Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Beginning - by Leida Finlayson

You may not know it, but I walk among you. I conceal my origins in wool suits, and make-up. My blow-dried hair, and patent leather shoes hide any sort of barefoot background. But my heritage is authentic. I am the child of hippies.

Gone are the horrible undershirts, and embarrassing rubber boots. Banished is the algae covered whale skull on the porch, and herringbone star on the Christmas tree. And composting... well, that story just won't end.

When I started this project Dad said to me, "But, Leida, Mum and I weren't really hippies," and I suppose they weren't - not in the free-loving, drug-smoking, hard-core cave-dwelling kind of way. They were, and still are, more of the low-key, steady-as-she-goes consistent hippies. But in Newfoundland a little hippy goes a long way…and the picture of a poncho swaddled me under a peace sign topped Christmas tree speaks for itself.

Aside from that one baggy there weren't drugs around, although cigarette smokers butted out in scallop shells. , and Jennifer and Mum have smoked.

Mum and Dad met in a bar at McGill in March, 1968. She was coming from a protest, he beginning a weekend of partying. Three weeks later Dad moved in.

They did eventually get married, something for which my prissy self has always been extremely grateful. As I understand it, Mum and Dad were standing at a cross-walk in 1969 when Mum proposed the idea. She once told me it was so both of them would be invited to family parties.

They had one the first civil weddings in Quebec, timing it in December for tax reasons. Mum wore a green velour mini dress and although I'm only three inches taller it would be indecent on me. Dad donned a sports coat he still wears. As the car had broken down they took the subway to the ceremony, and forewent their trip to Quebec City, opting for a honeymoon at the movies. A reception was held in January where the "cool" aunts with their smoked up upstairs. I have a hard time picturing that knowing them as Lithuyanian accent 80 and 90 year olds. Anyway, this certainly ain't the white wedding I'd have, but I like the story.

With their tax refund Mum and Dad came to Newfoundland for the summer of 1970. Dad needed a place to study, and a ship's captain had told him the island was "God's country." They returned "for a year" in the fall of '72, ten months after I was born in Ontario. They didn't have a plan but thought they'd go back to land - which was cheap, so they bought a house and three acres in Woody Point on the province's west coast.

Although probably at the height of hippiedom in those years, I can report little of family life because like most people my early childhood memory fails me. My dad had lobster traps one year, cut his own wood. Because fresh milk wasn't available, I drank a combination of Carnation evaporated milk (which I still love), and powdered skim milk (which I abhor). All of this typical for rural Newfoundlanders, but different for a young family from Montreal.

I do remember one little baggy of leaves passed around the living room on a sunny afternoon. I do know that's the period Mum started weaving in earnest and attended her first craft fair.

Home economics were maintained by Dad's occasional contracts up North, family allowance cheques, three large gardens, and samples from a cousin's clothing company. Work wasn't always steady, however, and my parents started to want things like swimming lessons for me and my sister who was born in 1974. Two days after Christmas '76 we moved to St. John's.

As we got to the city in December it was months before a compost heap could be built. So greatly did it pain my mother to throw out good compost that that winter she filled empty milk cartons with banana peels and apple cores, stapled them shut and stacked them in the freezer until spring.

We sat on large salt beef buckets instead of chairs.

Most of my thoughts on growing up hippy, or Newfoundland hippy, are about embarrassment, about wanting to be something I wasn't, wanting my family to be something they weren't. Sometimes I wanted a behavioural change, sometimes a material one. The later seems pretty shallow, but is probably quite normal for a kid - even for an adult. Regardless, both mattered to me, and, I'm sure, shaped who I am today.

It was about grade three when I started to notice we were different. At the time the Newfoundland education system was denominational. I was going to a Catholic school then so being kept out of religious events was a good first indicator (half Jewish, half United, all agnostic upbringing) - along with the grey barley soup, and egg salad sandwiches Dad would pack in lunches when Mum was away. No blue cans of traditional Newfoundland Vienna sausages for me.

However, elementary school - Protestant by then - is what really nailed it for me. By grade four I was definitely different, and that time it was hard. My name was different. I was dressed differently - no fru-fru lace outfits, or dress shoes for me. Mum with her big curly hair, and wool sweaters and Dad with his shoulder-length hair and beard looked different. I still didn’t fit into the religion thing. I didn't make many friends, and I was just plain nerdy (more than once I got caught reading in class, God-forbid). And on-top of all this was a layer of "come-from-awayedness." I was not a born and breed Newfoundlander, I didn't have the accent, or ever go "around the bay," eat Sunday diner that included carrot and turnip mashed together, and I had an Oma and an Opa and Grandma but no Nan or Pop.

