IN THE GRASS
the beginning of a memoir
January 2, 2007
W hen I was a teenager and thought to ask her about it, my mother told me that my father had proposed to her on a Toronto streetcar. That would have been late in 1941, or maybe on or around New Year’s Day, 1942, because they were married on the fifteenth of January in that year. For all I know, my parents’ marriage may have been the result of a New Year’s Eve party, the further step that appeared to them the proper sequel to some wild fling. At the age of five or six, clomping around with my small feet shoved into a pair of strappy gilt pumps that I’d never seen my mother wear, I wondered when she’d worn them and when she was going to put them on again and go to a party. But I don’t think she ever did. Her dancing shoes harked back to an earlier life.
My parents met at the University of Toronto, where they’d both started out in Classics. Although Bert never said anything about his bachelor days or student years, I know from my mother that he played the violin in the University of Toronto Orchestra and worked on the student newspaper, the Varsity, before graduating and entering the Navy. Apparently he graduated a year later than she did—although he was almost a year older and had entered the university at the same time—because he immersed himself in music and journalism and ignored his courses. He was also dropped from the Honours programme in Classics and finished with what used to be called a deferred pass, the equivalent of the three-year general arts degree. Mother, on the other hand, stayed on for an extra year and embarked on a Master’s programme in English literature for which her undergraduate degree in Classics had not prepared her. Although she knew Latin and Greek, she couldn’t wrap her mind around Anglo-Saxon, and never finished the M. A.
all this is vague and distant now, with my father dead and my mother
no longer able, or maybe not willing, to share the details of their
lives or the reasons for decisions that they took when they were young.*
If, somewhere in there, Bert enjoyed an interval of single life, of
real freedom, he never talked about it to his children. My impression
is that he went straight from his mother’s house to the Navy and,
while still serving in the Navy, into marriage with my mother, Alice.
Alice had lived through more difficulty, chiefly because she was a preacher’s
daughter and her family was poor, but had also known more personal independence.
After university she worked at a variety of jobs. She even tried
her luck in New York City, for a short while designing toys for a company
there, and in Toronto she had at least one child-minding job, for an
archaeologist named Homer Thompson, whom she greatly admired.
Then the war began and she was hired to pack something very dangerous
into the fuses for bombs. It was because she was a redhead that
she was restricted to working with the fuses only and not the bombs
themselves, their explosives being considered too irritating to vulnerable
skin. It wasn’t much of a privilege. She worked under
the constant threat of a calamitous explosion. A picture taken
at the bomb factory shows her standing in a group of young women all
in white, and with their hair wrapped up as if for an operating room.
Thus my parents’ marriage may also have been prompted by the fatalistic gaiety of the time, the darkest days of the Second World War. Maybe it was the stresses of the period, with death as a not-too-distant possibility, that pushed them to tie the knot. It’s also possible that Alice was the one who did the proposing and that Bert merely acquiesced in what he saw as inevitable. Once I heard him deny that he’d taken the initiative, although he may have been joking. Much later he did tell me that he’d married a redhead so that, over the other heads in a crowded room—and I imagine a wartime dance party—he could see which one was his.
The wedding was not religious. The ceremony was performed in a registry office and afterwards there was a small party in an apartment, probably the apartment they were moving into. There used to be a snapshot of Alice in a dark-coloured dress with white trim, cutting a cake. The photograph may still be among her papers with my sister Doris, or in her old house. When I was a child I did see the dress itself. It was a short dark green velvet dress with what was, by then, some rather ratty rabbit-fur trim. Later I think it was taken apart to make something else. As for Bert, of course he was present at the cake-cutting as well, and in my recollection of the picture, I think he was hovering behind her. Was he in uniform? Maybe. My mind’s eye provides no clear picture of him. His presence seemed tentative. His reason for marrying Alice may have been, at least in part, because he was pleased to defy his possessive and demanding mother. Gran is supposed to have preferred the older sister, my aunt Evelyn, who had also played violin in the U. of T. orchestra. Evelyn had been Bert’s girlfriend before my mother came onto the scene and Gran considered her a nicer girl than the hoydenish Alice, who had previously been seeing a man named Eric Henderson. Eric subsequently married Evelyn, so the sisters in fact traded boyfriends. It seems clear that there was a degree of competition between them.
It’s also possible that Bert was looking for a challenge. I have a small, dim snapshot—dated “‘42” in my mother’s handwriting—in which Bert, grimacing, with his hair ruffled up and his hands outstretched and clutching, is pretending to lunge at the photographer. If Alice was a tough, daring little thing, well then, he could respond by pretending to be the big bad wolf. Behind him is what may be a part of the U. of T. campus. It’s a flag-stoned terrace with a low stone wall and a section of trellis. And the season? Not winter, there’s no snow on the ground, but there are no leaves on the trees either. The long shadow behind him suggests autumnal sunlight. And although he’s not wearing a coat, he is wearing a V-necked sweater over his shirt and tie as he hurls himself towards the camera. I suppose this photographic joke records an early stage of their married bliss, leading up to my conception, about a year after the wedding.
I’ve put the photograph into a frame with, underneath it, an even dimmer picture—marked “Delhi, Xmas ‘43”—in which Bert is holding me on his lap while Alice leans forward and tries to get me to look in the direction of the lens. Instead, with my mouth wide open, I’m laughing off to the left. I imagine Grandfather Leonard was holding the camera and Grandmother was trying to get me to smile, so rather than smile at the camera, I smiled at her. I was three months old. And the fantastical glee seen on my father’s face in the earlier picture has vanished. Behind me, he looks slightly pleased but also ill at ease and undecided. He must be wondering what he’s got himself into, and for how long.
I was born at about seven o’clock on a September morning in 1943, in Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Bert was a second lieutenant in the Navy by that time and had been given the responsibility of burning their out-of-date code books. According to him, that was all he did in the Navy. According to Alice, he’d previously been assigned to the job of entertainment officer but had been removed from that duty after organizing one dance.
“They threw everything out the windows,” she told me. “They threw bottles and chairs and blondes. It was after that that they put him to poking old code books into the furnace.” She also told me that on the evening before my birth they’d had dinner with his commanding officer and that the officer had not noticed she was pregnant. “When he heard that I’d had a baby, he was astounded!”
From that point on, whether because of my unexpected appearance or because of the blondes who’d been tossed through the dancehall windows, there is no further information about my father’s naval career. The one other dramatic detail that my mother has passed on to me from that early time is about the fireball. One day while she was nursing me in their apartment in Sydney, a blaze of ball lightning bounced in through the window, flashed across the room, and went out the window on the other side. Mother tossed that story off in the “of course you remember all about this” manner that she was to use throughout her life for her more startling revelations. But I was a tiny infant and of course I have no recollection of any fireball.
Soon after that, from the evidence of the second photograph, my parents were in Delhi, Ontario, spending Christmas with Alice’s parents. And later, in 1944, when I would have been six or maybe eight months old, they were in Victoriaville, Québec. Although Victoriaville is a lumber town, set deep in a forested region called Les Bois-Francs—“the hardwoods”—during the war there was an air base there. Having finished his stint in the Navy, Bert was beginning over with the Air Force, in training to become a navigator. I’m told that by that point in the war, navigators were in short supply because they occupied the most vulnerable part of a bomber. They were being killed every day.
Bert didn’t mention that fact when, years later, he said to me, “I think I would have been a pretty good navigator but unfortunately the war ended before I got a chance to try it.”
The war was an important part of my babyhood because it was my parents’ constant preoccupation. Somewhere I still have the ration book that allots me so much butter, sugar, eggs, and so on. Naturally these things weren’t always available and when they were, I didn’t necessarily appreciate them. On one occasion Mother succeeded in finding an egg for me, in a big jar on the counter in a bar. It was a pickled egg. There are still Québec bars that offer eggs in vinegar. Did she taste it? At what point did she realize that it was sour? Apparently I let her know immediately that I didn’t want it. I puckered up and howled and writhed and wouldn’t swallow it, no matter now much she thought I needed it. From the same period or from a little later on when I began to try to talk—which, according to Mother, was shortly after my first birthday—I’ve retained the first mysterious word that my parents used often enough, and with enough emphasis, for me to take it in and stock it away against the day when I would understand it. Ruminating, as I suppose all babies do, at first I associated it with the word “nasty,” but it wasn’t that, it was different. It took me years to decode the word and realize that it was “Nazi.” The nasties were the Nazis. I’d heard the word so often, and in such a serious tone of voice, that it had made an indelible impression on my baby brain. Later, and more consciously, I was to puzzle over the words “concentration camps,” imagining them to be cruel places where people were forced to think very hard about things that they really did not want to know. I’d heard it over and over again and no one had explained what the term meant. It was years before the meaning came clear. But when I was ten or eleven, Mother did tell me that during the war Bert had written a letter to be given to me if he were killed. She was sure then that she still had it somewhere. So far I haven’t found it.
And all trace of the air base has vanished from Victoriaville. Naturally I have no direct memory of the months that we spent there, but I do live in Québec and once or twice I’ve travelled down that way, to teach an extension course at the Cégep or to visit friends. Driving along the main street, I’ve thought about my long-ago sojourn there and wondered where we stayed. Where are “Les Appartements Bob” where Mother and Bert (as my siblings and I have always called them) had an apartment? The building may still exist, even if its name has changed. Mother never told me the address but if she had, I could have gone looking for it and for its twisting outside staircase. I would have liked to do that because, although I don’t remember her either, my babysitter during that time was an Indian woman. Mother has told me that she had only one leg but that she stumped up and down the outside spiral staircase with great energy, hauling me on her hip and her wooden leg. Now I realize that she must have been an Abenaki. And she gave me a gift that I still have, a silver chain holding a tiny silver heart with a flower engraved on it.
My first real memories are of Toronto, the very earliest being from somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I remember being carried through a forest and I remember looking up at light through leaves. There was a woman, not my mother, who was wearing a hat with a long pheasant feather sticking up from the hatband. I studied that feather against the leaves and understood that it belonged there. Mother has since told me that we were part of a picnic group and that everyone was impressed by her agility when she crossed a stream on a log, carrying me. I would have been about a year and a half old. Mother didn’t remember the hat with the feather but she acknowledged that it could have existed. Then there’s a second memory, probably from somewhat later, of another picnic. This time I knew that it was a picnic. I think I ate but I was also busy looking around me. We must have been close to a racetrack or a livery stable because there was a row of stalls across a field from us, with horses in them. And somehow I knew what they were. There were horses over there, and my parents weren’t interested in them. Later in childhood, I was to hear Mother’s one story about a horse that she’d tried to ride when she was a teenager. It was a heavy plough horse and it put its huge hoof, shod with an iron horseshoe, down on her bare foot. When she told us about it, usually she’d show us the scar on her foot. I was never put off. I always wanted to ride, even on the day of that second picnic, catching sight of a row of glossy rumps tethered in their stalls at what may have been a fairground.
During the immediate post-war period in Toronto, Mother and Bert lived in two or three different apartments, of which I remember nothing and almost nothing. There was one on Poplar Plains Road that I’ve only heard about. The first place that I can recall, if not very clearly, was on Willard Avenue in the west end of Toronto, one street over from Evans Avenue where Bert’s parents, Gran and Granddad Cowan, lived at number 131. From the Willard Avenue time, I seem to recall a long, dark flat to which, a few days after my second birthday in September 1945, my sister Doris was brought home from the hospital. At the age of two I was surprised and not particularly pleased to meet her, but I did tolerate her for a few weeks before asking when she was going back to her own mother—or that’s what Mother has told me. I don’t remember asking, maybe because they laughed at me and because Doris stayed.
