"Christians hold the lily as a symbol of chastity, innocence, purity and piety. In early Christian art the white lily is symbolic of the "Madonna" as the flower is associated with the virgin Mary. It is typically depicted in a vase or held by Gabriel in Annunciation"
The maple keys fall to the earth like tiny helicopters in the April wind. The crocus and daffodils are all but finished and in their place, buds of cherry and lilac trees await to burst forth. The magnolias are almost in full bloom. The air is filled with the scent of the recent rain and spring blossoms.
Soon the bleeding heart will be in flower. It was always one of my favourites and remains so. Aunt Edie showed me the magical parts of this flower as she did my children, many years later. There are pairs of rabbits, earrings, slippers, and the single bottle of champagne in the centre. Oh those were wonderful memories.
A little girl skipped down the street still wet with the morning rain. The house in which she now lived belonged to her paternal grandparents and was shared with her three maiden aunts. Then, she came into the picture. Twenty-seven Saulter Street, a humble street, running south from Queen Street and ending one block later, where it abutted the railway yard. The house was a six-room cottage with three bedrooms on the second floor. Lilly shared one of those rooms with Edith, the favourite and eldest of the three aunts. Her grandparents’ had the smallest room at the back of the house. The two other aunts, Emma and Helen, or Nell as she was called, shared the largest. The house is long gone. Expropriated by the railroad.
Aunt Edie was a dressmaker by trade and therefore was in charge of the wardrobes of the women in the family. She was kind and loving and probably the closest thing to a mother Lilly could have imagined. Due to her vocation the ladies of this modest household were quite well dressed considering the income that entered the house. Edie was talented and her spare time was spent making dresses for her mother, sisters and Lilly.
As Lilly skipped up the walkway to the front entrance on west side of the house, she slipped on a wet stone. She fell and skinned her knee on one of the steps that led to the large wrap-around balcony. It stung and she wanted to cry but she held back because she knew that Edie was not there to comfort her. It would be her grandmother she would encounter so she must be brave. Gran did not like whiny children.
Lilly entered the front door into the vestibule past an oak hall tree. This hall tree would be coveted these days, but in the early 1900’s it was commonplace most front entrances.
As she passed the mirror in the front hall she paused to look at herself in the glass and tried to make a face that she hoped would get her some sympathy when she encountered her grandmother. Before she stopped gazing her grandmother called out to her.
“Lilly. Stop looking at yourself in that glass. The Lord does not look favourably upon vanity.”
Lilly entered the inner hall. Straight ahead was the staircase, which led to the second floor. Like the hall tree it was oak and contained quite a bit of sculpting, not uncommon even in modest houses built at the turn of the century. The landing at the foot of the stairs had a brass gaslight atop the newel. The last thing her Grandmother would do as she climbed the stairs to go to bed and the first thing she would do when she rose in the morning was to either light or extinguish the lamp.
Her knee had stopped stinging as she rounded the corner into the parlour. A large square piano and a parlour set sat prominently in this room. This set was her Grandmother’s pride and joy. It had come all the way from Scotland when her parents had immigrated from Edinburgh. The piano was used as a table when not in use, which was most of the time. It was a rare occasion that someone played that piano. Perhaps on a Sunday afternoon someone might play a hymn or two but certainly nothing that could suggest frivolity. Under no circumstance could it be used to play popular songs or dance music. Only the heathen participated in such unchristian practices.
Directly behind the parlour on the northeast side of the house was the dining room. It contained a large three-seated couch, fashionable in those days. Its rolled arms were covered in the same material that covered the rest of the divan, however the nap was worn off and the pattern was grey and shiny. The couch itself was not particularly comfortable and the two throw cushions that were the only thing soft about it, were too small to be of any use. When someone sat down they were usually moved to the middle unless that seat was occupied.
Lilly flopped down on the couch and looked across the dining room table at her Grandmother. She sat next to a window that looked out onto the yard at the back of the house. There she sat, rocking in her chair, her bible opened and propped up proudly in her lap.
“Gran. I skinned my knee and it stings.”
“Oh child, if you would only behave in a more ladylike fashion and not run and skip this would not happen. Go into the kitchen and get a clean, wet cloth so that I can clean the wound.”
The kitchen was on the southeast side of the house next to the dining room. The floor was a painted as was the wainscoting that went halfway up the walls. As Lilly entered the kitchen, she looked at the colour and thought it looked like puke. It made her smile. Her Gran would not like it if she said that, and she imagined what her reaction would be. The rest of the kitchen was otherwise plain and functional with ample cupboards and counter space.
