Asking Claire (II)

I wrote awhile ago about my great-aunt Claire, who was a radio host, newspaperwoman and etiquette expert (Asking Claire, April 16.) Her advice on manners, which she published in two popular volumes, has a time-capsule feel to it, for she was chronicling in the 1960s the social codes of an era that had almost vanished, when formality was the ideal rather than an exception. 

Still, Claire Wallace had a principled openness to change. "New Canadians," she wrote warmly, had enlivened concert halls with the European habit of calling out Bravo! and this had become part of national custom.

Meanwhile, in the modern settings of "discotheques, ragtime, pop, folk [and] jazz concerts and happenings" -- happenings! -- "applauding in the middle of a number, whistling, stamping" were perfectly acceptable.

The Canadian traveller, she emphasized, should learn the manners of other countries in order to avoid giving offence.

A hint of biography can be read into Claire's books. Divorced in her late 20s, raising a young son alone, she could draw on her acquired resourcefulness while navigating how newly-single women might alter their married names, or negotiate a traditionally male role such as picking up the bill at dinner with friends.

Claire's brother, Cliff, a newspaper editor (all three Wallace siblings worked for the Star) went blind in his late middle years. Claire wrote about walking with, dining with, and entertaining a blind guest, about tact and courtesy: "There is a great tendency to put him into a certain chair and leave him there for the rest of the evening. This is boring and uncomfortable" -- and I imagine that this was strongly felt.

(Small details come back to me: Cliff approached his dinner plate like a timepiece: potatoes at six o'clock, for instance.

(Small potatoes, one might say; he started a small-town newspaper after he lost his sight.)

I remember an elderly relative noting tartly: "Claire could be grand; she wore a boa" (a feather stole, not a constrictor, I would think) on evenings out -- but in her writing and when interviewed she recommended classic, durable clothing, which had suited her high profile during the pinched years of the Second World War.

She favoured small hats and noted in the last edition of her books (1967, not long before her death) that they were no longer necessities. It must have been the first moment in the history of clothing that most people did not usually cover their heads. Claire herself wore, metaphorically, two.

Much of her reporting was of the experiential and daredevil sort (deep-sea diving, extreme travel, undercover reporting. Toronto police stopped her, because of her gender, from driving a taxi for a story; she wrote about a stint as a chauffeur instead.) One of her tamer stories involved spending the night alone in Toronto's Casa Loma, then derelict and rumoured to be haunted, and her championing of the fanciful old stone pile led to its rescue and some restoration.

But her CBC radio program was called They Tell Me. And so, wearing her journalistic hat, she did ask lots of questions. Removing it, so to speak, and donning one of her own (perhaps a few seasons old, freshened up with a new ribbon, in her Canadian version of Make Do and Mend), she had firm advice about minding manners:

"Never," she instructed, ask anyone a question "of a personal nature." 





Growing words

It started with a gleaming holly. We have a Hollis, whose pretty name means "from the holly-wood," the baby-names book told us. That was the first thing I planted. We have a Jake, so a Jacob's ladder, slender and distinctive, was next. And though I could not find a Nathaniel plant, I put in woolly lamb's ear because it was his favourite in his plot at Westdale's beautiful Teaching Garden. The downy leaves feel like your favourite dog's ears.

I had avoided gardening, being leery of attempting and falling short of the perfection I thought was the aim of it. I was wrong; this was a far more nuanced thing than I had dreamed, more about inspired guesswork and welcoming change 

The kids and I were more about wrecking than growing the original postage stamp of green in front of the house (with dish-soap giant-bubble mix, for instance, or by covering it with with a sprawling cardboard fort. There is a fair bit of Lego deep in that ground.)

But a garden was bound to happen. "It's like switching to CBC Radio," a friend told me. "At some point in adulthood gardening becomes inevitable."

I dug out that tiny front space, one spadeful after another of long-established turf and claggy soil. I wondered what to do about the dry, thickly needled circle of ground around the tall spruce tree. Luck led me to sweet woodruff, to a leggy and late-blooming chrysanthemum, and to the sidewalk in front of a neighbour's house, where she had put out a table covered in newly divided day lilies outgrowing her own garden. "Give them a good home!" read the taped-up sign.

I heaped triple-mix over the wooden rails too-crisply edging a narrow, empty bed (I could not pry them loose) and made the curve I craved. A man came to lay a little parenthesis of flagstones for a path. I dug in between the stones a purple-flowering thyme -- and dark Irish moss, which thinned out to pale patches.

Strangely, most of the rest of it remains, even as the light in the garden has shifted over 15 years as nearby trees, and mine, have grown larger. The wine-coloured sand-cherry, whose tiny blossoms smell each spring like fruity boiled sweets, has contorted itself into an oversized bonsai in order to get the sun it needs. The creamy clematis I trained up its slender trunk bursts into boisterous, saucer-sized bloom each June. The autumn monkshood comes out in deep blue at Thanksgiving and the sundrops persist brightly in part shade.

The geum the colour of coral lipstick vanished after a decade, the golden California poppies at the edge of the stonework gave up as the sun retreated, the pristine white bleeding heart has become dramatically smaller. I don't like its purple-prose Victorian name and, after Googling it just now, have found its delightful alternative, lady-in-a-bath.

I still garden a bit by name. I bought a glossy and fast-spreading chocolate-chip bugle weed because -- chocolate. During our household's preoccupation with Tolkein books and films, a dragon's-blood sedum. Hens-and-chicks were irresistible in name and growing habit and when nestled into limestone hollows that make me think of clambering on rocky beaches near Oliphant a half-century ago. In our perpetually overgrown back-yard beds I have just rediscovered the Prairie Joy rose I planted because the name reminded me of my family's homesteading past. And in front, edging and baked by the sidewalk, a stubborn, dependable pale-yellow lily flowered today, its first bloom of the summer matching its name: Happy Returns.



The first strawberries have reminded me of a little memory piece I wrote last summer:

I was rinsing Cormack strawberries the other day, sun streaming onto them through the kitchen window, and something about them, and the forest-coloured enamel colander they lay in, sent me back more than half my lifetime ago to a July afternoon in Finland.

We were with reverent crowds at the Pori Jazz festival, the thin northern sun that I next saw here in Woody Point sifting into dark stands of trees near a stage designed to look like a swooping gull. There was that dreamy music-festival feeling of walking through the music itself (Max Roach, Bobby McFerrin, Herbie Hancock...)

Little red rounds caught my eye. Perhaps there were only three or four, but in my memory beautiful babies in tasseled red hats were everywhere, peeping out of baby carriers wrapped onto their parents' chests.

I want to do this, I thought. It was as though I had never seen a baby before.

Some time later I was well on my way, lumbering and pleasantly achy in the way of late pregnancy, thinking slow, soft-edged thoughts. I was looking through a shop selling baby things in Toronto's (prettily-named) Summerhill neighbourhood. It was open late; I must have just finished up a longish day shift downtown in the newsroom.

I was an upright page, unturned.

And there on a stand was a tiny, tasseled red hat. I checked the label. Unmistakably Finnish -- abundant vowels and percussive consonants.

It meant that the page half-turned; I could read a glimpse. I would feel the baby's warmth through the crown of the hat that I held in my hand, and I could imagine that warmth just below my chin. Resting against me, the baby would precede me, bright as a berry.