And all I wanted was to be normal. I wanted sliced white bread! I wanted fuzzy wallpaper upstairs, and carpet on the basement walls! I wanted my mother to wear make-up and join the PTA. I wanted American cars, trips to Florida, and family friends with short-hair. I wanted church!

I wanted a cabin not a sailboat, and I didn't want family friends who fed you gritty soya burgers, or had hair in pony tails.

I didn't get any of that. What I got was teased.

Appearances, particularly clothes have never been important to my mother. Sure, she likes to look nice, but isn't interested in the effort it takes. Odd, I always thought, because she has such nice taste in art. I'm sure I wear make-up, and tidy clothes in response.

Mum and Dad were part of what was called in St. John's the "rubber boot crowd," or at least they were on the periphery. These were artsy/hippy "townies" that wore rubber boots for convenience, not occupation. Mum still tells of how at 12 I wouldn't walk beside her on Water Street because she was wearing boots. (Bad enough she wore them, but it was a sunny day too!) I'm ashamed of myself now. Unless they're extremely elegant, I still hate rubber boots - particularly red-toed ones. I feel the same way about Birkenstocks. Shoes. Hippies wore different shoes - brown lace-up loafer. Their kids wore "sensible" ones with t-straps. And Birkenstocks - somewhere in a fishing stage or under a tarp I remember first seeing Birkenstocks. For years I thought they were as ugly as rubber boots. They only pass for acceptable since I went to university.

So early memories:

Whales and weaving - can anything be more hippy?

There are a lot of whales in my early memories. There were whales in the bay on my first day of school in Woody Point. Our first winter in St. John's we drove __ hours to see whales trapped in the ice in Springdale - and illicitly cooked chilli on hot-plates in hotel rooms. Dad did some whale research and one summer we joined him camping under tarps and studying a tethered whale. Mum wove them into tapestries. One spring she counted seals in St. Pierre and gave whale ear bones she'd found to family in Montreal - I wonder what they thought. We saw lot's of live ones and one dead one.

The whale that was the bane of my existence, however, was the mortifying green skull that sat on the porch. The other day Mum told me someone had borrowed it. "You mean you're going to get it back?" I asked.

By elementary school Mum was weaving quite seriously and attending craft fairs two or three times a year. Initially just in St. John's, but then Halifax, Toronto, and Ottawa. She was really good at what she did and won awards. At the time it was a little unusual that my Mum worked - even if her studio with her large and noisy loom in the basement. I'll always feel a bond with a kids that grew up at craft fairs - the pre-fair stress in the house (especially at Christmas), their memories of production - in our case the smell of dying wool and mohair strands in the butter, the excitement of setting up and taking down and fooling around with other kids you only saw at fairs, getting into the act ourselves with kids booths. Once again, there was a discomfort I always felt when the more "society" mothers and daughters came through. There was something too exposed, sort of poor, about sitting in your Mum's booth as the world walked by. Of course, I know now their compliments were genuine, they really did admire my mother's talent.

There were tents and tarps, and wood stoves - common with family friends but not with school ones. Instead of wresting frozen logs from the pile in the backyard, other kids got to turn up the thermostat and eat breakfast on warm chairs.

Being raised by hippies meant political awareness. It meant discussing the news at supper, and watching televised leadership conventions all day long - sometimes with treats - like dry roasted peanuts if Gramma was in town! Yipee! Mostly my parents were voters, and grumblers but not activists, although I do remember Mum taking us to a peace march in the early eighties. Family friends were more the button wearing, protesting types, but by grade three I knew Nestle was bad and there was somewhere in Africa were minority whites controlled things and majority blacks did not. I, however, have been more politically involved than my parents- as a student, columnist, campaign volunteer, and with aspirations of my own. In grade six I dressed for career day as Canada's first female prime minister. Whether this interest comes from my hippy background, is intrinsic, or inherited from my grandmother who might have run in different times, I don't know.

No cable and black and white t.v. until 1985. Man, I still can't name the Brady Bunch, or Scooby-Doo's gang. Even in grade one I knew I was missing out on something when I didn't understand the boys and their Empire Strikes Back toys. No soap operas or game shows - unless you could convince Mum it was almost over and you were waiting for the next show. Anything sexual on t.v. was met with, "Do you have any questions girls?" God, just let us learn this on the street!

