Perdita Felicien's early struggles and triumphs at the heart of her memoir
Former hurdles champion draws strength from adversity her mother overcame
My Mother's Daughter
By Perdita Felicien
Perdita Felicien and her mom are extraordinarily interdependent. They built their bonds through a number of high-tension episodes, separate-but-linked-experiences that are at the heart of this braided memoir.
We meet Catharine Felicien during her childhood in a Saint Lucia fishing village. Twelve of her siblings have died. With next to no education, and even less money, Cathy sells trinkets on the beach. She wins the trust and affection of tourists by babysitting for them. Before she is 20, she has two kids of her own, Vonette and Lucas.
A family sends her a ticket to come to Canada as a nanny. For the next decade and more, Cathy lives hand to mouth, at the whim of families who fail to secure proper work visas for her, leaving her stranded in immigration limbo. Making below minimum wage, in exploitative work situations, she remits every penny she can. Her story is a suspenseful adventure in itself.
Six chapters into young Cathy's tale, Perdita is born in Oshawa, Ont. Her biological father, David, is a paternal absence to this day. Bruce, her stepfather, is a troubled character. He is violent, cruel and selfish. He is also very selectively loving and occasionally supportive.
In 1981 Cathy's visa expires, and she returns to Saint Lucia with Perdita. Four years later, Cathy, who now has a fourth child, Wonder, gets an invitation from Bruce to come back to Canada. Perdita is also invited. The other three kids have to remain with their grandmother.
WATCH | Felicien's praises strength of mother Cathy in memoir:
Perdita, Cathy and Bruce live together in Oshawa. Perdita struggles to see Bruce as a father figure. She experiences an early racist humiliation. She and two white friends are caught by a teacher in an off-limits room.
"Stop right there, grade ones!" she yelled. We froze like pint-sized statues. "You girls know you're not supposed to be in here."
We looked down at our shoes.
"This is unacceptable behaviour." None of us said a word. "You two go back outside now and don't let me catch you in here ever again without a pass or I'll call your parents." We all turned to move, but she stopped only me. "Not you," she said to me. "You come with me."
Vonette comes to Canada. Bruce is abusive, and his terrible behaviour turns violent. He hits Cathy. Mother and daughters bolt to a one-room place. The rent eats up two-thirds of the $90 Cathy earns babysitting each week. We get a glimpse of brittle domestic happiness. Cathy says she'll give $5 to the daughter who can cry a real tear, knowing that attempts to be sad will only make the girls laugh. If there was ever a doubt, Perdita shows she's a born competitor.
A bit of wetness swelled at the corner of one eye. I scrunched up all the muscles in my face and held my head down to let gravity help me out.
"Mom, look!" I yelled. "Do you see it?"
"Let me see." Mom had a smirk on her face as she examined my eyes.
I was afraid the droplet would evaporate before Mom had the chance to rule. "Touch it," I urged. She did, then erupted into a howl so contagious my sister began to laugh too. Soon their hoots filled our room. "That's the saddest tear I've ever seen," Mom said. She declared me the winner and gave me my five dollars.
They move back in with Bruce, who Perdita begins to call 'Dad,' but nothing is mended. Perdita has a sharp eye for detail as tension mounts in the house. It erupts into worse violence in 1987, and the three go to a women's crisis shelter. Young Perdita likes the atmosphere there. (She is donating a portion of each book sale to that refuge.)
The shelter is a short-term fix. There is no other choice for them but to move back in with Bruce. For Vonette, who lived longer in Saint Lucia, Grade 9 is a time of isolated confusion. She is one of the few Black kids in school, and a target for racist ugliness.
Cathy is offered a subsidized town home. She tells Bruce that she and the girls are moving out. In pure spite, he cuts off her sponsorship for citizenship.
There was one final squabble when Mom told Dad she was taking the coffee table and some chairs they had bought together with their wedding money, but she would leave their other shared items for him. Dad told her she was not taking one goddamned thing out of his house, and Mom replied that God was going to strike him down for his selfishness. On moving day, Dad left the house early. There were no goodbyes from him.
As friends' of Aunt Joyce drove west, I looked out the open window at all the things zipping past. I knew with each one I was moving further and further away from Dad. Next to me, Vonette had a big smile on her face.
Lucas and Wonder, Perdita's brother and sister, also come to Canada. Twelve years after she first left Saint Lucia, determined to make more for her family, life at last begins to blossom for Cathy:
For a while, she went to neighbourhood garage sales on the weekends, buying things like fancy champagne glasses that we weren't allowed to use. She bought a record player that she used to play her lone Kenny Rogers album. She would belt out all the words to "Lady" while looking at herself in the mirror in our front entrance, sometimes grabbing one of us for a slow dance as we tried to dart past.
Perdita discovers track and field
As schools did back in the day, Perdita takes the "Canada Fitness" test. She scores "Excellence," and is applauded for it, which is a new experience for her. A teacher tells her to try track and field. Perdita is surprised to discover that she is blazingly fast. Cathy comes to see her daughter race for the first time.
... she squished my face between her palms and planted a juicy kiss on my cheek. "I love watching you run! Did you hear me cheering for you?"
"Yes, Mommy, all the way down the track," I said, catching my breath.
"Did it help you go faster?"
"I think so," I said. I'm certain my response that day gave my mother the wrong impression: the louder she cheered, the faster I went. I would later regret this.