Off the kitchen was something called a summer kitchen, also rather plain yet functional painted in the same drab colour. This room led to yet another small room and attached to that was a shed. The summer kitchen and the other room were only half the width of the main kitchen and had windows along the south wall. They were only used three seasons of the year and doubled as storage during the winter. One was also used to dry clothing during the winter months.
On the outside wall of the kitchen was a coal stove, black and potbellied, which Lilly’s Grandmother polished weekly. It threw off a lot of heat sometimes making the kitchen so hot they had to open a window. Her Gran hated when this happened as she said it was a wasteful to let that heat just fly away. The stovepipes joined up with another stove in the parlour and went up through the ceiling and heated the central hall upstairs.
Lilly took a cloth from the kitchen and poured some warm water from the kettle into the sink over the cloth. She then returned to the dining room and gave her grandmother the cloth. She sat quietly while her grandmother wiped her knee with the wet cloth. It smarted a bit, but she was careful to not to wince in front of her Gran.
Lilly’s grandmother, Janet Stephenson, was born February 18, 1844 in Edinburgh, Scotland and immigrated to Canada in 1849 at the age of five. Her family settled in Toronto, and it was here that she met her husband John McEwan. She was a Presbyterian in the strictest sense of the word and she ran her house accordingly. Lilly’s most vivid recollections of her have her seated in her rocking chair reading her bible. Her naturally curly, once dark hair was pulled back severely into a tight knot at the nape of her neck. She considered her curly hair to be a vanity if she were to acknowledge it. Several wisps near the front defied her efforts and they kinked up close to her temples. Lilly’s Gran was as tiny as her Papa was big. Her skin was pale and her curly hair had turned white at an early age, or so Lilly was told. Her eyes were a watery blue. Janet’s clothing was as severe as her hairstyle. All her dresses were dark.
Lilly kept a picture of Janet in which she wore such a dress. It had a floral inset yoke and cuffs that matched. A small edge of lace adorned the high-necked collar and a band of black braid circled the cuffs. The large gathered sleeves attached to the pleated bodice and were shirred in tightly just below the elbow where they were sewn into the cuffs. A floral belt cinched the waist and the skirt had one large pleat in front and at the back, and three smaller ones on each side. These pleats were sewn flat from the waist to the thigh and opened from there. On her feet she wore black-buttoned shoes. All her dresses were fashioned by her daughter Edith. On her hand, she wore a single gold wedding band. The only other piece of jewellery she wore was a cameo broach, that was a wedding present from her husband. It was strange that she wore no other jewellery as John was a jeweller. But considering her faith, she would have considered this vanity as well.
About 1810 my great, great grandfather, William McEwan and his wife Mary Ann Brown moved from Ireland to Scotland. This is where John was born, November 18, 1841. In 1846 they moved again, but this time from Scotland to Toronto, Canada, known as York at that time. John grew up here and would become a jeweller.
He was much easier on himself with regard to his lifestyle than his wife. Life was short and to be enjoyed and although he was a church going individual he also enjoyed taking the odd whiskey and smoke with friends at the tavern. His nature was calm and easygoing and he had a gentle manner. He would often take Lilly on walks when she was small. His large warm hand would envelope hers gently but firmly and she felt how much he loved her just from the way he held her hand in his. This is what she told me. John was a very large man. By large I mean tall, but not stout. He had almost black eyes and very high cheekbones. His skin was dark and weathered and he had high colour in his cheeks. Lilly loved him dearly.
John bought the house on Saulter Street for his wife Janet and they raised twelve children there. The eldest was born in 1866 and the two youngest, Edward, born in 1886 and Alma in 1888. The two youngest died in infancy. Lilly’s aunt Edie was the oldest girl born in 1872. Her father, Benjamin was born in 1879.
While John had a good job as a jeweller and was skilled at his trade there was not a lot of money with so many mouths to feed.
Lilly often wondered where all those children slept. Her aunt Edie explained that the two rooms were set up like dormitories. "Girls in one, and boys in the other."
After Lilly’s grandmother had taken care of her knee she was told to go upstairs and play quietly for a while. She climbed the stairs to the second floor slowly as she was always afraid of the unknown. The bedroom right above the kitchen belonged to her grandparents. It was the smallest of the three bedrooms and the bathroom was right next to it. It contained only a bed large enough for the two of them and a chest of drawers. There was a small closet that contained the little clothing that they possessed. Unlike Edie’s sisters and Lilly, Grandma only had a few dresses each more drab than the next.
