The Locket

March 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Childhood Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
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A revised version of “The Locket,” which was first published in Island Writer Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1, Summer 2010.

The heart-shaped locket lies in my hand, its chain dangling through my fingers.  Hidden in my jewellery box for years, its gold sheen tarnished with age, the locket must be packed or thrown away.

Moving is a time to sift through belongings and discard those no longer needed.  I received the locket as a gift sixty years ago.  Engraved with my initial, it opens to reveal storage space for two pictures, space never filled.  I cannot untie the rusted knots in its brass chain, knots made by my mother because the chain was too long for the neck of a five-year-old girl.

The locket escaped the discard pile in the past because it was my first piece of jewellery.  Once I thought it might be given to a daughter or granddaughter, but now I realize this trinket will never be handed down to another generation.

Should it be kept?  Does it still possess sentimental value?

***

Uncle Joe gave me the locket.  He wasn’t my real uncle, but a family friend given the honorific “uncle” because, as a child, I called all family friends “uncle” or “aunt.”

My other honorific uncles and aunts were Mom’s long-term acquaintances from Saskatchewan, where my parents lived until 1936, when they, along with thousands of other prairie residents, left the depression-poor province for work in British Columbia.  Uncle Joe became a family friend after he told my sociable father that he could not find a boarding place, housing being tight after the war ended.  Dad drove him home for a meal and my kind-hearted mother offered him accommodation as a boarder.

Our narrow 1½ story house was too small for a boarder.  The main floor held a kitchen, living room and bathroom, while a bedroom and open sleeping area were tucked under the second-floor eaves.  My parents slept in the bedroom and I slept in the upstairs open section.  Uncle Joe had only a fold-out bed in the living room.

When he first moved into our house, I enjoyed Uncle Joe’s attention.  My father, a construction foreman, worked long hours.  He left early in the morning and arrived home about eight in the evening, eating dinner while I got ready for bed.  In contrast, Uncle Joe worked in an office and arrived home at six to eat dinner with Mom and me.

After riding the Hastings streetcar to its last stop, Uncle Joe walked north to our home on Eton Street, stopping each day at a corner store to buy penny candy that he gave me as an after-dinner treat.  While Mom washed dishes and prepared dinner for Dad, Uncle Joe encouraged me to sit on his lap and describe my day’s activities.  At first, I responded to these friendly gestures, but soon began to reject him, giving monosyllable answers to his questions or not answering at all.  I started leaving the room when he entered and adamantly refused to sit on his lap.  I remember my mother saying, “He is so good to you.  Why aren’t you nicer to him?”

My parents related to Uncle Joe because they had been alone in a new province with no relatives or friends; they had been poor.  Generous people who liked to help others, they viewed Uncle Joe as a lonely man, a man who was good-hearted like them.

But I could see that Uncle Joe did not resemble my father.

Although only five eleven, my father dominated any room he inhabited, laughing, mingling, telling jokes, always good-natured, though his brow was furrowed with deep worry lines, his hands and face rough from working outdoors.  Dad’s life revolved around his job where his leadership elicited respect and loyalty.

Uncle Joe was almost as tall as my father, but seemed much smaller.  His pale face was unlined and his laughter unnaturally high.  Quiet in the company of men, he never talked about his job.  “He cozies up too much to Mom,” I remember thinking, because he seemed too eager to help, too anxious to please.  Today, at 65, I can still hear the nasal tone of his voice, not a flat prairie accent nor a lilting Maritimes one; maybe he came from Ontario.  Not a war veteran, he said little about his past; nor did he seek attention or cause trouble.

When Dad was home, I would sit on his lap as we read newspaper comics together.  Dad was an easy touch when asked for spare change from his pocket and, with his pennies, I could buy my own candy, walking four blocks to the corner store with children living nearby, picking out our favourite treats.  Mine were the marshmallow strawberries.

When not working, Dad’s main activities were drinking beer, socializing and listening to radio newscasts.  Self-educated, having completed only Grade 2, he was alert and intelligent even after a few beers.  When he was there, Uncle Joe didn’t ask me to sit on his lap.  My father was not naïve like my mother.

After living with us for two months, Uncle Joe left our home and our lives, saying that he found a more suitable boarding house.  The locket was a good-bye present.  A pleasant surprise, I wanted to wear it immediately.  Because the chain was too long, Mom opened the clasp and tied six knots before fastening the locket around my neck.  I wore it all day, then, as she helped me get ready for bed, Mom removed the locket from my neck and said, “Let’s save this until you get older so it won’t get lost.”  The locket disappeared into Mom’s treasure box and I never wore it again.

I met Uncle Joe once more, at age nine, when Mom talked me into visiting him and his new wife at their house in Central Burnaby after we had moved to the same area.  Uncle Joe’s new wife appeared at the door to greet us.  She was a plain, mousy woman about 50 years old, a former spinster who inherited the house.  We walked into the living room where Uncle Joe huddled in a large chair.  Although no more than 40, he looked older, his body shrivelled and face lined.  He asked me to sit beside him but I stood back.  Negative emotions surged over me.  At nine I could still access some memories from four years earlier.  Once I saw him, I realized that my earlier apprehensions about Uncle Joe had sexual overtones.

“He smells musty,” I remember thinking, an irrational observation, since I didn’t get close to him.  It must have been an emotional memory, verbalized using a five-year-old’s limited knowledge.

I wondered why he’d aged so rapidly and why his formerly smooth face was now covered with fine lines.

Wise beyond my years in understanding nuances of human interaction, I watched carefully.  Uncle Joe’s wife didn’t come near him.  I witnessed no attraction between them, no touching, none of the warmth usually associated with newlyweds.  Why did they marry?  She sat on a sofa, across the room from her husband; my mother joined her and I sat next to Mom.  I felt smug observing Uncle Joe alone in the corner, isolated from his wife, my mother and me.

Mom kept in touch with them for a while but I refused to visit again.  I never told my mother how I felt about Uncle Joe because I knew he never had touched my private parts, of that I was sure.  But although I couldn’t identify a specific experience, whatever he had done made me cringe.

A few months later we moved and Uncle Joe disappeared from my world.  Busy with new discoveries, I no longer thought about him.

***

I never thought much about the locket either, until now, holding it in my hand, debating whether to keep it.  With a flash, I gasp, “What an inappropriate present for a man to give a five-year-old girl!”

Memories flood back.  I remember how Uncle Joe regularly gave me candy, wanted me to sit on his lap and how I adamantly refused to do so.  I remember how he used to look at me, saying he “loved me.”  The heart-shaped locket was another way of saying “I love you.”

My parents warned me about “bad men” but they always assumed bad men would be strangers.  Now we know they are more likely to be family friends who draw victims into a web of secrets using presents and a “special friendship.”

Uncle Joe’s meekness deceived my mother.  But though only five, I instinctively rejected him.  I was lucky.  My parents provided a warm, loving home where I felt secure, received plenty of attention and was encouraged to be independent.  I was not easy prey for such men.

I glance once more at the tarnished locket, realizing the danger I narrowly escaped, then toss it away.

Shannon Moeser

Me about age 6 in front of our Eton Street home.


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