The Home Front

CHAPTER FOUR - Back in Winnipeg

AUNTIE Henrietta Mitchell and her family lived in a small two-storey stucco house on Jessie Avenue near the corner of Hugo Street. The house had a roughly finished attic that Auntie always said was stifling hot in summer and icy cold in winter. Dusty cobwebs clung to the rafters, and in winter frost rimmed the boards of the ceiling and walls.

We were to stay there for five days, then, as soon as Daddy left for Jamaica, we would take the train to Medicine Hat.

Although she really didn’t have room to spare, Auntie Henrietta gave us a warm welcome. Cousin Jimmie and his brother Charlie moved up to the attic so that Barbara and I could sleep in their room, and Auntie Henrietta set up a borrowed crib next to her bed for Roger. Mother and Daddy rented a room from Mrs. Giles next door.

A soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman, Auntie Henrietta adored our mother Lucy, who was eighteen years younger than she was. Lucy was the only one in the family to graduate from university, and Henrietta was very proud of her. Henrietta had lived in Scotland until after her marriage at the age of eighteen, and still spoke with a broad Scots accent. Her elder son Jimmie was only a few months older than Mother. They had grown up together in the same house, and had been in the same grade at LaVerendrye School. Mother often told us that when they were children, she’d tease Jimmie by telling the other children in the class that she was his aunt, and he’d retaliate by saying, ‘Well, if she’s my aunt, then I’m her uncle!’

Everyone called him Jimmie so as not to confuse him with his father, who was called Jim. Jim worked as a painter for the Canadian National Railway, and at the time of our stay, Jimmie had a Depression-era job sweeping floors in Eaton’s basement.

He later joined the army and spent the rest of the war in Europe.

My cousin Edith, who was married, lived in two small rooms at the back of the house. There was a kitchen on the main floor, and directly above it was a bedroom. A pipe from the wood stove in the kitchen rose up through the ceiling to heat the bedroom when the weather was cold. This room was reached by means of ladder-like stairs that led up from the hall inside the back door.

My grandfather, who was an expert carpenter, had built this apartment so that Auntie Henrietta and her family would have a place to live when they arrived from Scotland, and they had moved into the front part of the house after my grandparents had died. Edith worked in a nearby factory that made cardboard boxes, and her husband John was a mechanic.

Edith was nice enough, but I didn’t like Jimmie. I’d heard him tell his mother that the house was too crowded, and he wished we hadn’t come to stay. Most of the time he ignored me, and when he did talk to me he sounded impatient and angry. I liked the younger son, Charlie, who spent his days wandering about the neighbourhood. Mother told us that Charlie had been brain-damaged at birth.

‘The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, and it cut off the air to his brain,’ she said. ‘He almost died.’

I’d wanted to know what an umbilical cord is and she’d said it’s the cord that joins the baby to the mother in the womb. Then I’d wanted to know what the womb is and she’d said it’s the pouch that the baby grows in and not to ask any more questions.

Always friendly, Charlie chatted with anyone he happened to meet. Sometimes he’d hop on the milkman’s wagon to help deliver the paper-wrapped pounds of butter and bottles of milk and cream, the bottles clanking together in their wire basket with its wooden handle. Full of importance, Charlie would call to the customers, ‘Milkman here! Anything for you today, please?’

There were many churches in the neighbourhood. St. Luke’s Anglican, Crescent Fort Rouge United and Trinity Baptist all stood two blocks east on Nassau Street, and St. Michael’s and All Angels Anglo-Catholic Church was just two streets over on the corner of Hugo and Mulvey. Fascinated by ritual, Charlie sought out these places of worship. Whenever he noticed people gather-ing outside a church for a funeral or a wedding, he’d wander in to witness the proceedings. His parents weren’t churchgoers, but often on a Sunday morning he’d get all dressed up in a suit and tie and attend Mass at St. Michael’s.

On days when Charlie could find nothing to amuse himself, he’d spend hours hunched forward on the edge of the green plush sofa in the living room, his large freckled hands dangling between his knees. Chewing on a toothpick, he’d stare into space, his vacant eyes matching the blue sky in the watercolour painting of Loch Katrine hanging on the wall over his head. Watching him, I often wondered what he was thinking about. Was he sorry he couldn’t have gone to school like his brother and sister? Did he remember the weddings and funerals he’d witnessed? Did he wish he could read a book or the newspaper? But when I spoke to him, he’d just shake his head and say, ‘Nice girl, Margaret.’ His conversation consisted entirely of phrases picked up from other people.

