him to turn away and Old Daddy would tell him to give the bully a punch and he would leave Tony alone. Conflicting advice but some attempt at parenting maybe. Kudos to them.
Things were not so well with Evelyn. More and more when I came in to the house Evelyn was standing in a corner crying and stamping her feet. One time when I came in I heard Evelyn screaming in the dining room. I peeked in the door and saw her standing naked. Her buttocks and front were very red. She had just received a severe switching for wetting herself. I quietly went out again. Usually Old Mama found reason to have a go at me also under these occasions. Dr. Perry tells of a young girl adopted from an orphanage who is later joined in her new family by a young boy also from an orphanage. The boy comes into the family unable to speak in any recognizable language. He had learned a language the orphans apparently developed themselves in his poorly supervised orphanage. The young girl watched her new brother and learned to understand his needs which she then translated to her new parents. Perry suggests this “attentiveness probably helped in her own development of empathy…for she learned to consider the needs of someone outside herself” (57). Did the sight of Evelyn after her whipping only leave fear in Tony or does his vivid description suggest some sense of pity as well?
Not long after (the visit from a man which includes a nice meal) Evelyn was all dressed and a cardboard box with all her clothes was packed. We went to town sitting on a wagon loop sleigh full of wheat. We stopped at the railway station where Old Mama and Evelyn were lifted down. Steve and I proceeded to the elevators. Steve stopped the team before the ramp up to the elevators and shovelled some snow onto the ramp. Then standing high in the cargo of wheat, he whipped the horse and used all the foul words that I was not allowed to repeat. After the team stopped and all blankets and shovels were removed and I was taken off, the front end of the wagon box started to rise. I became terrified and ran down the ramp screaming. The elevator man and Steve had a good laugh at this. When Steve picked up Old Mama at the store, Evelyn was no longer with her. On the way home there was a sense of quietness. There was no explanation of what happened. Later Tony learned they sent her out to BC and gave her away to somebody else, a friend of Old Mama’s who never married, so she couldn’t adopt anybody. Evelyn was given to her as a companion.
As an adoptee Tony lived with the F-s from the age of five to the age of seven. Not long into this two year period, it seems this old couple looking for servants from a cheap and hopefully long term pool of possible farmhands, were also becoming disillusioned with Tony as a prospect. While he was working in the garden – not being allowed to kneel lest he get a hole in the knees of his overalls, or tending the chickens, or helping with milking, or hauling wood, or leading Old Daddy around, not forgetting wash day and mucking around in the cellar, come summer Tony was expected not only to help feed the thrashers, but to actually help with harvesting. Old Mama was a nervous wreck. I could see that the kitchen help was not in any good mood either. She did not talk or smile at me anymore. Steve also was in a bad mood and used his favourite foul Hungarian words. Old Daddy wasn’t very happy either. I thought that he was angry at me. He tried to show me how to lever the grain box which was being dumped into the wagon box as it was being filled from the thrasher. I was too small to use the big shovel so he gave me a piece of board. I just could not keep up very long. I disappointed him I guess. As becomes evident, Tony was not quite what Old Daddy expected of a farm hand though the need of help had not lessened.
Old Daddy was more active now. He just had a loud discussion with Steve. Old Daddy talked in a loud, hoarse voice. Steve responded loudly, and turned his head away. It was not long before Steve left. Apparently he had bought his own farm near R- B-. Now Old Daddy had only Tony, a six year old child as men everywhere were going off to war.
One day the woman helping in the house dressed me all up with a hat and scarf. It was quite warm out and the snow was all gone. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Old Daddy came in to the house. His face was black with dust. He took me out to the field and took me into his lap on a machine. Ahead of us were the long tooth harrow and four-horse team. Old Daddy couldn’t see where to harrow due to his bad eye sight and the dust. The seeding had to be done and it was necessary to harrow before seeding. I couldn’t understand what was harrowed and what was to be harrowed. I just didn’t recognize the difference. Old Daddy was very annoyed with me and told me to go back to the house after one round.
But Tony was not the only disappointment to Old Daddy. Old Daddy and Old Mama were constantly fighting. Old Mama with her shrill scream and Old Daddy with his hoarse and sometimes just breathy voice. They slept in different rooms. Some nights I would wake up with Old Mama screaming for me to help her because Old Daddy was hurting her. Later Old Mama found or got a key for the lock on the bedroom and would lock herself in at night.
As was mentioned earlier about Old Mama’s idea of discipline, Old Mama seemed to be meaner and bad tempered more than ever. Whenever I soiled my underwear she rubbed my face and mouth in it until my gums bled. She constantly told me how useless I was and that I ate too much. Constantly she reminded me how she picked me up after my mother shit me out on the side of the road. Whenever she got into a violent rage now, I now stood facing the corner, my hands covering my face. I didn’t mind the beating on the back but she also tried very hard to hit at my face. Occasionally she broke the skin on my scalp and when the blood dried, I combed it out. I tried at times to run out of the house as I could now out run Old Mama. When I came back in she never said anything. Later that night I would wake up to a beating with her broken broom handle. Therefore I seldom went to bed unless I got a beating but I never got beatings while any stranger or visitor was around. When Tony speaks of not minding some of the beatings, it is suggestive of literature concerning abused children who slip away to a place where they speak of being able to at least mentally block out the abuse they are receiving. They seem to find that slipping into another head space eases the trauma of the moment, but seldom does such set aside trauma not rear its tormented head at some other time in some other often debilitating manner.
And more chores got added to Tony’s list of things expected of a six or seven year old hired hand. After dark I would sit on the floor beside the stove and card wool. After a while it became very painful on the finger tips. Later Steve brought home a spinning wheel. They tried to teach me to spin wool. It just seemed I could not do anything right. I was not coordinated properly or I was crazy they said. I still remember trying so hard to spin the yarn. Again such great disappointment in me for being so useless.
