Borrowing - I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow. ~ Woodrow T. Wilson
The US Selective Service, still filling slots for the Vietnam War, had denied Ed’s request for Conscientious Objector status. What person raised Catholic, they wondered, would choose to become a Unitarian minister? Pure expediency, they determined - then they drafted him. Ed and I refused to support the war, so we packed what we could in our car and left the States for Canada. For the next three months, we tent-camped through the Eastern Townships of Quebec and New Brunswick, across the Bay of Fundy into Nova Scotia, and back again to Ottawa, Ontario - looking for a place to live.
In mid-August, we met Norm and Diane Crawley at the Unitarian Church of Ottawa. They ran a safe house for American draft dodgers, and because we looked like an honest, upstanding family, they asked us to housesit while they went on a month’s vacation. During our stay in the Crawley’s home, Katie celebrated her second birthday, and a volunteer from the Aid to Immigration and Draft guided us through a maze of escapade and intrigue so we could become Landed Immigrants of Canada (see “Canadian Landing” posted 11/09).
By early October, we were ready to live on our own again. We found a lovely apartment in the suburbs of Ottawa that cost $300 a month – rather expensive for us at the time. But we had a little money from an inheritance set aside for emergencies. Ed and I decided that, after three months of camping, one month of living with seven strangers in someone else’s home, and a two-year-old daughter way past ready for potty training, living in our own place had become an emergency.
Ed continued to look for a good theological school and a full-time job, and I found a part-time job at as an aide in a private kindergarten owned by an aging woman who used Sesame Street as her main teaching tool, except when the show repeated a letter because, “The kids had that letter last week.” Educational reinforcement and child development held less importance than pocketing the cash from parents too uninvolved to notice.
I left the kindergarten job in early December when I found a sales position in downtown Ottawa at a gem and jewelry store, owned by Tom and Nancy, a couple from northern Ontario who seemed generous and enthusiastic to hire me. I started work just as the Christmas season lit up the city with greenery, red berries, twinkle lights, and lots of snow.
Tom and Nancy showed me around the store, explaining the basics of all the precious and semi-precious gems on display. There were bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and individual stones ready to be set into original designs. Aquamarine, opal, amber, tanzanite, onyx, peridot, rose quartz, and smoky topaz. I learned where the gems were mined, which ones stood up to everyday wear, and which ones didn’t. Carol, the other salesperson, and I became friendly and often chatted with each other on our time off. She taught me how to use the electric cash registers at the front of the store and the manual one in the back near the office, and she showed me how to arrange the agate geode bookends so they’d display their best sides.
The T-shaped store had display cases continuing through the shop to the left and an office to the right where we kept our coats and purses, ate lunch, and gossiped about the customers.
A perk of the job, a requirement actually, was to wear pieces of jewelry as a marketing technique. Each morning Carol and I chose which of the beauties to wear. We decked ourselves in turquoise bracelets, amethyst necklaces, and jade earrings. It worked. Customers noticed. We sold items right off our bodies.
A couple of weeks after I began work, Nancy asked me why Ed and I moved to Canada. I told her the truth - that we didn’t support the war in Vietnam, so when the draft board refused Ed’s Conscientious Objector request and drafted him, we left the country. When I finished the story, Nancy said, “Oh,” and went off to rearrange a set of bookends. Her response troubled me. Most Canadians Ed and I had met were sympathetic to our cause.
It was on the day I told my story to Nancy that I wore a pair of 14 karat gold and jade teardrop earrings. Carol and I went out to lunch a couple of blocks down the street. A little short on cash, I borrowed a dollar from Carol. I felt somewhat irresponsible for not having enough money to cover my meal, but Carol smiled and said she didn’t mind.
A soft snow began to fall as we walked back to the store. An hour later, I realized one of the earrings was gone. I felt sick. Had I lost it? The guilt of borrowing a dollar from Carol diminished in light of losing an expensive earring. How would I explain this to Tom and Nancy? I scoured the floor, searched the office, and checked the folds and pockets of my winter coat. I made some excuse to leave the store and walked toward the restaurant, head down, searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The sloppy sidewalk made it practically impossible to see anything but slush mixed with dirt as shoppers trampled through the snow. But right there, at the edge of a ventilation grate, I saw a pop of green and gold. The jade earring. In perfect condition. Ah - saved from telling Tom and Nancy that I had lost the earring in the first place.
About two hours after that, the electricity went out. The snowfall had turned into a severe storm and knocked out the power on our side of the street. A generator provided enough electricity to light up a portion of the front display areas and to run one of the automatic cash registers. Nancy asked me to monitor the back area and if necessary, use the manual cash register beside the office. Tom, Nancy, and Carol stayed in the front of the store and chatted. They glanced in my direction every now and then, but I couldn’t hear what they said. The storm kept away customers, so I didn’t have much to do other than hang around in the dark. I located a stool, a flashlight, and an old Life magazine from the office and sat there until closing, passing the time by reading under the dim light.
Before I left for work the next morning, I received a phone call from Nancy. “You don’t need to come in anymore,” she clipped.
