The Home Front

CHAPTER NINE - Friends and Neighbours

I had been three and Barbara just six months old when we’d moved to 1033 Dorchester Avenue in 1936. There had been no war, no Hong Kong, no absent Daddy and no Roger, who was born on September 3, 1939, on the very day that war was declared against Germany, and Daddy was called to active duty in the army.

‘We chose this house,’ Mother often said, ‘because it’s in such a safe neighbourhood.’

Grosvenor School was just one street over, St. George’s Church was around the corner, and a fire hall kept watch at the end of our block. Built of white brick, it had a tall tower for drying the fire hoses, and two big red doors where the fire engines went in and out. The firemen slept in the fire hall all night, their boots and pants beside their beds in case they had to get dressed in a hurry. A brass pole rose up through a hole in the ceiling, and the firemen slid down the pole really fast when the fire bell went off. At the back of the hall was a kitchen where they cooked and ate their meals.

Our neighbourhood was filled with friendly and generous people who were wonderfully supportive to our fatherless family.

Everyone who lived on Dorchester between Guelph and Wilton Streets knew us, and watched over us. Most of the families had children, so we always had friends to play with. Directly across the street, at 1032 Dorchester Avenue lived the Birchard family with their four children. Patricia was my age, and she had three younger brothers: Peter was the same age as Barbara, Alan was Roger’s age, and David was born during the war, in March 1939.

The Masseys lived two doors east of the Birchards, and between them lived the Mortimers, whose four grown children all still lived at home and went off to work each day. Mr. and Mrs.

Mortimer played the role of kindly grandparents to all the kids on the street.

Beverley Massey was a year younger than me, her brother Allen was the same age as Roger, and her little sister Sally was born a month before David Birchard, in February 1939. Roger played constantly with Allen Massey and Alan Birchard. The Cameron family, who had looked after Barbara and Roger while Mother went to the station to see Daddy off on the train, left the city for Calgary shortly afterward, and the Ritceys moved into their house. Marilyn Ritcey and Josephine Morgan were both my age. Josephine’s parents were most kind to Mother, and Mr. Morgan was like a second father to me and my siblings.

My girl friends and I could be found playing together all year round, pushing our doll carriages along the sidewalk, skipping rope, testing each other’s skill at hopscotch or playing endless games of hide and seek, using the boulevard trees as home base and the back lanes and garages and the spaces between the houses as hiding places.

The house next door to ours changed hands several times.

When we first moved there, our neighbours were the Browns, whose two children, Douglas and Valerie, were our playmates until they moved to River Heights before the war. Then the Hands moved in with their three sons, and they were our closest neighbours when Daddy went away. The youngest Hand boy, Albert, was Roger’s best buddy until they too moved to River Heights.

On the bench by the sundial in Assiniboine Park’s English Garden, left to right: Patricia Birchard, Margaret Johnson, Beverley Massey, Josephine Morgan, Allen Massey, Marilyn Ritcey, Roger, Barbara and Margaret Dennis.

We were all sad to see them go, as Mother wrote in May 1942.

You will be surprised to know that the Hands moved on the first of May. They have bought a lovely house on the north-west corner of Queenston and Academy. I surely will miss them, as they have been such nice neighbours. I had them all in for dinner at noon the day they moved. Richard Hand turned eighteen and has joined the navy. There are three adults in that family now.

The McQuarries came along next with their daughter Margaret, who was my age, and their mischievous red-haired teenage son Ewan, whose mission seemed to be making my life as miserable as possible. Ewan loved to tease, and I was a prime target. I was extremely sensitive and easily upset, as Mother said to Daddy in a letter, ‘Margaret is a sweet girl, but quite high-strung and irritable.’

The men on the street always wanted to help Mother with chores like putting on the storm windows and doors in the fall and taking them off again in the spring.

‘Ewart Morgan insisted on raking the yard for me,’ Mother wrote. ‘He is going to take off some of the storm windows. I took off the living room ones myself. Mr. Hand is taking the doors off for me. They all want to help, you see, so I spread the work around.’

Our world was small: Stafford Street to the east, Wilton Street to the west, Grosvenor Avenue to the north and Corydon Avenue to the south. A trip to Stafford Street was always an adventure.

We went there every month when Mother got her cheque in the mail from the Department of National Defense. Baird’s Drug Store, where she went to buy postage stamps and magazines, smelled of oil of wintergreen and camphor. Mr. Baird stood behind the pharmacy counter in his white jacket, putting pills into little bottles and talking to people about their illnesses.

‘Well now, Mrs. Snowdon, how’s the arthritis today? And how is Mr. Snowdon’s gout?’

