Mrs. Anita Thomas loved her rocking chair. For hours, she would sit, rocking back and forth, humming to herself, blanket tucked neatly in her lap. Sometimes, I would watch her from across the street, as I toted my schoolbag home. She was a creature of habit. Always in the same spot. Staring at her blanket, like a statue.
On a day when I was feeling particularly brave, I crossed the street to get a closer look at Mrs. Anita Thomas. I peeked at her porch from behind one of her neighbour’s bushes, when she spotted me and called me over. Sheepishly, I approached, eyes downcast. Her face was hard and her brows were furrowed. I prepared myself for the reprimanding, keeping eyes on my scuffed shoes. Then, there was laughter? I looked up at Mrs. Anita Thomas, who was wiping a tear from her eye. Her face was soft, her smile seemed to disappear into a sea of welcoming wrinkles. I smiled weakly, not understanding the joke.
“I’m sorry,” she said, composing herself a little. “I couldn’t help myself. What’s your name, little girl?”
I told her and the next thing I knew, I was sitting alongside her nibbling an almond biscuit. It was strange to see her up close. She wasn’t a statue at all. As she spoke, she gesticulated, her chair rocking more severely when she was impassioned. I watched her as she spoke, transfixed by her whole demeanour. That was the day I became a part of Mrs. Anita Thomas’s routine.
Every day after school the scene would be the same: Me, sitting next to Mrs. Anita Thomas, her in her rocker and me on my chair, her weaving together a tale. Every story began the same way. I would take a bite of my biscuit, and Mrs. Anita Thomas would point a dark root-like finger towards the green and red blanket on her lap. Each day, her knobby finger would point to a new section of the blanket. Once settled, she would begin: “This is a story of our ancestors, and it begins with this piece of cloth…” Every time she said this, I would marvel at her use of our. It implied that we were one in the same, cut from the same cloth somehow. That was always my favourite part.
I remember asking my mum where we were from and her responding, without looking up from the newspaper, “Halifax, sweetie.” But that was not the answer I was searching for.
Mrs. Anita Thomas’s stories were always about our ancestors. She spoke of complicated plots involving star-crossed lovers, with mahogany skin and dueling families and traditions that I never heard of. When I pressed my mother further about our family’s origins, citing Mrs. Anita Thomas’s stories, she would assure me that those were just stories. As far as my mother knew, our family was from Halifax. We were Canadian through and through.
Despite my mum’s insistence on our Canadianness, I believed in Mrs. Anita Thomas’s blanket. I imagined our ancestors weaving together the cloth, infusing it with their stories. Knowing the stories of our ancestors made me feel strong. There was an our.
Mrs. Anita Thomas passed and left her blanket to me. I was 12 at the time, still clinging to my childhood, still clinging to her stories. I was shattered when I discovered the “Made in China” tag on the underside of the blanket. In that moment, I accepted my Canadianness like a bitter pill. There was no our.
When my daughter walks in, to see me in tears holding an old red-and-green blanket, I don’t know what to say. She stands in the doorway, peering at me, eyebrows implying an air of concern. After a moment, I spread the blanket on the floor and invite my young daughter to sit on my lap. I take a breath and point to a section of the blanket. I begin: “This is a story of our ancestors, and it begins with this piece of cloth…”
these words by Tristen Sutherland were inspired by the work of Nick Liefhebber