Home alone as an eight year old, I took the opportunity to investigate what secrets lay behind my parent’s bedroom door. I don’t ever remember being told we were not allowed in there. Some things we were just expected to know.
I wouldn’t have been surprised had I been hit by fire and brimstone raining down from heaven, as one by one I pulled the drawers of my mother’s dresser open. She didn’t own a lot of clothes, and though the drawers were small, none were full. I’m not sure what I expected to find, but there, in the middle drawer, were two items that were clues that life was changing: a pair of burgundy elastic waist pants, and a little box that resembled a small matchbox, except that it was plastic and bright red. I slid the box open. I had no idea that the little black cake of paste and tiny comb inside were mascara, but I sensed whatever its purpose was, it was sinful.
A lot of things in those days were sinful, according to the cult, thinly veiled as a church, which our family had been a part of since my parents had married ten years earlier. Women were only permitted to wear dresses. And they certainly did not wear makeup.
Coming across those two items in my mother’s drawer, I felt like Eve eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in there but there was no way I could turn back time and pretend it never happened. It was too late. I had tasted the fruit, and my eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil.
Prior to that day, I had never questioned our lifestyle. I did not know it was not normal to have lived in fourteen different places by the time you were eight years old. I did not know that most other people in 1973 had homes with electricity, telephones, running water and flush toilets. I did not know most people bought milk and eggs and meat in a grocery store rather than surviving on what you could farm, shoot or gather from the wild. I did not know parents could be misguided. I did not know church was a place to find acceptance, love, forgiveness and healing...
From that moment on, I began to collect knowledge.
I stored up overheard snippets of conversations.
“He’s like a vacuum cleaner,” I overheard someone say, in reference to the self-appointed leader of our isolated community. “Sucks in anything that comes near him.” I’m not even sure I knew what a vacuum cleaner was.
I fit together little pieces of action.
Our most recent move, which was a return from two years previous, to an abandoned homestead in the Fraser Canyon – an aerial ferry ride over the Fraser River and hour’s drive on gravel switchback roads, coincided with some of the more prominent members of the commune relocating to the Yukon.
I sensed we were breaking free. Strange. Since I hadn’t previously understood we were bound. We didn’t talk about it. Children did not question the motives of parents. Parents did not confide in children.
My thirst for knowledge continued that year as I entered second grade by distance education, which was homeschooling with the materials provided by the government. I essentially taught myself grades two and three while witnessing my brother struggle through the third grade in tears along with my mother.
My younger sister had help from a nearby teen to finish her first grade assignments. My brother next in line was set to start school, with the youngest sibling only a year behind. I don’t know if the prospect of homeschooling five kids had bearing on the situation or if truly my parents had grown into their own, taking steps of freedom and personal responsibility, but we moved clear across the province the following year.
Our new home had a street address, carpet and a phone, which to this day, I still remember the number. I learned to operate an electric stove, a washing machine and a toaster.
And that first week in September, I walked through the doors of Isabella Dicken Elementary School. I walked sheepishly, yet thrilled, beside my mother, both wearing pants, feeling liberated, grown up and looking forward to eating the fruits of knowledge that only real life in the fourth grade could provide.
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