Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

bria-mclaughlin-and-michelle-chiu-2
Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

angela-sun-isabel-kanaan-and-christine-nguyen
Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

A little birthday #tbt – Born at the Drive-in

I posted this last year and thought it would be fitting to pop out of hiatus momentarily to repost. Inspired by a true event that happened today back in 1963, here’s Born at the Drive-in.

starliteI was born at the drive-in. That’s born, not conceived. My parents were, and still are, good Catholics of the Irish persuasion and waited until marriage, and for a more comfortable and appropriate venue. Or so I’m told, and I have no reason to not believe them. As it was, I was born nine months and one week after the honeymoon, so you can bet the relatives were counting on their fingers for that one.

Of course, I don’t remember being born at the drive-in, but the four people who were present for the eventful occasion have told me the story since I was deemed old enough to hear it, usually at family gatherings and after a certain quantity of alcohol had been consumed. It became one of our favourite family stories. And, like most family stories, the drama and urgency of the situation have snowballed over time. The most believable version of the story goes something like this…

It was early on a Saturday night during a blistering heat wave in the middle of June, 1963 – back in the days of no central air conditioning and a lot of people didn’t even have a window unit. My parents lived in a four-story apartment building on Mohawk Road in Hamilton. No amount of fans placed around their one-bedroom place could cut the merciless humidity, and Mum was already dealing with having to pee every time she turned around, so cold drinks – and the time spent standing in the cooling draft of the open fridge door – only offered momentary relief. I was a week late and counting, and between the crazy high humid heat and first-time parent nerves, the folks were understandably going a bit mental. Mum was a nurse and, with 84 first cousins and a younger sister, was no stranger to childbirth and kids – she just lacked the personal experience. Like most men of the time, Dad had little to no experience with kids, not even babysitting, so he trusted her to know what she was doing and take the lead – even if the thought of being a father secretly scared the crap out of him. (He never admitted this, but a few little birds have since told me.)

Shortly after dinner, there was a knock on the door. Dad opened it to find their friends Jake and Susan Goldstein standing there. Susan was also a nurse, a co-worker of Mum’s at St. Joe’s, and they’d been best friends since nursing school, making the four of them into a well-knit group of pals that my friends and I today would refer to as “chosen family.”

“We were on our way to the drive-in and Susan said ‘Let’s see if Pat and Mary want to come along.’ So here we are,” Jake grinned, somewhat apologetically.

“We would have called first, but I just thought of it in the car. It’ll be good for her to get out of the apartment and get her mind off this heat. It’s a double feature: The King and I and State Fair,” Susan offered enthusiastically.

Dad hesitated. He was seriously considering declining, what with Mum about to pop out a baby any time and all. But before he could say anything, Mum was beside him with her purse and a pillow.

“We’d love to.”

So Mum and Dad decided, ‘what the hell, let’s go to the drive-in with the Goldsteins.’ Maybe somewhere in the back of their minds, they were hoping that this would induce labour. Like eating Jalapeno peppers or going for a jog. Or having the sex. (I have to write “having the sex” – it is my parents we’re talking about here, after all.) Of course, that last option was what got them into this mess in the first place. But I digress. And Jake even offered to take all the bumpiest roads.

They arrived at the Starlite Drive-in (it’s still there, in Stoney Creek) and got set up in time to catch the opening credits of The King and I, the 1956 musical starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Nowadays, when you go to the drive-in, you get the sound through your car radio – back then, you had speakers that you hung on the inside of your window, which Dad says always made him cringe, as he was concerned about scratching the glass. Jake and Dad went to the concession stand to get popcorn and drinks, while Susan and Mum talked shop in the car.

“So, when am I finally going to get to meet this baby of yours?”

“Soon, I hope. I feel like a beached whale. And this heat is —”

“— I know! It’s killing me. I’m telling you, I don’t know if I can take another week of this. Are you comfy enough back there? We have a blanket in the trunk if the pillow isn’t enough to prop you up.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine. I just need this baby out of here.”

And, almost like I’d heard my Mum say this, her water broke. Right there in the back seat of the Goldsteins’ car. She was mortified, but grateful to be sitting on the pillow she’d brought with her. She also knew that it was going to be some time before labour actually resulted in birth. So she said nothing. She figured it was going to be a while before they needed to get to the hospital. Besides, she was a big Yul Brynner fan and really wanted to see The King and I. (This is one of Jake’s embellishments.)

The King and I is a little over two hours long. (IMDb says 133 min.) While the rest of the gang was enjoying the romance, pageantry, and snappy Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack, all in glorious CinemaScope, Mum was timing her contractions. And they were getting a lot closer a lot faster than she expected, especially for a first-time mother. By the time the closing credits started rolling, the contractions were getting more frequent and intense. It was then that she finally spoke up.

“The baby’s coming.”

“I sure hope so. We were expecting its arrival a week ago. I’m going to have to have a chat with him or her regarding punctuality.” Dad was oblivious.

“No. I mean, the baby’s coming. I’m in labour!”

“WHAT?” Now he got it.

“Jake, we need to get her to Henderson.” This was Susan, taking charge.

“Right. Don’t you worry, Mary. I’ll get you there in a flash.”

And you know that saying about how we make plans and God laughs? Well, God must’ve been laughing his ass off at Jake just then.

The engine made a sad, choking sound, like a cat trying to dislodge a fur ball.

“JAKE…?” To say that Susan was unimpressed wouldn’t have even come close.

“Don’t worry. Probably just needs a jump.”

Jake retrieved jumper cables from the trunk and popped the hood, while Dad went to the driver next to them to ask for a jump.

God kept laughing.

“How far apart are your contractions?”

“About 10 minutes. It’s happening so fast.”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess. Let me have a look-see.” Susan joined her in the back seat.

“So stupid! I should have said something. But I was embarrassed, and I thought it would take a lot longer.”

After a few tries trying to jump start the engine, it still wasn’t turning over. Also, the other drive-in patrons were getting annoyed with the noise. One guy, however, heard the noise and came over to help. Turns out, he’d graduated the previous year from the high school Jake taught at.

“Need a hand, Mr. G.?”

“Steve! Yes. Yes, we do. Our friend’s in labour and we need to get her to the hospital. Engine won’t start.”

While Jake, Steve and Dad continued to look under the hood for the problem, Mum’s labour pains were coming on quicker and stronger – and much faster than expected. Apparently, God had me in on the joke.

Susan was timing the contractions now. “That’s five minutes.”

“It’s happening so fast. It’s not supposed to happen this fast on the first one!”

“I guess nobody told your baby that. Honey, I need to check your dilation, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I’m just going to go to the trunk for the blanket. I’ll be right back.”

As Susan exited the car, knowing how close to delivery Mum was, she mentally prepared for the worst, and her previously calm and quiet voice turned firm and authoritative: “Jake, go call the ambulance.”

“What?”

“This baby’s coming sooner than we expected. Then go to the entrance so you can guide them to us.”

“What can I do?” Dad was turning a bit green at this point. After all, he’d expected to be pacing in a hospital waiting room clutching a rolled up magazine while waiting for the doctor to emerge with news of the birth, not assisting with it.

“Go find me some alcohol. Vodka, if you can find it. And give me your pen knife… (It was common knowledge that my Dad carried a sharpened pen knife with him in his pocket everywhere he went; he still does.) …I’ve got some rubber bands in my purse.” She was mostly talking to herself at this point.

“I’ve got some vodka in my car,” Steve offered. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence. The drinking age was 21 back then and he was underage. “My girlfriend likes Screwdrivers,” he shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

“I won’t tell your mother. Now, go!”

Steve directed Dad to the red Thunderbird a couple of rows over, where his girlfriend and another couple were sitting, and resumed work on the engine while Jake ran to the concession to use the phone.

Susan turned her attention back to Mum. “Honey. This baby is coming soon and I don’t think we’ll have time to get you to the hospital.”

“I’m having this baby HERE? I can’t have this baby here!” Mum hadn’t dreamt that she could be even more mortified, yet here she was.

“Yes you can. Don’t you worry. Between the two of us, we’ve helped deliver dozens of babies. Remember that baby-faced resident who fainted? We can do this.” Trying to keep things calm and light while she draped the blanket over Mum’s legs, Susan was the picture of strength and efficiency, but when recounting this story later, she says she was scared to death.

Dad returned with a bottle of vodka, with Steve’s girlfriend and their two friends in tow. Susan used the vodka to wash her hands before inserting a hand to check the status of dilation.

“Ten centimetres. Okay, sweetie, it’s time to push!”

“How can I be ten centimetres already? Are you sure?”

“As sure as I’m gonna teach this baby how to dance. Yes. I’m sure. And now it’s time for you to breathe. And push. So we can get this baby out of here. So take a deep breath…,” she inhaled. “I’ll do it with you…,” she exhaled. “And breathe…”

“I can’t! I can’t have my baby at the drive-in!”

