Thursday, November 30, 2006

The other day at work I came across someone with a relatively rare and decidedly aboriginal name that made me think back.

It wasn't so much the name, but someone whose family I know has it.

Back in public school I was friends with a girl named Ellie. She was smart, funny, and lived with her mum in an apartment above a convenience store and her mum worked at the IGA bakery in town. I couldn't think of a cooler thing - to live ABOVE a place that sold mounds of candy. We both wanted to be writers and she dotted every "i" with a heart. I could probably still recognize her handwriting today. Her mum had a big birthday party for her at the bowling alley, and ordered pizza and, decked in our fluorescent jelly bracelets and equally atrocious bowling shoes we partied the afternoon away.

At the end of grade four her and her mum moved to the reserve north of town. Her mum was of aborginal background, and moved closer to family there. It was really only 25 minutes away or so, but in grade 4 that's a long way.

We talked on the phone since it wasn't long distance, but we didn't see each other much after that.

I remember exactly where I was when my mum told me she had sad news. my sister and I had been vising my grandparents for a weekend at their farm, and were in the mud room when she mentioned an obituary she saw.

It was for Ellie's mum. She had been hit by a transport truck when she was backing out of their driveway onto the highway. Ellie and I were in grade six, and the funeral was a couple of days before.

I don't remember how I got out to see her, but a few weeks after her mum died I went out to visit. She was living on her own in a band house, with her grandparents living across the road. I remember how the house smelled like cat litter that needed to be changed, there were stacks of dishes, and it was cold. What I remembered most, though was the shrine she had made for her mother. She had candles, and a wall of photos to remember her mother by. I don't remember much about what we talked about, apart from her grandparents giving us cookies and being struck at how alone she was.

She lived on her own from that point on, going to school and working at a local restaurant for barely slave wages. A few months after her mom died the dad she never knew, and only visited once died suddenly of a heart attack.

Our contact was fairly sporadic over the years, but when we were sixteen she called out of the blue one day. it was one of the more terrifying calls I'd received. She was calling to say goodbye, she didn't want to be here any longer. I remember the panic I felt, and relief when she agreed she deserved better.

When she was 17 she moved to what I think was somewhat of a 'promised land' to her, at least in comparison to rural reserve life. She moved to Scarborough, got by on social assistance, worked, and had two kids.

I visited them when her daughter was just a few months old, and her son was 2.5. Neither of the kids' dads were really around that much, and that didn't seem to bother her - she was more interested in the little ones. They were someone for her to love, and more importantly, to feel love from.

I haven't seen her since I visited that weekend. I think we exchanged phone calls a few times, but I think our lives turned out so different that the friendship was hard to continue. I blame myself for that. I didn't like that she bragged about stealing from stores, I didn't like the guys she picked to be her kids' dads. They seemed to have no interest in her (besides the obvious), little interest in their kids, and wore way too many pagers and had too much cash on them. I don't think at that age I had enough insight into what her life was like, and how hard it would've have been to lose a parent at twelve and live alone from then on. How hard it would've been to be a parent herself when she was 18, and again at 19 without any support system close by. I'm ten years older than she was when she had her first kid, and don't think I'm ready to be the capable parent a kid deserves.

I tried looking her up, tried calling 411, but without luck. Since running into someone with the same last name as her mum, I think of her often, wonder how she and her kids are doing, where life has taken them, and whether we'd be friends now that I've grown up a bit.


mama_tulip said...

Wow. What a powerful life story. I often think of people I went to elementary school with and wonder how they are doing now, what they're up to, if they have kids...I hope that one day you will reconnect with her again.

velocibadgergirl said...

I surfed over from a comment you left (crooked-fingered girls unite!).

What a sad, sad story...makes me extra thankful for the luck I've had in life, that's for sure.

TB said...

Don't be so hard on yourself. Things like that are so incredibly difficult to make sense of when you're young. It's easy to look back with the wisdom of years of living and see how you might have done it differently.
I'll bet she remembers that you were a good friend.

sunshine scribe said...

That story gave me shivvers Heather. I hope you manage to find her. I bet she'd really love to know you think of her often.

kristin said...

i've been thinking a lot about falling through the cracks lately -- how it happens, how scary it is, how i was so afraid of that, how lucky i am to be blessed with a family that would never let that happen. Very 'there but for the grace of God' kind of thing.

thanks for coming by my place. i love your dogs, btw.

islaygirl said...

oh, it's islaygirl, btw. ;)

heather said...

heather, this westcoast heather, thinks (re: my post and your comment) that maybe i am a bit harsh on the east provinces of Canada, but i think that if I left I would miss the mountains too much. Though I have an aunt in Oshawa and it seems to float her boat.
Also wonderful story, I grew up with lots of First Nations friends, I have little idea where life has taken them.

DebbieDoesLife said...

I have a friend like that. One that no matter our differences and that we are not really friends today, life keeps bringing us back together.

She had a different path from you and made different choices. You don't need to feel bad about that. It would be hard to grow up with your mom though.

Great piece of writing though.

Teena said...

Friendships are funny like that. No doubt you'll find her someday.

Heather said...

mamatulip: I hope I will too.

velocibadgergirl: You're completely right - it really does come down to luck. I'm thankful too.

TB: I'm not really that hard on myself - just seeing things through clearer lenses I guess.

sunshine scribe: Still looking! I know you know how fun phone calls like that are.

kristin: there but for the grace of God is one of my favourite sayings. I love our dogs too, except when they eat things they aren't supposed to. :)

Heather: I haven't been out west but friends of mine there say I'd never move back here if I went.

debbiedoeslife: I hope life brings us back together - I don't really feel bad, just think of her lots lately I guess. Thanks (you made me blush)!

teena: I hope so!