By Mary J. Breen
When I was a child in the ’50s, one of our favourite card games was Old Maid, the one in which the person with the lone unmatchable card—The Old Maid—is the loser. By age eight, I’d figured out that nobody in real life wanted to be an Old Maid either: no one wanted to be the one left “on the shelf,” unloved and all alone. I’d also picked up the idea that we girls had been automatically enrolled in a contest to snare a man as soon as possible so we would not end up ... an Old Maid.
The assumption that every girl wanted to marry was so commonplace that never did I hear anyone suggest that a woman might have had the good sense not to marry. Instead I learned early that the blame lay entirely with these single women themselves for being unable to attract even the most desperate of men. No one pointed out the useful fact that there were a considerable number of unmarried women in the parish and in our schools not because they were so unlovable, but because they’d come of age after the First World War when the pool of eligible young men had been decimated in the muds of Belgium and France. Even the facts of my mother’s life—not marrying until she was 35 after being an accomplished teacher, music supervisor, and leader of her own popular dance band—didn’t change my opinion that a career was in some way second-rate to marriage. Which is why, when I started paying more attention to my mother’s friends who came to visit every year, I saw them deficient because they hadn’t caught themselves a man.
These friends of my mother’s from Toronto were between 45 and 55; I never knew theirs or my mother’s ages because “a lady doesn’t tell her age.” She’d known some of these women since her childhood when her family had lived above their grocery store at Queen and Bathurst in Toronto, and some from later years when the family moved uptown in terms of status and latitude. There the family home was a solid brick three-story ruled over by her father, a stalwart shopkeeper, pillar of the parish, and friend of the Bishop. My mother moved up in class, but not so her friends. These women left school for unrewarding jobs and minimal pay when they were still girls, and they stayed at jobs like these for as many as fifty years to keep roofs over their own and their families’ heads. One of them lived in one of those almost-obsolete places called a boarding house, and the others lived with members of their families: two sisters together; a sister, brother, and mother; an aunt and her niece.
These women loved to visit us in our Mennonite-Lutheran Ontario village, and my mother loved them to come. Her favourite, and my least favourite, was one I’ll call “Madelaine.” She had been the drummer in my mother’s band, a role I found impossible to imagine for someone with such a stern formal manner. I realize now that Madelaine was always cranky because she was always hungry. Although she wasn’t heavy, her doctor had threatened her with a second heart attack if she didn’t lose weight, and since she was the only bread-winner for an invalid brother and an aging mother, she went through every day on black coffee, cigarettes, and one bran muffin. She eventually became the private secretary of a bank manager, a very nice married man whom she was quietly and sadly in love with most of her adult life. Even though I was young, I sensed how she revelled in the chance to talk about him in ways she could never do at work or at home.
And then there was “Lil” who wore too much jewellery, too much makeup, and too much perfume. She worked at Borden’s Dairy. She and her sister “Anastasia” always visited together until Anastasia died of a stroke while sitting in a car at a church picnic. She had been a corset fitter at Eaton’s—a job the women seemed to feel gave her considerable status because of her intimate relationship with the privileged.
Then there was “Glad” who worked as a clerk in a motor licensing office, a job she seemed happy not to talk about. She sometimes came with her aging aunt. Glad was a solidly-built woman with a deep voice, short hair, and, unlike the others, no jewellery or makeup. I knew Glad was the kindest of them all, but I gave her a wide berth. When I was about six, I’d followed her to her bedroom where I watched her limp over to the bed, flop down, and start to take off her stockings. Suddenly, right in front of my eyes, the lower half of her leg came off in her hands. She just casually put it to one side where it stood erect in its black shoe until it began wobbling before crashing to the floor. When I caught a glimpse of raw flesh under the edge of her skirt, I turned and ran shrieking for my mother to tell her Glad’s leg had come off. My mother eventually calmed me down by explaining why some people needed wooden legs, but the whole thing very much unnerved me. Ever after, through the years until her death many years later, Glad brought up her blunder, apologising again and again for her foolishness while I tried not to remember the horrible red thing that her friends all blithely referred to as her “stump.”
All of these friends remained maiden ladies throughout their lives, all except, for a while, Lil. When I was about ten, she sent out the shocking news that she had married a “non-Catholic” widower named “Lloyd,” a deplorable decision, her friends said, because it might weaken her faith, and an inexplicable decision since Lil was forever pointing out the evils of “Orangemen,” the name she gave anyone not a Catholic.