My other chore now was to empty the chamber pots out every morning. Old Mama had one under her bed and Old Daddy had an enamel pail under his. Every morning I had to empty these out behind the wood shed, then with boiling water and a stick with rags wrapped around it, I had to scour these pots and hang them upside down on the gate posts. Every evening I had to bring them in and place them under the beds. I was forbidden to use them whenever I woke up during the night. I would sneak into Old Daddy’s room since he could not hear very well and empty myself. I think some mornings he was surprised himself.
This is what Tony remembers. Not time in a school room or going to soccer games, though he accompanied the old couple to the Baptist church in town on Sundays, and once felt normal because he got to put a coin in the offering. All the children went down a set of stairs to the cellar. Here little groups according to age were assembled. The groups sat in circles with an older lady in the center. She talked to us and read from the Bible. We had to recite verses. She passed a can to one of the children who held it in front of each child. Everyone put something in. I could hear the “chink”. I had a copper to put in the can also. I made sure it made a good chink. I was very happy I could do something that others were doing. In sum, what Tony remembers of those years as a child in the F- household were not play times or family moments, but that he so often wanted to feel like he belonged. And, of course, that he had an ever increasing roster of duties to carry out.
Tony did continue with school as was expected not only by the Children’s Aid Society, but as an expectation for all children in all the provinces. Up to 1925 British children were sent to Canada, ostensibly as a humanitarian gesture offering children a better life. These children, called the Home Children, were usually apprenticed to rural families rather than adopted. In time, abuse of the lofty idea became obvious enough that this immigration practice was called to a halt. With a change in perspective about having children come to Canada as child labourers, by 1929, it became illegal to have children work in factories or mines in most provinces. Working as farm hands was not on the list and rightly so many a farmer would have said. My own cousins were out in the fields with their fathers by the age of six, well after the war. Despite the legislation, of course, during World War Two, many children came back into the workforce as the male workforce was left depleted. Hand in hand with changes in work expectations for children, legislation was brought in to require school attendance for children up to the age of 14. Although granted, it was known to have been set aside as well for some during the war.
Tony was a young kid. His memories of school give a nod to the academics, at least the story times. He did like it when the teacher read stories to the class. It is almost redundant to refer to Dr. Perry in reference to the magical power of reading to children. Perry though adds a perspective on reading fertilizing empathy. “Reading ‘builds’ networks in the cortex: the area of the brain responsible for planning and impulse control. Greater self-control tends to reduce violence. And reading fiction … explicitly requires perspective taking, placing the reader in the position of characters and eliciting pleasure from their triumphs and pain in their suffering … [allowing the reader to essentially practice] empathy”(312).
The importance of school aside, play time commandeers more of Tony’s memories; like I said, he was a kid. But the impression these narratives leave is of a little boy more often looking wistfully from the outside. He could not understand enough English to enter into classroom activities. If the school inspector would ask him questions, he couldn’t understand, I was scared as hell and lucky I was never asked anything. Instead he slipped away to chuck rocks at the telephone lines. No one worried or cared.
And so even if it was hard to find legitimate hired hands willing to work for what appeared to be less than the going rate, and perhaps because as a child Tony was less than up to the expectations for an adult hired hand, Old Daddy and Old Mama came to a decision that Tony best accompany her on a break from Old Daddy. One day again there was a lot of loud screaming. Old Mama was packing her clothes into cardboard boxes and tying them with binder twine. I was concerned because she was packing some of my clothes in also. Next day I was dressed in my better clothes and Steve (yes, Steve, the hired hand, had not moved out yet) took Old Mama and me to the train station.
Again I remembered the smell of the train coach inside. I was worried as I did not know where we were going. This certainly was a longer ride than what I remembered last time I was on the train. It was dark outside and the train still rumbling and clicking along. I all of a sudden threw up all over the seat. Old Mama screamed at me and as usual whacked the back of my head. A lady across the aisle came over with a towel and cleaned me up and the train seat. She smiled and took my arm and I sat with her and her children. We ran up and down the aisle and waited for the water container and fountain to be filled with ice. This went on for what seemed several days and nights. Then at last we were to get off the train. Old Mama said we were in B.C. We were taken by a man and woman to a car. Old Mama must have known these people since she talked Hungarian with them. When we finally stopped at a house and were taken in, I saw someone I knew; it was Evelyn. Evelyn was living with Aunt Mariska. Evelyn did not say much to me or Old Mama. Auntie Mariska was quite nice to me. She would talk to me and I never saw her get upset about anything. The food was very tasty and Auntie was always offering more for me to eat. This was a nice place. There wasn’t any of the horrible smell of the barns we had at home. Even the drinking water we got from a tap in front of the house was good to drink. It tasted like fresh snow water.
As a break from life on the farm, this trip didn’t last as long as Old Mama had planned and perhaps Old Daddy had hoped.
The weather was very nice and warm at Auntie Mariska’s compared to the farm. I was given a chore of picking grass for Auntie’s chickens. One day as I was playing near the large ditch in front of the house, I slipped and fell in the ditch. I was able to crawl out and was stinking with the green slime in the ditch. I was also scratched up with the thorny blackberry branches. Old Mama went into a rage. Until now she had contained her anger and I had not had a licking since we got off the train. I was stripped of my clothes and told to stand in the porch. Auntie said, “Irene, don’t worry, I will wash his clothes. It’s no problem for me”. Old Mama shouted, “Tony must get a good licking for this” and it was an awful beating from her with a willow branch. Finally Auntie Mariska took the switch from Old Mama. There was a great argument and not long after we were packing again. The train ride home was as uncomfortable as the first trip. Only this time Old Mama was mad all the way.
