Thursday, June 26, 2008

Best Foot Forward

(An essay written some years ago by my great-aunt Mary, who herself lived independently into her nineties, about her mother Greta, my great-grandmother. May I be worthy of my brave and resourceful foremothers.)

There is a mirror in my front hall where I look to see if I’m presentable before going out. I’ve also noticed visitors stopping to take a quick glance and pat their hair in place.
The psychologist Carl Jung had a name for this common behaviour. He explained that we were putting on a persona—a mask.
There are other names for it. My mother called it “putting your best foot forward”.

Greta Ethel Jones was born in 1884 on a farm near a small town in New Brunswick. Life in those days was still ordered by the rules of the Victorian era: young women were carefully chaperoned, were required to sit stiffly upright on chairs, and never hung their undergarments on a clothesline without first hiding those unmentionables under towels or pillowcases. In Greta’s family such rules were all the more strict because her forebears had come as United Empire Loyalists from Boston, known then as the most conventional of cities.
In her family the women would work their fingers to the bone to cover up the fact that money was scarce. “We kept the house shining and always had fresh baking on hand for visitors. My sisters saw to that. They thought I was hopeless in the kitchen, except for cleaning up. I dusted furniture and plate rails, polished banisters, scrubbed floors and helped beat the dust out of carpets every spring. Most of the time we couldn’t afford a hired girl.”
Absorbed in the world of childhood, I paid little attention to Mother’s stories of her young days. Later I understood that not all had been well at her home. There must have been at least one family secret. When her father came in weaving unsteadily on his feet, probably no one would say a word although all knew he had been imbibing with the hired man in the barn.
Greta had three older sisters. There is a photograph of the family posed outdoors in front of the farmhouse veranda. Mother and daughters are seated in front of Father and a brother. The girls sit prim and ladylike, decorously clothed in long-sleeved, frilly blouses and dark skirts down to their toes. All four of them wear their hair in high puffs over the forehead in the fashionable Gibson Girl style of the day. Their mother, sitting stiffly erect, wears a black dress with high-boned collar. Father stands in correct patriarchal pose, thumb hooked into waistcoat above a gold watch and chain.
Masks are in place. They have all assumed their personae.
Since my mother never spoke about a brother, I had forgotten that she ever had one. Much later I found in her scrapbook of baptismal certificates and school diplomas a clipping from a Texas newspaper, the obituary of a Charles Jones. When I asked about him, she admitted that he was indeed her brother, written off long ago by his family. It embarrassed her even then to speak of the reason for his exile. His crime? His wife had divorced him. At that time the only legal reason was adultery. I think Mother somehow avoided using that wicked word.

I envied her childhood growing up on a farm. Imagine, being allowed at age fifteen to drive the horse-drawn buggy into town! There were other entertainments as well. She mentioned dips in the sea when she went “down to the Cape” in the summer holidays. One can imagine the ladies well covered in voluminous bathing costumes, including long stockings since legs—limbs, rather—were classed among the unmentionables. Back at the farm on hot summer afternoons they no doubt relaxed on wicker chairs in the shade, chatting as they bent over embroidery hoops. Greta would be doing fancy stitches on pillowcases for her “hope chest” until her mother sent her in to get lemonade for the visitors when the gossip began to get spicy.
It was winter fun that she enjoyed the most: riding in a horse-drawn sleigh with everyone singing, skating in the moonlight on a pond swept clear of snow, and, on Saturdays, skating to music in the indoor rink.
One winter, my sisters and I (all born in Vancouver) persuaded her to go skating with us on False Creek on one of the rare times it froze. We smiled at her old-fashioned skates, but in spite of middle age she outclassed us all. She was a girl again, whirling and dipping as if she was waltzing, with no lack of partners, to the music of a band.

Greta enjoyed school and developed an enduring love for poetry. As young ladies did then, she memorized reams of poems. She especially admired Longfellow. I remember, as a teen-ager, wriggling with embarrassment in case one of my girl friends should happen to hear her recite:
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town
And my youth comes back to me.