‘Hello there, Mrs. Dennis! How are you getting along? And how are you children? Behaving yourselves, I hope!’

Milkshakes ‘malteds’ – drinks made by dissolving a powder made of dehydrated milk and malted cereals in milk, and then adding ice cream and flavourings – were particularly popular.

Sometimes we got ice cream cones at the soda fountain with its marble counter, and once in a while for a special treat we got a lime ice cream soda or a chocolate milk shake or a sundae smothered in caramel sauce with a cherry on top. We’d sit on the high stools in front of the counter and watch as red-haired Elsie, in her green cotton uniform and white apron, washed and polished the glasses and sundae dishes until they gleamed. She scurried about scooping ice cream from big tubs in the freezer and pushing it into cones. Sometimes she held three at once without dropping them.

‘Here you are. Enjoy your treat!’ she’d chirp in a happy, singsong voice.

We watched in fascination as Elsie siphoned Coca Cola or Orange Crush or Lime Rickey into glasses, the bubbles swirling and hissing as they rose to the top. She squirted chocolate or butterscotch syrup onto scoops of ice cream to make the sundaes.

I loved to watch her operate the milkshake machine. She’d drop a big scoop of ice cream into the metal cup, squirt chocolate or strawberry syrup over it and top it up with milk before lowering the mixer into the cup. Then she’d push the button to start the beater whirling, creating a rich, thick, sweet concoction that I thought was the best thing I’d ever tasted. The metal cup was so cold that drops of water formed on the outside, running down in rivulets to form a dark ring on the marble countertop.

Mother cashed her government cheques at the Bank of Commerce at the corner of Grosvenor and Stafford.

In summer there was a beautiful formal garden behind the bank, and we’d stand at the fence and gaze at the array of flowers: petunias, marigolds, snapdragons, nasturtiums, zinnias, ageratum and phlox all bursting with colour; reds, pinks, purples, yellows, blues and whites.

Across Stafford from the bank was Restivo’s Grocery Store, presided over by Rose Restivo, a vivacious Italian woman with curly black hair and laughing brown eyes.

‘And what can I get for you today?’ she’d ask. ‘We just got a shipment of oranges. We don’t see them too often these days.

And the butcher has some nice pork chops. Get out your ration books!’

Sugar, coffee, tea, butter and meat were all in short supply, so food rationing was one of the ways in which everyone contributed to the war effort. It began in January 1942, and from then until after the war was over our purchase of these items was restricted. We were all issued books filled with ration coupons, and each person was allowed eight ounces of sugar, two pounds of meat and half a pound of butter per week. The ration coupons were colour coded: brown for meat, green for coffee and tea, pink for sugar and purple for butter. Needless to say, Mother had to be a careful shopper.

When she’d finished her shopping she’d buy each of us a small paper bag filled with jellybeans from the jar on the counter.

She insisted on picking out all the black ones to eat herself.

‘If your fingers get all black you’ll smear your clothes,’ she’d say. Only years later did she admit that black jellybeans were her favourites.

All four of us had our hair cut by Muriel at the Leroy Beauty Shop, and every three months Mother had a permanent wave.

She’d sit for an hour with her hair wound in rollers, clamped to the wires that hung down from the permanent wave machine.

The machine made a sizzling sound as it heated her hair into tight curls saturated with waving lotion that reeked of ammonia. One day when I was eight she decided that I should have my hair permed. The machine felt like a great weight on my head, but I sat very still, wondering what I’d look like with curls. I envied Josephine Morgan and Beverley Massey, both of whom had blonde, naturally curly hair. Josephine’s was so thick and curly that her mother only had to brush it around her finger into ringlets.

Mrs. Morgan used a wire brush, deftly brushing the thick, curly hair around her forefinger. Sometimes, in summer, she’d perform this daily ritual on the front porch, and the neighbourhood children would be allowed to watch. In winter, Josephine wore her hair in twenty-four ringlets, arranged close together to keep her neck warm, but in the summer Mrs. Morgan gave Josephine twelve thick ringlets.

‘Thick ringlets are more comfortable in the heat,’ she’d say.

‘They keep the neck cooler.’

Mother wrote to tell Daddy about my permanent wave.

Margaret’s hair was so straight that I let it grow a bit and got her a permanent to the ends, and now it is just like a naturally curly head. I just wet the comb, and turn the ends over my finger. Margaret just adored having the permanent, and spent the whole day in front of the mirror after it.


Next door to the beauty salon, Johnny the shoemaker, his hands grimy from shoe polish and glue and his mouth full of tacks, spent his days putting new heels and soles on shoes and boots.