“Mary Frances Nolan! Yes you can. This baby is coming and you are going to push and I am going to catch her. Now push!”

And as much as my mother didn’t want this to be happening there and then, she couldn’t deny the fact that this baby was coming whether she wanted it to not. So this was happening. Mum was having this baby at the drive-in, a detail that seemed less and less important as she and Susan focused on the progress of her labour.

By this time, word had spread around the drive-in that some lady was having a baby in the back seat of a mint green Chevy Bel Air. And so it came to pass that a small crowd gathered around Jake and Susan’s car. Women were offering Susan and Mum towels, advice, an extra pair of hands. Men were offering Dad swigs from flasks, cigars and congratulations. Steve kept working on the engine with his friend Mike while, much to their chagrin, their girlfriends discussed favourite baby names. And, all the while, Susan and Mum were working like crazy to get me out into the world safe and sound.

After some time had passed, with a roar as powerful as the MGM lion – the engine rumbling back to life in unison with the final birthing effort – my Mum gave one last push and out I came, all goopy, moist and crying, into Susan’s waiting hands.

“It’s a girl!” Susan proclaimed. “It’s a girl and she’s beautiful! And healthy. Ten fingers, ten toes.” She wrapped me in a corner of the blanket and was putting me on Mum’s belly just as Jake reappeared, rushing back to the car with the drive-in manager close behind, ushering the ambulance.

“They’re here! Over here!” Jake was running and waving his arms at the same time, almost tripping over himself until the sound of newborn cries stopped him in his tracks, allowing him to pause and see the broad smile on his wife’s face. (Jake is not ashamed to admit that he cried too.)

At that point, the paramedics took over with actual medical equipment and Dad’s pen knife wasn’t needed to cut the umbilical cord after all. There are conflicting reports as to whether Dad actually swooned or merely lost his balance at this point, but we what we do know for sure is that he was grateful and relieved.

So that’s how I came to be born at the drive-in just after midnight on June 16, 1963. In the back of Susan and Jake Goldstein’s car. I’ve since seen The King and I several times – and even had the pleasure of seeing Brynner’s marvelous performance in the 1984 stage production at what used to be the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts). Unlike my mother, though, I’m more of a Deborah Kerr fan myself.

And to this day, if I ever win the lottery, I’ve promised the Goldsteins I’ll buy them a new car.

Jake and Susan Goldstein are composite characters, inspired by real-life family friends – and honourary aunts and uncles – Jerry and Lynda Bromstein, and Bud and Stella Jackson. And, while Mum’s water really did break in the back of the Bromsteins’ car at the Starlite Drive-in, there was no engine mishap and I was born at Henderson Hospital in June 1963, but not on the 16th. Sadly, the Bromsteins are no longer with us; this story is dedicated to them.

Boys to men in raw, darkly funny & thoughtful look at losing, friendship & fundraising in Rowing

Courtney Keir, Madeleine Brown & Andrew Markowiak in Rowing - photo by Jordan Laffrenier
Courtney Keir, Madeleine Brown & Andrew Markowiak in Rowing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Went to a new, alternative rehearsal/performance venue last night to see the opening of Then They Fight’s production of Aaron Jan’s Rowing (directed by Jan) last night at The Fort Studios (1425 Yonge St.).

Despondent, enraged, frustrated and humiliated over a loss, the four young men of the Westdale rowing team sit in their shared hotel room in St. Catharines, solitary and silent. Rock music plays and a banner droops on the wall. All the beer and Springsteen in the world cannot soothe their collective and individual agony. What was to be a post-Henley race celebration/birthday party and Heart & Stroke fundraising event has become a poorly attended wake for the team – and their lives. And as the questions, blame and anger swirl, destruction and chaos ensue.

Really nice work from the cast in this exploration of manhood and success. Crew captain Mark (Zach Parkhurst) is explosive in his rage, mortified that he and the team have failed to continue his proud family legacy and shaming his inherited position on the team – and he’s broiling with thoughts of revenge. The oldest member of the crew, Howie (Drew O’Hara) is about to age out at 26, and has been holding out huge hopes that his five years of blood, sweat and tears on the team would amount to something; the good looking one on the crew, he’s pissed off big time – horny, drunk and looking for some consolation release as he paces the room like a caged animal. The small, home-schooled and child-like Jake (Madeleine Brown) is the crew’s birthday boy; a timid, curious and bright introvert, he’s desperate for his father’s pride and approval as he undertakes a fundraising drive to save the local HSF branch that his father runs. Trying to keep it all together is coxswain Rick (Andrew Markowiak), recently dumped by his girlfriend Clara (Courtney Keir, who brings a driven, grown-up and proactive quality), who’s left him for an older, more mature guy; he’s lost, desperate and out to prove his maturity to win her back.

