A couple of years ago I posted on a stellar memoir: The Queen of Peace Room, by Magie Dominic.
Just to give you an idea of the breadth of Magie's intelligence, heart, and experience, here's an interview, with Open Book Ontario, called "On Writing."
From their website: "Magie Dominic is a Newfoundland writer and artist living in New York. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications and her art has been exhibited in Toronto and New York. Magie's first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, was shortlisted for the Canadian Women’s Studies Award, ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award and the Judy Grahn Award...
Today, Magie speaks with Open Book about returning to her early days in Newfoundland, the importance of speaking your story and riding in a VW bus with Allen Ginsberg."
Magie has been gracious enough to share the opening pages of Street Angel with us.
I'm almost afraid to read the rest of the book--I mean that, of course, as a compliment.
SATURDAY Day One
It’s 1956. “Tennessee Waltz” on the radio in the kitchen. Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe. The Russians are sending dogs into space and the dogs have spacesuits and helmets. Ed Sullivan and the show of shows. The Honeymooners on Saturday night. Pat Boone and Nat King Cole. Food rationing has ended in England. Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan. Elvis Presley appears on TV but we’re not allowed to look at his legs. Polio shots in the school auditorium.
It’s the summer between grade six and grade seven. I’m eleven years old. A June Saturday afternoon and I’m in my father’s blue Chevrolet, on a Newfoundland section of the Trans-Canada Highway, on my way to the home of my father’s brother and his wife and their two boys.
My father has heavy snow chains attached to the car’s back bumper and the car drags them like the silver tail of a dragon—a dragon travelling at a moderate speed through occasional clouds of dust. Dragging chains from the back of a car prevents anyone in the car from having a sudden attack of car sickness. That’s the theory. The technique has never worked for me, but my father attaches the chains every time we go on a trip just in case this is the day that the technique may actually work. My father is always prepared. A look in front is better than two behind. My father also has a fully equipped glove compartment. Along with Band-Aids, flashlights, work gloves, and maps, there’s a bottle opener for sodas along the way. The glove compartment also has a supply of brochures—my father is a travelling paint salesman—and cards with all the amazing names for a single colour. Strips of cardboard with shades of white—Bone White, Glossy White, Matte White, Natural Ivory, Medium Ivory, Pure White, Pearl White, Off- White, White. My father is prepared for a sale right in the middle of the Trans-Canada Highway as it cuts through forest.
My mother is in the front seat. When she was young she was breathtakingly beautiful. I’ve seen her in black-and-white photographs. Loved to go skating with friends—a graceful figure sailing on ice. She imagined herself a movie star. She smiled often when she was young. Her face is round like a moon and her skin is soft from sweet Jergens lotion. Thick, dark-brown hair. Average height, but she has an air of tallness. Fair Scottish skin. Greenish eyes like a cat. She wears lipstick the colour of pomegranate—Fire Engine Red. If the Chinese Communists ever come to our door to take us away, my mother will greet them in Fire Engine Red. She looks into mirrors as if she’s expecting something to happen—a stranger’s face to appear in the glass. Another person—someone she wants to scare or control. Then she does a last-minute flick of her hair, freshens her lipstick, and goes off into town, a whiff of Tweed perfume trailing behind. A part of her lingers. A part of her always remains.
I’m in the back with a small bag. My suitcase is in the trunk next to the spare tire, crowbar, jumper cables, boxes of cookies, and samples of candy. My father is also a travelling confectionery salesman.
I want to be somewhere else for a while—even just for a few days. Away from the madness of home and the nuns. But I’m not sure what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. I’ll be staying with my uncle and aunt for nine days, to take care of the two boys—one aged three, the other aged two. They’re both plump and lively, and I’m told that they’re both good as gold. Got the faces and eyes of angels.
What am I afraid of? I ask myself. It’s the unknown. I’ll be in charge of two children’s lives and I’ve never been in charge of anything in the entire eleven years of my life. Maybe it’s anxiety more than actual fear.