His shop smelled of shoe wax and leather, and we were fascinated by the huge machines with their whirling brushes that Johnny used to polish the shoes. In the window was a big picture of a black cat with green eyes holding up a paw, advertising Cat’s Paw heels.

Mother was quite independent and didn’t like to bother the neighbours.

Through an ad in the Free Press she found a handyman, Paul Tashnuk, who lived with his father on Higgins Avenue, and rode his bicycle to the south end every day to work. Paul always referred to his father as ‘my aged parent’. They had emigrated from Russia during the Depression years of the 1930s. Mother was most relieved to have found someone to help her with the household chores, and she wrote the good news to Daddy on his fortieth birthday on October 22, 1942.

My darling Vic,

At this very moment it is your birthday. We are all wishing the very best for you. By the way, how does it feel to be 40?

I wish I could give you a present.

You will be glad to know I finally got a man to put on the storm windows today. Of course the neighbours would do it, but I hate to let them. It was a relief to get it done as the weather has at last changed. It has been a perfect October.

Paul could do anything: painting, wallpapering, window washing, carpentry. He pulled his tools in a small trailer attached to his bike until the McQuarrie family, who lived next door to us, offered to rent him their garage. They didn’t have a car, so the garage sat empty, and Paul was happy to take up their offer. That is, he was happy until thirteen-year-old Ewan McQuarrie got into Paul’s paint one day and huge white letters appeared on the brown-shingled wall of the garage.

As punishment, Ewan had to repaint the entire garage. It took most of his summer holidays to get it all done. The McQuarries were worried that Paul might not want to rent their garage any more, but he seemed amused.

‘Boys will be boys,’ he said, ‘and I think that Ewan has learned a lesson. Painting that old garage is hard work.’ Paul even offered to help Ewan, but his parents said no, he needed to do it himself.

I was secretly glad that Ewan got into trouble. It served him right. He always called me names: Skinny, Buckteeth, and Dummy. He and his friends rode their bikes very fast on the sidewalk and laughed when the younger children had to jump out of their way. One day when I was eight, trying not to get run over by Ewan’s bike, I fell into a puddle and he laughed at me as I ran home crying, my tunic and socks smeared with mud.

‘Crybaby!’ Ewan called after me.

‘I hate Ewan,’ I sobbed as Mother wiped the mud off my clothes with an old towel. ‘He’s always so mean!’

‘Well, Ewan is full of mischief,’ said Mother. ‘The more you get upset the more he’ll tease you, I’m afraid. Just try to stay out of his way and ignore him.’

‘But he calls me Buckteeth,’ I said.

‘Well, your teeth do need to be straightened,’ said Mother.

‘I think you need braces. I’ll call the orthodontist tomorrow.’

Dr. Brownlee had an office downtown in the Boyd Building.

There were lots of doctors and dentists in the Boyd Building, and it smelled like a drug store inside. Dr. Brownlee’s office was on the eighth floor and you had to go up in an elevator that had fancy brass scrollwork on the doors and the man who ran it had no fingers. He pushed the handle with the palms of his hands. I wondered what had happened to his fingers but I was too polite to ask him.

‘I can make your teeth nice and straight,’ Dr. Brownlee said, ‘but you’ll have to wear braces for the next two years.’

Mother let me go downtown by myself on the streetcar for my monthly visits to Dr. Brownlee. After I’d seen him I’d go next door to Kresge’s to spend my allowance. There were so many wonderful things in Kresge’s: combs and hair barrettes and lace-trimmed hankies, and grown-up stuff like lipstick and face powder and rouge. I saved up to buy red, heart-shaped barrettes to wear on Valentine’s Day. One thing I really had my heart set on was a box of twenty-four Crayola crayons, but I never had enough money to buy them. The top of the box flipped up to show all the colours at once, and their perfect waxed points were so beautiful.

Mother only bought boxes of eight crayons. She said that was enough colours.

When Barbara was seven and I was nine we both took piano lessons from Mrs. Miller, who lived in a small house on Grosvenor Avenue east of Stafford Street with her teenage daughter, Lana. Mrs. Miller had taken on so many pupils that she had to give lessons over the lunch hour as well as after school and on Saturdays. Almost every child at Grosvenor School took lessons from her.

‘What did you learn today?’ Mother would ask when we came home from our weekly lessons, but we weren’t learning much about playing the piano.

‘Mrs. Miller was making jam today,’ we’d say, or ‘Mrs. Miller was talking on the phone.’

