The Home Front

CHAPTER FIFTEEN- Winter and Spring, 1945

During the winter of 1945, several of the neighbourhood children came down with scarlet fever. This happened just before Christmas, and Patricia Birchard and Beverley Massey and her brother Allen all had to spend the holidays in the hospital. My old fear of the disease returned, especially in January when Roger caught it. I didn’t see how I could avoid contacting it this time, and I spent many sleepless nights listening to the mantel clock in the living room striking the hours and half hours, and swallowing repeatedly to check if my throat was sore. The thought of having to spend an entire month in the hospital, away from Mother and surrounded by strangers, was terrifying.

The night before Roger was taken away to the hospital, Mother took her supper up to his room so that she could be with him. Since Barbara had already had the disease, she was allowed into the sickroom too, but Mother told me to stay out if I didn’t want to catch the germs. I sat all alone in the kitchen, frozen with fear, picking at the plate of cold roast beef, mashed potatoes and canned peas that Mother had given me, but I wasn’t hungry. The house was very quiet except for the muffled voices from the sickroom upstairs. The steady tick of the mantel clock echoed in the empty living room, and the hall radiator hissed as if it were mocking me. I imagined that I could hear footsteps coming up the basement stairs, and I ran to turn the key in the lock. I pressed my ear to the door and listened hard, but the noise had stopped.

Someone passed by the kitchen window, feet crunching in the snow. I peeked out, but it was only Ewan McQuarrie coming home for supper.

I hated canned peas. They were such an ugly colour — khaki like Daddy’s army uniform, and they smelled like throw-up. And I hated God for giving Roger scarlet fever. Now he’d have to go to the hospital for a month, and I might get sick and have to go there too. It wasn’t fair that Mother and Barbara could sit in Roger’s room, and I had to stay downstairs all by myself. It was cold and dark outside and I was scared and lonely and Mother only seemed concerned about Roger. I felt that Barbara could have stayed in the kitchen with me, if she hadn’t thought she was so smart because she’d had scarlet fever and I hadn’t.

I pushed my plate away and went up to my room and lay on my bed, swallowing over and over again. I thought I was going to throw up.

‘Mummy!’ I called.

‘What is it, Margaret?’ Mother sounded tired and cross.

‘I feel sick!’

‘Is your throat sore? Do you feel sick to your stomach?’

‘My throat isn’t sore, but I couldn’t eat my supper. My tummy hurts.’

‘I’ll take your temperature. If it’s normal there’s nothing wrong with you.’ It was normal, a healthy 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

‘Margaret,’ said Mother, ‘You’re just such a worrywart. Now I need to stay with Roger. He’s very sick and tomorrow he’ll have to go to the hospital and we won’t see him for a month. You probably won’t get scarlet fever, but if you do it won’t be the end of the world. Many other children have gone to the hospital and they’ve come through the experience just fine, so stop worrying and go to bed.’

For the next week I kept checking for symptoms of scarlet fever, but I didn’t get sick. I was quarantined and had to miss a week of school, but I didn’t mind having a week away from Miss Ormond’s taunting. I told Mother that I’d like to knit myself a sweater to help pass the time. I’d had lots of practice knitting small things like doll scarves, and in school every year since grade three we’d knitted squares for afghans for soldiers, but I’d never attempted a large project.

Mother was enthusiastic. ‘That’s a good idea,’ she said. ‘What colour would you like?’

I didn’t have to think. ‘Red.’ I had a Stewart tartan skirt, and a red sweater would match it perfectly.

Mother went downtown to Eaton’s and bought several skeins of red wool, a pattern for a short-sleeved pullover, and a pair of knitting needles.

‘This is a pretty shade of red,’ she said. ‘It’s scarlet. It will be nice and bright for winter.’

‘Scarlet? Like the scarlet fever rash?’ I couldn’t believe that such pretty wool would have such an ugly name.

Mother laughed. ‘You’ll forget all about that when you see the finished sweater, and you know, I think I’ll knit you a matching cardigan so you’ll have a twin set.’

It took us the rest of the winter, knitting after school and on weekends, to finish the sweaters. The two of us sat together in the living room, our needles clicking away as we spent the long winter hours listening to the war news on the radio. I was very proud when for the first time I wore my new sweaters with my tartan skirt to church.

