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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesMrs. Liberty’s Party: a John Dunn story

Mrs. Liberty’s Party: a John Dunn story

John-Dunn-e1444853676972(Published in the Almonte Gazette, Thursday, October 16, 1975)

No, I’m not really tired, even though I’ve been on my feet for five hours today. I’ve had a wonderful party – so many friends. Still, I wasn’t born yesterday either. Indeed no.

You see, last night, Friday night, they took me out to a dance down in Torbolton. Yes. A niece of mine, she and her husband have been married for twenty-five years, and they have a family of eleven children. And we were invited down to the celebration at their place. Of course, they had a dance.

Well, my niece’s husband, he said to me: ‘I’m goin’ to have a dance with you this evening too.’‘

Well,’ I said, ‘I’ll do my best if they’ll play some of the old waltzes and such like,’ and that’s what they did. But sure, it wasn’t any time at all ‘til they were doing this shivering’ and shaken’ all over, modern-style, and I thought to myself, ‘Land sakes, what do I do now?’ But I just put my mind to it, and went at it the same as the others, and I think I did all right, and came out of it with some little credit.”

And isn’t this a grand birthday party. It’s so nice to find all my old friends come to wish me well on this ninetieth birthday. Look at this: a scroll with good wishes from the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Trudeau. And a letter from Mr. Wiseman.

It’s true I’ve been on my feet for five hours today already, but sure I didn’t get up ‘til nine o’clock this morning after coming home from that dance last night. Imagine that! Not up until nine o’clock!

Well, to answer your question. I was born Theresa Mary Scissons at Dunrobin in South March township on the 4th day of October in the year 1885. So that makes me ninety today.

I was the eldest in our family. There were eleven of us altogether. My sister Elizabeth was the second. She was the one that took scarlet fever and got deaf. She went to the Deaf and Dumb School in Belleville for her education and she graduated as a teacher. Domestic Science teacher. And she married a deaf and dumb man, and they went to live in Detroit. She had three boys, but there’s none of them deaf and dumb.

The next was Isadore whom you know, of course. And then Agnes, and my sister Sarah, Bob who lives over there, Dominic in Detroit, and Henry, and then Johnny, and then Lawrence. Then my sister Evelyn, Mrs. Murphy, who died at Christmas last year. She was the baby, she was twenty years younger than me.

My father’s name was Thomas Scissons, and my mother was Margaret Ann Ryan.

I went to school at South March Separate School, and got as far as the fourth book, but being the eldest of the family I couldn’t go any further, ‘cause I had to leave school to help out with the work at home and with the family on the farm.

All my life, though, I’ve had a terrible fear of fire. You’ve heard of the Great Fire that swept through years ago and left the Burnt Lands just outside Almonte. It was in 1870 they say. Well, my father, he saw the fire come, and he watched it raging towards the house, and it’s not far to the Ottawa River, but when he saw the sky all full of fire and the heavens start to rain sparks, he took off on horseback and rode to the river. He rode the horse right into the river out as far as they could go, with the water up to the neck of the horse, and that was the way they escaped the flames.

Another man down there named Hogan had a farm near my father’s, and I remember him well, he attended the same church as we did at South March. He put his family down the well. Imagine that! He saw the fire coming, and he put boards down in the well, and then he put his family down the well on the boards, and then he got down himself and pulled the boards over the top of the well, and there they stayed until the fire had passed over them. What a time they must have had!

I went to work in the City of Ottawa when I was twenty years old. That’d be in 1905. For C. Ross and Company. It was a big department store, the biggest in the city then.

Before I went there I used to go all through the country and sew for weeks at a time. All over the country. Staying a week or two weeks at different places. They’d have a treadle sewing machine and the lady would tell me what she needed for clothes for the family and for the children, and I’d set to work and make up the things needed. She’d get the patterns, whatever she’d want made, and the materials. I’d cut it out, I’d take and sew up the clothes, fit them on the children, mostly children – I did make some grown-up people’s clothes, but It was mostly children it was for.

There was one family in Torbolton, Mrs. Neilly, and her husband got killed with lightning. Two men. I was there at that place sewing.

A storm came up on the 12th of August. Three men were standing in the stable door. Mr. McQuatt’s horses were in the stable. Well, one little pony went up between two of the other horse, and Mr. McQuatt was afraid they’d hurt it, and he went back for to bring this pony down, and while he was back there, the other two men were struck in the door with lightning and killed. And of course Mr. McQuatt was stunned. He fell in the stable.

People rushed there, of course. The building was all on fire at once. The men went to try to get the horses out, and while they were getting them out, they noticed they were stumbling over something. It was Mr. McQuatt. And he would have burned there if only they hadn’t been stumbling over him.

