August 8, 1943
…..It’s great to hear you sounding like your old self.
…..I knew sooner or later you’d want to chat. I assumed, from the pathetically inadequate letters I’ve been receiving, that you were distracted by your new and dissipated cosmopolitan life and I certainly didn’t want to intrude. But now I can feel free to blab away as if you were back home again. I’ve missed you.
…..A belated happy birthday to you! Fortunately, I had a great day. I didn’t realize at the time that I was celebrating for you, as well…by proxy! (Was your friend Alfie to be at the virtual celebration too? I would have baked a bigger cake…if I’d baked a cake.).It was a week day, so some of the girls at work treated me to dinner and a movie.
…..I’m sure I wrote to you when I was hired as an elevator operator at Simpson’s department store about a week after graduating from high school. But did I mention last year that I was switched to operating the executive elevator? Surely you didn’t think the executives of such a huge store would take the public elevators like everyone else and get jostled around with the crowds, did you? You may never have even noticed the executive elevator. It’s not with the others; it’s over by the corner of Queen and Bay Streets. It’s an older elevator, and trickier to operate, but quite beautiful…all scrolly brass grillwork and satiny hardwood. And I don’t have to stand on my feet all day, endlessly pulling the doors open and closed for people…oh, no! I wait. When an executive needs the elevator, he rings for me and I appear, like a genie in an ever-so-smart tailored uniform, and transport him down to the ground floor…or up to the executive floor, as the case may be. The elevator is an express…it doesn’t deign to visit any of the more plebeian floors.
…..And between calls there’s a neat little fold-up seat where I can park, in this jewel case of an elevator, and read. The pay is meagre ($13.50 a week, to be painfully exact) but I can eavesdrop on the rich and famous, and you wouldn’t believe how many books I’ve been able to enjoy in the past year. The company has stocked a handy library on the main floor for the use of the employees; I guess they hope it will distract us from more disruptive mischief. Imagine my delight!
…..Of course, if any of the executives work late, I have to stay overtime to provide elevator service or the poor dears would be stranded up there in management heaven. But it doesn’t happen often, and I don’t really mind.
…..I still put in the occasional week operating the public elevators, so I haven’t completely lost touch with the other girls by switching over to the ‘snooty’ elevator. It’s certainly livelier over there…in fact, last year it was sometimes absolutely manic. The war wasn’t going well at that time (I’m sure you noticed), and apparently there were some folks in Toronto who were convinced that the Germans might start bombing the city at any moment; I suspect they had no realistic grasp of the distances involved. In any case, Simpson’s carried out air raid tests, and management bragged about our ability to evacuate the entire store in less than eight minutes. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the strain on the elevator operators!
…..It wasn’t just us…there were simulated air raid attacks across Toronto, complete with city-wide blackouts. In May, a German prisoner of war escaped from the Bowmanville detention camp, prompting the timid to cower in their homes, picturing him prowling evilly through darkened city streets, no doubt. He was soon found and returned to the camp, where he could enjoy his three square meals a day again with a clear conscience, his duty as a loyal Nazi and an unwilling detainee having been fulfilled.
…..In the fall, I actually saw a convoy of jeeps and tanks clanking along Lakeshore Road, heading for a mock attack on ‘enemy’ troops dug in at Sunnyside Park. (I wonder if they dismantled the kiddie rides, or just fought around them.) I understand that a ‘Canadian’ force stormed the beach from boats moored in Humber Bay, and ‘Jerry’ was soundly and promptly defeated. We all rested easier knowing what would befall any evildoers who thought of invading our staunch city.
…..But now that you Canadian boys have gotten involved, we’re all a lot less nervous about the outcome. We know you’ll trounce them…it’s just a matter of time. I remember that, right from the beginning, it was predicted that the war would last for three years. We didn’t believe it then, but how could we know they’d keep you out of it for so long? Now that you’re there, they can wrap it up and we’ll all be able to get on with less disruptive dramas.
…..I met the girls at the Savarin Restaurant on Bay Street. Eleanor–she lives up near Rosedale and is more familiar with these things–had made reservations so we’d be seated right away, and wouldn’t have to wait. The five of us were seated at a round table and did our best to do justice to the white linen and silverware atmosphere, sharing compliments and commonplaces in a most reserved and genteel manner…for a while. But the Savarin had been chosen because it serves buffet-style. That’s quite fashionable somewhere–I don’t know where–and we were eager to try it. Furthermore, they served lobster. Lobster!
