“Children are not things to be molded, but are people to be unfolded.”
– Jess Lair, author
Because my birthday comes at the beginning of the year, I tend to think of each year by my age.
Since Christmas comes only a few days before my birthday, and its all part of the holiday season, it gets mashed in with my new age, too.
I'm guessing I got my doll, Debbie (see the last post) for Christmas that year. or maybe a different doll. I'm pretty sure I'd wanted either a garage or a train (I'd seen both in the Eaton's catalogue), but according to my mother little girls didn't play with garages or trains, but with dolls.
Granny Shaw gave me an ABC book for Christmas. It's one of the books I still have.
It goes through the Christmas story using the alphabet. At the back are the words for two Christmas carols, "Away in a Manger" and "What Can I Bring Him?
Apparently the book came out in 1952. And now I'm wondering where Granny Shaw found the books she gave me, because they tended to be fairly new ones, and we rarely saw any books where we lived.
I turned six on January 4, 1954. There was no space for it in the Baby Book, but Mom wrote on the last page that I had a party with eight girls. She named the girls and I can remember all except one, who I believe was the younger sister of one of the other girls.
Unfortunately, there's no picture. We still didn't have a flash camera. And maybe no money for films and developing. Just as the last year, there are very few pictures from this year.
We had an angel food cake, which was what I had at all of my birthdays. (Fine with me!) Also sandwiches, ice cream, cookies, Freshie, hats, and balloons. I have no idea what we did at the party. Maybe played some games? January was not a great time for parties in a small town in Manitoba.
Mom and Dad's gift to me was a teddy bear with a music box inside. I vaguely remember it. I think it was black and white. You could wind it up on the back and it played. I think it was either "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or "A Teddy Bear's Picnic." Probably the former, although I'm pretty sure either I or a friend had something that played the picnic song.
I've mentioned before that my parents didn't have a lot in common, so I won't go into that again. But they did have a few things. Other than me, that is.
They both liked pets, and we still had Bozo, who turned 16 that year, as well as Tippy, the cat.
They both liked parties and dancing, although I'm not sure they got to do much of that when I was young. I have no memory of a babysitter in Crystal City, although I must have had one. But neither do I have much memory of their having close friends, other than a few of our neighbours.
They both had an instinctive sense of style and loved to wear nice clothes.
I don’t ever remember seeing my dad looking scruffy or sloppy. He typically wore trousers, a shirt, a tie, and either a sports jacket or a cardigan sweater. He’d have one good suit, usually a three piece one, dark navy or black, or maybe grey. And then a couple of sports jackets with pants to go along. He knew which colours were best on him (winter) and he took pride in looking good. I don't believe he ever owned a pair of jeans after he left the farm although he had a few T-shirts for doing work around the house.
Once he started working in the clothing store, he wore either a suit or a sports jacket and shirt with a tie and nice trousers every day. He also tended to wear a hat as well. I believe it was known as a fedora.
The ritual was the same each day. We had breakfast with my dad—Rice Krispies or Cornflakes, occasionally Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes, toast and jam—and then he left for work. If it was a nice day and he wasn’t in a hurry, he might walk, but usually he drove even though it wasn’t that far. Mom didn’t drive, so there was no competition for the car.
After Dad left for work, Mom cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes. Then she went to her room to do her face.
Everyone who knew her was very much aware that looking as nice as possible was crucial to my mom. That included her hair, her clothes, her shoes, her make-up, her perfume, and, of course, her eyebrows.
When I was small, I often went with her to her bedroom and played with a doll or looked at a book while she dressed. Both her hair and her eyebrows drove her crazy.
The truth is, my mother had no eyebrows. Or, if she did have any, the hairs were so very fine and pale that if you were a young child looking up, you couldn’t see them.
That might not be a huge problem for a blonde, but Mom had pale skin and dark brown hair, so not having eyebrows made her look odd, as though her face was incomplete. And for a woman who took pride in her appearance, looking odd was completely out of the question.
As a young child, I sometimes stood and watched in fascination as she drew her eyebrows in with a dark brown pencil. The point had to be sharpened just right. Some eyebrow pencils were better than others—easy to sharpen without breaking, coming in a colour that matches her hair, and going on without smudging so much it looked more like brown crayon scrawls than a natural grouping of individual hairs. Oh yes, they also had to be as cheap as possible.
When she found a pencil she liked, she bought that model until the manufacturer stopped making it or altered it in some way that made it no longer acceptable. Then there’d be a long search for a new one that worked and didn’t cost too much.
