Fifty years ago when I was a little girl growing up in Montreal, there were all sorts of social taboos. And if you were English-speaking and lived in the Town of Mount Royal … well, there were even more taboos. You spoke softly, never had a tantrum in public and didn’t chew gum, except in the car when Mom would employ placebo tactics to avert car-sickness. She would hand my sisters and me little oblongs of cinnamon-flavored Dentyne which she insisted would calm our stomachs on long drives. And as we popped the pieces of gum into our mouths, we screwed up the waxed paper wrappings and handed them back to her. They were never tossed out the car window.
My sisters and I wore uniforms to school and there was a handkerchief tucked into our pockets at all times and we used it. We never sniffled or wiped our noses on our sweater sleeves. Dunrae Gardens Elementary didn’t have a school bus or a lunch room so we walked the mile or so twice a day, coming home for our lunches. That was a lot of walking, but we always stayed on the sidewalks being careful not to tread on the edges of the neighbors’ lawns and never daring to take a shortcut through someone’s back yard when we were late for school and knew we’d get detention. We even waited patiently at the only two stop lights in the community before walking across the road and never jay-walked.
The rules for conversation were even stricter. Children did not interrupt adult conversations and when they were spoken to, they were expected to answer politely and honestly. Above all we were taught never to ask what Mom termed “personal questions”. The list of these personal inquiries was expanded as we grew up to include almost any topic which might impinge on anyone’s privacy.
By the time I was ten, I knew never to talk about money or how much anything cost, not to ask about any scar or mole or physical anomaly, never to ask why a lady didn’t have babies, never under any circumstance use an adult’s first name … unless they were an uncle or aunt and then it was allowed. Providing of course you included their proper familial title. And anyone who wasn’t related by birth was not an aunt or uncle. You had to address them as Misses or Mister. No exceptions.
But perhaps the most forbidden question was the one regarding age. You never ever under any circumstances asked an adult their age. Not even one’s own mother. At the age of ten, I only had a vague notion that my mother was somewhere in her thirties. No amount of questioning could elicit anything from her on this matter, except that I was asking a rude question. The topic was closed and sealed.
So now in retrospect, it seems quite incredible that this very sedate and upscale little community should conduct their own yearly census report and publish the details publicly.
Very publicly. On trees!
The reports were arranged according to street names, with each house address on the left hand side, followed by several columns of pertinent information. How many people lived at each address … how many adults and how many children. The next column listed their ages. The third showed their employment and if they were children, the name of their school. Seniors were simply listed as “retired” and there were only two of those which I remember. Mrs. Fletcher who grew violets in her lawn and insisted that God put them there. And old Mr. Hennessy who sat all day on his porch and called out to the children as they ran past his house on their way to school. I didn’t like Mr. Hennessy because he smelled of tobacco and always squeezed my cheeks.
Once the census taker had visited each and every house in the community and made sure all the questions were answered, the lists were duly bundled into neat little piles under a red cardboard cover, fastened together with huge industrial staples and then nailed to the larger and more sturdy trees in our community. They hung there flapping in the wind, with the sheets becoming rattier and grimier under the vicissitudes of the spring rains … and a community of curious children who repeatedly thumbed through the pages looking for their addresses.
And looking for their parents’ ages … that little bit of information which was forbidden data for all the children. Until the census reports appeared and until the day an inquisitive child decided to check out one of those odd tablets which had overnight appeared on dozens of trees in our neighborhood. When he realized he’d stumbled upon a wealth of heretofore arcane knowledge, he was quick to broadcast his find to the whole school.
“Yep … and there’s everybody’s age. Right there. Mr Hennessy is eighty-nine. My mom is thirty-two,” Mickey crowed gleefully.
When the final school bell rang, the children streamed out of Dunrae Gardens School like lemmings heading towards a precipice. They ran across the park, honing in on the dozens of stately elm trees bearing the forbidden fruits of knowledge. And ravaged the pages, shuffling through them and squealing with delight as they found each other’s families and shouted out everybody’s ages.
The ages seemed so much more interesting than the “occupations” which were mostly filled in under the mens’ names. The majority merely listed the company each man worked for. There were a few lawyers, one dentist and two doctors, which we all knew. Cody’s father was listed as a “locomotive engineer” and the boys all thought that was the finest of occupations. Cody’s status enjoyed an immediate upswing.