“Not at all?” I asked. “What happened?”
“The weather is keeping people home . . . .” She cleared her throat. “We don’t have much traffic. Sales are down. We’ll put a check in the mail.”
I had only worked there two weeks. How could they have changed their minds in two weeks? Nancy’s hostile tone indicated something more had happened. She hung up before I could ask.
Ed, Katie, and I drove into the city so I could return the dollar to Carol. Ed and Katie window-shopped while I went to the store.
Nancy stood at the cash register sorting bills. A customer twirled the earring display. Harry Belafonte sang through the speakers, “for hate is strong, and mocks the song . . .”
“Hi, Nancy,” I said, thinking she’d be glad to see me. “Is Carol here? I came to return a dollar I borrowed yesterday.”
“No, she isn’t,” Nancy said. She dropped some dollar bills into the drawer. She looked up at me square in the eye. “And if she were, she wouldn’t want to see you.”
My stomach flipped. Huh? “What?”
Nancy looked back at her money. “Carol’s not here . . . you should leave.”
“What happened?” Never before had I felt so immediately confused and startled and unjustly attacked.
“You know what you did,” she said.
“I don’t know. What are you talking about?”
Nancy heaved a sigh, plopped her palms on the counter, and leaned forward. “Yesterday . . . when the electricity went off . . . you were the only one in the back . . . money was stolen from Carol’s purse. You were the only one back there,” she emphasized.
My mind went dizzy, then blank. I lost focus, the idea of stealing - anything - was so alien to me. Maybe in the next split second I looked guilty because I didn’t move – I just stared at the counter.
Finally, I spoke. “I didn’t do that,” I whispered. “I don’t even take money from my husband’s pants pockets when I hang up his clothes.” I sounded silly. Then I remembered the jade earrings. “I trampled through the snow yesterday looking for an earring you wanted me to wear. I thought I’d lost it. Do you think I’d go to that kind of trouble if I were a common thief?” My incredulity at the injustice turned my voice into a frenzied whine. “And why would I trek all the way back here to return a stupid dollar to Carol if I had just stolen money from her?” The more I talked the madder I got. “Never, in a million years, would steal from anyone!”
Nancy waved her arm in dismissal. “Well, whatever happened, we don’t want you here anymore.” She grabbed the dollar I still held in my hand. “I’ll see that Carol gets this.” She walked off to attend to the customer, who by that time had received quite an earful.
Harry Belafonte’s song followed me out the door. “And in despair I bowed my head . . ."
By the time I reached Ed and Katie across the street, I was choking back sobs, and by the time I finished venting the incident to Ed, he was half-way to the store.
Katie and I trailed into the shop behind Ed and watched as he yelled at Nancy for accusing me of stealing - and for firing me, which by that time had become an afterthought. “Ellie is about as honest as they come. And a more loyal person you’ll never meet.”
At once, my emotions stumbled over each other – pride for Ed, anger at the false accusation, pity for myself, dismay at losing my job.
“Funny, coming from you,” Nancy sneered. “You two left your country. What kind of loyalty is that?”
It didn’t take a genius to figure what had happened. Nancy, Tom, and probably Carol didn’t approve of our life choices, and no matter what we did or said, we’d never convince them that I hadn’t stolen money from Carol’s purse, much less merit working there.
It was through a conflict of values, followed by borrowing with good intentions and good will, that had led my family and me to this time and place. Guided by our moral codes, we had left the life, values, and resources of one country and borrowed those of another - temporary homes in Canadian campgrounds, comfort at the Crawley’s, and volunteers who helped us become Landed Immigrants.
But it was through telling the truth about those very life choices that condemned me. My tenacity to search for and find a jade teardrop earring, and my determination to return a borrowed dollar carried no weight. Prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance had defined me. They labeled me a thief. No recognition of unmerited indictment. No reluctance to shovel me into yesterday’s snow.
The frustration of defeat in the face of injustice overwhelmed me. I had no recourse. If I reported the situation to the Canadian version of the Better Business Bureau, Nancy and Tom could have recanted calling me a crook, and they could have said they had to let me go because they didn’t have enough customers to keep me on staff. What employee advocate would find a merchant culpable of business related injustice in the face of economic decline?
Up to that point, even with the selective service denying Ed CO status, my world had been a fair one. This foreign accusatory world held me hostage. I wanted to hang these people from the nearest store rafter, but I was powerless to combat them in any way that would offer justice.
Later that day and into the next, I composed a letter to Nancy and Tom about honor, fairness, and social conviction. I moralized. I gave examples of my good character. I threw in times I could have cheated and didn’t. What I thought I’d reap from this moral scolding is anyone’s guess. I suppose I wanted them to understand that following my conscience, even if it meant leaving my country, didn’t equal petty thievery.
I never heard from them. Never had the satisfaction of a simple apology. I had to let it go.
Every now and then, I fuss about the incident and the stinging indignation that followed, but I refused to let it tear me down. In fact, it helped strenghten my depository of strength and resilience - a depository I draw from when I need to borrow a little fortitude.