That’s how the note always started. Propped up against the recipe box or a can of peas on our kitchen counter it read, “Dear Ones, Am at Art Club. Put on potatoes at 5.00. Be home soon. Love, Mom.” You couldn’t say that we were latch-key kids; our house was never locked when we were out. I never had a key to our house in all the years I lived there. The doors were only locked after everybody was home at night and heading for bed. But it was quite common for us kids to come home from school to an empty house. I never thought it strange or uncaring of my mother to not be there with a cookie and a glass of milk every afternoon. She had things to do and a lot of these things took her out of the house.
Mom taught school before she got married. I still have the group picture of her 1919 graduating class from Hamilton Normal School. (Such institutions are now called Teacher’s Colleges.) The Normal School was situated on the West side of Victoria Park just north of King Street in Hamilton. In a class of one hundred and thirty, of whom five were men, there was Marie Strachan, my teen-aged Mother. She came from a Scottish family where education was important. Her father had emigrated from Arbroath, Scotland, and settled in Huntsville where he married Lil Marsh, daughter of a lake boat captain. Mom was born in Huntsville in 1900. The whole family moved to Hamilton around 1910 and my grandfather opened what would now be called a convenience store at the corner of Ottawa and King Streets. We found out from Mom’s sister, Aunt Jo, that Mom’s full name was Annie Effie Marie Strachan. The Warren was added when she married Dad in 1922. She was the oldest of six; five girls and one boy.
Mom started her teaching career in a one-room school-house in Wiarton, Ontario, and had some great stories to tell about her days there. She was nurse and doctor, family-counselor, dispute mediator, confidant and caretaker as well as teacher to all eight grades in that one room. Facilities were out in the back of the schoolyard, and the little school was heated by a great wood stove in the centre of the class-room. Mom later moved back to Hamilton and taught at Queen Mary School there.
But when she married Dad, they came to Dundas. She became a homemaker and didn’t go out to work. She just went out. It may have been to a pottery class, the Women’s Missionary Society meeting at St Paul’s, the Art Club at Mrs. Crowley’s, or the Dundas Horticultural Society at the library. On a Saturday afternoon she may have gone to Eph Slote’s Music Hall for an estate auction or to play badminton with Dad. If it were a school day and she wouldn’t be home until late afternoon, she always left her note, “Dear Ones……..” We accepted that as normal motherly care and learned to start supper and make our own amusement.
In a day when social scientists are predicting disaster for generations growing up as latch- key kids, they have statistics which may support their fears. But I’m not convinced that we
suffered a great deal by having to put on the potatoes, set the table, and get things rolling until Mom got home. We learned to blow our own noses, cut Shredded Wheat cards to the right size to put in our shoes to cover the holes, and dry ourselves out after having walked the mile home from school in the rain. Now mothers sit in their vans at the end of the lane waiting for the school bus, so their little dears won’t get cold or wet by having to walk the last thirty yards to get home. Times are different now. I have had to change my attitude somewhat when I read of kids getting off a school bus and getting snatched up by some pervert or parent from a divorce who had lost custody of the kids because of brutality or non-support.
When I and my three sisters, Margaret, Jeanie and Barb were able to carry out most of the household chores, Mom went out to work. It wasn’t “work” work; it was something she really loved to do. It was the “Welcome Wagon” that lured her out. Mom was a naturally curious person and interested in everything going on around. Being a Welcome Wagon hostess enabled her to knock on doors, gain easy access to the home of the newcomer to town and ask all the questions she wanted. She was good at her job. She not only did the required questioning and provide the necessary information about the town’s commercial establishments, but went beyond. She would exhort newcomers to go to church, meet their neighbours (names supplied) and generally plug into the activities of the Valley Town for, in her view, Dundas was a great place to live.
Being a Welcome Wagoner meant that she could work on her own time and not miss Art Club. (I must mention here that the Art Club members did not engage in painting or drawing at their meetings, they just discussed the great painters of old and talked about everything else.) Mom was good at her job of welcoming newcomers to the Valley Town. I still remember the sheared Persian Lamb coat she purchased with her earnings.
She was pretty good at hospitality at home. She never worried about what shape the house was in. If people dropped in they were always welcome. If a couple of student ministers came to St. Paul’s before they went on their summer mission fields to talk about their hopes and dreams, they would usually end up at our house for lunch. When they came back in the fall to report back to our congregation on the joys and disappointments they experienced in their little churches on the prairies or in northern Ontario, they would again end up at our place for lunch. My sisters were always bringing friends home for a meal. Margaret, especially, during the war, would bring servicemen to our house to enjoy a home-cooked meal.
Mom could shine in an emergency. I remember the graduation ball when I was finishing up my degree in engineering at the University of Toronto in 1950. It was held, of course, at the Royal York. After the ball was over, and the ladies had been taken home, some of my buddies and I decided that the night would not be complete without having breakfast somewhere. For some weird reason I suggested we drive over to our house in Dundas for breakfast. There were six of us in full formal wear who arrived at 3 Ancaster Street about
7:45 on Saturday morning. Mom was glad to see us but the larder was under-stocked. Dorothy Brasier, who lived next door, for weeks talked about Mom rushing over to her house to borrow some eggs. Bacon, bread, orange juice and other ingredients came from neighbours Olga Ralph, Nellie Whitley and Marie Tindale. We dined royally, and then headed back to Toronto for our final exams. The others guys were amazed at how my Mom pulled a breakfast together as if that were simply a routine act of hospitality.
When Mom was home the hospitality was great; when she was out her unapologetic note always began, “Dear Ones…..”
I want to make mention here of my mother’s athletic ability. One fine day when I was about nine or ten, I got into some mischief and was due for some punishment. I felt that I had, for the moment, lost my standing as a “Dear One.” Usually, in these situations, I would try to escape by running up the stairs with my mother hot on my tail. It was a futile exercise because she would come after me with her rubber spatula. (You know the kind that you use to scrape out the last of the icing from the bowl.) She would whack me on the backs of my bare legs as I was running up the stairs. It settled the issue quickly. (Dr. Spock note: I didn’t suffer any life-long traumatic wounds to my psyche from that “terrible” abuse.) However, on this particular day, instead of running up the stairs, I took off out the front door and headed up Ancaster Street as fast as my ten year- old legs could carry me, with mother in hot pursuit.
As I ran, I vaguely heard the Dundas to Hamilton bus go by our corner, but I paid no attention. I was trying to escape the spatula. The following Sunday, I was with Mom and Dad at church and a very refined lady came up to Mom and, without any preamble, asked, “Did you catch him, Marie?” That lady had been on the bus as it rounded our corner, seen the action and knew exactly what was going on. That was perhaps the beginning of my running career. Over a decade later, for several years and on usually icy cold days, I ran the ten-mile New Year’s Day Road Race from Hamilton to Dundas and back. The race followed that same bus route. As I would round our corner I might remember the race years ago between my mother and me and yes, if I am completely honest, I think she caught me.