The Home Front


Aunt Betty wasn’t our real aunt. Her name was Miss Colwell, and she was no relation to us at all. She had taught English at Kelvin High School, where, during the 1920s, Mother had been one of her favourite students. She had kept in touch over the years, and in 1941, concerned about her prodigy being left alone with three children, Miss Colwell had invaded our household on Christmas Eve.

‘Miss Colwell came to see me on Christmas Eve and brought me the loveliest roses,’ Mother wrote to Daddy. ‘I have visited her almost every week since — she has been almost as concerned as a mother would have been.’

ManitobaArchives/Winnipeg-Hotels-Royal Alexandra15/ca1940

Built in 1906, the elegant Royal Alexandra Hotel on Main and Higgins was considered Winnipeg’s social centre for decades. It was closed in 1967 and subsequently torn down.

Miss Colwell lived a long way away from us in the Royal Alexandra Hotel on Main Street. The hotel was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and stood next to the CPR station on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street. It was a grand old hotel with an ornate ballroom that in peacetime had hosted some of the most prestigious parties in the city. The hotel was also the home of many single people who wished to live independently, but did not want the burden of running a household.

These people were known as permanent residents of the hotel.

To visit Miss Colwell during the winter when the car was in storage, Mother had to take a long journey on the North Main street car. Before leaving home, she’d always carefully scrub the nicotine stains from her fingers with a pumice stone at the bathroom sink.

‘Miss Colwell doesn’t approve of yellow fingers,’ she’d say.

Miss Colwell also smoked, but she avoided nicotine-stained fingers by slipping her Players Navy Cuts into one loop of a paper clip that had the other loop straightened out to use as a sort of a handle.

Once in a while when she was unable to get a sitter, Mother would take us with her on a Sunday afternoon visit to the hotel, but Miss Colwell did not encourage this. She said that the presence of children would be disturbing to the other guests. One of these guests was Tommy, who was ten years younger than Miss Colwell, and very ill. He was tall but stooped, which gave him a fragile appearance. His grey hair was thinning, and he wore thick glasses so that we couldn’t really see the colour of his eyes. He spoke with an English accent and his voice was very soft, almost a whisper. He had worked for the school division as a purchasing agent but was no longer able to hold a job.

‘Tommy, whom Miss Colwell has mothered so long, has had to retire owing to ill health,’ Mother wrote, ‘and I fear his future is very uncertain, as he has hardening of the arteries.’

By the spring the hotel had become so overcrowded with wartime travellers that there was no longer room for the permanent residents, and they were asked to move. Mother managed to find two furnished rooms close to us, one on Grosvenor Avenue for Miss Colwell and another at the Abbott’s house on Dorchester for Tommy. The Graham had been brought out of storage for the summer, and Mother made many trips to bring all their belongings from the hotel.

‘Miss Colwell is upset at having to move,’ Mother told us once the move had been completed. ‘She’d like you to call her Aunt Betty, and I think it would cheer her up. We’ll go over to see her now.’

I didn’t want to go. I’d always found Miss Colwell intimidating, and I sensed that she didn’t like children, but I was afraid to say this to Mother.

I don’t even know her, I thought, and she’s certainly not my aunt.

We walked around the corner in the April afternoon sunshine to the three-storey grey brick house. The house faced north, and all traces of sunshine disappeared as we approached the screened front porch that was bathed in gloomy shadows.

A stuffed moose head stared down at us from the brick wall. Its glassy brown eyes had a sinister look, as if the moose resented being put on public display.

The inside of the house was dark and very quiet as we trooped up the red-carpeted stairs to the second floor. All the oak doors were shut tight, and I wondered what sort of people were behind those doors, and what they might be doing so quietly in the middle of the afternoon.

‘It’s this one,’ said Mother, pointing. ‘Now, remember, what are you going to call her?’

‘Aunt Betty,’ we chorused obediently.

‘That’s good. She’ll be so happy.’

Mother knocked gently on the door, and we could hear the squeak of the floorboards under Miss Colwell’s black oxfords. As the door opened a crack, I caught a glimpse of her tightly curled white hair, and the wire-rimmed glasses on her aquiline nose.

‘Oh, it’s you, Lucy! And you’ve brought the children! Do come in!’

In the the room was a narrow bed, a small walnut desk, a bookcase with glass doors like the ones in all the classrooms at school, and a walnut dresser with an attached mirror. A radio sat on a small end table, and there were two chairs, one straight-backed and the other upholstered. A toaster, kettle and hot plate sat on a small oilcloth-covered table at one end of the room.

Miss Colwell sat down on the bed with a resigned sigh, her wine-colored crepe dress hanging loosely and her shriveled, brown-speckled, ringless hands resting on her knees.

‘I’m worn out from the move,’ she said. ‘And how are you, Margaret?’

‘Fine, thank you,’ I answered from behind Mother’s skirt.

‘Fine, thank you, who?’ Mother whispered.

‘Fine, thank you, Aunt Betty,’ I stammered.

‘Well, now, isn’t that lovely!’ Miss Colwell said, reaching out her hand. ‘Come and sit next to me!’

