My mother, Susan Anderson, grew up in an older, upscale suburb of Toronto. Mom loved languages in high school and went on to U of T, planning to major in French, but after a year she decided it wasn’t for her. She dropped out and started in nursing. She was bright but she had a reputation as impulsive and a rebel, and a quirky one at that, something her staid, conventional family found hard to take. In those days student nurses had to put up with a lot of pointless petty customs and rules and her family didn’t think she would stick it out. But she did, and when she graduated, at the top of her class, she announced she was taking a job in Chicoutimi, Quebec. She’d already rebelled against family tradition by turning her back on their church and becoming Catholic, something which had precipitated dreadful ructions, so her impending move to Quebec was greeted almost with relief by the family. She told them she wanted to improve her French while she worked, but the real reason was that she’d fallen for a young man from Quebec called Claude. It was a whirlwind romance; he was in Toronto for six weeks on a training course and had a job to go back to in Chicoutimi. Circumstance number one.
Susan followed Claude to Chicoutimi and two months later they married. Nobody from her family attended the wedding. Ten months later – I guess Susan wasn’t that much of a rebel – my elder sister Sylvie was born, and two years later, in 1966, I came into the world. I was christened Jean-Marie – not an unusual name for a boy in Quebec, but circumstance number two.
The marriage was a disaster and nine months after I was born Claude walked out on Mom. He left Chicoutimi and we’ve never heard from him since. Mom had no wish to go back to Toronto so she decided that we’d remain in Quebec, at least for a while, but she started calling herself by her maiden name again and arranged for Anderson to become our legal surname.
We stayed in Quebec for another four years, just the three of us. Mom rented a little furnished house in a village on the Sagueney, a few kilometres outside Chicoutimi. My sister and I were very close as there were not many children in the village. The few kids we did play with were Sylvie’s friends and schoolmates, all girls. Circumstance number three.
Sylvie and I learned to speak both languages, French when we played with our friends, English when we were at home with Mom. But eventually Mom decided she wanted us to grow up in English Canada and she started to plan a move. One good thing about nursing then – before medicare fell apart – was that a nurse could find a job anywhere. Mom had no intention of being near her family so she didn’t even consider Toronto. A good job opportunity in Saskatchewan came up — full-time days, ideal for a single mother –so everything was packed up and off we went in Mom’s little Morris Minor station wagon, all the way to Saskatoon, arriving there two days before the Labour Day weekend, just in time for us to be enrolled in the local Catholic grade school, Sylvie in Grade Two, me in Kindergarten. And this is where circumstance number four – my haircut – conspired with all the others to mould the rest of my life.
We’ve talked about all this many times over the years — Mom, Sylvie and I – and that is probably why I appear to remember the details so clearly. When I started school that first morning I had bangs and a smooth helmet of hair to below my ears. Not too unusual for a little boy in Quebec, but maybe it was less normal for a little boy in Saskatoon, for all the other boys in the kindergarten class had shorter hair, mostly crew-cuts. Be that as it may, the kindergarten teacher, Miss Onuschuk, had us sit down on the floor in a semi-circle. I was next to a little girl who happened to have her hair in exactly the same style as mine. Miss Onuschuk had each of us say our names so that she could begin to get to know us. The girl next to me was first and said her name was Karen. Then it was my turn: “Jean-Marie” I said, pronouncing it the French way of course. Miss Onuschuk glanced at me, looked at her register and then said kindly “ So you’ve come all the way from Quebec. Can you speak English?”. I nodded yes. “Good” she said. “But Saskatchewan is your new home, dear, so I think we’ll call you by your English name, Jean Mary. And we’ll probably just call you Jean”. She smiled at me and then moved on to the child on the other side of me.
Recess time came and each of us had to hold the hand of another child, buddy-style. Boys paired up, girls paired up, and Karen, leader from the start, took my hand and out we trotted. And as far as I can remember, I didn’t think there was anything too strange about what had just happened.