Seventeen Forever

I never knew my uncle. I didn’t know I could ask.

By Erin Hudson

This is how I met my uncle: It was summer. We were at our cottage in Milford Bay, two hours north of Toronto. I was maybe eight years old and I think we were eating dinner.

“Have we ever had a cat instead of a dog?” I remember asking my mom. She told me yes; her family used to have a cat named Buttons and she had a picture. She took a chair and stood on it to reach a photo that had been hanging above the dining room doorway. She took down this photo: half of Buttons is sitting on the couch beside a teenage boy with long skater hair and broad shoulders.

The boy isn’t smiling, but doesn’t seem angry either. His face looks familiar somehow. The couch and faux wood paneling behind him doesn’t look like our house or my grandparents’.

“Who’s that?” I asked. Adults I didn’t know intimidated me, particularly men and boys. I didn’t grow up seeing our extended family, mostly boys, often and my immediate family was mostly women, so what was this boy doing in a framed photo hanging on the wall of our cottage?

“It’s your Uncle Stephen.”

I knew my mom had a younger brother, but I’d never knowingly seen him before that moment. Suddenly, it made sense why I recognized his eyes and brows — it’s my mom’s gaze. I think I understood intuitively not to ask another question, not because my mom, Lynn, and my grandparents, Norman and Marion, wouldn’t answer, but because there was no point. He was gone, nothing would change that, and, in my family, we cry or we stay silent — there’s seldom any ground between the two. We have a saying in our family: It’s not a lively family discussion unless someone cries. So, Stephen stayed on the wall like a window into another time, which we knew of, but not about, until years later.

The first thing I learned when I decided to get to know the boy in the picture was that everyone called him Steve. Steve was my mom’s younger brother by about two years — the same age difference between me and my little sister.

He was 17 when, in January 1978, he went skiing with his friends. My grandparents told him to stay home and do his math homework — he wasn’t a good student and university applications were looming. A snowstorm was forecast and roads would be bad. But Steve was at his best in motion, so he went.

On the way home, he sat next to the driver. Steve’s best friend Peter Kuntz sat in the back. As the car drove out of the ski hill’s parking lot, it hit a patch of black ice. They swung into oncoming traffic and collided with a pickup truck. There was one fatality.

Almost two hundred people showed up to Steve’s funeral. Someone played Stevie Wonder’s A Place in the Sun on the guitar. Afterwards at the reception, Steve’s friends sat in the basement of my grandparent’s house in stunned silence.

Lynn went back to university and her friends kept their distance. What do you say to someone who lost her brother? She was now a living reminder of something no one wanted to think about.

Norman, her father, rarely spoke about his son for years afterwards. He blamed himself. He knew the storm was getting worse; he should have called them that day and told them to spend the night in a nearby hotel.

Norman’s wife Marion had to reconcile the rascal her son was at 17 with the man she’d been hoping he’d become. But all she had left was this photo — an imperfect moment from a less than ideal time in their family.

Almost 40 years later, the first memories that came to Marion’s 91-year-old mind when I asked about Steve included the time he abandoned her in a sailboat in the middle of a lake, the time he tipped over their snowmobile pinning her underneath and finally, the time she found marijuana hidden in his room.

“He had no patience,” she said. Each time he’d stranded her, either on water or waist-deep in snow, she didn’t lecture him. “What’s the point?” she told me with a strained smile and forced laugh as she cleaned breakfast dishes. Exasperating my grandma Marion, the perpetual optimist, to the point of resigned acceptance is a notable feat Steve seemed to have mastered over his high school years.

Left home alone one weekend, Steve hosted a party that had to be broken up by the neighbors. He and a friend threw bottle caps into the same neighbor’s pool as part of a game. He didn’t do well in school and, when he went out on weekends, he would never call to tell his parents where he was.

One night, Marion waited up for him until 2 a.m. with no clue of where her son might be. When he finally ambled in, Marion was furious. Her response to the boy who never seemed to listen was visceral: “I swatted him on the backside. I was so upset.”