Roger spent a month in the hospital, and while he was there Mother redecorated his room. She told Daddy all about this project in a letter.

My Darling Vic,

You will be sad to hear that Roger is in the hospital with scarlet fever. I miss him greatly, but have taken the opportunity to decorate his room. There is a new wall paint that you mix with water and put on like calsomine, only it is much more durable, and will wash. I did it in a very pretty pale green, and cut the pictures out of two ten-cent Mother Goose books and pasted them around the wall for a border. Two coats of the stuff covered the old pink paint perfectly. Then I gave all the woodwork a coat of flat and a coat of enamel.

I bought a new pair of curtains, white net, and a decent CLOTH blind. Remember how the kids always tore those washable blinds? And I recovered that little chintz chair, using the old rose velvet curtain that we have had since we were married. I am covering the toy box the same way. So far dear, the expense of redecorating is under five dollars!

Not long after Roger came home from the hospital, he came down with a bout of tonsillitis that developed into a quinsy, an abscess of the throat. His fever was so high and he had such difficulty breathing that Mother became very alarmed and called Dr. Tisdale, who came over right away.

‘That’s a nasty-looking throat,’ the doctor said. ‘Poor little man! I’m afraid I’ll have to drain the abscess.’

The doctor explained that if he didn’t do this, the abscess might burst, and Roger might breathe the infected material into his lungs. This could cause pneumonia or even death by choking.

‘Well,’ said Mother, ‘I guess it has to be done.’

Barbara and I nervously watched from the hall as Mother held Roger’s head still and the doctor inserted a needle into the abscess. He very carefully drained the pus into a syringe. It seemed to take a very long time. Roger was very brave, and didn’t utter a sound. Perhaps he was just too sick to be able to make a fuss.

‘Thank you so much! You’re a most skilled physician,’ Mother said when the procedure was over.

‘Well, that’s my job,’ said the doctor. ‘And we have to take special care of this little man so he’ll be healthy when his daddy comes home.’

Roger was given a shot of penicillin to get rid of the infection, but it left him very weak and pale, and it was weeks before he was well enough to go back to kindergarten.

After the long, cold winter and so much sickness in the neighbourhood, we were all happy to greet the arrival of spring.

As soon as the weather turned the slightest bit warm, Barbara and I clamoured to be allowed to wear knee socks instead of the heavy ribbed stockings we’d been forced to wear all winter long. These were cumbersome, as they had to be clipped to garters that were attached to buttoned vests that we wore over our undershirts. In really cold weather we had to wear one-piece combinations that covered us from our neck almost to our knees. On top of all this we wore navy bloomers under our tunics. By the time we were dressed for school we could hardly walk, so it was a great relief in the spring to shed all these clothes and allow the cool air to caress our bare legs and arms. Mother, however, was afraid we’d catch cold, so she made a rule.

‘You may argue with me, but I’ve got something that you can’t argue with,’ she said, and she hung a thermometer outside the kitchen window.

‘When the thermometer reaches 50 degrees,” she said, ‘you can wear knee socks. Not before. And when it reaches 70 degrees, you can wear ankle socks. Now I don’t want to hear another word about this.’

Every morning we’d race to the window to read the thermometer. If it was too cold for knee socks first thing in the morning, by the time we came home for lunch we were usually able to change.

The month of May was always cleanup time in the city, and an announcement in the newspapers warned that the annual Beautify Winnipeg Drive was beginning. The proclamation was issued by Lieutenant-Governor Roland McWilliams and endorsed by Mayor John Queen and by James C. Pincock, Superintendent of Schools. People were expected to clean up their yards, to plant flowers and vegetables, and to preserve the grounds of public buildings and streets by picking up litter and refraining from walking on the grass.

‘I am particularly interested in the preservation and development of the beautiful grounds around the Legislative Buildings, and have recently taken what action is open to me to try to put a stop to the practice of selfish and ignorant people in making shortcuts across the lawns,’ said McWilliams in a statement to the Free Press.

Mother also took the opportunity to spruce up our house and garden. She wrote to Daddy, telling him of her efforts.

