Coming of Age

Head on Backwards, Chest Full of Sand

By

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Synopsis

Teetering on the edge of womanhood, clinging to the first love of her life as if her survival depends on it, 17 year-old Livvy is torn between subjugating herself or claiming her identity and independence.
A tale of love-obsession, this book chronicles a young woman’s coming of age during the height of the 1970’s women’s liberation movement.
When Livvy, lovesick and artistic, spends the summer with the aunt she adores, she crosses paths with a cast of memorable characters in the coastal community of Margaree, Cape Breton Island.
While Livvy’s cousins torment her, house renovations disturb her, an annoying young islander tries to befriend and teach Livvy to disco dance, Livvy prepares for the much anticipated arrival of her boyfriend, Kane.
Such a deep dive into the dire and agonizing crannies of a love-obsessed young woman establishes Head on Backwards, Chest Full of Sand as a memorable coming of age story.
For fans of The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Lives of Girls and Women, and The Bell Jar, Head on Backwards, Chest Full of Sand promises to immerse you in the world of a troubled young woman coming to terms with love, life, and all its messy relationships.

Friday June 30th, 1978

Antigonish, Nova Scotia


A gray-haired ticket agent with a straggly moustache was ogling me from his booth across the train station. I could feel his eyes on me like creepy crawly snakes. I let my hair fall in front of my face so he couldn’t see me anymore but I kept an eye on him just in case. It wasn’t unusual for gross old men like him to make goo-goo eyes at me. The porter on the train had been particularly odious, especially because I’d been trapped on there with him — there’s no escaping from a moving train.

I slumped on a bench waiting for Aunt Donna. What was taking her so long? Before leaving Toronto, I’d called her to tell her the time my train was coming in to Antigonish and she’d said she would meet me at the station. It had taken four days and four vehicles to get here and I’d had enough of traveling. I needed some dinner, a bath, a bed, and a hug. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath.

Cape Breton was going to be my new home. It was a wildly romantic and artistic place. I was going to relay its crazy coolness to my boyfriend Kane, back home in Ontario, and he was going to follow me out here.

My plan was a little hazy after that because who ever knows what will happen. But it included living happily ever after with Kane. That is, as happy as a sensitive and poetic person like me can be.

I hadn’t told anyone that Kane and I intended to stay here forever. Not even Aunt Donna, and certainly not my parents. My father didn’t like Kane. Not that he’d said anything. He didn’t need to — the side-eye and lip curling said it all. Besides, opinions from my father always came filtered through my mom. He acted as if he was the king and my mom was required to relay his decisions whether she agreed with them or not.

Mom said Kane was too old for me. He wasn’t. He was twenty-one, just four years older than me. And my father was way older than my mom. They were such hypocrites.

Mom warned me that Kane and I were too serious, too “hot and heavy” was how she put it. But we weren’t. We were just in love! No one can stop that locomotive. My parents certainly hadn’t stopped their affair when she was a secretary where my father worked. It ended up wrecking his first marriage, but of course, they didn’t acknowledge that.

Mom said I was neglecting my schoolwork. I wasn’t. School was just so boring. I couldn’t help it if I skipped off all the time to go visit Kane.

Mom nagged me constantly about finishing high school, getting my Bronze Medallion in swimming, passing my driver’s test, and going to university. These commandments came directly from her, not my father —he assumed I would pass all my courses but he thought university was wasted on girls. And besides, he didn’t want to pay for me to go.

Mom told me, “Whatever you do, do not learn to type or you’ll get stuck in the steno pool like I did!” Too late, Mom. I’d already taught myself to type on my father’s electric Underwood in the basement. I was a poet after all and I was already sending poems out for publication.

If my father had known my plan was to go to Cape Breton and that Kane was going to follow me, he’d never have paid for my train ticket. As it was, he’d given me a hard time because he also didn’t approve of Aunt Donna since she’d “done the flit” as he called her divorce from Uncle Norm.

I was starting to get anxious. The ticket guy was still grinning at me. Had Donna forgotten? I searched around in my bag for my address book. I could make a collect call from a phone booth. Then I reminded myself that the train had pulled in a little early. I would give it another ten minutes before I called.

I had a bundle of letters I’d written on the train so I left the station to look around for a mailbox. It was late afternoon and the summer sun blazed into my eyes. I squinted and scanned the parking lot but I didn’t see anything that looked like the spiffy new pickup truck Donna had described to me. I did spy a bright red mailbox tucked against the side of the station. It was a bit of a thrill to think my letters would be postmarked with such an exotic location as Antigonish.

Believe it or not, I’d actually heard of Antigonish before I got here. Their university, St. Francis Xavier, has a literary journal called The Antigonish Review, and they’d recently published one of my poems.


Gothic Burlesque


I met walking in the shallow foothills

a man of thundering silence

a man that the waves crashed against

         in vain.


I wallowed in images

of this rustic man

as hard as rock.


On the path to the abandoned castle

again I saw his footsteps in the dust

and almost choked

with fervent longing.


Childhood fell ridiculously down around my ankles.


Beneath my brown quilt,

a wordless struggle

until sweat rolled down our temples.

In the distance  —  strange lightning

and the walls came crashing down.


He kissed me insistently

and I never walked again.


My poems are about things I am constantly thinking about but cannot say out loud. Poetry is a way to express my thoughts and feelings but disguise them in an undecipherable format. I’m not sure who I’m expressing myself to, but I feel compelled to write anyway. Lately, the subject I’ve been constantly thinking about is Kane. And that is a good thing.

Since Grade 2, people have said my writing is exceptional, and even if I figured that they didn’t understand them, it pleased me that my teachers and classmates seemed to admire my poems anyway.

