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Arts & CulturePick of the PastBlue Slippers and Black Scissors

Blue Slippers and Black Scissors

Almonte, the summer of 1954.  The SOLD sign had just gone up on 38 Cameron Street signalling the beginning of a forty-year residency of the Dunn family.  Marie was in charge – she wanted a house with a large yard for a growing family, several bedrooms, a spacious kitchen and especially a private clothesline where neighbours could not monitor the time at which she had pinned her daily washing. John wanted whatever Marie wanted and in approving her choice of home, he acquired a large attached workshop for his tools and a former stable to be used for storage.

Only a few weeks later, the sixth child of the family’s eventual twelve was born and the four bedrooms upstairs in the house were fully occupied.  Friends and family welcomed the new parents at the front door of the house which opened into a large foyer. Ahead, a winding staircase with a stained glass window mid-way and a polished walnut handrail invited visitors upstairs. There, opening off the hallway, they would find four bedrooms and one bathroom. During the war, just short years previously, 38 Cameron Street had been used to house two families, one on each floor. Thus, one of the upstairs bedrooms featured a long counter with a large, shallow sink – now perfect for bathing the newest baby in the house. The hallway continued past a small alcove which housed a crib when the new baby graduated from the bassinette and became “the old baby”. Beyond the alcove, a narrow and winding back staircase led directly to the kitchen and out into the dining room, living room and front foyer. During its building, the house had been designed with an extra reception room, a parlour if you will, which was located directly beside the front door at the bottom of the winding front staircase. This extra room became my parents’ bedroom…the final threshold to be crossed safely when as teenagers, we “children” would be creeping home, minding of curfews and unexpected wind gusts which would cause that heavy front door to slam with impunity, threatening to expose our trespasses.

38 Cameron Street had, at one time, been heated by coal, shoveled into the basement through a chute on the north side of the house. Heating had been converted to oil and so the big behemoth in the basement, puffed coiled funnels of warm air throughout the registers located in the house. The one located on the wall outside of my parents’ bedroom, between the front door and the winding stairs was one of Mom’s favourite spots.  She would arise early with my Dad and still dressed in her nightie, robe and slippers, she would prepare his breakfast, share a coffee with him, pack his lunch and then wait for him in the front hall while he gathered his hat, coat, keys, lunch and briefcase. Whilst doing so, she would slide off one slipper at a time and hold her bare foot up against the register to warm her toes, only to repeat the practice with her other foot while waiting to kiss him goodbye for the day.

Mom’s second day would begin with getting dressed, stirring up the cereal and then waking us up for the morning. Breakfast was porridge with brown sugar (although no sugar was allowed through Lent). Toast was made in large quantities on a cookie sheet in the oven under the broiler.  Mom would slide her slippers onto the oven rack at the lower level to warm them. Her day was consumed with the domestic chores that demand endless time and unswerving energy. Mom’s peace of mind came from sewing. She sewed endlessly on a little black Singer sewing machine. All of the daughters’ clothes were made on the Singer; school uniforms, winter coats, matching hats, Easter dresses, Confirmation and Communion dresses, Hallowe’en costumes, doll clothes and graduation dresses.  She taught her daughters how to sew and we happily commenced making our own school clothes, prom dresses and even wedding dresses.  Sewing gave her a sense of satisfaction – after a day of seemingly endless chores, sewing gave Mom a tangible sense of accomplishment.

At this time in their occupancy of 38 Cameron Street, my father, who worked for the federal government had the opportunity to travel many times on behalf of the “feds” mostly throughout Canada. As kids, we were convinced that these trips were a result of Dad sitting down to chat with John G Diefenbaker or Lester B Pearson — perhaps over morning coffee in the cafeteria at the Parliament Buildings.    Why else indeed would Dad now be travelling to Paris, France unless it was under the express orders of the Prime Minister of Canada? Days passed and I saw Mom glance at the calendar with increasing frequency. The page finally turned and with it came Dad’s arrival home – the PM’s business completed. Money was scarce in our home and as children, we were not expecting presents or souvenirs. However, Dad had not forgotten Mom. He presented her with two gifts. The first was a pair of blue slippers – the peep toe kind with a delicate heel and marabou feathers teasing the satin and lace edging. Small kitten heels raised her petite frame up and drew attention to her slim ankles. They were a marvel – the kind of dance slippers that Audrey Hepburn might have worn in an imaginary scene with Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday”….her orchid pink silk peignoir floating behind her delicate lace edged negligee, her face half turned, chin down and eyes up, hand held gently at her throat, her eyes seeking his while turning gently to him in those blue slippers … Oh, those slippers … I could only dream.

Dad’s second gift for Mom was a pair of sewing shears – a ten-inch long pair of scissors meant for hard labour on wool, felt, cotton, burlap, canvas, denim, corduroy, chenille and suede … never, ever for paper. The scissors were black, made of Solingen steel and bespoke experienced and talented users only. Truly a wonder in a world where scissors were a tool of the craft of the seamstress and tailor and the single underpinning of their trade.  As soon as we had proven our proficiency with the sewing machine, we were allowed to use the black scissors and we all did.

 

Forty years passed and Mom and Dad moved into a condo. Dad passed away and Mom moved into a retirement home. The black scissors followed her with each move.  During her last week of life, she was no longer aware of her surroundings…no longer aware of the quilted crib blanket she had been sewing for her newest great-grandson, the black scissors sitting nearby on bright and colourful fabric.  I was tucking her in one day and wanted to check her socks. She always wore socks to bed as her feet were always cold. To my surprise, she wore no socks. But her feet – her feet were blue from the toes down to mid-arch. I knew that this was a signal that her circulatory system was shutting down – her loving but 98 year failing heart was sending less energy to the limbs and that death was imminent. I had a flash of those delightful marabou slippers, now lost in the dance steps of time on her blue feet and I cried. Her black scissors now rest on my sewing table.

Catherine Cameron 

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