Claudia’s Dress: About My Mother -The Toast

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Claudia's Dress2007(91.5x61 cm)acrylic on canvas - Copy - CopyMary J. Breen’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Career Counseling in the 1950s.

The lovely hand-made crepe dress in this painting belonged to my mother. It came from the time she always spoke of as Before I Was Married. There was Before I Was Married and After I Was Married. Not that one was better than the other; they were just very different times, worlds apart.

My mother was outgoing, confident, and successful. She was also almost six feet tall and heavy, so standing out from the crowd came naturally. Because of her size and self-assurance, her proud Irish-Catholic father allowed her to begin driving when she was only fifteen—as long as she would drive him or, when called upon, the Bishop, both men ensconced like royalty in the back of their big open car. The year was 1918, and she loved it when people would stare and point at a girl driving a car. Like a London cabby, she knew every street in central Toronto. Even though Toronto at that time was still an Orangeman’s town with “no Irish need apply” signs, she never lost the sense that the city was somehow rightfully hers.

After high school and a year at university, my mother went to Normal School to train as a primary school teacher. She taught several years for the Toronto Separate School Board, and, then, because she was also an accomplished pianist, she became one of two Music Supervisors for the city. She was also elected president of her teacher’s association. And so, for formal dinners and dances, she needed dresses like this one.

There is an even better reason she might have needed a fancy dress: my mother had her own dance band. Because she loved show music and she loved to play it, she decided to put together a small band. Although they played mostly for dances at her parish church, St. Anthony’s, my mother considered herself a bit of a “headliner,” and she wanted to dress the part.

My parents met in 1922 when they were both at Normal School. They kept in touch, and sixteen years after they first met, they got married. They both felt their marriage was worth every minute of the wait.

After her wedding, she left behind Toronto, her teaching career, and her life of fun and acclaim to begin her new all-encompassing career: looking after my father. And so, After I Was Married began. The dress went into a cardboard box and was never worn again. There certainly were no balls or grand parties to attend in the little towns where my father taught high school.

By the time I knew her, she had developed a remarkable sense of what God and the Pope knew to be proper behaviour. She was “Mrs. J. L. Breen,” and if anyone sent her a Christmas card addressed in any other way, she wouldn’t open it. She and I did have fun, especially when I was little, but she was easily angered, and I never knew when the impatient, old-school authoritarian would emerge and I’d be in trouble. As the years went on, she believed ever more strongly that being a good mother was the same as being a good teacher—you had to know all the answers and you had to be completely in charge. Perhaps some of her inflexibility also reflected the arthritis that rendered her less and less able to walk easily. In her sturdy corsets and dark Sunday dresses, big hats, white gloves, support stockings, and sensible oxfords, people said she looked like “a ship in full sail.” What she did not look like was someone who had ever waltzed around in this swirling dress or sat up on stage with her very own band playing her favourites: the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin.

My parents’ marriage was in every way a happy one. My father was a very good man and a very good husband. When I was born six years later, she discovered that he was also a very good father. He was the kind of man who insisted on doing the dishes with her every night of their marriage. He did the ironing in really hot weather, and he thanked her for every button she sewed back on his shirts. The only crime he ever committed in her eyes was referring to her once, and once only, as The Wife. She informed him that she had a name.

Like all the mothers I knew, she spent her days cleaning, shopping, washing, ironing, cooking, and baking the things her husband liked, including a pie a day. The only evidence I ever saw of Life Before lay in her dress and her love of music. Every couple of years she’d get out the cardboard box, and we’d look at the photo albums, the piles of sheet music from her band . . . and the dress. She never seemed wistful for that time. Even as a child, I understood how content she was with my father.

But still, life in small-town Ontario didn’t give her many chances to be in the limelight. She must have missed performing because whenever the church organist or the school pianist happened to be absent, she was the first one on her feet, ready to fill in. And our piano was the only piece of furniture she treasured. Not only was it beautiful and rich-sounding; it was a family heirloom, built by her father when he worked for the Berlin Piano Factory in Berlin, Ontario, as Kitchener was called before the First War. It sat in the living room of every home she ever knew. All it took was a relative or visitor to ask her to, “Play a little something for us, Claudia,” and she was up and ready to go. Here was where she was really at home. With the bench pushed far back and arms out-stretched, she didn’t play like the nuns or like anyone else’s mother I’d ever heard. Her music was loud and confident and irresistible. Here was a glimpse of Life Before.

She never lost her abiding confidence and natural sense of authority. I remember driving with her in Toronto, heading downtown to Eaton’s. I was about ten. We discovered that Yonge Street was cordoned off for a motorcade for a visiting dignitary. My mother took one look at the crowds and the barriers and the police; said something about how no one was going to stop her from driving on her streets, and pulled our old black Chevie around the nearest barricade out and onto the empty street. People were expecting someone important so they began to cheer. My mother gave the crowds her most gracious waves and smiles, and drove on. I sank down, mortified and sure we were heading for really big trouble. But nothing happened. Nobody tried to stop us, and after several long minutes, she swung around another set of barricades and on we went. That was my mother.

My mother continued to play the piano all her life. In her later years, despite her arthritis, she could sit as erect as when she was twenty-five, and play just as well. After seven lonely years following my father’s death, her doctor told her she would have to move into a nursing home and leave behind her privacy and her piano. Within three weeks, she was dead.

And now I have her piano, her sheet music, and her dress. The dress I never wear; it’s much too big and I don’t go to many balls. The sheet music is tucked away in another cardboard box, and the piano sits silent except when my little grandsons bang away on it. My mother wouldn’t have approved of her great-grandsons’ piano techniques, but I know she would have liked this painting. I’m sure of it. And although she would have pointed out that she would never have worn it without a slip—I think she would have enjoyed being back in the spotlight again.

Originally published in Cahoots, Mar 2009

Painter: Jane Eccles is a painter living and working in Bowmanville Ontario. She has produced a decidedly female body of work over the last  forty years.

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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