Whenever Mom knew it was time for her to go, she shaved her head. That was the signal that she couldn’t cope any longer, and we knew she’d be gone for a while. She would disappear into the bathroom and come out again completely bald, her scalp shining. She looked quite different, like a man wearing women’s clothes and make-up. Weird! She’d sit down quietly as if everything was normal and close her eyes waiting for Dad to come home. Sometimes she’d go back into the washroom and gather up her hair from where it had fallen in the washbasin and on the floor, but other times she’d just leave it lying there for someone else to clean up.
The first time she came out all shaved and polished-looking it was quite a shock, and the little ones were scared. Nina told them that mom was pretending to be Kojak, that TV detective we watched that was always sucking on a lollypop for some reason. But she’d forgotten that the show started late and the young ones were asleep before it came on and they couldn’t make the connection. So I jumped in and said maybe she was pretending to be Humpty-Dumpty, and Brian laughed at that and reasoned that if she was being Humpty-Dumpty, then we should sit her on the garden wall, and wait for her to fall down. Like in the rhyme, you know? But Mom didn’t co-operate, of course. She just sat still and looked through us. So the first time she shaved her head was pretty scary, but once she’d done it a few times we sort of got used to it. Dad would take her away in the car when he got home from work, and we wouldn’t see her for weeks, sometimes months.
After the first time she went away, I guess she found it better to shave her own head at home than to wait for them do it in the institution. That was the routine in those days when you were admitted: they stripped you naked and then they shaved your head. After that they put you in a cold shower and soaped you down with carbolic. They must have thought you’d bring in lice to their nice clean environment, or something. Must have figured only dirty folks went mad, I guess.
I used to imagine her in that antiseptic place with the small barred windows, not knowing when she’d get out again. It must have been hell for her. She was used to our big old house and her garden. She loved her garden. She grew flowers and vegetables and put up bird feeders filled with seed, and sat under the tree with a book, or walked around pulling up weeds and patting soil round young plants when she was well. She liked being outside better than being inside, that’s for sure. She was always kind of restless indoors. When she couldn’t get outside much because of weather or a kid being sick, she’d be like an animal in a cage, pacing up and down. Or she’d sit by one of the windows and stare out, on her better days.
But she couldn’t do that where she went. In that place there were only mean little windows placed high up in the walls and fortified with bars. It was like a prison but with doctors instead of jailers. The inmates were only allowed out once a day, for supervised exercise. You couldn’t just wander off and do your own thing. I don’t know how she stood it, the lack of freedom, the cramped space, the people watching your every move. Maybe she was drugged most of the time, and the hours went by without her really noticing much. I hope so. I tried not to think too much about what must be happening to her in there, but it would creep into my head at night.
When she’d come out of the bathroom with her head shaved, we knew what would happen next. It would set off a whole chain of actions, like when a row of dominoes collapses one by one to the end of the line. Dad would arrive home, see that mom was in a bad way again, take her away, come back an hour or two later, talk to us, get us something to eat, make a lot of phone calls and try to make arrangements for us to be looked after while he worked. Especially Annie, the baby, and Billy and Mike, who were only four and three when she started needing to be away. He couldn’t take time off work to look after us, so we’d be farmed out to relatives and neighbours. So the last dominoes in the Clarke family fell one by one as we walked, carrying the little ones, to the houses where we’d be staying for an unknown length of time.
No one was willing to take more than two of us at a time, so we’d sometimes go for long intervals hardly seeing each other except maybe at school for a few minutes at recess. Not having each other around was almost as hard as not being in our own house, and not having mom there. Sure, we’d fight tooth and nail sometimes when we were together, but we sure missed each other when we weren’t. You get so lonesome on your own in a different place, with the wrong family, you know? And the families who took us in never really wanted us, and we felt unwelcome and awkward. So we either slunk around trying not to be in the way (my sisters), or acted up (me and my brothers). It was tough all round.
So, whenever Mom shaved her head we’d scatter and hide. The little ones would go under the house into that cool dark place that smelled of earth, that low cramped space that no adult could get into. They’d cluster right in the middle, clinging to each other, out of reach of even the longest broom handle, and stay there as long as they could. But unless they took supplies in with them it didn’t take long for them to get too hungry to hold out, so one by one they’d give up and come out.
