Chapter Two

Canada entered the war years with fresh memories of the Great Depression; of widespread and seemingly endless unemployment rendered unbelievable by a cornucopia of raw materials and their end products.

It isn’t literary license that allows me to use that word ‘cornucopia’; a curved horn overflowing with endless plenty was the standard symbol in my grade school textbooks when Canada’s glowing future was to be illustrated. And, indeed, the Depression of the 1930s was a time of record overproduction that belied the breadlines and soup kitchens.

 It took all-out war to empty that cornucopia. Though shortages never approached those suffered in Europe, North America suddenly had to deal for the first time with ration books, ‘Meatless Days’ (especially galling for Catholics who were already meatless every Friday), and the aforementioned challenges to the sweet tooth.

Before long, new automobiles disappeared from the streets. Our family drove a 1927 McLaughlin Buick throughout most of World War Two before my pathologically thrifty father sold the relic to an eager buyer for $400, a fortune in 1944. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice for a fifteen-year-old: gas shortages had made car rides a rare treat; I became used to cycling long distances and walking to the corner store.

It was at one of these corner stores – the closest to my home – that I easily found a weekend job and an access to candy that didn’t involve toadying to a boy soprano.

The store was a ‘confectionery’ that took full advantage of its location opposite one of the area’s larger hospitals. It sold fruit in season, and what ice cream, soft drinks and candy the owner could wheedle from the wartime authorities.

A typical customer hoped to find something suitable to bring to a patient in the hospital across the street: a few oranges or bananas, a candy bar, a ‘Dixie cup’ of ice cream with its miniature wooden shovel, or perhaps a Coke or a 7-Up or Orange Crush . . .

As mentioned, candy was in especially short supply. We were told to say: “Sorry, we’re out of Coffee Crisps, but we’ve just received these candy bars made across the river.” Most customers learned not to make that substitution. ‘Once bitten; twice shy.’ They knew these Winnipeg ‘candy bars’ were gritty concoctions that used soya beans to replace scarce peanuts and a chocolate coating made with too little sugar and far too much flour.

A local firm also supplied our confectionery with a fake cola drink and an orange-flavored swill that we only rarely had to restock, while we watched our meager ration of Coca-Cola and Orange Crush disappear within hours of delivery.

The owner employed another boy my age. Between us, we did our share to deplete the store’s stock of candy, and we guzzled a Coke anytime a slack period allowed us to hide in the stock room. By war’s end, my teeth were in ruins.

The confectionery owner was a Montrealer in his sixties. His wife didn’t take much interest in the store, appearing well after it opened with a cup of coffee in hand and a homemade cigarette dangling from her lower lip, to take over one of the confectionery’s sheltered booths until the postman brought the morning mail.

Its delivery could bring a breathtaking transformation to the woman: it was well worth waiting for. Letters with Montreal postmarks turns her characteristic scowl of disapproval into an angelic smile. A Montreal newspaper merited a sigh, and a package from Montreal was enough to have her squirming with girlish delight.

She made it plain that such courrier brought word from the Real World: from Montreal which, I was given to believe, was a glistening Mecca of Culture and Entertainment not to be compared with our dreary backwater.

Why had this aging couple put a thousand miles between them and what they considered civilization? I never found out, though the hint of an explanation emerged a bit later. But I watched for the postman so that I could bring ‘the old lady’ her treasures, especially if she needed a distraction from an unswept floor or unemptied garbage.

It was the books I remember best. When it was a book that had arrived in the mail I was summoned to fetch a kitchen knife from their living quarters behind the store, so that she could free the many pages the Montreal publisher had neglected to cut. The task often took a half-hour of concentration, her ‘roll-your-own’ cigarette scattering ashes that just missed her cup of coffee.

“Regarde!” she exclaimed one Saturday morning. “Here is a novel written by the brilliant young authoress I have read about in La Presse. She has caused a sensation in Montreal, her.” And she condescended to let me read what was written on the book’s cover:

‘Bonheur d’Occasion’ and the name Gabrielle Roy.

Then she snatched the book away and snorted: “But of course you have never heard of her. Why do I waste my time?”

“Oh, but I have heard of her, madame,” I was able to tell her. “She was my teacher in Grade One.”

Her cigarette would have fallen into her coffee cup if it hadn’t attached itself so firmly to her lower lip. I turned my back on her so that she couldn’t see my grin, and hustled off to some neglected chore.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: