September 21 1950

Thursday 21st Sept. 

Dearest Mummy,

I have been meaning to write ever since I got home, but I have been that busy, & even now I have decided just to write this Air Letter, & write a proper answer to your letters at the weekend. I have all sorts of letters to thank you for because I found a lovely swadge when I got home, & then got another nice one with snaps last weekend – thank you so much, honey bun. I have letters dated 15, 21, 29 Aug. & 5 & 12 Sept. so I’ll save them all to answer at the weekend & will bring you up to date with our news in this one, except that I want to tell you that I thought the snaps of Bequia were fun, but was only sorry there weren’t more with you in, & as you say they are blurry etc. which is a pity. But one of Patsy & Tessa is the best as you say, & in it Patsy looks just like Jean I thought & not a bit fat! I am most intrigued at her loss of weight & want you to sit right down & send me her diet!! Since my holiday I have been trying to diet – no potatoes, puddings, pies or cake – only 3 slices of bread a day- no sweets- no coca-cola or sweet drinks – I feel very virtuous, but can’t see any effects yet!

When I last wrote to you we were in Ottawa & I think I must have told you that we had planned to speed things up a bit & get back to A.A. on 10th-, as I had been worried all along about taking more than a month from work, & Cec thought he should be back too, so we stayed a day less with Merle & Lee & in Ottawa & then flew to Toronto on the Fri. & spent till Sunday with Cec’s Auntie & Uncle. They were very sweet to us & we went shopping on Sat. a.m. & Cec  bought a new navy Burberry & I got a new winter coat- dark red- quite plain, but with a chamois lining which will zip in & out- lovely & cosey warm! They have a big Exhibition in Toronto every year, so we all went on the Sat. night & saw a beautiful fireworks display as well as other things.

We arrived back in A.A. on Sun. afternoon & on Mon. I went to work- & what do you think? They had a great surprise for me – I am now in the permanent staff at the salary of $2260 a year! Isn’t that something? Cec & I feel so wealthy & so pleased we came back on time!

Our evenings have been busy because the Sutherlands moved into their new house on 15th, so we went along most evenings & helped them pack linen & china & stuff, then on Sat. after the move we went & helped them unpack. To complicate matters, Dr. S. flew to England on Sunday for a fortnight for a conference, so Gunborg is left to cope with things & is very disconsolate. The house still has painters & workmen etc. in, but will be lovely when finished – will tell you more about it later.

Have just been writing to Connie & Len – they sail on the 10th from Liverpool in the Empress of France, so will be in a tizzy now. Must stop- bedtime – Love to A. Moo & Les Girls! – Lots & lots for you 

        from Cyn & Cec 

[Cec’s handwriting] P.S. It’s past her bedtime- as usual. Love C3

Later, 1948.

This letter contains one of those mysteries where both the sender and recipient know what has happened so there is no need to discuss it, and we can only guess.

37 De Freville Ave.

Cambridge 

Sunday 

Dearest Little Mummy,

Thank you for your telegram & letter. I was so disappointed that you couldn’t come on Friday after all, but I quite understand that of course it was much more sensible to stay up there once you are there, rather than make another journey.

You have been having a horrible and wildly busy time – I am only sorry that I couldn’t be with you to help you, but I knew that all your friends would be sweet & kind, & I hope that Uncle John and Mary were of some help. I suppose they went back on Thursday as planned though, so you will have had all these days to get through without them, but I hope that the worst business was over by then, & that Maud and Chris would help you.

As I will be seeing you so soon, I won’t write anything about all the arrangements and what you have had to do, as we will be able to talk at all over when you get back. But I know you were having a wretched worrying time, dear, and I do hope you will try not to worry too much, because you have done all that could be done, over many years, and I think that it will all turn out for the best eventually.

I had a note from Joe on Friday saying he was coming & he arrived yesterday evening. At the moment he is very busy in the conservatory & has done all sorts of things- mended one broken shelf- lifted some others to make them straight- screwed up a loose bracket & it looks to me now as if he were going to mend the door! However, you better not tell Winnie all this, as apparently you mentioned the fact of his doing odd jobs before, & she must’ve been remarking on it to him! Probably, you better not tell her he’s here at all! By the way, it is Winnie’s birthday on Tuesday & I am sending a card.

Last night Joan had a little party, with two Poles, a fat girl Anne, Pam & George, & Joe & me. We all got quite matey & though Joe didn’t want to go, I think he really enjoyed it once he was there. Anne Chapman came in this morning (brought me 6 eggs & Joe brought 8- come home quick & help eat them!!!!) & Pam invited us all up for coffee at 12.0, so we had another little gathering. After all this we were not a bit hungrey, so we skipped lunch & are having a light tea & dinner this evening! I don’t know how Joe’s digestion will stand it- mine feels most odd!!