‘Good girl, Margaret,’ he’d say. ‘New dress, Margaret? Going to school, Margaret?’To Daddy he’d say: ‘Nice uniform, Victor.

New shirt, Victor? Working hard, Victor?’

‘Dinna talk sae much, Chairlie,’ Auntie Henrietta would say, but it was as if her words just disappeared into thin air. Charlie would go right on talking.

On our second morning at Auntie Henrietta’s house, Barbara woke up with a flaming throat, a raging fever and a red rash all over her body.

‘She’s a terrible sick wee lassie,’ said Henrietta. ‘What can it be?’

Frightened, Mother phoned Dr. Tisdale right away. I waited on the front porch for him to arrive, carrying his black bag. I knew what was in that bag — wooden sticks to push down your tongue so the doctor could look at your throat, a little light so he could look in your ears, a thing with wires that hung down from his ears so he could listen to your chest going thump thump, a glass stick with a silver end on it so he could take your temperature, and some jelly beans that he gave you when he was finished looking you over. I always thought I was going to throw up when the doctor put the stick in my mouth, and the end of his listening thing felt so cold on my chest that it made me shiver. I liked the jellybeans though, and Dr. Tisdale always winked and smiled at me. Now, he patted me on the head on his way into the house.

Mother sat in the living room holding Barbara. As soon as the doctor saw Barbara’s flushed face and arms he knew what was wrong.

‘I’m afraid it’s scarlet fever,’ he said. ‘She’ll have to go to the hospital. I’ll call the ambulance.’

Mother sobbed as she cradled Barbara in her arms. ‘Oh, my poor baby! How long will she have to stay there?’

‘Twenty-eight days,’ said the doctor. ‘I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else I can do.’

‘What will I do without you?’ Mother cried, burying her face in Barbara’s blonde hair, but Barbara was too sick to answer.

Mother hugged her tightly until the ambulance arrived to take her, wrapped in a red wool blanket, to the King George Hospital for Communicable Diseases.

In spite of the warmth of the June day, I shivered with fear.

‘Will I get scarlet fever, too?’ I asked.

‘I hope not. We’ll just have to wait and see.’

‘How long do we have to wait?’

‘Seven days. If you don’t come down with it by then, you should be all right.’

Roger and I were quarantined for a week, as was everyone else in the house. A man from the Public Health Department came and tacked a red warning sign on Auntie Henrietta’s front door.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Mother said to Auntie Henrietta. ‘Now we’ll have to stay in Winnipeg for another month. We can’t go to Medicine Hat without Barbara.’

‘Dinna you worry now. Ye ken ye’re welcome here as long as ye need stay.’

‘You’re so kind,’ said Mother, as tears welled up in her eyes.

‘I’m so lucky to have a sister like you. I’ll try not to trouble you too much, and I’ll do the chores for you so you can have a bit of a rest.’

Before antibiotics became widely available after World War II, scarlet fever patients were isolated in hospital for four weeks.

Nobody was allowed to enter or leave the house for the next seven days, which meant that Uncle Jim and Jimmie and Edith all had to miss work, and Charlie had to miss his rounds of the neighbourhood. I worried constantly that I, too, would come down with scarlet fever. The thought of having to spend a whole month in the hospital among strangers filled me with terror. I counted the days that seemed never to end, but the nights were even worse. I lay wide-awake, trembling with fear, listening to Auntie Henrietta’s hall clock strike hour after hour. I pulled the covers over my head and prayed to God that I wouldn’t get sick.

Over and over I swallowed, checking to see if my throat was sore, but it never was, not really. Sometimes I thought it was, and I couldn’t swallow, but in the morning it always felt better. I kept checking my chest and stomach to see if a rash had broken out, but I didn’t get scarlet fever, and neither did anyone else in the house.

Before the week was over, Daddy left for Jamaica. The Grenadiers were not particularly happy to be going there, for they wanted to see action. Their duties in Jamaica would consist of guarding Nazi prisoners in a POW Camp, and occasionally boarding foreign ships to search for contraband weapons — not exactly what they considered fighting the enemy.

