I first met June when she arrived in my grade five class at Bronx Park School. Fresh off the boat from Scotland, her accent was so thick we could barely understand her and she made us laugh a lot. She and I were friends as much as 10-year-olds can be, but eventually were taken in different geographic directions.
When I was 11 we moved from LaSalle to the ‘wasp’ suburb of Pointe Claire, where she eventually moved as well at fourteen after more than a two-year gap in our friendship. I was living in the winding newly built suburban streets, while she was living in the old “village” – “downtown” Pointe Claire where the economically less privileged lived among French Canadians and immigrants. My neighbours were all white, English-speaking, with pretensions: We knew how to set the table, wore gloves and hats to church on Sundays, and certainly would not have sex before marriage. We all had the same accents, skin colour, and uniforms and the more people are alike, the more individual differences stand out. I was different. And I was miserable and homesick for the place where I’d felt free to be me.
One day at my school locker I happened to look up. There was June, in her awkward adolescent glory, and I was thrilled and relieved to see this delightful symbol from my happy past.
June and I saw the world in a similar way – and shared our ‘outsider’ status in mutually supportive ways. We both did badly academically – because we were too pre-occupied with our feelings and lives to focus on intellectual endeavors.
Besides, the world was much more fascinating than school – with frequent post-war news about the holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, not to mention the civil rights movement with its fascinating and horrifying revealing of extreme racism in America. Those were the same days when we’d read a newspaper account of a ‘negro’ boy our age being killed by white racists for whistling at a white woman. Or reports of another black lynching. It was an amazing and scary world to a couple of girls who had already been overly sensitized by emotional issues in our homes.
We did a few risky things together – for those times. Like hitch-hiking. Only in hindsight, of course, did we realize the potential danger of our ‘adventures’. But her father realized it. Living in the U.S. ‘getting rich’ while his Canadian family lived in poverty, he eventually placed her at 16 in a strict boarding school. (Which was when I met Betty – https://thinkinganddreaming.ca/2012/06/14/witness-to-poverty/)
At 17, June ran away from the school and hid under my bed for a few days. My sister and I secretly brought food to her until she was discovered and shipped back to school.
During those two years of close friendship, I was learning a lot about poverty without realizing it — though it often struck me as ‘unfair’ when she didn’t have money to do things I could do, like go to a dance or a movie. Some of my memories of that period still provoke tears: like the time she stole a white scarf from a “5 + 10” in order to give me a gift. Or the mortifying embarrassment she endured in having to make her own sanitary napkins from cloth rags. Or their Friday night treat of chips (“fries”) wrapped in newspaper – no fish.
Or the times that their exhausted single mom would, after they went to bed at night, close all the windows and turn on the gas. June would then quietly open the windows and turn off the gas. She would talk about this as if it were a hilarious game, and we’d both be bent over laughing. Only later did I get how desperate her mother must have been.
June and I stayed in touch off and on until our thirties in Montreal, through my first divorce and other misadventures. By then she was a single ‘welfare mom’ with two little boys, struggling to survive financially. I’d visit over a cup of tea and she’d tell me the latest about her — and her neighbours’ — struggles. She was always smart, quick-witted, and we always laughed a lot. In fact laughter to the crying stage was the one thing that always characterized our get-togethers.
But behind the laughter was her continuous frustration with the life she couldn’t give her boys – though a more affectionate, excellent mother I’ve seldom seen. She eventually came up with a brilliant scheme to get them up and out of it all, into her dream of living in Vancouver. Timing was of the essence, and she did a creative combination of holding back her rent payment for a few months and selling her furniture, so that she and the boys could fly a one-way trip to her dream city. Her old friend got her to the airport and onto that flight. I can still see June and the boys in the boarding lineup.
At the time, Vancouver was brilliant. It was almost as if they laid out a red carpet for her. A city worker drove her and the boys on a tour of the city, found her a home, furniture and everything she could need. To her, all her struggles had just been rewarded and she had arrived in heaven. To this day, I appreciate the differences in societal attitudes toward ‘welfare’.
I did visit her there too – and it was obvious she had made the right move. British Columbia was at its compassionate best, and comparatively speaking, she and the boys were well taken care of. Many years later I visited her in Powell River, where she, with her usual smarts, took me on a tour to show me the environmental damage done by MacMillan-Bloedel (known as “Mac-Blo” to the locals). She knew her stuff, explaining the biological aspects of a crystal-green, absolutely clear, pond she showed me – with absolutely nothing living in it.
From our teen years on, June often said, “The good die young.” And she did – at 53. I can instantly and vividly remember her laugh, her voice and her dimpled smile. I miss her still.