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Home: The Toast

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Mary J. Breen’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

I recently came across the box of my mother’s old photos in the attic, as I do every so often when I’m searching for something else. And as I always do, I brought them downstairs. I barely had the box open before I started to feel unsettled, and an old and urgent little voice started telling me to just put them away. But of course, I didn’t. I began taking them out, listening instead to an also-familiar yearning to look at them again, to see what might lie behind them, to hear what they might say today, and to remember, however briefly, what I heard from them so many years ago once upon a time when I was eight-nine-ten, and my mother and I would look at them together.

In those days, these photos lived in a cardboard box that stood with three other identical boxes in the corner of my bedroom covered by an old pink bedspread, pinned and tucked in just so. My discarded dolls and teddy bears sat on top. These weren’t just any old boxes; these had wooden frames, thick brown cardboard sides, and hinged lids. My mother got them from her father’s pet supply store in Toronto in 1938 where they hadn’t stored just any old pet food; the bold black print on the sides read Exported by Spratt’s Patent Manufacturers of Dog, Poultry, Bird and Fox Food, London, E.C.3., By appointment of the late King George V. And now all these years later, I still have one of these boxes intact and in use.

Loretto, William James, Claudia, Jessie, Toronto Island, 1904 Loretto, William James, Claudia, Jessie, Toronto Island, 1904

My mother stored the boxes in my bedroom where they would be safe because we had no attic, and our cellar filled with a couple feet of water every spring. Except for her sheet music downstairs by the piano, these boxes contained most of the bits and pieces she had kept from her earlier life, the time known as “Before I Was Married.”

One box contained clothes: leather elbow-high evening gloves with tiny buttons at the wrists, beaded evening bags, a black seal muff, the periwinkle blue silk nightgown from her trousseau, boxes of whisper-thin handkerchiefs, hand-painted fans, and tortoiseshell combs. Best of all were the dresses: her navy blue wedding dress and jacket with its matching wide-brimmed hat and peach ostrich feather, and her two swish black evening dresses—one with an attached beaded cape, and one rich velvet with both a matching short jacket and a full-length cape. These dresses would never be mine for dress up!

At the bottom of this box was my mother’s large scrapbook with its embossed maroon cover and dry crumbling pages that are now coming apart so they look like the edges of a spanakopita. Both then and now, I couldn’t imagine why she chose to cut out these particular pictures, and why she wanted to plunk them down page after page interspersed with the popular Victorian flower stickers of the time. Here, for example, is Jesus in lovely blue and white robes below a grand piano and a sticker of a white dove amid pink roses, and beside a one-armed Boer War Highland Piper shaking a child’s hand. Here on another page are King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, bluebirds sheltered from the snow, a courtier, a little boy with a corncob pipe, a couple of babies, a poodle, an enthusiastic boy selling a can of Heinz’s Baked Beans, ads for Heinz pickles, and many pictures of slabs of shredded wheat with various weird enhancements on top: a poached egg, raspberries, little filets of fish, and one resting on a bed of something green and shredded, topped by something yellow and shredded. What’s missing is any connection between these images and my mother’s life: here are no photos of her family, no memorabilia from important events, no poems, no clippings, no cartoons (although there is one cartoon character), and no pressed flowers. The only things directly associated with the history of the time are a picture of Wilfrid Laurier the current Prime Minister (and notably a Catholic), stickers of the Royals, and the British soldier, odd choices for a child taught by her Irish father to be defiantly anti-British.

And then there was the boxful of photos; these I really liked. Because my mother was 41 when I was born in 1944, and her mother was 34 when she was born in 1903, some of the photos were 75 years old when I first saw them, and they’re 135 years old now. There is a tintype of her mother’s childhood home-cum-tinsmith shop in Wellesley, Ontario showing a row of tall, grey, blurry people. Another tintype shows unknown people who look like they should be stepping down from a stage coach in a Western movie. A few photos are in sepia including a shot of workers all lined up in front of the Berlin Felt Boot Factory and taken about 1890. My grandmother is one of the workers, and my grandfather is in the top row, the proud factory foreman with a chained watch in his vest pocket. All the other photos are in black and white, some in frames and some mounted on heavy black boards. There are also five albums that my mother put together in the years from 1918 until 1938 when she got married. Each book is signed Claudia Mary Dillon with her bold, confident signature, exactly like Claudia herself: large, proud, and conventional.

