After the wartime regulations were published in the newspapers during World War II, my mother told my father in no uncertain terms that she had quite enough to do sewing blackout curtains for the rest of the windows in the house, so he could just paint our cellar windows black. I remember scraping holes in the paint so I could peek inside. At night, the wartime blackout was so pervasive I imagined that God had painted the sky black like our cellar windows, and then chipped away a bit of the paint here and there so He could spy on me through the twinkling hole-stars.
We had other stars closer to home—stars mounted on cardboard hanging in the windows facing our street: bronze stars, for soldiers in the service; silver, for those missing in action; gold for those who had died in the service of our country.
We became accustomed to news of death and disaster during those wartime years. The Allied casualty lists were published on the front page of the daily papers and there were shocked whispers in the Jewish community about relatives lost in the death camps. Everyone we knew had at least one close relative in uniform overseas, but our block was particularly hard hit. Down the street from us, a bronze star hung in the Stokeley family’s window for their oldest boy Frank, who was in the RCAF overseas. Another, next door in Mrs. Woollcott’s window, for her husband, who was a commander in the navy. A third hung in the window directly across the street from our house for Major Coates, who had been fighting in North Africa since the beginning of the war.
My father claimed that he’d prefer to fight a war overseas any day than have to stay home with Mrs. Coates, who tried to use her grass-widowhood to get Dad to help her with chores around the house. Dad was exempted from war duty because he was almost forty, had three children, poor eyesight, and was doing important war work for the National Research Council, but I was embarrassed that he was one of the few men left on our block between the ages of twenty and forty who was not in uniform.
Next door to the Coates’ house, the MacMillans displayed two bronze stars for their sons serving in Italy. The gold star in the Murphy’s window was for their only son, who had died at Dunkirk. The silver star in Jamie West’s window was for his father, a Brigadier, who was missing in action. The Fines hung a gold star in their window the day the telegraph boy rode up on his bicycle to inform them their son had died at Dieppe. But we continued going to work, attending school and participating in social events. My friend Myrna brought her brother Frank’s letters, blackened by the censor’s pen, to read aloud to our class. Mrs. Murphy put on her nurse’s uniform and took the bus to work at the Ottawa Civic Hospital every morning. A bit long in the tooth for it, according to my mother, but it was wartime and beggars can’t be choosers. Only Mrs. Woollcott acknowledged her fear and loneliness by lying on her living room chesterfield all day sipping Canadian Club from a Royal Doulton cup.
The closest relative we had in the war was my father’s cousin Bernie from Glace Bay. He and my father had been named for a mutual grandfather, but my father was short and stout, with greying frizzy hair, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and clothes that reeked of tobacco. Bernie, fifteen years younger, was tall and slim, with dark wavy hair and eyes the colour of his Air Force blues. The moment he walked in the door put his cap on my head and winked at me, I fell madly in love with him.
During the three weeks he was with us, he played tennis with my sister Joan and me and then bought us hot dogs and Orange Crushes to distract us while he tried to return Mum’s graceful backhand. After supper, we all sat on the front veranda watching the sunset leech the colours from the sky until only Bernie’s eyes and teeth and his glowing pipe gleamed in the indigo night.
When Bernie was sent overseas, I took his letters to school to read to my class and went with my mother to the post office twice a month to mail parcels to him. About six months after he shipped out, his letters stopped. A telegram finally arrived saying that he was missing in action, presumed dead. I remember going to school the next day and telling my friend Myrna how devastated we all were, and how she tossed her hair and said she didn’t know why, it wasn’t as if he was a brother, just a cousin. We heard months later that he had bailed out of his bomber during an air raid and was a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany.
He came home after the war terribly thin, with dark shadows under his dull eyes. He didn’t say a word at dinner and when we sat out on the front veranda afterwards, he lit one cigarette from another with shaking hands. He married an Ottawa girl and went back to Nova Scotia to live. Years later, when he died, prematurely grey and stooped with disease and disappointment, I mourned the handsome young captain with the wavy hair and Air Force blue eyes who had died during that wartime summer so long ago.
