Maryann was ten, and it was her first time performing in the Winnipeg Music Festival. Her older brother and sister were gifted piano players and they had been in the Festival many times. Maryann would be singing a song called “Over the Mountain.” Teacher thought Maryann might be less nervous if she sat at the back of the Auditorium. When they called her name it was a long walk to the stage, which only made things worse. The accompanist, Mrs. Campbell, nodded at Maryann and started to play, but when Maryann opened her mouth to sing the first word, all that came out of her mouth was a great big belch. Mrs. Campbell stopped, looked at Maryann, waited a moment and calmly started again. It went better the second time.
Maryann was the middle child and her brothers and sisters seemed to do everything right. Her big sister’s hair ribbon always perfectly tied. Her brothers smart in school, her baby sister adorable. Maryann was, or became, “the funny one,” or had the role of funny one thrust upon her. She was also such a good swimmer that all her pals at the lake still call her “Fish,” and in high school she came within a half-inch of breaking the Winnipeg School Division High Jump record. “Over the bar” came more naturally to her than “Over the Mountain.”
In the 1940’s in Manitoba they needed teachers for rural and remote areas so badly that you could get a teaching job straight out of High School. When Maryann finished school her mother took her down to the Department of Education office. The man there pulled down a map of the province and asked Maryann where she thought she might like to be posted. She said “I’ll go as far north as you’ll send me.” She spent the next year on her own, teaching in a one-room school in Norway House. She was seventeen.
Then back to Winnipeg, where she got her B.A. from United College. After that she spent a year in Toronto getting an advanced diploma in Early Childhood Education. It was while she was in Toronto that she briefly dated a hockey player, and she still cheers for the New York Rangers if the Jets aren’t playing. She would have loved to stay in Toronto but her mother convinced her, or possibly forced her, to come back home.
She had the world by the tail, but there was one thing that was difficult for her: buying a bra. There were few options available in those days for young ladies of modest size. Maryann would go to Eaton’s or The Bay determined to buy a bra, only to give up in despair, buy a record, and go home. Maryann had a lot of records. This becomes important later.
She got a job teaching Kindergarten at Florence Nightingale School. The Kindergarten teachers from all over the city used to get together for meetings and inservices, and she got to be friends with a bright, energetic young woman named Ruth. Ruth came from a big farm family and had a brother named Norman. Norman loved music. Maryann loved music: just look at all those records she had! So it was arranged that the three of them would go to a concert downtown at the Auditorium to see if any sparks would fly. It was the same Auditorium where she made her Festival debut. She was not about to let a few butterflies stop her this time either.
Blind dates are feats of courage. Or is it optimism? Maybe courage is mostly optimism. The date didn’t go too badly. Maryann was wearing a jaunty new jacket she had bought with her teacher’s salary. The jacket was fur, and it was the very latest thing so Maryann was feeling very stylish and proud. When Ruth introduced her to Norman he looked at the jacket and then said “amazing what they can do with an old goat.” When Maryann got home she told her sister “he thinks he’s funny but he’s not funny enough!” They dated for a while (she’s always been the type to give people a second chance ) but decided it wasn’t really going anywhere and they parted ways.
A couple of months later Norman phoned to say he still had a record he had borrowed from her and forgot to give back. That sly rascal. The romance went better the second time. Perhaps he had learned when to keep his big yap shut. He also danced a hell of a polka.
Both of them loved children and they started the family right away. The first baby was born nine months after the wedding, almost to the day. Some time after that, she gathered her courage and went bra shopping. Wonder of wonders, she found one that fit. She was so happy. When she got home she unboxed it and a little card fell out of the package. It read “Congratulations! You are ready for your first training bra!” Not something a twenty-seven year old nursing mother wants to hear.
A few years after they were married, Norman got a job that moved the family to Southern Ontario. Several years after the move they decided Norman would quit his job and start a woodcarving business. This was clearly a terrible idea but they did it anyway. Courage is mostly optimism, but it is also partly a love of adventure, and a half a cup of just plain stupid. It might not fly, they thought, but at least it wouldn’t be dull.
