Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Stuff of Memories

The stairway at 72 Sherbrooke West, where my mother lived as a child. It now is a public stairway, for use of the three tenants who live in the 3 storey flat. But it's the stairway where my grandmother, Maria Roy, of the humongus water-balloon bosom, chased her daughters up and down with a broom in one hand and a basin of holy water in the other, when they were bad.  So I've been told and so I put in the play Milk and Water,

The stairwell is empty now, but imagine an oak pedestal with a marble urn and fern in the corner.  A piece like this one. Well, exactly like this one. Indeed, this one. With a marble urn, that I didn't inherit. And another fern.

Here's the urn, from 1960.

The house at 72 was filled with bric a brac, 3 floors of it, all of which my grandmother cleaned and polished and dusted herself.  She had no maids. I bring this up in Milk and Water.

Jules: We employ no maid.
Tom: No maid? You wife dusts the mantle and mops the kitchen floor herself?
Jules: Well, yes, and she finds nothing wrong with it.  She is proud of her housekeeping skills. She takes in girls from the nuns – who help her out. Troubled girls.
Tom: Whom she rehabilitates with hard work. So, six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Jules: My wife also feeds every beggar who comes to the back door, our best food, too, and she takes care of the sick who can’t afford medicine. She is an excellent doctor. Her mustard plasters work miracles

As I mention in the epilogue of Milk and Water Jules Crepeau, my grandfather and Director of Montreal City Services, went bankrupt in the 30's with bad investments, (He wasn't alone in this, I guess). To keep from losing his stuff he gave a lot of it to my Aunt Cecile, who kept it all her life.

I would visit her in her duplex apartment on Beaconsfield and marvel at the shiny brown and white porcelain ox, all boney angles, with a tired sunburnt farmer leading it by the exquisitely detailed yoke and harness; a copper lamp stand with a drunken hobo man in a over-sized suit and tattered hat swinging around it (art nouveau, I guess) some exquisite cabinetry and a golden  Chinese dragon carved in some kind of wood holding a mirror (my cousin has that) and two beautiful ornate chairs from some past era when people were smaller and liked their chairs very fancy.

Here's my aunt Flo sitting in said chair. You can get the drift. The orange upholstery was especialy nice. I still like orange upholstery still. (I could scan this picture, but too lazy.)

See that jug with the wide handles, it's Austrian Amphora and I have that in my house, right in front of me as I type on my laptop,  on the mantle near the Buddha. It's ugly-beautiful...The other Rembrandt vases are from 72 as well. Thomas Forester. Stoke on Trent. (I researched that.)The portrait over my Aunt Flo's right shoulder is of her brother my Uncle Louis, painted by Aunt Cecile.

Anyway, as a child I would visit my Aunt Cecile and marvel at all the beautiful things in her apartment and admire the shining surfaces for she maintained an immaculate home for she had no kids. I especially liked the colourful porcelain chicken 'cookie jar' she kept in her kitchen on a high shelf.

(Our upper duplex apartment was devoid of beauty, with one original painting of, get this, rusty garbage cans and mangy fir trees in Wabush Labrador, where we had lived for a  while in the late 50's. (It was supposed to be in the Group of Seven Style. The artist, a woman who had been a student of A Y Jackson's (supposedly) had painted this while drunk. )  Something along these lines, but not as cheery. (I couldn't find any dark green or charcoal crayons.)

Everything else hanging in our house came from Woolworth's, Turners mostly, as my Dad liked that painter.  These pictures mostly gave me nightmares. Would it have hurt to have something like this on the wall?

My Aunt Cecile would be quite awkward with me during my rare visits, wanting to connect, but not able to.  She would give me Bible verses to read (which I liked because I liked poetry). She wanted to convert me to Catholicism. But I was a little pagan who just loved the sound of pretty words.

(Above: Flo posing over the marble statue of 3 children, which we did inherit, as my mother had three children, a girl and two boys. (The girl's nose had a chip in it, I think, which is why my Aunt let it go.) The heavy heavy piece stayed in our living room on Coolbrook until my mother sold it to a neighbour woman who also had three children, a girl and two boys. See the dragon mirror at top. )

My Aunt Cecile had no money of her own. She married a retired professor, "Uncle Amadee" her best friend's father, late in life, for money and companionship. She had the furnishings, he had the pension. (She had tried to become a nun, but they wouldn't take her due to her rheumatic heart..or other "heart issues.")

She had been an artist, a good one. She had won first prize at the Beaux Arts in Montreal. (I have the medal somewhere in a drawer.) Her drawings were mostly Still Lifes of religious figures, tho. Lugubrious subjects, I thought. Apparently an art professor told her to go out and 'get some life experience.' There are not many nuns who become great artists.

Despite that giant peacock with his tail feathers spread wide open over the double beds in her bedroom, she apparently had never had sex.  (SO I heard my mother whisper to my father. She said my aunt was afraid the experience would prove too hard on her heart...I have news for her, a little late in the delivery...Don't worry about it:)

But she did visit Ogunquit, every summer and take a place at Perkin's Cove. Perkin's Cove was an artist's colony and a citizen once told me that in those days, the 50's and 60's, it was not uncommon to come across artists and their nude models on the Marginal Way. So my aunt, perhaps, wasn't so much of a prude.

Above: painting of Flo by Cecile. 1935. The only work by my aunt I have. Seriously damaged in a move.

Below: My aunts in the garden at Beaconsfield, an English garden framed with tall tall poplars, 1955 ish as the boy is my older brother. A lovely city oasis, I recall from my own visits later on. It featured a pretty weathered stone bird bath on an Italianate pedestal.

 Our garden in the 60's on Coolbrook was a dirt patch with a huge tree trunk taking up half of it and branches overshadowing the rest of the plot,  so my zinnias and hollyhocks couldn't grow, with  used cars lots and Decarie Boulevard adjacent. UUUGGGLY!

My aunts in bathing suits in 1925.

My mother in front of 72 Sherbrooke West about the same time.

Woman weaving, my aunt's painting, I'm pretty sure as it was in her house. I snipped it from another family photo.