Without a doubt the best thing to happen to me in my school years was French Immersion. When I joined it in junior high it was still a small program in the city, and attracted and selected kids whose parents cared about education, and who in many cases were as hippy, or nerdy, or just plain "from away" as me. By no means did I become a popular kid in that class, but suddenly I wasn't the only one with a name that wasn't Murphy of Campbell. Shopping at the health food store was de rigour, and there was nothing wrong with reading books - in fact I quickly fell behind in that department. Lot's of kids didn't have a religion or had one they didn't practice - although being half Jewish was still kind of unusual. We told ourselves being called weird was normal and truly believed we were more intelligent than English stream kids.

It was a God-send to find these peers, and according to my Dad I became a happier child. Even I knew it. Of course there were still moments that felt particularly embarrassingly hippy - like the 1969 Volkswagon van we got from my grandparents. At one point the hand brake had gone and in hilly St. John's that could be a problem. Mum took to carrying a large rock with her that she'd wedge under a front tire when she parked and pop out again when it was time to go.

We drove that camper to Expo '86. An excellent trip - educational, fun… again with embarrassing moments - camping farmers fields, picnicing in parking lots - things no teenager likes - they really just want to go to restaurants like normal people. When I worked with a youth group I made my participants do it and many hated it. I still find it weird not to - i.e., last trip to PEI.

From there much of the story starts to get diluted. The eighties brought societal changes, hippies were fading, and as a teenager independence was growing for me every year.

It would be wrong to think my parents were neo-luddites. In addition to an early home computer eventually they came to own a dish-washer and micro-wave. For a while we even had cable.

For all their hard-work in giving us healthy food, and good experience there is were Mum and Dad really excelled in a way I think both Jennifer and I recognized early on. We had the freedom to make our own decisions. To travel by ourselves early on. To choose our own career paths.

How has this affected who I am today? Gloria Steinam once said women had “become the men they wanted to marry.” For a time I was well on track to becoming the parents I wanted to have. I think the best thing a child of hippies can do to rebel, next to joining the armed forces, is to wear fru-fru clothes, become a Girl Guide leader, and sing in a church choir. Check, check, and check. Now I never hid the fact that I could make granola from a family recipe, and occasionally voted NDP, but always thought I’d be part of the establishment - carry a briefcase, sit at boardroom tables, wear a matching suit, but that is having less and less appeal.

Like my peers, I have a fairly normal job, most of the children of hippies I know do - a few are in the not-for-profit sector, and a few in academics, as you would expect, but some are in high-tech, and even manufacturing. We work, we vote, we watch the news, we even consume modesty, but I’ll tell you a secret...I believe our hippiness is latent - revealing itself in minute ways, but ever more often, and more obviously.

A friend once commented on a matching china set inherited from an aunt. She said it wasn't very Finlayson - but it is me.

Sometimes we just want to make jam.

Hmm, but like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton, in family ties wasn't that far off the mark. At the end of the day, the bred in the bone values come home to roost.

And compost, man. I do love the stuff. I love to look at it, pleasure in creating it, and don't mind spreading it. I've even tried vermiculture. Yup, it too pains me to toss out and apple core, but last night. That's May 26th, my dad christened the new compost grinder. He'd spent all week building and painting a frame for the meat grinder cum compost grinder taken from my grandmother's estate (she was laughing at us, not with us, I am sure). The grinder still needs work - seems the grapefruit seeped out the wrong end, and for the record, cold porridge looks exactly the same pre and post grinding.

Yes, it affects my views and choices today. I'm left. Tax me to death - I don't care, but don't take away my…

More hippy then their parents - an allergy to saran wrap.

I wear make-up with guilt and derive some guilty pleasure in eating a chocolate bar. I don't want big, or a lot, and it isn't my style to want too much job security (although I do think about retirement).

And funny things still happen - when I discover how hippy I am. I only recently realized that most people my age did not grow up with breast feeding in plan sight. Not me man, my Mum's friends just undid their blouses whereever they were.

The other things that happened last summer is sitting around telling a story about when we moved in the winter and didn't get a fridge right way but stored our food in the back porch. There was sort of stunned silence and another child of hippies said, "Ya, that makes sense." I had thought my experience was pretty normal.

Carob, granola, horrible soya burgers - I still think a heavenly lunch is a grilled cheese sandwich made with Kraft slices and white bread with butterscotch pudding for desert. Tang.

University - tried really hard to be normal - good Scottish name, stayed away from things too left, etc.

Nuts and twigs family.

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