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Home: The Toast

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

On Christmas morning in 1949 when I was five, Santa left a dollhouse for me under the tree. It was about a foot and a half high and two feet wide, entirely made of wobbly tin. The outside was painted to look like white clapboard, the inside like assorted patterns of striped and flower-laden wallpaper. Painted curtains framed all the windows. Its teeny-tiny furniture was plastic—shiny brown for anything wooden, and vivid pink or blue for everything else: couch and chairs, lamps and tables, dining room set, fridge and stove, beds, dressers, sink, tub, and toilet. Its only occupant was a little, naked, bright pink doll.

unnamed-2The living room, dining room, and kitchen were on the main floor with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. As with many dollhouses, its entire back wall was missing so we little girls could easily move the doll from one room to another. Lacking this wall undoubtedly made the house drafty, but it was essential as there were no stairs between the floors, and if the doll needed to get upstairs to the bathroom, or back down to rearrange her furniture—the only things she was capable of doing—I needed to fly her up or down Peter Pan-style.

The doll, however, had a problem: she was about two inches tall—sitting down. Her dining room table didn’t even come up to her knees, and she loomed over her toilet and sink. Even worse, she was cast in a permanent sitting position with both arms outstretched so that her invisible husband and children must have feared she’d gone into full rigor while driving a sea-doo. And stark naked. If she’d wanted to lie on one of her little beds, it would only have held her top half, and she looked pretty silly doing so, not to mention immodest. Cooking at her pink stove in this crouched stance made her seem a bit unhinged, so sitting was her only calling, even though perched high above the back of her hard blue couch she looked like a benign giant brought home by a child and now waiting for someone to bring in the tea.

***

unnamed-1The house where my parents and I lived at that time was only a bit more substantial than my dollhouse. It was just a two-story renovated wooden garage with a floor that quivered in the living room when my mother dropped a pot in the kitchen. The windows let in winter drafts and rattled when a door was slammed. Ceilings were low, and dark red shingles covered the exterior in a vain attempt to resemble the real brick that most of the other houses in town were made from. If we had lived in that house into my teens, I would have found it deeply embarrassing.

Like my dollhouse, our front door brought you right into the living room. A little alcove to the right was home to my toys and the piano. The bathroom door straight ahead was in full view—the only bathroom on a main floor I’d ever seen. Only the kitchen at the back was hidden from view. No other house I’d been in was laid out like ours. All the others, some small and some quite grand in my eyes, were narrow and deep, starting with a living room that gave way to a dining room followed by a kitchen, and beyond sometimes a summer kitchen and then a back porch. Stairs to the second floor led off a long front hall. Living room windows looked out onto front porches, and above the porch roof, two second floor windows faced the street. If there was an attic, a small window was set in the gable below the pointy roof. The houses I drew were exactly these, and they still are. I never drew the house we lived in.

This arrangement of where rooms in a house “belong” is as deeply ingrained as the thought that Christmas can only happen when it’s cold, and cats can’t be named Fido. I still find it both shocking—and thrilling—to consider that in Scandinavian houses the living rooms are often at the back overlooking flowers and lawns, and kitchens look over the street so the cooks can see what’s going on in the big world beyond.

***

If people who didn’t know my parents had ever visited, they’d have easily seen that this was the home of middle-aged, educated, unfrivolous Catholics who read a lot and were quiet a lot. They might also have noticed that, although this was the home of both a mother and a father, there was no evidence of a child in the living room. The visitors would have seen somewhat shabby versions of the sedate, impersonal rooms shown in the “ladies” magazines of the day, although they might have noticed that my mother did make one break with those prescribed standards. After several years of living with plain white plaster walls—increasingly scuffed white plaster walls—she decided to paint them herself using a different pastel shade for each room: pink, blue, green, yellow. The blue for the living room didn’t match a thing.

In addition to the odd colours, these unlikely visitors might have noticed that our house deviated in a more significant way: it was rife with religious paintings and crucifixes. This style, much like an Irish convent, was not popular among interior decorators. These paintings and crucifixes that hung in every room were not meant to declare my parents’ religion to the world, but rather to keep them focussed on “the next world.” They, in particular my father, a former Christian Brother, never wanted to lose sight of the fact that we will all someday have to account for how we live our lives, and the walls of our home reminded them of that. This did not make them dour or glum people. They enjoyed good food, a drink before dinner, and a game of cards with friends; it’s rather that there was always a theme song playing in behind that served to keep their eyes on the afterlife.

***

Although my parents, especially my father, did play with me sometimes, when I was six or seven I wrote a play in which the only child of a family keeps asking one parent and then the other to play with her, and each replies in turn, some version of, “Not now, dear; maybe later.” The setting for my play was exactly our living room, furnished with things my parents had bought when they were married, eleven years before. There was an upholstered chesterfield in brown scratchy tweed, a greeny-brown easy chair for my father, an upright wooden chair for my mother, a floor lamp with a buttery yellow glass globe, a table lamp with a dark red shade, two small tables, and a thin, maroon, patterned rug, something my mother always hoped to replace with wall-to-wall. Heavy drapes covered the front window, huge lush pink tropical flowers with huge lush green tropical leaves on a cream background—the kind of fabric that, twenty years later, we hippies sought out to make denim skirts from opened-up old blue jeans.