Colonel MacMillan was an old man whose great white moustache, straw hat and carved cane made him look like the cover cartoon on an Esquire magazine. He and his wife, who were both very deaf, sat on their shaded front veranda in matching rocking chairs and listened to the radio with the volume turned up very loud. Every day at noon, twelve bongs rang out from Big Ben and a British voice announced, “Here is the BBC News.”
Simultaneously, diagonally across the street, Radio-Canada began its news broadcast from the Duprés’ front room, so that if you stood on an imaginary diagonal drawn between the Duprés’ house and the MacMillans’, you could listen to the news every noon hour in stereophonic French and English. It used to drive my mother crazy, and she would go around the house at lunchtime slamming all the windows shut against the noise.
The Dupré family, who lived two doors down from us, were the only French-Canadians on our block and the only Roman Catholics. They didn’t socialize with any of the neighbours, but they were polite, said “Bonjour,” and commented on the weather when we met.
Mme. Dupré was a short, plump woman with a large bosom and white hair that she wore rolled up over her ears and gathered into a bun at the nape of her neck. She spent her days cooking and cleaning for her large family, and we often got odd glimpses of her slapping bedding over the bedroom windowsills or beating scatter rugs against her veranda railing. Every morning she stomped outside, wearing a flowered apron over her housedress, and turned the garden hose on the fetid mess the milkman’s horse made when it urinated in the street during its morning rounds.
M. Dupré, who was short and stocky, usually wore a dark blue suit, white shirt and conservative tie, his black hair slick as patent leather. After supper, however, he came out in his shirtsleeves and watered the small patch of grass in front of his house until it glittered like glass.
On Saturday afternoons, he pushed his lawn mower across the lawn while his blue shirtsleeves ballooned over their metal clips, and the back of his neck, sans collar and tie, reddened in the afternoon sun. He drove his big black Buick out of his driveway only to take the family to mass on Sunday mornings or for a drive in the Gatineau on Sunday afternoons.
M. Dupré was too old to be in uniform, his son Pierre too young. Pierre, his youngest child, was in my class at school although he was two years older. He had failed the year before because of truancy, bad marks, and misbehaviour in class. Perfectly bilingual, he easily passed his French orals, but failed his written French because of his bad spelling and grammar. He hung around with a gang of tough French guys who went to St. Pat’s and wore black leather jackets and pomaded ducktails. They came to pick him up at all hours of the day and night in a ’36 Buick with a defective muffler and broken tail lights, cursing at the tops of their voices with equal facility in English and French. Whenever they saw me sitting on my front veranda they slowed down and yelled, “Redhead, pissed in bed, five cents a cabbage head!” and roared off, gears grinding and tires squealing, laughing and yelling something in French about “les maudits juifs.” I once asked my mother what a “piston bed” was and she went to speak to Mme. Dupré and after that there was a certain coolness between them. I didn’t have to ask what “maudits juifs” meant.
The Duprés also had two daughters. The younger one, wearing impossibly high heels and a smart little chapeau, took the streetcar every day to her job as a sales clerk in a hat shop on Rideau Street. The older one had just moved from the Beauce with her son and her husband, a pale skinny man with a big Adam’s apple and a weak chin, to live with her parents while she looked for a house in Ottawa, and her husband applied for a job in the Civil Service. She was having a difficult second pregnancy and spent most of her time in bed, so Mme. Dupré had to look after her grandson, Ti-Guy.
Our remaining neighbours were fairly equally divided between Protestants and Jews. We had little in common with the Protestants and they rarely spoke to us beyond passing the time of day, but the Jewish families often socialized together. Most of the parents were the same age, and their children played together and went to the same Hebrew school. These two solitudes, imposed by differing languages and religions, were broken only once that I can remember—during that one summer when Ti-Guy came to live on our street.
