Five weeks for fluids to seep from ruptured flesh, to creep and flow across the floor, into clothing, under and around accumulated trash. Five weeks for the few warm days of a Manitoba spring to puree the rot into the air, overwhelming the tiny shack, and leaking into the atmosphere outside the door. But it was the flies that, with their disgusting buzzing, allowed for sufficient distraction from the spectacle in front of me. Tens of thousands of flies had not yet left the remains of their buffet, even though their table of rotting flesh had been cleared on order of the RCMP and the medical examiner’s office. In places, forty millimeters of dead flies mashed into a brown soup that had been Garry, on May 8. It was June 23, and I was left to deal with the aftermath of the way he had lived.
He was far from the first family member to die. Now, of six in the immediate family, only two remained. And we had mastered the art of early death, it seemed, in our extended family. I do not know if the dying was hard for the relatives, but it appeared to have come too easy for the deceased. It had almost no meaning. Cleaning up afterward was just another one of those jobs. So when would I mourn him? Or would I?
I had no tears available for private or public display. Still, he was my brother. I had no despondency. I just had a mess to clean up, and accounts of his to settle. I was okay with that. At that exact moment, there were no other urgent demands on my time.
I photographed his meager cabin, making sure that the accumulations of liquefied innards, stains from dead flesh and my brother’s scalp received their share of image-taking. It was not my most pleasant of tasks. But I still had no flowery phrases to describe death. No gruesome ones, either. It seemed that it was all about me – about “I” – instead of Garry’s corpse.
Two weeks later, as we gathered up the trash of his possessions and arranged for a skid steer to bulldoze the home in which he had lived for the past sixty-two years, I stopped, stood back, and examined the rubble.
“So this is how one eradicates a life,” I thought to myself. “A few black garbage bags, a few signatures to close out the estate, and a life lived for seven decades disappears.”
It was as close, then, as I had managed to get to describing death. Yet, looking back on the life he had squandered, and, truthfully, the lives that the rest of us had done equally well at frittering away, I saw, clearly, the exact phrase for how we had misused the days we had been granted. Oddly, the phrase could be applied more appropriately to the close friends and relatives of the deceased, than about the corpse that they celebrate.
“What we have lost,” I thought. It was our own doing.
The early summer sun shone and sweltered, but the world did not erupt in blossom or crumble into dust. Emerging from the womb was neither poetic nor horrendous. It was just another event. He was, of course, not the first, nor would he be the last. He was just one, and who can say if he felt the insignificance. He certainly was not talking.
He had been beaten to first seventeen months earlier by a sister who relinquished centre stage to no one. Garry was okay with that. He preferred to remain obscure, unnoticed. It should have been a perfect fit, except Garry did not seem to fit anywhere.
He never did do much talking. Reticent. Sullen. Withdrawn. Give him a label, but don’t talk about him or let him be seen. He preferred it.
1946, like this newborn, was not a momentous year, other than that it was a year after the end of the Great War. May, 1945, to be precise, if you were from Canada or Great Britain. September, 1945 if you were an American or a Canadian fighting the Japanese. Garry James Lee was Canadian. His mother was a Canadian who refused to acknowledge that she had been born in the USA, and who nearly had lost a brother in the Hong Kong prisoner-of-war camps. Oddly, it seemed, her son was conceived in October, 1945, shortly after her brother returned, battered, from his interment in Japan and her husband returned from Montreal, where he had been an RCAF radio instructor. Had it been a celebratory event with her husband? By May, 1946, the event obviously had become mundane, as had the experience of being a mother. Garry entered the world second, and immediately was channeled into the rut often reserved for latecomers in the family. He was merely another for her, with the duties that being a mother entailed.
“Here I sit amongst the vapour, took a crap but got no paper. There’s the bugle. I must not linger. With hopes to heaven, here goes my finger.”
Jim Lee was a veteran, but a veteran that had never served overseas, yet had absorbed much of the rough humour that a band of brothers fomented.
For some veterans, returning home from the war meant opportunity and exuberance. History would reveal that, for the next decade and a half, Canada experienced unprecedented growth, leading into the age of suburbia in the 1960s. History also failed to consider that the economic growth was not the growth of individuals, and individual families, but the general, cumulative trend. Ann, Judy and now, Garry, were individuals in an individual family. The trend that other veterans may have experienced was not so kind to them, through their father and husband, James.
“I had the prettiest little pink and white baby girl,” her mother would write of Judy in her journal, a year and a half before Garry entered the world. “He wasn’t as good a baby as Judy, but is improving as time goes on,” Ann would enter in the clinical chronicle that passed as her diary, shortly after her son’s birth. Emotion seldom clouded her recorded personal thoughts. The dullness with which she described the period echoed the lethargy in which they found themselves, economically.