I can’t think of a single thing in our living room that either of my parents treasured. The things my mother did treasure were in the alcove: the ornate piano that her father had helped build when he worked for the Berlin (Ontario) Piano Factory at the end of the last century, and, also from her childhood home, a cabinet holding the stacks of sheet music from her days in Toronto when she had her own dance band. 

But the living room held no photos, no trophies, no seashells or bronze urns from exotic places. No plants, and no flowers either fresh or artificial. On the walls were two prints: one of a craggy Rocky Mountain scene, vapid like those Group of Seven prints every bank and principal’s office had back then, and a big grey-toned print of the Sorrowing Mother. For my parents it was a quiet place for reading, and a place for the three of us to pray. Every evening for twenty long minutes we recited the rosary, prayers that include fifty-three mentions of “the hour of our death,” as well as many other prayers, including several for the souls in Purgatory.

Beside the couch was a small four-tiered bookcase. We couldn’t afford to buy books, so we used the library where my mother borrowed mysteries and romances. My father read historical novels when he had time. Even so, friends and visitors marvelled at the number of books we had, though actually there were only about 50: Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, a few volumes of Catholic inspiration, and some musty ones like A Girl of the Limberlost, left over from my mother’s youth. She was forever trying to entice me with it, but it sounded like something about polar explorations and that was enough for me. Besides, it couldn’t compete with Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, or Cherry Ames. On top of the bookcase were two knickknacks, both dogs and the only dogs my mother would allow in the house: a black and white china Scottie dog, and a long brown dachshund which was actually a salt and pepper shaker all-in-one with the appropriate set of tiny holes at the head and tail, and openings for filling underneath closed off with minute corks. It was never used.

The table beside my father held his newspaper, books, and magazines: The Globe and Mail, The Catholic Register, Time, Maclean’s, Reader’s Digest, and Sign (a Catholic magazine of the day), as well as an amber-coloured glass ashtray, his pipes, tobacco pouch, and a box of kitchen matches. My mother’s wooden chair with its carved back, arm rests, and padded seat—a chair that’s impossible to slouch in—had been her father’s. There was nothing regal about our house, but the chair was known as W.J.’s Throne, and then became known as Claudia’s Throne, and is still called The Throne in my house. The delicate table beside her chair had been made by this same grandfather. The top surface is a lovely inlaid Parcheesi board, but I wasn’t allowed to play on it. On the table beside her were always a book, her embroidery—hoop, floss, and a pillow slip—and a knitting project—always sox and always for my father, always wool, and always in dark red with beige toes and heels. My mother’s prayer book, and her rosary and mine lived in the little drawer in this table, hers heavy crystal, and mine wood that had once been painted pink.

Our chesterfield left a lot to be desired. Strategically placed on the backs and arms were antimacassars even though they weren’t needed as people no longer plastered their hair with grease. My mother called them “doilies,” just as her mother had, but these weren’t lace but rather mint green fabric with fringes at both ends so they looked like tiny little rugs. They were no heavier than cotton napkins so they wouldn’t stay put, and my mother was forever signalling for me to get over there and straighten them after people stood up. The couch had three separate cushions along the back, but nothing to hold them together. When someone sat back, they often found that the cushions had slid away so they were suddenly tipped onto nothing but cold, hard metal bars. This couch was also our poor man’s hideaway bed, the trundle bed of the day; one person slept on the couch seat with its big hard springs lying in wait right below the thinnest of coverings, and the other person slept on a drawer that pulled out of the bottom of the frame. This half had no springs at all, but it could be made fractionally more comfortable with the addition of the three couch back cushions though they never stayed in place there either, especially since those were the days before fitted sheets.

Our kitchen was small, and the unpainted wooden cupboards inadequate. My mother’s good wedding dishes were packed away in a cardboard box in the basement, since they were only used at Christmas anyway. We had a brand new fridge; a marvellous step-up from their old icebox. It worked well, except for the little freezer compartment made of corrugated tin hanging inside at the top. Given enough time, it could make ice cubes in a tin tray with little dividers and a handle on top to release them, but ice cream was beyond it. After about half an hour, a carton stored in here would become a box of cold soup. The little beige stove was more rudimentary, more a hotplate than a stove. It had a total of four elements, two burners on top and two in the oven; however, only two elements total could be on at any time. My mother didn’t cook elaborate meals but she did use this stove to cook everything including Christmas dinner for us plus my aunt and uncle. Feeding my father, and presumably me too, was a task she took very seriously. Although meals were simpler during Lent, she managed meat, potatoes and a vegetable every night (except Fridays) featuring mostly something involving over-cooked roast beef. And a pie every single day. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t cook, nor a time when we three ate out, ever.