I must stop now, honey & catch the post. Take care of yourself now, & come home safe and sound on Wednesday. Pam and Joan & the butcher & the cats all keep asking when you’re coming & you’ll get a very warm welcome from all of them as well as from your loving daughter! We will be able to have a lovely lazy time during the holidays after Friday.

Joe sends his love, & I send lots & lots from me-

      from 

          Cyn P.T.O.

Love to Mrs. Johnny & Bella & Maud & Winnie & all the others.

Clues: It is later in the year of 1948 or even possibly 1949, because Cyn’s address is that of the flat she shared with her mother, so it would be at least spring of 1948, because they are obviously living there together. However, something has happened in Newcastle, because that is where Carol is, dealing with something upsetting. I assume this was the catastrophic medical incident that resulted in the husband she had left, Gordon, being hospitalized- but I don’t know what that was. I think that the ‘Uncle John and Mary’ mentioned were Ewings, probably Gordon’s older brother, and Maud and Winnie were friends of long-standing. The ‘Joe’ visiting Cyn in Cambridge is a Sheedy, also longtime Newcastle neighbours of the Ewings, possibly a younger brother of her childhood friends, and obviously handy to have around the house! From the list of things he’s fixing, it sounds as if they haven’t lived there very long. Maybe when Carol gets back, she and Cyn will be planning a house-warming party…

December 6 1947

This letter may have been written on December 6th or 13th in 1947- one of those Saturdays!

19 Warkworth St. 

Cambridge. 

Saturday

Dearest Mummy,

Thank you so much for both your letters. I was awfully sorry to see in the one I got this morning though, that you were worrying and unhappy about the arrangements you have made, because I think you have done marvellously, and as for blaming you, that is just ridiculous. You say something about selling my birthright for a mess of potage, but really you haven’t done anything of the sort – my father would never have left me anything more, and he has been generous over money matters with me already, so I am more than content about my affairs – it is only you that I worry about, and not so much about financial things, because I am sure we will manage all right – but because you have had to leave your home, and begin anew as it were. However, I think that once it is all over, you will be much happier and freer, and that things will work out very nicely.

I think that you were very wise and clever when you went to Mr. Kirby to sign the deeds etc., and as for being cowardly, I think you were very brave to stand up for yourself as you did. I am certain that it is for the best all round to arrange things peaceably in this way, because even if we went to Court, & went thro’ all the rowing and trouble it would mean to get you a little allowance, we probably would have had more trouble with him about paying it regularly, & it would have gone on & on. When I wrote to you, saying to try & get an allowance & we’d go to Court if necessary, I didn’t think that there was any chance of settling the affair quietly, and your getting a share of the household goods, but as it has turned out this way, I think it is a very good thing. I think you were quite right to tell Mr. Kirby about not getting the allowance etc. & I’m sure he understands how things are, and I also think signing the paper about not claiming anything from him on condition he left you the house in his will, was a very good idea, because, goodness knows, you never would have got anything from him, and now he has to do as you say about the will (which I’m sure he wouldn’t have done otherwise,) so it is really a safeguard for you.

I think that on the whole the sharing of the furniture etc. is not bad, although of course, it’s nothing like half, but I was tickled to bits about the big bookcase & Uncle Nic’s rug! In my last letter I mentioned a bookcase & a carpet if possible, & I thought of Uncle Nic’s rug, but I never thought he’d let it go!

Uncle Nic’s Letter, about sending the carpet from India in 1926?, to Carol. A late wedding present? I don’t think the envelope it was preserved in was the original, since it was mailed in England.
A bit tattered around the edges, but still surviving in my living room in 2020!

And as for the big bookcase & the bureau – my my!! I am glad you are getting a fair share of the china & silver & glass etc. and as you say, it doesn’t matter about the other silver teapot etc. now that you have the nice one Aunt Muriel sent. By the way, I sent off the little electric iron to you today, & I put it in two big boxes (that my china was in) with masses & masses of packing, & thought they might be useful to you for packing your glass or china in. I am enclosing the latch key in this letter, & I don’t think there is anything else I have that belongs to 95.

I am so sorry that your tummy got worse, and that you are feeling so poorly on top of everything else, dear. I do hope that it is much better now, and if it isn’t, don’t you go on trying to do things, just take a rest, and get better first. There is no need for you to rush and dash about when you’re not well, and so just take things easily. I am sure that Maude will have you to stay for a little while when you are packed up, so that you can make final arrangements with the Bank etc. and one thing – don’t worry about the decisions you’ve made. I think that you have done absolutely right in everything, and I fully agree with you, and back you up in everything you’ve done. You haven’t the slightest reason to reproach yourself over anything, so don’t you go being miserable! Cheer up, & think of all the fun we’ll have when it’s all over! And take care of yourself, my sweet, & get that tummy better. I hope the weather has improved for you, because miserable cold & wet won’t do you much good.