When we got off the train finally, Steve was waiting for us at the train. We got back to the farm and Old Mama went into the house. I could hear her scream. The house was a horrible mess. Old Daddy and Steve were batching and were not concerned about cleaning up their cooking utensils or the floors. There was a lot of screaming for some time and we were not welcome.
The spring went slowly and I hated Old Mama more and more. I had to help more in the garden planting. When I’d complain that my back was sore, I would get a whack with the hoe handle.
I was getting accustomed to all the barnyard animals now and was not even scared of the dog anymore. I enjoyed chasing the turkeys when no one was watching. I would pick on one turkey and chase it until it collapsed. I could do this to some the chickens also. There was one grey rooster that hated Old Mama; it would chase her and jump on her back and claw and peck her. Old Mama would scream for me; I proudly would run out and chase it away. Sometimes when the old grey rooster attacked her when she screamed for help, I ignored her. Of course it was a hopeless loop: Old Mama abused Tony, Tony responded more and more defiantly, and Old Mama was confirmed that ‘he bad boy, give him stick’. Perry, on the other hand, speaks to what every kind- hearted human being understands: “The most effective way to get children to behave well is to help them enjoy doing so and to utilize their natural desire to please their parents to encourage this…. [H]arsh discipline does not and cannot encourage empathy: empathy is learned by having the experience of being treated kindly, not by being made to suffer”(313).
At eight months, Tony’s primary caregiver walked out of his life. He still had a father and siblings for a short time, but by 1935, he and two sisters were taken to a shelter considerable distance from his birthplace. Tony remained there, losing both sisters during this time, until 1939, when at the age of five, Tony was adopted by the F-s. He was with the F-s until he was seven. As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Perry points out the importance of the primary care giver to an eight month old infant; the baby doesn’t demand that this caregiver be the biological mother, only that the person be the caregiver to the exclusion of almost everyone else in its little universe. The baby is asking to be special to someone, a consistent someone. When this infant’s brain is seeking to build a ‘memory template’ of the special someone, Tony’s special someone disappeared (49). The two sisters remained for a time, yes, but his constant someone did not. Is this lack of consistency significant in the development of security and trust Tony’s infant brain was seeking as it began to experience a sense of empathy?
Being adopted by two people who had no plans of nurturing love and trust in Tony, watching the community’s ways with animals and their resistance to helping a child some had to know was being abused, being ignored by the adults in his school provide no encouragement that empathy was gaining a hold on Tony’s heart. Actually it should even seem odd to the reader that while in a story of adoption we currently like to refer to the adoptee as a ‘forever child’, I speak of Tony’s time with the F-s as from five to seven. Added to these, Tony witnessed Evelyn disappear, in his probationary year. And he came to sense that he too was not meeting the F-s’ expectations of him. A child this young was not sensing secure attachment. As comes across continually in Dr. Perry’s writings, empathy is most effectively fostered in an environment of secure love and trust. Is it possible to suggest that the brief moments when Tony experienced or witnessed love that the impact of those positive encounters countered the empathy destroying daily interactions of Tony’s life at this time? It would be nice to think so for Tony was not wrong in sensing he was not meeting Old Daddy’s expectations of him; he was about to experience even less secure love and trust.
One day near the end of grade two, a haystack on the F- farm burned up. Most likely the rotting, wet hay at the bottom became overly heated by the sun and combustion needed no further excuse. Old Daddy though saw an opportunity, an excuse for the frustrations he was feeling; his ready whipping boy, Tony, was not the hired hand he needed. Do not lose sight of the fact that we were talking rationally about combustion, yet somehow this incident blew up into an irrational accusation: the police were called and a court date was set, charging Tony with hiding behind the haystack to experiment with matches, catching the haystack on fire. The F-s concocted a complaint; a young woman hired to help in the house made up stories about Tony for reasons having more to do with her own life struggles; the teachers at his school with grudges against Tony’s ever more skillful prowess with rocks conspired to show Tony as difficult. In short order, Tony found himself on a train again, this time headed back to the Saskatoon orphanage/shelter, Kilburn Hall, operated by the Saskatoon Children’s Aid Society. His memories of orphanage life seem to be more from this time than from the first time he lived there. Googling, I found that his memories are supported by the memories of a 76 year old fellow, Ken Stahl, interviewed July 21, 2014 by The Star Phoenix. The article titled, “Kilburn Hall: Saskatoon youth was sent away” (ellipses not included) shares this account of a man still trying to find out ‘“why he was taken away from his home and loving mother as a child some seven decades ago and dropped off at Kilburn Hall. He recalls a big black limousine showing up at his house, and a man in a black suit getting out to speak to his mother, Katherine. His father, Ed, had gone overseas in 1939, about a year after Ken was born. The young Stahl didn’t hear the conversation. His mom started crying, went into the house and threw some of his clothes in a cardboard box, he says. Then the strange man took his hand and led him to the car.
“I’m crying out the back window, my mom’s running behind the vehicle, crying her eyes out. It was the last time I saw her until I was 18 years old,” he says. Stahl isn’t sure how old he was or the precise date of the event, but he says he remembers being put in a crib when he arrived at Kilburn Hall. He has never learned why he was taken away, and he hopes that by telling his story he will prompt someone to come forward with answers.
Stahl says he didn’t enjoy the regimented experience at Kilburn Hall. “We were allowed to go out back and play in the back; there was a yard, a big ball diamond. But we were counted; [they] made damn sure we were there.” He says he was bullied and sexually harassed by some of the older girls. “They made us do things that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing until I was an adult, if you know what I’m trying to say … Touching them and whatever. They seemed to get off on it, I guess,” he says.
