MOM BOUND OUR FAMILY TOGETHER
(I regret I never told her so)
Mom held our family together. If Dad had been a single parent then Eric and I would probably have been raised by Aunt Elizabeth or put in foster homes. Not because Dad was a bad man. He wasn’t. He was a legend in his own time. Charismatic in a twisted way. He just could not resist trying to grab the golden ring of the racetrack Merry Go Rounds.
After my latest story about Dad I got several calls and emails from friends who were horrified. What we thought was normal was not normal I guess.
So how did our family function. Like the First Nations people, our family was matrilineal. Mom ran the show and did most of the tasks. She cooked, washed, dressed and educated us. Eric and I spent 90% of our time with mom when we were small. Like most kids, we took her for granted. No hugs…no kisses…just the expectation that somehow she would put food on the table and make us clothes that would fit.
Else Louise Freeman was born in 1901 , the daughter of Edward Freeman and Louise button. For several years Edward was the head gardener of the Eywood Estate in Herefordshire. The whole gentry large estate structure was beginning to crumble although that was not the reason the Freeman’s migrated to Canada. They were, like most Canadians, economic migrants seeking an escape from the bowing and scraping necessary to maintain the British class system. It was a tough period in Canada…burned out of their home in Krugerdorf, Northern Ontario, they ended up on a 25 acre hardscrabble farm on top of the Niagara Escarpment. Elsie could not stay there so she, along with thousands of other farm progeny in the 1920’s, moved to the big city where the electric sewing machine was changing the garment industry by producing cheap clothes.
Elsie’s trip to town to catch the train was dramatic. Their horse died en route and a spare horse had to be borrowed while the dead horse was skinned. Tannery would pay. Waste not, want not. No going back. Elsie was among throngs of young women made independent by the industrial changes made possible by that wonder of wonders called electricity and the internal combustion engine. Lots of men around as well. In Toronto she met Red Skeoch, also a farm migrant, and a ten year romantic affair began. Depression years. She was cautioned about marriage but in 1937 they married in the Freeman farm house. Red’s brothers got her trousseau suitcases, jumped out the clothes and filled the case with beets, pumpkins and whatever else they could find. In 1938, I was born and in 1940 Eric came along.
Elsie had to work and raise kids at the same time. Sweatshop needle trades. Slave labour really. When we were small she lugged huge boxes of garment pieces home from the Spadina factories that used the putting out system. They used sweatshop tactics but had no sweatshops. I can remember mom sitting for hours at her Singer Electric sewing machine running seams up and down dresses for Eaton’s catalogue sales. She also assembled girdles… mystery pieces of clothing. Some kind of elasticized vests that had clips dangling down where the legs would go?
When we got bigger mom began working in small garment factories across west Toronto. She worked with women who were independent. Our house seemed filled with females much to Dad’s chagrin at times. Women that had become masters of their own destinies. Except for some new Canadian seamstresses who were exploited. Denied holiday pay for instance. Mom alerted these girls and ladies. Their employers, surprisingly, were often people of their own ethnic background. Did she get fired? No memory of that but she moved around from sweatshop to sweatshop. Until finally, when we were in high school, she became sewing teacher for the Singer Sewing Machine company.
In University I noted that the Russian secret police , the NKVD, used the Singer Sewing Machine building in Moscow as their headquarters. A socialist takeover of a capitalist company. Good show! The Singer company was not
loved by me. Why? Because mom had to lie about her age to keep her job. Anyone getting close to retirement age seemed to be ‘let go’ so mom, when she was 60 pretended she was in her late 40’s. She could do that without batting an eye.
And she loved a good time. Laughter…never tears. One day, when we were almost men, someone brought a copy of Playboy. By then we were in second or third year university because Marjorie was present. Other mothers would find such a skin book offensive. Not mom…not Marjorie…and certainly not Eric.
One event did not make her laugh…made her scream actually. Today I am aware we were insensitive. Smart asses. Eric and I played on the same
football team at high school and came home from one game to mom’s cheerful,
“How did the game go boys?”
As it happened our friend Russ Vanstone backed his Chev over Eric’s football helmet…smashed like a grape. Mom was at the top of the stairs. Eric was on the verandah.
