Sylvie, the only girl in a family of five, lives on a farm in rural Canada: “I never thought it was unfair, the way things were in our house. It was just the way it was. And for all I knew, it was the same everywhere. Always had been, always would be. Then, over the space of three days, I grew up.”
About the author
Budge Wilson (1927 - ) is a Canadian writer highly acclaimed for her young adult books. She was born in Nova Scotia but spent many years in Ontario before she decided to go back to her birthplace. When she picked up writing late in life, she could look back upon careers ranging from fitness instruction, commercial art, photography and teaching.
This is the title story from her collection The Leaving (1990). It is set somewhere in rural Canada in the 1960s and depicts a family run along unreflective and suppressive lines. In their crude and primitive way of life family communication is reduced to a shouting match among the menfolk and the women are humiliated into drudgery.
"The Leaving" as plain text
Sylvie: I grew up on a farm miles from anywhere. Nearest place was Harrison's Corner. And from there it was six miles to Annapolis, where Pa took Ma to do the shopping. Being the only girl in a family of five, I was closest to Ma. And for the same reason, she was closest to me. Not that I knew it then, before everything changed.
Ma was an endurer. Kept her mouth shut tight and endured what life threw at her. Mainly it threw trouble, in the shape of Pa and four boys. Boys who were men really.
Jem: I'll raise yer, Bernie.
Bernard: Ah c'mon on, you know I'm broke!
Jem: Broker still when yer see the cards I got here!
Bernard: I ain't got the money!
Jem: You didn't pay, I don't have to show.
Ma: Boys, I want that table.
Bernard: Show me, kid, or I'll…
Jem: Okay, okay…
Bernard: What! A lousy three of a kind!
Ma: I gotta lay for supper, boys.
Bernard: Give me my money back, Jem.
Jem: No, I won't…
Bernard: You're a little cheat…
Jem: I won it fair, didn't I, Daniel? Ira, didn't I?
Sylvie: Ma, d'you hear that?
Ma: Keep out of it, Sylvie.
Ma: You're a girl, you don't know ‘bout them things.
Bernard: Give me the money, Jem, or by god I'll…
Jem: Okay, okay, here it is. Never mind I won it fair. Brothers…
Ma: I'm ‘bout a dish up, Pa.
Pa: How many times do I have to tell you, table laid and supper on it when I walk in the door. – Well, answer me, woman, damn you!
Ma: I heard you, Pa.
Pa: I'm pressed fer time. Gotta deal to make.
Jem: About a glass of beer! (Sniggers)
Pa: Shut them damn kids, woman. What more do I have to…
Buckets are kicked over
Pa: And move them buckets. How many times do I have to say? Why are they always under the table? Hey woman, answer me that!
Ma: Boys, tuck in, it'll be gone cold.
Pa: Dammit, answer me, woman!
Ma: I won't put them there, Pa.
Pa: That all you kin say? Well you better not, or I'll take my belt to you, so help me. (Eats and spits out) This food ain't fit t'eat. Take it away! I'll get somethin' in town.
House door slams
Ma: Who wants this?
Jem/Bernard/Sylvie: Sure thing! On here, Ma! Me please, Ma.
Ma: Y'can have half each, boys.
Sylvie: Ma! I asked too!
Ma: An' I heard yer, Sylvie. There – Bernard. Jem.
SYLVIE: I never thought it was unfair, the way things were in our house. It was just the way it was. And for all I knew, it was the same everywhere. Always had been, always would be. Then, over the space of three days, I grew up. Or rather, Ma made me grow up. Just as she'd been growing, herself.
House and family at sleep at night.
SYLVIE: It was the middle of the night, cold and frosty. Spring should've come, but hadn't.
Ma's voice woke me up.
Ma: Sylvie. Get yer things on, Sylvie.
Sylvie: Wha…? It's too cold. (Wakes) Ma? Why y'got yer coat on? Where y'goin?
Ma: Away. And yer comin' too.
Ma: Just do as yer told and get yer things on.
Sylvie: Ma! Why me?
Ma: Ssshh! Because yer the smartest. And because yer a woman...
Sylvie: I'm not a woman. I'm only a girl, Ma!
Ma: So do as yer told.
Sylvie: Yes, Ma.