Marion, at 5 foot 6 inches tall, was a tough but slender woman. Steve, who was “probably 16” at the time, towered over his mother. The idea of Marion hitting him is laughable, but she was frustrated enough to try anyway. Steve apologized and explained why he was so late: he’d missed the bus and walked for hours to get home.

It would happen again and again. Steve and his friends would disappear — sometimes to listen to a band play nearby — but the point was he never asked, so Marion and Norman wouldn’t know where he’d gone. “Bad things happen to boys too,” she told me. “It’s not just girls.”

Lynn remembered her parents and Steve fighting over everything. Norman and Marion tried to recruit Lynn to help their efforts, asking her to speak with Steve, but she didn’t want to get involved; this was between them. Besides, she didn’t think he was doing anything really wrong.

She told me that Steve was a favorite crush among the girls at Erindale Secondary School, though he never had a girlfriend. He played hockey until he was 15 and then decided to quit; he wasn’t going to the NHL — only the coaches’ sons would get that opportunity — so he decided it was time to try something new.

Every Sunday, he would drive or take the bus into the east end of Toronto to go to skateboard. In school, Steve focused on track and field. He ran and specialized in pole vaulting; he liked the idea of going up and over the high bar. Like Lynn, he worked part time after school at a golf club and a shipping depot. He was always on time. When my grandparents decided to renovate the family cottage, Steve and Lynn were put to work — building the porch, shingling, painting, gardening and mowing the lawn.

My mother and her brother were close, rivals but best friends. Though they ran in different circles, Lynn started introducing Steve to some of her friends. She was part of the right crowd and Steve seemed to like her friends. So, before she graduated from Erindale in spring of 1976 and moved an hour away to university, there was hope.

Months later, when Lynn was home for the holidays, she would take the photo that would become how Steve was remembered. It seemed like it would be a nice photo to have of that Christmas.

The moment Lynn captured excludes any details that would indicate the season or that my grandparents were around. She did it on purpose; she didn’t want any forced smiles in the picture. She wanted a real photo that could pass as part of a nice Christmas, even if just for a moment. For the illusion to be possible, she couldn’t let her mom or dad in the photo and risk shattering what she saw through the viewfinder: Steve looking happy.

“I just thought it was a really great photo,” she told me.

But things at home were strained. Six months earlier, while cleaning Steve’s room, my grandma Marion found the marijuana. She and Norman were furious, though Lynn remembered Marion being the most vocal. They told Steve in no uncertain terms that doing drugs was grounds for eviction in the Goodayle household. If he wanted to continue getting high, he would have to find a new place to live.

Lynn was horrified at their reaction. She and her friends would drink beer despite being under-aged, often at the cottage with her parent’s supervision. They’d established ground rules: no driving; no boating. But pot was different. It was a drug, not a coming-of-age beverage. And Steve would never consult his parents.

Lynn didn’t think Steve had a “significant problem” and, considering his group of friends, she wasn’t surprised he was smoking. He was working part-time at a truck depot — “trucking and drugs are pretty notorious” — and Lynn didn’t think that environment was a permanent place for Steve. It was just one phase in the life of her brother.

Marion, a devout Christian and working mother, saw it differently. She’d grown in up in the small town of Vernon, B.C. in Western Canada where a local youth group and her large extended family served as her gateway into the world. Youth to my grandma meant helping with farm work on her grandfather’s ranch, listening to her aunts tell scandalous jokes and stories, and, when World War Two started, going to army dances with her brother as her date. Marion knew how to have fun, but she did so following the rules. Knowing this, the idea that using drugs warranted kicking her son out of the house does not surprise me. Never one to hold back her opinions, I remember feeling grumpy one day when I was maybe 11 and her saying, “Gee, I hope this doesn’t reflect how Erin will turn out.”

So, that Christmas, the tension between my grandparents and Steve was palpable, so much so that my mom isolated Steve in this photo to try and save a happy memory from it.

