This is an article I wrote some time ago about the amazing Guelphite, Rita Porter (Coady), who died last year at 104. She was one of the heroes at the front lines during The Depression: a homemaker. This was a time when life literally spun on a dime, when the battle cry was “use it up, wear it out, make do,” and the strategy for war, the handwritten recipe book.
Rita ran a houseful of orphans (her siblings) on Toronto Street in the Ward. Living in the self-help generation of today, this no-complaints piece stands out for me.
Recipes and photos included (thanks to the Guelph Mercury)
Making Do: A Depression Woman’s Cookbook
Rita and her little sister Helen were working at the Spinning Mill in Guelph, Ontario on a cold-to-the-bone Wednesday afternoon in February 1927. Twisting, spinning, three threads into one, another bobbin done. There were only fifteen minutes left before punch-out time, but the girls couldn’t seem to make time move fast enough. That very minute Doctor Harcourt would be washing his hands in the upstairs basin and Mother would be lying in bed with child number seven beside her. Both Rita and Helen had bets on a girl. Mother had insisted her name be “Joy.”
Joy and celebration were on the mind of many a Guelphite that year. Twenty-thousand people were living in the industrious little city, just an hour’s train ride from the metropolis of Toronto, but with enough pasture in-between for the sweet smell of manure to sit heavy in the air on any given summer’s day. Guelph, by whatever name it was called—the Royal, the Agricultural (home to the famed Ontario Winter Fair and the famed Fat Stock Show), the Musical, the Good, the Industrial (a quarter of the population worked in manufacturing)—was a city about to celebrate its hundredth birthday. With George Sleeman brewing his beer again after a ten-year dry spell on account of the temperance act, plans for a Centennial party to end all parties were in the works. On the bill were the Guelph Pipe Band, Alexander Saison and the First Italian Band, the Robinson Bakery Band and a Grande Finale of high jinks above St. George’s Square. There was no way Rita and her sister were going to miss it.
These were good times, pulling in eleven cents an hour, six days a week just for spinning wool onto bobbins. Rita, at five feet tall and hardly pushing a hundred pounds, had already been working full-time for five years at three different factories ever since her teachers had told her that she wasn’t much for academics. She was 13. In those days, if someone was considered not much for schooling it was most often the girls. Rita didn’t mind—the nuns were strict and the other kids called her four-eyes as she wore glasses when few others did. So Rita, with her blunt cut shingled up the back, could be seen twisting and spinning on the third floor of the Spinning Mill, having long since decked the halls of St. Agnes Girl’s School up on Catholic Hill.
The mill was Rita’s best job yet, especially if you compared it to Sterling Rubber where she worked for two years making gloves. It was the “misters” job to dunk the delicate china hands into the vats of boiling rubber—one dip for surgical, three for household and more still for linesman gloves—and the girls’ to shape the rims by rolling up the edges while the rubber was still hot. The toughest task was peeling the glove off the china mould, requiring some pretty fancy finger work by three girls lined up one behind the other.
It was true, at the Spinning Mill with all those machines running (80 powered looms), it was so noisy you could hardly hear yourself speak, but it was nothing compared to that awful rubber plant, dark and sticky, and teeming with rumours of underground condom production. Although Rita swore she never saw a one. Sure, the mill had rumours of its own, the kind that involved girls getting their ‘sex education’ after hours, but Rita didn’t believe it. Besides Rita couldn’t remember any girl ever getting pregnant and having to leave while she was working there. She and Helen were certainly never approached. They had a safeguard anyhow. Buried beneath their work clothes were three tiny metals, the Blessed Virgin, Jesus and the Sacred Heart. The sisters, and pretty-well all Catholics, kept these pinned to their undershirt next to their hearts.