Stahl doesn’t know exactly how long he was at Kilburn Hall; he says city staff told him the city has no records of his time there. His lawyer found out that Kilburn Hall was listed as his guardian, Stahl says. “It frustrates me to no end. I might sound a little antsy here, but I just feel peed right off because of all this … going on, I can’t even find out nothing about my life,” he says, choking up. “Somebody’s got to know something.” All he knows is that his unfamiliar father came and picked him up after the war, in December 1945. “I didn’t even know this man that was called my father,” he recalls.
To this day, he doesn’t know why he was taken away from his mother. His father never spoke about it, he says. Stahl’s best guess is that his father suspected his mother of being unfaithful and asked the Canadian Army to put him in Kilburn Hall. Stahl never got answers from his mom, either. By the time he turned 18, she had started drinking. He only saw her a few times before she died, fairly young. “Maybe it’s because she lost her son, or I don’t know. But in the couple years I lived with her she was a beautiful mom.”
He says his new home wasn’t a happy place to be. He found his father to be a fair, but very strict man. “It was his way or the highway.” His stepmother wasn’t so kind, he says. “When I was young — seven, eight, nine years old — if I would act out of place or something, she would say, ‘We’re going to send you back to Kilburn Hall.’ … That was the last place I wanted to go to, so I walked a straight line with these guys. I was the nicest kid in the house ever, because I did not want to go back there.”’
As would have been true in Ken Stahl’s time, when Tony arrived at Kilburn Hall it had been converted by child protection services from its original purpose as a reform school for ‘difficult’ Home children, complete with requisite bars on all the windows, a red brick building with a stone entrance and a front door too heavy for young children to open alone. Transformed into an orphanage, the bars had been removed from all the windows, save from the detention room. Years later, the building from Tony’s time was torn down, and with a new building, Kilburn Hall has returned to its original mandate as a youth detention center with news clippings of its own.
Tony remembers playing with a steel hoop in a rough, dirt playground. He still has a scar on his elbow to testify to how hard the ground was. Tony remembers a detail that seems a characteristic specific to or at least common among kids whose little neurons are developing in the institutional environment of an orphanage. Children need to play but when you are by yourself, you don’t have …. toys and you are wandering around and you are afraid, somebody doesn’t want you around and gives you a punch or something, trips you or something so you think that guy was doing that so I will go around and find somebody else and do that so you go around and trip someone for no reason and others will join in so it is not a nice place… you don’t have enough staff there to help you out so there is a whole thing of lack of playing, lack of any possessions. You don’t have your toys; there was one toy there that was a big steel ring with another ring on it so you could run around with this big steel hoop and you would go into the yard and hide it and hopefully you got it before someone else did. Many decades later, when Tony obtained the files on his own childhood, he, with Svend Robinson, wrote to the child welfare services in Saskatchewan because they seemed to be more amenable to helping adoptees by then. Robinson, ever the crusader, suggested Saskatchewan should face penalties for their past treatment of children. They replied that they had no policy for penalties. Tony then wrote back to say that he was not interested in penalties himself; he was just asking for them to acknowledge abuse and misuse of the children for the Criminal Code of the day would have imprisoned parents and associations for abuse of children. He received no response. Perhaps that was some of the purpose for the 100 Years of Child Welfare Services in Saskatchewan: a survey which I reviewed earlier in this paper.
Sadly, being sent back to an orphanage, as a child who failed to meet the expectations of adopting parents, is not Tony’s experience alone. A googled article from The Atlantic states, “According to statistics from the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway, up to 10 percent of adoptions—and very possibly more—end in “disruption,” meaning the adoption process is halted after the child is placed in the home but before the paperwork is finalized”. The news piece on the “Tennessee mother who put her adopted 7-year-old son back on a plane to his home country of Russia” is one that caught my eye back when I began to take a closer look at issues in adoption.
Tony remained in the orphanage for about a year. While the orphanage was not the family a child needed, Tony has a couple of warm memories. Tony remembers the caretaker as a kind man who had a horse drawn cultivator to which he would harness five or six boys who pulled the cultivator while he handled it, preparing the ground for potatoes and turnips. And then the boys would be allowed to spend a hour or two splashing in the river. Yipeee. A small gesture but one that remains with Tony decades later as a kindness. On Saturdays the children would be commandeered to scrub, wax and polish a meeting room. To polish they tucked a child in a blanket and then scooted the kid around the floor. In the evening a gray-haired man came to play the piano after which the children lined up to hug him and referred to him as their grandfather. How did they get this idea and what meaning did the word have for them?
Meanwhile back at the farm, with the war still on, hired help must have been hard to find. If we could imagine a dark, winter night in the F- home, we might see the old couple sitting on the teeter-tottering bench before the voracious wood stove, muttering about how dearly they now missed little Tony. Next morning they knew what they must do: pack up some goodies to take to the school teachers in exchange for letters swearing to their good character, buy a couple of train tickets and head to Saskatoon. Bribery bought letters of reference in hand, the F-s showed up at Kilburn Hall. I am not doing a great job of holding back the cynicism seeping through my telling, I know. Nor am I sure how staff at the Hall were able to bring themselves to believe this couple’s insistence that they missed Tony, but by now eight year old Tony was not asked about how he felt. This time though the adoption that was rescinded by the court the year before was not renewed. Tony was now returned to the F-s as a ward of the state.
Again we need a ‘meanwhile’; this time, meanwhile the F-s were setting out to get Tony back to help on their farm, the Children’s Aid Society was going through another transition, this time in the fostering system. To remain competitive, because the war led to higher wages in other jobs, the foster system was forced to raise the rates they offered to fostering homes. Was fostering now more lucrative to the F-s than adopting?