She admitted that she had many “beaux”. The most devoted one (and the one she found least interesting) was Edward. “He used to moon at me with big sad eyes,” she said. She ignored him right up to the end of high school days, but at graduation they had to go up together to receive their prizes as the two top students.
She dreamed of travelling, but with no money that was impossible. With school days over she found a “position” in a jewellery shop. It must have been then that she acquired the red satin evening gown that, as small girls, we liked to use for dress-ups, though we always tripped over the hobble skirt.
“I went to all the parties with different beaux—chaperoned, of course!” said Mother.
“Did you ever go to parties with Father?” I asked.
“Oh no. He wasn’t a good dancer. If he were at the same party, he would stare at me from the edge of the dance floor. I used to flirt with my partners just to tease him.”
Edward’s father was a lawyer who saw little future in the depressed economy of the Maritimes. Like many others, he responded to the lure of the West and in 1908 moved with his wife and younger children to the growing city of Vancouver. Edward joined them after finishing an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.
Before he left, he begged Greta to come out west to marry him as soon as he was established. She must have thought, an exciting new land to discover away from home…a husband with a good income…a fine house…. At any rate, she didn’t exactly say No and she apparently continued to answer his letters.
Perhaps it was Greta’s mother who pressured her into marrying Edward after his father was appointed a civil court judge in Vancouver. The marriage would give their family prestige and take one of the four daughters off her hands. At any rate Greta finally accepted Edward’s proposal.
When the news of the engagement was announced, her discarded beaux had incisive comments to make:
“He has a bad temper. He’s terribly spoiled!”
“You’ll never be able to put up with him!”
“I’ll give you one year before you leave him!”

Young ladies did not travel alone in those days, especially by train all across Canada. The family chose her cousin Henrietta, who was a few years older, to accompany her. “She was always the serious one,” Mother explained. However, I can imagine both young ladies flirting (discreetly, of course) with any suitable, unattached gentlemen aboard.
Henrietta had grown up in Greta’s family and received the same schooling. My sisters and I used to laugh to hear the two of them recite poetry together when they were peeling vegetables or doing other household tasks:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
“Good speed!” cried the watch….
Henrietta remained Greta’s best friend and her most loyal defender. She put us properly in our place one time when we were criticizing the way Mother did her hair—long hair had gone out of fashion, replaced by short bobs—“Not one of you can hold a candle to your mother for looks!”
From her we learned episodes from Mother’s early married life that she herself had not seen fit to tell us. When she was a young newlywed, Edward’s excessive jealousy led to breaks with friends. What quarrels the two of them must have had at home after social occasions! With those big blue eyes, she was a natural flirt—even in old age. It didn’t take her long to learn what would follow if she even smiled at another man. Dances and parties dwindled to nothing, to be replaced by stuffy dinners every Sunday with her in-laws.
Mother told us that once Edward had said in a fit of temper, “I should beat you!”
“You do," she said, "and that will be the last you ever see of me!”
Edward never did any such thing, of course. He was not that kind of person, and in any case, he could not have lived without her. Emotionally, he was completely dependent upon her.

After Mother’s death, I collected all her old photos into one album. Pictures taken on a steep, wooded trail showed two young couples; mountain climbing seemed to have replaced sitting with embroidery hoops, even though skirts were still long. Edward and his friend Max, whom Henrietta had married, had earlier discovered the joys of hiking, and the four of them used to climb Grouse Mountain and Hollyburn ridge. That was before the babies came.
Father was deeply involved with photography, which accounted for the many pictures of children. In one photo, the young mother is pushing the first baby—myself—in a wicker stroller in front of the bungalow that the couple had bought in the Grandview area of Vancouver. In 1913 the east end of the city was a middle class residential district with some aspirations to upper-middle-class status and must have been quite an acceptable address. But Mother probably envied her friends who had made more advantageous marriages and could afford to live in the more affluent suburbs of Kerrisdale or Shaughnessy. Father had only a small salary and because of the Depression was afraid to demand more, although, as an inventive mechanical engineer, he must have been one of his company’s best assets.

In the photograph with the first baby, Mother looks elegant in a well-fitted tailored suit with skirt down to her ankles. On her head is a smart, narrow-brimmed straw hat with flowers and her arms are covered by gloves to the elbow. These must have been clothes that she brought from New Brunswick in her trousseau for I can’t remember her ever wearing new clothes while we were children. In fact, she wore the same felt hat during all the time I was in high school.
I remember her saying, “I had my hands full with four babies in eight years!” I was the eldest; then came my brother Kenneth and my two sisters. Actually after that there was one more baby, a boy, who died at six months from pneumonia—no antibiotics then. For several years after his death, early every Sunday morning she and Father used to walk to the cemetery—quite a distance—and after that long walk she had to get four children ready for morning church service. Tennyson’s words may have come to her mind:
Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
Grandfather, who was very fond of his daughter-in-law, must have seen that she was reaching a breaking point. To give her a holiday away from the demands of four young children and Edward (more oldest child than husband), he presented her with the train fare to go back to visit her family in New Brunswick. For a month, Greta’s children were distributed among family members and Edward had to come home to an empty house. No doubt he wept from loneliness.