I’d written Gothic Burlesque after Kane and I had sex for the first time. It was momentous. My virginity was gone and at the same time, I knew I’d captured the affection of the most amazing man in the world.

A girl about my age was striding toward me. “You must be Livvy.” Her hand was sticking straight out so I shifted my purse onto my shoulder and she shook my hand vigorously. “Donna sent me to pick you up. Name’s Maureen.”

My brain scrambled over itself trying to make sense of what was happening. For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Donna hadn’t wanted to pick me up herself? I’d been looking forward to seeing her so much! Looking forward to telling her all about my trip, and Kane, and everything that had happened since she'd left Ontario.

I considered Aunt Donna one of my best friends and we’d become only closer since she’d escaped from her marriage to male chauvinist Uncle Norm. She’d had to stay separated from him for three years in order to get a divorce but once that was settled, earlier this year, she’d bought a farm and moved out here to Cape Breton Island.

Donna deserved better than Norm. She deserved a soul mate, like Kane was for me. I was sure she’d find one, a sensitive man who’d appreciate her artistic nature and treat her with respect. But Donna always said with a laugh, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle!” I agreed. A woman didn’t need a man, even if secretly she couldn’t imagine life without her man, her Kane. That was different.

I stared at the stranger Donna had sent to pick me up. Maureen. My eyes stung and my throat felt dry.

“C’mon. Where’s your stuff?”

Maureen followed me into the train station where I’d left my red plastic suitcase and a bulging bag of rug-hooking projects and books.

The scraggly moustached guy shuffled toward us. “You ladies need some help?”

“No!” I retorted at the exact same moment Maureen said, “Thank you very much, sir.”  

I stared at the two of them then Maureen rolled her eyes, grabbed my suitcase and nodded at me to carry the bag. I was glad she’d taken the suitcase. It was heavy and I was tired of lugging it around.

Maureen led the way out to the parking lot to a brown Pinto. “I guess you’re one of those girls who won’t let a man open a door,” she said heaving my suitcase into the trunk.

“Not when I can do it myself!”


I felt a bit embarrassed about the station guy and I didn’t know what to say to Maureen but she just started telling me all about her family, and something about a dance class, as we drove. I was only half listening. I was too busy looking out the window. First, at the town of Antigonish, and then at the causeway that crossed the ocean, the dark grey water crashing up against the road. Finally, on the island of Cape Breton itself, I drank in the houses that were like none I’d ever seen before. It was thrilling and I wanted to memorize the quaint nature of the place. I imagined later, describing it to Kane in a letter. He would appreciate the wood shingles on the houses and the old-fashioned do-it-yourself-ness.

Maureen told me she lived down the road from Donna at a campground. And that there were over twenty children in her family. She was in the middle. She couldn’t get over it when I told her I was one of three. We couldn’t have been more different.

It was a long drive up the side of the island. The scenery was unremarkable, just miles and miles of bush with the occasional town or farmhouse to break up the monotony. Every now and then, we’d glimpse the ocean to our left and I’d remember that I was finally on Cape Breton Island! I was adventurous and independent!

Maureen tuned the radio to a pop station. She sang along to all the songs, even the awful, sappy ones like “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Three Times a Lady”.

It was starting to get dark when Maureen pointed out a sign for McNamara’s Campground and Restaurant where she lived. We drove by so fast I barely got a glimpse of the place. About five minutes later, Maureen’s left hand signaller started ticking and we pulled into a long rough driveway. An ugly two-story farmhouse stood at the end of it. Maureen honked the horn.

“There she is!” she crowed, as though I wouldn’t recognize my own aunt standing at the side of the house, waving. Hellah, my tomboy cousin, stood nearby, doing her best to look blasé about my arrival. Donna’s little dog Ladybird was making no such bones. She raced around in circles yapping at the car. When I stepped out, Ladybird jumped on my leg in a frenzy of tail-wagging and gasping licks.

“You’re finally here!” Donna hugged me as if she hadn’t seen me in a million years. It felt good. My worries, about her not wanting to see me as much as I wanted to see her, evaporated. She felt warm and like home.

“How you doing, Cuz?” Hellah said, grabbing and swinging my bag at me, whomping me in the back of the legs.


Hellah stomped up the stairs ahead of me and showed me my room. It was small and chilly. Now that the sun had set in Cape Breton, it was actually cold. The ceiling was slanted and the floors were bare, very rustic. My bed, a tiny cot, was metal and rattly, with a thin mattress covered in a rough wool blanket. Beside the bed was an odd shaped window, cut almost triangular to fit under the roof. There was a solitary white-painted dresser — the drawers were higgledy-piggledy. I could tell it would be sticky to open and close.

I looked around and decided this gable room would do just fine. It was romantic and fitting for a poet like me.

Maureen, my driver, shouted up the stairs. “Bye, Libby! Nice to meet you!”

“It’s Livvy. . .” I shouted back.

I heard the screen door slam. By the time I got down the stairs, the taillights of Maureen’s Pinto were disappearing down the driveway.

“Come on in the kitchen. Tell us all about your trip. Are you hungry?” I was. I hadn’t realized it. I was starving. Donna was a good cook, like my mom. Being with her was like being home, no matter where we were.

About the author

Sandy Day lives in Georgina, ON, Canada. She is the author of 4 books. She holds a degree in English Lit from Glendon College where her professors included great Canadian writers Michael Ondaatje & bp nichol. Sandy is a writing workshop facilitator & book coach. She sells dog halters on the side. view profile

Published on February 14, 2020

30000 words

Genre: Coming of Age

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