CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 19 . . . . May 26, 2006
The speaker, above, is 10-year old Mary Teresa Todd, the narrator and central character of the memoir, Girl in a Red River Coat. Can one speak of a "central character" in a true story? I believe so. The little person that you used to be, long ago and far away, may seem like an entirely different person than your adult self. Memoirs that come to life, like those of Frank McCourt, present real people of yesteryear in all their complexity, fully-rounded, warts and all. Author Mary Peate does precisely this in portraying her girlhood self during the 1930s.
Then Mary's mother's sister comes to live with the family. A talented pianist, former concert performer and teacher, the aunt has suffered a stroke and has no place else to recover. Years earlier, divorcing an abusive husband, she lost custody of their son, now an adult. Mary must give up her room to her disabled aunt and sleep in her parents' room or in the living room of their small apartment. Mary's mother, busy caring for her sister, has less time for Mary. Was this change in the family configuration the cause of Mary's turning into (in the words of one of her teachers) "a loudmouth, bold little know-it-all"?
Rich in period detail and local colour, this memoir shows Mary attending a newsreel of King George VI's coronation, chanting skipping rhymes, smiling at her mother's tears over Dickens' novels, and sometimes buying new clothes. Red River Coats were the winter costumes of Quebec children. "They were made of navy blue wool melton with red flannel lining, red trimmed epaulets, a narrow red stripe down the side seams and a navy blue Capuchin hood, lined with red," Peate writes. "With that, we wore red woollen leggings, red mitts and a red sash and toque, which lent the costume a dashing habitant air." (The cover illustrations, showing various representations of this coat, in photos then and now, and illustrations of yesteryear, is a beautifully designed bit of fashion history.)
Mary Peate's memoir, first published in 1970, has a nostalgic appeal for some older readers, particularly those who grew up in the same place and time. The underlying story about Mary's lack of empathy toward her aunt gives the collection of anecdotes unity and structure but made the girl unappealing as a character. Mary seems a cold little fish. The 10-year-olds I've known were tenderhearted and compassionate towards vulnerable people, such as grandparents. Probably a harsh, punitive school system in which the children were treated badly influenced them to do unto others as was done unto them.
Mary's father, a Montreal Star writer, is wise and insightful when he reminds his complaining daughter of a line from a popular song of the era: "Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever been blue?" Her aunt, he says, has felt isolated and sad for a long time. But all Mary derives from the discussion is disappointment that her father will not ally himself in her campaign to oust auntie.
Margaret comes up with a plan: "If, after all the bother she's been to you," she explains, "you sent her a get well card, it would make her feel her neck [sic] for being so mean to you." As it turns out, the card does not hurt her aunt's feelings but is accepted as a loving gesture. In fact, the encouraging message gives her aunt a much needed boost, and she attempts to play the piano. By the end of the story, she has recovered enough to resume her music teaching career in Toronto. At the end, to redeem herself, Mary gives her aunt her long-lost son's address and phone number. The memoir ends with Mary's getting her room back and the quote: "God's in his heaven; all's right with the world." Perhaps the last line is meant ironically.
Little Mary Teresa Todd grew up to be the talented Mary Peate, broadcaster, writer and teacher. Now living in Vermont, Mrs. Peate has published non-fiction in a wide variety of periodicals, including the Los Angeles Times and the Montreal Gazette. She has written for the CBC, and, from 1958 to 1965, she hosted the popular program, Tea and Trumpets, on CBC Radio Montreal. For more about her life story, read her subsequent memoirs, also published by Shoreline: Girl in a Sloppy Joe Sweater and Girl in a CBC Studio.
Ruth Latta compiled and edited a collection of Canadian women's World War II memoirs, The Memory of All That, published by General Store, Renfrew, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.