Tony stayed with the F-s until he was nearly 12. As he says, he was becoming more and more tired of the hollering and screaming. One day he and Old Mama were scrapping. By now Tony was a tall, strong kid. When Old Mama came at him this time to beat him, he was easily able to grab her arms and pin her against the wall. She became incensed that this kid would treat his mother this way. Martin Seligman, a psychologist, writes of his studies in what he terms ‘learned helplessness’. So many times before, Tony faced situations over which he had neither any say nor any control. He was forced to let things happen to him. But now Tony was changing. Dr. Perry has seen that some genetic factors come into play for those who are able to deal well enough with their difficult situations that they don’t fall prey to the forces that push so many toward the dark side of life. Intelligence or “faster information processing” means not needing as many repetitions of an experience to finally understand what choice is better. This is a genetic gift available to some who struggle, and is now claimed by Tony (The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, 166). He knew that if he continued to handle Old Mama as he knew he was capable, he would only make things worse for himself. At not yet 12, Tony chose to walk away, pack up and leave. He walked into town and would not return to the F- household. Tony had now passed ‘separation’ several times over on his hero’s journey and was about to enter an ‘initiation’ he had some control over. Campbell describes this initiation in rather romantic terms as “fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won”(Myths to Live By). In reality, however, initiation is likely not very pleasant for any budding hero, and it doesn’t promise to be any nicer for Tony. In fact, notice that Campbell also uses the word, ‘disintegration’ which corresponds better to what Tony next experiences. The town cop, Jock, stayed in a shack at the edge of town. Somehow Tony ended up with him at first. Around midnight Jock came into the room Tony was sleeping in and he felt me up, hurting my arm as I had boils under my arms. Tony was moved into a black home, the D-. And there I was looked after. I had a bath in a bath tub. He also stayed for a time with the L- family, a Metis family, which was lots of fun- 5 kids sleeping in one bed. There is no window pane so we peed out the window. They played ball with the parents laughing while they played and had lard and bannock for lunch. But eventually Tony was again returned to the shelter/orphanage in Saskatoon. Through all this transition Old Mama managed to continue collecting the money the fostering society paid out. Tony says he does not remember how he got from Saskatoon to Richmond, B.C. at this point but that is where he ended up. He found out about a woman looking for farm help and got himself over to Richmond to apply. At his ‘job interview’ this woman who enjoyed cooking offered him three soft boiled eggs, just the way I like them. And then she offered him more, an unprecedented opportunity in Tony’s experience. He gobbled down seven eggs and got the job. He moved into the home of an often away fisherman and his chicken raising wife. She was not keeping a couple of hens out back to supply her soft boiled eggs for breakfast, she was raising 5000 chickens. Tony, still a child was obviously taken in to do some serious farm work for her. When I went to the chicken farm, it was very nice but the husband would get drunk when he came home on weekends from fisheries, and with that using foul language, it just bothered me to no end and I took it very personally. Today while we talk together Tony says that he noticed that in his time with the happy cook/chicken farmer, he could see that his health improved, he was becoming calmer and his bad dreams receded. She did even more than that. Tony has said there were children with experiences worse than his own for the families who took them in would not even allow these children to live in the house or be around members of the family other than when they were working for the family. These children were starved of opportunities to develop social skills, growing up awkward and stressed in social situations. Tony was allowed to live in the F- house, perhaps because the Children’s Aid Society supervision was more accountable in his community, but Tony too felt socially awkward and was uncomfortable in social situations. He believed, after all, that he was “bad boy”. Now in the home of this kind chicken farmer, Tony was more than hired help. She treated him with humanity. At first, he wanted to hide from the social interactions she sought with him, but she persisted, talking with him and including him in social engagements she had with others. She provided Tony’s ‘initiation’ to interacting with others in warm and positive ways, the interactions most children begin to learn as they cuddle and play with family.
Tony did continue going to school until grade eight. One day Tony was late for class. To deal with Tony’s disruptiveness, the teacher came at him with a two by four. Even with the class yelling at him to hit the teacher, Tony needed afresh to call upon his gift of intelligence. If he did hit back, he would have easily disarmed, even harmed, the teacher. For Tony that would have been a ticket straight to jail. He turned and walked out and did not return. The next few years in job after job, Tony made the same decision. He turned and walked away. He knew who held the power but he also knew that just as he had walked out on the F-s, he had the option to walk away. As Tony tells it, This is what I saw on the job site. Those you worked for would holler and call you names and so you had a choice to either stay there or go and it was my choice so I used to just pack up and go. I wouldn’t take my pay or anything. I would just leave and go work somewhere else.
Tony worked at whatever job was available through the rest of his teen years: fish boasts, rendering plants, sawmills and canneries. And you might even say he gave himself a bit of vacation time too, one time taking a box car trip as far as Fort William. The shrug Tony gives while remembering this trip suggests that box cars may not be the romantic mode of travel some legends would try to persuade us. It would not be a giant leap then to understand that if a vacation on a cost-free box car was the only available option, Tony felt he never had enough money for the kind of jobs available to him seemed only sufficient to board and room. There were times too when jobs did not even cover the cost of a room and Tony was forced to accept a bed in the great outdoors. Tony lived through times of homelessness in the later forties and earlier fifties, a time in Canada of recovery and economic growth. He has sucked the tits of farmer’s cows and gotten his Vitamin C from rose hips in the fall. Though Tony does not provide detail, he had one other ‘vacation’ more difficult than any spring time trip in a box car. The same year that John M-, his father, died, 1952, Tony was forced to spend a year in the hospital, resetting his young life with the added burden of polio. Stuck in a hospital in what was then called the Queen Charlottes, Tony missed the last opportunity to spend time with the father who never stopped looking for his children.