In the apartment next door on Willard Avenue lived a childless couple who made a great fuss over both Doris and me, and we relished the attention. I’ve forgotten their name, if I ever knew it, but I do remember being invited into the living room of their own long dark flat and being petted and complimented and given things to eat. They were next door to us long enough for me to begin to count on going to see them. I thought, as children do, that they would always be there. The other clear memory from Willard Avenue is that while we were there Bert acquired his first car, a used 1920’s Durant, named for and made by the man who founded General Motors. Until I started writing this memoir, I’d always assumed that the Durant was a Canadian car, because it soon vanished from the market—but no, Durant was an American wheeler-dealer who went broke several times. Bert’s Durant was a tall square black box whose back seat was big enough for me to stand up and walk around in, and it had oak windowsills. I distinctly recall having tested their density with my baby teeth at a moment when Bert suddenly started it up and rattled me, literally.
After Willard Avenue there came a brief period when we lived in an old house on Brunswick Avenue in central Toronto, together with my mother’s sister Evelyn. My uncle Eric was away somewhere, although this would have been after he’d returned from being a prisoner of war, because I was old enough to understand that the war was over. He may have been doing his graduate degree in geology in the States. If he’d finished that, then he would have been doing geological work, either in Newfoundland—not yet part of Canada—or somewhere in the Maritimes. Whatever the reason, Evelyn was alone in a large old house in the Annex and she sublet a part of it to my parents. I don’t know why they’d left their previous apartment unless it was because Bert had been hired at the CBC and wanted to live closer to the centre of town. My mother may also have been glad to get farther away from her mother-in-law, glad enough to accept temporary lodgings in a couple of rooms at her sister’s place.
There can’t have been much space for us in those temporary lodgings because there were other people renting rooms upstairs. Doris was still very small at the time—and I’m not sure my cousin Alastaire had even been born—so I played with the son of the upstairs tenant. He was a brown boy who was a little older than I was and his name—which seemed perfectly appropriate to me—was Jimmy Brown. We chased around in the hall and clattered up and down the stairs until one day he wasn’t there any more. His mother had moved out suddenly, even abandoning some of her possessions. I was never told what she did or why she left in a hurry but I think she must have been a striptease artist. For a day or two after she and Jimmy disappeared, I got to dress up in some marvellously diaphanous garments. Their transparency puzzled me. How could these things be clothing? I could see right through them. But they were lovely, as lovely as the floating trousers worn by the temptresses in illustrations from The Arabian Nights. Also left behind and equally mysterious was an enormous fan made out of beautiful iridescent feathers. It was as if some eastern princess had stopped by overnight, left her magical accoutrements, and flown away before I could catch a glimpse of her. I held the peacock-feather fan in both hands and flopped it back and forth, trying to fan myself with it. But it was too big. Some spell had been cast on it and needed to be undone in order to shrink it back to size. Instead, from one day to the next, it was gone. So was the silk chiffon. Neither my aunt Evelyn nor my mother explained where the fantastical things had gone, they simply vanished, as magically as they had appeared. I was disappointed and poked around for a day or two, hoping to find them again, but never did.
We moved out of the Brunswick Avenue house following Eric’s return home. I have happy memories of him from that period because he took an interest in me. Bert, who willingly cuddled Doris while she was still a baby, had nothing much to say to me. He was bored with any child old enough to talk and ask the questions that all children ask. His policy was to squelch us quickly—and as the eldest, I was the first to get the treatment—with a remark too clever for a child to know how to respond. Eric, on the other hand, talked to me and played with me. He was a very tall man, six foot four or five, and in my eyes this gave him godlike stature. There was something wrong with him, however, something that dated from his prison-camp days. I wasn’t told what it was but he was considered fragile. One day when he was bending down to tie a shoe or to pick something up, I rushed gleefully across the room and threw myself onto his back, whereupon both Evelyn and Alice shrieked at me as if I were a criminal. I skulked away, guilty of I didn’t know what but also humiliated at having revealed my feelings.
After Brunswick Avenue—and I guess as soon as Bert was established as a CBC news editor, the job that he was to keep for the rest of his working life—my parents moved into their first house. It was a small, rented house in a post-war housing development called New Toronto. I think the name has been changed since, and I no longer know where it would have been but that house is the first place that I remember clearly. The street was completely unlike either Brunswick Avenue with its big nineteenth-century houses or the tree-lined avenues of my grandparents’ neighbourhood in the west end. There were no trees and the street was bare and straight, with rows of little houses lined up on tiny lots. There was an ice-man (and Doris says she remembers him too) who delivered blocks of ice for the ice-box and who let us have slivers of it to suck. When winter came, Mother stopped buying ice and had someone, certainly not Bert, build a wooden box that projected out of the kitchen window. She was counting on using it for keeping food fresh throughout the cold season. However there was a railway running past the back of our lot and one evening someone, probably a tramp who’d jumped off a train, came and smashed the box, looking for food or whatever else he could find. That happened while we were out. When we came home and Mother saw the damage, she screamed. After that we had a refrigerator. And it was from the New Toronto house that I went with Mother when she walked a few streets over, pulling our children’s wagon, to buy a pair of armchairs and a chesterfield from a man who’d advertised them for sale. I heard her telling him, brightly, that she was planning to make slipcovers for them.
“They’re too good to cover!” he said, upset at her lack of appreciation for their beauty, and I agreed with him.
They were upholstered in mohair plush of a dark, lustrous blue and the seat cushions, when turned over, had a brocade pattern on their undersides. Or was that the side that was supposed to be shown? Or did one choose to display the brocade or not? I considered these possibilities, following admiringly as she hauled them back, one at a time, balanced on the wagon. Did the slipcovers ever appear? Maybe for a while, but if so they were soon tattered and torn, then discarded. With the seat cushions installed brocade-side down, the blue plush chairs and couch were thereafter exposed to us, the ravaging children. We bounced, kicked, fought, slid and walked all over them, and the mohair plush stood up well. They remained in the family, being destroyed one by one, until the 1960’s.
