Approximately 13 years old
In the Time of the Mill Pond
White-blonde and tanned, a body like a boy, strong and able, peach fuzz arms and legs, I peddled my bike with the metallic blue fleck paint glinting in the summer sun, white grips on chrome replete with multi-coloured streamers framing the white plastic carrier basket that held my brown bag lunch.
I coasted through 1970s suburban Richmond Hill, through the tarmac playground of McKillop Elementary. I thumbed my nose at the Monday to Friday routine, fully ensconced in my Saturday freedom. I cruised down Lucas Street to Mill Street and all the way down to the Mill Pond where I'd lay on the grass in the mottled shade of the weeping willow to eat my peanut butter and jam sandwich and drink my Pop Shoppe Cherry Cola - a Saturday treat.
After lunch, I parked myself at the edge of the pond to watch the minnows and the sweet mallard ducks plopping into the pond after a waddle across the fresh, damp grass. On this day, a magical creature appeared on a log at the water's edge in the form of a painted turtle with his green and yellow striped skin and his exotic red and black patterned undershell. I immediately named him Eric; I don't remember why - probably a boy crush from camp. I found an empty Player's cigarette pack in which to transport him, figuring he would appreciate the nautical theme and brought him home in the basket of my CCM cruiser.
I had no idea where I would keep him and no idea what his basic needs were. Upon arriving home to our orange brick house with the green garage door, I parked my bike and my dad's green wheelbarrow caught my eye. I took Eric and the barrow around to the backyard to set up his new digs by the tap under the kitchen window. I knew Sara, my Siamese, would make short work of him if he were in the house and my mother would make short work of me if I brought him in. I created a rock island for him and filled the wheelbarrow sufficiently to offer a decent sized pool for my small friend. I went inside and pulled down the appropriate Encyclopedia Britannica to read up on his needs and diet. I was too young to fully comprehend that I had removed him from his natural environment and placed him in an entirely lonely and foreign land. I would come to understand this before too long. I kept him alive and treated him as well as one can treat a reptilian pet, until the big split.
I had to get rid of Eric when my parents finally announced they were getting a divorce. Don't feel bad for me, I was happy I wouldn't hear nor see them fight anymore. The damage to the house, to us, to them, might finally end.
My first unhappiness in this situation came when I realized my impending choices were:
A.) living with her
B.) living with him.
Where was C.)? I wanted my own place! I honestly believed that living on my own would be a better set up than with either of them. They seemed crazy with anger, disappointment and bitterness. I believed I disappointed them. I feared them. Their pain was palpable and somewhere in my thirteen year old being, I knew it wasn't going to be great, either way.
My second unhappiness came when I heard we would be moving into an apartment with my mother and that an apartment was no place for a turtle or "that damn cat". Eric went to live with a neighbour. I believe he lived a long life with a nice family. Looking back, I can't say he was happy but at least I know they took good care of him.
My third and ultimate unhappiness in this untying of my family came after my mother, brother and I had moved to our tenth floor, 3-bedroom apartment on Yonge Street in North York. I was over the moon excited when I found out that we could bring Sara to live with us in the apartment - much to my mother's chagrin. She said we were going to the mall to purchase a new dish set, where we would meet up with our father who had something to tell us. I couldn't wait to see him to tell him that Sara wouldn't have to stay in the offices of the family business anymore; she could come to live with me!
In the middle of Sears , I saw my dad and ran to tell him the news. He wasted no time in telling me how the secretary had taken Sara home from the office because she "thought the cat was crying". Sara suffered from weepy eyes. Maybe it was a Siamese thing. He told me how she had escaped from the secretary's house and how he had spent the last two days searching for her through the Richmond Hill countryside and how she had not turned up anywhere. I begged him to take me looking for her right then, to keep looking until we found her. She was my best friend and constant companion. She used to go for walks with me and lurk under the covers in my room when my mom came up to see if "that cat" was hiding there. Eric was awesome, for a turtle kind of pet, but Sara, Sara was the good thing in my life, the unconditional love we need from somewhere - particularly as a child. He said he was sorry but, no, she was just gone and that was that.
My heart truly broke for the first time in that moment. That was when I learned what it feels like to lose someone you love and who, you are certain, loves you. I had no power to change it, no power to take action, no power as a child, no one to talk to and nowhere to turn. Unconditional love was gone.
Insult to injury, my mother made me stay in that store, stay and help her pick out dishes. I stood there staring blankly at the Noritake plates she held up before me, fighting back the tears, while she told me to behave, to try to be civilized. I tried. I stood there, completely distraught, coming to pieces, feeling something die inside me while she compared dish patterns. I wanted to run, to go to find Sara myself, but I knew what it would cost me in trouble, knew what she would have done. I felt like a coward, abandoning Sara like that. I knew she would be looking for me and wondering where I had gone, why I had left her alone. I couldn't even tell her I was sorry. I hadn't even said goodbye.
I left a big piece of my childhood in the mall and came home with plates, bowls, cups and saucers. I closed myself in my room and prayed Sara would be found by people who would love her well, that she knew I had not abandoned her and I promised her I would never forget her. I never have. It was then that I closed myself off from my family in some ways and waited, day upon day, until I was free to go my own way.
-Gillian Cornwall, April 11, 2013.
I survived the abuse, the fighting, the new schools and the bullying of my childhood because I was lucky enough to access one amazing high school counsellor and a couple of good friends as a child.
It took some searching to find the supports I needed, both as a young person and as an adult. The cost has been high and more than financial. When I was a kid, it would have been great to have someone to call, anytime, for free, to have someone listen, tell me what I should do, tell me it would be okay.
I am strong from my journey but parts of me were stolen and they cannot be returned. The wounds have healed. The scars remain. It was a long journey to this place. It took strength and courage each step of the way to learn to love, to let go, to give without need and share the stories of the path I walked.
Help one another. Be kind. Give what you can freely give. Let us love one another well.
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