Last night I went to the pictures to see the Technicolour film of the Royal Wedding – I thought it was nice as a film, but disappointing of the actual wedding, as you don’t see so much of it as I thought you would. Pam, Jessie & I are convinced you can see me on it!!  A minute speck of red, which is my scarf! Today, I have been Christmas shopping and golly! – the prices! I got Ruth Stainthorpe Angora gloves & Irene & Bill a little tray & Peter baby roller skates. I thought about slippers for you (warm ones), but thought I’d ask you to make sure you needed them. How’s about it?

When I got back there was a lovely parcel from Ruth Schatz waiting for me for Christmas. Of course I opened it and it has a lot of little tins & packages of food, & also a pair of nylons, & the sweetest pink earrings & brooch, made of darling little shells. That reminds me – don’t forget my sea urchins and shells!!! One other thing I thought of- not important really, but I’d like it, & that is the “Holiday” mag about London & also the old McCall’s. If you leave them at Maud’s I’d get them later. Must go now as I am playing bridge at Joan & Ray’s. Hope you are feeling much better honey, & take care of yourself.

      Lots of love from 

      Cyn.

Closeup of Cyn’s record of 1947 Christmas presents received from overseas: so many food parcels!
The letters of the 1st, 4th, and this one were all stored in this envelope, postmarked Dec 2nd.

December 4 1947

19 Warkworth St.

Cambridge.

4th Dec. 1947.

Dearest Mummy,

I was so pleased to get your letter on Tuesday, and to know that you were feeling a bit more cheerful, and that got things so well organized with Maud. I am so glad that she has been able to help you, and will keep the things for you- it will save so much trouble & the cost of storing and everything, & is very good of her. I thoroughly agree with you to take everything you can, because you are surely entitled to it, and if we can get a home together sometime, every little bit of furniture and stuff will be a terrific help, and we will need every single thing we can get! Besides the things you mentioned he would let you have, I wonder if he wouldn’t let you have one carpet or rug? The one in your bedroom he always hated, so maybe he wouldn’t mind – & it would be a great help if he would let us have even a small bookcase. But it asking for these things is going to mean another row, don’t bother – just take what he offers! However, I have thought, the linen curtains (green) are ours really- I made them at College – & also I have the little electric iron here & the one you have is really mine, and is better isn’t it? Let me know, & I could pack the little one & send it, & you could bring mine down with you. I think you might claim quite a few of the cooking things – the pyrex dishes & some of the cake tins & patty tins & things would be useful to us & he will never need – also my big cook’s knife & palette knife etc. When you are collecting the vases & things, you won’t forget the little plant pot Dottie gave me, will you? And there are also one or two pictures of mine – even the watercolour of Barbados Miss Thompson gave me for my 21st, but I’m not fussy about that! I think you should take as much of the china etc. that you can too, because if we had a home, my American set wouldn’t really go far, & knives & forks etc. we could do with too. About the food – I suggest you take to Miss Lefroy anything you think she’d like particularly & leave the rest in a box at Maud’s. I think I will definitely go to N/C during my Xmas holiday – after spending Christmas with you at Miss Lefroy’s – & I will take my footlocker or trunk with me & bring down the food & whatever else I want. I would like to see the girls, & it will save you bothering about taking my stuff with you, & also I have three weeks holiday & might as well do that as anything. I am sure Dottie or someone will put me up.

I can’t really think of anything else particularly that you haven’t mentioned – decanters; gramophone and records; books; clothes; tennis & badminton rackets; pictures- snapshots etc.; I can’t really think of very much else. Of course, there is a box under my bed with all my odds & ends, but I know you would see that when you are clearing out the room – oh, & by the way, the box ottoman made in my College days is mine too – such a valuable piece of furniture! But that seems to be about all. If you put all my old papers & letters etc. into something & send them to Maud’s, I’ll go through them & burn them when I go up there.

I have felt much happier about you since I got your letter, and I am so pleased & relieved, dear, that you’re feeling better about it all, & that my Father is being agreeable. I hope that your chill has passed off & that it hasn’t gotten worse, or that you haven’t caught a cold or anything. I agree with Maud that essentially this will probably turn out to be a good thing, but at the moment, all the upheaval and upset of it is very hard for you. When I see you at Christmas we can discuss plans for the future, & probably after you have been with Miss Lefroy for a little while you will be able to decide more easily how long you feel you should stay with her etc.