Well, they rushed for the doctor to Carp. There was no telephone. A man rushed on horseback. And the doctor came and he pumped Mr. McQuatt’s stomach out. He pumped a pure black powder out of that man’s stomach. Now where did that come from? It was just like gunpowder. And that man never got well after. He could work, but he never had good health after.

And after that I was sewing and there again when they were building the new stable, and they brought me out in the evening to show me the new building.

Well, yes, as I was saying, I went to C. Ross. That time you couldn’t go into a store and buy a fancy dress. And when I sent there to enquire, the lady in charge of the place, Madame La Pallice her name was, she was a lady that had come from France, she said to me: ‘Let me see your hands.’ ‘My hands?’ said I, ‘Whatever for?’ But anyway, I held out my hands, and madame, she looked at them, and she turned them over, and looked again, and she said, ‘You can sew.’ And she wanted me to start right away.‘

Oh, no,’ I said, ‘I’m not ready yet. Sure I haven’t a place to stay, and besides I’ll have to get my clothes.’‘

You can get a room at the “Y”,’ madame said.‘

Oh, no,’ said I. ‘I can’t do that.’‘

Why not?’‘

Oh, my mother would never let me do that.’‘

Well, then, go and get yourself settled,’ madame said. ‘We’ve got to have you right away. Just as soon as possible.’

Well, I left there, and I did get a room in the city, at the corner of Sparks and Lyons Streets, in a big brick house.

We made all the dresses for the Member of Parliament wives. I’ve made dresses for Lady Laurier, Lady Grey, and all the, for the opening of Parliament. We made all the gowns. They’d come in to be fitted. But I never saw those ladies at all; my boss used to do all the fitting. And she’d bring the work in and give it to us and tell us what to do. C. Ross and Company was a big stone building five floors at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor.

There’s a bank there now I think. There were twenty-five of us in this room. We did an awful lot of dresses. We were on the fifth floor. It had lots of big windows and let in lots of air and light until the building was condemned and all our trade went to Murphy-Gamble.

There was a Madame Holebrook on the fourth floor. She did most of the alterations. We did all the making for all those gowns, those beautiful gowns. Madame did the cutting out. She was from France, and she used to go over there every year, every summer, and get all the new styles, and the new materials and buy the materials over there and have them sent to Ottawa. And the ladies would come in and choose their styles, and then pick out the materials, and we’d make up the gowns, but I never saw any of those ladies.

We never made a dress up for under $20.00. That was the cheapest. It was usually more, but never under $20.00. There was an awful lot of work on the dresses that time, a lot of work, inside work that you wouldn’t see at all. A lot of bone work. There were lots of little fine linings put in with the waists: they were fitted waists, and had an awful lot of work to them. And then there was silk put up so far, and then little fine laces put on top of that, and then bones in it, whalebone to keep them stiff. They had high collars, made on a form, with little wee bones in them to hold them up. There was an awful lot of work to the dresses that time.

My room was only five minute’s walk from C. Ross but if one of use happened to be a minute or five minutes late, for work in the morning, we lost half an hour’s pay.

We started work at seven o’clock in the morning and worked until six in the evening every day except Sunday. On Saturdays we often had to work until nine at night, finishing gowns that had been ordered and had been promised for Saturday night. And there was nothing for it, we just had to get the work out as promised.

We got paid two dollars and fifty cents a week. I had to pay one dollar and twenty-five cents a week for my room, and that meant I had a dollar and twenty-five cents left for food for the week. I had nothing left for clothes. I just had to use the same clothes all along.

There was a raise of fifty cents every year to people that worked there. Every year, fifty cents. No, no, not a year, or a month, every year.

One day I went to Madame and I said, ‘I’ll have to get another job.’ I said I couldn’t live, pay for my room, pay for my food, and live on what money I was getting.‘

Well, we need you,’ Madame said, ‘we want you to stay.’‘

Well,’ I said, ‘I’ll have to get more money.’

She gave me fifty cents more and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody that I gave it to you, or I’ll lose my job.’

A long time after I discovered that she had given it to me out of her own pocket.

I got a dress one day. Really it came all made up and it was a sort of mustard colour, and it was all embroidered with gold. Gold braid everywhere, and every little flower was cut off, and it was ravelling out, all over the whole thing, and Madame put it on the form on my table, and she said, ‘I’ve got a job here I want some of you girls to do.’

Course, we all looked at one another, we were all shiverin’ in our boots, and we knew what ‘twas. So she picked one. I have to buttonhook over every one of those ends with gold thread. I was a whole week at that. And at the end I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t eat. The metallic, the smell of the metallic braid, oh it’s a horrible smell. Horrible, horrible.

I worked for C. Ross for five years, getting a raise of fifty cents each year. You couldn’t do much better than that.

I got married then. The year was 1910. Charlie and I were married in St. Patrick’s Church in Ottawa.

