“Billy Boy, it’s time to get up.”
Through a tired squint Billy found his grandmother’s kind face hovering over his bed. “Grandma, no! Too early,” he muttered, burying his head under blankets and pillows.
“Come on, Dear. You have to leave for school in thirty minutes.”
The only response to her pleading was an exaggerated sigh from beneath the sheets.
“I made you bannock.”
“We’ll put lots of jam on it for you.”
Her proposition elicited some movement from the small form hiding under the covers. She smiled and left the bedroom knowing that her grandson would present himself in the kitchen a few moments later. On cue, he moped across the linoleum floor and crawled into a chair at the dining table, weary-eyed from his disrupted sleep but happily anticipating the breakfast treat his grandmother promised. He curled up in his chair as she pulled a pan from the oven. The warm smell of fresh bannock filled the room and he was temporarily sedated by the rich scent, almost forgetting the dismal prospect of having to attend 4th grade Language Arts class later that morning.
“I don’t want to go to school today. Mrs. Hinton is going to make us write a book report.”
“That could be fun,” said his grandmother as she placed a square of bannock on the plate in front of him. The square was completely smothered in strawberry jam, just the way Billy liked it.
“No way! It’s boring! I wish we could play floor hockey in the gym all day.”
“I’m sure it’s okay,” offered his grandmother good-naturedly. She served herself a piece and sat down across from Billy.
“I didn’t like school much either when I was your age.”
“Really?” said Billy, his curiosity piqued. “Did you go to the same school as me, Grandma?”
“No, I went to Elkhorn School with my brother and sister.”
“It’s far, far from here.”
“That’s where you lived?”
“Yes, for some time. We left our parents to go there.”
Billy wore a puzzled expression. “Like how mom and dad went to visit Aunty Ethel this week and I get to stay with you?”
“Not really. My grandmother didn’t take care of us at Elkhorn.”
“Why did you go there?” he asked between mouthfuls of bannock. His grandmother reached for a napkin and licked it before wiping off a line of red jam smeared across his cheek.
“I was young like you. People from the church just took us there on a train one day. They ran the school. We didn’t have much choice in the matter.”
“Not fair! You shoulda ran away!”
She chuckled at the bold words of her young grandson. “Well, it was great at first. They gave us lots of milk and bread with jam. When we got there we slept in our own single beds – I never slept in my own bed before. For breakfast we had porridge and more bread with lard and jam. It was such a beautiful school.” She closed her eyes as the memories resurfaced and drifted through her mind like some long forgotten song.
“Grandma, what was your best subject?”
“We didn’t really have subjects. Three hours a day was all the schooling I got.”
“Really, that would be cool! We go way longer than that.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you were an old lady like me who can’t read or write too good. You get to read books and solve math problems. When I was in your grade, the teacher wrote something on the blackboard and we copied it in a scribbler.”
“That sounds too easy!” said Billy, shocked at what he was hearing.
“We didn’t learn much more than that. And we all had jobs to do. We got up early to make our beds. After school we had to make sure the staff bedrooms were perfect – we made their beds, dusted, and polished everything. I also worked in the staff dining room with my sister. We made all of their nice meals. At breakfast we had to cut up their oranges and grapefruit and sometimes we would lick them before serving them to the staff.”
“Ewwww!” cried Billy with a joyful grimace.
His grandmother gave a high pitched laugh that was cut short by her recollection of a sobering caveat. “If we ever got caught doing that, I might not be here today. Believe me.”
“What would’ve happened, Grandma?” asked a wide-eyed Billy.
“It would’ve been much worse than a lickin’! We wouldn’t be walking too good, that’s for sure. But probably something much worse.”
Billy gasped at the thought. “But what did you do for fun?”
“There wasn’t much time for fun. We had to work more than go to school.”
“You didn’t even have recess?”
“No recess. I got up at seven-thirty to finish the morning chores. Then I went to school from 9 o’clock to noon. After that I worked in the kitchen and laundry room. I had to iron all the staff uniforms and shirts. I darned all the socks. They said I was the best at that.”
“Darned? What’s that?” asked Billy.
“It’s a way to stitch up holes in socks. Back then I could fix socks better than they were before they had holes. And I could fix ’em faster than any seamstress I ever met.” Her face was flush with pride as she remembered the fleeting praise she received from her superiors.
“You fixed socks all day? That’s no fun.”
“You’re right. No fun at all. But there wasn’t much more at that school. I would’ve written a hundred book reports before making another bed, or cutting up another orange, or darning another sock.”
Billy examined his grandmother who suddenly looked so small and helpless. A twinge of guilt nipped at his stomach as he tried to think of something to shift the mood of the story. “You said the food was good, right?”
“When we first got there. But soon enough supper was four or five figs or prunes with bread and juice.”
“That’s it?!” said Billy incredulously, staring down at his empty plate sprinkled with the remnants of his delicious bannock breakfast.