It is getting late now, so I will stop- I went with Jessie to the pictures tonight – to a Swiss film “The Last Chance” & wept till the tears dripped off my chin! I wonder what Mrs. Johnny & Bella & Winnie & Amy will all say when they hear of you going – they were all miss you terribly I know. 

Don’t forget to send an SOS if you want me to send my trunk & the iron – I can send lots of boxes too. With lots and lots of love 

      from Cyn                                                                                      P.T.O.

I am up to my eyes making Christmas cakes – am making one for us & will bring to Miss Lefroy’s. Do they like wine for Christmas? I could maybe get them a bottle & take it as a present. 

      Cyn

A Creation of Christmas cakes!

December 1 1947

19 Warkworth St.

Cambridge.

1st Dec. 1947.

Dearest little Mummy,

Thank you so much for your letter which I got this morning, and for enclosing Miss Lefroy’s. I am so glad that she wrote you such a sweet letter, and will give you such a welcome, because this bed sitting room I am in, wouldn’t be at all nice for you to come to, and now you will be able to stay there while we make some plans and get organized. I am sure that she and Chris will be very glad to have you and you will be able to help them too, so you won’t feel that you are not doing your share.

I am glad that you have had a talk with my Father without his getting in a rage again, and although I am sorry he will not give in about an allowance, I think too that it is better to settle things peacefully than to have a great row in Court about it. We will manage all right without anything from him, and it will make a lot of difference if you can get all your things and a fair share without any unpleasantness. I was wondering if you could settle with him about what furniture, china, silver, linen etc. you were to have, & then if you could go to Bevans or Bainbridges or one of these & ask about whether they would store them. If they would, you could perhaps ask them if they had packing cases for books etc. & if so, they could take all my books & the other things and store them. Then I thought if you could get all your clothes & all the personal things belonging to both of us together, I could either get the L.N.E.R. to send my trunks to you by passenger train; or if you could take the things to Maud’s, I could go up during the Christmas holidays & take the trunks with me, & pack up what you had left over.

I think if you could arrange about storing things in N/C and get that done, it would be a beginning, & would make less for you to worry about than if you took all the stuff to Miss Lefroy’s, and we could leave it there, till we got some place to live. I think it is important for you to see that you have all our Saving Certs & papers about our shares etc. and also before you leave to write to the P.O. about re-directing our letters. I know this seems like looking forward a lot, honey, but now that you have decided to leave, I think you had better get it over and done with. Christmas is not so far off, and I think it would be best if you plan to leave before then if you can. Perhaps Maud would go with you to see about storing the furniture etc. and once you’ve got that arranged, the rest won’t be so bad. I don’t know if you would like me to come up before you leave. I hesitated to ask, because I have a feeling that my presence will only enrage my Father more, but if you would like me to come, I will do so, either for a weekend now, or at the beginning of my holiday.

I did not go to London this weekend- it was last weekend I went, & friend Roland bored me to tears! This weekend I rushed around & got my Xmas things off to America – I sent silk squares with hunting scenes on- one grey, one blue, to Til & Lois – books to Ruth’s children, & a calendar to her & Ernie (I had a letter from Ruth that she has sent me a parcel by the way), I sent a calendar to Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson, & one to C’Zelma, Em & Grandma. I sent books to Hugh, Monie & Allan- & what do you think to the girls- traycloths! So A. Ettie & they will not be jealous of each other! I must write to U. Artie & send him a card, & I am sending a calendar to A. Muriel. At long last I got written to A. Trix, & sent her & Bill & Jane cards.

I was very upset to hear the news about Irene. I had such a cute letter from her last week, telling me all about it, & in such high spirits, & I felt so glad, as I thought she and Bill would make sweet parents. I do hope that it isn’t so serious as it sounds, and that after the baby has dropped or whatever it is, that she will be better. I have just written her a great immense letter, & one to Dottie too, as I am in disgrace again for missing Peter’s birthday once more. I told her vaguely that you were leaving, but said I would be up sometime during my Xmas holidays to see them.

It is after 10 o’clock now, so I better stop & see you to my bottle & Bovril & bed. I am in the midst of Xmas cakes at school – about 100 of the wretched things! I am making one for us,– & by the way, when you leave don’t forget & leave all of the tins of food behind! I sent them to you not him!

Let me know how things are going, & don’t worry too much. If you want me to, I’ll come up – 

      Lots & lots of love-

          Cyn

November 27 1947

19 Warkworth St. 

Cambridge. 

27th November 1947.