Lately I have been curious about why so often in a memoir I come across a piece about what the writer will call a ‘bit of luck’. It serves for some as a pivotal turning point and for others somewhat less dramatically as an encouragement or helpful hand on their life journey. I asked Tony if he could recognize the place of luck in his life. Up to now in his story, it has been stark in its absence: abandonment, abuse, and sickness are all that are written over his life so far and there will be a regular delivery of troubles in the years ahead. But Tony looks back on his life and sees that he didn’t need to seek revenge for the abuse he experienced for life itself stepped in to bring balance. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw that “The arc of history bends toward justice”, and of course he said so in reference to things of much larger concern, but Tony has learned this too. He knows he does not need to fight for his own justice. And a few years back he said to me, Looking back I don’t really regret it. Yes it was hard and could have been different, but I always worked and had at least some money and slowly I learned how to choose wisely. In the early years of his adult life Tony speaks of excessive drinking and being the tough guy. Maybe it was his brain reaching full maturity or his intelligence aiding him, but he was learning the relationship between cause and effect. He was weighing the effects of whisky, he was listening to older people in his life who were here and there trying to guide him and he was making changes. The luck that comes through in story after story of struggle came first for Tony, he says, when saddled with polio and having stumbled from job to job in those wisdom gathering years, he went to a possible job site. The manager came out to talk, and offered him a summer job with BC -. He says I did the job before me and every three months they would re-evaluate my position. I kept out of trouble and 35 years of good service followed. Because they were friendly I had enough sense to stay, even though disabled and stubborn. I was looking to get my own place and stick to it. In fact he was so determined to stay that he took up rug hooking to pass time in his free hours and to keep him from taking off or looking for amusement in less profitable ways. Drinking or rug hooking tonight?
And he got a place of his own: a place that means enough to a man who until then had not had much opportunity for any kind of attachment that he has fought over and over again to continue to hold on to it.
The other piece of luck led to some filling of the ‘hole in the heart’ adoptees speak of, created by abandonment and not quite filled by adoption, even in the most successful adoption stories. As I have mentioned earlier and more than once, Tony’s father, John M- never stopped seeking to find his children. Tony’s brother John was aware of his father’s search, but the fostering families actively kept M- away. As soon as he was old enough to be on his own, John also began going about the area looking for his siblings. And yes, their biological mother attempted to search in later years as well. When Tony finally met her she tried to make Tony understand she had suffered in the separation, but Tony only shook his head, “You know nothing of suffering”. In fact the first time I met her, I told her off for she was trying to give me excuses that our father was negligent. I told her it was “just a story made up and you don’t know what a bad life was.” She said, “I just couldn’t live under those conditions.” There was no attachment there; myself, I don’t feel anything towards her.
And then one day … It was now the late 1980s. Tony was secure in his job, had his own home, was married and raising three children. Luck, serendipity, a miracle, the phrase, “I just got lucky’ or ‘It just happened that…’ came into play. Tony ‘just happened’ to hear a CBC broadcast on the radio one day. His yet unknown twin sister ‘just happened’ to hear the same interview on the radio. They had listened to an interview with Joan Van Stone, an adopted child herself, who started Parent Finders of Canada in Vancouver in 1976. Parent Finders of Canada has continued to grow, becoming a “national, community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is to assist and support all members of the adoption community who are seeking reunion with family members lost through adoption through peer support, education, and advocacy”. The organization will help adoptees get background papers and files from government agencies. Van Stone herself, for her “life time of dedication to the Canadian adoption reform movement was rewarded with the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2012”.
The online photo of the Maclean’s article, macleans.ca/article/1980/8/4/the-right-to-rediscover-roots, is difficult to decipher so I will let Tony tell you about her from his personal experience of working with Van Stone. It wasn’t until the late 80s and by that time I found out there was a lady by the name of Van Stone and she was an airline pilot’s wife and she was on the radio one time and talking about a group called Parent finders. After I heard her on the radio I called and her group answered and I told her where I lived and what I did and that I was looking for my siblings and my twin sister heard the same program and she phoned her too and she gave her name, but of course we had different names. She didn’t know her other name and I didn’t either. I do now but I didn’t know what it was at that time. Anyway she took this box of papers. They didn’t have computers to put things together. Being determined and resourceful, she collected phone books from all over Canada and had piles of them. Her husband was a pilot so she would accompany him on trips to Hawaii. She would take a shoe box of names on these trips and would sit on the beach and look through the names. She had a good memory and looking through the names we gave her, she matched papers with names and then she said, “This is odd.” I couldn’t tell her where I was born except the township, the range and the section from a birth certificate I got. But they didn’t give my given name. Where is this place, town ship #51? Nobody knew. Then Van Stone saw that my twin sister’s address was the same. This was odd, so she went through the papers there and she found this other one too. “Date of birth, 1934. Same date, same date, Ahh, I found them.” So then she put the two together and then she gave me a phone call and said your sister lives in such and such a place and she had found her. He chuckled, so that was quite an interesting story, getting a phone call in November. I went back to her place; she lived in North Vancouver up by Grouse. I didn’t meet her until ’81. So that was quite a story and I saw her and she was a pretty, elegant woman, blond and blue-eyed.
Two pieces of the puzzle were connected. The other pieces were picked up, looked over but took longer to set into the picture. Tony’s brother and older sister Annie had begun much earlier to search for their siblings. My older sister had some contact with John and (maybe Sophie) so she was searching for a long time for all of us and she didn’t find us until my sister and I found each other. We found her and brought her into the picture. Margaret too tried to get files opened before her encounter with Joan Van Stone. She went to the government in Regina and met with a staffer who put a file on the desk and then said, “I can’t tell you. I will be back in a few minutes…” and left the room, straight out of a movie. And then? … Margaret was too honest to take a peek. In the 60s, Regina was not willing to provide access to adoptees’ files. A decade or more later, Svend Robinson, now engaged in law and politics, got involved. Svend Robinson is a Canadian politician who represented the suburban constituencies of Burnaby for The New Democratic Party” which was how Tony came to know him. “Robinson’s uncanny ability to put public pressure on governments and ministers resulted in many changes to federal statutes” and also helped personal friends with their government interactions. Robinson actually went to Regina for Tony to seek access to Tony’s adoption files. Tony remembers Robinson calling to say, “I finally broke through,” he said, “where your sisters and brother were as far as they knew”. Once Robinson got the files, Tony and his siblings put all the pieces of their puzzle together to create their own family portrait.
