Here's the prologue to a book I'm working on - it's an expansion of a comic strip series
I did, combining prose with the original strips. Anyway, it'll hopefully be in stores by the fall.
This American Drive
When I was 12, my family moved across Canada.
My parent's childhoods were separated by two hundred kilometres and 15 years. Both were Nova Scotians, though - Mom grew up in the west end of Halifax, Dad in Rockwellian Kentville. When they married, they bungeed their lives to the roof of a VW bug, and bounded off to British Columbia. They landed in North Vancouver (where I was born) and over twenty years they accumulated six kids, four pets, and two careers. Any monotony was handled by periodically packing up the snowballing pile of people and stuff and moving a few miles south. An apartment in Vancouver, to a duplex in Burnaby, to Newton (in both a townhouse and a split-level) to Cloverdale. Always renting, never buying.
I hear my friends talk about growing up in one house, their childhood home, where their parents still live. They stay in their old rooms at Christmas, they climb into their old tree forts or find toys they'd long forgotten. I've always tried to imagine what that must be like. To have a basement or an attic filled with forgotten boxes, time capsules containing my drawings of a frighteningly over-muscled He-Man or my fully illustrated re-creation of "The Cat in the Hat" or my superhero alter-ego's costume (The Silver Streak, by all appearances a muffin-haired ten-year-old with a black sweatsuit and an aluminum-foil mask, was a faster-than-lightning evil-puncher who didn't know the meaning of the word shame). Purging was our family pastime - we would shed layer upon layer of space-wasting clutter with every move. As an adult, I notice how similar my life is now - I don't have a family of my own, but I move around quite a bit, shedding bits of my past as I go. It's a strange thing, going through a box and determining whether the item in it has spent it's sentimental currency.
In Cloverdale, after renting their last house, my parents decided that it might be time to settle down, what with all the children and the marriage and everything. In 1986, they bought a nice bungalow and hunkered in for the rest of their lives. The house was modest but perfectly suitable for us, and the neighborhood was pleasant. I made friends - real friends! That I could maybe keep for a while and not move away from! We started to get comfortable. However, and I'm sure you knew this, things did not go at all perfectly, as they often don't.
Both of my parents worked full-time. Mom worked in Vancouver, first at Burlington Carpets, then for Rowntree Canada (before it was taken over by Nestle's). Yes, mom worked for a candy factory. Well, in administration, anyway. And before you say "Oh, you lucky kid, you must have gotten all the chocolate you wanted", let me tell you - yes, we did. Maybe not all we wanted, but man, Mom would come home arms laden sometimes. I remember going to visit her at her office, and her very nice boss, Geoff, asked me if I wanted some candy. I looked over to my mom like, "He's not that bad kind of stranger, right? This is cool? Candy?" and she nodded her consent. Geoff, that great guy, opened the door to what looked like a supply closet. To my widened eyes, it was like Wonkaland in microcosm - a walk-in room absolutely packed with every kind of brand-name sweet imaginable. I felt like crying. During my mom's time there, I developed a refined palate - Big Turk was a delicate experience, not appreciated by the no-taste creeps I shared a classroom with. Aero was fine, if you like that sort of thing, but Mirage took the idea of bubbled chocolate to an entirely new level. My mom's job, as you can imagine, was not something I kept from my fellow fifth-graders, and soon I was getting invited to parties as "the one who will bring the candy". Popularity, I determined, was only as potent as your friend's desire for Smarties.
Dad had supported us for years before that, working at a sign-painting shop in New Westminster. He is an artist, one that I hold in the highest esteem, and he hand-lettered signs five days a week for fifteen years. In 1987, at 55, he came down with a severe case of pneumonia that knocked him out for months. When he came out of it, he had decided to retire - the days in the studio amidst paint fumes and chemicals were doing his health no favours, and with four children at home, one fully into adolescence and two more on the way, he figured he was needed there. The financial responsibility shifted almost entirely to Mom, while Dad had the new and very important role of househusband, as some of their friends called him. The first few years of Dad's cooking did not do us any permanent damage, and the experience allowed us to get to know who this guy was during the day.
In the summer of 1989, our family increased by two. My older brother and sister had been adopted, a fact my parents had always been very open, loving and straightforward about. They had two siblings, also from the same mother, that had been born years after Joseph and Sarah were adopted by Mom and Dad. Their birth mother was in no shape to look after them, and their grandmother, whom we had been very close with, couldn't bear the responsibility of two young children at her age. So my parents made the decision to have them come live with us. They were folded into our family very quickly.
When gangs started moving into the Lower Mainland in the late eighties, one group tried to recruit my 16-year-old brother (I, at 12, pictured a booth at the school job fair), and Mom and Dad had had enough. The cost of living in B.C. was climbing, and with eight people to support on a single income, it became increasingly difficult for our family to get by. They packed up their small army and shuttled us back across the country to the motherland. Left behind was more "clutter", as well as our friends and our pets (who, as far as I want to know, are still alive and happy, so don't ruin it for me).
The changing economy did have a positive effect for us, however - the housing market was such that my parents received twice what they had paid for the house only three years earlier. Flush with this parting gift, they thought that just FLYING the family across the country would be boring. Instead, they hitched our late-70's Travelaire trailer onto the back of the station wagon and told us that we were DRIVING to our new home.
Eight people, in a Cutlass Ciera? Across Canada? In December? we asked.
Who said anything about Canada? they answered.
Thus began a three-week family road trip along the southern United States. Enter in Washington, drive along the edge, pop back out in New York. Easy as apple pie. I spent New Year's Day in 1990 facing out of the back of the car, watching the redwoods that lined the road retreat into clouds on a mountain in Northern California. We went to Disneyland for two days, a very smart move on my parent's behalf. It gave us a memory to overshadow the time in Florida when my older brother and my Dad nearly came to blows, which ended with my enraged father walking out of the trailer and disappearing for hours. Or when we were arbitrarily threatened with a shotgun at a campground in Louisiana (by the owner, no less). Or the time that my brother was cornered in a camp laundry room in Texas by an older man with an eye on him (luckily, that was a busy laundry room and my brother was able to escape when someone came in). Campgrounds are a bit of a gamble, I guess is my point.
I got used to American money, and snack foods, and accents. I look back on the whole trip with the same affection I had for Disneyland - it wasn't always Space Mountain, but I ate some good food and saw some crazy characters and we fought about where to go and Mom would sometimes sit a ride out. It was a memory that my parents gave me that's exists all on it's own - a three-week-long trip that has had no comparison before or since. So in 2006, when my girlfriend Jodi asked me if I would like to drive from Halifax to her native Texas for Christmas, I immediately flashed back to that trip I had taken seventeen years previous. I was ready to do it again, this time without my family. As an adult.
Though I would like to hit Disneyland again soon.