Dearest Mummy,

I am awfully sorry to hear about all the trouble you are having, and I know how miserable you must be feeling. A peaceful life with my father seems to be able to last just so long, and then he gets a devil in him and won’t stop till he’s had a great row, and said all the cruellest things he can think of. No matter what you do, or how patient or forbearing you are, it always happens. I am sorrier then I can say that it has happened again though, just as you thought the dog was making him a bit better, and as you say, after all these years, it is too much to go on being insulted and browbeaten by him.

Of course, as he well knows, money is the problem if you leave him. It is one thing having the house as we had before, and another thing have to pay rent as we would now, especially with prices as they are now. One thing I think you definitely should do, and that is, if you are leaving him, get some proper written agreement stating the allowance he will give you, or if he won’t do that go to Court & get a Court order for an allowance, because it is only right that he should give you one. Also, you know what his verbal promises are- last time he sent the allowance for a few months & that was all. In view of the allowance business, I am doubtful about the wisdom of going without having legal advice or something first, because once you have left the house, I don’t know whether the position would be the same. Another thing, if you are going all of our things should be out of the house first, or he possibly would never let us have them. 

About where you could go, Mummy, I wish I had a place here you could come to, but this isn’t much of a home for you. If you went to Miss Lefroy for a while, we might be able to find a flat eventually, & you could come to Cambridge, but honestly, honey, I don’t see much prospect of there being any kind of a job you could get here – that is why I think it is so important for you to get an allowance. Of course Miss Lefroy may be able to find you something to do in London, but it would be much more sensible and nicer if we could make a home together.

However, see how things are going dear, and if you feel that it is really the end then go and get some legal advice about how you stand before you do anything, because if you left, and he became vindictive, as he can, you don’t know how mean he would be.

There doesn’t seem to be any more I can say, Mummy, except again how sorry I am that you are having this sad worrying time. Let me know how things are going, and of course you know I am thinking about you. In your last letter you wrote about the Felton idea, & in someways I thought it was rather a good one, as life in the country would be pleasanter in some ways for you both, I thought, but now there’s not much point in talking about it.

Anyway try not to be too worried about it all – we’ll get on all right, no matter what happens – 

    With much love 

          from 

              Cyn

Cri de Coeur

Trigger warning: I expect that readers who have witnessed or experienced abuse will find reminders in the last post and this one.

Dear Gordon –

I am writing this – as it’s no good trying to talk to you – you get into such rages-

I cannot go on like this- I want to know definitely what I am supposed to be in this house & I am certainly not treated as a wife, by any means of the word- neither am I a housekeeper – I don’t get a living wage – You seem to think I am just a puppet- but I am not going to be treated as such– You either change your tactics- or I am going to do something about it.

You don’t seem to realize what I have done for you, what I have given up for you- & what I have gone through & am going through now – on account of you – You think you are so kind & generous – & yet you can be as cruel & as tormenting as the devil himself– Not only do you deny me the right of having my sister to stay in my own home a fortnight, after not having seen her for 15 years- but you call me names & say things to me that no decent man would think of saying to his wife-

What is it? Are you anxious to be rid of me? If you are – why not say so? But no- you’re too cunning for that – you won’t tell me to go, but you’re always jibing at me, & telling me “If I want to go I can go”– that’s the way you think you will get out of it – I tell you Gordon you’re driving me mad- you’re cruel through & through & just love to hurt me as much as you can- It is now nearly 2 weeks since we have spoken to each other – please break your silence & tell me definitely one way or the other what you mean to do – I cannot go on like this-

Carol Ewing was 53 when she left her husband. I find it hard to imagine how this undated (and unsent?) letter survived amidst the letters she lovingly saved from her daughter, but there is evidence that she reread and organized those letters, and that Cyn, her daughter, also read through the collection in her old age. So, since they did not destroy this letter, I am sharing it with the world. Imagine the balancing act Carol had to keep up year after year, to live with Gordon’s uncertain moods, yet manage to keep them from seriously affecting her daughter, who grew up (and away) into an independent confident woman who lived a happy life. Carol made the first step towards 20 years of happiness for herself by leaving him in 1947.

Marriage Break-up

The week after the Royal Wedding, changes began in the Ewing family, changes that had been years in the making but which moved swiftly in the months that followed. The marriage between Cynthia’s parents, Carol and Gordon Ewing, was not a happy one.  I have said before that I suspect my grandfather Gordon suffered from depression, or bi-polar disorder, and in his sixties things seemed to get worse. His wife was the one who bore the brunt of his behaviour.  At the end of 1947, their troubles came to a head, and Carol decided to leave him, coming to live with Cynthia in Cambridge.

Eventually Gordon was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries of the brain. I don’t know whether he had vascular dementia or had had strokes, but within two years of his wife leaving him he had been institutionalized. 