The largest thing in our kitchen was a white wringer washer, and beside it, a brown folded trestle table and two galvanized washtubs. The kitchen table was squashed in between these and the back door. The washer was used once a week on Mondays (and never any other day), and the ironing board was brought out only on Tuesdays. I think the inconvenience of its bulk must have been overshadowed by the enormous convenience for my mother of finally having her own washer even if the lines for hanging things up in poor weather were in the coal-sooty cellar.

***

A friend of mine once commented that my current bedroom seemed—she hesitated—not to have enough of the boudoir about it. I didn’t have the nerve to ask exactly what she thought was missing, but I did think of pointing out that it has original art, and photos of kids and grandkids, and lovely pillows, and pottery, and piles of books. I wondered what my friend would have made of my parent’s bedroom when I was a child! First and foremost, a large crucifix complete with Christ in His final agony hung above the bed. On the wall on one side of the bed was a framed assemblage of four blurry black and white heads in a row, each cut rather unevenly from larger snapshots and pasted onto plain cream-coloured paper in a plain brown frame. These were my mother’s and my father’s parents. Below each were their birth and death dates in pencil: 1870 – 1933, etc. On the other wall was a piece of embroidery my mother had done in black running stitch and framed in black: a picture of the Vimy Ridge memorial honouring the more than 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded in one four-day battle in World War One. I have no idea why my mother decided to produce this; two of her cousins fought in France with the Canadians, but they both survived relatively unhurt, though of course she’d have known many who didn’t return. To top off the bedroom decor was the classic painting of The Scourging at the Pillar, Jesus grimacing as he is flogged by the Romans, his loin cloth falling away and a huge white halo like a flying saucer glowing behind his head.

A crucifix hung above my bed too, and on my dresser stood a large statute of the Blessed Virgin looking down rather despondently at planet Earth. Beside my bed was a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, His loving heart glowing right through His robes, and surrounded by a crown of thorns with a flame and a cross on top. The kitchen also had a small crucifix with, slipped in behind, a piece of blessed palm brought home every year on Palm Sunday. A monthly calendar which we called a “Holy Calendar” showed the saints for each day of the year, and beside it hung a small painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help set behind domed glass. I never liked this Madonna: her sad, tired eyes and her gold-threaded clothes which I knew were wrong as I’d been taught the Holy Family was poor. I also didn’t like the peculiar baby Jesus in her arms, a pint-sized adult with a sandal hanging from one foot, looking away, rich and bored with us all. I was already a stickler for accuracy.

The other picture in the kitchen was quite unnerving. It was a painting of a man named Cardinal Mindszenty, here looking straight ahead, proud and unbowed in his red robes while, while behind him, prison bars overlie the same glowing red, but this time it’s the red of communism. Mindszenty was the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary who was imprisoned first by pro-Nazis during the Second War, and then again by the Communists in 1949. TIME magazine ran this painting of him on the cover on Feb 14, 1949, and my mother framed it. Under his name was the puzzling message: “To die is gain.” I had to assume this was connected to the worrying fact that, as my parents often pointed out, he was a genuine modern-day martyr. I knew about the Christians martyrs killed by the Romans, and the Jesuits killed by the Iroquois, but it frightened me to think that dying for one’s faith would ever be required of me or my parents now in the 20th century.

And one more. Above the piano hung a Sick Call Crucifix which I was forbidden to touch, but which my mother once agreed to show me. It was about two inches thick, and when laid flat, the cross with the figure of a dying Jesus could be lifted off to reveal a secret cross-shaped compartment below. Concealed there were the necessary bits for the sacrament of Extreme Unction, the Last Rites, performed by a priest for the dying: a little folded sheet of instructions in tiny print, two white blessed candles, and two bottles: one for holy water and one for holy oil for anointing the body of the dying person, although I did notice our bottles were empty. The crucifix could be fitted into a groove at the top, and the candles into little holes in the arms of the cross; the result: a tiny altar. My mother was very proud of having received it as a wedding present from a priest.

***

When I was thirteen, my parents made their last move, this time to a small town two hundred miles east where my father taught high school until he retired. There they contentedly lived out their days in a tiny, solid brick box about 18 feet wide and 30 deep, cramped and congested, especially for three six-foot-tall people. But it was easy to clean, and it had storm windows and carpet in the living room, and it was near church and school. Their crucifixes and paintings once again hung on their walls appearing to me to have multiplied in number since now the walls were both fewer and smaller. The bedrooms were so crowded that beds were only accessible from one side, and the bathroom was no bigger than those on airplanes. My large-sized mother must have literally had a hard time turning around in it. But in the kitchen where she could touch sink, stove, fridge, and table without taking a step, stood a reliable fridge with a good freezer, and a reliable stove with a good oven which she used virtually every day.

Several years later, my friend and I visited my parents at this house. He whispered, “But it’s so small!” Shaking his head in disbelief, he whispered again. “It’s like a dollhouse.” 

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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