My last memory from the New Toronto house also concerns Eric. He’d come to visit us and I was so overjoyed to see him that I made a game of it. I jumped up to the window, peeked out, crouched down and hid, and jumped up again. On the second jump, I caught my lip on the little curved finger-hold used to lift a sash window. I cut myself quite deeply and by the time Eric was in the house, I was howling and bleeding profusely. I don’t think he ever knew that it was all for him.
Sometime at about the same period, visiting Gran and Granddad, I asked if we could go across and visit the couple on Willard Avenue who had always been so welcoming. Not thinking of how much I myself must have grown and changed, I expected our friends to welcome us exactly as they always had. After all, they’d loved us because they had no children of their own and, since they still had no children, surely they’d be happy to see us. But when Doris and I were escorted over there, our reception was strangely formal. There was no play, no joking and no food. We sat in the living room and the grown-ups talked. I was disappointed. Our old neighbours had changed and I didn’t understand why. A year or so later, Mother passed along the news that the woman had died. Although I was never told what she had died of, I associated her death with her childless condition and assumed, even then, that she must have died of cancer.
T hroughout early childhood I knew both sets of grandparents but was closer to Bert’s parents, Gran and Granddad Cowan in Toronto, than to my maternal grandparents, Grandmother and Grandfather Leonard in Delhi, Ontario.
Often I stayed over at Gran and Granddad’s place, the Evans Avenue house out by Jane and Annette streets in the west end of the city. At night, from the little back bedroom, I could listen to the streetcars making clashing and groaning noises in a marshalling yard somewhere to the northeast. They were a part of my childhood as they must have been a part of Bert’s. During his teen years, he’d slept in that room and would also have listened through the dark to the sounds of the streetcars being backed and shunted and organized in the car barns.
One night when I was six or seven, I was to share the small bed in the back room with a purebred grey Persian kitten who subsequently went home with me for a couple of days. We already had a longish-haired tabby named Buttercup and the new kitten was immediately named Bluebell. Why did he suddenly appear? He must have been a present from Gran. But he was not a survivor. He sneezed and shivered and his retroussé nose ran. To cure his cold, Mother bundled him up in a towel and put him in a basket in a barely warm oven with the door open. When he continued to sniffle, he was judged by her to be too delicate, and was sent back to the breeder. I’ve always suspected that he was rejected because he’d been given to me by Gran. To my mother, Gran was a disapproving mother-in-law, whereas to me she was a wonderful grandmother.
That narrow, semi-detached house at 131 Evans Avenue remains the most consistent of my memories because my grandparents remained there until Gran’s death, in about 1967. Its tiny backyard was narrowed at the far end by the neighbours’ garage which, for some unknown reason, had been allowed to encroach on it, leaving just enough space for a minimal vegetable patch and a gate out to the lane. Closer to the house was a lawn bordered by flowerbeds. I followed Gran around it while she deadheaded her pansies and cosmos and chrysanthemums, or brushed the crumbs off her breadboard for the birds. It was against her principles to throw bread into the garbage. And I recall a week during the 1950’s when the house had no electricity, at least for part of the day, because the city of Toronto was switching from twenty-five to sixty cycles. After that the humming, blinking yellow lights were replaced by bulbs that shone steadily. The kitchen, on the other hand, had an old-fashioned range—first a woodstove and later a combination stove with gas burners on the top and a firebox at the side—and a free-standing sink in the back corner. There were no counters but there was kitchen table in the middle of the room and against the walls were a couple of buffets to keep dishes and towels in. Beyond the sink was the door to the pantry, a little closed room with no heat and a tiny window high up in the rear wall. Only much later did I realize that this was for refrigeration. The pantry had a short section of counter, with cupboards underneath and open shelves above. And on the rear wall of the kitchen, between the door out to the back porch and the green-painted buffet with the cookie jar (which I still have), a small mirror hung.
When Granddad came downstairs in the morning, he’d stir up the fire in the stove, spit into the ashes, stir them up again, and then strop his razor and shave in front of the mirror. While shaving, he’d talk to me. Once he described how he’d bought Bert’s violin for him in the 1920’s.
“That’s a good enough fiddle but it’s the bow, the bow that’s really worth something. That bow belonged to a violinist from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra who’d lost two fingers in a hunting accident, that’s how I got it for Bert. That was a good buy...”
And in later years, the classical luthier here in Trois-Rivières, with his diplomas in Italian on the wall, and his stainless steel patterns for violins and cellos and lutes, confirmed what Granddad had told me, that the bow was worth more than the fiddle. Granddad was keen about that sort of thing. He was good at rummaging through used furniture stores too, and finding interesting stuff. I have a walnut desk that he brought home one day, and an ormolu clock with rams’ heads on its ends.
An important contribution to our childhood delight was the chocolate that Granddad lavished on us. The Rowntree’s chocolate factory in Toronto had once been the Cowan’s chocolate factory, owned by Granddad’s uncle. And although the Cowans had sold out to Rowntree’s early in the twentieth century, Edward John Cowan stayed on. In his twenties, he’d come from Michigan to work in his uncle’s factory. Did he start as a foreman because he was the owner’s nephew? Possibly, but sixty years later, he was still there and still only a foreman. Every day he put on a three-piece suit, got on the streetcar and went off to his job at the factory that had once belonged to his uncle. Everyone else in the family had moved on but not Granddad. A job was a job and he stuck with what he knew was safe. Another view of Granddad’s life has been offered by my brother Paul, the fifth of his grandchildren, named Paul Edward in his honour, and the one who most resembles him physically. It’s Paul who has told me that in his final years at the factory Granddad’s role was really that of a venerable antique, a person whose presence was more ceremonial that practical. Although he no longer did any real work, he was treated with special indulgence and was introduced to visitors as the last representative of the factory’s founders.
