I put “Bi” in the title of this post, you guys. You know why? Well, let me tell you. This modest scribble marks the 200th blog post written here at Mountains Beyond Mountains. In a little less than a month from now we will be celebrating our 4th anniversary. Yes, it’s been almost 4 years since that fateful “Perfect Morning” that launched 200 stories (so far) and while this blog seems to ebb and flow a bit, it seems to be really flowing these days. We should perhaps consult a doctor about this.
(I know, I know. Some of you are wondering what happened to the second part of “A sort of homecoming”. Don’t worry, friend. It’s coming. It’s mostly written, and I hope you enjoy seeing me return to my ancestral spiritual home after more than a decade in the wilderness. Spoiler: it’s not all that interesting).
But for now, I thought I’d tell a little story that may be appropriate on this 200th birthday.
I knew this milestone was coming, because every time you hit “publish” on this thing it tells you how many you’ve written. I knew I was creeping towards 200 last fall and I started to think about what story I should tell to mark the occasion. A part of me thought I could time the 200th post to coincide with the beginning of the new year, but then I caught the flu before Christmas and my production went down and actually the story I had in mind will keep for another day. In fact, it’s a story I’ve been working on since last summer and it involves something that happened way back in the mid 1980’s and it has ties to the present day. (I’LL SAY NO MORE) except to say that every once in a while I really work on a story: edit it, rewrite it, shape it, you know. And this will be one of those stories (unlike this post which has already taken on a bit of the ol’ ramble, hasn’t it?)
Well, let’s press on, shall we? Today, for our 200th post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Mrs. Campbell, a lady who coincidentally enough, is celebrating her 100th birthday today.
You can’t really think of Mrs. Campbell without including Mr. Campbell. The Campbells. Some couples inevitably get identified by their “couplehood” more than their individual personalities, and this was certainly true for them. Hugh and Margaret, if you want to make it a little more personal.
The Campbells, Hugh and Margaret, lived across the street from our family all the years that I grew up. Mr. Campbell worked for the phone company and Mrs. Campbell stayed at home. They did not have kids. They were fun neighbours, in the sense that they were friendly to my brother and me, and also because they attended our church so we knew them from there. Come to think of it, they probably knew Mr. Pauls, too. SEE: THERE I DID IT. I WORKED MR. PAULS INTO THIS BLOG POST. THAT’S THREE IN A ROW. IT WILL BE FOUR WHEN YOU COUNT THE NEXT ONE. Gosh, that man held more sway over me than I realized, huh?
In any case, I should tell you that Mr. Campbell suffered from polio as a child, and as a result had “no use of his right arm”. That’s always how my parents put it. He had “no use of his right arm”, and I sometimes took that as he has “no use FOR his right arm” as if he could have used it if he wanted, but he didn’t see any use for it and got by quite well with just the one. Like someone who could afford to own two cars, but only drove one regularly. The “useless” right arm hung limp by his side and he always tucked the useless attached right hand into his pants pockets, which always gave the impression that Mr. Campbell, was either a) super casual or b) scratching his nuts all day long.
You know, as far as I could tell, he never let his disability get in the way of enjoying life. I remember him outside with a spade digging his garden (one handedly, obvs) and oh man you should have seen the way he would eat a burger. The Campbells would be over for a BBQ a few times in the summer and he was able to get that burger up in his one good hand and he just ate the FUCK out of it. These are the things that I remember as a kid. I also remember one time being over at their house and for some reason going downstairs into their basement and somehow catching Mr. Campbell unawares and he had his limpid hand out of his pocket you guys. And I totally felt like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Admiral Piett walks in on Vader and he is in his chamber with his helmet off and Piett is all like “oh shit, do I stay here and wait until he gets that helmet on and pretend I didn’t see anything?” That was me in the Campbell’s basement that day. He hastily stuffed his hand away when he saw me, but it was too late. I had already seen the unnatural paleness of it, and the weird way his fingers all seemed to go in the wrong directions. I’m telling ya, that image stayed with me for a long time.
This is probably a good time to introduce you to Mrs. Campbell. She too, lived with a disability, but it was worse in a way, she was born without much of a right arm and hand at all. I don’t know what’s worse. Having an arm you can’t use, or not having one at all. Her arm started out fine at the shoulder but then it quickly narrowed and withered into a bit of a stump when you got to the elbow. She hid it very well, because she told my Mom one day that she was raised by her parents to always hide her disability to avoid teasing on the schoolyard. She hid it so well, in fact, that all the time growing up I had NO IDEA she was missing the better part of her right arm. SHE WAS REALLY GOOD AT HIDING IT, YOU GUYS. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20s and I had graduated from university that the whole story came out. My Mom had a little “graduation party” for me at the house, and the Campbells, although no longer living across from my Mom, were invited to the party. I noticed the disfigurement partway through the evening and when I caught my Mom alone in the kitchen I said, “Geez, what happened to Mrs. Campbell’s arm?” and my Mom looked a bit stunned and said, “You’re joking, right? She was born that way.” And that was that.