The truth of whether Steve was throwing away his life or on the cusp of growing up is somewhere in between.

Peter Kuntz, one of Steve’s friends, visits his grave every so often — a place I’ve never been. “He was my best buddy,” he told me. Peter is 56 and the father of two.

They met in grade 9 and were “chumming around” until the accident. They would go to Steve’s place for lunch and listen to Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Supertramp on Steve’s Marantz stereo receiver. They’d goof around in the big yard and Peter would stick around even when Steve had chores to do.

At the cottage, they’d tie a rope to the boat Steve was allowed to drive, grab a plywood board and drag each other across the bay. Steve was the only friend Peter spent so much time with and the constant backdrop to everything they did was smoking pot. “There was a stretch there,” he said, “where we were high every day.”

“I remember being in English class, and we’d toke up before going in,” he said. Getting high was just for “shits and giggles,” but Peter got serious the next year and got into university.

“I imagine Steve would have done the same,” he said.

Norman and Marion couldn’t believe that — every teacher confirmed their son was a poor student, except for one, Steve’s grade 12 architectural drafting teacher, Christopher Parr. He thought Steve was a mature, introspective young man. Parr attended the funeral and sent a letter a week later with Steve’s final exam attached. The exam was a mock questionnaire for applicants to the University of Toronto’s architecture school, one of the country’s top institutions in the field. “You demonstrate sufficient depth of thought that would grant you a continued interview. In other words — you pass!” Parr wrote in red pen on Steve’s exam.

The closest I’ll ever get to knowing what Steve thought is a series of essays he wrote in grade 12 English. Lynn found them in his locker two hours before his funeral. He wrote in looping cursive about his feelings on good and evil, his family and Christmas. He wrote about being shy, how German Shepherds personified evil and explained why he believed in God, even though most of friends didn’t. He wrote about being teased for his crooked front tooth — “people can be cruel” — and how he came home crying from high school one day. He appreciated how his mom reacted: she made an appointment to get him braces.

He also wrote about his older sister helping him feel comfortable around new people when he started high school and how his dad always stood by the finish line, yelling loudly, at his track races.

“No matter what barrier I have to overcome in my life, I know that my parents and sister will be there to help me and I will be around to help them over big obstacles,” he wrote in November 1977, about two months before his family would face their biggest obstacle.

Three days before he died, he turned in his Christmas essay. It was the best time of the year because “it’s the only time of the year when people seem to be happy and nice to one another.”

If you flip through Steve’s photo album, which was put together by his mother, it’s clear high school changed him. The first few pages are filled with big smiles and action. There are photos of him balancing on top of his highchair, sitting on a tipping chair and perching on a rocking horse standing on tiptoes. At 14, his transformation from a wide grin to a closed-mouth stare begins.

In his grade 9 school photo his blond hair covers his ears. He’s wearing a cotton plaid shirt and looks like a grinning troublemaker. The next photo shows him on initiation day, wearing short shorts and a white halter top that exposes 4 inches of his abdomen. He’s smiling as if to say, “here we go.” A year later, his chin-length hair looks electrically charged as it fans out around his ears. He’s smiling with eyes half shut, as though in a happy daze. In grade 11, he stares blankly, his mouth in a straight line, tolerating the camera. His hair is cut into a styled man-bob with bangs and layers. There’s no grade 12 picture.

The last photo in the album is one I’ve never seen before: Steve is sitting on a chairlift, his back ramrod straight as he holds his skis and poles neatly. Marion’s handwritten caption read: “Wonderful day skiing.” It’s dated January 20, 1978. The next page shows a two-inch by two-inch square newspaper clipping — the obituary. The rest of the album is blank.

Friday January 20, 1978 was a gorgeous day, but the weather forecast promised otherwise. Norman and Marion had made a deal with Steve the night before: if the weather was bad, he would stay home. If the sun came up, he would go. Marion saw him off. “Goodbye, have fun and be careful,” she told him. He got into his friend’s compact car and they were off.

