ByMary J. Breen

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.

  1. When people asked young people in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s what they loved about the music they always gave the exact same answer as the adults gave when they were asked why they so disapproved of it: “the beat.” And it was the true answer; I, and a few million other teenagers, felt it and loved and craved its physical, driving energy.

  2. The post office was central to the life of our village in the 1950s. It stood right at the corner where the main street took a sharp bend, and from its front steps, you could see down one way past the jeweller’s and the dry goods store as far as the Felt Boot Factory, and down the other past cars and buggies parked in front of the telephone exchange, the Five-and-Dime, and the blacksmith.

  3. My parents owned a prosperous little movie theatre in a village in southern Ontario; that is, until 1953 when two things happened: television arrived, and the booming post-war economy allowed people to buy cars and drive the short distances to nearby cities where first-run movies played in nice theatres with indoor bathrooms. Overnight our audiences dwindled almost to nothing.

  4. In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers.

  5. 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

  6. Mary J. Breen's previous work for The Toast can be found here. Bill Zinsser, a prolific writer and a revered writing teacher, died last month on May 12; he was 92. He wrote newspaper and magazine articles on a remarkable number of topics, and he wrote books on jazz, travel, and baseball, but what he’s best known for are his eleven books about the craft of writing. His advice, especially in his bestseller…

  7. 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

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

    My old piano sits in the corner of the dining room. No one but my grandson ever plays it, and he only when he wants to show me something new he’s learned. Visitors always marvel at its marquetry flower baskets and its carved mahogany, and they’re right; it’s a lovely thing. However, for me, it’s more than that. For me,

  9. Mary 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…

  10. Mary 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…

  11. Mary J. Breen's previous work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: When We Wore Foundation Garments. When I was about ten, my mother gave me a special holy card for my prayer book. I remember it vividly. It was a smudgy cream colour with fading print, and it was tattered and torn around the edges. On the front was glued a long pale leaf which, according to the fine print,…

  12. Previously from Mary J. Breen: My Sexual Education. When I was a child in the ’50s, one of our favourite card games was Old Maid, the one in which the person with the lone unmatchable card—The Old Maid—is the loser. By age eight, I’d figured out that nobody in real life wanted to be an Old Maid either: no one wanted to be the one left “on the shelf,” the one nobody loved. I’d…

  13. Once upon a time long ago in my small Ontario town, menstrual pads were called sanitary napkins, and they came in boxes wrapped in plain brown paper lest any man see them and drop dead from embarrassment. These pads were about an inch thick—bulky, awkward things that were held in place with little twisty belts or safety pins. To be extra safe, some women even wore special rubber-lined underpants. This was long before the wonders…