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Back in the Crummy
by Suzanne Beaubien

My dad killed a moose the winter I was eight. He carved it in the garage and we ate it almost every night for a month. We lived in Chemainus, on Vancouver Island. He grew up there and had always hunted, but that winter he had no choice. Laid off for four months from his job as a heavy-duty mechanic for MacMillan Bloedel, UI paid him only half what he made, which wasn't enough to keep us in meat from week to week.

I couldn't eat the moose. Its taste was too strong, its texture too chewy, so I didn't get dessert once during that month. I didn't care. Most nights dessert was plums from our backyard stewed with sugar. That winter was long. I remember it even snowed on my birthday, April Fool's Day. I don't think I complained about not having a party. The snow made it seem like less of a letdown.

Sometime before my dad was laid off a new man had come to work at Copper Canyon. My dad hated him and complained about sitting next to him in the crummy everyday for almost two hours. My dad didn't drive to work. He rode there and back in the crummy with eight other men. My dad said new man was grumpy, mean, an asshole. He barely spoke to my dad and was gruff when he did. He had no patience, a bad temper and terrible manners.

Some time later, after the whole camp was laid off, the man called my dad to ask him to fix his car. My dad grumbled and complained and didn't want to do it, but he knew what it was like to try to get by on UI for months at a time. He understood how it felt to be treated as if you didn't earn it, as if your bi-weekly contributions were worthless. So he fixed the man's car. Together in our paved driveway in the cold, my dad and the man worked together a full day without talking. When the man tried to pay for the work, my dad wouldn't accept his money. He said no, he didn't need it.

Two days later when I went to pick up the morning's milk (it came in bags then) I found a large cardboard box on our doorstep. It was filled with powdered doughnuts, danishes, buns, and other baked goods I'd never seen or even heard of. No note, no explanation, it had been anonymously delivered. To my brothers and me it was a welcome reprieve from the endless moose meat and stewed plums. We loved the fact that baked goods go stale because that makes them almost impossible to ration.

A few weeks later the man needed more work done on his car. More donuts, more buns arrived a few days later.

My dad and the man formed a quiet, reluctant almost-friendship, based on cars and common gripes with UI. My mom met his wife and invited her over for tea.

Over time we discovered that the man and his wife had matching tattoos. A series of numbers etched in permanent black ink on the inside of their forearms hinted that they had reason for both their seeming grumpiness and overt generosity.

We wondered at the origins but my dad wouldn't ask. Something about their tenuous male-bond wouldn't let the question slide past his lips, even over cups of Nabob coffee while waiting for a carburetor to cool.

But over tea and more powdered doughnuts my mom discovered their story.

Millions of people had the same tattoo. Like so many others, they'd been sent to a concentration camp in 1935. They were newly married and she was still nursing their first-born child. Almost immediately their baby was killed in front of them and they were both sterilized. When they came to Canada they weren't allowed to adopt. The rules were too strict. No immigrants allowed. Instead, they quietly delighted in the stealthy distribution of baked goods.

My dad fixed the man's car so many times that winter that my mom was convinced he'd taken to breaking it on purpose, just so he and his wife would have an excuse to drop by with more goodies, so a girl would have something sweet to eat on her birthday, and so my dad wouldn't have to feel like a charity case.

The marks that were meant to dehumanize them, to set them apart as Jewish, told us an important story. The numbers, etched on their skin and in their memories, showed me, at eight-years-old what evil is. But I also learnt how hardship can either harden the heart, or open it to strangers.

Ten years later I would mark my own body with a best friend. Matching symbols of strength, we celebrated our friendship and our futures at the threshold of adulthood. I didn't think of the couple that day.

I didn't think about how old they were when they got their first and only tattoos.


Suzanne Beaubien is here. Finally here.

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