The bedroom Lilly shared with her Aunt Edie was above the dining room in the centre of the house on the north side. There were twin beds separated by a nightstand and large dresser that they shared. In the corner by the window was Edie’s sewing area. Many a night Lilly would fall asleep to the sound of Edie’s foot moving up and down on the pedal of the machine. When she would awake in the morning, what had been a piece of cloth had been transformed into a beautiful garment, as if by magic. Their closet was larger than that of her grandparents and the majority of the clothing in it belonged to Lilly.
Lilly walked past her bedroom and down the hall to the bedroom at the front of the house. This was the room of her other two aunts. It was also the prettiest room and had two windows facing the street. They were slightly bowed and had window boxes on the outside that in summer contained scented geraniums. In the fall clippings were taken and placed in water, which would serve as the plantings for the following year. The room had been divided in a way to keep their things separate. Their beds were at opposite sides of the room as well as their dressers. There were also two closets one at each end. This created a sort of mirror image. Even the furniture was similar and the only thing that spoiled this image was that one of her aunts was tidier than the other.
She crept into the room and looked around. Em was the neater of the two aunts so Lilly was careful not to touch anything of hers. Nell’s side of the room was messy and Lilly thought that no harm would come if she snooped around.
Lying at the end of Nell’s bed was a fancy dress she had worn the night before. Since both aunts were at work and would not be home for some time Lilly decided to try on the elegant garment.
She slipped it over her clothing and then tried on a pair of Nell’s fancy shoes. She helped herself to a hat on the dresser and placed it on her head. The hat was much too large for her.
Lilly had long dark hair that hung straight down, past her waist. To make the hat fit she gathered her hair up and stuffed it inside. Now she was a grand lady. She looked at herself in the mirror and made believe that she was dressing for a fancy ball. She imagined herself as a princess that would meet her prince Charming, just like in the stories Edie would read to her.
On the bureau was some make-up. She opened the rouge and dabbed two round spots on her cheeks. Then she picked up the powder puff and dabbed her cheeks with powder. Lastly she took some lipstick and coated her lips with it. She pranced in front of the mirror admiring herself in the glass and living in her fantasy world.
The front door shut with a bang and brought her back to reality. Lilly quickly tore off the hat and dress leaving them where she had found them and removed the shoes putting them back in Nell’s closet. Then she tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom and with the washcloth tried to remove the make-up. While she was there she heard someone coming up the stairs.
“Lilly.” The voice was that of her Aunt Edie and she felt a sigh of relief.
“I am in the bathroom, Auntie. I will be out in a minute.”
Lilly scrubbed at her face but the make-up would not come off. She opened the door and walked slowly to her bedroom to confide her secret to her Aunt.
Edie laughed when she saw her, but when she saw how upset Lilly was she stopped and told her that she was not to worry.
“We will take care of this. Bring me the cold cream on the dresser and the cloth that you used in the bathroom.”
Lilly obeyed her Aunt and brought the things to her. Edie put the cream on Lilly’s face and then wiped it off with the cloth. When she was done, Lilly went to look at herself in the mirror. Maybe it was just the contrast but it seemed as though the cream had pulled the entire colour from her cheeks. She looked pale and sickly.
“Look at me. What will I tell Gran? She is bound to notice something is not right about my skin.”
Edie looked at her and then reassured her that her colour would come back soon enough.
“Now change into something pretty. Your Grandfather is downstairs and has a surprise for you.”
“I will go down ahead of you and let him know you are on your way. Be quick child. Don’t keep him waiting. He has to return to work shortly.”
Lilly changed her dress and within several minutes was downstairs to greet her Grandfather.
“Papa, why are you home at this time? Did you forget something?”
Lilly’s grandfather looked down at her and smiled. “Come over here a minute. I have something for you.”
As Lilly approached her grandfather she noticed a small box he was holding in his hand. As she came closer he held out the box for her to take.
“Open it dear. It is something I made for you.”
Lilly took the box and lifted the lid. Inside was a beautiful gold bracelet with an amethyst in the centre. It was small and delicate as a child’s bracelet should be. The band was adjustable so it would fit for several years. The amethyst was set in a gold filigree setting that resembled the petals of a flower.
“Oh Papa! Thank-you. It’s beautiful.”
Lilly approached her Grandfather and held out the bracelet for him to put it on her wrist. Once on, she looked down and admired it carefully.
She then turned and faced her Grandmother. “Gran. Look. Look at the beautiful bracelet.