The Kitchen Table
This is based on the true experiences of my mother growing up in poor family in the Canadian Maritimes and wanting to make something of her life.
“Go away,” Helen cried. “I’m trying to do my homework.” As if the noise wasn't enough, the kitchen reeked of urine-soaked diapers mixed together with the smell of salt cod cooking on the stove and she wanted to gag.
“We have as much right to be here as you do,” Helen’s younger sister Jane said as she put glasses of milk on the kitchen table. Her other sister Linda put down silverware and bumped the milk, spilling it all over Helen’s notebook.
“Go away! Now look what you did!” Helen shouted. “Mom, tell Jane and Linda to stop bothering me while I’m studying.”
“We’re going to eat dinner now. How about some help setting the table?” Mom said, wiping the sweat from her weary brow as she rattled pots and pans on the big black potbellied stove. Helen’s younger brother Robbie clung to his mother’s leg wailing while his twin Ronnie crashed pots and pans in the cupboard. Meanwhile, Daisy the tortoiseshell slept peacefully on a chair by the window.
Helen looked at the tell tale bulge in Mom’s stomach and shook her head with disgust. There was barely enough money to feed five kids and now a sixth was on the way. There was no way she was going to end up like that.
“Why can’t I have my own room to study? Why do I have to share with Jane and Linda?” Helen asked.
“My friend Sandra has her own room and her own desk.”
“Sandra is an only child so of course she has her own room,” her father said, heaving his large bulk into the chair at the head of the table.
“How am I supposed to finish high school?”
“What do you need high school for? You’re only going to get married and have kids anyhow,” her father scoffed, buttering a piece of bread and stuffing it in his mouth.
“I want to go to nursing school,” Helen said, her voice strained.
“I don’t know where you get these notions,” her mother said with a weary laugh. “You know we don’t have the money.”
“But I’ve been saving up from my job at the store,” Helen said, realizing it was hopeless to discuss it with them.
Her mother frowned and slapped a plate of salt cod and potatoes in the middle of the table.
“Helen thinks she’s so high and mighty. Even King George and Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t be good enough for her,” Jane taunted and Linda laughed.
Helen said nothing but she could feel her face reddening to the tips of her ears to match the colour of her red hair.
The following day, Helen stuffed her few belongings into a tattered old suitcase and went out to the veranda where her mother was sitting in the rocking chair shelling peas for dinner. Jane and Linda rushed around the grass carrying Robbie and Ronnie on their backs.
“And where do you think you’re going?” her mother asked as her sisters stopped playing and crowded around waiting for the sparks to fly.
“I’m moving in with Sandra to finish high school,” Helen announced. Everyone went silent.
“You’re what?” her mother said, jumping to her feet, spilling the peas all over the floor.
“It’s all arranged with Sandra’s parents. I’m going to move in with them and work in their butcher shop to pay for my room and board.”
“You can’t be serious,” her mother said, eyes wide.
“I’m very serious. I would have thought you’d be glad. One less mouth to feed and one less person to worry about.”
“You think you’re better than us, don’t you, Helen?” her mother said bitterly.
“No Mom, that’s not it at all. I just want something more for my life than this. And I’m going to get it, too.”
And with that she walked away without a backward glance.