Granddad was more than conservative, he was frightfully alarmist, as if he knew just how badly things could go wrong if given a chance. His was the sort of personality that slid easily from apprehension to fatalism. He’d never learned to drive but my uncle Jack’s diaries record that one day in 1926, without benefit of license or instruction, Granddad borrowed a car from the factory and, committing himself to the laws of physics and the genius of Henry Ford, took his elder son for a spin. Jack’s testimony is that, although they both survived, it was a terrifying experience, the first and last time that Granddad drove a car.
As a small and greedy granddaughter, however, I knew nothing of his relations with his employers. All I knew was that Granddad worked at the chocolate factory and, like all the grandchildren, I had my turn at being taken on a tour and shown where chocolates come from. It was wonderful. I followed him through the vast place, gawking at the spouts and streams and spiralling coils of chocolate and cream and fruit syrup, and inhaling all the intoxicating essences that went into the making of high-quality confectionery. When I saw my grandfather who, to my knowledge, never ate chocolate, put his finger right under a stream of it and taste it, I reasoned that he was doing so only because it was his job and he had to, even if he no longer liked chocolate. Eating the stuff was his grandchildren’s job. We loved it, we revelled in it. Chocolate—and maybe Bert’s New Yorker magazines—were the two luxuries of our childhood.
Our mother, on the other hand, was thrifty and nutrition-minded. She did make good deserts, but supervised their distribution. Anything fat or sugary was an indulgence. We drank milk and ate meat, potatoes and fish, with brown bread and green vegetables. Breakfast was oatmeal porridge. There was no money to waste on treats and we were never allowed to buy candy or chewing gum. But the chocolate was free and against Granddad she could do nothing. Her attempts to dole it out in small quantities were not successful. Several times a year, but most especially at Christmas, we gorged on Smarties and Black Magic. From the Black Magic box, with its black corrugated paper sections, we extracted the identification sheet and memorized the centres of all the individual pieces. We gobbled those squares and ovals and mounds and wedges and rectangles, always knowing by their shapes and by the squiggly chocolate codes dribbled onto their surfaces what to expect inside—a lumpy looking piece contained nuts, a wedge was orange cream, a smoothly rounded dome shape had a cherry inside and an oval was strawberry or raspberry. Squares and rectangles and lozenges tended to have layers of caramel or nougat which, to my taste, weren’t quite as delicious.
The kitchen at 131 Evans Avenue, as in all those old English-pattern semi-detached houses, communicated with a narrow dining room whose triple window looked directly across into the neighbours’ windows. There was a walnut buffet with a china rack and there was a tea trolley for bringing serving dishes in from the kitchen. Years later, when I inherited—salvaged, really—the Oriental carpet that had always been in the dining room, one end was worn thin because that was the end where Gran had come and gone from the kitchen for more than forty years, carrying in the food and clearing away after dinner. I dragged that carpet around with me throughout my student years until it went into the attic of my current house. Some years ago I hauled it down and gave it to Paul because he has thirteen and fourteen-foot ceilings in his Montreal condominium and has room to hang it. He had it cleaned and mended by a specialist who, he tells me, “went into ecstasies over it.” Now it’s hanging on his wall and its colours look rich and beautiful. I believe it must have been another of Granddad’s treasures, having originally been collected from the offices of the chocolate company, whether before or after Cowan’s had sold out to Rowntree’s, I do not know, although it may originally have come from Montreal.
Continuing forward from back to front, the living room in Gran and Granddad’s house had an electric fireplace flanked by a copper coal scuttle that was never used for anything but holding old newspapers. The broad front window looked into a glassed-in veranda and through that to the street. The hall beside the front room featured a heavy black telephone on a little table with ornately bulbous legs and led past that to the front door and the veranda. In the other direction, the hall led straight up the stairs to the second floor. Because the stairs were contiguous with the staircase in the other half of the house, where a family named Maroney lived, we would hear what sounded like ghost footsteps going up and down. At the top was the bathroom, beside the little back bedroom. The middle bedroom, above the dining room and doubly narrowed by the upstairs hallway and the stairs, was also small and looked directly into a bedroom window next door.
But the front bedroom, Gran’s room, was the biggest one in the house. It was as long as, maybe longer than the front room underneath, and broader because it took up the full width of the house. There was space for a big bed and also for a divan—for afternoon naps without mussing the bedspread—as well as for a highboy with many drawers and a pair of mysterious doors opening to more, smaller, drawers, containing treasures. There was a dresser with a plate-glass mirror and a variety of precious things spread out on its surface. And at the window was a Windsor chair, useful for scanning the street from above.
I’ve compared my memories of that room with what my cousin Sandra Cowan-Walker (Jack’s daughter, now living in Nanoose Bay, British Columbia) remembers and she agrees with me that it was a wonderful place, redolent with the special magic of perfume and face powder, and filled with the haunting fascination of all those walnut drawers that opened with little walnut knobs to reveal luxurious knick-knacks. Kid gloves and silk scarves were in there, and leather cases containing brooches and watch fobs, or old coins and letters. Once I was given a pair of opera glasses from one of those drawers, and on another occasion a set of miniature “patience” playing cards that I still have. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Cunningham McQueen, played solitaire with them. But the loveliest fantasies came from the back of the perfumed closet. A shelf hidden deep in suspended folds of fur or silk or lace held a large box full of jewellery, long ropes of beads mixed and tangled with glittery pins and pendants and rings and clasps. Some of it was costume jewellery and some of it was real gold or silver or garnet or agate or jet, dating from the nineteenth century. Some of it had been brought from Scotland, some from Montréal. A gold-plated Victorian locket had belonged to Elizabeth McQueen and an amethyst choker had been given to her by “a man from New York,” presumably after she was widowed. A string of amber beads had been brought back from Europe by Jack for his mother.