The siblings came together for a family reunion picnic. Joan Van Stone also dropped by. We all met you know, we had a big party or reunion, my sisters and everything. We had a big party and all their children and wives and so forth and I was sort of the spokesperson there too. I put it all together and I tried to tell them we should help each other and we could get to know each other. It would take time to know each other and we could assist each other because in this world you need to assist each other. But it just didn’t work out that way. There was some closing of the gap in their lives that most adoptees speak of, the gap that seems never to be satisfied until some connection is made with biological family. And then?
Tony and his older brother John developed a real sibling relationship. Their interests and lives were quite similar; they travelled together. John and I had a few beers and let it out with a laugh. Margaret, living in BC’s lower mainland, also developed and maintained a good sibling relationship with Tony and his family. But Annie didn’t seek to further develop relationships with her siblings. Even more so, Sophie withdrew from seeking a relationship with her new found siblings. She didn’t want to talk about these things at all. If I asked something specific, no, no… I could see right away that she didn’t want to talk about the past and from what I gathered this is quite common among the children who have been taken away and are forever holding things inside. I find myself too I don’t want to talk about the past; I don’t feel bad about it but just don’t want to talk about it. It’s depressing you know and I don’t like depressing things. If I read or hear depressing things, I quit reading or if I see something depressing on TV, I turn it off. I guess that all my family are the same way, my sisters and brothers, they are all the same; they don’t have anybody to chat with, you haven’t got close friends. They didn’t want us to penetrate their previous lives and I guess I didn’t want them to penetrate my previous life either and so none of them wants anyone to know each other’s lives. I don’t know for better or worse but the books tell about this. Some adoptees become very withheld within and don’t divulge their feelings or emotions or anything like that. It’s a lonesome life out there.
Yet empathy? How is that Tony can say of his brother John that while he had sociability struggles, he was always compassionate toward the poor and tried to help? Tony’s twin sister, Margaret, does volunteer work and was a great school teacher. And Tony, though he admits to getting upset when he feels he has been taken for a ride, is to me and many others a deeply respected example of compassion and willingness to be a part of making a community better. Expressions of empathy were given impetus to grow within Tony, possibly very briefly at his mother’s breast, then with the kindness of his sister Sophie at the orphanage, then with moments as on the first day of school when an older boy opened his oatmeal lunch bag and others like the hired help showed him little kindnesses. Dr. Perry writes a whole chapter, “The Kindness of Children” on the impact a first grade class had on one little boy from a Russian orphanage (The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog). The first grade teacher did not stay as angry at him as Old Mama would have. He watched the First Nations’ and Metis people in loving play with their children and in humane care of their animals. He could recognize what hollering and beating did to him and he had the intelligence to identify what effects attached to what causes. The chicken farming lady gave him 7 eggs to eat at one breakfast. These are the ways empathy was nurtured in Tony’s heart.
And that nurtured empathy then poured out toward others. As well as the years he gave to environmental projects in B- like building the river trail Dave and I explored on our first date, Tony did what he could to remember those who had experiences similar to his own. He got a plaque placed on the municipal building in Winnipeg to honour Home Children, word for word the way Tony wrote it up. Put in the perspective of a googled 2013 entry on a government archive site which says that 11% of the Canadian population are descendants of Home Children, a plaque was a worthy accomplishment. Tony sees his compassion as flourishing with experience, later on when I got older I tried to avoid such things as engaging in the bullying he had grown up around. You know just on my own I knew it wasn’t right and it wasn’t doing any good and hurt somebody’s feelings and I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings but when I was a young guy, we’d get together like young dogs and torment somebody and harass or bully just to get the person’s goat up but as time went on I was more emotional about people hurting or in trouble and I felt sorry for them. This is the maturing understanding of cause and effect that led to a deeper empathy in Tony’s heart and life. He personally and actively involved himself in helping people who were at low points in their lives. One of many people who have passed thorough Tony’s life, my husband, Dave, was taken in by Tony when he had no home other than his van. My husband remained with Tony through the years he needed to sort things out in his life and get back on his feet. Tony has remained for Dave a beloved mentor.
Dr. Perry says that emotional empathy develops in the earliest years of a baby’s development. It comes with consistent and loving care and interaction from the baby’s caregiver. Perry has a whole book on the lives of children who missed that early care. He tells stories of children who grow up to live out lives that are devoid of care for others. He also shares stories of children who with self- awareness sense a desire to explore the actions that lead to care of others. He does not go so far as to affirm that these people know deep emotional caring but that their lives exhibit caring which he calls cognitive empathy. Is this another way for empathy to develop? A cognitive awareness turned into a practice may emerge into emotional empathy. Certainly some aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy would say: Do it, practice it, and your attitude will follow.
At the end of one of our regular phone chats with Tony, Tony commented that he had come to contentment. His Hero’s Journey was on the third and last leg of the road, ‘return’ or ‘re-integration’. Dave asked him when he noticed contentment had settled in on him and he laughed, Well actually not until each of my children became settled in their lives, with jobs, homes, and stable families. Tony established a home and a family and left an enduring mark on his friends’ lives and his community. Joseph Campbell expands, again somewhat romantically, on the end of the Hero’s Journey, the ‘return’, with this observation. “[T]he hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men”(Myths To Live By). Tony has ‘returned home’ and is content. Empathy marks his life though it has come by a journey marked with twists and turns and ups and downs.