Us older kids wouldn’t surrender so easily. We’d go farther off, to a park or to the other side of the town sometimes, holing up under a railway bridge or in someone’s garden shed. In the summer it wasn’t too bad. There was plenty of fruit on trees, and we’d drink from the fountain in the park, or from the barrels that people kept behind their houses to collect rainwater in. In the winter we’d beg for food or steal it from the corner shop. Sometimes the manager turned a blind eye.
Sometimes it took days for them to round us all up. But they always found us eventually. And then we’d be dispatched to whoever Dad — or later the Social Services — had found to take us in. Trouble was, no one ever knew how long the arrangement would be for, how long mom would be away, and money was tight for most people in our neighbourhood. No one could afford to feed extra kids. So at the end of the week, Dad would come round and share out his paycheck among the folk who were feeding us. I don’t think he kept much for himself.
I’d get in the habit of looking out for him on Fridays around six o’clock. He always came at that time. He’d come straight from work, or else he’d drop by on his way there, if he was working nightshift. I’d see him limping up the path, his polio leg dragging a bit. Or I’d hear him knock at the door. The worst was when I’d find him standing in the kitchen of the people who had taken us in, holding out his money, pleading with whoever was there to keep us a bit longer. Sometimes they did.
But there came a time when there just weren’t enough neighbours and relatives that all eight of us could be divided up amongst. Maybe they were all tired of being asked so often. Anyway, one day when he was at his wits’ end to know what to do with us, Dad phoned Social Services and the result was that a woman with a briefcase and bright red lipstick came to the house and asked us a lot of questions and pretended to care that we wanted to stay together no matter what. Then she left, but she came back with two other business-like social worker companions in a few days, and told Dad that it was in our best interest to be removed from the home because he couldn’t possibly cope with us and work at the same time. So we were to be split up, and – surprise, surprise — some of us were to be put into foster care.
Brian and Jim were to go to foster parents within a couple of miles of our house, so that wasn’t too bad, but Tommy, who was seven, was to be fostered by a family who lived clear across the city. Naturally, he didn’t want to go. He yelled and struggled but finally he was packed into the car that came for him. He looked scared and angry. Brian and Jim were gone already, but Nina and the girls cried and I had to turn away and make fists and dig my fingers into my palms to stop from doing the same. I’ll never forget how desperate Tommy looked as he peered out of the back window of the car and drummed his little fists against the glass as the car took him away.
Dad and the rest of us worried about him, wondering how he’d get on so far away from the rest of us, if the family would be kind to him, and so on. But we figured he’d settle in and make the best of it in the end, like the rest of us did. Well, turns out he didn’t settle in or make the best of it. What happened is hard to believe, but it’s the God’s own truth. About a week later, the kid arrived home, all by himself. He’d run away from the foster family. Seven years old and he’d walked the twenty-odd miles between his foster parents’ house and ours. He’d somehow made his way across the big city, and the bridge over the St. Lawrence, and followed his nose all the way home. It must have taken him almost a whole day. God knows how he knew what direction to take. Must have been watching carefully from the car, taken notes in his head, and done it all in reverse, I guess. Smart kid, our Tommy.
Dad was in when he made it home. It was about eleven at night and he was settling down to sleep when he heard pounding on the door and went to open it. He thought it must be the police or a frantic neighbour, and you could have knocked him down with a feather when he saw that it was Tommy. Dad said he came in like a cyclone, hurled himself upstairs, dived into bed and burrowed under the covers, yelling, “Don’t you dare ever send me away again! Don’t you dare. I’ll kill you if you do…I’ll kill you!” So he got him out from under the covers and sat him on his knee and cuddled him some, trying to take it all in and thanking God the kid was safe. Then he phoned the foster family. He knew they’d be worried, he said. At first they didn’t understand. Thought he was asleep upstairs, they said. They hadn’t even missed him. The jerks.