Fear—real, honest-to-God debilitating fear—is an affliction. My mother has the affliction. She lives in absolute fear. Of getting sick, of having an accident, of sounds in the night. She has a debilitating fear of the night. Night is the pinnacle of her affliction. She envisions long, creeping shadows of monsters. She fears a bogeyman under her bed except there is no bogeyman under her bed. She’s obsessed with a fear of cancer. My birthday is in July—I’m a Cancer. But my mother maintains that she’s the Cancer even though she’s a Leo. Fear plays a major part in everything she does. She fears the colour green. That fear has its roots in the Newfoundland fairies. Unlike fairies with magic wands, Newfoundland fairies can cause bodily harm. According to legend, they appeared after the great battle between Lucifer and the archangel Michael.
There were angels in Newfoundland who remained neutral during the battle. When the fighting was over, they were forbidden from heaven because they hadn’t supported Michael, but they couldn’t be banished to hell because they hadn’t supported Lucifer. So they were forced to remain in Newfoundland and can work both evil and good.
They’re called The Little People and they live at the edges of towns, in the woods. The only way to protect against their evil is to carry bread—fairy buns—when going into the woods, and to avoid the colour green. Many believe the bank crash of 1894 was caused because Newfoundland issued a green postage stamp that year.
My mother never wears green and neither do I, nor does my father. There are no green curtains, linens, or dishes. Nothing green enters the house except plants.
My mother fears going hungry. She fears not being smart enough or liked enough or pretty. When she has enough money, she makes a concoction with eggs and lets it harden on her face like a mask. If I come home after school and she’s still wearing the mask, I can’t ask a question because if she speaks, the mask will crack and the eggs will be wasted. She fears not being strong enough. My mother has so many fears that they’ve all collided and it’s made her crazy.
When my parents were dating, both of their families—the Presbyterian Scots and the Lebanese Catholics—disapproved of their relationship, but primarily the Scots, and to such an extent that my mother had to leave home and move to a rooming house until she and my father were married. All because my father was Lebanese. In pictures he looks like a handsome movie star, but my mother was banished by her own family for wanting to marry him. Romeo and Juliet. My father and my mother. The Lebanese side of the family softened, but the Scots never did. Parts of the Scottish side of the family never entered our house, never walked through the gate. Every time they’re invited, they’re sick with the flu. If the Lebanese would keep to themselves that would be best for all concerned— that was the feeling among some in my mother’s family.
My parents were married in 1943. Non-Catholic partners in marriage have to swear that they’ll raise their children in the Catholic faith and not in whatever their own religion might happen to be. That’s the rule and everyone, including my mother, abides by it.
In 1943, Newfoundland was recovering from the poverty of the Great Depression, and its economic collapse was tragic. The main export was fish, and the prices for fish plunged. Malnutrition was widespread. People relied on the help of family and friends, but in most cases, one family was as destitute as another. It drove some people insane. I’m told there was no meat in the stores on the day I was born. I’m also told I was born close to midnight—almost the next day.
The year of my birth was 1944. Germany had surrendered Paris, the Soviets had declared war on Bulgaria, the Newfoundland Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery landed in Normandy, Mount Vesuvius had erupted in Italy, and the top song was Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star.” The world was filled with madness, sadness, and fear. World war, a second time. American bases in Newfoundland and U-boat threats offshore. Ads with soldiers selling toothpaste and Coke. Hitler.
The SS Caribou, the Newfoundland ferry boat, torpedoed by German submarines off the Newfoundland coast—137 passengers perished. Mussolini. Detention camps. Concentration camps. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. More than 50 million people are killed worldwide—half of them civilians. Machine guns. Fighter bombers. Light bombers. Heavy bombers. Gasoline restrictions. Abbott and Costello. “White Christmas.” Rationed food.
And somewhere in here I was at home and helping with the housework. I was polishing a wooden coffee table—had my own dusting rag and polishing wax. I’m four years old and polish the table until it’s glowing— until I can see my own round face in the wood. Then I climb up and stand on top of the oily surface and start to polish the window, slide off the table, onto the floor, and knock myself completely unconscious. I was told I was out for a very long time. I don’t know if it was seconds or months. No one defined it.