he troubling thing about emotions is, one never knows when they will surface; and once they have, just what to do about them. No one can escape the wrath of their emotional vortex. When I was a young man, I didn't know this. Years later, looking back on the events of my life, I realized that emotions are what overpowered her. They overwhelmed her mind and body.
It would be an understatement to say that Mother took too many photos of Curt before he left - Mother rarely stopped taking photos. Curt on the steps in uniform, Curt on the steps without uniform, Curt in his uniform on the couch, Curt on the couch without his uniform on, Curt in the kitchen… sometimes with and sometimes without his uniform. I've held onto this one for forty-three years and now it's all blurry and tattered - nothing lasts forever; another thing I've learned. See Curt's best buddy Stanley Kilmern standing beside him? We lived next door to the Kilmerns long before I was born. Mother and Father moved into our Toronto house after they were married. They befriended the Kilmerns easily; they had plenty in common. Curt and Stanley were even born just ten hours apart. Mother used to say they were "born to be best friends." There were like brothers and life seemed perfect.
I've also learned that while nothing lasts forever, nobody ever believes it. The morning the telegram arrived ordering Father off to war was the first sign our quiet happy life was in jeopardy; but nobody paid attention. Mother especially. She tried so hard to keep life normal for us, pretending it was normal for sons to say desperate nightly prayers for the return of their Father, or bid "good morning" and "good night" to a photograph of father taped to the refrigerator.
The receipt of Father's death announcement was a turning point in my life. They said he died a hero trying to save a fallen comrade - I wonder if they tell all the families that.
When word got out, our home was bombarded for days with family and friends doing "the right thing." Endless parades of cards, casseroles, flowers, cookies and well-wishers proceeded up and down our walkway. It was mayhem! Mother felt it was excessive - the constant attention, that is. She said we ought to have our sadness but she didn't want us feeling like victims. She tried to shield Curt and I from the self-pitying tears that everyone expected we would shed. Finally, Mother had enough; she wanted the mourning to stop. She kicked everyone out of the house and demanded they take their "I'm so sorry's" with them. People quickly stopped coming around and Mother stopped talking to the Kilmerns altogether. Father was rarely mentioned in our house after that.
A year passed. It was 1917 and the pro-Conscription government was re-elected. Mother knew it was only a matter of time before Curt was called to battle. She was devastated - her bright, shining green eyes turned empty and lifeless, tears perpetually perched at the edges. I was only small but I could see something was wrong. She would stay up late writing letters to the Prime Minister protesting the Conscription Act. Some nights I stayed up too, and helped her lick the envelopes.
In late October the telegrams came. Within a week both Curt and Stanley would be in Europe, leaving nobody at home for Mother except me. I was six years old.
Mother put on her happy face in those final days.
"Isn't he handsome?" she'd say kissing Curt's cheek the same way I imagined she did when he was a baby. She told him whenever he ever felt lonely, to sing their special song, "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile." She really tried her best to keep him in good spirits. The night before his departure that song came on the radio and Mother weepily serenaded Curt at the dinner table. They stayed up till dawn baking his favourite cookies to take on the trip overseas - Curt repeatedly reassuring her that everything was going to be okay. Then he was gone.
Now it was just Mother and I. She refused to let anyone back into her life, believing we were better off alone. Weeks passed. Then it hit her - Mother realized she had nobody but a scared little boy to rely on and her despair hit a new low. She started drinking heavily almost every night and shut herself off from the world. It wasn't too long before I, not yet seven, had to learn to care for her, helping her to bed in a drunken stupor. It was as though her emotions had contaminated her sanity.
Conscription was all the talk on the radio. The country was split fifty-fifty on it and around Christmastime Mother and I attended a protest at Queen's Park. The place was a disaster! It was cold but there was no snow yet. People had lit bonfires on the lawn and were fueling the huge fires with newspaper reports about the war. Sparks shot out at the crowd and suddenly, some of the posters and banners people carried burst into flame. They threw them to the ground as the crisp, dry grass ignited.
Alarm bells clanged, shattering the afternoon air and people scrambled in every direction. The fires were roaring uncontrollably now and Mother was dragging me away… and then, she stopped short. She was face to face with Mr. And Mrs. Kilmern. They were both dressed in black and Mrs. Kilmern held a single white rose. They seemed oblivious to the danger and chaos around us.
"We got word last night," Mr. Kilmern said. "The whole battalion is dead. Shot in the middle of the night on a march to -" His voice cracked and he buried his face in his hands.
Just then the fire brigade arrived, me jumped off the truck, some with buckets of water, others, scrambling to unwind the long hose.
Mother dropped my hand and wiped the beads of sweat from her brow.
"No," she whispered, "I've received no telegram. You're wrong. You've got it wrong."
"I'm so sorry… I -" Mrs. Kilmern tired to apologize but couldn't. "We just came here to support the protest. We wanted to stop this… stop the fighting and death… it's just so -" Mrs. Kilmern reached for Mother's arm.
"No! Stop it! Don't be ridiculous! They aren't possibly dead. That's nonsense! Rubbish!" Mother pushed Mrs. Kilmern's hand away, knocking the rose to the ground. "NO!" she persisted, her lips quavering, a shaky hand mussing her hair. "You don't know WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT!" Her volume intensified with each trembling word and she took a few steps back from the three of us.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!" she screamed, then turned to run into the sea of people. I tried in vain to push through the crowd to find her. Men were everywhere, yelling their anti-conscription chants, cursing the police and tearing at one another to escape the heat, the handcuffs, and the paddy wagons. I turned back to our neighbours but they were gone, too. For the first time in my life, I was really alone.
Mother didn't come back and I was taken to the Kilmerns' home to stay. Everything was very quiet and they treated me like a son. We held a memorial service for Curt and Stanley later that week. Everyone hoped Mother would show up to honour her eldest son and claim her youngest. It tried to convince myself that she was just lost and would be back any day to get me.
Mother never did return, though, and I went back to school and began to get used to life with the Kilmerns. It was different with them. They weren't afraid to be sad, they told me it was okay to be upset and miss Father, Curt, and now, Mother. Every night I would gaze teary-eyed at Mother's bedroom window, waiting for the light to suddenly switch on and see her worn face looking back at mine.
I realize now that Mother was the victim of her own overwhelming emotions. Grief, sadness and loneliness - she tried to pretend they weren't there, like nothing could affect her. I know better now. When emotions come knocking, I open the door. They're like the "big, bad wolf" - you let them in or they'll blow your house down.
Time passed: our house was sold, the Kilmern's legally adopted me but still I never knew what happened to Mother.
The worst part is, they actually did find her. Just days after she had gone missing, to. She'd drowned herself in the Don River in a final desperate attempt to end the raging war within her. But nobody could muster the courage to tell me, so nobody did.
Except Curt - he told me the day he came home.
© 2002 The Richmond Hill Public Library Board