My Butterfly Year

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Corrienne Heinemann

Unable to find employment my Dad reenlisted in the army and for the first time we left the safety of Grammy’s house in Eastern Canada for northern Ontario. I call it my butterfly year, but not because a beautiful creature emerged from a cocoon that year. At age six I held the world by the tail. I thought I knew everything. I oozed confidence. But events that took place that year caused my world to implode. I became quiet and shy. I crossed my arms, hugging myself to the point where adults asked me, “Are you cold?” My self-esteem plummeted and that lasted well into adulthood.

My father moved all of our furniture in a muddy dump truck he borrowed. Then he came back for us and we drove to Ontario in an old station wagon that we named Blue Bell. In 1954 Hurricane Hazel made her debut. Blue Bell became famous as the last vehicle to go across the Humber Bridge before the bridge collapsed, an auspicious and frightening start to our time away from our little hill.

In Ontario Dad trained as a paramedic at Fort Churchill. I felt proud of having a father who jumped out of airplanes to help wounded soldiers, but my Mum worried constantly. We lived in one half of a farmhouse on a tobacco farm. Back in Eastern Canada, Grampy died that winter at the age of eighty-six.  There wasn’t enough money for my Mum to go home for his funeral. No one talked to me about his death. Looking back as an adult, I realize that my Mum experienced significant depression that year. She’d left the only home she’d ever known, her adored father had died, and now she gave birth to a baby boy with one arm smaller than the other. Also, Dad’s drinking increased.

In the summer of that year, my dad was driving somewhere in Blue Bell, our station wagon.  My two-year-old sister was in the car with him.  Another driver came around a bend on the wrong side of the road and crashed into them head on. My sister wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and she hit the dashboard. Mum and dad took turns sitting with her throughout the night, waking her up periodically. No one talked to me, and I was afraid she was going to die. She survived, but later she drank fuel oil from a drip pan behind our stove and had to be hospitalized.

I craved attention. I faked an ear infection once, and Dad drove me to a doctor thirty miles away. I bullied a girl into saying my dress was prettier than hers, and Mom caught me at it, and she spanked me. Most of the time Mum wasn’t present in our world but lost in her own world of sadness. My father’s drinking increased; he spoke too loudly and laughed in a different way. It made me a little afraid of him. That same year, the tobacco farmer slaughtered one of his pigs. Mum kept me in the house but the amount of blood spread across white snow the next day horrified me so much I couldn’t breathe.

Later in the spring as I played in my sandbox, a Monarch butterfly landed on my sand-encrusted finger. At first I felt pure joy at possessing this wonderful creature, but then I saw it’s black clutching legs around my finger and it terrified me. I screamed and shook it off my finger. A psychiatrist would have a field day with that moment.

Dad brought home a stray dog that year. We named him Prince, but Dad called him Heinz 57. Prince didn’t feel like my dog. I had grown up with Shammy, our cocker spaniel, but he lived back home with Grammy. When the time came for us to move back to Grammy’s, my parents didn’t think it was a good idea to bring Prince along. Prince went to live in a trailer park with a young soldier.

Before we left Ontario my dad introduced me to child labor. The school system gave children three weeks off to pick potatoes. Kids followed the potato-digging machine and picked up the smaller potatoes that fell through the machine’s claws. The growers paid fifty cents a barrel. I lasted less than one day. I didn’t even fill a barrel, and I came home with my hands bleeding.

Mum told Dad, “Don, she’s too young to be out in a field picking potatoes.” But Dad said, “She’s never too young to learn the value of a dollar.” Not ready to give up, Dad took me to a chicken farm. Baby chicks covered the floor of the barn, thousands of them, an ebbing and flowing sea of yellow. At first, it seemed too wonderful to comprehend, all those darling bobbing baby chicks, a golden peeping mass. I just knew Dad would let me take some home, there were so many.

Cardboard walls about a foot high formed corrals, separating the chicks into batches. Circular heat lamps hung like wagon wheels above them. The chicks crowded together under the lights for warmth. The foreman knelt down and explained to me, “The chicks in the middle get squashed and they can’t breath. You have nice small feet and I want you to keep them flat on the floor and wade carefully into the middle.” He demonstrated sliding along the floor.

“You need to push the chicks in the middle out to the sides kind of like swimming with your hands. Like this,” He demonstrated the breaststroke. “You need to pick up the dead chicks and put them in this bucket.” He handed me a small galvanized bucket, “When it’s full, you dump them in that big can over there.” That was it for me; I clung to my Dad and told him, “I want to go home.”

Dad said, “Oh come on, give it a try, you can do it.”

I started to cry, and buried my face in his shirt, “Please don’t make me. I want to go home.” Dad was embarrassed. He peeled me off his shirt, and we made our goodbyes and headed home. We stopped for ice cream on the way.

Later that same farmer gave Dad a couple of live chickens, probably some of those baby chicks grown up. Dad, with ax in hand, intended to chop their heads off. Mum brought me into the house. I had a torrent of questions, “Is dad slitting their throats? I won’t eat them. How do you get the feathers off? Will he cut off their feet? I’m not eating them.”

Mum ignored my questions. She walked away, saying, “Well, I’m not plucking them.”

Soon Dad appeared in the doorway. “Get Prince,” he told Mum. “The chickens ran off.”

I held Prince by his collar. “I can help Prince find the chickens.”  I thought an adventure was afoot. But Dad shook his head.

“Dad, please let me help, please, please, please.”

Dad, still shaking his head, said, “No, honey, they ran off without their heads.” Dad thought that was pretty funny. Life again seemed overwhelming for a seven-year-old, who went from the horror of picking up dead baby chicks to chickens running around without their heads. I crossed my arms, stamped my feet and launched into a screaming temper tantrum. Mum walked away and left me on the floor screaming, and Dad went back outside with Prince to find the headless chickens. When Dad and Prince returned, a few feathers floated in with them. Still sobbing, I told Dad,  “I want to go to Grammy’s. I want to go home.”

When I think of all the things that happened that year, I realize it’s no wonder I wanted to go to the safety of our little hill, back home to Grammy’s house.

Corrienne Heinemann grew up in Ketepec, a village on the Saint John River in New Brunswick, Canada. She attended UC Berkeley graduating with an MSW. She has lived in the Bahamas and Kazakhstan. She now lives with her husband in Danville, California. They have two adult children and a rescue dog, Lucy, from Kazakhstan.

Copyright 2019 Corrienne Heinemann. All rights reserved.

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