Excerpt from The Trees Were Singing by Richard Marcus; Unpublished, 2005 p.19-20:
At first, he would simply duck his head or avert his eyes in hopes of avoiding the scorn and derision of his father and older brothers. It was even worse if his sisters or mother came to his defence. Then there would be the hoots of “girly” and “maybe he should just stay in the kitchen with the hens.”
So he learned how to be a proper guy. You hung out and talked of stuff. Stood in the shed and drank beer; talked about cars, motors, and sports. Told dirty jokes, complained about work, people who weren’t there, the government, and anything different was wrong and to be stamped out or ridiculed. This was his world so he had to fit or be lost. There was nothing else, was there?
The women gathered around the kitchen table, coffee, tea, and beer in hands, dissecting the lives of family members and neighbours with the knives of Christian piety, propriety, and white trash vindictiveness. Adhering to some old code of behaviour that dictated the segregation of the sexes, only coming together for meals, they played roles that had long lost any meaning.
In some ways I lived a very typical upper middle-class, liberal life in my formative years. Put aside the sexual abuse and you would have said my family’s main distinction from those of the people I went to school with were their politics and sense of social justice. (Which is what makes the sexual abuse even more of a betrayal, but that’s another story for another day.)
My parents were both die-hard supporters of the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), Canada’s equivalent of Britain’s Labour party. This meant I grew up in a house where equality was taken for granted and tolerance was preached across the dining room table. We worshiped the Canadian trinity of social justice: The Canada Health Act, which guaranteed Universal Medical care, The Canada Welfare Act that guaranteed nobody would do without, and the great myth of racial equality in Canada.
My father belonged to the intellectual wing of the party. These were the people who understood the theory behind supporting the rights of workers and unions, but would never want to spend any time amongst them. It was an attitude he inherited from his poor-as-church-mice but ever so proper parents. You don’t mix with the hired help. For all his social justice beliefs, he was still more concerned with looking “proper” (the ironies are amazing when you remember the man was a rapist) than anything else.
I never lacked for anything as a kid in the way of food or shelter or material needs. Material wants were a different story, as my mother believed that I should learn the value of goods by always having to contribute money to the purchase of any item I wanted. All in all, I lived a pretty sheltered existence, seeing how only a small percentage of my society lived.
That didn’t change when I went out into the world after University and began working in theatre. I switched from one sheltered environment to another. It was a much smaller community of professional theatre people in Toronto back in the 1980s than it is now. The mega musicals hadn’t hit the city yet and it was still the preserve of the minority.
It wasn’t until I met my wife that I became aware of a whole different world. I was astounded the first time I attended one of her family’s functions and pretty much witnessed the scene described in the paragraphs that opened this article.
My wife was the only woman who was sitting with men in the living room of her uncle’s house. The other women were being conducted by her aunt in the orchestration of serving, preparing, and ensuring a steady supply of beer to the men.
Tables were laden with plates of cold cuts, processed cheeses, macaroni salads, jello salads; a cornucopia of blandness the likes of which I had never seen before. I had thought that once the food was transferred from the kitchen to the table around which we all were seated that the segregation would come to an end and everyone would be together.
Nope, in fact I don’t think I saw one of the women eat, let alone sit down with husband or boyfriend. They were all back in the kitchen hunkered in around the coffee urn, filling the air with cigarette smoke and the drone of their conversation. I looked around at the men I was sitting with and none of them seemed to act as if anything was out of the ordinary.
I caught my wife’s eye, she smiled a slight smile from where she was sitting with her dad and I could see her mentally shrugging. I felt like I had stepped into a black hole where the world was stuck in the forties and fifties and equality between the sexes was something that had never happened. It was Steven Harper’s idea of traditional family values down to the last detail.
As we were walking home that night, I turned to my wife after we had only traveled a block and asked her how she had survived growing up in that environment. She laughed, shook her head, and answered my question by saying she had as little to do with the family as possible.
Her dad and his two brothers had grown up near Golden Lake, Ontario in a rural farming community. The family homestead didn’t have indoor plumbing until well into the sixties and electrical service came in at around the same time. He had been sent to live with his aunt at a young age because his mother had been institutionalized and his father had run off. At fifteen, he and his two younger brothers moved on down to Kingston.
The youngest brother was placed with a family that raised him and he eventually married one of the daughters, while both my wife’s dad and the next in age tried to make a go of it as musicians. They both married young and gave up their music for their first wives until their first wives gave up on them.
Out at the homestead, when it was farming season, the men would be working in the fields from dawn until dusk. The women of the family would prepare their meals for them as a simple division of labour, and that’s just the way things were done. It had been done like that back in the Frissen Islands where the family came from, and it was continued on here.
But the logic for that type of division of labour vanishes when you get into the city. Men and women are working equally at jobs these days, getting up and going to work at the same time everyday. Why then does this behaviour continue to exist among so many women?
The occasional individual like my wife won’t be content to sit in the kitchen, and she’s looked on as some sort of freak. But as she says, what do I have to say to a bunch of women whose interests don’t extend beyond the wall of their kitchen? Indeed, what does any woman of my generation or younger have to say, or have in common with them?
The answer to why comes from what you saw when you were growing up. I saw and heard people talking about equality. My mother had a university degree and went back to school to get another degree while I was in high school. I’m considered the academic failure because I didn’t finish my university education, leaving after second year to go work in the theatre.
In my wife’s family, she’s a rarity in that not only did she graduate from high school, but also she went on to community college to get degrees and diplomas in an attempt to accomplish something and learn a little more about what lay beyond the boundaries of her world. As far as women in her family go, she was the first one to have a post-secondary education.
We’re not talking about a developing country or the 1930s; we’re talking about Kingston, Ontario, Canada, circa 1980. We talk about the opportunities denied women in other countries because of their inability to get an education when we’re missing the fact that those same conditions exist here in a so-called developed nation.
How many thousands and millions of women across North America are still being conditioned to believe it is their role in life to serve men? People below a certain level of income don’t believe that they can ever obtain any type of education beyond high school because the costs are just too high. How many men from the same backgrounds are in the same position?
When people are unable to be exposed to new ideas, they won’t grow and our society will stagnate. We are leaving people behind at an alarming rate as across fees for North American universities are rising. It’s becoming more and more difficult to raise the funds necessary to attend.
I grew up in a cloistered environment where social justice was idealized but was also a type of snobbery. Never having experienced the effects of generations of poverty or witnessing the effects it has on people, my initial reactions to it was to judge and find the people wanting.
But it is society that is wanting in that we have allowed them to slip through the cracks. By denying people access to the means to improve their lots in life and by stealing the hope from generation after generation, our society has created the permanent underclass we sneeringly call “White Trash.”
If we continue to dangle the opportunities offered to everybody else out of their reach, and if we continue along this path of higher education becoming a privilege, we continue to hold segments of our society in stasis and encourage the intolerance we preach against.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to climb out of the ivory towers that we use as our speakers’ platforms and protection from the messiness of reality. If we truly value equality and tolerance then there are no excuses anymore for not climbing down from the artificial heights of snobbery and social elitism.