The married Lil stopped visiting us, and my mother and I only visited her and Lloyd twice. Twice was enough. Lil’s previously jolly self had vanished. Lloyd greeted us from the couch, drink in hand, wearing only old trousers and an older undershirt, and yelling orders at Lil. Lloyd had been in the First War, and he had brought home a piece of the Kaiser’s shrapnel embedded high up in his leg. He was determined to show me the painful spot, but every time he tried to pull down his pants, my mother would interrupt in her most there’ll-be-none-of-that-kind-of-thing manner which I found almost as embarrassing as what Lloyd was trying to do. The whole thing was very distressing to Lil, as was her whole marriage. A couple months later, Lloyd had a stroke, and for his few remaining years, he was unable to say anything intelligible except for clearly articulated, profane curses that further mortified Lil and further infuriated my mother. He would shout long and garbled demands at Lil punctuated by curse words, and she would shout back trying to guess what he wanted, “A glass of water, Lloyd? You want a glass of water? The bathroom, Lloyd? Do you want to go to the bathroom?”
After he died, Lil started visiting us again. In my hearing, Lloyd was never mentioned again.
Except for Glad, the others brought with them something of what I thought of as big-city style. I knew it was years behind the style of the smart women I saw in magazines and movies, but it was years ahead of most of the other women in that dour town who wore mostly dark, sombre clothes, and a good century ahead of the Old Order Mennonite women who still wore black bonnets and long black dresses.
What my mother’s friends couldn’t manage because of their limited budgets they made up for in flamboyance. They stood out from the crowd, and this made my parents stand a few feet apart from them on the church steps. Like my mother’s, their basic dresses were always in the same design. Think of Edith Bunker—a fitted top and a looser skirt—dark ones for “good,” and floral, gingham, or plaid cotton ones for “house dresses.” However, the dresses were just the beginning. Their shoes were sometimes laced-up oxfords with thick raised heels, and sometimes more risqué though sedate pumps. Their stockings were sometimes sheer with seams up the back, and sometimes heavily ribbed support stockings because of their varicose veins. They wore sticky red lipstick, perfect circles of vivid rouge on each cheek, and clouds of heavy perfume, Tabu and Casaque and a terrible Woolworth’s kind called Ben Hur. Their hair was dyed (sometimes jet black, sometimes orange, sometimes pale blue), and their hats looked like squashed upside-down saucers with veils. Each one had a full-length fur coat that they spoke about as if it was a pet: “My seal is so dependable,” or “I wouldn’t go anywhere without my muskrat.”
And then there was their jewellery—clumpy broaches, earrings, and necklaces of bright plastic or aurora borealis rhinestones. All of them, even Glad, wore rings on every available finger—the yellow gold and platinum, plain and ornate, wedding rings of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters. I don’t know if they wanted to trick the casual observer into thinking they had husbands, but none of them went so far as to wear someone else’s plain band on the ring finger of their left hand.
My father would meet them at the train station. As soon as they arrived at our house, they’d hug and kiss us, and then flop down on the couch while my mother made them a rye and ginger ale, or a gin and Lime Ricky. After their drink, they’d retreat to the bedroom to change. I’d follow them as they always brought me a present even though I knew it would be something sensible and boring—nylon panties for every day of the week—Monday/Lundi, Tuesday/Mardi, or a prayer book and rosary, or, from Lil, stupid, tiny, grinning, Bakelite heads of Elsie The Borden Cow. The worst present was six already-tarnishing spoons in a purple flannel storage bed for my Hope Chest. I didn’t know what a Hope Chest was and I had no interest in stockpiling cutlery. My father also showed no interest in them as he’d always hoped I’d become a nun, but my mother demanded that I show proper gratitude; she probably understood the sacrifice Lil had made to buy these for her friend’s child.
As I examined that year’s gift, they’d hang up their brown, black, or navy crimpoline dresses, and start their transformation. They began by “taking off their faces,” removing their precise arching eyebrows, rouge, and lipstick using gobs of cold cream like clowns after the show. A couple of them also took off their hair and parked nests of puffy curls often the colour of metal pot scrubbers on the bedpost. What was left were semi-bald heads sprouting little grey tufts of hair.
Then their corsets often came off. Except for Madelaine, these women and my mother were all decidedly chubby, and, in the fashion of the time, they all wore armour-like corsets they referred to politely as “foundation garments.” These flesh-coloured necessities were like formidable bathing suits, with an inner stomach-squashing panel and an outer one, all done up with rows and rows of tiny hooks. They were very snug, so tight that they made their breasts spill out over the top producing dramatic décolletés above their hard, streamlined, sausage-like bodies. The combination of industrial strength elastic, thick layers of fabric, and a series of long stays (plastic, no longer whalebone) made the corsets stiff enough so they could be stood in the corner of the room, as tall as a small child.
Unhooking their corsets was accompanied by a lot of “ahhing” with the relief of being set free. Without corsets, their bodies would collapse, their breasts pendulous, their waistlines gone, and their stomachs much nearer the ground. Without corsets, they were no longer ladies of the city, but girlfriends together. They’d put on house dresses, roll down their stockings to their knitted or brown felt slippers, and head back to the living room to, as they said, “have a gab.”