Mother, who was a very good pianist, wanted us to be able to play well, so she told Mrs. Miller that she thought I was old enough to be entered in the annual music festival. When the day came, there were forty-eight kids in my class, and we all had to play Dance of the Columbines by Thomas Dunhill. We were supposed to play it from memory, but I couldn’t do it. I only managed to play the first line and then I got stuck. The adjudicator told me to start over, and I did, three times. Then I burst into tears and went back to my seat beside Mother. I thought I was going to throw up, but I swallowed hard because I didn’t want to get throw-up all over my new dress that Mother had made. It was red plaid with pleats and a Peter Pan collar. The adjudicator didn’t give me a mark. He just told me not to be nervous and to practice lots and to try again the next year, but I never played in the festival again. The worst part was that Sydney Young, who was in my class at school, came in first. She was a really talented piano player and her mark was 96. When we went back to school after lunch all the kids asked how we did in the festival. Sydney told them that she came in first, but she didn’t say anything about me. When they asked me, I said I’d forgotten my piece, but I felt very bad. Funny thing though — I thought that Mother would be cross, but she wasn’t. She just said that Mrs. Miller was so busy doing other things during our lessons that she didn’t pay attention to what we were supposed to be learning.

‘I think,’ said Mother, ‘that next year I’ll ask Mrs. Miller to come here and teach you at home. In our house she won’t have so many distractions.’

The other mothers on the street all thought this was a good idea, so Wednesday became piano lesson day. We had to come straight home after school and Mrs. Miller went from house to house giving lessons. A wisp of a woman with a twitchy mouth, yellow teeth, and thin white hair pulled into a straggly bun, Mrs. Miller was no match for her mischievous pupils. Egged on by one another, we hid from her, giggling behind chesterfields or bathroom doors, chanting, ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!’

‘Tell Mrs. Miller that I’m not home,’ we’d say to each other.

‘Tell her I’ve got the measles. Tell her I’ve gone to the dentist.’

We’d use any excuse to get out of playing the piano. We got away with this because our mothers always arranged to go shopping or visiting on piano lesson days to escape Mrs. Miller’s constant nervous chatter.

‘Here I am,’ said Mother, ‘paying fifty cents for each of your lessons. That’s a whole dollar a week, and Mrs. Miller spends the entire time talking my ear off. If I’m not here, she’ll have to get down to business.’ But Mother’s escaping from the house didn’t make a bit of difference, as Mrs. Miller then spent the lesson time chattering away to us.

‘My goodness, it’s a cold day,’ she’d say. ‘My furnace isn’t working properly and I have to keep the stove on to warm the house I’ve called the furnace man three times but he hasn’t come yet your house is nice and warm I guess you have central heat I wish we did but we live too far away from the plant you’re lucky it’s just down the street from you oh well Lana and I have warm sweaters and I made a pot of soup today that should warm us up tonight my word I’ll be happy when spring comes but then of course we’ll have to cut the grass and take the storm windows off those windows are so heavy I really need to find a man to do the heavy work my husband doesn’t live here you know he moved to Vancouver he has a job there with the city looking after the trees in the parks he’s an arborist but there isn’t enough work in Winnipeg so he went to the coast I’d go there too but I don’t want to take Lana out of school I don’t know how your mother manages the house and you three children of course she’s younger than I am, that makes a difference oh dear I just noticed I’ve got a hole in my stocking and stockings are so hard to get oh well I can always darn it now I guess we’d better get started on your lesson play me the C Major scale.’

‘What’s C Major?’ I’d ask.

‘Goodness! I thought you knew that! How many times do I have to tell you?’

If you’d show me I might learn, I thought, but all Mrs. Miller ever did was chatter.

In the spring Mrs. Miller held a piano recital in Eaton’s Assembly Hall. The highlight of the recital was Lana Miller’s playing of a rip-roaring piece called Rush Hour in Hong Kong.

All the noises of the bustling big city could be heard as her fingers flew over the keys making the sounds of honking horns, rattling rickshaw wheels, tingling bicycle bells, running feet.

‘Hong Kong is where Daddy is,’ I said. ‘I wonder if he hears all those noises.’

Lana did not take lessons from her mother, but from one of the best piano teachers in the city. The rest of us stumbled through our pieces as best we could, giggling at each other’s performances. Beverley was the best performer. She played, with great panache, a lively piece called The Spinning Song, and got through it with hardly any mistakes. I wanted to learn to play this piece too.

‘Next year I’m going to ask Mrs. Miller to teach it to me,’ I said after the recital.

But Mother had already decided that the following year she’d find another piano teacher for us. Most of the other kids on the street gave up lessons altogether.