Ma: Pack a bag. Make sure an' put your toothbrush an' pyjamas in.
Sylvie: Where we goin'?
Ma: You'll find out soon enough.
Sylvie: Hey, can I wear my blue sweater?
Ma: Yeah, but keep quiet!
Sylvie: Yes, Ma. Ma, you alright?
Ma: Guess so.
Sylvie: Ma – you excited?
Door quietly closed
Sylvie: But are you?
Ma: Why, does it look like it?
Sylvie: Your eyes look excited. I think you are, Ma – ah! (Stumbles)
Ma: You look where yer goin', and have a bit less to say for yerself.
Sylvie: Yes. Ma. (Shivers)
Ma: Fergot yer hat?
Sylvie: Yes. Ma.
Ma: Here, have thissun.
Sylvie: But now you'll be cold.
Ma: Cain't get colder ‘an cold.
Sylvie: Ma, where're we going?
Ma: Annapolis. Maybe a bit further.
Sylvie: Why we leaving?
Ma: Oh, you do ask questions, child.
Sylvie: But why?
Ma: I plans to do some thinkin'.
Ma: That's what I said, Sylvie.
Ma: Yes, child!
Sylvie: How long we gonna be gone?
Ma: Dunno, Sylvie. Till it's time.
Sylvie: Ma, is all trains like this? The washroom's got its own dinky little sink. With taps, and real water comes out! And the toilet – you have to stand on a pedal to flush it!
Ma: Here, Sylvie, that's for you to read.
Sylvie: Ma – my all-time favorite comic!
Ma: An' if yer feelin' pckish, y'kin get stuck inter these.
Sylvie: Peanuts! A whole bag!
Ma: Fer th'trip. Mind missin' school?
Sylvie: No, Ma. – You said we was goin' to Annapolis. But now we's on a train to Halifax. Ma – what we doin'?
Ma: Scairt, Sylvie?
Sylvie: I just wanna know, Ma.
Ma: Told yer. I gotta think things thro'.
Sylvie: But why Halifax?
Ma: Why not?
Sylvie: Ma, where'd the money come from?
Ma: Don't ask. I'll tell you when yer eighteen.
Sylvie: Eighteen! But that's not for ever!
Hotel room, basin tap running
Sylvie: Ma! It's hot water! This hotel is amazin'.
Ma: It's sure not the best, Sylvie.
Sylvie: Well, I think it's the height of luxury!
Ma: Unpack yer bag, Sylvie. Put yer things in yer drawer, like I'm doin'.
Sylvie: Ma, that picture on the wall. Is that decent? She's showin' about all she's got.
Ma: I guess some folks like that kind of thing.
Sylvie: Do men sleep in this room?
Ma: It's a hotel, honey.
Sylvie: In my bed?
Ma: It's clean sheets, Sylvie.
Sylvie: It's noisy, and everyone's so big! Look, that candy store – there must be five million kinds of candy – and that's jus' in the window! And Ma! Is them diamonds and is that gold, all of it?
Ma: I don't suppose them's fake, not at them prices.
Sylvie: You could buy anything here.
Ma: If you had the money.
Sylvie: And them apartment blocks? How kin people live up there? I'd die of fright if I had to look out them windows. Must feel like you're flying! Ah! Heavy vehicle roars past
Ma: You look out when we gotta cross. I don't wanna lose yer yet!
Sylvie: Ma, is that the Atlantic Ocean? We done that in school. Is Europe over there?
Ma: I guess. You learnt more in school ‘n I ever did. I can't hardly read, Sylvie.
Sylvie: Jus' think. Those ships, they could be goin' to Africa, to India, even the Pacific! Thanks for bringin' me here, Ma.
Ma: Gets yer thinkin', don' it? I bin thinkin', Sylvie. Thinkin' a lot…I – Sylvie, y'ain't listenin'.
Sylvie: What, Ma?
Ma: Sylvie…what's on yer mind now?
Sylvie: Nothin' much, Ma. Jus' wondering…
Ma: Well, don't spend too long on it. We'll catch our death in this wind.
Sylvie: Pa, and the boys…How they gonna cook? Who's gonna make their beds now we've gone? Who's gonna fetch the eggs, an' the mail, an' the water, an' the wood, an' the groceries? An' who's gonna mend their socks, bandage up their cuts? Who's gonna do all that if we're not there? – Hey, Ma, wait!
