Friday, September 10, 2010

Who am I?

Marion Nicholson in 1912.


I used to have a recurring dream: I am walking downtown in barefeet and it does not feel nice or comfortable. It feels embarrassing or dangerous. I am often seeking a pair of shoes to wear and I can never find them or I don't have the money to buy what I find...... I think these were anxiety dreams about finances, but also much more.

Pretty easy to deconstruct, this dream. Shoes are identity and I didn't feel I had one. I still don't to some degree, although I can't remember the last time I had that dream (before I had a family)so that must mean something.

Today, I have only a few pairs of shoes at one time. This, apparently, is not the norm among women. Many women I know have a wardrobe filled with shoes. I suspect that the urge to have so many shoes is similar to my barefoot dream: a search for identity.

I write this because I just read the Introduction of Nan Enstad's book Ladies of Labour: Girls of Adventure, about working class (mostly Italian and Jewish) girls at the turn of the century.

Virtually every paragraph has significance for my book in progress Flo in the City, about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era based on the letters of http://www.tighsolas.ca/

Enstad tells of how these working class girls (working mostly in the textile industry) turned hierarchy on its head by refusing to wear sensible shoes and by dressing and acting above their station.

She discusses consumerism and feminism (my favourite subject) and suggests that the REALITY of women's lives isn't quite what the theorists suggest.

If being a passive consumer often entrenches the heirarchy in place (see the Ivory Soap ads on www.tighsolas.ca/page460.html.) these working class women often used 'products' to define their identities in their own way, sometimes to give themselves genuine power and sometimes to give themselves the illusion of power (fantasy).

Enstad even talks about the importance of hats to era women: she describes how a union leader makes a demand for hat racks for her workers. Why such a trivial demand? So the women's hats won't get trummeled. "They cost maybe only 50 cents, " the union leader says, "but we value our hats too." (Rough quote.) Remember, Edith and Marion paid 7.00 for their hats in 1909. (Enstad also mentions the movie The New York Hat.)

This is a kind of eureka moment for me because I tend to do the same thing.

Aside: You know the Toronto International Film Festival is happening now, and it's all over the television, and, as much as I like film, it's a party I am not invited to, (although nothing stops me from going to TO and buying a ticket to a film I would like to see, but I'd rather go to The Shaw Festival (and wine country.) Enstad talks about the dimestore novels that put ideas in working class women's heads, or led them to fantasize about a 'better' life. Well, our cult of celebrity does the same thing. (Oh, Robert Redford's movie, the Conspirator, seems interesting. Apparently the screenwriter conducted 15 years of research. I can respect that.)

A few years ago, when I stumbled upon a trunk full of letters written by my husband's Isle of Lewis ancestors, I couldn't help but read them..and I have spent the past 7 years researching background to them, posting a website about them, and writing this book (sic).

Why? Most people would have read a few letters, dismissed them as trivial women's stuff, and perhaps consigned them to the recycle bin.

I recall showing these letters to a friend who told me "They sound so old fashioned." But I was intrigued: the letters sounded very modern to me.

I think I understood, subconsciously,what Enstad is writing about. That Identity was being constructed in these letters: Canadian identity, female identity, middle class identity. So of course I related BIG TIME.

(Another aside: Yesterday, on the News, Hockey: A Musical was being reported on. The entertainment reporter said this movie featured a number of Canadian actors, Olivia Newton John..." Well, my husband was freaked when I yelled out at the TV "She's not Canadian!!" (The reported corrected herself.) Why does this bother me, that a silly sounding l (likely crap) Canadian film puts a foreigner in a starring role and then describes the film as archetypally Canadian? Why does infotainment blather, in general, bother me, so much? OK. Now back to regular programming.)

That's MY identity (despite the fact I never wore a shirtwaist and despite the fact I had no sisters and my mother was not at all like Margaret Nicholson being French Canadian and from a wealthy family.)

But no wonder I married my husband, the great grand child of Norman and Margaret Nicholson and the grandson of Marion Nicholson Blair, one time head of the Montreal Protestant Teachers' Union, who fought for higher salaries and pensions for teachers, but died before earning a pension herself. (Marion was not a dreamer, she ACTED on the world like a MAN: Edith (like me) was half dreamer, half actor and Flora was a dreamer, the artist.... Hmmm. Three different degrees of femaleness.)

Ironically, my mother-in-law often spoke of Marion, her mom, but I never listened much. I recall my MIL telling me her ancestors were poor Highlanders (she was sitting at her 50's style melamine kitchen table puffing on a cigarette) and I wasn't quite sure what that meant.

Yet, a few months after I met my husband, for some reason, he drove me down to the Eastern Townships to look at Tighsolas, then out of family hands.

The house was dilapidated and had no porch. (I was not impressed, but I was in love.)New owners have since restored the house's dignity. It is lovely now and my husband and I have driven by a few times since 1985. Well, my mother in law in now buried there in the Cemetery there, up on the hill. With the Popes and Ewings and Dr. Henry Watters of Flo in the City. . And I likely will be there one day too.