In Cynthia’s late seventies, she wrote a short story “The Straw That Broke” that fictionalized the break-up, giving a good picture of the sort of life Carol and Gordon led and what their daughter thought of it.  Then there is a letter from Carol to Gordon- probably not sent to or read by him- that shows clearly the psychological abuse she endured and the toll it was taking.  Cyn’s letters to her mother that follow are supportive – and worried!- as Carol goes through the process of splitting up the home and moving.  But by April 1948, Cyn and Carol were happily sharing a flat in Cambridge and enjoying it- and there was no need for letters between them!  

Luckily by then Cyn had met Cec Costain, her future husband, so that 1948 is illuminated by a few of his letters to his mother, and holiday postcards to Cyn, as well as photographs from a happy Cambridge courtship.  In the summer of 1949, they began a much happier marriage than Carol and Gordon’s, honeymoon letters were sent to Carol, and then they all left Cambridge, scattered, and- 

          the letters continued.  

A short story by Cynthia Costain.

THE STRAW THAT BROKE

“Are you coming swimming Katie?” asked my College roommate.

I hesitated.

“No- you go ahead. I just got a letter from my Mother. She’s leaving my Father.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” as she quickly grabbed a rolled up towel and ran out the door. Parents separating was not an everyday thing in the 1930s and she was glad to leave.

I looked at the letter again. I wasn’t surprised in some ways- I’d been glad enough to leave home and my Father’s dictatorial ways myself, but after 20 years of seeing my mother trying to please, pacify and on very rare occasions, rebel, I had got used to the status quo. I must write I thought. But no, she says that she is going to her cousin Dorothy in London – I’ll phone Dorothy tomorrow. I looked at the familiar writing. A letter every week at boarding school – a letter every week since I came to University. What did I really know of my Mother as a person? A loving Mother, a devoted member of a close family and a much younger wife of a stern husband.

When I was a child one of my favourite ways to spend a dull winter afternoon was to persuade my Mother to open the big cabin trunk which stood on the upstairs landing. It was cold but the excitement of seeing the fascinating contents made me forget the unwarmed landing. In the trunk was the satin wedding dress, mellowed to a deep ivory colour; evening dresses with demure necklines and elbow length sleeves made of silk embroidered with glittering beads, or pastel coloured georgette trimmed with ruffles. There were evening shoes to match with Louis heels and long pointed toes, beaded evening bags and delicate fans decorated with sequins. For me it was just a glorious afternoon of dressing up. I wonder what my Mother felt as she saw the lovely things never worn in England, remembered back to the time the trunk was first packed.

As the daughter of the British Resident in a corner of the Empire, just returned from Finishing school in Europe life must have seemed like a big exciting parcel filled with thrilling little packages in bright paper and silk ribbons, all waiting to be opened. Into the storybook setting of tropical sunshine and waving palm trees swept the handsome prince. The newly arrived Cultural Attaché was charming, good looking, travelled and was single!

“What happened next?” I would ask when I was told this story.

“Well” my Mother would say “My Mother thought he was too old for me, and Dad wondered why a young man had been moved so often but I wanted to get married – it was SO romantic.” and she would laugh at her 19-year-old self. “We got engaged and then we got married and not very long afterwards we came to England.”

How could my mother know that the charm could be turned on at will; that the friendliness could change to cold dislike if his opinions were challenged; or that irritability could become rage?

On returning to England my Father left the Foreign Service and joined a business firm. In the provincial city where we lived my parents at first knew no one. My Father’s work bored him and he had no hobbies. How quickly my Mother’s dreams must have dissolved, living in a small house in a suburb of identical houses, with one young untrained maid coming daily to clean. The shopping for someone who had never bought a loaf of bread; the cooking of three meals a day for someone who had only been taught to bake a cake for tea; the whole bewildering process of running a house with a husband and eventually a child. I remember in my teens realizing that no one had ever given my Mother a Cookbook.

“But what did you do Mum?”

“I just tried and tried again- not always very successfully. I had a nice neighbour, Mrs. Halliday- do you remember her? She helped me a lot, but I still made lots of mistakes.”

“I remember one mistake that I liked. The steamed puddings that sank in the middle and that was the part I liked! I was sorry when you learn to make them properly!”

With my Father’s boredom came depression and through my childhood the periods when he sat in his armchair staring at the fire for days on end while my mother tried to get him to eat or persuaded him to look at a paper or go for a walk. I would return from school, creeping into the house praying that he would be “happy” again.

As the years went by I escaped to boarding school and we moved to a new house. In that move the cabin trunk and its contents disappeared. My father was no sentimentalist. I began to want my independence and holiday times at home became more difficult as I rebelled at the strict rules. However, once I was away from home I was free.