And Sandra and Doris and I, all at different times, enjoyed the privilege of having the box brought out for us to play with. We draped ourselves with its splendours and stood up on the bed to admire our adornments in the mirror on the dresser. It was fantasy with substance and it nourished our longing for beauty. Gran—a Montréal Scot whose full name was Bessie McQueen Cowan—had lost her only daughter, the three-year-old Elizabeth, to diphtheria in 1915, so she must have wanted to indulge her granddaughters. She let us conjure up our castles in the air. Then, as time went by and we grew up, she was to give us the best things from the collection, with the result that, little by little, as we became older and more discerning, it came to seem less marvellous—although this was only because we’d already been given such a lot of it.
After Gran had died and her house was being cleared out, I visited that closet like an empty shrine. Where was the magic box? Was it still there? It was, or at least there was something there that might have been the same box, with a few bits of plastic in it. There was nothing left of any interest, as if Gran had taken her treasures with her. But she hadn’t. She’d passed it all on to us, long before. I have Elizabeth McQueen’s locket, and her amethysts, and her folding writing-desk, the nineteenth-century lady’s equivalent of a laptop, its writing surface faced with Morocco leather and its exterior decorated with mother-of-pearl. I have the Windsor chair from the window too, and another, plainer one that came from the back bedroom. The mysteries were transferred to our keeping and I shall always be grateful to Gran for having fostered our fantasies. When I was a little girl, her room, filled with the arcana of feminine frivolity that my mother sneered at, was a special haven. It was full of the promises that were denied me at home.
now a truly distant figure emerges from memory: Kathleen Cowan.*
My cousin Sandra also remembers her. She was a cousin of Granddad’s
and heiress to a share of the Cowan chocolate fortune. She had
never married and was at least seventy years old when I, as an eight
or nine-year-old, was taken by Granddad to be presented to
her. I remember a side door that was opened by a maid in a plain black cotton dress and an
apron. We entered through a panelled hall with a strange odour
and from there we were briefly shown into a long parlour with French
doors at the far end. Through them, I glimpsed a paradise of greenery
descending in terraces, with a stream running down over them, through
the trees and into a ravine.
I had no idea where I was but of course the house must have been in Rosedale. It was like no part of Toronto I had ever seen, it was all marvellous—except for the sharp, oily smell. At the time, I thought it was furniture polish but now I realize that it must have been oil paint. We were conducted upstairs and down throughout the big house and on all the walls we were invited to admire Kathleen’s paintings—every single one of which was a bouquet of peonies. Kathleen Cowan spent her life painting portraits of peonies, became excellently good at it, and as far as I know never tried her hand at anything else. Although I met her only once, in the family there were always bookmarks and greeting cards with peonies painted on them, loyally distributed by Granddad. And in her eighties, Kathleen was still driving her Oldsmobile through the streets of Rosedale. The sale of the chocolate factory had freed her to enjoy her life as she saw fit and surely there is something Zen-like in her having devoted it to painting one kind of flower.
Towards the end of the 1960’s, when Granddad was already gone, Bert was given the news that she had died. Of course Granddad must have hoped that she would leave us money but—if there was any money left—naturally it must have gone to her brother’s children. She left us nothing except, I seem to recall, a very old camera. That was passed along to Bert, who never used it. And only as I write this does it occur to me to wonder what became of her paintings. Would her nieces and nephews have tossed them out? All together in the same house, they were overwhelming, but individually they were good enough paintings of peonies. If she’d known I liked them, I’m sure Kathleen would have left me one of those big blooming still lives, but on the one occasion when we met, I didn’t have the courage to speak to her. I just gawked. She was an artist, the first one I’d met, and those paintings were her life’s work, her version of the approach to dream.
Granddad’s role in dream was poetry and reminiscence and talk. When we were very little, he was the only one of our grandparents to take us on his lap and read us stories. I clearly remember the texture of his suit and the smell of his dentures, things I observed perfectly uncritically, as a part of the experience of being read to, along with the timbre of his voice and his Michigan pronunciation. Conservative, imaginative and home-loving as he was, he was always fearful of impending disaster. He was afraid that Doris and I, with our bright red hair, would be snatched off the street by some prowling pervert and never seen again, although he couldn’t spell out for us exactly what it was that he was warning us against.
“Don’t run along so close to the curb like that,” he’d say, “walk on the other side, facing traffic and well back from the street. Don’t you know... well, some fella could come along in a car and just open the door, like that, and well... then you’d be gone!”
We stared at him, solemnly. Gone. What did he mean? Now I understand that he knew how disconnected Bert was, and that he worried about it. In his view, Alice was an impulsive scatterbrain, Bert was never home and we were running wild. In fact it would have been fairly easy for an evil-doer to grab us, but those were innocent times and we survived, even if Granddad was right to worry. Someone had to worry and for him it was his way of showing us that he loved us.
He himself was the eldest son from a large farm family and, as an adolescent, he’d broken his leg. In the nineteenth century, that meant being kept in bed for weeks. In order to occupy him, his mother had taught him to knit and he was very good at it. Gran had never learned knitting, instead she crocheted afghans. But not only did Granddad read us stories and poetry, he also knitted us beautiful double-knit mittens in two colours. If I have none of them now, it’s because we used them. Heedlessly, we lost them or wore holes in them and Mother threw them away.
When he was very old, well into his nineties, Granddad recalled, and shared with me, the memory of his first pair of cowboy boots. He’d been about four years old and his mother had given him a pair of red rubber boots, each boot with an appliqué of a cowboy on a rearing horse.
“And I walked into a puddle with those boots on,” he told me, “and I watched the water come up and up, and I walked farther in, and the water came up and over, and by golly, it ran right over the tops and into my boots, and they filled up and they held water!”
would have been in about 1879. He and I laughed about it.
If I have inherited the longing to describe experience from anyone,
it’s from Granddad.