Before Daddy went away, Dr. Tisdale arranged for special permission for him to visit Barbara in the hospital. This was most unusual, as communicable disease patients were always kept under strict isolation. Mother didn’t think this was a good idea, but Daddy wouldn’t listen to her.

‘I want to say good-bye to my little girl,’ he said. ‘I don’t know when I’ll see her again!’

After Daddy had gone away, Mother moved in to Auntie Henrietta’s house. They decided that I should sleep in the attic, across the hall from Jimmie and Charlie, and Mother and Roger could share the cousins’ room. Mother received long letters from Daddy telling of the wonders of Bermuda, where his ship had stopped on the way to Jamaica, and of tropical moonlight picnics, dinners and dances, cricket games, swims in the ocean and sight-seeing tours. He was enjoying the life of an army officer.

Dearest, you used to tease me about being spoiled by having a batman. Well, the batman I have here is almost like a valet. Whenever I arrive in my room he appears, and insists on helping me undress (if I would let him). He always asks me what I’m going to wear, and after my shower, behold!

Everything is laid out. Every time I take off a pair of shoes or boots they are whisked away to be cleaned, and I never bother about washing or mending. He looks after all that, even to putting things away in the drawers. He has his own methods, and if I put anything away in the wrong place, he carefully changes it! So you see, Darling, I am liable to be awfully spoiled!

Every Monday morning Mother did the laundry in the chipped green enamel wringer washing machine in Auntie Henrietta’s cellar. Narrow wooden stairs led to a dark, dank space smelling of coal dust and rotting vegetables. The only light came from a single bulb suspended above the washer. Two galvanized rinse tubs stood on a rickety wooden stand, and these, as well as the machine, had to be filled using an old black rubber hose attached to a nearby rusty faucet. It took the entire morning to get the job done. There were shirts and cotton dresses, aprons, socks, pajamas and underwear, sheets, handkerchiefs, towels and tablecloths, and they all went through one wash and two rinses. Then Mother carried them, smelling of Rinso, up the stairs and through the kitchen to be hung on the lines in the backyard. Tagging along after her, I’d think of the cheery radio jingle and sing out ‘Rinso white, Rinso bright, happy little washday song!’

I guess I got on her nerves, because when the week of quarantine was over she decided to send me back to school.

‘It’s another three weeks until the end of June,’ she said, ‘and there’s nothing for you to do around here.’

‘But the school is so far from here,’ I said. ‘How will I get there?’

‘It’s not that far. You can take the streetcar, and I’ll ask Mrs. Morgan if she can give you lunch.’ Josephine Morgan was in my class, and the Morgans were close neighbours.

So each morning I walked the short block from Jessie to the corner of Corydon and Hugo and took the streetcar to school.

I felt very grown up perched on the dusty wicker seat in my print cotton dress and white socks and sandals. The scent of lilacs from the yards along the street wafted through the open windows, and the breeze tickled my nose and teased my hair as the streetcar, filled with cleaning ladies riding to work in Crescentwood homes, rattled and clanged its way along the rails. After school I rode back on the streetcar, filled with the same cleaning ladies returning home. In the mornings they were lively, chatting and laughing to each other, but in the afternoon they sat mostly in silence, weary from their day’s work.

Like the cleaning ladies on the streetcar, Mother often seemed preoccupied and tired, so after school and on weekends I was left to amuse myself. Mother was right, I thought, there wasn’t much to do at Auntie Henrietta’s. I missed Barbara. Roger was only little, too young to play with, and I didn’t have any friends in Auntie Henrietta’s neighbourhood. Faye Price lived in the middle of the block but she was ten and took violin lessons and I thought she was stuck-up.

One Sunday afternoon I decided to pretend I was a lady with a baby, so I dressed up in Mother’s white straw hat and white gloves and an old purse of Auntie Henrietta’s, and pushed Raggedy Ann around the block in my doll carriage. Faye and her friends laughed at me.

‘Look at Margaret,’ they said. ‘She thinks she’s a lady!’

Then they all ran into Faye’s house and made faces at me through the window. I felt lonely and sad and I missed our old house and my friends on Dorchester Avenue.

