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Growing Up Female in Weston

by Helen Lee

The World of Childhood

In 1934, my family moved to a house on Holley Avenue in Weston. I was fascinated by a family who lived nearby because I thought they had three daughters who could be playmates. I eventually discovered that there was only one girl, a lovely child named Mavis Hedlam. She was constantly changing her clothes and, in so doing, fooled me into thinking there were several girls instead of one with a large wardrobe. In 1937, we moved to a house on Main Street three doors south of the Baptist church.

"Our next-door neighbor was Joe Nason, who helped write the first history book of Weston. We could see the light on in his home every night from our dining room window, while he worked on the project, surrounded by stacks of papers."

As girls, we amused ourselves in various ways. Sometimes, we would walk north on Main Street as far as Miss Savage’s house at Main and Church (at present a small plaza). The purpose of our journey was to walk on her wall- a very high, poured concrete wall- and in our imaginations was a train. Occasionally, we got permission to go to Squibb’s. This was a mecca of delights since Squibb’s always had in stock whatever the latest fad was. We could go and buy pomegranates once a year or purchase the latest “must have” item, whether a yo-yo or a wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached. For a few years before 1939, when I was between ten and thirteen, Miss Beale occasionally organised “musicals.” Miss Beale was an elocutionist who taught professional singers elocution and breathing techniques. We girls and boys would gather at a house at the corner of Main Street and Sykes to participate in these events, which were comprised of piano recitals as well as the recital of poetry. Mrs. Knapp provided refreshments for these enjoyable occasions.

Elementary School

At King Street Public School, girls and boys formed separate lines outside and entered through separate entrances to be greeted by the grade one teacher, Miss Hassard, who was playing Marches on the piano. The boys removed their caps immediately upon entering the building. Teacher types ranged from the grade two’s Miss Love, whose approach matched her name, to others, who were considerably less agreeable.

In those days, physical punishment and public humiliation were methods used by some teachers to maintain order. I recall a student who wrote with his left hand being rapped on the knuckles with a wooden pointer for that crime. I had to undergo hearing tests after a specific teacher informed my mother that I was deaf. My hearing was fine. I suspect I was simply bored since I had studied the material at a previous school, and thus, I appeared inattentive. We also had to have “penny banks” whose purpose, I assume, was to teach us the value of savings. Each week, we brought in a few pennies and had the sum recorded in a book. Mavis Hedlam always had 25 cents to deposit; this was, for us, an enormous sum and one more cause of admiration for her. A student was entrusted with taking the money collected for deposit to the Bank of Montreal.

Other teachers included Miss Campbell, who taught grades seven and eight. She would often ask me to take a note of Mr. Simpson, the butcher, whose shop was on the east side of Main Street between John and Lawrence. Of course, I never opened the notes to read them and assumed they were grocery lists. However, years later, when Miss Campbell was in her sixties and married Mr. Simpson, I realised the notes contained a very different message.

Once, our grade five teacher, Miss Boake, got ill, and her replacement was her sister-in-law, Mrs. Boake. This was a shocking event since married women were not allowed to teach. Presumably, this exception was acceptable since the position was merely temporary.

High School

A highlight of my high school years, 1941-1944, was to have received invitations to parties held by classmates who lived in “Little Europe”. On Rosemount at Purdy Street was a big farm gate. On the other side of the gate were muddy fields, some of which were owned by Sir Henry Pellatt. Families of Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian descent and others lived in homes in this area. My classmates' children had to leave their boots at the gate because of the mud and change into school shoes. These people had the best parties, which featured dancing and lovely food. I was allowed to attend these events because my parents knew I’d be perfectly safe. Before the war, I recall one summer being with my father and seeing truckloads of people travelling up Main Street to that area to participate in the picnics held regularly in the fields and to provide entertainment through folk dance performances.

Racism

During the war years, everyone had to register at the Post Office to provide information about one’s address and citizenship. It was essential to distinguish Canadians from foreigners. “Foreigners” were viewed with suspicion and sometimes treated with nasty behaviour. I recall my sister, employed by a Fruit and Vegetable Market on Main Street, talking about receiving phone orders for fruit delivery to locations where no one lived. It was suspected that these calls were motivated by meanness directed at the owner because he was Italian.

In Retrospect

Reflecting upon growing up, I realise that my world was both innocent and limited because I was female. Parental rules governed my physical territory as to where I could and could not go. Elementary schools enforced the limitations faced by women. Only unmarried women could be employed; marriage meant the end of a teaching career.

Later, once I was engaged and married, my job ended when I became pregnant and started to “show”. Classmates in my high school years opened up my small world. I loved participating in the activities offered by “Little Europe”. I did not engage in the meanness directed at “foreigners” by many others.

 

In a sense, Weston was a miniature version of the larger world in which both innocence and cruelty resided.

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Helen Lee's home

Helen Lee's home (left side of duplex) at 23 Main Street (now Weston Road)Elocutionist, Miss Beale’s home, on right side of duplex.

Joseph Nason home

Joseph Nason Home on Main Street (now Weston Road)Mr. Nason co-authored "History of Weston" (1937) with Dr. F. D. Cruickshank.

The Savage Home, formerly at the corner of Church and Weston Road

King Street Public School, WestonThis building formerly occupied the site of present dayH.J. Alexander Junior Public School.

Helen Lee's class, circa 1937 - King Street Public SchoolHer friend Mavis Hedlam is standing in the back row, far right.

Wartime Registration Certificate filed by Helen Lee's father

A later photograph of Helen Lee's home at 23 Main Street

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