Garry soon was enveloped in the same grey routine that coloured the family life. Born into poverty, deprived of a closeness that the young crave, he was not unique, nor forgotten. He merely was absorbed into the life, as water into a gravel pit. Life went on, and now he was a part of it.
When the war ended and soldiers dispersed back to their homes, Ann and Jim moved into a two-room house down the road from Jim’s parents, built by Jim’s father during the prior autumn. It was not yet finished, and, with the wicked winds of that first October, Jim, Ann and baby Judy suffered from the cold. The work-in-progress house seemed to be the harbinger of things to come, with Jim’s life being a series of uncompleted undertakings founded on good intentions.
Ann would write of her husband’s missteps and misfortunes, in the early years, with a sense of sympathy and understanding, but lack of acceptance. “After a great deal of persuading, Jim managed to get a loan of $400 from the bank, so we really start the year off nicely in debt.” And later in 1948, she would write, “To top it all, he’s only drawing $15.00 a week for wages. We sure aren’t spending like we did when Jim was in the air force.” Once supportive, Ann’s words allowed a sense of skepticism to creep into her thoughts.
As cold as it had been during the winter prior to Garry’s birth, the last half of the month of May and the first part of June, after May 26, were unseasonably hot. Doubtless, that oppressive heat contributed to the stress of caring for a newborn. But financially, the world was passing the young family by, with many veterans engaged in growth and new ventures, successfully. Ann’s husband, meanwhile, had the cloud of misfortune hanging above him, or the aura of misjudgment. With money worries occupying Ann’s thoughts, unbearable weather and a character that was less than optimistic in nature, the two youngsters’ mother faced a tough future.
Garry may have started off as a difficult child, compared to the first one, or the circumstances into which he was born could have coloured his mother’s perception of him. As the years passed, Ann Lee would envelope herself more and more in tending to her flower gardens, nursing sickly plants to health and coaxing reluctant flowers to flourish in soil that most hardy herbs would have rejected as unsuitably poor. Yet, her children were a different matter. They were destined always to grow in poor soil, and she made sure that they became hardened to its severity. And to hers. Garry accommodated her, passively accepting that he should expect little from his tiny world, after he had exhausted himself in his first months in an attempt to defy his pre-determined path.
Soon, Garry was the child who listened, Judy was the one who rebelled. And rebellion was a dirty word, so long as it was used to describe the reactions of people to Ann. Resistance, though, was the epitome of character, where it applied to defying the world around her and her responses to it.
Jim, meanwhile, seemed to have restless feet. In one of his early “love letters” to his fiancée, in 1942, he had written, almost apologetically, almost proudly about his wandering ways of the prior two decades. It was, Ann insisted, the Gypsy in him.
The two-room house into which the relative newlyweds had moved in 1945 failed to meet the family’s needs, and another room or two was needed and planned. However, being situated on rental land, the house needed to become a home, if it were to be appropriate for the nesting needs of Garry and Judy’s mother. Jim, agreeing with his wife, also wanted something more. So, while Jim planned to add two rooms to the house, he also planned another future for them. They were less plans than they were poorly formulated dreams.
A dream the two shared was to start their own farm. On rented land, they raised a couple of cows, planted potatoes and grain. One cow had difficulties giving birth to a calf and nearly died, then developed milk fever. The vet bills were high. The second cow went dry. They sold it at a loss. Their experience with the cows and the farm was a metaphor for their experience as a family. The crops were disastrous. The farm failed, and Jim and Ann had to find other income.
Two attempts at starting a radio repair business failed, the first abandoned mere months before the opportunity arose for Jim to partner with another fellow who had radio technician training acquired during the War, like Lee. After having lost a few hundred dollars on his first failed venture and taking a paid job in a shop, James had tired of working for someone else. The $700 needed for his share of the business was vital to his future, and, against advice, he borrowed from family, sold assets, and took out a loan. Still, he came up short. Eventually, he simply owed a debt to his partner. But that shop, too, failed, and new employment was needed. He sold his share back to his partner for $120. Jim then tried his hand at the sidewalk business, but cement materials were in short supply. Now, he hired on as a shipper, but left soon after, when he felt that advancement was not occurring quickly enough.
But they had debts.