If only I had a bicycle, I thought, I could get away. I could ride over to our old street and play with my own friends. Pressing my arms against the rough bark of the elm tree in front of Auntie Henrietta’s house, I bowed my head and shut my eyes and prayed to God to give me a two-wheeler.

‘Please, please, God, when I go around to the back yard, please let there be a bike waiting for me. I don’t care what color it is. It can even be old and rusty. But please give me one.’

Then I’d walk very slowly through the squeaky wooden gate and around the side of the house, running my hands along the rough grey bricks of the chimney and watching the ants scurry over the cracked, dry earth and disappear into the weeds. I wanted to give God lots of time to answer my prayer, but before I got there I knew He wouldn’t. As I stared at the empty back yard in disappointment, I remembered that God was much too busy looking after all the people in England and Europe who were being attacked by the Nazis to be bothered with me. A little girl, that’s all I was. Not important at all.

The air in my attic bedroom with its tiny dormer window was heavy with the odor of mothballs and dust. Every night, I was sent to bed shortly after dinner. They just want to get me out of the way, I thought, and it’s not fair, not fair at all. The June evenings were long and hot, and I’d lie soaked in perspiration on the crumpled sheets, listening to the distant sounds — the streetcars clanging along the rails, the collie next door barking at every car that came down the street, the creak and bang of the screen door and the chatter and laughter of the grownups gathered on the veranda. Sometimes I’d creep down and sit on the hall stairs to listen. I knew I might get into trouble for this, but the bare pinewood of the stairs felt cool under my feet, and the breeze from the open doorway soothed my hot cheeks. Sometimes I’d nearly get caught by someone coming up the stairs to use the bathroom, but I’d always manage to scurry back up to the attic in time. One evening, however, Mother found me on the stairs, and I pleaded to be allowed to stay up a while longer.

‘I can’t sleep,’ I said. ‘I’m hungry!’

‘Well,’ Mother relented, ‘I guess you can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich. But be quick about it!’

I was just about to spread the peanut butter on the bread when Auntie Henrietta came into the kitchen.

‘I’ll do that for ye,’ she said. ‘I dinna want ye to use sae much peanut butter. Ye ken it’s a bit haird to come by.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I can do it myself!’

Just then Jimmie, who was passing through the kitchen, yanked the knife out of my hand, twisting my arm.

‘For God’s sake, Margaret. If my mother wants to butter your bread, let her do it!’

‘Never mind, I’m not hungry,’ I cried, running back up to the attic where I sobbed myself to sleep in the sweltering summer twilight.

Barbara had been in the hospital for three weeks when Mother took Roger and me to the King George Hospital. We couldn’t go in, but we stood outside and waved to Barbara who was standing at a top-floor window beside a white-uniformed nurse. Mother had phoned the hospital ahead of time and asked them to bring Barbara to the window. The red brick walls of the hospital loomed large. It was a beautiful sunny June day and I felt sad that my sister had to be stuck inside such a forbidding place. She looked so tiny and so far away. We blew her kisses and she blew them back to us.

‘I wish she could come home,’ I said.

‘Just one more week,’ said Mother.

I was so excited the day that Barbara came home, but my cousin Edith insisted that Barbara should have supper with her that night in her little apartment.

‘She’ll be weak and tired after such a long stay in the hospital,’ Edith said. ‘And the excitement of coming home and being with all these people might be too much for her. We don’t want her to have a relapse.’

I couldn’t hide my disappointment.

‘I want to have supper with Barbara. I want to play with her,’ I said. ‘It’s not fair!’

But all the grown-ups agreed with Edith. They told me I was being selfish.

They all like Barbara better than me, I thought. I picked at my pork chop, potatoes and peas before going up to my attic room to cry myself to sleep.

The next day we left by train for Medicine Hat to stay with Auntie Edith and Uncle Fred for the rest of the summer.

‘Just in time,’ said Mother. There was an epidemic of polio in Winnipeg and she didn’t want to risk any of us catching it.

Polio, then known as Infantile Paralysis, struck great fear into parents and children alike, as the resulting paralysis was permanent and the disease often proved fatal.

Barbara, Roger and me in a wheelbarrow in Aunt Edith’s backyard in Medicine Hat