Although I was blissfully unaware of Mrs. Campbell’s situation, the Campbells always looked out for me and my brother. I remember in grade 9, Mrs. Campbell called my Mom to ask if everything was okay with me. I just didn’t seem to have my old “bounce in my step” going and coming to school, as she put it. I don’t think my parents really ever noticed that there was something wrong with me until that moment, and when they asked me, I guess I said I was just really tired and had no energy. It went on for a few more weeks until my Mom finally took me to see the family doctor. He said he couldn’t really say for sure but he thought maybe I was just getting over mono, and that was how we characterized those first two or three months of grade 9. Even now, the story goes that it was the Mrs. Campbell who noticed when I had “mono”. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was my first experience with clinical Depression. I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to think that someone as young as that could suffer from it, because the symptoms were exactly the same then as they were for me in the fall of Grade 11 and again three years after that when I was eventually properly diagnosed and hospitalized. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that “mono” was actually my old nemesis, Depression, showing up unannounced and unexpected. It was the fall, after all.
Driving was never an issue for the Campbells. While Mr. Campbell drove all the time, he had no use of his right arm and hand, so Mrs. Campbell would put the car in gear for him when they started out and would move the transmission into “Park” when they reached their destination. I’m sure if the auto insurance company knew that was going on, they would freak, but it always seemed to work for them and as far as I know they never got into accidents. They completed each other, not in a cheesy, Hollywood style sense, but in an actual, physical, nuts and bolts, “let’s drive this car around town” kind of sense. Also, they travelled all over Scotland in a rental, but I suppose that would have been easier with the gearbox on the left hand side of the steering wheel for Mr. Campbell. Fun fact, when Mr. Campbell decided to give up driving, I bought his car off of him and it was my first real “car” (aside from my Dad’s car that I just sort of started driving after he died.) and in fact I drove the Campbell’s car right up until we bought our current car, the Corolla, 7 years ago or so. I had it for 10 years.
You may wonder how these two people found each other. I’m told that as children they were both sent to “cripples camp” when children with disabilities would hang out together, because I guess if you have a disability you really like to see other kids that are also disabled and then every one can have fun, or something. I don’t know. But there they met, (I’m not sure if they were actually children when they met. I’m guessing they were teenagers, or young adults. I don’t really know. For the purposes of this blog, the one that never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, let’s pretend they were little children when they met and then they met again when they were in their late teens and that’s when they fell in love).
The Campbells were definitely a part of my childhood growing up, part of the “fabric” that made up our block. But as things go, things change. When Mr. Campbell retired, they decided the house was becoming too much for them and they moved into an apartment downtown. My Mom kept in touch with them and became a bit of an “unofficial” daughter. She would take Mrs. Campbell grocery shopping, and they would have her back for supper. They often left jars of things on the counter for my Mom to open when they were too difficult for them. They had a favourite fish and chips place and for their birthdays my Mom would pick up supper for them and bring it over to their place. When Mr. Campbell got sicker, my Mom became their power of attorney and executor. My Mom was happy to do it. My Mom is a helper by nature. If she’s not helping someone (or worse, if she feels unwanted somewhere) she feels useless. This is why I play the role of an incompetent boob. I’m actually quite a self-assured, capable, organized man, but I act helpless and useless some times FOR MY MOM’S SAKE. I’m told I’m quite good at it.
So eventually Mr. Campbell passed away. Despite his life-long disability, he lived well into his 90s. He told me once, “Never get old”, and I didn’t know how to take it. I think I was suffering a bit with Depression when he gave me that advice and I might have taken it as an encouragement to end things early, but I’d like to think he meant ‘Stay young in your heart” because despite his health issues, which only got worse as he got older, I never got the sense that he lost his sense of humour or his sense of adventure.
Mrs. Campbell lived on the apartment for a few years after Mr. Campbell died. My Mom continued to take her out for her weekly grocery trips, and she started to take 2 or 3 of Mrs. Campbell’s neighbours at the same time! It became quite an outing: my Mom and her 3 older charges marching through Safeway or even worse: buying special “hose” at the Bay or confusing the young sales clerks with requests for “dusters” (apparently that is a term for weird old-fashioned apron dress things that Mrs. Campbell liked to wear), but eventually this too came to an end when Mrs. Campbell was eventually moved out of the apartment and into a personal care home. This happened within the lifetime of this blog, within the last 4 years or so, because I remember helping my Mom clean out the apartment and helping her get rid of Mr. Campbell’s old LPs and a few CDs too. One of the CDs was full of old Scottish folk songs but it had such a sad title. “When you are too old to dream”. I thought about writing a blog post about the Campbells then and using that as the title, but it seemed so sad and I wasn’t sure what kind of shape it would have taken. So I guess I filed that away until today, on Mrs. Campbell’s 100 birthday. She didn’t want a party. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, apparently. But she agreed to a small gathering of all the “January birthdays” in her home so she wouldn’t be alone. My Mom’s going over there today. She bought Mrs. Campbell a corsage. My Mom likes to help. It’s what she does. And as long as Mrs. Campbell has my Mom, she will never been alone.
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Campbell.
(and happy 200th blog post for us. Thanks for reading, you guys. It would be too much work if I just sent you all long weird personal emails).