Twenty-Three

Whatever Happened to Mary Janeway?: A Home Child Story


 

Twenty-Three

 

Picking up the Pieces

 

“A Saturday evening programme called ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ began on March 22, 1923, when Foster Hewitt, a broadcaster with the Toronto Daily Star’s radio station, climbed inside a tiny, noise-proof glass box in Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena and described the play on ice. A Canadian tradition was

 

1923

 

In early February the enumerator came around, but neither Mary nor Jim were home. She was finding her job quite tedious that day since a light snowfall and temperatures hovering around zero had made the sidewalks icy and slippery. She went next door and, after getting an update on Mrs. Wetham’s listing, asked if she’d mind answering a few questions about her neighbours.

     “Not at all,” she replied.

     “Does James Church live there?” she said, pointing next door. Mrs. Wetham nodded. “Is he still a painter?”

     “When he can find work he is.”

     “Does Gloria Church still live there?”

     “Who?” Mrs. Wetham asked. She repeated the question. “I don’t know any Gloria Church. They had a daughter who died but her name was Mona. Poor thing was only seventeen.” The enumerator crossed out the name on the listing, thanked her for her help, and moved gingerly down the walk.

     It was just as well Mary hadn’t been home to answer those questions. She was trying very hard to go on with her life, but missed Mona terribly. Taking Ross for a walk, wandering through the market, and having afternoon tea with a neighbour were things she did to keep busy. She found evenings were the worst time of day, the time when she felt the loneliest. Mary would try to relax on the sofa with one of Mrs. Armstrong’s old but her interest in the world around her had diminished. She longed for her daughter and lived for her son. Jim spent more time at the track and had gotten into the habit of dropping in on the neighbours in the evening to listen to their brand new radio.

     “It’s the prettiest darn thing set right in a walnut cabinet. It has tubes, tuning dials, and speakers. It was so clear last night, I felt like I was at the game,” he said, referring to the senior league match between Toronto and Kitchener, the first radio broadcast of “Hockey Night in Canada.” Mary knew it wouldn’t be long before Jim traded in their old crystal set for a fancy new one. The Armstrongs were the first on the block to heat their home with oil, buy an electric washing machine, and get a telephone. Jim claimed they owned nothing, all they’d done was put a little money down.

     She watched Ross playing on the floor. It was hard to believe the little fellow was already eight months old. He was amusing himself with one of her kitchen pots and a large wooden spoon, so she grabbed the opportunity to read yesterday’s Carroll’s had home-grown cabbage for 5¢ per pound, a twenty-pound bag of Redpath’s granulated sugar for $2.30, and two packages of shredded wheat for a quarter. She couldn’t beat those prices elsewhere.

     By mid-May Jim was so busy that he had to hire some help again. For the first time in four years prosperity was returning to the city as new technologies sped up work and the number of non-unionized workers increased. Hamiltonians were leaving the farm/labour government and turning to the Conservative Party. The country appeared ready for social revolution. One of the most significant changes was the fact that women could go to the polls and exercise their franchise.

     “It’s about time women got a say during an election, don’t you think?” Mary asked.

     Jim paused, looking up from the newspaper. “I guess so. I’ve never given it much thought.”

     “I’m glad people are starting to realize we can do more than cook and clean. Why shouldn’t a woman work in an office, a bank, or even go to medical school or law school if she can afford it?”

     “I wouldn’t go that far. I say let them vote and work in an office if they want but there’s no way I’d go to a woman doctor. And I sure wouldn’t trust a lady lawyer to look after my money.” Mary knew that Jim wasn’t alone in his thinking — lots of men thought that a woman’s place was at home.

     At about the same time that women’s rights were changing, so was the fashion industry. Tight-fitting garments and the waist in women’s wear was gone, and the boyish, flat-chested look became popular. A shorter hairstyle called the “bob” was all the rage. It was a time for flappers and dance crazes like jazz, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom. Hemlines continued to rise, but it wasn’t until around 1925 that skirts were worn above the knee and women began to shave their legs. Mary enjoyed leafing through the glossy pages of the Canadian Home Journal or The but when she closed the magazines her world was still the same. It consisted of housedresses and aprons, not plunging necklines and fur coats.