Maryann is brave, but she is not fearless. She hates mathematics. Fears and therefore hates mathematics as she hates and fears nothing else except perhaps bra shopping. But when Norman started carving, she learned to keep the books. For thirty years, she faithfully kept track of every dime coming in and going out, did the taxes, and managed the banking. At the end of every month she would spend a couple of evenings totalling the revenues and expenses on an adding machine that was not much more than an electric abacus. It rattled and banged and spit out its tape late into the night.
The totals weren’t great those first years. It’s hardly surprising. Maryann helped all she could. The first time she tended the shop by herself, she not only failed to sell anything, she bought a calendar from a veteran who was fundraising door-to-door and put the whole month into the red.
In time the business started to gain a little ground, and Norman’s work caught someone’s eye. He came home one day with a letter from some government agency or another, asking if he would be interested in moving to Lesotho for two years, to mentor craftspeople there. Maryann’s legendary response to the suggestion that they pack up four kids and move to Africa: “I couldn’t be ready before 5:00.” It didn’t happen, but she had fun thinking about it.
She needed to bring in a little cash, so she started a co-operative nursery school in the basement of the church next door. Later, after the move back to Winnipeg, she taught Kindergarten. Every school day for decades she faced down a room full of five-year -olds. Brave (and patient) Maryann taught hundreds of people the difference between 1 and 2 and red and blue and how to tie a shoe. She loved her work. She still doesn’t really like people over the age of five.
Norman died too soon. There were supposed to be more polkas. She had to hurry up and learn how to garden, and how to operate the riding mower, and to find various kinds of fun for herself. She joined a choir, and took piano lessons and belonged to a very serious book club where each member had to present a paper. She also saw the world, travel being something that Norman was reluctant to do.
She was and is the World’s Best Grandmother. I know some of you have t-shirts and coffee mugs that say you are the World’s Best Grandmother, but you are going to have to settle for runner-up. She is the absolute Custom Deluxe. She likes her grandchildren so much she even keeps liking them when they are not five years old any more. Sleepovers at her house were legendary. Trips to the lake were never to be forgotten. She taught her children, her grandchildren, and even some of her children-in-law the gentle art of skinny dipping. She takes the whole family away for a weekend every winter, and one time on one of those trips she broke a rib. The doctor said she should probably give up tobogganing.
She was eighty-four when she got t-boned at the corner of Berry Street and St. Matthews Avenue. Those five months of recovery took all the courage she possessed. There were dark moments on the trauma ward, times when it seemed impossible to try and she would say “I. Have Had. Enough. Of this.” Her family felt bad for her, but the problem was that they. Had not. Had enough. Of her. So she had to stay. Her pelvis was shattered, but her sense of humour remained intact, and she still had that optimistic streak. She likes to tell physiotherapists all about how she almost broke the record in the high jump.
She carries on. She tells stories, some of them more than once. She knits. She reads. She laughs. She makes friends with her Home Care aides. She listens to a lot of music. She buys sports bras now, so that’s one thing that’s gotten easier. These days the part of her life that requires the most courage is the dining room. She lives in a facility where, yes, the food could be better. But what kills Maryann’s appetite is the bitching. Don’t these people know they have nothing to complain about?
There is a photograph of Maryann that was taken when she was in her seventies. She is in a car. What she is doing is, she is sitting sideways in the passenger seat with the door open, and she is getting dressed. Heaven knows what kind of adventure she was on that required her to go from casual to dressy en route. She is wearing a slip. She is pulling her stockings up over her still elegant gams. She is laughing. This photo is far too beautiful to be tossed around on the internet for just anyone to see. You are going to have to imagine her there at the side of a country road, modesty be damned, headed for the next good time. There will be people and music and dancing. Maybe she’ll dance a polka; she’s been saying lately she thinks she has one more in her. She’ll tell you all about it on the phone the next day. When the conversation is over she will end the call by saying what she says every time:
©2017 by Ellen Peterson, chicken-hearted daughter of Brave Maryann.