By Peter C. Conrad
My mother decided that things around the house especially when she was away was too uncertain for me as I was the smallest, being nearly three years younger than Eric and each sibling roughly two years older than the other. She was sure that each would be able to defend themselves, but if anything happened to me, there were be more visits from the ladies in blue dresses, Social Workers. She told me that when she would go to the hospital in Edmonton to have her back fused I would be spending days with my baby sitters.
My baby sitters, the Luftwaffe family were always kind and spoke German, which at the time I understood easily. They had a cuckoo clock, made in Bavaria, like we did at home and beer steins that were much more decorative than ours, with hinged lids, and pictures of small parties at picnic tables, ivy leaves, and mountains in the background.
The sisters wore purple and blue print dresses with lace collars, and 1940s vintage shoes with straps and buckles.
The baby sitters had a pair of tap shoes that fit me just right, that I could use when I came to their house. They each took turns teaching how to tap, slide, shuffle, shuffle ball change, flap, flap heel, cramp roll, scissor step, buffalo, and shuffle slap. They would laugh and clap and say make music. There was a free impromptus atmosphere, where anything I wanted to do that sounds good and was nice to watch was wonderful. The sound of the metal tips and heels were sharp and clear. I liked the percussive sound; maybe because I have natural ear for the snare drum, which I was often asked to play during Sunday school performances. I would dance until I would collapse. This was what it was like as the days drew into weeks and we looked forward to every moment together. The days passed as if hours were minutes and their was nothing else in world.
There was a knock at the door and when we opened it Kate was standing there looking annoyed and angry. She looked at my beaming face and the tap shoes on. I did a quick trill with the taps. Her expression did not change.
“You are supposed to be at home for supper,” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” said the lady as her expression turned from happy to apologetic.
“It’s all right,” said Kate. “We just have to get home. Mom is coming back today.”
“How is she?” asked the sister.
“They say everything turned out good,” said Kate.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said the lady. Kate nodded.
“I’ll take these off,” I said. I changed my shoes as I noticed Kate looked scared. “I had so much fun here,” I continued as I stepped pout the back door. “Thank you,” I said as I waved at the smiling lady. We walked down the narrow alley that would take us directly to our house, less than a block away. “Is Mom home right now?” I asked, but felt the sharp pain in the back of my head; Kate hit me as hard as she could. I stopped and stared at her the pain continued with a surprising intensity. I looked at her angry face.
“Speak English,” she demanded. “If Mom or Dad find out that you can speak German, they are going to spank you until you bleed.”
“English?” I said, confused. I had no idea that there was any difference between what I had been speaking at the baby sitter’s house and what we spoke at home, until that moment.
“You know that only Mom, Dad, and Janelle are allowed to know German,” said Kate. I, in fact had no idea that these rules existed. It was another set of rules for the order of things. Each person in our house had a place, a role, and how much he or she was to have in life. I was just learning what these rules were.
After my mother returned she had a back brace and we all worked to help her out; carrying her meals and what ever she needed, as she recovered. I rarely spoke German, only the few times I returned to the baby sitters. I understood it was better to never challenge any member of the family, in ways that suggested that I was stepping out of my designated place. I would learn what had to be hidden and what had to be abandoned. Speaking German was at the top of the list to avid and forget, if I wanted to remain out of any fray.
* * *
When I told my mother what fun I was having, she would turn cold and had a look with that distant stare at me and asked if I knew whom the shoes belong to. How could I know such a thing?
“The shoes are from their son,” she said gravely.
“What son?” I asked.
“He’s the same age as you; born the same day, the one they took away,” said my mother. “Those poor ladies, he was such a handful, screaming and hitting, that never stopped. When he got older they could not take care of him by themselves any more and they had to put him away,” she shook her head. “They never had anyone in their family like that before, so they had no idea how to handle him.”
“What was wrong with him?” I asked.
“He had autism,” she replied.
“Is that like Artism?” I asked.
“I just don’t want you wear those shoes anymore,” she said, as if I could catch the autism from wearing them. Or maybe, the influence of the shoes would take over.
It was the ghost of the tap dancing boy that haunted us for the years to come; he had the same diagnoses as Joseph and Eric, he looked like them, perhaps it was the expressionless aloof appearance, and he was taken away. My mother was determined that this would never happen to us. She knew that I was different, but she never wanted any one to know what she knew, because if I was normal, then other may think my brothers were too. This would change over the years that followed, as she changed her view, but I was an example of how benign autism was.
Things changes as she realized how much more I could do, than Joseph or Eric. As I became taller and my physic became heavily muscular and the other two remained much the same proportionately, she would agree with my father, who said we need a boy with a good strong back and who doesn’t know when to stop working. He’ll take care of the rest of us.
It was not long before I was not going to the Luftwaffe family for baby-sitting any more. I was discouraged from tap dancing or talking about how much I liked them.