In grade one, I was still a baby, only five years old. How frustrating it was. They were phasing out the tunic, a heavy blackish-blue pleated wool jumper that would have a white blouse worn underneath. Traditional parents would put these tunics on their daughters every day before school, and it was so embarrassing to have to wear one. It was optional, and most girls were allowed to wear pleated plaid skirts or dresses from Eaton’s. Leotards had just come into style, mostly beige ones, so no girdles or garter belts were needed for the girls in elementary school.
I was a persistent kid. Somehow I persuaded my mom that I did not have to wear that tunic every day, only for assembly on Fridays. She relented and pulled out a corduroy skirt, red with little green, blue, and aqua squares all over it. It had no zipper, just a side button and two button-on, one-inch-wide suspenders of the same material. Very cute for a three year-old, I thought, but the suspenders would have to go. No. Yes. No. Yes. I won. I could wear my white blouse with the red corduroy skirt, and no suspenders.It was winter. I had on my beige leotards, my pink coat with matching pink hat trimmed with grey fake fur, brown shoe-in rubber boots with a side buckle and only three wartime houses to pass to reach the grade one entrance to my school, Shaughnessy Park Elementary. I may have been the baby, but I was finally going to fit in. I’d be at least as cool as Sharon who was more than a year older than me and had to walk three blocks to school.
I stood in line until the teacher came out and rang the bell. One by one she called the rooms and the dutiful pupils filed in: Kindergarten, Room 2, Room 3, and then us, Room 4. In the hallway, we took off our boots and lined them up. Then we hustled into Room 4 to the cork-door closets at the back of each row where we hung our coats. It was always push-and-shove back there because there were five rows of desks for a classroom of 36 kids. This was a populated baby-boom neighbourhood.
I wrangled my way out of the group of kids in my row of desks and headed to the front of the class where the short people got to sit, and where I could put on my patent leather shoes with the thin strap. Half-way to my desk, I realized that people were snickering and pointing at me. Suddenly, my new confidence foundered. I looked down and to my shock I saw no skirt, only my beige leotards. What could have happened? I turned back to the closet and rummaged among the scarves and mitts on the floor and saw it there. I managed to put it on and carry on with my day, but now, decades later, I still relive the horror and humiliation of that day. I cannot say whether I cried or whether the teacher helped me, only that I cursed those blasted corduroy button-on straps that I had refused to wear.
I survived that humiliation and many others but have never forgotten that skirt.
Decades later, my mother went on a vacation and asked me to house-sit her dog. She still lived in that house in Winnipeg, three doors away from Shaughnessy Park School. I had a month to dig around in that old house, that wartime house with no basement. One day, I opened the trap door to the crawl space where the natural gas furnace was suspended from the two-by-ten joists that supported the house. I took a flashlight with me and found some old mason jars, some dusty, Christmas decorations, long-lost tools, and gas meter reading cards. I also saw a piece of cloth. I crawled on my belly to grab the ribbon of cloth and could not believe my eyes.
It was one of the button-on straps from the same corduroy skirt that I had worn years before. Both red buttons were still attached. I grabbed it with glee for the memory that had never left me. I shook the dust off and checked its diameter. It fit me perfectly as a hair band.
I have it with me and look at it every day. It hangs on my desk lamp, right above my computer screen. It is a reminder to me that I have survived and can survive humiliation of the worst kind, and that I can rise to smile about it one fine day.
Mine is a tale about emerging into life, from growing up in a wartime house. To begin my tale I have had to remove my mom’s wedding ring. I cannot say for sure why I had been wearing it. True, it is mine now, but it certainly is not my style. I’d put it on about a month before beginning to write this account. Then, on the day before I began to write I decided to put on the diamond in the same style. It's funny that the rings would fit me perfectly. But the following morning they screamed to be removed.
“We don’t belong here! Can’t you see that concrete? Your memories are there, along the cement back lanes of Shaughnessy Heights, not here.”
Next week: The Commercial District