While they were with us, they never went outside to shop or to go for walks on the country lanes just minutes from our house. From Saturday noon until Sunday evening, apart from the trip to Sunday Mass, they just talked and smoked and laughed until they wept. Every hour or so, they debated whether or not they dared have another cup of tea and another piece of my mother’s pie. Or another butter tart. Or both. These deliberations would last a minute or two until finally someone would say, “What the hell!” and dive in. This led to endless talk about the merits of The Grapefruit Diet or The Doctors’ Cabbage Soup Diet. Their favourite diet technique was eating special appetite-suppressing toffees with the unfortunate name of AYDS. There was no sign the candies had any effect besides making them feel eligible for another piece of pie.
I was always amazed at how casual they were with my mother, calling her not just “Claudia” but “doll” and “kid” and “hon” and “Claude” even. In my hearing, absolutely no one besides my father and her brother called her Claudia. With her white gloves and her imperious manner, she was “Mrs. Breen” to everyone else. I called her Mummy and I remember being terrified I might make the mistake one day of saying the word “Claudia” out loud. But these women didn’t seem afraid of her in any way. They teased her, and told stories of silly-crazy things they’d all done years before, and she laughed as much as they did. I loved it when she was happy like this, as the happier she was, the easier she was on me.
They also loved to tell jokes, though never risqué ones. “Tell Claudia the one about the mouse and the elephant,” would send them into spasms before they’d even heard it again. And they told stories about their mutual friends: so-and-so’s husband who died of a heart attack when he got a 29 hand in cribbage; someone who was sick and someone else who was dying, and always stories of beastly men: The One That Did Her Wrong and The One That Got Away. They shook their heads and tsk-tsked, but these stories seemed not as much surprises as confirmations of what they all knew to be forever true.
”Little pitchers have big ears” they’d say when they knew I was listening, but I soon figured out what they were talking about. I understood that someone had been found with her head in the oven because of a man, and someone else had never left home again after some man had “left her at the altar.” After these tales, they’d turn to me and tell me to pray for A Good Man—a good man like my father. Perhaps, even then, they were still hoping someday their princes would come.
My mother knew her friends were déclassé, but she was very loyal to them. My father was not so impressed. After they had gone, he’d point out how much he didn’t like to see a woman smoking, not to mention their garish makeup and red nail polish—“as if they’d dipped their hands in blood.” He also didn’t like their “coarse” language, their saying damn and hell instead of darn and heck, though I’m sure he approved of their delicacy in saying things like needing the little girls’ room. He also probably thought these women upset the natural order with their nobody-tells-me-what-to-do attitude. These were women not afraid to point out the unfairness of things in a man’s world.
Of course my father’s wife was uppity-er than any of them. Here was a woman who when she saw that a major Toronto street was cordoned off for a parade just drove around the barricades and onto the street. Before I could point out that we were going to be in Big Trouble—not that she would have listened anyway—she was waving at the cheering crowds lining the sidewalks as we headed undeterred on our way downtown. My mother took orders from no one—police or grocer, priest or husband. Even so, my father never appeared threatened by her strong will, probably because they didn’t disagree about much, and because, I am sure, she was, nearly always, dignified. And corseted. Always; even—she was proud to report—the whole time she was pregnant with me. I think what really bothered my father about our visitors was their taking off their corsets in the middle of the day, a vivid loosening of standards, an abandonment of fundamentals. He expected much of women on whose frail shoulders, he would have said, the fate of society rested. Women, he thought, had the grave responsibility to be respectable, ladylike, and contained, not like these friends of my mother who acted, in this way, as if their bodies were their own.
On Sunday evenings the women would rearm themselves with their foundation garments and stockings, their good dresses, hats, fur coats, and makeup, and set off back to their lives in the city, waving wildly and blowing kisses as they went. By the time I was an arrogant teenager, I felt sorry for them as I thought they were returning to lives of quiet, lonely desperation. Pity also let me distance myself from any hint that their lives could someday be my destiny too. Now all these years later, I’m not at all sure these women were pitiable. Perhaps they never expected much in the way of comfort or wealth, beauty or companionship. Maybe their dreams were as modest as the Irish nuns had told them dreams must be, warning them that they must accept that God in His Infinite Wisdom knew what He was doing, and reminding them of the essential unworthiness of us all. Or perhaps their lives brought them more than they’d ever dreamed of. Or perhaps at middle age, they’d realized that it was time to leave their dreams by the roadside for the next generation of wistful women to pick up and hold, for a time, close to their own lonely hearts.
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A similar version of "Foundation Garments" was published in The Toast, Oct 2013
Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Literary Magazine, The National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.