The trip was Peter’s idea. He and two friends Steve didn’t know too well were going skiing. Steve wasn’t a serious skier — he didn’t own skis like the other boys, but that didn’t stop him from doing tricks off the mountain’s jumps. At the end of the day, getting ready for the two-hour drive home, Steve and Peter both wanted the prime seat — the front seat.

Peter remembered a coin toss. Steve called heads and Queen Elizabeth II’s bust landed face up; Peter was relegated to the back seat, sitting directly behind the driver, Andrew Scheve. The trip ended up being a short one.

The accident happened at 5:55 p.m., in the west end of Collingwood, a short distance from the ski hill. Peter remembered going over a bridge when they hit black ice and spun out. Andrew got them straightened out, but the wheels were still facing the wrong direction, the front-wheel drive propelling them into oncoming traffic. Then the pick-up truck slammed into the right side of their car. The windshield shattered, cutting the boys’ skin. Blood coated the dash and the inside of the car. Andrew’s body smacked into the steering wheel, rupturing his spleen. In the front seat, Steve sat still, slumped forward with his chin resting on his chest, gurgling.

It’s unclear how long it took for the ambulance to arrive. The two men who’d been driving the pick-up truck left the scene. Peter remembered the smell of beer. Allegedly, they’d had an open case of beer and returned to the accident only after drinking coffee in a nearby café. When the paramedics arrived, Peter, who emerged relatively unscathed, rode in the ambulance with Steve. He was still breathing.

By the time they arrived at Collingwood’s General and Marine Hospital and rolled Steve into the hospital, it was over. Peter, watching from the side, went into a state of shock. He doesn’t remember anything more from that night, but Lynn heard that he’d walked out of the hospital after hearing Steve was dead and nearly got hit by a car. The hospital staff brought Peter back inside, gave him Steve’s gold watch. Peter doesn’t remember a watch. Then they sedated him. His first memory after the accident was waking up on Saturday morning with his step-mom Trudy standing beside his hospital bed.

Two hours away, around 6:30 p.m., the phone rang. “Hello?” said Norman. It was someone calling from the Collingwood hospital with some questions: Do you have a son and does he wear braces?

“Yes?” Norman stood in the back hallway of the house, fielding the questions. It was early evening and they’d already eaten supper. He listened as the caller explained there’d been an accident: his son was dead.

The first thing Norman did was tell Marion. Then they called the minister of their church, Tim Foley. He came over right away and suggested a prayer. They kneeled together in the living room and, as Marion prayed next to couch, she knew who was with her. “I just had a sense that God was right there. I just knew He was,” she said. After that, the decisions came easily.

There were no tears. They called Lynn at university and arranged her ride home. The next day, Saturday, Norman went to Collingwood to identify Steve’s body. Then he and Marion went to the funeral home to choose a casket; the funeral would be held on Monday. The minister insisted on coming with them — he’d seen too many grieving families get talked into buying an expensive casket, but he needn’t have worried about the Goodayles. “We had our feet on the ground,” Marion told me.

“How is that possible?” I asked her.

“I don’t know if I can explain it to you,” she replied.

In school on Monday, the hallways were buzzing with the news: a student died over the weekend. It wasn’t the first or last time history teacher George Brett would learn of a student’s death like this, but what made this time notable was the family. It was the Goodayle family’s son.

George’s first thoughts went to Steve’s parents, Marion and Norman Goodayle, whom George still remembered from parents’ night in fall 1975, two years before. He taught Steve history that year. George remembered the Goodayles because they’d remembered him. His family had lived down the road from the couple on the Fifth Line. George had only been six at the time, so he had few memories of them, but Marion regaled him with stories that parents’ night. He’d been charmed, but not enough to alter the facts about their son’s lazy performance in his class.

Giving his sympathies to Norman and Marion that afternoon at the funeral, George was surprised and touched when Marion invited him back to the house for a reception for close friends. He went and that’s when he got a lesson on who his former student had really been. Marion told George about the marijuana and the trouble Steve gave them.