So what have we learned about the development of empathy? It comes best from hugs and cuddles in a loving family, but it can come, and come with perhaps a deeper understanding of its worth, through dogged determination to choose well. As several observers of empathy have noted: show up and be kind. It may help to turn on the ‘chemistry of connection’(61).
But where are we, the human family, on the Hero’s Journey in finding a way to help people find healing for the hole left in their hearts through separations from family? Yes there is a plaque to remember the Home Children. But skim a daily global news feed. Family separations continue. We seem not yet to have ‘returned home’, but rather to be somewhere between separation and initiation.
J.K. Rowling has founded an organization called LUMOS which she has charged with finding ways to dismantle orphanages. Here is a piece from their Home page. “Eight million children live in orphanages and other institutions globally. More than 80% are not orphans but have been separated from their families because of poverty and discrimination. Orphanages harm children, exposing them to all forms of abuse and trafficking. We rescue children from orphanages and reunite them with families. We change education, health and social care systems so all children and families can access the care and protection they deserve. Because only families provide the building blocks children need to thrive and reach their full potential”.
But google the ‘Border Children” plight along America’s southern border as recent as October 30, 2019. You will find a disturbing article titled, “Adoption of separated migrant kids shows ‘pro-life’ groups disrespect for maternity”. It is likely that within this initiative there are people with good intentions, but at best, with limited awareness of how each little person’s humanity is nurtured. These children have been forcibly separated from the only consistent love they have known. People continue to take other people’s children for their own just as they did in Tony’s community 80 years ago.
A few weeks after thinking the above sentence was the last sentence and sending what I thought was a draft ready for Tony to review, I noticed a niggling thought knocking somewhere in my brain. Something more was needed to be thought through about my emotional reaction to the article on the adoption of kids at the US/Mexico border. I travelled along the thought in my brain, I guess via neurons, to another thought. A few years back a friend told me of a conversation she had with Mavis Olesen, who along with her son, Dallas Williams, wrote Living In Limbo in which together they examine the journey they have shared since she adopted Dallas, a First Nation’s child, as part of AIM, Adopt Indian or Metis children. Olesen told my friend that if she had known what she came to know and understand over the years of her experience with adoption, she would rather have given money to enable her son to continue living in his community of birth. And then I thought of course about my son. We do not know how willing he was given to the state for adoption. Would it have been better to send money to his orphanage to allow him to remain in closer proximity to his siblings? And I thought about the border kids? Because they for the most part are not orphans, would it not be, especially in the long term, so much more compassionate to ensure by whatever means possible that they be reunited with their birth families? Yes, as is evident in the story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, some adoptees realized in their later years that they had more secure lives with their adoptive families than they might have had with their birth families, but each of them voiced a sense of incompleteness until they had the opportunity to learn of or be reconciled with their birth families. Quora has displayed several entries recently from mothers who explain to readers they very much wanted to hand their babies over for adoption, ‘in the best interest of the child’. It will be a few years before we hear from these adoptees. Over the years, stories will surface from many of the border children, however nice their new bedrooms are. Some will know that adoption was in their ‘best interest’. The adopters will have their lives enriched. Other adoptees will suffer for knowing they do not fully belong in their adoptive families; the parents who have lost their children will never fully heal from their loss, and in many cases the adoptive parents are headed for experiences that they will scarcely understand but which will give them deep pain as well.
And then I came back around to what Tony says so often in the pages preceding this last thought, comments that did not fully register with me until now. Tony asks so often, even directly to people who knew his father and his family, why they didn’t give what help they could? Even now when we stop by, we will slip back to memories of his life and he will shake his head in disbelief at their turning their backs on his struggling family. There would have been hardships but so much grief might have been alleviated. Karen Armstrong in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life calls ” [O]n all men and women…to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies…offering a humanity that makes (others) feel that life is endurable.”
Adoption is NOT an incompassionate option. It has its place in “offering a humanity” to those human beings whose journey through life begins with the need for family. Still there is need for a note of caution. When we are making choices for another’s life, one not yet mature enough to make his or her own choices, we need to be very careful about what choices we make for that person to ensure that we are nurturing the precious gift of empathy in a young life.
A couple of pointers:
- The Hungarian attempts are both my rough guess-timation of a phonetic interpretation taken from transcription of the tapes I did with Tony and some help from Google Translator.
- Other than using italics for the title of books, italics are used when Tony writes.
- To save the writing from the interruption of too many internal references, Born for Love is acknowledged only by page number. Each of the other books are titled as well as paginated.
Armstrong, Karen. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Anchor Books, 2010.
Campbell, Joseph. Myths To Live By Joseph Campbell Foundation, 1972.
Christie, Judy and Lisa Wingate. Before and After: the incredible real-life stories of orphans who survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Ballantine Books, 2019.
Goldman, Brian, M.D. The Power of Kindness: why empathy is essential in everyday life. HarperCollins, 2018
Perry, Bruce D.,M.D, Ph.D and Maia Szalavitz. The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. Basic Books, 2017.
Szalavitz, Maia and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. Born For Love: why empathy is essential – and endangered. HarperCollins, 2010.
Szalavitz, Maia. Unbroken Brain: a revolutionary new way of understanding addiction. St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Seligman, Martin, Ph.D. What You Can Change…and What You Can’t: the complete guide to successful self-improvement. Vintage Books, 2007.
The Brandon Sun (Brandon, Manitoba, Canada) · 6 Sep 1977
https://www.pressreader.com/canada/saskatoonstarphoenix/20140721/281530814145759 “Kilburn Hall: Saskatoon youth was sent away”.
Dornstauder, Frank, MSW and David Macknak, MSW. 100 YEARS OF CHILD WELFARE SERVICES IN SASKATCHEWAN: A SURVEY http://sasw.in1touch.org/uploaded/web/CW/100-ChildWelfarePaper.pdf