…..As soon as it seemed consistent with good manners, we sidled up to the buffet counter and filled our plates with whatever we wanted from the dishes on display. We all tried the lobster…except Madge, of course. She turned her pinched little nose up at that as well as most of the other dishes on offer, searching in vain for mushy peas and boiled beef, I suppose. (She’s English. You’ve lived there, so you must have guessed.) There wasn’t a mushed pea to be found. I sampled a very little bit of just about everything, so I would have noticed. It was still quite a heap of food, but I enjoyed every bite.
…..The challenges involved in the selection process relaxed our demeanour, and by the time we returned to our table, we were in a party mood.
…..“This is delicious…did you get some of this?”
…..“I missed it…give me a bite….”
…..“You’re supposed to dip the lobster in melted butter. Here…try some of mine….”
…..“Those claws look scary. How do you get the meat out?”
“Here…I’ll do it for you.”
“The roast beef is so tender…how do they make it so tender?”
“Oh! …I’m going to go back and get some.”
“Ewww…what’s that?” (…from Madge, of course.)
By the time we’d browsed through the dessert tray (we all forced space in our bellies for desserts), the conversation had settled into a familiar groove: men.
“Ted’s gone overseas, hasn’t he?”
Eleanor’s fiancé is a captain. He was shipped over to England just last month. She nodded, arranging her face to look brave, but with a suitable shade of sadness.
“I miss him so much…It’s only a matter of time until he’s in the thick of it. I’m so worried! And I can’t think what I’ll do until he comes home…we used to have so much fun together.”
“There’ll be plenty to do,” I pointed out. “We’re doing something right now.”
She shot me a reproachful glance. I suppose I wasn’t treating her tragedy with suitable gravity.
“You’ll be getting married as soon as he comes home, though, won’t you?” Sadie chattered. “You can plan the best wedding!” She stopped. “Oh….” She swallowed her next words; she’d remembered that nothing is certain in wartime. Sadie is very young.
“It’s just not fair! There are some guys still here…but not nearly enough to go around. And the ones who are left have so many girls to choose from!” That was Lil. She’s rather plain, and is painfully aware that she may not get the pick of the crop. That knowledge is not making her more attractive.
“They say it’ll be over by Christmas.” Sadie was giving it another try.
“They’ve said that every year.” Eleanor pointed out, bitterly. She wasn’t about to give up her drama without a struggle.
“Don’t complain to me,” Lil insisted. “When the war’s over, you’ll have Ted. You’ve already found the right guy; you’ll be way ahead of the game. But what about the rest of us? We can’t even start looking until the men come back.”
“I had plenty of suitors in England,” mused Madge. “I could take my pick at home….” Nobody was listening.
“Well, I want my own home…I’m tired of living with my parents. When we get married, Ted promised he’d buy me a house in Long Branch. The prices are lower out there, and we’ll be able to afford something I could stand to live in. This war is just spoiling everything. I don’t want to operate an elevator forever!”
“I don’t either. But maybe this is our chance to step forward without watching every minute to see if our slips are showing,” I suggested. “We can do things on our own, can’t we…find out what we’re interested in…?”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” I don’t know who said this. I guess they all piped in. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry. You’re pretty enough…without trying too hard. And the guys all like you. You’re sure to snap up one of the best ones, and beat us all.” They were all grinning now. I was the birthday girl, after all.
I share this conversation with you for any small consolation it may afford, while you’re trudging along on nails in the burning sun. Apparently, while you brave fellows are away, the girls you left behind are quite incapable of functioning in any meaningful way whatever, and life itself remains in limbo. How wonderful for you, to have such power. We can only hope you all use it wisely when you return. (Frankly, your track record is not all that great.)
When we left the restaurant, it was with restraint and decorum…resisting the urge to pocket the sugar packets and butter pats. It was most satisfying to see the remains of them peeking out of their little dishes on the tabletop. It proved that we were ladies, and were accustomed to dining in fine restaurants quite regularly. (We weren’t.)
You see, sugar and butter are rationed, and jam and honey, too. But rationing doesn’t apply to restaurants, so we’ve all gotten accustomed to grabbing up (with wildly varying degrees of subtlety) any leftovers and taking them home to use later. Honestly, though, we never seem to do without much. The rationing is mostly just an inconvenience. We get ration books every month, and tear the little stamp-sized coupons off to present every time we shop. The rules for meat are ridiculously complicated…depending on what cut you buy. But we just let the butcher figure it out. We can never afford to buy more than the ration allows anyway. And if we did go over just a bit…well, a little smile aimed at the shopkeeper can work wonders, you know!
Of course, a black market promptly sprung up. Do you remember little Bobby Freed down the block? Well, he and one of his pals drove to Acton, where they broke into a creamery and made off with seventeen boxes of butter (that’s 850 pounds of butter!) And three chickens. He could hardly deny it; when the police searched his house, they found butter everywhere: in the dining room, in the parlour drawers, in the sewing machine, and especially in the basement…along with the three chickens. Unless the young crook was planning a really big party to which he certainly didn’t invite me, he intended to make a tidy profit from people who are a lot more greedy than patriotic. So Bobby, at the tender age of eighteen, will be spending the next year in the Guelph reformatory, where his consumption of butter will, no doubt, be strictly monitored.
Naturally, stockpiling is not encouraged, but I know that Grandma Marshall tucked away quite an impressive stash of canned salmon in anticipation of rationing, along with God only knows what other delicacies. (She insisted on offering me a couple of tins when I visited last month, and I would have pointedly refused them…except I really love salmon!) Her conscience may be tweaking her a bit, though, because I hear that the soldiers she regularly invites for dinner always leave with a few tins as a sort of edible going away gift.
Anyway, after the birthday dinner, we strolled back over to the Imperial theatre to catch a movie. Never mind which movie we saw. It was a romance…you wouldn’t have liked it. If I’d known I was celebrating for both of us, I might have chosen something a little more to your taste.
Actually, I don’t know why I should be apologizing for my modest little celebration…it sounds as though you did enough celebrating in England to last you quite a while. I don’t know how you’re going to adjust when you get back, I’m sure. You still can’t buy even a glass of wine here without ordering a meal and Toronto the Good would immediately burst into righteous flames if hard liquor were to be consumed publicly. And Sundays are just as deadly as ever…no shopping, no movies, no sports…even the newspapers can’t publish on Sunday. Are you sure you’re not just killing time over there so you don’t have to come home to Toronto Sundays?
I’ve been wanting to ask you about an incident mentioned in the Toronto Star a couple of months ago. It seems that a group of English mothers met in their local church to discuss some worthy patriotic endeavour or other, leaving a small fleet of perambulators parked on the lawn. Inside each pram was a rosy British infant, enjoying the spring sunshine in whatever fashion British infants deem suitable. If they’re at all like our own Canadian babies, many were probably snoozing, and others were gurgling at the light and shadows peeking through those ancient trees that adorn all English churchyards, we’re told. But a restless few showed signs of becoming just a bit bored and fretful. These last few attracted the attention of a couple of Canadian soldiers who were strolling by. Fearing the spread of rebellion among the tiny Brits, no doubt, the helpful Canadians gently lifted the tots (the babies didn’t mind at all) and replaced each one in a different perambulator, providing all with a refreshing change of venue. Their benevolent work completed, they strolled over to a nearby bench–well, not too nearby–and considerately sat down to see that no harm came to the little dears.
…..As the meeting concluded, the ladies hurried out and began trundling the prams down the road toward their respective homes. Suddenly one pram jerked to a halt, and a shriek from the attendant mother shook a few leaves right out of the venerable trees. It was the first of a chorus of wails and shouts as the indignant women sorted out their offspring. The soldiers, by this time, had discreetly abandoned their post and made a strategic retreat into the surrounding shrubberies. I believe the women are still searching for the culprits.
…..Was that you? Were you there? Was Alfie? Tell me the truth…when did you leave England? No, never mind. I won’t believe you anyway. I’m sure those women would have caught a glimpse of red hair disappearing through those bushes, if they’d only looked closely enough.
…..Everyone at home is fine: Dad…Mom…all the assorted relatives. In fact, it’s embarrassing to admit just how comfortable we are while you trudge around over there in the heat and the dust, keeping us all safe. Please take care of yourself. Try to come back without getting anything bent, broken or perforated, won’t you? (I think we can ignore that initial shot in the back; it doesn’t sound as though it damaged anything essential.)
Heaps of Love (whether you deserve it or not),