‘Go on,’ Mother gave me a gentle shove, and I reluctantly approached the bed. Aunt Betty pulled me down and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips felt like sandpaper, and she smelled old.

‘You know,’ Aunt Betty said, ‘I’ve always had great admiration for your mother. I hope that you’ll grow up to be just like her! I think that you and I are going to be good friends.’

I blushed in confusion and remained silent as Barbara and Roger grinned at me from behind Mother’s back. Aunt Betty smiled at them and they smiled back, but she didn’t invite them to sit beside her.

‘Well, we should go now and let you have a rest,’ said Mother. ‘But you’re invited to our house for dinner tonight.

Come at six o’clock. Tommy is welcome, too. Do you have the Abbott’s phone number?’

Aunt Betty said that she did, and that she’d get in touch with him and that they’d be pleased to come.

‘We’re going to miss the hotel dining room,’ she said.

As we went down the stairs, Mother turned to me.

‘You needn’t be shy with Aunt Betty,’ she said. ‘She loves you very much.’

‘But she’s not my real aunt,’ I said.

‘That doesn’t matter. It’s how you feel about each other that matters.’

I don’t even know her, I wanted to shout. She’s a stranger! But I was afraid of hurting Mother’s feelings. As we left the house, the moose head bid us a staring good-bye.

That evening Aunt Betty and Tommy came to dinner, and Mother asked Aunt Betty to sit at the head of the table.

‘That’s Daddy’s place!’ I protested.

‘Well, he’s not here,’ said Mother. She had warned us to remember our table manners, but she needn’t have worried. We were too shy to misbehave.

Aunt Betty and Tommy became frequent dinner guests. We children were always sent off to bed shortly after the meal, but Barbara and I, who shared a room, would giggle and talk and play imaginary games, waiting for Tommy to come upstairs to use the bathroom, which he did frequently.

‘Tommy,’ we’d call as soon as we heard the toilet flush, and he’d come into our bedroom and entertain us with stories of his boyhood in England until Aunt Betty called him back downstairs.

‘When I was a boy,’ he’d begin, and then he’d weave a tale which held us enthralled. He was full of stories of what he called the old country, about how he had gone to boarding school and only seen his parents on holidays, and how he had played soccer and bowls and tennis, and about how he had come to Canada on a boat and been seasick. Aunt Betty told us that his stories weren’t true, and that Tommy couldn’t possibly remember anything of his past.

‘He’s not well, you know. He’s lost his memory, and he’s very confused,’ she said. ‘In any event, when your mother tells you to go to sleep you should obey her.’

We asked Mother what was wrong with Tommy.

‘He has an illness that’s affected his brain,’ she told us. ‘He’s like a little boy, and you shouldn’t encourage him to act silly. Aunt Betty doesn’t like it.’ Still, Tommy continued to tell his stories, and Aunt Betty continued to chastise both him and us, until he became too sick to visit.

This happened in the autumn of 1942. We hadn’t seen Tommy for several weeks, and Aunt Betty, who now came to our house every evening for dinner, was unusually quiet and weepy.

‘Aunt Betty is feeling very sad these days,’ Mother told us.

‘She’s very worried about Tommy. I don’t want you to upset her, so please be quiet when she’s here.’

This was difficult, as we weren’t quiet children. We’d sit at the table, listening to Mother and Aunt Betty discussing Tommy. He was so weak, he couldn’t get out of bed, they said, but he’d try, and then he’d fall. His landlord had to shave him, and help him to the bathroom. His landlady made him soup that Aunt Betty attempted to feed him, but he wasn't hungry, and he refused to eat.

‘He can’t stay there much longer,’ Aunt Betty said. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Abbott are being very kind, but they aren’t running a nursing home. Poor Tommy is becoming completely helpless.’

‘He really should be in the hospital,’ Mother told her.

‘I know,’ Aunt Betty said, ‘but it just breaks my heart to put him there.’

Finally Tommy lost consciousness, and hospitalization could no longer be postponed. We watched from our front steps as he was wheeled out to the ambulance. Mother called a sitter to stay with us overnight so that she could remain at the hospital with Aunt Betty. Tommy died early the next morning; he’d suffered a massive stroke.

On the day of the funeral, Aunt Betty was to stay at our house while Mother attended the service.

‘Aunt Betty is too upset to go,’ Mother said. ‘She’s afraid she’ll break down in front of everyone.’

Mother had thought that we’d all be in school, but to her consternation, I woke up that morning with a bad cold, and had to stay home in bed.

‘I want you to stay in your room,’ Mother said, ‘and don’t go downstairs until I come home. Aunt Betty doesn’t feel like talking.’

I lay in bed trying to read a Nancy Drew mystery, but thoughts of Tommy and of death kept creeping into my mind.

I wondered if Daddy was dead. We hadn’t heard from him for such a long time. As the mantel clock struck the hours and the half hours, I pictured Aunt Betty sitting in the living room in her black dress. Was she crying? If she was, I didn’t hear her. The house was silent. I gazed out the window at the September sunshine warming the changing leaves and wondered what it was like to die. Did it hurt? Would I know that I was dying? Would I feel cold all over? Would I be able to swallow? Would I be able to see and hear the people around me?