But apart from a smattering of secretaries, the women were all “housewives” except for Mrs. Barrett, who had listed “music teacher.” Even though she had three children and a very large and taciturn husband.
After a week or so, the excitement died down and we forgot about the census reports, which remained slowly disintegrating on the trees. Finally after a month or so, somebody hired by City Hall made the rounds and pried the rusting staples off the trees. And we forgot about the whole episode.
However, my mother didn’t.
By the time the next Census loomed, she had made it quite clear she felt the whole thing was an invasion of her privacy. She muttered darkly about personal information being displayed to “all and sundry” and seemed particularly incensed that the reports were “nailed to our trees.” I was unclear as to who “sundry” was and my father remarked that the trees weren’t being crucified. So Mom found little support from her family.
But as I was to find out, she nurtured a deep resentment about the census procedure and in her usual style, was going to make her opinions felt. Publicly. On those trees.
One afternoon, I returned from school, banged my way into the back door with my school bag and started up the stairs to the kitchen for a snack. I had reached the landing before I heard my mother’s voice. It was clipped and higher than normal. And her accent had reverted to the British precision which indicated she was very angry. I knew that tone and accent. The higher the voice and the more she sounded like the Queen, the more irate she was. It was a pretty accurate barometer and I’d learned to read it very well.
Mother was really angry.
I peered around the corner into the living room to assess the situation. Mom was sitting in her huge wing chair, the one we called the “Marigold Throne” in deference to its rich tapestry and overwhelming dimensions. She was holding a piece of paper in her lap with one hand while jabbing at the air above it with the other. A small thin man was sitting on the sofa opposite her with an open briefcase at his feet. He was leaning towards her imploringly as he proffered a pen.
“No … I will NOT sign that. I will NOT !” Mom’s eyes flashed black as polished jet as she waved away his pen.
“But Madam, it is the law. Everyone must comply. It is the law …” the man persisted firmly but softly. He seemed terribly uncomfortable as once again he tentatively extended the pen towards Mom’s flailing hand.
There were several moments of silence as the two adversaries glared at each other. Mother’s lips had tightened into a very thin line. Finally she reached over and accepted the pen. With a quick and savage motion she appeared to write something near the top of the page and I recognized the flourish of her hand as she signed the paper.
Then she passed the sheet to him.
He scanned it for a second and began to protest, “But Madam … you aren’t employed and you can’t list yourself as …”
“I am NOT a Housewife!” Mom stood up making it clear that she had capitulated as much as her conscience would allow. She nodded to him curtly as she motioned him towards the front door.
The man paused for a moment and then with an exasperated sigh, dropped the old-fashioned carbon copy of her data on the coffee table.
As she closed the door behind him, she said very softly ” I am a MOTHER … I am NOT a housewife.”
And so that year when the census tablets were stapled to the trees throughout the Town of Mount Royal, we children carefully counted hundreds of businessmen, three doctors, one dentist, one veterinarian, fourteen secretaries, twenty nannies, seven lawyers and ONE mother. The others were all housewives and children.
I don’t think at the time I understood the difference which Mom felt so deeply. For me her little act of defiance proved to be more of a nuisance than anything else. All the children wanted to know why my mother wasn’t a housewife like all the others. Why was she a mother? Weren’t all their mothers mothers?
Finally after almost a week of this daily inquisition, delivered at first by my friends and then by what seemed to be the entire school body, I asked her.
“Why are you the only mother? All the other kids’ moms are housewives.”
She hesitated for just a moment. I could see her lips contracting a bit at the edges. I had been warned to keep away from the tantalizing little red tablets beckoning to me from those trees.
“Those are notices for the adults, not for children. It’s very rude to be nosy. And besides, you’re trampling on other people’s lawns. Which is also rude, ” she’d said tartly when the first census tablets had appeared two years ago.
Now it was quite clear I had been doubly rude, trampling the neighbors’ grass and prying into those census reports. Mom stood with her arms folded across her chest and let me feel the weight of her disapproval for a few moments. Then I saw her eyes begin to sparkle with little tears and her mouth relax.
She stepped towards me and as she folded me into her arms and kissed the top of my head, she murmured … ” This is what a mother is …”
And then I understood.