Add to the mix former crew mate Chris (Lauren Griffiths), a ballsy, brave and direct – sometimes brutally – young woman who moved to Toronto and joined a rival team, but whose heart draws her back to the Westdale crew; and Wyatt (Francois MacDonald), the icy tough, street smart leader of a Toronto crew of young offenders who has a serious beef with Westdale – and the Westdale team must get their shit together, make some choices and take action.

The four Westdale crew mates are each struggling in his own way with preconceived notions of adulthood, success and what it means to be – and what constitutes – a man. The Hamilton they live in is so different than the Hamilton their well-off parents knew – a depressed economy and a downtown core that’s become a ghost town, there is not a lot of hope to be had in their environment. Friendship and loyalties are put to the test – and all are faced with the choice to continue on their present course or turn it around for the better.

Boys to men in this raw, darkly funny and thoughtful look at losing, friendship and fundraising in Rowing.

Rowing continues at The Fort until Oct 17; it’s an intimate space with limited seating, so advance booking strongly recommended (also see the tix link for exact dates/times).

Please note: Although The Fort’s address is 1425 Yonge St. (Yonge/St. Clair E.), the entrance is on St. Clair E., on the south side, between the McDonald’s and 1 St. Clair E. – look out for the signs and the peeps with the oars who will be happy to guide you along your way.

Short fiction – Born at the Drive-in

Hey all – One of my goals for 2015 (and for some time now) is to write more short fiction. Here’s a piece I recently submitted to the Toronto Star short story contest; it didn’t make the top three, but I thought you might get a kick out of it. Here’s Born at the Drive-in.

starliteI was born at the drive-in. That’s born, not conceived. My parents were, and still are, good Catholics of the Irish persuasion and waited until marriage, and for a more comfortable and appropriate venue. Or so I’m told, and I have no reason to not believe them. As it was, I was born nine months and one week after the honeymoon, so you can bet the relatives were counting on their fingers for that one.

Of course, I don’t remember being born at the drive-in, but the four people who were present for the eventful occasion have told me the story since I was deemed old enough to hear it, usually at family gatherings and after a certain quantity of alcohol had been consumed. It became one of our favourite family stories. And, like most family stories, the drama and urgency of the situation have snowballed over time. The most believable version of the story goes something like this…

It was early on a Saturday night during a blistering heat wave in the middle of June, 1963 – back in the days of no central air conditioning and a lot of people didn’t even have a window unit. My parents lived in a four-story apartment building on Mohawk Road in Hamilton. No amount of fans placed around their one-bedroom place could cut the merciless humidity, and Mum was already dealing with having to pee every time she turned around, so cold drinks – and the time spent standing in the cooling draft of the open fridge door – only offered momentary relief. I was a week late and counting, and between the crazy high humid heat and first-time parent nerves, the folks were understandably going a bit mental. Mum was a nurse and, with 84 first cousins and a younger sister, was no stranger to childbirth and kids – she just lacked the personal experience. Like most men of the time, Dad had little to no experience with kids, not even babysitting, so he trusted her to know what she was doing and take the lead – even if the thought of being a father secretly scared the crap out of him. (He never admitted this, but a few little birds have since told me.)

Shortly after dinner, there was a knock on the door. Dad opened it to find their friends Jake and Susan Goldstein standing there. Susan was also a nurse, a co-worker of Mum’s at St. Joe’s, and they’d been best friends since nursing school, making the four of them into a well-knit group of pals that my friends and I today would refer to as “chosen family.”

“We were on our way to the drive-in and Susan said ‘Let’s see if Pat and Mary want to come along.’ So here we are,” Jake grinned, somewhat apologetically.

“We would have called first, but I just thought of it in the car. It’ll be good for her to get out of the apartment and get her mind off this heat. It’s a double feature: The King and I and State Fair,” Susan offered enthusiastically.

Dad hesitated. He was seriously considering declining, what with Mum about to pop out a baby any time and all. But before he could say anything, Mum was beside him with her purse and a pillow.

“We’d love to.”