Mother arrived home just before Barbara and Roger returned from school, but she didn’t come up to see me. She stayed downstairs with Aunt Betty, and as soon as the other kids came in she sent them upstairs to play with me.

‘But don’t be noisy,’ she warned. ‘I’m going to make Aunt Betty a cup of tea before she goes home.’

The next day Aunt Betty came to dinner as usual. I expected her to be weepy and upset, but she wasn’t. She had gone through Tommy's few possessions and chosen a black fountain pen and a black leather three-ring binder to give to me.

‘You’re the eldest in the family,’ she said, ‘and the most like your mother, so I want you to have these things. But you mustn’t use the binder until you start junior high school. It will be something to look forward to.’

She had also found an English sixpence that she decided should go to the child who had the best table manners for an entire week. She placed the sixpence beside her water glass and watched every move we children made. On the last night Roger asked to be excused before dessert, so he was eliminated from the contest. Then Barbara, who, like me, had managed to get through the entire week almost without fault, reached for a cookie without asking.

‘Well, Margaret, you’re the winner!’ Aunt Betty said. ‘And that’s as it should be, since you’re the eldest!’

Mother was very seldom sick. When she did come down with a cold or a headache, she didn’t complain, and the household continued to run as usual, so we were frightened one morning when she woke up with chest pains and a high fever. She phoned Dr. Tisdale who came over right away and listened to her chest with his stethoscope and diagnosed bronchitis. He gave her a shot of penicillin.

‘This is a new drug,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to get but I think you need to get better quickly for the childen’s sake. Stay in bed as much as possible and I'll be around to see you tomorrow.’

Mother called us into her bedroom and told us to get our own breakfast. She said that she would be able to heat up some soup for lunch, and we’d have Kraft Dinner for supper.

‘We’ll manage fine,’ she said. We had milk and bread delivered every day, and one of us could run to Waugh’s store for anything else we needed. Mother said that she’d rest while we were in school.

But when we arrived home for lunch, we were surprised to find Aunt Betty in the kitchen heating up a can of pork and beans.

‘Go upstairs and wash your hands,’ she told us, ‘but don't bother your mother. She needs to rest.’

Alarmed, we ran straight to Mother’s bedroom to find her reading an Agatha Christie book.

‘Why is Aunt Betty here?’ I asked. ‘Are you very sick?’

‘Not very,’ said Mother, ‘but she phoned, and when she heard my voice she knew I wasn’t well and insisted on coming over to help. Just go down and eat your lunch. I’ll be all right by tomorrow.’

‘Children!’ Aunt Betty called, ‘come downstairs at once!

Your meal is ready, and I told you not to bother your mother!’

‘Can we listen to The Happy Gang?’ asked Barbara.

The Happy Gang was one of our favourite radio programs.

It came on the CBC every day right after the noon news with

‘Knock knock. Who’s there? It’s the Happy Gang! Well, come on in!’Then they’d sing their theme song: Keep happy with the Happy Gang,

Keep happy, start your day with a bang,
We hope you’ll spend a moment with the boys and Kay Stokes,
We hope you’ll like our music, our songs and our jokes.
Keep happy in the Happy Gang way,
Keep healthy with Palmolive each day.
For if you’re happy and healthy
To heck with being wealthy
So keep happy with the Happy Gang!

They’d sing upbeat songs and tell jokes for fifteen minutes, and their enthusiasm and cheerfulness did much to boost the morale of their listeners who had just listened to the latest war news. But Aunt Betty didn’t appreciate their humour.

‘No, you haven’t time, and the radio is too noisy,’ said Aunt Betty.

‘Keep happy with the Happy Gang!’ Barbara sang.

‘Don’t sing at the table,’ said Aunt Betty, ‘It’s not polite.’

We ate in silence, trying to remember our manners, and then we went back to school for the afternoon. We hoped that Aunt Betty would be gone when we came home after four, but she was still there. She stayed for three days, going home only to sleep, and forbidding Mother to come downstairs. She made lumpy porridge for breakfast and watery stew for supper. She wouldn’t let us read the funnies or listen to the radio, which she turned on only to hear the latest war news.

‘When is Aunt Betty going home?’ I asked Mother.

‘Hush! We don’t want to hurt her feelings,’ she answered.

‘It’s kind of her to want to help.’

‘But we don’t need help,’ I said. ‘We’re old enough to do things for ourselves!’

On the third evening, Mother told Aunt Betty that she was feeling much better, and wanted to take back the running of the house. Aunt Betty seemed relieved.

‘I’m happy that I was able to look after you all,’ she said, ‘but you do appear to be much better. Penicillin is truly a miracle drug!’

As the door shut behind Aunt Betty, we all heaved a sigh of relief.

‘I hope you never get sick again,’ said Barbara, ‘but if you do, I’m going to run this house by myself!’

‘Aunt Betty means well,’ said Mother, ‘but she’s always lived by herself so she’s not used to children. However, I promise not to get sick again, ever!’