That is how it went on – for a whole eight years. Years that I remember mostly as very happy ones. I was an intelligent child and it didn’t take me long to understand that Mom’s and Sylvie’s instructions were to be taken very, very seriously. It didn’t worry me, but I knew that being a girl with boy parts was something that had to be kept a closely guarded secret. In the summer we’d sometimes go swimming outdoors with friends, girls of course, and Sylvie and I were always careful that we changed into our swimsuits away from the others. Mom tried to avoid visits to the doctor, but when we had to go she always made sure she had an agenda planned in advance. We were lucky and there was never any need for me to strip.
We loved the freedom of the summer months but winter was our favourite season. As a tot, I had learned to skate on a makeshift rink in our back yard at Chicoutimi, and in Saskatoon skating became our passion. Karen was an only child and spent a lot of time at our house, so she caught the skating bug too. In our second year in Saskatoon Sylvie started figure-skating lessons and the next year Mom let me join. Naturally Karen did too. We also joined a hockey team that allowed girls. It was part of a very small league where the parents were not carried away with crazy NHL ambitions for their kids. There were no away games, and Mom always brought us to the arena already kitted out, except for our skates, and took us away straight after, so I never had to undress in the changing room. Hockey skates are different from figure-skating skates and require a different technique, but our figure-skating experience made the three of us very confident on the ice and we found we could easily outskate the boys, something none of them appreciated very much. It was strictly a no-checking league so they couldn’t do much about it, to our glee.
Winter also meant piano lessons, which both Sylvie and I loved. Needless to say, Karen got roped in too, and the year-end recitals would feature Karen and myself, two little girls with matching bows in their hair, perched on a long piano stool, playing a duet. Between that and the figure-skating, all three of us – Sylvie, Karen and myself –were very young in developing a real love of classical music.
Mum had never really been able to bring herself to buy girl clothes for me, and almost everything I had came down from Sylvie. Until the end of Grade Two, that is, when it came time for my class to make its First Communion. This is an important rite of passage in the Catholic faith and while the children are taught to understand the religious significance of the occasion, a reality is that it is also the ultimate dressing-up experience for the girls. It was assumed that I would wear Sylvie’s First Communion dress, but it was nowhere to be found. Sylvie had made her First Communion in Chicoutimi, not long before we moved, and somehow the special box in which Mom had put the dress and accessories had been lost in the move.
So Mom had to set aside her recurring misgivings and off we went on a shopping trip. I had never really resented the hand-me-down process (Sylvie loved it because it accelerated her chances to get new stuff) but the idea of buying a dress just for me was really exciting. And not just a beautiful white dress, but also a veil with a little tiara thing, white silk panties — Sylvie and I really had to use our powers of persuasion to win Mom over on that one — white stockings and white shoes.
About a year later, when I was eight, there was another event that I remember vividly to this day. Karen and I had been reading a book in which two girls of our age decide on a ceremony of friendship in which they prick their fingers, mix their blood, and solemnly exchange secrets of great importance. This was too much for Karen to resist and a few days later at recess, always the leader, she produced a safety pin. Flinching madly, we pricked our fingers and rubbed them together. Then the secrets. Karen went first: “I almost had a baby brother” she said “ but he died in my Mommy’s tummy. Mommy was told she could never have another baby and it still makes her cry and I’m not supposed to tell anyone.” Wow” I said and we were both quiet for a minute. “Now your turn” said Karen. “Well,” I said, taking a deep breath, “when I was very little, I was a boy”. “Don’t be silly,” Karen said impatiently, “a real secret”. I explained as best I could but Karen wasn’t fully convinced and decided she needed evidence. So we went to the girls’ washroom and after making sure there was nobody else there, we both snuck into a cubicle and locked the door. By this time I was very frightened but I presented undeniable proof, very hurriedly and only for about two seconds. “Oh-h-h,” said Karen in a hushed and drawn out exclamation. Then, as we furtively exited the washroom, “Oh my, wow!”. She was quiet for what seemed to me an age and I didn’t say anything, just looked at her. I was afraid that we’d no longer be friends and, worse, she’d tell everyone. But then she grabbed me and gave me a long, long hug. “That’s a really special secret,” she whispered, “and now you’re my special, special friend”. Then we pretended that nothing had happened but, strangely, the bond between us seemed to get stronger and Karen became almost protective of me, as though I was a little sister as well as a friend. And I know she kept our secret, because her parents’ easy friendly attitude to me never changed at all.