Rita felt lucky to have even been hired at the mill at all. It wasn’t that jobs were hard to get in ’27, there was plenty of factory work in her neighborhood (a mixed industrial and residential subdivision spilt in half by the Guelph Junction Railway). You basically just showed up and promised you’d work really, really hard. In the case of the mill, you also had to be able to tie a Weaver’s knot, which wasn’t a problem for Rita who was adept with a needle and thread by the time she was twelve. It was just that the British-owned mill didn’t hire Italians, which was a bit uncomfortable considering it was located in the heart of the Italian neighborhood along with most of the other factories in Guelph at the time. Rita had dark skin, which she thought made her a little suspect even though her people were Irish from way back. Nonetheless, Rita was hired and brought her sister along with her when she too quit school after Grade 8, and they were both more than happy to be counted among the 400 employees. The best thing was she got to work alongside all those girls and share a machine alley with her sister.
Twisting, spinning, three threads into one, another bobbin done. Another day, another dollar—literally. Rita pulled the R. Coady employee card from the rack, and with a strong yank on the handle, the big clock punched her out at 5:01 p.m. The sisters bolted down Toronto Street past the rows of solid, gabled-front houses peopled by mainly Irish and Italian families. Past the lone household of blacks at the end of the block, and past the Polish family who lived right across the street from the two-story, redbrick Coady home in the working-class neighborhood known as ‘the Ward.’ A steady stream of immigrants looking for factory work, many from Southern Italy, began arriving in the Ward at the beginning of the century, but not Rita’s family who had been in Ontario for generations but whose economic status suited the neighborhood.
The girls scrambled up the broad cream-coloured porch at No. 48 and flung open the door. There, in the hallway, blocking the girls’ course up the stairs stood the priest from the Church of Our Lady Immaculate. With a family of nine, a new baby, plus three boarders, it was hard to believe the house could have been perfectly quiet, but it was. So quiet that when the priest told the sisters their mother died while giving birth, Rita wondered why he had to say it so very, very loud.
Upstairs the two girls found a sticky red baby with thick dark hair lying alone on their bed. It was a girl, just as they had both predicted, but her name would not be Joy. It just couldn’t be. She would take on their mother’s name, Ann, even though Rita thought she looked nothing like the woman she had just seen lying perfectly still under an old wool blanket in the next room. What Rita did not see, behind the door, was the barrel of bloodstained sheets that would have to be salted, rinsed, hung out in the sun then spread on the bed once again. Sheets weren’t that easy to come by, usually a patchwork affair made up of sugar bags from the pickle factory.
Nowadays this tragedy would not have happened. Annie Coady would have just had a caesarian, but surgery was rare back then, and certainly not performed in the home. Expensive, too, particularly for a family living in the Ward.
All Rita could think of was getting that baby baptized quickly in case it too died all of a sudden. She pleaded and pleaded with the priest, even for just a fast sign of the cross, but these things are done in the Church, she was told, so she and the baby must wait until Sunday. Meanwhile Helen kept running up and down and up and down the stairs until eventually the undertaker showed up and told her not to come up any more. Go help your father, he said. When the two Victorian Order of Nurses arrived they gave Rita a nipple and a bottle filled with milk and some basic instructions on how to hold a baby’s head. Then they left.
There were no social services available to the family. What the Coadys had was each other, and that is what they relied on.
That night the undertaker laid Annie Coady out on boards set up beside her bed so as not to soil the felt mattress. It was also done to ensure her body stiffened nice and straight in order to fit the coffin. Then he hung a crepe on the door, a fancy bow of purple and black with long streamers. There had been a death in this home is what it meant to anyone passing by.
The children’s father Michael, who had loved his wife dearly, had run his fingers through her long dark hair, had held her soft round face in his hands and kissed her eyelids a thousand nights, became a housekeeping machine. He was always good at keeping house, cooking, and knitting, too—not like the other dads around who left that kind of stuff to the women—but that night he threw himself into the all-consuming task of putting that place in order. He and Helen didn’t sit down for even a minute. People would be coming; more company than the house on Toronto Street had ever seen. And so unexpected. The 100-pound bag of sugar sitting on the kitchen floor had to be emptied into the barrel in the pantry; extra dishes had to be dug out of the cellar and rinsed off; floors had to be washed; cabbage, potato and barley had to be boiled in chicken broth.