“Bit of trouble mom, Eric got hurt.” And I threw the splintered helmet up the stairs. Mom screamed. That was not as funny as it seemed to us.
Mom’s name was Elsie, daughter of English – Welsh parentage. Dad called her Methooz…short form for Methusalum which is a corruption of Methusela who was the oldest person in the Bible. Dad always wanted to remind mom that she was a year older than him. So we often picked up on that and called her Methooz as well. She didn’t seem to mind. Most of the time she was Mom.
Regrets? Lots of them. As I said we took her for granted. Gifts? Did we give her something for Christmas… I don’t remember doing much. Each Christmas for years we would go to the TTC lost goods auction and buy a big “Mystery Box” full of gloves, umbrellas, purses, shirts, hats, etc. That was sort of a communal Christmas gift. Lots of fun. Those boxes were so big that one person could barely carry them. But we never really rewarded mom for all her work.
One time…only one time…she said “It’s my birthday and no one has paid any attention.” Eric and I felt really bad and pooled our money to buy her
a new lamp to sit beside the couch where she slept. Our house had one bedroom used by Eric and I at night and by dad in the day when he
was on night shift at the Dunlop factory. So mom had a couch in the living room. A three room house….upper floor. Seemed normal to us. I remember catching mom and dad together on that couch once.
As I said earlier, Dad was eccentric…different…a loveable thief. But he had values. He would never let us say anything critical about mom. One time
I said some thoughtless thing and he looked at me overtop the racing form and said, “Don’t you ever say that again..” Dad knew he was damn lucky
to have her as a wife. And we knew we were damn lucky to have her as a mother. None of us ever told her that. But she knew. She knew.
How did we ever get to university? Now that is amazing. We lived at home. Mom fed us and clothed us and did our washing…did everything. We had
very little money but managed to earn enough at summer jobs to finance the fees. I worked summers ‘in the bush’ doing geophysical work. Salary was banked automatically. My first year was a near disaster because my bank account was empty when I got back from Chibougamau in Northern Quebec.
I was paid $150 a month by Geo Tech Geophysical Exploration Company…three months totalled $450. Fees were $400. I was secure.
“Alan, we cannot process this check to the University of Toronto?” said the bank manager who we knew well.
“Why not, the money has been deposited automatically?”
“The account is empty.”
“withdrawals have been made during the summer.”
‘Can I see the signatures.”
Both the manager and I knew what had happened. Dad needed money for the horses and he could be a smooth talker. Charismatic at times. Indignant at others. When he was indignant, we knew he had done something shady. Was I mad? Of course but not in a fever kind of mad. Had to think of some way to pay the fees and appealed to the Atkinson Foundation who gave me a $400 grant. Eric and I had been Toronto Star paperboys for years. That may have helped. Bottom line was that we knew mom’s money was stretched to the limit. She would care for us but we had to pay our fees. Dad just was not
dependable that way. In other ways he was great. Just going to the racetracks with him was a regular family adventure (of with I will write later). And POW… if we were ever threatened. Take my word for it…we enjoyed our family. Bonded.
What did we eat? Mom liked to get head cheese at Hunt’s delicatessen. Tasted fine until I realized as an adult what we had been eating. I liked the word cheese and conveniently ignored the word ‘head’. Same applied to pork hocks…I tried to ignore those little feet at the end of the hock. She also made a good steak and kidney pie…lots of kidneys. Never thought about that either. And she did down dozens of bottles of two terrific things…chili sauce and rhubarb both of which were great on toast. Never had such a taste. Lots of rolled oats…love a bowl of those oats with milk…raw…sprinkled with brown sugar. We lived about the same as our friends. Pork and beans…Kraft dinner…jello with stale cake inside…And there was a dairy on Annette Street that made huge milkshakes for quarter. So cold that one shake gave me a headache. We slipped in there often.
In high school , mom even managed to make a brown bag lunch for us each day. One time I grabbed the wrong brown bag and got her Modess pads instead. That brought an uproar at the Humberside lunch table.
I do not have the nerve to tell you how Eric and I dissuaded mom from joining the the Humberside Parent Teachers Association. To us, it was funny. I fear readers like you will fail those the humour.
More will come…just wanted any readers to know how much Eric and I are indebted to mom.