In Delhi, Grandmother and Grandfather were more remote figures, more dignified and less communicative. With them, there was never the same intimacy, partly because I didn’t see them as often, but also because Mother was in life-long revolt against them and their religious values. When we were in their house, there was always a slight tension resulting from her fear of their disapproval. Therefore a visit to them was not so much a visit to two people as to a place and an atmosphere. Here we were supposed to be good. Grandmother was good. She believed in God. Grandfather was important. That was the surface message from Mother. The subtext was repressed insurgency. Did I ever even talk to Grandmother? I must have, once or twice, but I have no clear memory of it. Most of what I know of her was reported by my mother. Maybe Grandmother talked to me and I was too shy to answer. Certainly she never took me into her room to show me her treasures. On the other hand, I do remember walking down the main street in Delhi with Grandfather, when someone spoke to him. He said hello back and kept on walking, remarking to me a little farther along that he had no idea who the person was. Being a preacher, he told me, meant that he was often greeted in public by people whom he did not know. He conveyed the impression that that was normal and perhaps even preferable.
When, a few years ago, I asked my mother if Grandfather and Grandmother had ever met Gran and Granddad, she said yes, but only once, at her wedding. They were too different to have wanted to know each other.
The Leonard house in Delhi was a place that felt distant both geographically and morally. It was only about a hundred miles from Toronto but when we were children, the trip seemed to take all day. Finally we’d arrive through an old, low, railway underpass built of stone blocks. Growing up its sides were the wild flowers called bouncing Betsy—not originally wild, it seems, but imported long ago from English gardens—with clusters of messy pink petals. After passing through the darkness of the underpass, we’d turn left into the winding driveway and pull up onto Grandmother and Grandfather’s big green lawn. It was like arriving at a place set apart and fortified. There was an austerity to it. Even then I may have associated that house with the past rather than with the present, and with a disconnection from our daily life. I knew that the house had been built by Grandfather.
And Grandfather had come from Ireland, but not directly. First he’d been apprenticed to be a ship’s joiner—a specialized branch of carpentry soon made obsolete by the demise of wooden sailing vessels—in Glasgow, Scotland, and then he’d travelled all over the world. He’d been to Timbuctoo before he arrived on the west coast of Canada. He’d ridden a horse named Brownie through the Rocky Mountains and somewhere on the way Brownie had been spooked by a cougar. In Alberta, he met a missionary lady named Edith Annie Weekes, who was teaching English to the Ukrainians there. He was hired to build a house for her and her colleagues and when it was finished, he asked her to marry him. He was forty years old and she was thirty-six. Their wedding picture shows them in front of a tiny mission building with ‘Kolakreeka’ written over the door. She seems to be wearing a small coronet in her hair, possibly an adornment used in Ukrainian wedding ceremonies and offered to her by her students. And she told my mother that on the evening before her wedding she had allowed Grandfather to kiss her for the first time.
Edith Annie Weekes was a doctor’s daughter and originally from Tillsonburg in southern Ontario. She had a university degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto, whereas William Mark Leonard was the son of a Protestant seamstress from Belfast whose Catholic husband had deserted her. Grandfather’s only professional qualifications were a gold medal for elocution and a correspondence course in how to be a lay preacher.
After the births of their daughter Catherine and son Etheridge, Grandfather took his wife and children to China. The very plain wedding dress that Grandmother wears in front of the mission at Kolakreeka was to be lost when pirates on the Yangtze Kiang held the family up and stole all their trunks, but they carried on upstream to Cheng-tu. Both of them worked in the service of the Methodist Church. Grandmother taught the women whatever it was that nineteenth-century ladies taught to working-class Chinese women and Grandfather, who’d been taken on to build a college, did build one—which is still there—but started to preach as well. Both grandparents learned to speak a certain amount of Mandarin. And my aunt Evelyn, my mother, and my uncle Wesley were all born in Cheng-tu in the province of Szechuan. They were cared for by an amah, a Chinese nursemaid, until my missionary grandparents realized that little ones, especially the three-year-old Alice, were learning Mandarin rather than English. Rather quickly, they were taken away from the amah and as soon as they were old enough they went to the mission school, in English. Later in life, my mother still knew a few baby words in Mandarin and could count to ten but that was all. Her memories were distant and fragmentary. Once she told me that she’d played house in an ancient, empty tomb, using a banana leaf for a sheet. Another time she told us that anything left out in the compound overnight—inside the wall but not inside the house—was stolen, even the rope from their garden swing. She said that when the family was packing to leave Cheng-tu, they’d sold off a lot of their household belongings, including a coffee pot that went to Chiang Kai Shek. And as a small child, travelling down the Yangtze in a river barge, my mother told me that she’d heard things whistling overhead.
“Lie down flat,” said the boatmen to her, very gently and in Chinese. “It’s all right, just lie down flat dear, and keep your head down. Shhhh... it’s all right. Stay there.” Only years later did she realize that what she’d heard whistling over her head were bullets.
These were the stories, some of them, behind the house that our grandfather had built on the big green lawn reached by driving through the underpass. None of them came directly from my grandparents. I never heard them mention China, although a cousin, Barbara Leonard, Etheridge’s daughter, has told me that sometimes they spoke Mandarin together when they didn’t want the older children, Catherine or Etheridge, to understand what they were talking about. That was a subterfuge that can have worked only with the older children. The little ones must have spoken Mandarin at least as well as their parents.
The whole Chinese period remained very distant, seemingly sealed off from the present by the arrival of Communism. The few bits and pieces that the family had brought out with them when they returned to Canada were disproportionately precious because China was closed to the West. And the stories we heard as children came only from my mother, and not while we were actually in Delhi. In her parents’ presence she was no longer her harum-scarum self. She was prim and apprehensive, with the result that I must have taken my cue from her and kept my mouth shut.