Every morning after breakfast, Mom sat down on the fabric-covered stool so she could look into the mirror in the middle of her dresser and gaze at her face. Sometimes she just checked to see if yesterday’s brows still looked okay, and made a few passes with the pencil to touch them up; more often, she started from scratch on a freshly scrubbed face, making small movements so the brows looked as though they were individual hairs, trying to get the two brows to match in height, width, and angle. Sometimes she had to completely scrub one off because they didn't match.
The brows usually lasted for a couple of days with touch-ups, unless she was going to be seeing people other than Dad and me, in which case she usually washed them off, even if they were only done the day before, and started fresh.
Some days the eyebrows went on easily, but more frequently, it took several attempts to get them to match. Occasionally, she washed them both off in frustration.
Over the years, she sometimes said she should just get them tattooed on, but she never really considered it. As if she’d ever go within a mile of a tattoo parlour.
In addition to her eyebrows, Mom's hair drove her crazy. It was fine and straight and she was always going to the hair dresser to get perms and then complaining about them.
Sometimes when Mom was sitting at the dresser putting on her face I’d stand and watch her. And sometimes I’d look past her in the mirror at my own reflection, the thick, naturally wavy hair that was already a huge bone of contention by the time I turned three, and my prominent eyebrows, and think how lucky I was not to have her hair and eyebrows.
Mom would then get dressed—usually in a dress or a skirt and a blouse, but she also wore pants some days. She had a good figure and she was very proud of her shapely legs. She didn't have a lot of clothes, but she chose what to wear based on whether we’d be home all day or whether we'd go out for tea or shopping or have someone over.
Every noon, dad came home for lunch and we ate meat and potatoes, a vegetable and a salad—usually lettuce but sometimes coleslaw. And dessert—our own canned peaches, plums, or cherries. Maybe a Rice Krispies cake. Pie on Saturday and Sunday.
For supper we had something lighter. My favourites were potato pancakes. Dad actually made those. He sometimes made breakfast on Sunday morning, too, so Mom could get ready for church (eyebrows, hair, clothes, and so forth...).
What Mom and I Did All Day...
I assume Mom was mostly doing housework and cooking and washing clothes and cleaning up after meals. We might also go shopping for groceries or other needs in the morning.
I mentioned earlier that although I was six, I wasn't in school yet because my birthday was four days into the new year.
I sometimes had to help with little things around the house, like putting my toys away, but mostly I spend my time playing with my dolls and a few other toys or reading my books.
I had every one of my story books memorized long before I could read. In fact, that’s how I learned to read. Since I had them memorized, I began to pick up what each word said, and went from there.
However, I had a drastic shortage of reading materials. There was no library, and I’d never seen a bookstore. The drug store carried a few books or there might be a small rack in the one store in town that carried a few toys, but my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and buying books or toys wasn’t something they did routinely. So until I started school, all I had were the few books we owned—mostly Golden books.
I remember sitting at the table in our dining room, reading my books or working on a puzzle made of 12 blocks that had different fairy tales printed on each side. You could make six different pictures with the blocks. I did each picture over and over and over until the edges of the blocks were all worn.
Aside from that, I had my dolls, a handful of stuffed toys, some colouring books and crayons, a few cut-out paper dolls, and not much else.
I played outside quite a bit, either alone with my bicycle (or sled in the winter) or with other kids in the area.
Of course, Mom being Mom, she was always telling me not to get dirty. As I got older, she added things like “Be careful," "Don’t fall,” and "Don’t get hurt.”
Looking back, I can see that in some ways I was raised to be afraid. Not that that was my parents’ intention, but my mother in particular was always worried something terrible would happen to me.
I assume it was partly because she was a worrier who tended to see the glass as half full, and partly because I was the only child and she knew there wouldn’t be any more.
I'm certainly not implying that a mother of more than one child doesn’t care about each of her children, but perhaps the intensity isn’t quite the same. As the mother of four sons, myself, I know that there comes a point when you kind of go with the flow. I'm not sure my mother ever really did that.
Anyway, my mother was very protective of me. Even when she was in her 80s, she'd tell me that she smothered me in blankets in the middle of summer when I was a baby—she thought that may have caused my blood system to be a little strange since I’m usually cold if the temperature is below 22 C and and I wilt after 24.
Later, too, as she saw my kids playing in the sand box and rolling on the grass, she wondered aloud if she'd been wrong to always tell me not to get dirty—except her concern was as much my limited selection of clothes and her having to keep them clean as it was the worry that dirt would make me sick.