By 1919 our parents needed more room for their growing family. They took out a mortgage on a larger, three-bedroom house only a few blocks away from their first bungalow. It had a handsome living room and front parlour and must have meant social prestige to my mother, but with the Great Depression of the 1930s it really meant doing without many things. Because Father feared being laid off, he was afraid to demand higher wages from his employers. Mother had to count every penny and work harder than ever to compensate.
To make clothes for the first two children she had been able to afford a dressmaker from whom she quickly learned the skills she would need later. Later, when the four of us came home from school, the sewing machine was nearly always open in front of the big window in the living room. Her children would be well dressed no matter what! She could do wonders with hand-me-downs and garments turned inside out and re-sewn when the colours had faded. A favourite dress I wore in high school days has remained forever memorable because it was actually made from new material, sent by her sisters “back East” who deplored Mother’s foolishness in having so many children.
“I don’t see old friends often now, the ones who live in Shaughnessy. No car, too little money, too many children!” She said that in fun to some visitor, but to her it was no joke.
Once a year she gave an elaborate afternoon tea for those well-to-do friends. She must have spent days house-cleaning, re-decorating and baking. Probably none of those visitors suspected that Greta herself had painted the outside steps and varnished the floor in the front hall.
She would lay a fine cutwork cloth on the living room table, and bring out the good china and the silver tea service that must have been a wedding present. On hand-painted, gold-edged plates, goodies of all kinds would be displayed—not the large oatmeal cookies that she made for us, but fancy delicacies like coconut macaroons. Just before the tea she would prepare tiny, open-faced shrimp sandwiches. Flowers from the garden would make the table look elegant. She had a way with flowers.

When Father came home tired at six in the evening, we were expected to keep quiet. Children never talked at the table. Father did all the talking, mostly about his bad day at the office. We were scolded for improper manners and fled from the table as soon as possible, outdoors or up to our rooms where we were to do our homework and keep out of the way. Mother had her hands full with Father. It upset her badly when he lashed out in anger at her or the children. I can see now why she became such an expert manipulator.
Sunday dinners were at the home of Father’s parents or alternately at our dining room table. “They had to make do with macaroni and cheese or scalloped potatoes with ham. I couldn’t afford their big roasts of beef,” I heard mother say.
The most relaxing times for her, as well as for her children, were the two summer months spent at Gibsons. Camping with the “in” thing in those days. Three families, all related, put up tents on waterfront property in Gibsons Bay. It must have been pleasant for Mother to have sisters-in-law close by for company. Other families camped around the bay, and the ladies had tea parties to which children were not invited. Adults went swimming in those droopy bathing suits that look so ridiculous now in photos and children spent most of their time in or on the water. There began my brother’s infatuation with the sea.
It amazes me now to realize how free from supervision we were as children at Gibsons. Did Mother worry about us if we were absent for half a day? I think not. She was busy again with friends her own age and with her flowers and a vegetable garden. From a small iron camp stove, apparently without effort, she produced pies and cornbread and her delectable chowder from clams that were there for the digging on the sand bar at low tide. The enormous washings she hung on the line in Vancouver gave place to a much smaller wash since her children lived mostly in bathing suits.
On weekends life became tense again when the “Daddy Boat” brought fathers up from jobs in Vancouver. Mother had to see that we wore shoes and clothes and were properly dressed for Sunday church. When the weekend was over, we were back in bathing suits and she had time to sit under the trees…
How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half dream!
or to sit by the shore…
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach
And tender curving lines of creamy spray….

Because of Father’s jealous nature, Mother’s friendships were restricted to women. She was by nature a sociable person, but since she had married into a rigid Protestant family, church groups were her main social outlet. For some years she was president of the Ladies Aid Society. She may not have been business-like in that office, but everyone liked her, and her skills at manipulation, learned the hard way, must have ensured harmony among the women.
Somehow she survived the years of our growing up with the attendant problems of lack of money, teen-age rebellions and the necessity of keeping peace in the family. Perhaps because she had lost a son in infancy and her own brother in time past, her only son Kenneth was very important to her. I remember Father saying, "Greta, you spoil that boy. He’ll never amount to anything!”

Eventually we all married and went our different ways. For her, life must have been easier for a few years with more disposable income and peace at home. The house mortgage was finally paid off and I wonder now how they had ever kept up with the payments when we were all to be fed, clothed, and educated.

As for many women, World War II disrupted her life since her son was the right age to enlist in the Navy. But how proud she was of him as he rose through the ranks to become Lieutenant Commander!—although she must have worried continually and prayed for his survival.