     However, she never needed to be reminded of how fortunate she was to have a husband, a child, and a home. She’d read bits of Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social which covered every topic imaginable in its seven hundred and seven pages. Mary agreed that a housewife should change her dress and fix her hair before her husband came home from work: “The wife who smears her face with cream and rolls her hair in curlers before going to bed is not a sight that many husbands can endure. With a handy portable drier, there is no reason that hair cannot be dried while doing

     Mary took Ross downtown on the streetcar for an “ice” to celebrate his first birthday. She treated him to an Arctic Sweetheart, a dainty little cup of Neilson’s ice cream with a layer of crushed fruit and its own handy little spoon. Sitting on her lap in Christopher’s Ice-cream Parlour, Ross held the spoon like a shovel and insisted on feeding himself. By the time he was done, his face was covered with vanilla ice cream and crushed strawberries, making him appear as if he’d been into a can of red paint. Mary had brought Mona here when she was three and remembered teaching her how to use a straw to drink her soda.

     Jim came home from work that night in an exceptionally good mood. Several customers had finally paid their long outstanding bills. It was money he thought he’d never see so he planned to go to the track but, first, gave Mary half.

     “You’ve got a birthday coming up, my love. Monday morning I want you to head downtown, buy yourself a new dress, and get your hair done up. Buy a fancy pair of shoes, too. Something to go dancing in,” he said, thumbing off a wad of bills that he took out of his pocket.

     “What about Ross?”

     “I’m taking the day off to spend it with my son.”

     “But I don’t need fancy things.”

     “I say you do. Don’t come home until you’ve spent it all on yourself, not the baby, and not the house. And phone Mrs. Wetham to mind Ross on Thursday night. I’m taking you out on the town for your birthday.”

     Mary couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a store-bought dress. She was used to hunting for a bargain or simply window-shopping and hardly knew where to start. First she went to the beauty salon and asked for a haircut, something a little more up-to-date. Twenty minutes later the hairstylist held up a hand mirror so Mary could see the back. She had no idea the woman would cut it that short. It was the new cropped off “boyish bob.”

     After peering in the window of the Right House, she went to the dress department to find the soft peach chemise with the simple, elongated bodice and scooped neckline that had caught her eye. The mid-calf skirt length made her feel positively elegant as she studied herself in the mirror. She felt like she was looking at a stranger. Was it the new hairstyle, the dress, or both?

     “Do you think I’m too old to wear this?” she asked the salesgirl, who was probably ten years her junior.

     “Absolutely not, Ma’am. I think the new straight-cut is most flattering on you, not being so tall.” She put her hands gently on Mary’s shoulders and turned her to the side so she could get a better look in the three-way mirror. “I’m sure your husband will like it.”

     “How will it stand up to washing?”

     “It’s 100 percent cotton voile, completely washable and colour safe. It’s guaranteed.”

     After paying the clerk, Mary headed down King Street to Hamilton Slater and J.D. Climie, two well-known shoe stores, side by side. Years ago she’d bought a pair of genuine patent-leather laced boots with Goodyear welt soles for $2.68 at Climie’s.

     Slater’s had quite a large selection in their window so she went there first. Mary liked the white tiled walls and the store’s stock box system. The owner, Mr. J.W. Bridgett, appeared from the back and offered her a seat. In no time, strappy shoes, shoes with buckles or bows, as well as plain, serviceable pumps, surrounded her. She settled on a sleek little leather pair with a Louis heel and a buttoned strap that would look perfect with her new dress. She completely forgot about going next door.

     Mary saved the best for last — shopping for a hat. She headed to Sam’s, a very friendly Jewish man that owned at least half a dozen millinery stores in the city. She tried on seven or eight but didn’t feel guilty because today she was a paying customer. “Have you got that one in peach?” she asked, pointing to a navy cloche in his window.

     “I’ll go and see if I have one, Ma’am.” Mary waited the longest time and knew what was happening. If Sam didn’t have what you wanted, he’d run out the back, down the alley to one of his other stores, and a few minutes later would appear with the exact hat that had been requested.

     Sam seemed a bit winded when he returned with a peach bowler-shaped cloche, practically brimless like the one in his window. It had a soft, creamy bow that draped just above Mary’s left eye as she pulled it down over her newly coifed bob. She watched him wrap it in tissue but was disappointed when he put it in a bag. The ones that came with hatboxes were the European imports that cost quite a bit more. She still had enough money for a pair of flesh-coloured rayon stockings. They were a bit shiny but at a quick glance could be mistaken for genuine silk, at less than half the price. She hopped on the streetcar feeling very excited about her new outfit.

     Mary felt like royalty as she and Jim boarded the Moonlight de Luxe and took a cruise to Grimsby Beach. They danced the night away on the steamer “Corona.” Tickets were seventy-five cents per person, but when Jim decided to do something, he did it right. He regretted not owning a car so they could have driven down to the Burlington piers to catch the boat. However, he told her that that would likely be changing soon.