Through the years my mother had found a few good women friends, but visits from her family were frowned upon and contact with his family was minimal. I realize that she had developed a “peace at any price” attitude; they went where he wanted for their rare holidays; they entertained as little as possible; outings to theatre and concerts dwindled. I got used to it but did my mother?

When I went to London to see her that weekend she told me that she had decided to go and live with her unmarried sister in Mexico.  It seemed like a very long way away. 

“Mum” I said “What finally made you leave?” 

“He called me a parasite.” she said.

The beginning of the critique from her writing class. Spot on!

Cynthia fictionalized the minutia of dates, jobs, and places in telling the story but the details of the relationship were completely true. I remember Cyn telling me about my grandmother’s ending the marriage.  The final question was the same- “What finally made you leave?” The answer even simpler. 

“He told me I was useless,” she said.  

When Cyn next saw her father, as she was collecting the packed boxes from the house during her holiday, she found him baffled.  After all, he had called her things like that for years…

Coming of Age in the Twentieth Century

My mother introduced me, at the age of fifteen, bored and disgruntled at our rented summer cottage with nothing new to read, to Georgette Heyer, then coming out in paperback.  I fell in love with her books, read my mother’s copies, and joined my friend Janet in collecting all we could.  The fact that Cynthia had had a ball in her honour when she was 21 put her firmly in the Georgette Heyer class in my mind.  One of the exotic stories I remembered from childhood was Cynthia’s coming of age ball.  She had been the focus of family and friends on Her Day – the closest we would ever come was the high school graduation dance in a hotel when we were 18, where we would as always be in competition with the popular and more sophisticated ‘in’ girls.  She may not have had A Season or been Presented as they had in the Regency- I didn’t know or care about 20th century debutantes- but she had gone to dances and had one of her own.  However, Cynthia’s vague allusions to her 21st birthday suggested it had not been a night of complete pleasure.

I remember as an adult asking questions to try to get a handle on the class she lived in- was it common in her circle to have a Coming-of-Age ball?  Did Jessie Muir, a doctor’s daughter as well, but one whose job after completing school was to manage her widowed father’s house, surgery, and phone, have a ball?  Did Dottie, who shared my mother’s domestic science training and also became a teacher, have a ball?  Did boys have an equivalent celebration?  I got no clear answer.  It could be that Gordon wanted to indulge his daughter and she was not appreciative; that her feelings towards him were affected by the difference of opinion over her college training; or that events in the future coloured her opinion of her father as she looked back on what, at the time, she enjoyed.  I have no idea how big this dance was, or whether it was a success.  All I know is that what she remembered were the flaws in the evening, not the enjoyment.
(And, by contrast, what do I remember of my high school graduation dance?  Well, not much.  It was the end of the sixties- hippies and free love were cool, dating/pairing off/marrying was not, really, except that if you weren’t in a relationship, you knew you were tagging behind as always.  But at my life stage and academic level, I was not ready for any of that- along with the rest of my high school class, all 5 of the Grade 13 classes, I was off to university with at least 3 years of that before we would consider settling down.  The idea was to go away to university first year and snag a date for your high school graduation in October.  I had no interest in that so I begged my cousin Bruce to be my escort and he very kindly obliged.  We returned for the graduation weekend- Thanksgiving?- had the usual tedious ceremony in rented gowns, and with close friends, organized ourselves for the evening.  

I remember my dress: floor length, A-line, sleeveless, made of a strange material in a bluey-green aqua pattern with sparkling pale silver threads sort of laminated on a spongey foam backing, made by my mother and never worn again that I remember. (The foam disintegrated in time, leaving a nasty mess among other carefully preserved garments of the era in cotton or silk.)  In fact, I remember very little- we went downtown to a hotel, we were all dressed up, we had familiar or unfamiliar dates, and it was awkward.  I can’t remember that we fundraised the way graduation classes in schools I taught in did, so did we pay for the whole thing ourselves?  If so, it was the done thing to do so, because everyone was there.  There were round tables and food, there was no drink since we were all under age and no surreptitious drinking around me anyway, there was a band, we must have danced and caught up on each other’s lives, but my main feeling was that I had moved on.  I loved my new university life at Trent where I wore blue jeans all the time instead of the incessant pressure of dress-to-look-good of high school, I had new friends who liked me, and I didn’t need my high school acquaintances any more.  Bruce and my friend Janet would always be a part of my life, but that was the last I saw of most of those people, and I have to say I didn’t miss them.  