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Nearly all of the photos in the albums were taken by my mother. When I was a child she had a Kodak Brownie 2A, and as far as I know, it’s the only camera she ever owned. It didn’t look anything like a modern camera, but more like a purse—a black box about the size of two pounds of butter, covered in pebbly leatherette with a grip on top. I was only allowed to use it twice, and I remember that I had to hold it at waist level to be able to see into the viewfinder on top, and I had to keep it very steady when I pressed the shutter. I also had to remember not to cover the aperture with a finger, and to crank the film ahead after every shot. My mother took a lot of pictures of me when I was small, but this tapered off, and by the time I was 13, the camera no longer worked. She never replaced it.

Her albums were the common ones of the time: black covers with Photographs in gold script on the covers and thick black pages inside. One was perfect-bound, but the others were bound by cord or loose-leaf rings. Below, beside, or right on each picture my mother wrote tiny captions in now-fading white ink: Papa, Mother and Alfred; Gibby at home; A Merry Hungry Bunch at Burlington Beach, and Our Reo! (a car, not a dog.) The early photos are pasted down but the later ones are inside double-layered pages with silver-framed openings on the top side and spaces for “Date taken” and “Description” on the back.

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In her first album, Claudia used the same approach she’d used in her scrapbook—photos close together, often cropped to fit with hardly a bit of paper showing. But here at least are the people in her life, an ordinary-looking, hearty lot of young and old: parents, sister, brother, and a wealth of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Their names show their Alsace and Bavarian roots from her mother’s side—Mayer, Lichty, Schweitzer, and Heimler—and Irish from her father’s—Dillon, O’Grady, McGrath, and Quigley. And a Catholic bunch they are too: nuns, priests, and lay teaching brothers, and many photos taken to remember ordinations, Holy Name Parades, and visits to family gravestones in Catholic cemeteries.

In the studio photos, people are stiff and somber, but in my mother’s albums, except for the cousins heading off to war, people are relaxed and smiling, competent-seeming, proud owners of cars and fedoras, big hats and long strings of beads. These are just “snaps” taken to remember people, places, and family events mostly in Toronto, but also on trips to visit relatives in Detroit, California, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Elmira Ontario. In this time before flashbulbs, they were all taken outdoors, often in front of sturdy Ontario brick houses with large porches, balconies, and shade trees in behind.

And so my mother would show me the people in her family: Loretto her ever-cranky, ever-difficult sister, adopted from an orphanage as a baby whom I met only once and who is either scowling or managing a forced smile in every single photo from age one onward; Alfred her ever-cheerful brother, son of their maid and also adopted by the Dillons, whom I did know as a child and whom I knew to be warm and funny; William her proud, in-charge father, eighth child of poor Irish immigrants, successful storekeeper, member of the Holy Name Society, the Knights of St. John, and the Knights of Columbus who died when I was very young; and Jessie her mother with a gentle, handsome face who died long before I was born and who in these photos is nearly always looking down and away. And of course many of Claudia herself as a girl and a young woman, usually with her cousins or with friends, always smiling, always happy.

I loved looking at those photos and hearing my mother’s stories about them, even though the only people I knew were my mother and her brother. I couldn’t have explained their appeal then, but now I think they helped create the fairy tale that I too had a large family. I wasn’t a desperately lonely child, but unlike my mother and my friends and kids in books, I had no sisters, no brothers, no grandparents, and no cousins. On my mother’s side I only knew her brother; on my father’s, I had an aunt and two uncles but I never met them or their children. However, by mentally Photoshopping myself into my mother’s pictures, I could see myself surrounded by the relatives I longed to have. I suppose we all like to think we belong to some kind of enduring clan, and here in these albums was undeniable proof that somewhere I had real-life relatives—even though they were complete strangers. I figured these were people who would have been inclined to like me if they knew me, people who might have dropped everything to look after me if I’d needed them because, I’d been told, this is what relatives do.

I was an adult before my parents died, and I never needed to be rescued from a lonely orphanhood by unknown relatives. And when I look at these photos now, they don’t stir up any yearning whatsoever for a different family from the one I have now, a large and many-splendoured family of my own.

Something else about these photos that I now realize is glaringly obvious is the absence of sex. Nowhere among these photos of young people is there anyone who appears more than just fond of the people they are with; not one of them is holding hands or is arm-in-arm or kissing; nobody appears coquettish or swaggering or besotted. In fact there is not a glimmer of anything beyond cheery asexual friendships. My father, whom she met in 1922 and didn’t marry until 1938, doesn’t get into the albums even once.