We moved to Almonte when Thomas Hilton was only a baby. Margaret and Robert were both born here. And I’ve been in Almonte some sixty years or more. At that time the house across the street was the Cottage Hospital and Annie Farrell who became Mrs. McKevitt, she was the cook there, and Mrs. Doctor Kelly was the head nurse.

Charlie went to work for the Rosamond Woollen Mill. He worked there all during the First World War and the Second World War making cloth for uniforms and blankets and such military stuff.

I remember the time the First War ended. Robert was only a baby. I remember I wakened up and I heard the bells ringing and the whistles blowing and all the racket that was going on, and I jumped up and said, ‘Charlie, get up, get up, the war’s over.’

Charlie got up, and went outside to see, and he went across the road to Lyons’s to wake up Mr. Lyons and tell him the news.

All that day, sure everything was crazy. People running all over town, shouting, ringing bells, crazy. I had done a washing, the baby’s things, and I had to get the clothes hung up, so I went to put the clothes on the line, and I nearly froze. It was a terrible cold day and my fingers were almost numb from trying to hang up clothes in that weather on the line. But I kept at it and finished it, and I said I’m not going down town, for I’m nearly frozen. A lot of people didn’t know what was wrong with all the commotion. Later on I went down to Kay’s, oh no, that was the last war, the Second.

Ninety years now, and I’ve seen a lot. A lot of work too. I followed the binder, stoked the grain, the sheaves, I forked the hay, raked the hay, got up in the mow and packed it and packed the sheaves. I had to pack the sheaves just so, my dad had to have them sheaves packed just so-so. ‘Step on that one, put another one down, and step on that.’ And I had to put the ends of them all one way, it had to be done perfect. Way up in the big barn, on my Lord!

And my mother’d be there you know, throwin’ them sheaves up to me. When it’d get so high, my father, he’d have to build a scaffold, and he’d throw them to her and she’d throw them to me, and I’d pack them in the mow, and she’d have a baby down in the yard in a box. There was eleven of us children.

And then when my dad got his burn burned, oh, that was an awful blow on him. The people on the next farm – a man put a whole bunch of shingles in the stove. They’d shingled their house, and you know the dry shingles, the old ones, well, he filled the stove with them. And the stairway was a closed-in stairway, and the whole upstairs was on fire before they knew it, for it was all closed off. It was in September, and the wind blowing like the dickens. It blew sparks right over top of our place. My father had his machinery shed right next the border line, the line fence. It caught first. And he had two big stacks of grain and the barn full of grain, his whole year’s supply of grain, and the two big stacks outside the door, waiting to be thrashed. The whole thing went.

The priest came in, and he walked around the house, and sprinkled holy water, and he prayed the whole time, for fear the house would catch. It did catch up around one corner of the eaves, but the men caught it and got it out before it spread.

My mother was afraid for himself for a long time. He couldn’t sleep. He’d get up out of bed at night and walk the house, and he’d cry, he’d just sit down and he’d cry. He didn’t know what to do. Just didn’t know what to do.

He did rebuild the barn, and he did come out of it. Whatever money he was going to earn, it was gone. I guess there’s nobody can understand, only those that go through it.

Of course I’m sewin’ all the time. But now that I’m ninety I’m goin’ to quit one of these days. There was one day recently I had fifteen pairs of pants here for alternations. But I didn’t have to do them all in one day. But they were here to be done. Sometimes I have to say to them, ‘Well, all right, if you can leave it for this week, ‘cause I’m all filled up right now.’

Threading the needle is all right. I can still thread a fine, fine needle.

I asked the doctor the last check up, ‘Do you think I’m goin’ to sit like this with my arms folded and wait to die?’ No, there’s too many people depending on me to do their work, and you can’t say ‘No’ to them.

And I said, ‘You know, doctor, I’d like to live about two and half years more. That’s all.’ And he said, ‘Why two and a half years?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s my secret. I’m not telling you that.’ The doctor just laughed at that.

My grandfather Scissons he lived to be near one hundred. His name was Sam. He was sixteen when he came out from England. He was born in France. His mother brought him over in her arms from France to England or Ireland, I don’t know which it was, I think England, but he was just a baby in her arms. He went to work for a man in Ottawa who had a farm right up there where the Parliament Buildings are located. And when it came time to get paid, the man had no money to pay him, and he offered him the farm instead. But my grandfather didn’t accept the offer, he wanted to come out to Torbolton or South March. The man who owned the farm was a man named Nicholas Sparks.

Well, it’s been a wonderful party. So many friends. And that’s the way it’s been. Threadin’ a fine, fine needle. Woman’s work, and lots of work.

I have eighteen grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren.

If I live and work another two and half years, I’ll be happy. But that’s the way it’s been. Thanks for coming to my party.”

John Dunn
5th October, 1975

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