I still remember learning to skate. They'd bought me skates for my 5th birthday, and continued to buy me more as my feet grew larger. However, learning how to skate while someone is anxiously watching you from the sidelines, admonishing you not to fall, is kind of difficult. I’m not sure it was that or just the fact that I’m not very flexible, but while I did learn to skate a little bit, I was never very good—or very confident. When you aren’t allowed to fail, you usually don’t learn as well.
Dad built me a swing that was attached to the side of our house. Of course, Mom was always reminding me not to go too high and not to scuff my shoes. The swing proved to be an attraction for other kids in our area, too. (More about that later.)
After supper, when the dishes were done, Dad might play a game of Snakes and Ladders with me. He also taught me a few card games, like Snap.
The first television stations in Canada had just opened in Montreal and Toronto in 1952, so there was no television in Crystal City until several years later. We also didn’t have a record player.
For entertainment, we’d gather around the radio and listen to whatever programs the CBC carried: the news, of course, but also programs like "The Shadow" (my favourite), "Boston Blackie," "Amos ’n‘ Andy," "Fibber Megee and Molly," "The Saint," "The Jack Benny Show," "Our Miss Brooks," "The Lone Ranger," "Roy Rogers," "Gene Autry," "The Great Gildersleeve," and my mother’s favourite, "Arthur Godfrey Time."
After they put me to bed, I often stayed awake longer than they knew. From the age of three, I’d begun to entertain myself by making up stories. During the day, I used my dolls or other toys; at night, I'd lay in bed making up stories and acting them out with the lights out. Of course, the stories were often triggered by events of the day or by the radio programs I’d listened to.
I got really good at hearing footsteps coming up the stairs and pretending to be asleep when someone (usually my dad) looked in to make sure I was asleep.
What I Knew at Six
I double-majored in Psychology and English in university. (A great combination by the way!) One of the things I learned was that there were people who believed that a person's personality is essentially formed by age six. Having observed my own sons and my grandchildren, one of whom has just turned six and another is six and a half as I write this, I think it's very possible. Each of them seemed to have a definite personality by that age, and they also understood a lot about life and the world.
Note: A couple of possibly relevant links below.
In any case, I'm sitting here trying to visualize who I was at six, and what I understood at that point.
- I knew that my Dad was the linchpin in my life. No matter what happened, I knew he loved me and that I could always go to him if I had a problem. But I also knew that there were some problems he couldn't solve. Some things he didn't understand.
- I knew that my mother had wanted a little girl, and that she had chosen me, but that I wasn't exactly the daughter she'd wanted. We didn't tend to like the same things or even the same people.
- I also knew that Mom was very sensitive—and easily hurt—and that my dad and I sometimes needed to protect her.
- I knew that I was more like my dad than my mom in that Dad and I were both quiet people, while Mom seemed to come alive when there were other people around. When we were with other people, I knew that neither my dad nor I had to say much because Mom would do the talking for us. At the same time, she would often embarrass me by pointing out that I hadn't said anything, and of course I would then have no idea what to say.
- I knew that it was best if I didn’t ask questions my parents couldn’t answer. Not that they would be angry, but that there was no point in making them feel bad if they didn't know.
- I knew that I didn't always think the same as other people. Sometimes I'd laugh at something that no one else thought was funny. Usually it was because I'd see a connection that no one else saw, or anticipate what was coming next before it was actually said out loud. (Yes, that's still a problem!)
- I knew that there were certain things I shouldn’t do, such as lying, stealing, getting dirty, or making a big mess. And that there were consequences I wanted to avoid.
- I knew that books and paper cut-out dolls were the most wonderful things in the world.
- I knew that I was happiest when I was alone, either reading or making up stories with my paper dolls.
- I knew that I loved both dogs and cats.
- I knew that God was always nearby, and that I could talk to God any time.
- One final thing. I'm not sure I understood it at the time, but looking back, I believe I was very opinionated. I thought abut different things a great deal, and reached conclusions, and it never occurred to me that because I was only six years old my opinions might be of less importance than anyone else's opinions. While I occasionally told one or both of my parents what I thought, I chose to keep the majority of my opinions to myself because I didn't particularly like arguing.
. . .
Can You Relate?
What do you remember about yourself at six, and how do you think your family and circumstances affected you?
. . .
LoveChild: Life Lessons from an Ugly Duckling is the story of my struggle to adjust to the life I was given, and my eventual discovery that, not only had I become a swan but, contrary to my perceptions, I had always been one. Though I didn't realize it until many years later, my life was part of a much bigger plan that all made perfect sense.
I'll be blogging my story once a week.
Find links to all these blogs at: