My mother is the oldest surviving sibling in a sprawling poverty stricken family that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Until just the past year my grandmother continued to live in the house my mother was born in. The house was once surrounded by farmland that has slowly evolved to suburbs over the past 65 years. My grandmother was an alcoholic who would often spend the welfare money on booze while her kids ran around in clothes held together by safety pins. Her generation knew the power of the rod and often one or another of the children was sent next door to get the neighbour’s leather belt when there was a punishment to be dealt out. When my grandmother’s eldest son died in a mental institution she didn’t have enough money to bury him so she didn’t claim the body. The city buried him in an unmarked grave. Thirty years into her sobriety she would still remark how much that bothered her.
For years the last name of my mother’s brothers would be synonymous with crime in the small community they grew up in. A Saturday morning could find them chasing rats out at the dump. A Saturday night could find them tipping over outhouses or throwing straw stuffed dummies out into the streets under the wheels of unsuspecting drivers’ cars. It never occurred to them that the result of their actions might have dire consequences. They were poor, young and bored and that was reason enough. All this might serve to create a feeling of inferiority in most souls but not this hearty bunch.
I could never get the whole story but suffice it to say there was some reason that my mother’s family felt they were superior to their neighbours the Chumiaks. There’s some vague information in regards to socially awkward and unattractive children but nothing that would seem tragic enough to justify the establishment of the Chumiak Award. I’m not sure how the Chumiaks would feel to know the reasoning behind the establishment of this award. If they did I’m sure they’d show a marked lack of appreciation for the whole affair.
It’s just an old battered plaque. Old adhesive has dried up and most of the old brass plates are held in place with scotch tape. The years that the award has been handed out are sporadic as evidenced by the random listing of dates. In the later years the engraved brass plates had been replaced by paper nametags but still the institution remains. It is the Chumiak Award and it is awarded to the family member who presents or displays the silliest or lamest behaviour possible.
The last clearest memory I have of the Chumiak Award is at my Aunt Karen’s (affectionately known to all and sundry as Spider) 40th birthday party. Once again the shores of Lake Ontario would play host to this gala affair that would include barbeque, bonfires, music and a creative meatloaf contest. The best meatloaf entry would merit a place of infamy on the Chumiak Award. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to present my entry, a lovely meatloaf oasis with a ketchup spring and tatter tot palm trees. I can’t remember who won that night (professional jealousy I’m sure) but I do remember that battered old plaque with its mishmash of names and dates. There were a lot of miles on that plaque just as there were a lot of miles in the hearts of my mother and her siblings. They walked those miles together.
There are a lot of people who still spit on the ground when they hear that old family name. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have bet you 2 cents that any of those kids would have made it to where they finally ended up. Some of those people would be my mother’s brothers and sisters themselves. Granted a few have fallen by the wayside but the core still remains. It’s funny about that plaque, you’d think that the life they were living wouldn’t have allowed them hold their heads up above anyone else’s but they did. Resilience, strength, stubbornness and humour are necessary tools for survival and they had them in spades as evidenced by the survival of the Chumiak Award. It’s just a grubby old plaque stored in the back of someone’s closet until it gets dragged out again for the next meatloaf contest or asinine event that occurs. The years are marked by the brass and the tape, the paper and the ink and the laughter and the tears. And until the last one of those kids is gone it will continue to stand in remembrance of battles fought together and the ties that bind and carry us through the most difficult of our days and beyond.