Little Comrades - Geist description

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Laurie Lewis remembers a childhood of  RCMP interrogations, covert meetings with parents-in-hiding and lots and lots of pudding. This is an excerpt from her memoir Little Comrades.

When there was a meeting or when our parents talked about someone who wasn’t there, they’d say Comrade Paul or Comrade Ted, so that it was clear they were talking about the person’s political identity. My father was Comrade Lawrence and my mother was Comrade Ellen.

When it was time for my parents to go underground, Andy and I were sent to the home of Mrs Sketchley, across the street from a large open park or woodland, up a hill about three blocks from a streetcar line. Ellen had asked a druggist on the other side of the park if he knew anyone who took in boarders and didn’t mind children. That’s how she got Mrs Sketchley’s name. Ellen’s success in getting this information from someone who didn’t know who she was convinced her that she had left no trail. It wasn’t a boarding house, Mrs Sketchley just took in lodgers occasionally to make a little money. She wasn’t a comrade so we always called her by her formal lady’s name; so did Ellen.

My mother explained everything to us. The RCMP was looking for my father, so he had to hide, and she had to hide so that they couldn’t make her tell where he was or put her in jail, and we kids had to not know anything so that we couldn’t tell anything. We had to be very grown up and responsible, she said, and behave ourselves. That was the best thing we could do for the Party in these difficult times. She took us to Mrs Sketchley’s on the streetcar and then went away and we didn’t know when we would see her again.

Mrs Sketchley liked children, she said, and had a grown-up daughter of her own who came to visit sometimes. Her husband was dead, I think. She took in boarders in her spare room, so Andy had that room and I slept in the bed with her. That was not something I liked. She was very fat and I’d never shared a bed with a big person before, only occasionally slept in a bed with my mother, who was very small and thin. I was very small and thin too and I was afraid Mrs Sketchley would roll over and squash me. She liked puddings and said she was really glad to have someone who appreciated them the way she did. Sometimes she made small pancakes for a special Sunday tea, little flat golden ones about three inches across and sprinkled with sugar. I never had so much pudding in my life.

Across the street at the edge of the hill was a dug-out cave where Andy helped me make a house. We dug ledges for us to sit on and dug niches into the dirt wall, like shelves to put things on. I put up pieces of broken dishes, or I picked some flowers and put them in a medicine bottle, and we made books out of folded-up school paper and put them on the shelves. Andy wrote messages in the books in a secret code he made up, in case anybody found them. It was like our own underground, where we could share our parents’ lives, the spiders and centipedes, the damp and fragrant earth, even though we didn’t know where they were. That was a good discovery, the cave. It made the unknown underground less frightening.

In the spring there were flowers that came up all over the hillside, crocuses, purple and yellow like the ones in Vancouver. Here in Calgary they were covered with a soft white fuzz, like a fur coat to keep them warm in the cold Alberta spring.

When we were at Mrs Sketchley’s I met the RCMP in person at last. I had heard about them for years, just listening to my parents talk, listening to the comrades. Andy and I were playing on the street outside the house and the two men came up to us, one talking to Andy, the other to me. I knew right away they were RCMP. It was almost as if my mother was right there warning me. It was just like she said, they wore careful suits with shirts and ties like men did when they were dressed up for not going to work. They wore hats and had shiny shoes. They were not ‘working men’, I could see that. The one who talked to me was tall and thin; everything about him was thin, a long thin nose, a thin moustache over a thin mouth. And a thin blue tie. When he was talking to me he bent over but I couldn’t really see his face then. He was the size of a real person and I was just a little girl looking his tie in the face.

He asked me where my father was and I told him ‘I don’t know’ because I didn’t, but I knew I mustn’t tell him anyway. And my mother, where was my mother, he asked, and it was the same answer for the same reason. But the next question was trouble. I knew as soon as he said it. ‘When did you last see your mother?’ I didn’t know how to answer it, since I had seen her just three or four days before, when we had a secret meeting on the streetcar at the bottom of the hill.

Mrs Sketchley took us down the hill that day but she didn’t say what for. ‘It’s a surprise,’ she said. And we waited at the streetcar stop. She told us then, ‘Your mother will be on the streetcar. You have to be very good and not call attention to yourselves. Just get on and walk to the back as if you see her every day.’ One streetcar came along and she said, ‘No, not that one,’ and then another, and I saw she was looking at the last window when it stopped. A long red streetcar with the electric pole reaching up to the cable line overhead.

‘This one,’ she said and she put streetcar tickets into our hands and pushed us up the steps. We were very quiet and good, like we knew how to be, and walked right to the back of the car. Andy led the way and I don’t think anyone noticed us at all. We were just ordinary kids. We sat with our mother and talked. She said she missed us very much and asked us about school and how we were and that sort of thing. I didn’t tell her about getting Ds at school, I was too ashamed. I sat on one side of her and Andy sat on the other side and we talked together all the way out to the end of the line. The streetcar turned around and we went back along the same street. Then my mother said we would have to get out at the next stop and Mrs Sketchley would be there to meet us. She told me, ‘Now don’t cry! You mustn’t make a scene or I won’t be able to meet you this way again. The RCMP is still looking for us.’

Andy and I got off the streetcar when it stopped and there was Mrs Sketchley. I ran to her and tried to stretch my arms around her big body. She hugged me, but it was no good, I really needed to cry.

So now there was the RCMP tall guy right in front of me asking me when was the last time I saw my mother and I couldn’t tell him, but I knew he’d keep on asking me, and I was scared. I might tell on my mother by accident, I might become a stoolie by accident. I knew I had to stop him from asking me again. I looked at his face up there above the tie and I started to cry. ‘I want my mother.’ I let my emotions loose and sobbed at him, ‘I want my mother, I want my mother.’

He started to back away from me. I could see he didn’t know what to do with a crying girl. So I just kept crying, not little sniffly sounds like I usually make, but big strong noisy crying. I just opened the gates to hysteria. I could see Andy out of the corner of my eye wondering what was going on. He’d never seen me do anything like that before. And then he started being a kid too. ‘You leave her alone, you big bully.’ Ten years old and he started pounding my tall guy’s chest. ‘You leave my sister alone.’

The two guys left. ‘Okay, kids, forget it, just forget it, okay?’ they said.

Andy and I stood close together and I kept on gulping and wailing while we watched them walk down the hill, talking, looking back at us. When they were out of sight, Andy and I looked at each other and sort of smiled. He put his arm across my shoulder.

‘Good going, comrade,’ he told me.

‘You too, comrade,’ I told him back.

Read Patty Osborne's review of Little Comrades, published in Geist 88.