Claudia Mary Dillon and Loretto Dillon, Toronto. 1904 Claudia Mary Dillon and Loretto Dillon, Toronto. 1904

Even in the photos of her as a grown adult, my mother looks more like a large, jolly child. This fits with the stories she told me, and it fits with what she expected of me—that I was not to have boyfriends, period. Unlike my friends’ mothers, she never said, “When you’re married,” or “When you have children.” Instead, her message was that I didn’t need a man; she’d have liked the fish-without-a-bicycle quip. To reinforce her argument, she repeatedly pointed out that I probably wouldn’t have many offers anyway given my unsightly feet, my squinty eyes, my too-small nose, and my too-big ears, to name just a few of my flaws. The problem is, the more she suggested I was unmarriageable, the more I learned to expect this for myself. (Imagine their joy when, briefly, I considered becoming a nun.) Sex—including anything even tangentially connected—was never spoken of in my hearing. If I tried mentioning something innocent like the news of a married neighbour’s pregnancy, just to see what would happen, it brought snorts of disapproval from both of them, and a kind of panic to stop this kind of talk before it got out of hand. I thought of them when I read somewhere, I think it was in a Colm Tóibín, that Irish women don’t have sex; they only have babies.

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Another thing that I notice now in these photos is how happy my mother appeared back then: gregarious, laughing and smiling with her friends and family in picture after picture. As a child, I wasn’t surprised by this as in those years we mostly got along, and her smiles were aimed at me as much as at others. But by the time I was a teenager, this smiling person was replaced by a decidedly cranky one, one easily angered, especially with me. She could still be fun sometimes, but after she set herself the task of trying to control me in every way she could, her disapproving look became her default expression.

And, I have to assume—and I know I’m just guessing—that some of her irritability stemmed from the fact that her life then couldn’t have been as fun as it had been before she was married. She had come of age in the exciting 1920s where she was one of the first women to drive in Toronto. She had a successful career as a teacher and then a music supervisor; she was head of her teachers’ federation, and leader of her own dance band. In particular, she was never afflicted by the idea that a woman was less than a man. By the time the 1950s arrived, however, options for married women, especially in our small town, were very limited. Jobs outside the home were frowned upon, and the prevailing thought was that a woman’s entire satisfaction should derive from the happiness of her husband and children.

For a lot of women, however, complete fulfillment as a wife and mother proved a pretty elusive thing. The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, and my mother would rather have been shot than read it, but if she had, she might have recognized “the problem that has no name.” She might have discovered that it spoke to the lives of countless women like her who knew there was something missing even when they loved their husbands (like my mother) and were loved abundantly in return (like my mother). I have photos from my childhood, not in these old albums, where the mother I remember is very evident: she appears just as bold and confident as in the early photos, but she also looks stern, severe, and old before her time. I think—but I’ll never know—that the change in her demeanor was the result of a combination of several things: a quiet longing for the time when she was a “somebody,” the strictures of life in a small Ontario town that was not Toronto the place of her dreams, painful arthritis in her hip, and a belief that she was a failure as a mother having produced someone as flawed as me. It’s ironic that I feared I was her clone, and nothing would have pleased her more than if that were true.

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The thing that impressed itself on me then and still unsettles me now is the size of both my mother and grandmother. These photos make it abundantly clear that I descend from large women: tall, heavy, and big-boned. Jessie my grandmother was over six feet tall and heavy, and Claudia my mother was almost as tall and even heavier. According to my mother, Jessie was very ashamed of her size, and this explains why in nearly every picture she looks as if she wants no one, especially the camera, to see her. She passed this shame on to my mother who in these pictures is a chubby child and a chubby adolescent, cringing sometimes as if to hide herself. As a young adult in the 1920s, however, she becomes a bit slimmer and more confident in her newly-stylish loose dresses with low waists and pleated skirts, close-fitting cloche hats, and short, Marcelled hair (a style she wore ever after). At least my mother and grandmother believed in standing tall, because when it was clear that I too was going to be tall, my mother insisted that I stand up straight as, she said, being tall and hunched was even worse. And she was right.