Then, one day in 1943, Father arrived home unexpectedly at noontime. “I’ve quit my job—can’t take it any longer. We’re going to sell this house and move to Gibsons.”
He was then sixty-nine and had already survived a heart attack. Always impatient, he sold the house at the first offer for far less than it was worth although this would be all they had to live on for the rest of their lives. Old Age Pensions were not introduced until a few years later—at all of thirty dollars a month.
The summer cottage, not well insulated, now became their home, and Greta commenced to turn the grounds into a beautiful garden. In spite of the hard physical work, her life must have been less stressful—except when her daughters visited with all their children. To feed visitors was not easy. She managed somehow, again making her famous clam chowder and pies from the fruit tress that Grandfather had planted years before.
She gained a certain distinction in Gibsons because of her son’s continuing letters from the Battle of the Atlantic. Acquaintances frequently asked, “Have you heard from Kenneth lately?” Because of the lack of war news his letters were eagerly awaited, and she must have read them over and over before she proudly let them be circulated among friends in the community.
Because of his bad heart, Father spent most of his time lying on his leather couch or sitting in the garden on warm days. To keep him from being bored, Mother urged friends to drop in; she enjoyed being hostess and offered tea and her coconut macaroons. There were always cards in the evenings; if there was no other company, Father and his sister—who after retirement came to live in the house next door—joined her in a game of rummy.

Five years after moving to Gibsons, Father died quietly at home. The daughters who lived far away came back for his funeral. There was grieving, of course, but Mother adapted to the change as strong women have always done.
Her much-loved son lived through the war, and Mother had even more reason to be proud of him when he attained the rank of Commander in the Royal Canadian Navy.
Then her life fell apart completely. After five years of surviving Nazi submarines, Kenneth was killed, not at sea, but in the air, in a plane crash near Toronto.
Mother never fully recovered from that tremendous blow. Whatever direction her conversation took, it always returned to Kenneth. But life had to go on, and she was to fulfill one of her dreams. When she was eighty-two, one of her sisters in New Brunswick, who has “married well”, died and left her some money with the proviso that she spend it all on herself, NOT ON THOSE CHILDREN! All on her own she arranged to fulfill her lifetime dream of travelling. This was not to be just a trip to the Maritimes or even to Europe but around the world by rail, ship, and air. In her album is a large coloured photograph taken in a dining saloon on shipboard somewhere on the Pacific. She is resplendent in a long turquoise dinner gown and is wearing diamond earrings, rings and bracelets, which had also come from her sister. (Mother always did love jewellery, and wore it with elegance.) Her companions on the ship must have seen her as a gracious, wealthy, elderly lady. She was all that; all except wealthy. Perhaps she had told them that she lived in a house by the sea in a beautiful garden. They would not know that the house was only a summer cottage, not quite warm enough in winter, and that her income was very limited. She would have no inherited money left after spending it all to see Mount Fujiyama and the Taj Mahal.
On shipboard she acquired another “beau”. In the photo he is sitting beside her at the table: a handsome, elderly man from New York; a retired magazine editor. After the trip he came all the way across the continent to ask her to marry him.
“Why didn’t you?” I once asked.
“I didn’t want another old man to look after!”

Even into her nineties, Mother managed to live alone, with some help from two close friends. She had lost the son who had promised to look after her in old age, and her daughters were too involved with their large families although we visited of course. She rarely mentioned the aches and pains that kept her awake at night. I was visiting her one day when her doctor called. The young man seemed to regard her as a special friend, even using her first name.
“How are you today, Greta? Can I do anything for you?”
“Oh, no, I’m feeling fine. Thank you for dropping by when you must be so busy.”
“Mother, I said, when the young man had left, “why didn’t you tell him about your aching bones? He could give you something to help.” She smiled and did not answer. Old warriors refuse to admit defeat.

In a local newspaper of 1977, a young journalist who was doing a series on pioneer women reported as follows on his interview with her:
She lives in a long, low house just back from the Bay in Gibsons. A small brook wanders through her property, making its way to the sea. Sitting in her kitchen you can just make out the noise of the water. Greta, whose lively eyes and quick movements belie the fact that she was ninety-four last October, likes the sound of her brook. “It sings to me,” she says. From talking to her you realize that, if anyone can hear a brook sing, she is the one. She’s a lady with a touch of poetry in her.

Greta outlived most of her generation. The old camping days were long gone and all the older folk as well, even her cousin Henrietta and the sister-in-law who had lived beside her for many years. A niece who now occupied the house next door looked in on her every day, and a friend stayed with her at night. I was away on the last day of her life in September 1979, only a month from her ninety-fifth birthday. It was from the niece that I heard the ending of her story.
She was having trouble breathing. I’m sure she knew she was nearing the end. I phoned her doctor and called the hospital, and then I helped her dress. A friend had come to drive her to Emergency, and the car was already at the door.
“Wait just a minute, dear," she said.
She started down the hall, and I followed, afraid she would collapse.
You won’t believe what Aunt Greta did! She went into her bedroom, looked in the mirror, and put on her earrings!

2 comments:

Patricia said...

Rachel - what an incredible story!! I would have loved to have sat in her kitchen, listening to her stories - looking at her albums. Thank you so much for sharing this with me.

Hugs, Patricia

dianedebaun said...

Wonderful Rachael, thanks again,
Diane