By Dave Gregory
Penmanship, the tenth grade class with the most homework, led me to your mother. Each lesson took an hour. Math answers could be copied five minutes before class and it was easy to fake having read the English assignment but there was no shortcut for pages of handwriting. They had to be handed in.
In 1955, I was seventeen and had a rule to never open a book outside class. I’d already flunked one grade but didn’t care. Girls were all I cared about. I needed time and money to stand any chance but was lucky to have a couple dollars for gas. One thing I knew for sure – first thing I was ever sure of – I wasn’t spending an hour each night on cursive writing.
“You can’t let this build up, Ron,” my teacher said, on a Monday when I was two lessons behind. “Everyone else has one hour of penmanship tonight – you’ve got three.” Miss Hudson was her name. Sudsy Hudson we called her; wore a pink scarf the same shade as hand soap in the boy’s room. She lived alone in a rented house on Steele Street, two blocks south of school – blue shutters, dead cedars in the flower bed. She wasn’t from the area and had no family nearby.
By Friday she was having a fit, insisting I spend my weekend catching up. Not a chance. On weekends I took my dad’s car cruising for girls. There were dances at Morgan’s Point and bonfires on Nickel Beach. If I couldn’t get the car, plenty of older girls worked Saturdays on Clarence Street, so I’d pretend to shop just to talk to them. And my older sister waitressed near the train station. Usually she told me to scram but sometimes sent me to buy cigarettes and I’d hang out with her and her classy, older girlfriends during their smoke break.
The following week, Miss Hudson promised I wouldn’t get away with laziness. “You have to catch up sooner or later, young man.”
I doubted that.
It took another week before she sent me to the principal’s office. Cold and beige, only one small photo sat on his desk; a gray-haired woman holding daffodils. Books on his shelves rested on their sides, rather than upright. Mr. Diltz was so tall we called him Diltz on stilts. He was related to half the town – the mayor, the sheriff, a captain at the fire department, even the manager at Stedmans Five & Dime. His family was big at church, too. Front pew people. They were ushers, greeters, collection plate distributors; they organized the annual Christmas party. Diltz said to catch up or face suspension, then sent me back to class.
I did nothing all week. I was seventeen lessons behind – seventeen long hours – when I was sent to the principal’s office again.
“Ronald, you have been warned about this and have done nothing. Is that right?”
“Absolutely nothing, not putting pen to paper even once?”
He squinted and slapped his hand on the desk before pointing at me. “Yes, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Yep.”
“Why are you making this difficult?”
“I’m not learning anything from penmanship. Who’s got time for all these lessons? It’s ridiculous.”
He didn’t flinch. “Let me free some time for you. You are suspended immediately. You will not attend Miss Hudson’s class, or any class, until all seventeen assignments are complete. Then you have to catch up on everything you miss during that time.”
I sat there, silent.
“Do you understand? This is up to you. You do not return to class until all seventeen penmanship assignments are on Miss Hudson’s desk.”
“Then I won’t go back.”
“If that is how you want to play it, I can have you expelled.”
My parents were devastated but must have seen it coming. They worried I was wasting my life and wanted to know what my brilliant plans were. I had no plans, brilliant or otherwise.
I’ve no idea what I did while everyone else was in school. On Friday, Diltz called the house. My mother handed over the phone and said I should beg him to take me back.
“Ronald, everyone is eager to see you in class again. Are those lessons almost complete?”
“I’m not doin’ ’em.”
“All right.” He expected this and said: “Look, do you have a job?”
“You need one. Put on a clean shirt and see my cousin at Stedmans. I can tell him to expect you at four o’clock.”
Maybe Diltz thought I’d hate work – and pray to get back in school – or he wanted me to have one chance to stand on my own before ridding himself of me. I went to the interview, got the job, and liked it. Work took as much time as school – but I got paid to learn, without wasting time on penmanship. So I worked hard and stocked shelves faster than anyone. I had money to impress girls, my parents were off my back and I bought a car from my uncle, his ’49 Monarch.
Last time I set foot in Port Colborne High School was to thank the principal for kicking me out. I wasn’t trying to be funny, I meant it.
“Is this what you really want?”
I told him it was.
Diltz shook my hand. “Maybe you are going to be all right.”