I felt sorry for those, Janet among them, who had stayed at home in Ottawa and went to Carleton to university- scurrying around those tunnels greeting known faces from high school and only gradually finding better friends in other places.  Living in residence at Trent had acquainted me at once with all the girls on my corridor, and helped me to become good friends with people in my college that I liked.  Classes were small so within weeks, I had acquaintances in all the other colleges and knew my professors well enough to talk to.  My life expanded in every direction- but enough about me. Maybe my poor memory explains Cynthia’s vagueness- she didn’t remember much either.)

I don’t remember her description of her dress, but she did tell us about the cold water thrown on her appearance by her friend as Cyn appeared in all her glory.  Meeting at her house was the party she would go to the dance with- her escort, and her close friend, as well as her parents.  I don’t remember if it was Nancy, Jessie or Dottie, but the girl friend cried out as she twirled in front of them, “Oh Cynnie, you haven’t washed your neck!”  (This entailed a pause in the story while little Canadians were given an explanation of coal fires and soot in 30s England, and an assurance that she had washed in a lavish bath and was totally mortified by this comment.)  Even when it was discovered to be a shadow, not dirt, and the friend had apologized, and they had all moved on for a gay evening, it was the humiliation of the moment that Cyn remembered.

Was this the dance where the skirt of her dress was so tight that when she kicked a little too enthusiastically, she knocked herself right off her feet and landed on the floor?  As her 1939 Travel Diary and her letters show, dancing was one of her favourite things.

I’m not sure if it was this night or a later event, but one of her friends was staying at the Ewings’ and going to a dance with Cyn.  They went, they had fun, I assume they separated after since they had different escorts- and the friend got home before Gordon’s curfew while Cyn did not.  That meant that Cyn was locked out huddling in the cold, the household was in bed, and the friend had to feel her way down in the dark through the unfamiliar house  to let Cyn in.  Another example of Gordon’s peculiar control.

This underlines the difference between the position of women in the 30s and mine.  My mother and I both were privileged.  In my 20s, with teaching credentials and a teaching job, (having been given the gift of my education and the old car by my parents- much nicer than Gordon, I may add), I made enough in the 1970s to rent a one-bedroom apartment; run an old car to get me to my job, and drive away home or to friends in cities three to five hours away on weekends; go to visit my grandmother Carol in St. Vincent in March Break; and generally be independent.  Cynthia, also a teacher, obviously did not.  (I did have trouble finding a job for more than that one year- hence the adventure of CUSO in Nigeria 1978-80.  Furthermore, I missed my university friends, finding myself out of step with the young couples at my school.  But back to my mother.)  Until the end of the war, through 8 years of teaching, she lived at home with her parents.  And at least her father’s diktat had given her training, and her profession opened the way for her post-war exchange.  Her friend Jessie had lived at home and acted as her father’s housekeeper and receptionist after her mother’s death- until he married again and did not need her any more. The solution?  Early marriage.

When she moved to Cambridge, Cynthia seemed to have a room in a house shared with women colleagues from her school, and did not rent a flat in a house until her mother joined her.  Was it the salary or the culture?  Unmarried women in the 1930s may not have needed chaperoning at this stage of the twentieth century, but they did not seem to live alone.  My mother’s letters are full of older pairs of women sharing a life- lesbian couples or hard-up friends?  The Great War had wiped out much of a generation of young men but working women were not paid equally- a thing we’re still coping with one hundred years later.  And women teachers in the 20th century always have been held to a high standard of moral behaviour- along with the lower salaries.  (My Canadian grandmother had more in common with my mother than either of them perhaps realized, coming from different generations in different countries.)  But Cyn’s exchange year in America had given her experience of working in a different culture among people with different ideas- as my years teaching in Nigeria did me- which broadened her world view, as well as boosting her self-confidence. This maturity made her later immigration much easier than the experiences of many of the British war brides trying to cope with life in a strange new country.

Cyn, at different stages of her life in different cities and countries, seems surrounded by friends and acquaintances in her own age group doing the exactly same thing as she- working, dancing and holidaying, then slogging through the war, all the time conscious that other people were suffering more than she, since saying goodbye to friends who did not return was not the same as death or widowhood.  

But her post-war generation faced a different kind of Coming of Age.  The Nuremberg Trials attempted to establish a universal agreement about the responsibilities of states and individuals, and the consequences of abuses.  The world became more conscious of global connections, the UN established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in England, post war elections meant a Labour government moved to a better kind of attitude towards its citizens, instituting safety nets such as the National Health and changes in education and social services.  Canada followed, with the 1949 baby bonus, for example, which was sent out in the mother’s name, and Cynthia would benefit.  Again, she and her generation were all doing the same thing: getting married, getting pregnant, creating the world-wide Baby Boom- my generation- and, after she had emigrated, falling off on the letter-writing as she and her English friends produced offspring and got on with their lives far apart from each other, but still parallel.

It’s a pleasure to follow them into the post war era.