So Mum and Dad decided, ‘what the hell, let’s go to the drive-in with the Goldsteins.’ Maybe somewhere in the back of their minds, they were hoping that this would induce labour. Like eating Jalapeno peppers or going for a jog. Or having the sex. (I have to write “having the sex” – it is my parents we’re talking about here, after all.) Of course, that last option was what got them into this mess in the first place. But I digress. And Jake even offered to take all the bumpiest roads.

They arrived at the Starlite Drive-in (it’s still there, in Stoney Creek) and got set up in time to catch the opening credits of The King and I, the 1956 musical starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Nowadays, when you go to the drive-in, you get the sound through your car radio – back then, you had speakers that you hung on the inside of your window, which Dad says always made him cringe, as he was concerned about scratching the glass. Jake and Dad went to the concession stand to get popcorn and drinks, while Susan and Mum talked shop in the car.

“So, when am I finally going to get to meet this baby of yours?”

“Soon, I hope. I feel like a beached whale. And this heat is —”

“— I know! It’s killing me. I’m telling you, I don’t know if I can take another week of this. Are you comfy enough back there? We have a blanket in the trunk if the pillow isn’t enough to prop you up.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine. I just need this baby out of here.”

And, almost like I’d heard my Mum say this, her water broke. Right there in the back seat of the Goldsteins’ car. She was mortified, but grateful to be sitting on the pillow she’d brought with her. She also knew that it was going to be some time before labour actually resulted in birth. So she said nothing. She figured it was going to be a while before they needed to get to the hospital. Besides, she was a big Yul Brynner fan and really wanted to see The King and I. (This is one of Jake’s embellishments.)

The King and I is a little over two hours long. (IMDb says 133 min.) While the rest of the gang was enjoying the romance, pageantry, and snappy Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack, all in glorious CinemaScope, Mum was timing her contractions. And they were getting a lot closer a lot faster than she expected, especially for a first-time mother. By the time the closing credits started rolling, the contractions were getting more frequent and intense. It was then that she finally spoke up.

“The baby’s coming.”

“I sure hope so. We were expecting its arrival a week ago. I’m going to have to have a chat with him or her regarding punctuality.” Dad was oblivious.

“No. I mean, the baby’s coming. I’m in labour!”

“WHAT?” Now he got it.

“Jake, we need to get her to Henderson.” This was Susan, taking charge.

“Right. Don’t you worry, Mary. I’ll get you there in a flash.”

And you know that saying about how we make plans and God laughs? Well, God must’ve been laughing his ass off at Jake just then.

The engine made a sad, choking sound, like a cat trying to dislodge a fur ball.

“JAKE…?” To say that Susan was unimpressed wouldn’t have even come close.

“Don’t worry. Probably just needs a jump.”

Jake retrieved jumper cables from the trunk and popped the hood, while Dad went to the driver next to them to ask for a jump.

God kept laughing.

“How far apart are your contractions?”

“About 10 minutes. It’s happening so fast.”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess. Let me have a look-see.” Susan joined her in the back seat.

“So stupid! I should have said something. But I was embarrassed, and I thought it would take a lot longer.”

After a few tries trying to jump start the engine, it still wasn’t turning over. Also, the other drive-in patrons were getting annoyed with the noise. One guy, however, heard the noise and came over to help. Turns out, he’d graduated the previous year from the high school Jake taught at.

“Need a hand, Mr. G.?”

“Steve! Yes. Yes, we do. Our friend’s in labour and we need to get her to the hospital. Engine won’t start.”

While Jake, Steve and Dad continued to look under the hood for the problem, Mum’s labour pains were coming on quicker and stronger – and much faster than expected. Apparently, God had me in on the joke.

Susan was timing the contractions now. “That’s five minutes.”

“It’s happening so fast. It’s not supposed to happen this fast on the first one!”

“I guess nobody told your baby that. Honey, I need to check your dilation, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I’m just going to go to the trunk for the blanket. I’ll be right back.”

As Susan exited the car, knowing how close to delivery Mum was, she mentally prepared for the worst, and her previously calm and quiet voice turned firm and authoritative: “Jake, go call the ambulance.”

“What?”

“This baby’s coming sooner than we expected. Then go to the entrance so you can guide them to us.”

“What can I do?” Dad was turning a bit green at this point. After all, he’d expected to be pacing in a hospital waiting room clutching a rolled up magazine while waiting for the doctor to emerge with news of the birth, not assisting with it.