Stedmans had stores across Canada and all kinds of opportunities. I got promoted to cashier before moving up to finance and inventory, where I could meet more girls. At nineteen, I became the youngest management trainee ever. They sent me to Thorold, an hour away by streetcar, only thirty minutes if the Monarch was running – though it often wasn’t. Stedmans was at the south end of Front Street. With a mill, fire hall and post office, Thorold wasn’t much different from Port Colborne – except inland, though you could still watch boats go through the Welland Ship Canal.
I worked in an office upstairs and spent a lot of time girl-watching from the second floor window. Two women stood out. Every Saturday they ran errands – visited the pharmacist, the butcher, waited in line at the post office. Like everyone, they eventually walked into Stedmans. They were your mother and grandmother, though they looked like sisters. Floyd Lewis, the guy training me, made me guess who was younger. I couldn’t tell.
Still unsure, months later, I watched them on the sidewalk after a bus went by. It rustled leaves and blew their hair. One put a hand to her left eye, like she was in pain, while the second sat her on a step and retrieved a white handkerchief. Placing one hand delicately behind the afflicted woman’s head, she eased it back and held it. Being extra careful, she lightly dabbed the hanky at the corner of the troubled eye, each time turning the cloth to check whether it collected the dust or grit.
“Now it’s obvious, she’s the mother,” I told Floyd.
“The one with the handkerchief?”
The white hanky came away a final time. She shook it out while the other woman blinked and got up, looking relieved.
“You’re wrong. That’s Bette Ann, the daughter. Ain’t she a picture?”
I hadn’t met her, she was barely sixteen, yet I saw what kind of mother she’d make and the family she’d raise. I understood what I’d been looking for all along. Earlier, I said the first thing I knew for sure was I wouldn’t waste time on penmanship, three years later came the second thing I knew beyond doubt: “That’s who I’m going to marry,” I told Floyd.
“You bet. She’s the one.”
“You’re on.” He said it like a challenge.
I had a girlfriend in Port Colborne. Maybe two. The one I remember was Margaret. Margaret Mead. Her father managed the Nickel Plant. Guys followed her everywhere but I was the one driving her to parties on weekends. She thought I was serious but how could I be? I’d grown up with Port Colborne girls. Anyone younger than me, I’d met while they were in diapers.
More months passed. One afternoon Floyd showed me some résumés. “This one belongs to Bette Ann, your future wife. Remember?”
“Sure, I remember.”
It was winter and the building had clanky radiators. They dried the air, creating static. My hair stood on end when he said: “Here’s your chance, Romeo. She starts Friday.”
She had energy, precision and always tried to help; she even left her cash register to let little old ladies in the front door. Everyone was a regular and they all talked her ear off. She politely listened, and somehow smiled, while they went on about the weather, their health and the rising cost of food. Customers chose her checkout line even when it was longest.
It was spring before I asked her on a date. I wasn’t her manager but she knew who I was. We’d talked a little, flirted some. She must have thought I was something, four years older than her, standing there in my tie and clean white shirt. So, she agreed to go out Saturday, after her shift.
That year I lived in a rooming house on Ormond Street, a block away, next to the Legion Hall, and only worked weekdays. I went for home-cooked meals with my parents on weekends but that meant making a special trip back to Thorold for our date. Of course, my car was in the shop, so I caught the streetcar. It went from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, Port Colborne to Port Dalhousie, but you could ride for nothing if you were willing to hang on at the back. There was a little ledge to stand on. No one cared but, just in case, I leapt off and loitered during each stop.
All windblown when I got there, I met your mother on Front Street. I took her back inside Stedmans and we ate at the Copper Grill, where I could be a big shot and order people around. Plus I wanted to be seen with her. Even Floyd came to look; probably the only reason he was in that day.
We planned to see a movie at the Tivoli, across the road, one block north. When we stepped out Stedmans’ front door, Margaret Mead stood on the corner, arms crossed, eyes aflame.
“I thought so,” she said.
She must have followed on the next streetcar. Thorold’s so small, it wasn’t hard to find us. I’d broken a date with her, told her I had to work a weekend shift. We were supposed to go to Crystal Beach.
“I’m your girl, Ronny. Ain’t that what you said? Now you’re out with this little thing. Who’s it gonna be? You can’t have both. Do you pick me or her?”
Margaret lowered her hands to her hips and tapped her left foot against the sidewalk.
In high school, everyone expected me to complete those penmanship lessons but life got better after I refused. Then Margaret Mead claimed to be my girl. I bet every guy in Port Colborne wanted the plant manager’s daughter. Yet I knew what I wanted, ever since the day I told Floyd Lewis.
So I went to the movies with your mother.
And life kept getting better.∎