Ti-Guy was about four years old. He was an unhappy child with a pale blotchy face, dirty blond hair, watery blue eyes, and runny nose. His name was Guy, (pronounced “Gee” with a hard G), the same as his father’s, so they called him “Petit Guy” or “Ti-Guy” in joual. Mme. Dupré was constantly changing his clothes, wiping his dripping nose, washing his dirty hands and face and calling for him from various upstairs windows, “Ti-Guy, Ti-Guy, viens-icitte.”
Ti-Guy lived under a constant black cloud. Once he ran directly into the path of a bakery truck. Mike Melamed, who lived over his father’s drugstore on Rideau, was playing football in front of the Duprés’ house. He had just made a long spiralling pass to his brother Mark, who let the football fall to the ground and dived instead for Ti-Guy, scooping him up in his arms and hurling himself onto our lawn as the truck screeched to a shuddering halt. Ti-Guy’s grandmother ran out of her house shrieking and sobbing with relief and carried him home to clean him up. The neighbourhood women returned to the chairs on their verandas, shaking their heads with relief.
After that, his grandmother tied him with a harness and rope to the tree in the front yard to keep him from running into the road, but he always worked himself loose and took off again. He scraped his knees on our gravel driveway, cut his hands on the thorns of the Murphy’s rose bushes, and fell out of our apple tree. He teased the Woollcotts’ sheepdog until the poor beast lost its patience and nipped him on the ankle. He stole apples from the MacMillans’ front yard and chased their cats under their veranda, only to reappear with angry red claw marks down his face.
One day, my brother Ray decided that Ti-Guy would make a perfect victim in an ant-eating torture scenario he’d devised. He and his friends, Stephen Woollcott and Donnie Stokeley, tied Ti-Guy up and were in the process of burying him neck-deep in the hole they were digging in the driveway at the side of our house, when one of the boards shoring up the sides of the hole came loose and dirt began to slip down like sand in an hourglass, burying Ti-Guy. We heard the boys’ screams while we were still at the breakfast table and my mother, Joan and I raced down the summer-kitchen steps to the edge of the hole. The crown of Ti-Guy’s small blond head was barely visible above the sifting dirt. My mother kicked off her mules, gathered up her cretonne dressing gown and leaped into the hole. She grabbed Ti-Guy by the hair and pulled his face clear so he could breathe, while we all scrabbled frantically in the shifting dirt. When Mum finally pulled him out, she dusted him off and turned on Ray.
“How could you do such a stupid thing?” she shrieked.
“It wasn’t my fault. We were just playing ‘Prisoner,'” Ray sobbed. “How was I to know the dirt would fall in?”
Mum told Joan and me, “Take Ti-Guy home to his grandmother at once. Offer her my sincere apologies and assure her that Ray will be severely punished.” She sent Stephen and Donnie home and turned back to Ray. “You go to your room. We’ll see what your father has to say when he gets home.” This deferral of punishment was a favourite ploy of hers, since it gave Ray an entire dread-filled day in which to anticipate my father’s return. Joan and I each took one of Ti-Guy’s grimy hands and led him to his grandmother’s house, two doors away.
Mme. Dupré was watering the morning glories along her veranda railing when she caught sight of us. “Doux Jésus!” she cried, dropping the hose so that it spattered her shoes and stockings. “Que c’est qu’y a faitte encore!”
I began to explain, but my French just wasn’t up to it. Mme. Dupré administered several good swats to Ti-Guy’s rear end and hauled him into the house, and we could hear his howls through their open windows all the way back to our house.
But Ti-Guy couldn’t be discouraged. The next day, Joan picked some berries from Mrs. Kantor’s honeysuckle hedge next door while the old lady was preoccupied with her afternoon soap opera. Joan set them out on three little dolls’ dishes on her tea table on our veranda and went into the house to get her dolls dressed for a tea party. When she came back out, Ti-Guy was sitting on one of the small chairs, whimpering and rubbing his stomach. The tiny plate in front of him was empty. Suddenly he jumped up, vomited into my mother’s hydrangea bushes and ran home crying.