Throughout the long night Rita was shushing, rocking, sponging, cuddling and burping the baby. Then all of a sudden she fell in love with it. Ann needed Rita, and Rita needed Ann to take away her pain. The baby slept next to Rita in a bed next to Helen, next to 11-year-old Dorothy every night for 15 months, huddled under a kaleidoscopic quilt handmade by their mother from scraps of clothing. Now, instead of three to a bed, there would be four.
In the morning, the undertaker returned to prepare Mother’s body for the casket. By that time, the younger ones, Ted, 9, Dorothy, 10, and Albert, 12, had given up on the idea that maybe she was just unconscious. The whole family, including Ann who was tucked inside Rita’s housecoat, were told to go into the kitchen and to keep the door shut. If they had to go to the bathroom they had better go now, the undertaker said. Fourteen-year-old Son (the first-born boy) didn’t have to go, but he went anyway. Nobody spoke, nor did the baby cry for that 30-minute eternity when Mother was dressed in her Sunday best then carried downstairs and put into the coffin. She had always worn her hair in a bun except when she slept, but the undertaker must not have known how to tie hair, for there she was, looking not at all like herself: her long wavy hair parted in the middle and fanned out over her shoulders and chest, her hazel eyes pressed closed. She wore her only valuable possession, a thin gold band on her left finger.
The body of 34-year-old Annie Coady lay in an open casket in the living room for three days illuminated by the light of a dozen candles burning through the night. The house filled with mourners, many who stayed over, especially the farmers who arrived by train from the rural communities of Mildmay and Formosa, one of who was their only living grandparent, their mother’s father. Grandpa Steffler behaved as was expected, and looked as he always did, wearing his only suit and his hair combed straight back. He was a smaller man, but strong and basically emotionless—in public anyway.
The guests ate oatmeal sprinkled with a little brown sugar cooked over the double boiler on the coal stove. Rita served coffee she had kept percolating all night long to anyone who found a spot in the living room, some falling asleep in a chair or on the floor here and there, all wearing the same black clothes they had on the day they arrived. By the second day, neighbors had kindly dropped off spice loaves with coffee-cream icing, sour-milk gingerbread and sausage-prune pies. Who cares, thought Rita, lost in grief, as she greeted them at the door and said “thank-you that is very kind,” and pulled off a smile.
Every night the gathering got down on their knees and said the rosary in the living room. Old and young alike. Ten Hail Marys, one Our Father with Glory Be To The Father in-between. On the third evening, the priest came to the house and led group in prayer. With heads bowed, each and every one asked for the soul of Annie Coady to rest in peace.
The next morning everyone put on their heavy coats and walked behind the open horse-drawn hearse that carried the body of Annie Coady through town. Ann was only three days old, so Rita unwillingly had to leave her with the neighbor. She gave Ann a last bottle, wiped her eyes clean of goo, patted down her hair, wrapped her in a quilt, kissed her up one side and down the other, then caught up to her father in the procession. They climbed the icy stairs of Catholic Hill up to the grandiose 1888 Church of Our Lady. They prayed in pews surrounded by elaborate murals and intricate stained-glass windows illustrating the life of The Virgin. They followed the casket down the aisle to the leaden rhythm of a funeral march played on a Casavant organ. They knelt at the white marble and onyx altar imported from the Rouillard studios of Angers, France that perched on a platform of Italian Terrazza Mosaic at the front of the Church. They piled into the Model T Ford belonging to Mr. Gladstone, their dad’s boss at Ingot Iron, and made their way to the pile of dirt in the Catholic graveyard at the edge of town. Throughout the whole two-hour service, Rita couldn’t keep her mind off that baby.
After the funeral, every one of Rita’s Aunts, and there were four, assumed they would be taking the new baby home with them. Four times Rita had to say ‘thank-you very much but I am the baby’s mother now,’ all the while feeding Ann Eagle Brand milk warmed up with a little hot water.