“Go find me some alcohol. Vodka, if you can find it. And give me your pen knife… (It was common knowledge that my Dad carried a sharpened pen knife with him in his pocket everywhere he went; he still does.) …I’ve got some rubber bands in my purse.” She was mostly talking to herself at this point.

“I’ve got some vodka in my car,” Steve offered. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence. The drinking age was 21 back then and he was underage. “My girlfriend likes Screwdrivers,” he shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

“I won’t tell your mother. Now, go!”

Steve directed Dad to the red Thunderbird a couple of rows over, where his girlfriend and another couple were sitting, and resumed work on the engine while Jake ran to the concession to use the phone.

Susan turned her attention back to Mum. “Honey. This baby is coming soon and I don’t think we’ll have time to get you to the hospital.”

“I’m having this baby HERE? I can’t have this baby here!” Mum hadn’t dreamt that she could be even more mortified, yet here she was.

“Yes you can. Don’t you worry. Between the two of us, we’ve helped deliver dozens of babies. Remember that baby-faced resident who fainted? We can do this.” Trying to keep things calm and light while she draped the blanket over Mum’s legs, Susan was the picture of strength and efficiency, but when recounting this story later, she says she was scared to death.

Dad returned with a bottle of vodka, with Steve’s girlfriend and their two friends in tow. Susan used the vodka to wash her hands before inserting a hand to check the status of dilation.

“Ten centimetres. Okay, sweetie, it’s time to push!”

“How can I be ten centimetres already? Are you sure?”

“As sure as I’m gonna teach this baby how to dance. Yes. I’m sure. And now it’s time for you to breathe. And push. So we can get this baby out of here. So take a deep breath…,” she inhaled. “I’ll do it with you…,” she exhaled. “And breathe…”

“I can’t! I can’t have my baby at the drive-in!”

“Mary Frances Nolan! Yes you can. This baby is coming and you are going to push and I am going to catch her. Now push!”

And as much as my mother didn’t want this to be happening there and then, she couldn’t deny the fact that this baby was coming whether she wanted it to not. So this was happening. Mum was having this baby at the drive-in, a detail that seemed less and less important as she and Susan focused on the progress of her labour.

By this time, word had spread around the drive-in that some lady was having a baby in the back seat of a mint green Chevy Bel Air. And so it came to pass that a small crowd gathered around Jake and Susan’s car. Women were offering Susan and Mum towels, advice, an extra pair of hands. Men were offering Dad swigs from flasks, cigars and congratulations. Steve kept working on the engine with his friend Mike while, much to their chagrin, their girlfriends discussed favourite baby names. And, all the while, Susan and Mum were working like crazy to get me out into the world safe and sound.

After some time had passed, with a roar as powerful as the MGM lion – the engine rumbling back to life in unison with the final birthing effort – my Mum gave one last push and out I came, all goopy, moist and crying, into Susan’s waiting hands.

“It’s a girl!” Susan proclaimed. “It’s a girl and she’s beautiful! And healthy. Ten fingers, ten toes.” She wrapped me in a corner of the blanket and was putting me on Mum’s belly just as Jake reappeared, rushing back to the car with the drive-in manager close behind, ushering the ambulance.

“They’re here! Over here!” Jake was running and waving his arms at the same time, almost tripping over himself until the sound of newborn cries stopped him in his tracks, allowing him to pause and see the broad smile on his wife’s face. (Jake is not ashamed to admit that he cried too.)

At that point, the paramedics took over with actual medical equipment and Dad’s pen knife wasn’t needed to cut the umbilical cord after all. There are conflicting reports as to whether Dad actually swooned or merely lost his balance at this point, but we what we do know for sure is that he was grateful and relieved.

So that’s how I came to be born at the drive-in just after midnight on June 16, 1963. In the back of Susan and Jake Goldstein’s car. I’ve since seen The King and I several times – and even had the pleasure of seeing Brynner’s marvelous performance in the 1984 stage production at what used to be the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts). Unlike my mother, though, I’m more of a Deborah Kerr fan myself.

And to this day, if I ever win the lottery, I’ve promised the Goldsteins I’ll buy them a new car.

Jake and Susan Goldstein are composite characters, inspired by real-life family friends – and honourary aunts and uncles – Jerry and Lynda Bromstein, and Bud and Stella Jackson. And, while Mum’s water really did break in the back of the Bromsteins’ car at the Starlite Drive-in, there was no engine mishap and I was born at Henderson Hospital in June 1963, but not on the 16th. Sadly, the Bromsteins are no longer with us; this story is dedicated to them.