The next day he appeared none the worse for wear, to my enormous relief, because I had lain sleepless all night, terrified that he had been poisoned.
The next afternoon, Ti-Guy climbed up on the railing of our veranda and fell about six feet into the driveway below. He got up, rubbing the back of his neck, and ran home crying to his grandmother, who put down the bowl of peas she was shelling and took him into the house. When he came out again, his hands and face were washed and he was wearing a clean shirt, but he didn’t play. He just sat on his front steps, whimpering and rubbing his neck. His parents took him to the hospital after supper—his father carried him, wrapped in a blue blanket, to the car and put him in his mother’s lap in the front seat while Mme. Dupré stood at the curb beside her husband, twisting her apron in her hands.
We were sitting out front after supper the next evening, watching my father water the front lawn, when the entire Dupré family drove up to their house and got out of the car. Mme. Dupré and her daughters were crying. M. Dupré and his son-in-law walked slowly up the front walk with their hands clasped behind their backs. Even Pierre looked strangely subdued. Ti-Guy was nowhere in sight.
Mrs. Murphy came running from her house across the street. “It was the meningitis,” she told my mother. “He never had a chance, poor little thing.” She and my mother, who until then had merely nodded politely in passing, now clung to each other wordlessly. All the women in the neighbourhood came out of their houses and gathered at the foot of our front steps, as if drawn by a magnetic force. Even Mrs. Woollcott felt her way unsteadily down her front steps, clutching her robe around her with shaking hands, tears streaming down her face.
I knew that soldiers were dying in battle overseas, that bombs were destroying the great cities of Europe. But now it seemed that death had leaped the vast ocean like a stream and settled into the street where we lived.
My mother stood on our front lawn clasping her hands to her chest as though they covered an open wound. At last she went into the house. I followed her into the kitchen, where she had begun to pull out bowls and spatulas and measuring utensils from cupboards and drawers. She measured out flour and sugar and some of our precious butter, mixed the batter with short vicious strokes, slapped out the dough on the wooden board with the rolling pin and slashed it with wicked jabs of the cookie cutter. While the cookies were baking, she scoured the counters and sloshed steaming soapy water over the linoleum floor, dabbing angrily at her tear-filled eyes with the wad of Kleenex she always kept rolled up in her sleeve.
When the cookies were ready, she told me to bring them over to the Dupré house. I made my way up their walk with leaden feet and stood at the door, desperately trying to remember the few appropriate French expressions I knew. I had never been inside their house, and I didn’t know how Catholics behaved when there was a death in the family. The warm plate slid between my damp hands and the smell of oatmeal was making me queasy. When M. Dupré opened the door, I stammered in English, “My, my mother sent these. Our deepest sympathies for your loss.”
He led me inside, down a narrow hall to the kitchen, where the family sat at a table covered with a blue checked cloth, drinking tea. The house was just like ours, except for the cross hanging on the wall. I’d always thought they were different from my family, but they acted just like Jews did when someone had died.
I put the plate of cookies on the table and repeated, “My mother sent these. Our deepest sympathy for your loss.”
They looked at me with red-rimmed eyes. No one spoke. I didn’t know what else to say. To my horrified embarrassment, I burst into tears and ran out of the house.
I ran home, climbed the stairs to my room, went in and shut the door. I opened my closet door, pulled out a canvas board and my paint box and pencils, and sat down at my desk and began to sketch. When I was satisfied with my drawing, I squeezed out tubes of cadmium yellow medium and gold ochre, mixing and blending the colours on my palette until I had just the right shade of gold. Then I began to paint.
The next afternoon, I watched the Duprés get into their car and drive away to the funeral home for the wake. I checked to make sure that my painting was dry, then slipped over to their house and hung up my painted gold star in their front window for everyone to see.