And I was and am tall: 5’11.” When people stop me—and they do all the time—to say, “You’re very tall!”, I find it very hard not to hear this as, “You’re downright huge!” The problem is that even before I was a teenager, I had already conflated tall and fat to mean one thing: large—Much Too Large. I’d concluded that my destiny was to be large and hulking (not to mention asexual.) It’s as if I thought these photos of my young mother were actually photos of me, photographic and mirror evidence to the contrary. As is true of any child’s relationship with her mother’s body, Claudia in the flesh and Claudia in these pictures were immensely more familiar to my eyes than how I actually looked. Of course I did and do resemble her, but it took me years to see that we are not identical. I am not her clone at all. If I’d ever thought to compare myself to my father, I’d have noticed I also look like him and, in particular, I inherited his tall thin body. However, I did not see this then, and the messages that fat is bad and fat c’est moi are written on my body, embedded in my flesh.

This shame about size that my mother passed on to me no doubt played a silent but starring role in my becoming anorexic for a year when I was seventeen. (Actually, I was trying to be both thin and holy, but that’s another story.) I was at a Catholic boarding school at the time, so I didn’t have my mother pushing food on me as she always did, repeating her mother’s dictum, “A big furnace needs lots of fuel.” When I decided to start eating as little as possible, I was as tall as my mother but only about half her weight. It wasn’t until I’d lost 15 more pounds that I stopped thinking I was fat. I couldn’t see that now I didn’t look thin and wonderful: I looked sick and dreadful. More importantly, I couldn’t see that I wasn’t fighting my own size; I was fighting my mother’s.

Of course I cannot and should not lay my distorted view of my body as fat and unbeautiful entirely at the feet of my mother and grandmother. Underlying all of this shame about our large bodies was the Catholic Church’s teachings about the intrinsic shamefulness of The Body—any body, a source of mortification that has nothing to do with weight. No doubt my mother heard that her body was a shameful thing at the same time as she heard that her size was wrong too. And the Church was not the only culprit. Our culture then and still plays no small role in telling women they can’t be too rich or too thin. I was busy absorbing these ideas in the 1950s long before I was to read Fat Is A Feminist Issue or any critiques of the fashion and diet industries or anything about the ‘male gaze’ or any of that body of theory. All I knew was that the ideal woman of that time was pretty, thin, and delicate, and since these old photos showed me my mother was never any of these things, I assumed neither would I be. I don’t fret about this much anymore, but if/when I notice my jeans are a little tight, my first thought still is that Claudia’s size has finally caught up with me.

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And so these photos leave me with conflicted feelings; they draw me in, compelling me to study them, while at the same time they make me anxious, and I want to look away before they reveal anything else I don’t want to know—like perhaps I really am as enormous as I always thought I was, like perhaps it is understandable that my mother found me so flawed, like perhaps I am at heart as undesirable as she wanted me to be. I really don’t believe these things any longer, but I know the power these photos have had and still have to make me doubt myself again, even for a short time. And I don’t need it.

When I tell people that I have a lot of photos that once belonged to my mother, some say I should keep them simply because they are old. And it’s true that these photos are a small historical document of the time, although they don’t capture any especially defining moments. They are just a record of some ordinary, upwardly-mobile Irish Catholics in a Toronto that was still openly hostile both to the Irish and to Catholics. Other people tell me I should keep them as they are a kind of memoir, a testament that gives me, through the magic of photography, a window into my mother’s world seen through her eyes; a chance to see, as much as photos can portray reality, a tantalizing picture of what she saw and thought was important 100 years ago. They also allow me a glimpse of what other people saw when they saw her. Other people tell me I’m very lucky to have these photos, saying how much they love theirs because they love seeing the people they loved. They don’t have that effect on me. I do have photos of me and my father together—I’m about seven and grinning my head off—and they bring me the happy-tinged-with-sadness feeling people speak of, but these old photos of my mother do not induce anything like this. I feel some sympathy for her compounded by annoyance, but not much more.

Although the people in these photos and their worlds are all gone, no doubt they could tell me stories—and perhaps more reliable ones than my memories provide. Their stories might explain key facts about who my mother was and why she was as she was, and perhaps even who I am and why I am as I am. But no one appears to be talking. And without the stories, what use are they?

But for now, I’m keeping them. Some of them are hanging on a wall in the dining room and some are scanned on my computer, but most of them are in the attic in a big plastic box with a purple lid that snaps shut.

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Mary J. Breen’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary magazines, national newspapers, essay collections, and travel magazines. She lives in Peterborough, Canada where, among other things, she teaches memoir writing with seniors.

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