I was in Grade 12 when I met Alto Bacani, in my school art class. My family had been in Canada about 5 years. We emigrated from Ireland and then my parents immediately separated. They tried a reconciliation in Toronto. That didn’t last and my father, a family doctor, moved six hours north of Toronto to Blind River, Ontario. Three of my four siblings went with him.
Living in the burbs near Don Mills and Sheppard meant long waits at bus stops in all weather, so I thought a little motorbike might be a good alternate mode of transportation.
For a few years by then, I’d been left to my own devices as my divorcing parents were busy with other worries. No one told me that riding a motorbike was unusual for a girl in the 70s.
My friend Cam was selling his motorbike to get a bigger one. He said he’d teach me how to ride so I asked my dad for $500 and bought Cam’s bike – a 1976 (I think) Honda MT 250, an enduro – dual-purpose they call this kind of bike now, meaning the bike was built for both pavement and dirt trail.
I don’t know why my father gave me the money. Perhaps it was because he owned motorbikes as a youth and his father use to race motorcycles. My father was a liberated man for the times and didn’t have a problem with his daughter riding.
When I said ‘doctor’ just now you might have made some assumptions about us being well off. But we weren’t. My parents had been moving around for 5 years so my father never built up a family practice. And they were both really bad with money. We lived in a rental apartment at Don Mills and Sheppard and my father rented a trailer home in Blind River. FYI.
In the burbs, my mother had placed me at the nearby school that was attended by better-off families thinking I’d be associating with ‘better’ people, but observing wealthy families that, on the outside, seemed to have no problems, just underscored how little we had in comparison.
Also this would be the fifth high school that I had attended, as even after we arrived in Toronto, we moved around.
I thought a motorbike would be an escape from reality. And perhaps I would appear more interesting to people. I was lonely. I often thought about Newtownbutler – my small Irish town. I still remembered my childhood friends, the row buildings that made up the main streets, and the pretty hills dotted with sheep and haystacks. It was quite different from the endless stretch of concrete and lifeless lawn slabs that surrounded me in suburbia.
I was a self-absorbed teenager and couldn’t say for sure what made my mother tick, although I know she was worried about being destitute – a word she used a lot. After all, she had married into a wealthy doctor’s family, gave up working as a nurse to have five children – it’s what many women did back then. But he’d left her and, it seemed to me, she was in denial that she wasn’t a doctor’s wife any more – but well aware that he was dating and could remarry and cut her off financially. And because he had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, this was a real worry for my mother. At age 35, he’d had surgery to remove the cancer, was given a colostomy and was given 5 years to live. However, he seemed to be doing relatively well.
Just to make things a little more difficult – not for me specifically, but for the family – little brother Joel had an extra burden to bare. He was born without his left arm below the elbow.
He was a regular kid in that he did all the things little boys did … played sports, marbles, toy cars, etc. … but, well, he didn’t have his left hand. I don’t think I have to explain that there would be some disadvantages and non-acceptance.
Mom signed him up with the War Amps, which helps children who are born without limbs or lose them in accidents. They gave him a prosthetic arm, upgrading it as he grew and as technology advanced. They provided emotional support for these children and sent them and their families on trips to connect with each other. They were fantastic, but I can’t help thinking that life would have been easier if we hadn’t immigrated to Canada at that time, if we had stayed where we had family support.
But Dad wanted to see the world and have adventures with the little time he had left so we ended up here.
I told Alto, a new acquaintance in my Grade 12 art class, that I had bought a motorbike but didn’t know how to operate it. He said he used to ride bikes in Jakarta, Indonesia – where he was from – and could teach me.
I learned that he and his three younger siblings lived in a well-to-do enclave while their parents remained in Indonesia. He had just been in Canada two years but had already made many friends. He wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself – wasn’t afraid to try new things. His Canadian schoolmates seemed to like this quality and flocked to him.
We had a few things in common, Alto and I. We were both relatively new to Canada, wanted to fit in – as teenagers do – and we both had an interest in art and motorbikes. However, Alto’s home was posh compared to our small rented apartment.
There were money troubles because my both my parents were hopeless and irresponsible with money ($500 for a motorbike for your teenaged daughter?). When we lived in Ireland, Dad’s mother and father, a pharmacist and doctor, respectively, provided a home so my parents wanted for nothing.
In Canada, Mom and Dad had to rely on their own means. A medical practice takes money to start up and my parents seemed to burn through it, perhaps because we moved around a lot – so Dad wasn’t building up a roster of patients. Add to that child support and being distracted (by colon cancer and fighting with your ex) and you get a financial mess.
I escaped reality every now and then by driving my mother’s station wagon up to Blind River – population 3,400 – to visit Dad and my siblings – James, Ingrid and Martine.
There were weeks and weeks where I never saw them as Blind River was six hours away – that meant six hours of music, smoking and speeding. I loved driving. I’m lucky I wasn’t killed – I hit 80 mph in the passing lanes.
Dad worked a variety of roles at the local hospital – anesthesiologist, obstetrician, GP, coroner – and worked crazy hours as a result. My sisters – and I, when I visited – were left to do as we pleased – there was total freedom. We girls smoked pot and cigarettes, drank alcohol and became sexually active at an early age. There was no one around to rein us in.
My father was a little eccentric. I have a vivid memory of him cutting his own hair outside, using the car sideview mirror for guidance. His reasoning? No mess inside the house, less time involved than visiting a barber. He just wasn’t that particular about how he looked, but he was lucky – he had great thick, curly hair, though prematurely grey.
To take away the stress of the workday, he often poured himself two fingers of whiskey, put on a Dixieland record – something by Benny Goodman or Pete Fountain – and accompanied them on his clarinet. It was one of his favourite things in the world to do.He also played country and gospel music in a local band. There were a couple of Ojibwa guys in the band. I remember one evening seeing them play at a Legion hall in the nearby village of Spanish.
My sisters Ingrid, Martine, myself and a few buddies tagged along.
Being a Legion hall, the band catered to older people. But being the sticks, there weren’t a lot of places for young people to go and dance, so they could be found there too.The DJ’s music during intermission was more our style – CCR, Doobie Brothers, Heart, etc.
Blind River was where I first became aware of aboriginals and their legacy in Canada. Until then, I was quite ignorant of their situation. But I slowly learned that people sometimes treated them with contempt. My dance partner said at one point, “Why is your doctor father playing with those guys – they’re nothing but a bunch of drunks.”
I remember looking at my father and his band mates chatting happily on stage during break time as the DJ played and wondered if what my dance partner said was true. I was only a teen and very impressionable. Were the Indians deservedly second-class citizens?
A native guy called Brian Frost asked me to dance. We danced to the Top 40 of the day – Santana, the Guess Who and the Doobie Brothers, etc. After a while, hot and sweaty, he suggested going to the water’s edge to watch the stars.We sat on the smooth rocks near the water and talked and talked. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he replied, “Don’t know. Probably live and die on the res.”
It was sad to hear him say that he couldn’t imagine an opportunity for himself in the world. And he was only 17. I had serious doubts about my own abilities but at least a small part of me thought there were few limitations.
I loved being in Blind River with Dad, Ingrid, Martine and James but hated the inevitable – the time I had to return to Toronto at the end of the weekend; the heartbraking moment when I had to get back in the car and drive home – the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to leave them. I wanted to stay in Blind River where, because my father was a doctor and it was a small community, people knew us. It was the first time I felt like I somewhat belonged a to a place since leaving Ireland at age 12. However, I also felt that, because Toronto had higher education facilities, I’d have to move here anyway, and I was starting to make connections in Toronto.
I still occasionally think about Brian Frost and the other aboriginals I got to know in Blind River – the kids at school who lived on a nearby reservation and the musicians in the band. I identified with them – not quite fitting in, feeling displaced, second class, wanting acceptance in the big world.
During this time, Dad met and married a young nurse, so Ingrid, Martine and James gained some order to their lives. But it was hard to suddenly have new rules imposed upon them by this conservative young woman after years of doing exactly what they wanted – staying out as late, smoking, bringing home friends as they pleased – and they rebelled. I wasn’t kept in the loop as I lived 600 kilometres away, but I know there was a lot of squabbling in their home.
Back in Toronto, at some point during Grade 12, Alto and I went to the empty parking lot of a mall (in the 70s the malls were closed Sundays) where he taught me the basics of riding a motorbike.
It was there I began to feel something special for Alto. And it was mutual. We spent the afternoon riding around the empty lot. I watched what he did and then had my turn in the driver’s seat, riding around in first gear.
After that day, we became inseparable.
I liked spending time with him. He treated me like I was special. And I’ll admit part of the attraction initially was that he had a nice car and came from a wealthy family – it was escapism from my reality of becoming possibly ‘destitute.’ And a car for a teenager in the burbs was the ultimate status symbol – and survival tool.
Because his parents were not around, his home was a popular spot for friends to gather. Yes, there were parties and the neighbours complained about the lawn being overgrown, and the cops showed up on occasion if there was music on late, but really it was innocent. It was mostly about dancing and having a few laughs.
After Alto and I wrote the test to get our motorcycle licences, he bought a little motorbike – a Suzuki TS 100. Soon, acquaintances with bikes were showing up to join us on rides. Or sometimes our bikes were put in a friend’s van and we went to the outskirts of Toronto to trail ride.
When we started dating, in 1978, disco was at its height. “Saturday Night Fever” had come out the year before. There were steps to be learned, partners to be swung. It was great fun to practice our dance moves during the week and then get dressed up and go to the discos on the weekend – to show off what we had learned.
But my best memory of my time with Alto is when we put our bikes on a trailer behind his car and headed to Manitoulin Island. I found it to be unbelievably beautiful. The landscape was made for dinosaurs, with its smooth, prehistoric-looking rocks and its remoteness. We did little day treks on the motorbikes, had camp fires and cuddled together in the tent at night. I had never been so happy.
I also remember about Alto the time we became Canadian citizens – together. We were both landed immigrants and our families had already started the process for us to become citizens, the final stage being the swearing-in ceremony. We just booked this last stage to happen on the same day.
Before the swearing-in, we were tested on our knowledge of how the Canadian government worked. Alto did very well but I had memorized enough just to pass the test. After the swearing-in, which occurred with about one hundred other new Canadians, we kissed and hugged, as it was a special day. One of the attendees asked, “did you two just meet here today?”
Then in August we broke up. I think we broke up because he I asked him once if he would ever cheat on me. He replied, “Well, maybe once, just to see what it would be like with another woman.” Alto was probably just answering honestly, rather than giving the pet answer of, “No never, dear.” But it preyed on my mind. Dad’s infidilities had torn our family apart and I didn’t think I could go through that pain again. In some ways, I was still that 12-year-old who had her heart broken by her father.
Alto and I had been together – inseparable – for two years.
I started university in the fall. I think I chose to study Psychology because my father always had an interest in the field and I thought it might make me feel more connected to him. Really, I should have gone to college to study fashion design and illustration – my first loves. I didn’t enjoy the academic part of school at all but did make good friends there – and met my future husband.
Speaking of Dad, things went from bad to worse for him that fall. His cancer had returned.
It had spread to his brain and he was to have surgery in Toronto, December 1980. I went to visit him only once in hospital. I was in denial that it was serious.
He went back home to North Bay, where he, his wife, James and Martine had recently moved – about four hours by car north of Toronto. Ingrid was living with her boyfriend in Blind River.
Days or perhaps a few weeks later, Dad called me from North Bay and asked me to visit. It was unusual for him to call and ask me to visit. I found it odd but told him I was busy with school and, after a short conversation, said goodbye. A few minutes later, my sister Ingrid phoned me and said I better go as he was dying.
We no longer owned a car in Toronto. Although Alto and I had been apart for four months, I called him and begged him to drive me up to North Bay in his car – and he did.
We got there late. My father’s wife Wilma said, “He knows you’re here but he’s very tired.” So Alto and I crashed in the basement. The next morning, December 22, 1980, Wilma informed us that Dad was dead.
You can imagine my regret at having told my father I was too busy to visit him.
The first few days after Dad’s death are a blur. There was a funeral. There was a sad attempt at Christmas. There was numbness. There was fear. And there was no more child support, let alone inheritance. So I now felt guilty about worrying about money as well as feeling heartbroken about poor Dad.
As Alto and I drove back to Toronto, I thought about the direction my life was taking and how wrong it felt, but I didn’t know how to fix it – how to change it. Dad’s death brought everything to the fore: the unsatisfying school work, the worrying home life.
In one of my Psychology courses, we were assigned a book to read that may have been called “Happiness” – I can’t remember for sure. What I learned from this book was, don’t worry about the things you can’t change, change the things you can – and want – to change. I know this sounds like nothing new, but it was an eye-opener for me as I had spent years worrying about everything – being destitute, being a failure, not belonging – and had assumed there was nothing to be done about it.
The book spoke of just trying to do something small to change your life, even if just as an experimentr. There was the suggestion that even making a small effort, or making a small change, could make a positive change in your life, and make you feel more in control of your life. I suspect the author wanted the reader to experience the benefits of a self-made change, if even only on a very small scale.
So even as people around you, who may mean well, tell you to not dream too big or that you aren’t good enough, just try to do something small anyway to follow your bliss, the book suggested.
As we drove from North Bay to Toronto, I thought I didn’t know what small change I would try to implement. My new grief, the financial uncertainty at home, the not knowing what I would do with my life, half the family still living hours away was at times daunting to think about. But I’d definitely try to think about it. I would definitely try.