There may have been other reasons for my grandparents’ silence about China. Mother always claimed that her father had been hired only as a carpenter and that he wasn’t supposed to preach, but that somehow he got away with it. More recently, my cousins and I have learned that Grandfather was recalled from China by the Methodist Church because he’d acquired a reputation for treating his Chinese labourers harshly and insultingly. He felt contempt for them and he showed it. This new knowledge helps me to understand the yelling and the scathing remarks that Mother treated us to as children. She’d learned her attitudes from her father, together with her rebellion against him. Whenever we went to Delhi, she was revisiting an atmosphere that she must have been glad to escape from.
Only once was my impression of a closed kingdom altered, one summer when Mother took us out to Delhi on the bus. She asked the bus driver to stop at a railway crossing that I’d never noticed and we walked along the railway embankment. From it we had a new and unexpected view of my grandparents’ place. From above, I didn’t recognize that ordinary-looking white clapboard house. I had no idea where we were and gazed around in astonishment. Where was the heavy stone underpass, where was the enchanted gateway? Instead Mother took us down the railway embankment, climbed over a fence and led us across the back lawn, coming at the house through the bouncing Betsy and the black-eyed Susan. She was pleased at my confusion.
Compared to the Evans Avenue place, the Delhi house, spread out on its lawn, seemed enormous. Inside it was filled with quirky corners and surprises, like the little space overlooking the stairs from above, and which gave access to a single window, or the long mysterious walk-through closet out of which one emerged into the main bedroom. The nicest thing about the house was the way it had windows on all four sides, and lots of greenery outside.
The trains rumbling past were a thrill because the whole house shook. We loved that. Of course we learned to put coppers on the rail and to go looking for them smeared out to ovals afterwards. We waved to the engineers and once one of them threw us some apples. Across the yard there was a barn and I have a picture of the five of us, Mother and her four children (because Graham was not yet born), gathered on a precarious little platform that jutted out from the hayloft. There was also a large vegetable garden in the sandy soil, and a compost heap. In the kitchen there was a slop bucket for anything destined for the compost. I peered into it and wrinkled my nose. Ugh. This wasn’t like the metal dustbin at Gran’s place for “putting out the ashes,” this was horrid. Probably there was no garbage collection in Delhi at the time. One year I watched Grandfather digging a pit—and judging from the row of hollows, it was the fourth or fifth in a series—under the row of prickly pear trees in the yellow soil along the side of the lot. The big hole was about four feet wide, eight feet long and six deep, and its purpose was to receive the non-compostable household garbage. There may still be a treasure-trove of precious old bottles buried there, all rainbow-hued from their time in the earth.
Did I ever see the Delhi house in the winter? Not many times. Rarely or never after “X-mas, ’43.” The house, which had no proper basement but only a root cellar, was heated with a gas space heater in the main room and small electric heaters to be carried into the bedrooms. Apparently Bert wouldn’t go there in the winter because the gas gave him a headache. But it was during the summer holidays that we had the time to go to Delhi anyway. On one of those holiday visits, Mother took me walking through the countryside and showed me a sulphur spring that she hadn’t seen herself since she was a teenager. It had a yellowish crust around it.
“Pew...” I said, and she laughed.
It was there too, somewhere along the village street on the other side of the underpass, that I petted a billy-goat tethered on the front lawn of a house. And it was there that we used to go swimming at a bend in the river which, looking at the map, I suppose would be the Big Creek River, across from what had been a nineteenth-century tannery. The municipality had dumped some sand for a beach and there were two changing houses, one for women and the other for men.
was timid about changing into a bathing suit right there, on a bench
with other girls around me, and especially timid about changing in front
of the big, sun-tanned, loud-mouthed women from the tobacco fields.
One day one of those women showed me that there were other things to
be worried about. A group of little boys were caught peeking through
a knot-hole and a hefty black-nailed woman grabbed one of them.
Holding him by the scruff of his neck, she informed him, in crude terms,
that the next time she caught him with his eye to a knothole she was
going to shove him under water and hold him there “until you stop
kicking.” I was as startled by her unexpected prudishness as
I was impressed by her violent coarseness. On another occasion
Doris and I were both wading into the river, out to where a rope with
floats on it marked the edge of the safe part, and I was touching bottom
with no difficulty. But Doris, at about three or maybe four, was
half my size. She floated off her feet and then she simply upended.
I don’t know where Mother was, or if she was watching. I saw
Doris’s little bum floating away, head under, grabbed her back and
turned her right-side-up. She didn’t seem alarmed and I doubt
if she remembers. Neither of us ever thought of telling Mother
about it. But now that I’ve brought that incident back, I suppose
it was the sort of thing that Granddad was worrying about all the time.
Both grandparents’ houses, although so different from each other, provided a reassuring, unchanging background to the various places where our parents lived while they were establishing themselves in the world. How long did we stay in our first house, the little place in New Toronto? Just a year, I think. Nor do I remember our move from that house, possibly because I was sent to stay with Gran and Granddad while the move was going on, but it must have been sometime during the winter between 1947 and 1948, or maybe early in the spring. And by then everything had changed.
In December 1947, my brother Hector was born and I met him for the first time in the front bedroom at 131 Evans Avenue, in Gran’s big bed. Mother had brought him there from the hospital, and I was taken upstairs to see them both. My immediate impression was that he was enormous. He was long, twice the size Doris had been and, as I recall, bright red all over, including his hair. Mother was tremendously proud of him and I’ve been told (by Doris Tidy Brassnet, actually, Bert’s second wife) that she announced to Bert, “I have given you a son!” So Bert must have taken note of her attitude, and remembered it and talked about it. Doris and I were only daughters. And Alice, so rebellious at any form of male authority, did not feel that she had accomplished her role as a mother until she had produced a male child.
Was Hector taken home to the little house in New Toronto? He thinks he must have been although he has no memory of it and I have no clear memory of what followed his arrival in the family. The next thing that I can remember is that it was spring and then it was summer, and we were living in a tall red brick house in the country outside Toronto.