(Dodging Shells gave you Tommy’s letters to his sister, from the front. Here’s more about wartime Toronto, and some family gossip from Kathy, in response.)
November 27, 1943
…..It must be hard to focus on Christmas in the desert heat. Although, on second thought, you get the whole wise men and camels atmosphere there, don’t you?
…..The Santa Claus Parade was last Saturday. I work Saturday mornings, but our office is at the front of the building with windows overlooking Queen Street, so we had a convenient bird’s eye view. Warm, comfortable…a far cry from watching from the street–although it seems like cheating if you don’t freeze some body parts in order to see it. As always, there were dozens of floats, led this year by your 48th Highlanders band…about twice its usual size and marching smartly. They did you credit. There were a lot of servicemen watching, and every one of them had a child from the crowd perched on his shoulder to get a better view.
…..I topped up the day by stopping by all of the animated Christmas windows at both Simpson’s and Eaton’s stores on my way home: glitter and tinsel and toys dancing around a Christmas tree, fluffy animals skating on a pond…oh, and an adorable puppy yawning and stretching by a fireplace…you’d swear it was alive if you didn’t stand and watch for a really long time. There seemed to be just as many adults gazing as children. I think everybody was thinking, as I was: I wish Tommy was here to see this with me.
…..Okay, they probably weren’t all wishing that you were there…they probably have their own people they would want to share it with. But you get my point!
…..It seems like the parade unleashes a flood of Christmas spirit, and some people imbibe more of it than is, strictly speaking, good for them. The streetcar was crowded when I was riding home, and I saw an old guy struggle on, carrying an obscenely naked plucked chicken by the neck. He stood drunkenly swaying while he bought two tickets from the conductor…one for himself and one for the chicken! He made his way to a double seat that had just been vacated, and parked himself by the window, with the chicken slumped beside him.
…..As more people poured on at each stop, he began to get dirty looks from tired shoppers who coveted the seat in which the chicken was ensconced. Finally, one particularly imperious old woman reached over and tapped the drunk on the shoulder. (He was slumping a little himself, and appeared to have nodded off.)
…..“I’ll thank you to move that chicken, sir, so the rest of us can sit down!”
…..The fellow straightened up, and opened his bleary eyes. He patted the chicken, fondly.
…..“Lady, this here’s my pal,” he slurred. “I bought him a seat, and he’s gonna sit in it…and I’ll thank youse to go find a seat of your own!” And he fell back asleep.
…..It sometimes seems as if the TTC must hire comedians to play their cars…there always seems to be some entertainment laid on so there’ll never be a dull moment. Last month, during a warm spell, a dishevelled drunk of indeterminate age parked himself in an aisle seat beside a young man who clearly wanted to enjoy the fresh air at the open window in peace. The drunk launched into a rambling and incomprehensible conversation, which the young captive completely ignored. This, of course, never works. The drunk continued to aim his monologue at his seat-mate, wanting his agreement on some obscure point or other. And the young man continued to gaze meekly out the window in silence.
…..After some time, the drunk muttered, “S’my shtop,” and stumbled to the exit door and out.
…..As he passed by the young man’s window, he reached up and slapped him right across the face. He uttered his first clearly understandable words:
…..“…and that’s for talking too much!”
…..This probably didn’t seem quite as comical to the young man as it did to the rest of us.
…..A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from Great-aunt Bella, inviting me over for Sunday dinner. I didn’t understand why she and Great-aunt Gertie took a whim to invite me alone, but I’m glad I accepted.
…..You know, the wedding-cake tin ceilings and the false plaster fireplace at their house are pretty much the same as at ours and every other shabby old place…why do they seem so much quainter when they surround that old pair? Maybe it’s because they have so many things. I’m always surprised when I can find a place to sit down. And I can’t help feeling that there are treasures hidden in all that stuff. They never let you leave without taking something away with you, and it’s never anything of real value…but the family stories! Oh, they’re precious!
…..We spent the afternoon thumbing through albums, pawing over photographs of familiar people I didn’t recognize and total strangers who meant something to somebody else. Then, after trying not to make a pig of myself over their incomparable chicken casserole (I would die a happy person if I had the secret of those cheese biscuits), we settled down to the down-and-dirty gossip I’d obviously been summoned there to hear. I felt like I was being given the keys to the closet where the family skeletons are stacked. It was wonderful. And I am generously willing to share. So pull up a chair (with your good arm, of course) and sit down.
…..“Have you seen the new twins yet?” Aunt Bella asked.
…..“You young people!” Aunt Gertie had to slip in her complaint. “You’re always too busy for the family.”
…..It’s true. I don’t see a lot of the family. I find most of them more charming from a distance. But I had seen Uncle Ralph’s twins, Helen and Pauline. They’re not so very new, actually–about three years old now–and they’re unusually appealing, for small children. Especially Pauline. She’s a sweet little thing with red hair and freckles…you’d like her. I did.
…..“They were born just before Christmas,” Aunt Bella went on. “Ralph felt like he was entitled to celebrate double for twins, and once he’d gotten a skin full–Ralph was a bootlegger during the depression, you know, and I guess he developed a weakness for liquor–well, he got a notion that his girls needed a Christmas tree. It was late and the tree lots were all closed, but in that state…well, he just wouldn’t wait. He tracked down an axe somewhere, and went searching for a tree as if he was in the north woods or something. When he finally found the one he wanted (and it was a nice one) it was on Lionel Conacher’s front lawn…but he cut it down anyway and dragged it home.”
…..“Do you know who Lionel Conacher is, dear?” Aunt Gertie asked. “He was an All-Star athlete during the twenties and thirties: baseball, boxing, hockey (he played for the Black Hawks and some other big American team, I think)…and football…the Argos. He’s in politics now, I’ve heard. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t catch Ralph cutting down his tree. I’m sure he would have tried to stop him, and Ralph can be scrappy when he’s drunk.”
…..“Ralph is our sister Helen’s son, you know,” continued Aunt Bella, “and he was always a handful. Not much to brag about, I’m afraid…and Helen always puts on such airs….”
…..“Well, she didn’t have much better luck with her daughter.” Aunt Gertie seemed to be relishing Helen’s woes. “Jean married a Catholic priest. Of course, he left the priesthood first. (I mean before they were married, that is…he was probably sampling the goods while he was still wearing the cassock.) It caused a scandal, at the time, because Helen’s husband was an Orangeman, you know, and so is Ralph. They weren’t likely to welcome a Catholic into the family…even a disgraced one.”