Thursday, 21 January 2016

Gladys at 101

The official story is that Gladys was adopted by a recent Scottish immigrant in Saskatchewan and
brought to Toronto to join "Auntie's" family. This was untrue, but her grandchildren believed it, and it gave rise to speculation that Gran'ma might be part First Nations. Unlike most of us she tanned.

The unofficial stories are, by 21st century standards, just as romantic, but illegitimacy was still considered absolutely shameful by both Brits and Canadians of the late 19th and early 20th century, so Gladys would not have liked any of them. My favourite is that her father was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh and a lodger in Auntie's mother's rooming house. As this so-called rooming house came up for sale a year or so ago and could be visited, it was discovered that this rooming house was actually no more than a rooming flat. 

My least favourite story is that Auntie ran off on holiday to Paris  with her employer's son. Who wants some employer's dodgy son for a great-grandfather when one can have a Edinburgh-trained doctor instead? And although Auntie does seem to have been rather headstrong--the one photo of her as a young woman shows her in costume for School for Scandal--it does seem odd that she would think Paris a holiday destination in 1914. 

Auntie lived to a ripe old age and died in a nursing home around the corner from what is now my parents' house. Gladys was a good daughter to Auntie all her days and, in fact, became a volunteer at her nursing home and died there herself almost 30 years later.  And apparently Auntie was a good mother to Gladys, despite the fact Gladys never got to call her "Mother." "Auntie always made sure I had good shoes," proudly said Gladys, who spent much of her working life on her feet. My own mother is proud that Auntie had laid away so much money for her retirement that she died before the money ran out. This is the kind of thing Scottish-Canadians boast about. 

Back to Gladys. So Gladys grew up mostly in Toronto, but spent two or three years in Scotland--Edinburgh and Perthshire--helping Auntie care for relations, and stayed in school long enough to get a teacher's certificate. When she was old enough, she got a summer job waitressing in a hotel on Toronto Island, presumably taking the ferry back and forth, if she didn't live in. Her extended family of Auntie, grandmother, uncle, infant aunt and possible alia, lived all together, possibly above a fish-and-chip shop. At one point they owed a Toronto chippy, calling no man master; goodness, how far we have fallen since then. 

Anyway, Gladys met a nice red-headed boy named George, who lived a long bus ride away, and he got so tired of seeing Gladys home and then having to wait in the bitter Toronto cold for a bus that he asked her to marry him. They married in 1939, and as Gladys was almost 25, George teased her that he was her last chance, which annoyed her no end. George was already in the militia, so when war broke out, off to British Columbia he went to guard the West Coast against the Japanese. Gladys got a job selling hats in Simpson's department store.

George had a good war until about 1941 when he was sent overseas. Then--we strongly suspect--he had a bad war. Other than worrying about George, Gladys had a good war. She worked at Simpson's by day and played cards with her mother and same-age aunt by night. And George came home alive, although without the lovely red hair, and a year later she had her one and only baby. 

The baby was the apple of Gladys' eye until her dying day, and there was no way her grandchildren could ever get her on side against the Apple, if they even bothered trying. Gladys had no interest in having any other children, and she was somewhat overwhelmed by the Apple's children, and got out of babysitting quite a lot by referring to her Nerves. This was not just a lazy excuse, for the Nerves were real and were passed down to her eldest granddaughter, although the Nerves were probably exacerbated in Gladys' case by her half-pack a day smoking habit. 

Goodness, did she smoke. George did, too. My mother spent her youth holed up in her room studying and avoiding the fumes. George had early onset deafness--we blamed the war until my mother got it too--and so the television roared. Gladys escaped the television in the kitchen, where she played the radio, smoked and sat at the yellow formica kitchen table, thinking. "Gladys' psycho corner," joked George.

But this is the iconic image of my grandmother, albeit not at the yellow table in her own tobacco-drenched house. In my mind, Gladys is forever sitting at my mother's kitchen table (glass, covered with a salmon crocheted cloth, or the yellow-green crocheted cloth) with her cigarettes and that  old-fashioned "Inuit Art" ashtray--a faceless hunter in a parka slowly snowed over with ash--and a pot of tea. Or sometimes she is striding up the sidewalk on Sunday afternoon with a sturdy 1970s plastic shopping bag, wearing trousers, high-heeled sandals, a belted leather coat and a beret. When her hair went grey, she dyed it silver.

Double-pneumonia put an end to the smoking although when she appears in my dreams she is smoking again. It is a relief, as are her perfectly polished fingernails. She gave up the chic clothing, the lipstick and the nail-polish when she went into the nursing home. What a pity. She thought having to grow old, with all of is attendant humiliations, was a pity. She died within days of being diagnosed with liver cancer; her grandchildren had no chance to say good-bye, but on the other hand at least it was quick, and she visited me, at very least, in my dreams soon after to say she was fine, but missing us. Unlike Auntie she was as sharp as a tack until the drugged-up end: another cause for Scottish-Canadian boasting. 

Sentimental Catholic stories of pious grandmothers intrigue me, and I wonder how truthful they are. One beloved old Catholic grandmother-saint of my acquaintance actively deep-sixed her grandson's marital hopes by privately warning his girlfriend that "X has no ambition; just like his grandfather." My Proddie granny usually set food in church only for weddings and funerals, but she would never have betrayed one of us, or our grandfather, like that. 

The sainted grandmother contrasts--so amusing. The grandmothers who cooked feasts--Gran'ma couldn't cook. The grandmothers who baked cookies--Gran'ma brought us store-bought, slightly stale, tasting of cigarette smoke, wrapped in paper towels. The grandmothers who listened to Radio Maria--Gran'ma listened to standard Canadian fare. The grandmothers who bitched about this ethnic group or that--Gran'ma had a kind word for anyone, and the group she had been brought up to despise most--Toronto Catholics--comprised 99.99% of her family in the end. 

The telling thing about Gladys is that it is simply impossible to reduce her to "my grandmother". She was not  a grandmotherly person although she certainly loved her grandchildren. I'm not even sure she was a motherly person, despite her fierce, protective love for the Apple. She was herself, and in an almost frightening way she is me, too, as if all women in the maternal line slowly grow into the template of the their first pattern-stamping mother, whoever she might have been. 

Of your charity, please pray for Gladys on this the 101th anniversary of her birth.

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