“Well, how many kids at that school didn’t have marijuana in their bedrooms?” George thought, but he was surprised. It wasn’t what he expected from Steve Goodayle, the son of a church-going family. George stayed in touch with the grieving Goodayles. He acted like a big brother for Lynn, taking her phone calls, visiting her at university, and he checked in on Marion and Norman. He liked them and admired them.

“It’s not uncommon for the death of a child to tear the family apart and it didn’t tear your family apart,” he told me. “I’ve always been very much an admirer of the way your grandparents have dealt with it.”

“Dealing with it” meant dealing with God. It meant making peace with God’s purpose for Steve — this was how Marion explained it to me in 2016. “God was leading him into this,” she said, handing me a box of Kleenex. A story like Steve giving a friend’s mother an unexpected hug the last time she saw him became packed with symbolic meaning for my grandma. Once she saw it as part of God’s plan, his death qualified as “wonderful” and “beautiful.”

“He didn’t suffer,” she told me. “He was killed instantly.”

“He was what?” My grandpa Norman had been listening from across the apartment. He can’t hear well and dementia wreaks havoc on his memory, but he recognized Steve’s name.

“He was killed instantly,” Marion repeated louder with force. It took her 40 years to arrive at this understanding.

My mom told me later Marion once knew the truth — that Steve was alive for some time in the crashed car — but at some point she chose to forget. For Lynn, it’s a choice she can’t make: one memory in particular is seared into her mind.

It was spring 1978 and the smooth alto voice of Linda Ronstadt was ricocheting through their small house. Lyrics about heartbreak, punctuated by pulsing guitar and piano, blasted contradictory messages of a woman on the mend yet simultaneously drowning in loneliness. It was a fitting soundtrack for a post-breakup bender, not so much for a mother mourning her son. But Marion and Linda didn’t care what anyone else thought — they’d taken over the ground floor of the house. Norman had taken refuge in the basement with the TV on.

“I remember her just, completely, falling apart,” said Lynn. Marion was beside herself. Steve had been taken away from her. He abandoned her. The tears, the music, the heartbreak and the anger created such a scene that when a few of Lynn’s friends dropped by that night, they immediately fled into the basement to sit with Norman. Lynn stayed with her mother, trying to calm her down, while her father and the friends sat downstairs, waiting out the storm.

Most of Marion’s grief, the moments she still remembers, were quiet, private ones. She would cry behind the steering wheel on her morning drive to work. Then she’d fix her makeup and hair in the rear-view mirror before heading into the office with a smile on her face. This ritual was the basis for an expression I grew up hearing: “You don’t know the tears shed behind the steering wheel.” I thought it was a reference to a song or movie.

Each of the Goodayles had their own version of reconciling the hole Steve left. They dealt with their grief without fanfare or much conversation, so it wasn’t surprising when Marion made a unilateral decision without talking to Norman or Lynn about how they’d remember Steve.

No one recalls when the picture of Steve appeared on the wall, but they agree on who hung it: Marion.

It happened sometime after renovations at the cottage were finished around 1980, while Lynn was away from her parents for the first time in Edmonton. Marion had been going through Steve’s photo album and stopped at the photo of him sitting on the couch during Christmas 1976. She thought it was a “lovely picture” and, if she was going to hang a photo of Steve, “that was the last one that we had.”

She had it blown up, framed and the next time she and Norman went up to the cottage, she hung it there — because Steve had loved the cottage. She chose the spot over the doorway for a reason so obvious that she chuckled when I asked: “So we can see it.”

The 12-foot doorway is directly opposite the main entrance to the cottage. Though it’s high up, if you were looking ahead, perhaps out towards the windows and the water, your gaze might track upwards and catch the eye of the 17-year-old boy looking back at you.

On Lynn’s next visit to the cottage, the first thing she saw was her brother. “Oh, you’ve got the picture of Steve up,” she thought, but didn’t say out loud. His presence was a declaration, not a point of discussion. The Goodayles had reached a new stage.

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