I might have been four or five.
It was raining, and had probably been raining for days. It was a Saturday and my brother had a soccer game at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, BC. This would have been in the early 1980s.
We arrived, my brother joined his team, my mom joined the parents on the sidelines, and I joined the other siblings on the playground.
There was a slide — one of those huge, skyscraper-sized metal ones that would have taken my short legs three straight minutes of climbing before reaching the summit. You’d never find these slides on a modern playground, but back then we took risks.
I don’t remember the ascent, nor do I remember pausing and wondering how foolish I’d look if I just shimmied back down. I don’t remember sailing along this metal ramp to the bottom, either.
But I remember the finale — my blue jean-wearing butt splashed straight into a mulch-filled puddle. It was my trademark move at this age; one I’d repeat many more times before nailing the landing.
I don’t recall trudging over to my mom, rubber boots squelching full of dirty mud puddle. I don’t remember how itchy I must have felt as the mulch jabbed and poked my legs inside my soggy jeans.
I don’t remember my mom shaking her head, sighing, and looking at her watch to see how much time was left in the game. I don’t know if she considered just pulling my brother out of the game and taking us both home.
I don’t recall her hand on my shivering back, ushering me inside the huge red and white school, or if she spoke to a grown up when she arrived, or what they might have said.
I remember walking downstairs, though, and entering a big, carpeted room. I remember that the curtains were orange and drawn and that the light filtering through gave everything an odd, ginger glow. There were three girls in the room, and they seemed old to me, but were probably only 13 or 14. They all had long dark hair and they smiled at us.
I don’t remember wedging myself behind my mom’s legs and peeking around them. But I suspect I might have done just that.
I know my mom spoke to the girls; she must have — my mom speaks to everyone whether they want to hear what she has to say or not. I don’t know what she said, but they must have come to an agreement, because one moment my mom was there and the next she was gone, and I was alone with the girls in the orange-tinted room.
There was a couch, and I sat on it wet jeans and all, scootching my butt into its deepest corner. I must have put my hands over my face, because I remember how the room looked through fingers. I probably cried. I did that a lot at four or five, so it seems probable.
The girls took turns leaning in and talking to me. And they had scarves, so many scarves. There was a bottomless drawer in my grandma’s bedroom full of flimsy rainbows that my cousin and I would dig through and twine around our necks, heads, wrists, and waists.
The girls had these scarves, too, and they whipped them around their faces, behind their heads, and they reached forward, tickling the hands in front of my face, trying to coax them away. They were laughing, and telling stories. I listened, rapt, and terrified. These were scary stories. I stopped crying at some point, but continued to shiver — perhaps it was cold, more likely it was fear. They told scary stories through delicate scarves until my mom came to collect me.
We would have clambered into the big green Jeep with the wooden side panels and made the short drive home. I would have undressed and maybe even jumped into a rare mid-morning bath to get the mulch off my skin. My mom, I presume, did laundry.
We would have had lunch, of that I’m sure, but whether my mom continued on with chores while my brother, sister and I played, or whether she put up her feet and read a book, I can’t say, but I hope she did the latter.
I rarely thought about those three girls; the ones who didn’t get to go home with their families after the game. Or about all the other children who wouldn’t spend lazy Saturdays playing, having baths, being cared for, nurtured, loved, included.
But I think about them now, and often; now that I have children of my own.
I got to go home that day. I got to go home every single day. I can still go home today if I want.
And I don’t know how to reconcile that.
St. Mary’s was the last functioning residential school in Canada, and closed in 1985.