“That’s it. Sometimes I think we looked after that school better than we were looked after.” She paused for a moment and shook her head before concluding, “There are some things that are better forgotten than remembered.”
A somber pall was cast by the lines on her aging face which bore the resemblance of a forlorn tree trunk, alone in the forest after enduring so many violent thunderstorms. Despite the occasional respite of a serenely sunny day, her time at Elkhorn had seemed like a never-ending tempest. She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes as she searched through the memories for something more – something to paint a brighter picture of her days at Elkhorn, perhaps a buoyant memory to compensate for the inanity and cruelty of that place.
“I remember me and my brother, Tommy, running through the fields that surrounded the school. We would hide in the tall grass that would tower over our heads before the fallow. Some days the sun made it hotter than an oven, but the breeze would keep us cool. When the wind bent the grass we crouched and crept around, pretending we were prairie dogs. We used to joke that one day we would find a secret path in those fields. If we followed it, the path would take us all the way home.” She wore a huge grin, fondly recalling their games of make-believe. There was comfort in the innocence and optimism of those childhood fantasies.
“He made me laugh, my brother Tommy. He would run away and call out, ‘Come over here, I think I found it! I found the secret path!’ And then I’d run around looking for him, trying to follow the sounds of him swishing against the grass. Then he would pop out of nowhere and yell ‘Boo!’ while he made a funny face at me. It made me scream and laugh every time.” She paused pensively and her smile broadened. “Tommy always promised that one day we’d find that path for real.”
“So did you find it?” Billy inquired hopefully.
Her smile slowly disappeared and she shook her head matter-of-factly. “No. We never found it, Dear.”
“So what happened, Grandma? When did you leave? And how did you get out?” Billy was completely engrossed, perched on the edge of his seat eagerly awaiting the resolution of his grandmother’s saga.
“We stayed there for three years. Would’ve been there longer if the Indian Agent from Peguis hadn’t shown up. He came to the school to check it out and the staff took him through the building. They tried to hide my brother and sister from him because they both had tuberculosis.”
“Toobercoolis? What’s that?”
“It’s a really bad cold that can kill you.”
“Holy moly!” cried Billy. He grew pale as he thought about such dire circumstances that seemed so foreign to him.
“And they probably would have died if the Agent hadn’t come along. Luckily he checked every room even though they tried to stop him and he found my brother and sister, sick-to-death in bed. So when the Agent got back to Peguis he told my dad to go get us. About a week later he showed up and took us home.”
“I bet you were glad to be home,” said Billy.
“Yes. Yes we were,” she replied solemnly. They sat in silence for several moments before she glanced over at the clock and noticed that they were running behind. “Quick Billy, go get changed and brush your teeth. You’re going to be late for school. I’ll pack your lunch.”
“Are you walking to school with me Grandma?”
“Yes Dear. I will meet you out front.”
Billy zipped out of the kitchen. His boundless energy echoed through the walls of the house in a cacophony of thumps and thuds. His grandmother smiled with amusement as she rose from the table and collected their two empty plates.
Five minutes later, Billy burst through the front door of his grandmother’s house, leaping off the top of the front steps with his arms spread open like a bird in flight. He crashed onto the yard a few feet below and tumbled across the grass, laughing. He collected himself from the ground and raced toward the sidewalk where his grandmother waited patiently. “I’m gonna be an airplane pilot!” he declared.
She nodded and gently took his hand as they began walking. Mere seconds had passed before Billy abruptly stopped and looked up at her, his eyes filled with uncertainty, “Or maybe I’ll be a fireman…Grandma, should I be a pilot or a fireman?” He stared up at his grandmother’s weathered old face, earnestly searching for her sage advice.
She looked down at his innocent gaze, pausing to give the question careful thought. She placed her hand on her grandson’s head, admiring the hope and endless possibilities of his youthful spirit. And with measured words she whispered, “You decide Billy Boy. Don’t let nobody choose for you.”
By Will Shead
About the story:
Growing up as a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy in Selkirk, Manitoba, I had fleeting connections with my First Nations heritage. My main link was through my paternal grandparents who regaled me with countless stories about their childhoods in Peguis and the Selkirk area. Sometimes these stories were charming and lighthearted, sometimes they were heartbreaking. My late grandfather, in particular, was never one to sugar-coat his narratives. My grandmother was somewhat more tactful when telling stories of her youth. Regardless of the content, they were both captivating storytellers.
In 2008, my grandmother, Ruth Melrose Shead (née Asham), was awarded a Common Experience Payment (CAP) based on her memory of attending residential school as a girl. She was a student at Elkhorn Residential School from 1924 to early 1926. In writing this story, I wanted to share some of her experiences at residential school. While the story provides factual details based on her CAP application, I chose to use a fictional context in which a boy learns about residential school from his grandmother. In doing so I aimed to capture my grandmother’s storytelling prowess while providing a brief snapshot of our grandmother-grandson relationship.