     Two orchestras with special feature attractions, W. Norman Black, lyric tenor, and J. Rowcroft, tenor, entertained the guests at the front and rear of the boat. After they danced to the last waltz, “You Tell Me Your Dream, I’ll Tell You Mine,” they got on the streetcar and headed home. Mary had a feeling that life was slowly returning to the way it had been.

     Jim’s business continued to flourish and he was happy. She wasn’t surprised when he arrived home behind the wheel of a grey 1920 Chevrolet Sedan. He’d left the morning paper on the table with several automobiles circled in the used car ads. Mary knew how lucky she was to have a hard working husband, a healthy happy baby, and realized it was time to accept her daughter’s death. She’d never “get over it,” as one of her neighbours had so callously suggested, but she was ready to deal with it. She put some of Mona’s pictures and things that she’d made at school in a large cardboard box. When the time was right, she’d show them to her brother.

     They’d talked about getting a telephone in the past, but other things always got in the way. Now Jim felt it was a necessity for his business. Everyone had a party line and the Bell telephone operators’ assistance was required for each call. It was understood that you had to wait your turn and the entire community might be listening in. Party-line eavesdropping, or “rubbernecking,” as it was called, was becoming a popular pastime. It was rumoured that sometimes a mother, at a loss as to how to deal with a naughty child, would suggest that her son or daughter pick up the phone and listen in for a while. It’s doubtful whether Dr. Spock would ever have recommended this as a solution for misbehaviour.

     It was a red-letter day in the Church household when their shiny, new black telephone was delivered and they were given their very first phone number — Garfield 1752. Mary couldn’t wait to have a two-way conversation with her friends instead of waiting for a reply to her hastily written postcard.

     Jim showed her how the “big black box” worked, even though it wasn’t necessary. “First you turn the crank this way.” He briskly turned the handle clockwise. “Then take the receiver off the hook and put it on your ear, like this.” As he did it, the hook immediately sprang up. “You have to wait until you’re connected to your party. When you’re done, ring off by turning the crank just like you did before. Sound easy?”

     “Let’s call somebody,” she said, impatiently.

     “Don’t forget we got the phone mainly for my business. I don’t want you tying up the line so customers can’t get through.”

     “Don’t worry, I won’t,” she replied absentmindedly as she tried to decide who to call first: Affie and Vi or Tessie Patterson?

     “When I get home from work, I don’t want you on the phone. I expect my supper to be ready.” Mary nodded again. She couldn’t wait to try out what was being referred to as the world’s “ninth wonder.”

     It seemed that the more money Jim had, the more he spent. He knew where to go for the cheapest whisky, some camaraderie, and a fast card game. While it was illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol, it wasn’t illegal to drink it. He insisted that he couldn’t be arrested for having bootleg alcohol in his home, after all it was so easy to get.

 

By the 1920s, the Perri Gang ran the biggest booklegging operation in Hamilton, Guelph, Brantford, and the Niagara Peninsula. Some think the gang’s operation was the biggest in Canada. Through much of prohibition, they handled up to 1,000 cases of 60-proof whiskey a day, bought for $18 a case and sold for

 

     In January, Jim requested a bold business listing in the city directory. For ten dollars he could have his name in bold print as well as own a copy of the directory. For a mere fifty cents he could have his name in bold print. Jim chose the latter. Unfortunately his listing was at the bottom of the page and his competitor, a painter with the same name was at the top. Jim was glad that at least he had a telephone number, unlike the other James Church.

 

The Vernon City Directory, first published in Hamilton in 1901, came out annually and provided street addresses. Only a successful businessman could afford a bold business listing, representing status in his community.

Courtesy of Vernon Directories Limited

 

     That year a bylaw was passed in an attempt to reduce accidents on the city streets. Mary was shocked to learn that the automobile had been responsible for five deaths and 125 injuries the previous year. Hamilton, often called a “five-cent tin lizzie” town, was the first city to try out the stop-street bylaw approved by the Ontario highways department. The curious came out to witness this milestone, which dramatically decreased the number of accidents.

     Something went terribly wrong the fall of 1924. The majority of Jim’s customers had been using credit and couldn’t pay him. He had no choice but to let his help go. He fell behind with his bills and started drinking and gambling more. When he showed up for work late, customers became dissatisfied. He was forced to sell the car and have their phone disconnected. Mary found a job working nights cleaning schools and churches. She hired a young girl to mind Ross.

     When the enumerator came to their door, Jim said he wouldn’t need the bold business listing in the city directory. What he didn’t say was that he did not have fifty cents to waste.