As Perdita matures, the costs of competing become a genuine worry. Getting her first pair of track spikes represents a huge investment. The money for shoes means bills will go unpaid, and she knows it. Cathy finds a way to enrol in adult education. She gets her high school diploma and her Personal Support Worker (PSW) certificate simultaneously.
In eighth grade, Perdita comes second in a regional race. She has never lost a race until this day, and the blow is crushing. Details nail it: Big tear drops splash on concrete bleachers. She quits track altogether rather than risk the horrible feeling of not winning again.
Cathy nags for two years, and Perdita finally rejoins track in the 10th grade. Her maturation continues through her first private track club practice.
I was all set in my running shoes, T-shirt, and shorts. I had mostly worn skirts to my school meets, but now I was blowing off my church's rule about women and girls wearing dresses at all times, and I didn't feel guilty about it.
Talent not a thing to waste
There is tension between church and track. Her pastor says track shorts are immodest. Cathy's assessment is that Perdita has God-given talent, which is not a thing to waste. It's a lovely argument, and it wins the day.
Perdita hates them, but she listens to a coach who insists that hurdles are her thing. She also listens to Sean, the boyfriend who is a quiet background hero, urging her to take scholarship offers seriously. When Perdita gets to university in Illinois, her athletic gains are thrilling. She clocks the fastest 100m hurdles ever run by an NCAA freshman. She gets a shot at making the Canadian team for the Sydney Olympics. She's exhausted after her first term at Illinois and her heart's not in it, but the woman is a competitor.
One-two-three . . . one-two-three. In my head I could hear the crisp staccato rhythm of my steps in between each of the hurdles. I flew farther ahead of the field with my teeth clenched and facial muscles pulled taut by the sheer force of my speed. I could feel that I was out in front of the other finalists and on my own. I screamed at myself inside my head to keep attacking every barrier. To not relax my pace until I reached the end. I soared smooth across the finish line and survived what had felt like a minefield—every one of those ten hurdles a trap that could have sent me crashing down. I had cleared them all, and became the reigning Canadian 100 metres hurdles champion.
I raised both my arms in the air. Thank you, God. But more than jubilation, I felt a deep sense of relief. I had gotten the job done despite my mental game not being at full power. "You can do it, Perdeet." Once again, Mom had been right. I had made it to the Olympics.
Lonely and unable to make money under NCAA rules, she has a hungry, isolated time at school. But a winning mindset kicks in and she becomes what her early potential had hinted at. She takes the World Championship in Paris, 2003.
I clapped my hands over my mouth in disbelief at what I knew I had just done. Instantly my quiet bubble burst and I heard the instrumental music blasting in the Stade. And there on the jumbotron overhead was my name in giant bright letters. I was the world champion. I had beaten them all ... That day, I set a Canadian record of 12.53 seconds and became the first woman in Canadian history to win a gold medal at the track and field world championships and the youngest ever to win the event in its history.
She turns pro and continues her education. The money is great, but it's not really a point of pride for Perdita. Graduating though? That matters. She is the first person in the history of her family to reach that goal.
Athens 2004, all the elements are in place for Perdita's gold medal race. Her two biggest rivals will not be in the finals alongside her. She is the face of ad campaigns, cereal boxes and her country's proud expectations. But on the eve of glory, for Perdita, it's all about Cathy.
I wanted to show her that the labels she was afraid we might carry through life—poor, bastard, fatherless—would never determine our worth, because no matter what the world said, we were worthy. She was worthy.
The fateful moment reads like a taut screenplay.
In the blocks, I pressed my back leg into the hard pedal like a stiff finger on a gun's trigger. There are eight steps to the first hurdle. Eight steps that I had taken thousands of times before. The announcer breathed a long, solemn "Shhh" into the night sky, and for me, the crowd vanished. It was dead silent. Then I heard that sweet deafening crack of the starter's pistol.
And then, total devastation. By the width of a dime, she catches the first hurdle. With so much adrenaline in her veins, she has exploded out of the blocks faster than ever and her distance judgment is knocked off by a millimetre or two. She crashes spectacularly. Looking back up the track, where she lays in an injured heap.
Cruelly, I had a perfect front-row seat to the last nine seconds of my dream, and I watched in vivid colour as it barrelled away from me.
In her agony, she talks to her mum, thousands of kilometres away.
"Dry your tears, Perdeet," Mom said gently. I was startled by how good she sounded. Why isn't she crying? "You are the gold, my darling. You hold your head high—you hear me?"
Perdita rehabs from Athens and gets back on track, gearing up for the 2008 games. Everything is good, she's hitting all her performance metrics, the delayed gold medal dangles in front of her. Six months out from Beijing, somebody accidentally misplaces a practice hurdle, she hits it, and suffers a catastrophic injury to a ligament in her foot. The gold medal dream dies.
Above all else, Perdita is a competitor. The compulsion to excellence pervades everything she does, and this self-evidently includes writing.
When I think of all the obstacles my mom has surmounted, I chuckle at the irony that one of her daughters became a professional hurdler.
However, I came to realize that the symbol of my family's perseverance was never going to be found in a medal I could wear around my neck. It was in having the mettle to go after it in the first place, to pick myself up after falling, and to stand tall. And I had that privilege because I am my mother's daughter.
Author's Note: I worked closely with Perdita at CBC Sports in 2017. Back then, she was already cramming handwritten ideas into a notebook that came out of her bag at every spare moment. If I resented the distraction her writing caused then, I acknowledge celebrating it now.
Hardcover $29.95 — Published by Doubleday Canada.