With Garry and Judy, the couple needed not only a new home but also a new job opportunity. Jim turned to becoming an electrician. After all, it was not that distant from being a radio technician. And to provide for a fresh start, the family sold everything and moved west, 90 miles, from Winnipeg to Katrime, a tiny hamlet of under fifty people. Their least expensive housing option was a farmhouse several miles out of town, with no electricity, on a road that was less than a trail in summer, impassable in winter. Rent was a meager $8.00 per month, but they could not even afford that paltry sum. Another disastrous choice meant no job opportunities, no income, and no transportation. They were broke, and in debt. The family was forced to move to Ann’s brother’s house, when her sibling returned to Winnipeg in 1950.
In one of her last diary entries before she abandoned the journaling efforts, Ann wrote, “We’ve made plenty of mistakes, but it seems as if our biggest one was to move out here. All our money was eaten up.” It was the last time she referred to the problems made as “our mistakes.” Thereafter, the blame lay elsewhere. Every penny of the eight dollars that she received from the government as baby bonus for each child went into their sustenance lifestyle.
In this bleak environment, there was little time to devote to the frivolity of emotion. Like little machines, the children were taught to read, taught to be self-sufficient, taught to be tough. They were hard lessons for pliable toddlers and pre-schoolers, but, if her offspring were to survive, they needed to be ready.
Whereas Ann had hoped for a good life while Jim was in Montreal, she now realized that the good life, for her, was illusory. Jim had earned well during the war, once he had been promoted to Sergeant and had become a radio operator instructor. A woman who eschewed violence, for the most part, she had become accustomed to the benefits provided by war. Now, Jim’s penchant for changing jobs rapidly had led them into poverty beyond to what she had been accustomed during the 1930s. With her priority being re-oriented toward mere survival, putting food on the table, a roof over her children’s heads and clothes on their backs, she had fallen from a desire to improve their social wellbeing to looking after their safety and physical needs.
Her natural inclination was to close herself off from the world, to be less vulnerable. As far back as 1942, during their courtship, Jim had recognized this penchant in her.
“You make it sound in your letter as though you had no human emotion. I know different. It’s just that you are holding yourself back so much,” he wrote to her.
However, Jim, like Ann, was becoming disillusioned. His disheartenment, though, came from the feeling that his wife no longer supported his random ambitions. He had written letters to his fiancée during their wartime courtship, talking about how happy he was that his bride-to-be supported his dreams.
“You’re the first girl that ever really had enough confidence in me to tell me that I could amount to something. I was going to study tonight, but somehow I lack the ambition.”
Jim Lee, it seemed, needed the approval of others to reinforce his belief in himself. He was like a mirror reflecting others’ views and opinions. In many of the letters they exchanged, the couple fought. After a discouraging letter from home, he would receive an uplifting one.
“Your letter arrived yesterday and now I feel like a world champ. That’s not spelled with a “u” either.”
Then, Ann would write him expressing her negative view, or would seem to be depressed.
“When I first met you, I had the impression that you enjoyed life. I knew from the first time you were moody and you were quiet in a darn nice way. Sweetheart I don’t want to make your life miserable,” Jim would write.
That would be followed by another positive missive from Ann. And, after that, it seemed, a criticism. Ann Lee had difficulty being optimistic, but she did not lack drive.
“One thing I had always counted on was your interest in what I was doing.”
Now, in 1951, Ann Lee no longer believed in her husband. Instead of soldiering on, motivated by his belief in himself, Jim lost all drive to succeed.
The next year, 1951, they toughed it out in Katrime, and Judy began home school in Grade 1. Garry needed to learn how to be alone while his mother worked with Judy. It would prove to be his favourite lesson.
But, with no work coming in, Jim needed to start again. This time, Woodlands, a slightly larger hamlet just 40 miles from Winnipeg. Again, he would seek work as an electrician, even though his penchant for changing careers was far from finished. But Ann had endured enough.
“This is our last damned move.” She insisted, and she enforced it. It was Ann’s first major step toward taking control of her life, as much as she was able in the social hierarchy of the era. The family would not move again, and when Jim, in a weaker moment or two, broached the topic in later years, she more than emphatically repeated her ultimatum. Jim, as much a physically tough guy as any, was far from tough enough to deal with her.
Woodlands remained her home, and two of her children’s home, as well. With Garry just starting school in the autumn of 1952, the chance to be part of the bigger world should have meant a new break at normalcy, a chance to make friends and play with children his own age and a chance to see another side of life. He had, to this point, spent two years in isolation in Katrime, two years largely ignored as his mother futilely attempted to assist Jim in their struggles, and a year as the child who was not as good a baby as his older sister was. “Home,” in Woodlands, would mean something less than comforting, yet a sanctum for Garry for the rest of his life.