Our family lived in Canada for three years between 1987-1990. It was fun and all, but I think my parents could’ve done more to ensure us kids had a smoother reintegration into Australian life. They were fine (for anyone over 30, three years is about the length of a coke commercial) but for us kids, a lifetime had passed, and in that time we had forgotten all about the motherland and her mysterious ways.
No one told us, for example, that if you entered a talent contest, you should probably possess something bordering on talent. For all we knew, they were just an opportunity to get up and speak into a microphone. So when a bird impersonation contest came up at our primary school, my older sister Lu thought, “I’d be super average at that. Let’s make it happen.”
In Australia, if you’re not gifted, no one is going to pat you on the back and tell you you’re amazing. Not your mum, not your siblings, not your teacher: no one. In Canada, you’re supported regardless of your lack of skill. This regional quirk must have rubbed off on my parents, because instead of discouraging my sister from entering, they fully supported her.
No Australian parent in sound mind would have let her take the stage. Not only was she completely unprepared, but she had a page boy cut that made her look like she was in the first stage of transitioning. I don’t know what she did to annoy mum, but while my sister and I sported long, glorious locks throughout our childhood, she was channeling this guy…
Live long and prosper.
The day of the talent contest came, and with it a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had heard her practising at home, and I knew that it wasn’t going to end well for Luigi. She was probably going to have to legally change her name or move into witness protection. Thank goodness this was the pre-internet 90s, or one of the kids would have uploaded the performance to YouTube under the heading “REKT,” or “F$%@ off, we’re full.”
First cab off the rank was Glendon Wesley, a wiry, serious chap whose rendition of a magpie, complete with pitch perfect warble, generated a gasp of delight from the students. If you closed your eyes, you could’ve sworn you were about to get swooped. Another boy’s kookaburra was flawless, his cackling crescendo inspiring in the audience awe and mirth in equal measure. (He had had the foresight to be born looking like a kookaburra, too, which gave an added layer of complexity to his performance.) A few more followed, each of them, if not exceptional, recognisable.
And then it was my sister’s turn. Please Lord, I thought, sending a silent prayer heavenwards. Come now. But no rapture ensued (no smiting either, more’s the pity). Instead, my sister took the microphone, swallowed nervously and proceeded to unleash her mediocrity on the audience.
“Chickadee dee dee dee dee,” she said, making a sweeping gesture with her hand in an attempt to engage the audience. “Chickadee dee dee dee dee.”
The careful reader will note that I used the word said. Not whistled or trilled or sang or chirruped. Said. Because she literally just said the words. No nuance, no subtlety – just the name of the bird she was impersonating.
In all fairness, the chickadee’s call does loosely resemble its name (see onomatopoeia). But if that’s the case, maybe go with another bird. And why a North American bird? It made the whole thing even more bizarre because no one knew which animal she was failing to impersonate. Was she meant to be a chicken? Did she have a stutter? Terets? Dementia?
Oh please let that be it, I thought, when she was midway through, wringing my hands. But on it went, as though she was convinced that the more she said it, the better it would get. She was probably emboldened by the looks of support on my parent’s faces who, poor fools, had been brainwashed into thinking that what was transpiring was adorable.
She did have guts, though, I’ll give her that. No one who valued the quality of their remaining years at primary school would have dared to do what she did. Nonetheless I wished to remain a silent partner. She looked like a poor sad bird, tweeting away up there on the stage. A bird whose mother had thrown her out of the nest, and not because she wanted to teach her to fly. “Is that your sister?” a girl in my row asked, tapping me on the shoulder. I shrugged and looked in the other direction.
At least that time it wasn’t an outright lie. That would come later, when my brother, who had missed a good chunk of swimming lessons during his time in Canada, forced me into a corner. I was maybe a year or two behind in the swimming department, but I had managed to remain relatively unscathed. Not so my brother Miik (the artist formerly known as Michael).
There he was, one year off high school, thrashing around in a pool of seven-year-olds, looking like he was about to use one of them to stop himself from drowning. I was more assertive when questioned this time. “What, him?” I said, pointing at the only preadolescent in the pool with floaties around his arms. “Never seen him in my life.” It was a necessary lie, I thought. Like telling the Gestapo you weren’t hiding Jews in your house.
Not that I was without my shortcomings. In our time overseas, I’d picked up that most quintessential of Canadian attributes – excessive politeness – and it came back to bite me in A MAJOR WAY. Put it this way – it’s not every day that you wet yourself because of good manners. (Another blog, another time.)
When I looked up the stats on chickadees a few days ago, I was surprised to find out that they’re actually pretty cool birds. Like the willy wagtail, they are comically aggressive given their size. (Think Joe Pesci in avian form). After years of associating chickadees with shame, distress and ignominy, I was finally able to say their name without flinching. On reflection, they may even be my spirit animal. Like me, they’re adorable, store it round their gut, and belong to a family of tits.