My dearest Vic,

I had $42.00 worth of work done outside this year. Our neighbours tore up their front fence, so I had to tear ours up too, of course, since the two fences were joined together. Our front walk was all broken, so I had it patched and raised to the level of the public sidewalk, so now we have no more puddles in front of our place! I had to have the front steps jacked up and some rotten boards replaced too. And I had gardeners build up the lawn and level it off even with the sidewalk, and all newly seeded. They put new soil over the back garden, too. Then I painted the steps and veranda myself. Really, you will be very proud of the place dearest, and you will like it better without the fence as the lawn is so even, and reaches right out level with the sidewalk. I had the peonies that were by the fence moved to the side flowerbed, too.

The man also nailed some boards together to enclose the garbage cans, so the dogs can’t tip them over anymore. I keep thinking of you, darling, and long for the time when we can look after everything together again. I know you must yearn to see us all.

All our love to you, my dearest one.


Daddy was very happy to get this news. He wrote back:

Darling Lucy,

Congratulations on improvements to front garden am longing to see everything.

Am still well and think of you all constantly. I’ll never leave you again for anything. My constant prayer is for an early reunion when I shall be able to show you all how much I love you.

All my love to the four of you,


(F.V. Dennis)

Another annual May event in Winnipeg was the arrival of the Shrine Circus. This took place between May 15 and 22, 195, at the Amphitheatre on Whitehall Street, behind Osborne Stadium. All seats were reserved, and there were three ticket prices: 25, 50 and 75 cents. Children bringing bundles of rags for the Patriotic Salvage Corps were admitted free.

The Shrine Circus promised clowns galore, monster acts, elephants, monkeys and performing dogs. With ticket prices at no more than 75 cents (or free admission with a donation of a bundle of rags), it was touted as another patriotic way to help the war effort.

The Patriotic Salvage Corps, with the motto Dig In and Dig Out the Scrap, had been formed in response to the National Salvage Campaign of the federal government. Run mostly by stay-at-home women, it was a volunteer organization that collected all manner of scrap, including fats, bones, glass, metals, rubber and rags to make supplies used in fighting the war. This was one home front activity that was embraced wholeheartedly by most citizens.

Mother took us to the circus every year. It didn’t cost much to go, and it gave us all a brief break from thinking about the war. Besides, it helped the Shriners in their effort to aid disabled children.

‘The Shriners do so much good,’ Mother said. ‘Their hospital is filled with crippled children. Many of them have had infantile paralysis, and some of them will never walk again, but the Shriners always make sure that they get the best of care.’

The day after the circus opened, The Winnipeg Tribune ran a story about one of the children who had been cured.

During the intermission, Yvonne Elsie Pearl Pink, whose infantile paralysis was cured in the Shriners’ Hospital, presented each of the ladies in the Lieutenant-Governor’s box with a rose.

We loved the Shrine Circus. It always began with a great parade of Shriners, the gold-tassels on their maroon fezzes swaying as their band marched around the Amphitheatre, followed by the clowns, acrobats, and all the animals. The suspense was almost un-bearable — we could hardly wait for the performances to begin.

The huge feet of the elephants kicked up the sawdust on the floor, their trainer waving to the crowd with her elephant hook hoisted over her head. The clowns stopped to talk to the people in the front rows, handing out balloons and suckers. Best of all were the trapeze artists who all belonged to the same family: The Flying Wallendas. They looked so glamorous in their pink leotards and sequined, short-skirted dresses. Watching them fly through the air, swinging high up in the rafters, was heart stopping. What if they fell? There was a net to catch them, but still it was a long way down. When the circus was over and we were home again, our hands and faces sticky from cotton candy, we’d imagine ourselves as The Flying Wallendas, sailing through the air with such ease and grace.

The acrobats, the red-nosed clowns, the dancing, motorcycle-riding bears, the clapping seals, and the lions and tigers jumping through hoops made us forget for a few hours about the war, and about our father who was so far away.

That May of 1945, to celebrate my eleventh birthday, I finally got the two-wheeled bike I’d been yearning for since I was seven.

My grandparents in England sent me ten pounds as a birthday gift, and Mother agreed that I could spend it on a bike. We answered an advertisement in The Winnipeg Tribune from a lady on Jessie Avenue who had bought herself a new bike. Mother asked Mr. Morgan to come with us to check the bike over, and he agreed that it was a good buy, so I paid my twenty dollars and became the proud owner of a blue bike with silver-painted wooden wheels. As I rode it home that night, my hair blowing in the breeze, I felt as if I’d been given wings.

Just wait until Daddy sees this, I thought, and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to wait too long to show it to him.