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Home: The Toast

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.32.55 PMMary J. Breen’s previous writing for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Relics: Looking Back on a Catholic Childhood.

Girls in the ’50s didn’t get career counseling because we didn’t need career counseling. We didn’t need Free To Be You and Me songs to urge us to choose what we wanted to be; it was already decided. We were told from all sides that happiness lay not in a profession, but in fulfilling our destinies as wives and mothers—or, in my case, in being a nun. Our teachers and parents did admit that if we must find a job before marriage, our options were nursing, teaching, or office work. These, however, seemed tedious and dull to me, and I had better ideas of my own.

Even though our future careers as domestics seemed to be set, adults would still ask us, smiling in that way that showed they didn’t believe a word of it, “And what are you going to be when you grow up?” Since people knew my father was a science teacher, and my mother had been a teacher before she began filling her destiny, they made a guess. “I’ll bet you’re going to be a teacher like your Mommy and Daddy.” “Over my dead body,” I said to myself. My father was no ad for teaching as he found it exhausting, stressful work. My mother had enjoyed teaching, but our relationship was such that if she liked something, I automatically did not. And so my answer to their question was always the same: “I’m going to be a scientist.” If they probed further—earnest, self-important child that I was—I would say I was going to discover a cure for cancer. Then their indulgent smiles would broaden, and they’d say, “Good for you, dear,” winking at anyone nearby. But I knew they were wrong. I could already picture myself a great heroine in my white lab coat with my bubbling beakers, test tubes, and Bunsen burners just like the ones in my father’s science lab at school.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.30.25 PMEarly on in my would-be-scientist career, when I was about eight, I got it in my head that I’d compile a medical dictionary in a tiny, unused address book. The cover said 1934, A Century of Progress, and my mother had bought it at the Chicago World’s Fair. It had a black cover, and teeny projecting flaps for each teeny-tiny letter of the alphabet. Of course there was a problem with my medical dictionary plan as I knew next-to-nothing about the body except for what I’d learned from listening to adult conversations. In the end, I completed five entries: “abscess: have it lanced” (my mother had warned me about these awful things, whatever they were); “adenoids: have them removed” (mine had been removed along with my tonsils); “appendix: have it removed before it breaks” (yup, mine had been removed before it broke); “arthritis: unfortunately there is no true cure,” and “asthma: there is no cure that takes it completely away.” That’s as far as I got, just the letter A. Becoming a famous scientist was a long way off.

However, if anyone had asked me not what I was going to be but what I wanted to be, my answer would have been very different. If I thought they’d take me seriously, I’d have told them that what I really wanted to be was a cowgirl. Either a cowgirl or an elevator operator.

I knew the cowgirl option was slim, but it was also irresistible. For a few years in the early 50s, my parents had run a movie theatre, so I was very familiar with Hollywood’s view of women in the Wild West. And wonderful models of strength and ingenuity they were: heroic ranch women, the intrepid school teacher who stood up to outlaws, the brave woman giving birth in the back of a covered wagon. I knew pioneering days were over, but being a cowgirl seemed like the next best thing. I already had a white cowboy hat and a cap gun, but I had neither cows nor horses nor ropes nor any of the things cowgirls needed to do their work out there by themselves on the range with just a blanket and a coffee pot. It wasn’t going to be easy.

urlElevator operators, on the other hand, were commonplace, at least in the city. I’d seen lots of them in office buildings and department stores in Toronto where my mother took me every summer. I watched these people carefully, and I figured their job was one I could do. The only prop I needed was a snappy uniform. And an elevator.

It didn’t occur to me that this was considered to be a menial occupation. I saw power, responsibility, and authority represented in their uniforms; I didn’t know they were based on military uniforms worn by low-status drummer boys. What I saw were the serious dark colours, the bold braid, the bellboy hat, and the gloves. I knew elevators couldn’t be operated by any old person, but only by those with training, people who knew how to safely operate a wood-panelled moving cage where they were responsible for the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, on any given day. I knew they had to say, “Going up!” and “Going down!” with the right cadence, and they had to know what was available on each floor of their department store. I also knew they had to properly handle the doors: the ornate gold ones that slid right into a special pocket on the outside, and the inner doors that folded together into a million diamond-shaped sections to keep everyone safely inside.

And all-important, operators had to know how to use the control lever in the corner beside the little folding-down chair for resting during non-busy times. I knew the car must not travel too quickly or too slowly, and it should stop at exactly floor level. I wasn’t going to be the kind of operator who scared people half to death by lurching up and down, up and down, suspending her charges in space until the elevator floor was finally lined up with the floor beyond its doors. This was no job for anyone queasy about heights.

I can’t explain my fascination with lifting a box of people up and down all day long any more than I can explain my erstwhile love of lime Popsicles and red licorice. I do know I loved machines, and I especially had my eye on the machine called our car. I absolutely remember telling myself on my tenth birthday that I only had to wait six more years to drive. (On the day of my 16th birthday, I got the marvellous license to drive all alone anywhere I wanted to. My mother was proud of being a good driver herself, and proud of being one of the first women to drive in Toronto. She just handed me the keys while my father wrung his hands. This was one time when I saw things her way.)

Nancy_Drew_80_2(1)By the time I was twelve, as with most children’s passions, my interest in operating an elevator waned, which is just as well as it was already a dying occupation. I began to have grander plans for myself. Instead of being a good servant who made it easy for important people to do what they do, I started seeing myself as one of the important people. Like Lois Lane, I would have smart little suits and hats perched on the back of my head. I would dash in and out of snazzy buildings where fancy elevators transported important me and other important people to do whatever it was important people do to keep the world going round. I decided I could have an office for my detective agency in one of those buildings; I could be like Nancy Drew minus the blue roadster. To develop my detecting skills, I had already begun “tailing” people in our town. One day I followed a Mennonite man as he went to the hardware store, then the blacksmith’s, and then to meet his wife at the dry goods store. I don’t know if he was aware of me or not, but it wouldn’t have mattered since there was nothing mysterious or criminal about what he did. And, he’d have just told me where he’d gone if I’d asked him. What I needed was a town like Nancy Drew’s with more crooks and more goings-on.


I’m fascinated by how children’s passions work themselves out in their adult lives. For me, despite my resistance, I did—briefly—become a high school teacher, and later an ESL and literacy teacher, and now a writing instructor. The budding scientist stayed with me too, and I did a degree in Biology that allowed me to teach science overseas. I also wrote two books about women’s health, expanding in breadth and depth, I hope, on my little black medical book. The detective impulse is gone but I do read mysteries sometimes, and I’m often guilty of nosiness. The cowgirl plan is gone too. I’ve never even learned to ride a horse but I’m still drawn to those old western movies on TV. As for elevators, it turns out I’m a dab hand with automatic elevators, but then, so is everyone.

I know part of the attraction of operating an elevator was the enticing possibility of running my own life, of getting to choose, of being in charge. Of course this wasn’t the answer. I didn’t know that running an elevator is a whole lot like life; you think you’re charting your own course, but it turns out it’s mostly other people (good and bad) who tell you when to stop and when to start, and when they want to get off.

 

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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