Ma: Sun's out. You'd think spring had come.
Sylvie: Guess what I just seen! Over by the lake. This man an' this girl, an' he'd got his arm round her waist, an' he kissed her.
Right where everyone could see!
Ma: Well, you mind nobody catches you starin' at'em. Rude to stare.
Sylvie: Have you noticed? Everyone looks so happy. Why's that, Ma?
Ma: Dunno. Weather does things t'people. And maybe some of ‘em's free.
Sylvie: Wow! Bigger'n the school library.
Ma: Sh, Sylvie.
Sylvie: I didn't know there could be so many books! They all different?
Ma: Guess so.
Sylvie: I wish I had more books to read. Reckon I've read every single book at school.
Ma: You always was bright.
Sylvie: Pity you can't read, Ma.
Ma: What yer mean, Sylvie? I kin read.
Sylvie: You – you don't even read recipes. You keep ‘em all in yer head.
Ma: Just look here. (Searches) Now I just saw it on one of these shelves, where that kind lady pointed us…Here it is. (Pulls out a book) There. You read that?
Sylvie: (Reads) The Feminine Mystique. Never heard of it.
Ma: Thought not. See, Sylvie, even if y'leaves school in Grade 5, y'kin read. Y'reads slow, but y'knows how.
Sylvie: But you can't have come here! Where'd you get it?
Ma: It came as a surprise – best surprise I ever had. Y'remember that day the Salvation Army lady brought us that big box of clothes.
Sylvie: Yeah, Pa was real mad.
Ma: Said we didn't need charity, didn't he? But I hid the box, and after a little time, he'd forgotten. Well, there was other things in there beside clothes. An egg-beater, some toys what I gave to Lizzie's kids, even a string o'yellow beads and a bracelet that I been savin' fer you. And some books. There was comic books and that big colourin' book y'got for Christmas, and them Popular Mechanics magazines the boys read, and a coupla others. And this. Seemed like it was for me, special. So I read it. She was real tough goin', but I read every word. Took me nearly a year. Finished it last Thursday.
Sylvie: You read it?
Ma: I read it. Every word.
Sylvie: Was it good?
Ma: Good? No, not ‘zactly. Troublin'. Yeah, she's a real troublin' book. But she was good too.
Sylvie: Uh? If it was so troublin', why was it so good?
Ma: Found I weren't alone. This book says 'zactly my thoughts.‘Cept I don't know the words. An' she does.
Sylvie: I liked it in the library.
Ma: You like books.
Sylvie: I liked the way all those people…jus' readin', you know. Not making no noise, nor nothin'!
Ma: If yer as smart as the teacher says
y'are, maybe you'll come here some day.
Ma: Not jus' Halifax. Here. See?
Ma: Read the board.
Sylvie: Dal…Dalhouse. Dalhousie University. What's that?
Ma: The smartest kids come here, when they've finished High School.
Sylvie: Ma, how could I come to a fancy place like this. We can't even afford to have runnin' water.
Ma: They's ways.
Ma: Time we got something in our bellies. We're going to one of them fancy restaurants and have ourselves a real good blowout.
Sylvie: Yeah? Kin I have hot-dog and chips? That's my all-time favorite!
Ma: Sure. An' I'm going to have one o' those dishes with a fancy French name.
Sylvie: No, Ma. We ain't got no money.
Ma: Sylvie, I ain't gonna come all this way and spend all the egg money jest t'
eat what I kin eat at home!
Sylvie: Ma, yer didn't!
Ma: Didn't what?
Sylvie: Take the egg money! Pa'll…
Ma: Who raises them hens, Sylvie? Feeds ‘em, sees to ‘em, eh?
Sylvie: But Ma, spendin' the egg money! On a hotel! An' the train, and a restaurant…!
Ma: Anyways, tomorrow we go home.
Sylvie: Because why?
Ma: It's time. If it's alright by you?
Sylvie: Yeah. Have yer done yer thinkin'?
Ma: I has.
SYLVIE: We caught the bus back to Annapolis, we'd been away three days, and it was late afternoon as we climbed the six miles up to our farm in the mountains. Nothing had changed – the rusty cars, the broken tools, the rough heaps of firewood, the peeling paint. As we got close, we were very quiet and I knew Ma was nervous. Her lips were shut tight and her eyes were troubled. But her shoulders were straight and firm, and there was a difference in her, a new strength.
Bernard: Now this is somethin'. Fellas, I'll raise yer, there!
Jem: Nah, don't push it, I'm stickin' with yer…
Pa: (Drinking) Take it easy, Ira, and you Dan – (Breaks off as he sees Ma)
Bernard/Jem: (Fall silent)
Ma: I'm back.
Pa: Ah. (Slowly getting to his feet) Were you bin, woman?
Ma: I bin away. I ‘ad ter go.
Pa: And now yer back.
Ma: Yeah, I'm back.
Pa: And little Sylvie, too.
Pa: Then how come my supper's not on the table? Eh? Move smart, woman, I pressed fer time.
Ma: You is right ter be angry, Lester.
Pa: I is…
Ma: I left a note for y', but I shoulda tole y' before I left.
Pa: Shut yer mouth, woman, and git my supper!
Ma: My name – my name is Elizabeth.
Pa: (laughs) My name is Elizabeth! My…name is…Elizabeth! – Git over there an' make my supper, woman! I'm gonna milk them cows. But my belly is right empty, and y'better be ready when I gets back from my chores!
Ma: I hears y', Lester.
Ma: Act smart there, Sylvie, I needs yer help bad.
Ma: You clean up, an' I'll fix supper.
Sylvie: But Ma, look at it all! They's used just about every dish we got!
Sylvie: An' left all the dirty ole cans…
Sylvie: No, Ma. Look at it. How come they couldna washed the dishes themselves? How come we gotta clean up their mess?
Ma: (Preparing food) Listen. The way I sees it is, y' kin ask fer kindness and politeness from time t' time. But y' can't expect no miracles. It's my own fault fer raisin' four little boys like they was men. Yer Pa's ma did the same thing. She aimed t' raise a boy who was strong an' brave with no soft edges. All along I bin blamin' men for bein' men. But now I see that often times it's the women that makes ‘em that way. The boys is seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and twenty years old. Y' can't start makin' em diff'rent now. They's set. Boys – I apologize to your future wives.
Ma: Bernard. Ira. Daniel. Jem. I loves yer all regardless.
Bernard/Jem: (Cough of embarrassment)
Ma: Dunno, Sylvie, maybe it's worth a try. I know it's s'posed to be woman's work, but…Jem!
Jem: Yes, Ma?
Ma: Jem, I'd be right grateful if you'd fetch some water for Sylvie. She's real tired after the long walk.
Ira: (Begins to snigger)
Bernard: Shut it, Ira!
Ma: Thank you, Bernard. I'm not in a mood fer sniggerin'. Jem?
Jem: Going, Ma.
Sylvie: (Starting to move) I'll…
Ma: No, yer won't Sylvie. Yer tired. Glad you understands, boys. I thank you all. Right kindly.
Sylvie: You could say, I suppose, that our leaving made no large difference to my mother's life. She still worked without pay or praise and was often spoken to as though she were without worth or attraction. But nothing was said about the egg money. And not all things remained the same. Her old paralyzing fear was gone, and she began to speak with remarkable force and dignity. But she did not nag. Instead when she chose to object to Pa's cruel or unfair behaviour, her speech was like a knife with a polished edge. This weapon, better than any other, made him realize she could leave again real easy.
So there were changes. One day he started to call her Elizabeth. She showed no surprise, but on the supper table that night was a lemon pie.
She fixed up the attic as a workroom. Ma made curtains and a little rug for the floor. It became her own place, her escape.
As for me, I did get to Dalhousie University. When I was home last February during the term break, I stole a look into Ma's attic room. There were library books and papers piled on the floor, material on the sewing machine. I respected her privacy and did not go in. But the room, even in the cold of winter, looked inviting.
Ma's fifty-five now, and Pa's fifty-eight. Often, nowadays, he speaks to my mother as though she were more of a person and less of a thing. Sometime he says thank you. It's not a lot, but my mam is tough and patient and it seems enough for her. She wears a pretty yellow blouse now, her hair's less severe, and she smiles more. And she's teaching her two grandsons how to wash dishes and how to make cookies.