I work with older adults and encourage them to share their life stories. They’ve challenged me to do the same thing.
So here it is. I’m pinning my story to the great wall of life.
“She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years” The Beatles
When I was 15 years old, I told my parents I would be moving out when I turned 16. My mother just wanted me to stay in school to complete a boring 4 year bookkeeping/secretarial program. A post secondary school education was not a consideration for me and those like me. The changes brought about by second wave feminists had not yet trickled down to the streets. In those days, the sons were blessed with the family financial resources for college or University. Growing up, I was told most daughters would bide their time until they were scooped up by a local guy with a good job. At the age of 15, my higher education was not seriously discussed in my family although my older brother moved away from home to attend university.
Home was a miserable place dominated by all the negative influences of alcohol (father) and depression (mother). My parents were caught up in the pain of unfulfilled dreams. They plodded along doing work they hated. They didn’t get along. I observed their disillusionment and I certainly didn’t want their lives. I was restless and I was looking for adventure. After my 16th birthday, I intended to drop out of school, find a job and start down the road to freedom. I knew nothing of the real world but I was curious.
I should also note that my parents did not have a high opinion of me. They expected “nothing but no good” from me because I was a spirited young girl. I internalized that criticism and judgment like all kids do. At the time, I didn’t know it was projection. I ended up with no foundational sense of self worth. Top it all off with a good deal of Catholic guilt and deep down, I felt like a nobody. My push back was to act out, rebel and…show them all. They were the mean-spirited and judgmental god, priests, nuns, peers and parents. I set out to prove myself to them and myself by becoming a somebody. This became an angry, misguided but spirited quest for recognition. Ultimately, it ended up the road to my redemption as well.
Our local radio station had put out a call for go-go dancers for the local Fall Agricultural Fair. I was chosen along with 6 other fresh-faced teen girls. We danced with a few well-known Toronto bands who were visiting our small town Fair. Shortly after the fair ended, the local TV station started a weekly record-hop show called Wing Ding and I was asked to be on the show. This felt like it might start to fulfill my need for recognition – to be known and heard.
In the meantime, one of the Toronto bands passed along the names of two great teen dancers who performed at the Western Fair. My name was one. I got a call from a well-known Toronto agent. It was a request to come and dance on a Toronto TV Teen Show. I told him I was 18. That was the opportunity I needed to pack my bag and leave with my pink transistor radio tucked under my arm and $75 in my pocket. I was just happy to leave home and probably, they were happy to see me go. No, I did not run away from home. I just walked away – very briskly – and boarded a greyhound bus.
I didn’t do well in the audition. The agent tried to cheer me up and asked if I had any musical experience, and strangely enough, the good Sisters of St. Joseph’s taught piano at our elementary school where I completed Grade 8 Conservatory Music. That was all the agent needed to put me in an “all girl” band. So at the age of 17, I was underage but happy to be on the road with 3 older women who were like my aunties. When we weren’t playing, I lived in a boarding house in downtown Toronto and I became part of Yorkville/Annex Village. My room-mates were mostly young men, all the musicians, artists, poets, misfits, run-aways or drop outs. They were my tribe. The Village became my new home. It was the mid 1960’s and I had landed in the middle of the counter-culture movement.
“Who are you? I really wanna know?” The Who.
They were exhilerating times. I was living on the edge and I found the adventures I was seeking. My teenage musician boyfriend moved from London to Toronto the following spring and joined the same talent agency. He was immediately placed in a Toronto band that took off like a rocket. They made a record that got tons of air play. Plans were made – Boston, New York, Atlantic City, Chicago and Europe. I left my band when his group started to travel. Things moved very quickly when we started traveling in the States. We were just holding on for dear life. They were turbulent times too. We watched Detroit burn. We got caught in riots in Buffalo and Boston. We socialized with many of the regular club patrons in New York City like Guido, Sal and Luigi.
After some time on the road, the news came that they were booked into Caesars Palace Las Vegas. Vegas was still run by the mafia but the era of the “Rat Pack” was coming to an end in the late 1960s. They were being squeezed out and they didn’t like it. In Vegas, I was a small-town girl walking around the casinos surrounded by gaudy glitz, gangsters and glamour. My existential angst ramped up as I wondered who I was – other than the wife of a singer who desperately wanted to be Mr. Entertainer. Things seemed great on the outside but on the inside, I had no idea what I was doing. My only saving grace was that I didn’t get into the drug and alcohol addictions that came with the scene. There were many. many artists, musicians and performers who came to a tragic end.
In 1972, I found out I was pregnant. That seemed to be the answer to my deeply personal existential crisis. I was now “a mom.’ That was my new identity and I wanted to build a nest. My husband got overwhelmed by all of his demons and I started the process of separation and divorce. I stepped off that crazy ride and stepped on to another but at least the latter was my own ride.
A long and winding road – The Beatles
Where do you go and what do you do if you have no formal education and your resume lists 1) go-go dancer and 2) girl band member as your only two work experiences? Add to that mix, a crippling lack of confidence, daily panic attacks, psychotic episodes, and no self-discipline. I developed manic depression but the manic episodes nearly landed me in jail. Of course I couldn’t keep a job! I didn’t understand about anxiety disorders and learning disabilities. I just thought I was a loser. The future looked fairly grim for me when I developed agoraphobia. By necessity and circumstance, I dug deep and found my resilience. It became evident I needed some help so, with some good luck, I found amazing therapists who lifted me up and helped me function. To earn some income, I worked from home making and selling clothing. When my friends needed some help, I assisted with helped with their projects and events. That’s when I became a Special Project and Event Manager. When it came time for my son to start school, I headed back to my home town.
After Toronto, New York and Vegas, after rock stars and celebrities, I ended up in a 2 room basement apartment on the outskirts of a very conservative and somewhat backward town that was suffering with an identity problem all its own. There, in that basement, I faced my worst fear of being a “nobody” again. I felt invisible. No one knew me except my family and nobody really cared to know. My 15+ year absence from my hometown went completely unnoticed by my peers. People were busy with their own lives. In a strange twist, I decided I could embrace the situation. I could be anonymous and start my life over. I had to build employment successes all on my own steam using my own initiative, skills and intelligence. Along the way I took courses through the University of Waterloo Department of Independent Studies. With the flexibility of self-employment, I tried to be a good enough single mom, reinvent myself and start over. Looking back, I realize I have reinvented myself more times than Madonna.
The following decades included many great successes and just as many sensational failures. Around 1979, I received my Decree Absolute. I started easing my way out of the hole of mental illness. It was possible to get an education though non-traditional programs and counselling. One project at a time, I slowly developed a fairly impressive project portfolio and learned more than I could’ve ever imagined. In 2016, I was recognized by the Province of Ontario for outstanding achievements in my work. None of these things ever addressed the deeper issues of self worth and confidence. The most difficult journey was taking that long and winding road back in time looking for a self I never really had. But that’s another story….