It was the next day before we all found out the details of Tommy’s adventure. Dad had pried it all out of him before and sat shaking his head while Tommy retold it to us. How he’d planned his escape right from the start. How he’d seen his chance when he’d been sent out to play with the other foster kids in a park two or three streets away. How he’d waited till they were all playing Hide and Seek and then sneaked off out of the park and retraced his steps. How he’d had trouble finding his way at first in the tangle of unfamiliar streets in the east end of Montreal, but had smelled the river and known he had to cross it to get home to the West Island. How he’d headed toward the salt-water smell and walked till he found the nearest bridge. How he’d hidden from police cars twice in case they spotted him and stopped to take him back to the foster home. How he’d once nearly accepted the offer of a ride from a man in a car who said he had a puppy at home and would Tommy like to go play with it. How at the last minute he’d remembered not to get in cars with strangers and dodged away, crossing two lanes of traffic to reach the other side of the road. How he’d hidden behind a dumpster for a while in case the man in the car doubled back to look for him. How he’d crept over the huge steel bridge in the dark, keeping to the bicycle path, and been so scared of the slap of the oily dark water far below him that he’d had to stop three times because his legs collapsed on him and refused to carry him forward. How, about halfway, he’d peed himself in fear when he’d thought he heard footsteps behind him, and how he’d run the rest of the way across and hidden in a ditch, pulling leaves and garbage over himself. How good he’d felt when at last he saw the signs to the highway that would bring him home. How he’d followed that highway, or the railway tracks beside it, all the way to Valois. How his feet had started to hurt and he’d taken off his shoes and tied the laces together to hang them round his neck, walking the last five or so miles barefoot. How excited he’d felt when he could see our house in the distance, and how he’d run the last hundred yards up to the door.
When I heard him tell the story I wanted to whack Tommy on the head for taking the risk, and hug him for his courage, in equal measure. I felt like shaking some sense into him for being such a daredevil, and carrying him on my shoulders for being such a hero. Jesus. Anything could have happened to him, and he must have known that, but he did it anyway. The nerve of the kid! You have to admire that kind of determination. I wonder if I’d have done the same at his age. I’d have wanted to, sure, but wanting’s not doing.
Well, it would be nice if I could say that Tommy’s trek home brought an end to our family’s problems, that Mom came back and was well from that day on, so we all got to stay together like a normal family. That we lived happily ever after, like in stories. But it didn’t happen that way.
Tommy’s adventure and how close we’d been to losing him did bring an end to foster care, though. After that we muddled on as best we could. Once in a while an aunt would turn up and help out for a week or two, but we were usually on our own.
Anyway, somehow we persuaded Social Services to leave us alone. To this day I don’t how, because once they get you on their list they’re pretty persistent. Maybe they lost our file. It might have been because Nina, the oldest in our family, looked more than thirteen when she used lipstick and put her hair up. Maybe she fooled them into thinking she was sixteen and capable of looking after the rest of us. Or maybe Dad managed to convince them that if we were all under the same roof things could be managed somehow. We hated being torn out of the house like Mom tore weeds from her flowerbeds. We hated being scattered, like dead leaves in a wind. If we were together, no matter how bad it got, at least we had each other. So we figured things would work out all right for us. And in a way they did. We were all getting older. That made things easier, I guess. The older ones minded the younger ones while Dad was at work or asleep. Joey and me got some yard work and odd jobs to do and we gave half of what we earned to him. My sisters babysat and turned over most of their earnings, too. We scraped along.
Mum always came home eventually, and sometimes she was there through several of our birthdays. But she always kept having to go away again. Dad worked his shifts plus overtime whenever it was available. He’d come home so exhausted that he could barely drag his bad leg after him, but he’d always come straight home to us, all these years. He grew old faster than he should have. It can’t have been easy for him, with a bunch of wild kids, and a mad wife.
Nina dropped out of school before she was fifteen, and I think Dad was kind of relieved, even though he put on a show of being disappointed and yelled at her for a while. But she’d never liked school anyway. Come to think of it, she’d always played truant nearly as often as my brothers and I did. So when she finally opted out and stayed at home it was kind of nice for us. For a while she did her best to keep us together. She really tried. She cooked and cleaned, made sure the young ones brushed their teeth, got them ready for school in the morning and looked after Annie at home. Her cooking was pretty bad, but we were hungry enough not to care. Her cleaning was worse than her cooking, but nobody died. She stuck it out for nearly three years, but finally she got sick of it all and ran off with some creep to play house with him. We’d hear from her from time to time, but she never came home again. Last I heard she was living on the other side of the country. She had a bunch of kids herself by then, but their dad was in and out of jail and she wasn’t coping with life too well. Sort of like our situation in reverse.
The rest of us kids? Well, somehow we all made it to adulthood. I’m not saying we all turned out well, or anything like that. But we survived.