by S. Nadja Zajdman
When my brother’s children were small, we would accompany them to the Christmas pantomimes in downtown Toronto. During a performance one winter, a contact lens slipped out of my brother’s eye. When we left the theatre he handed the car keys to his wife and informed her, “You’ll have to drive us back. I can barely see.” I looked up at my brother and smiled. Michael towers over us. He’s a gentle giant whom patients call “Dr. Mikey.” Those who are able to speak, that is. Wee ones recently arrived from the womb into the world communicate by peeing on him.
My brother caught my smile, but didn’t understand what provoked it. “What?” Michael was blank. My weak, heavy-lidded eyes twinkled behind spectacles.
“Now you know what a Cyclop feels like! You don’t have twenty twenty DIVISION anymore!” My nieces were puzzled. For my brother, a light switched on. He smirked. “You remember stuff like that?”
“Buddy,” I was rubbing it in, “I can see it as if it happened yesterday…”
My brother and I were at a summer camp located in southern Ontario. On a Sunday afternoon in midsummer we were taken by bus on a field trip to Ottawa to visit our parliament buildings. We were at the top of the Peace Tower when my little brother erupted, “Shashi! Look! Daddy’s car! Down there! I see Daddy’s car! They’re here.” The future doctor diagnosed the situation. “Mummy and Daddy are here!” Our little lumberjack couldn’t pronounce the sound of the letter R and knew he couldn’t, so he stopped trying to call me “Sharon” and called me “Shashi” instead. The nickname stuck.
I looked down from the platform of the Tower, onto the streets far below. It was a cloudless summer day. The cars parked along the downtown boulevards shimmered in the heat like brightly painted dinky toys. Though I wasn’t yet wearing glasses, it appeared impossible to single out a particular car. Nonetheless my brother pointed and implored, “Shashi! Please. I can see the gween Chevvolay! And you shoes is on the miwwa!” Our father had tied my first cloth baby booties to the rear view mirror. He considered it a good luck charm. We were taught to identify the family car by looking out for the tiny booties dangling from the mirror. “You can’t see that from up here!”
“But I do. Oh why won’t you believe me?!” Exasperated, Mikey turned away and tugged on the sleeves of our campmates, insisting, “My mummy and my daddy are here!” Our campmates dismissed him as a pest. I was held responsible.
“Tell your little brother to shut up!” Mikey was hurt.
“Listen Mikey.” I put my arms around him. “I can understand that you miss Mummy and Daddy very much, but you know they’re at home in Montreal.”
“No they’re not!” Mikey pouted. “They’re here. They’re somewhere here! Maybe downstairs!” Mikey’s Thinking Cap was firmly set. “Please Shashi, let’s go downstairs and find them!” I knew we couldn’t separate from the group and go hunting through the House of Commons in search of a set of phantom parents. I tried to comfort my little brother, but he was inconsolable.
Our field trip over, Mikey sat silent and sullen, next to me, on the bus. As we rolled down a hill through the camp gates a green Chevrolet, parked in the field next to the flagpole, loomed on the horizon. it seemed to be mocking us. Still, I wasn’t sure. If I could just see my baby booties, then I’d be sure.
Mikey didn’t need confirmation. Instantly, he went berserk. “The car! The car!” He bounced frenetically in his seat. “I toll you! I toll you!” He accused our fellow passengers. Before the driver came to a full stop and before I could stop him, Mikey dashed down the aisle, scampered down the steps and pounded upon the locked door. He turned his sturdy, stocky torso towards the driver and demanded, “My mummy and my daddy are here! Lemme out!” The startled driver obeyed his command.
Indeed, it appeared our parents were on the site—but where? Frantically Mikey scoured the camp grounds screaming, “Mummy! Daddy! Where are you?!” His cries were answered by the figure of a woman rising out of a lawn chair set by the lake.
“Here we are, sweetheart!” Mum waved. “Abram! Look! It’s the kids!” Our dad raised himself from an adjacent chair. For me, the beam on my father’s face was like a guiding light.
Our mother flung open her arms, and Mikey raced into them. I could see the top of his platinum-coloured crew cut as he nestled into her enveloping embrace. As I got closer to the shoreline I could also see two strangers with my parents. Unknown to my brother and me, our parents were entertaining houseguests from overseas. They had given them a tour of Ottawa, and since the camp was located a few miles outside Perth, on the spur of the moment they decided to drop in and surprise us. It was our parents who got the surprise when they entered a summer camp at the height of summer, emptied of its children. The kitchen staff assured them that all was well; we’d been taken on a trip to visit the Parliament buildings, and were due back in half an hour.
What tourist or student group doesn’t visit Parliament when taken on a tour of Ottawa? Our parents were showing their guests the Gothic buildings that house our government half an hour after we got there.
The campers and counsellors were dumbfounded. The grown-ups were impressed. So was I. As for little Mikey, he was vindicated. I turned to our campmates and suggested, “I think you should apologize to my brother.” Sheepishly, they did. Our parents stared at their tot in admiration.
“But Mikey, how could you see from so far away that it was our car?”
“Hmmmph!” Mikey raised his chin, stuck out his chest, and lifted himself up to his full height—which wasn’t yet very high. Proudly, he announced, “I have twenty-twenty DIVISION!”
S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. Her short story collection, Bent Branches, was published in 2012. Her non-fiction as well as her fiction has been featured in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and anthologies across North America, in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Zajdman has completed a second work of fiction as well as a memoir of her mother, the pioneering Holocaust educator and activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman, who passed away near the end of 2013.