For the next eight months things carried on as normally as possible at the Coady household: Helen continued with the twisting and spinning, Rita picked up where her mother left off. It only took a few weeks for Rita to perfect Aunt Alice’s cucumber relish and to sweeten the crab-apple jelly just so, to roast the beef and scallop the potatoes and chop up the cabbage for slaw. There were floors to be scrubbed, clothes to be made, children to be bathed and homemade factory-cotton bloomers to be changed—but just once a week on Sunday. There was also a garden to plant, peaches to be canned, onions to be dried, cucumbers to be pickled and old hens to be plucked, gutted and boiled up for soup, which was not a pleasant job to say the least. From watching her mother, Rita knew to dip the dead hen in hot but not boiling water in order to loosen the cuticles for plucking. She knew to singe the soft hairs off the skin using a tightly rolled newspaper lit ablaze at one end, then to slice open the hen with the precision of a surgeon, for if the little green gallbladder was punctured, the bile was sure to spoil the meat. Save for this disgusting little organ, every part of the bird was for the eating—the gizzard, liver, neck and heart were pan fried and served as is, or else chopped up and added to the gravy. Rita was grateful no one in her house had a taste for pigeons (as did many others on their street, especially in the harder times to come), for she didn’t want to have anything to do with the preparation of those bony birds.
Baby Ann was, of course, a handful. The constant attention she needed and those smelly diapers that had to be washed day in day out, then hung on the line, or, on bad weather days, above the stove which meant they would never come quite clean without the sun to burn out the stain.
Rita would later learn from her cousin, “Big Rita”, that her mother was not expecting the baby to live. She had already had two miscarriages after Rita’s brother Ted was born nine years earlier. She had been so sick with Ann’s pregnancy she assumed it would end the way the others had. Instead the delivery took her. There really was nothing prepared—no crib, no buggy, no baby clothes. Luckily Rita located the 27 flannelette diapers that had been used for every other Coady baby, and, thanks to Mrs. Auty next door, Ann wore hand-me-downs.
This was how her mother filled her day while she was at the factory, thought Rita. And somehow performing these daily rituals made it seem a little like Mother was still there. She had done all these chores done just like this. Except one. She didn’t get to use the washer, a gift her husband had purchased as a surprise for the birth of the seventh child. Annie Coady never knew anything but raw knuckles and split cuticles from the washboard. Not that the washer was all easy street. It was still a full-day affair, always on Mondays. The water had to be heated on the stove, then emptied into the drum mixed with a little flaked soap. As the Coady household had electricity, Rita was saved the chore of chugging the laundry back and forth by rotating the big handle on the front of the washer, as was done in many homes. Once the washer had run its cycle, clothes were then dipped into the rinse bin and squeezed through rubber rollers on the ringer—a process repeated until all the soap was removed. Although having an electric ringer was surely a lot less tiring than running clothes through manually, it did have its drawbacks. Fingers were easily caught in the rollers while pushing the clothes through. If you didn’t slap the emergency stop bar in time, you’d be left with some pretty nasty burns or have the skin ripped right off your hand. Eventually Rita learned to use a little wooden stick to poke the clothes through.
As there was no dryer, everything was hung outside on the huge clothes rack, even in winter months. But never on Sunday. Its true, sometimes the clothes would freeze and have to be brought inside stiff as a board in order to complete the drying process, but the frosting did a good job of whitening them up. Everything was made from natural fibres in those days, mainly cotton and wool, so nothing ever snapped in half. Besides, clothes always smelled so fresh coming in off the line. Rainy Mondays were murder; clothes strewn all over the kitchen like a cotton fort for Rita to work around.
In spite of all the drudgery, Rita was glad to have such a focus. She didn’t want to think too much about her mother, or about all the other girls working together at the mill. Never was a baby’s face wiped so clean, a body checked so thoroughly for spots, a baby’s nails clipped with such precision. Ten toes, ten fingers, all there, checked and double-checked.
The children’s father Michael was out the door by 6 a.m. each morning. He limped the two miles to work six days a week to his job making culverts at the Ingot Iron Company. He had had a bum leg since his youth and wore a built-up shoe to even out his gate, but it wasn’t quite built up enough to prevent a limp. He must have been so tired at the end of the day after riveting big round pipes together in a noisy factory then having to walk the two miles back, yet he managed to work in the garden and tend to the chickens in the backyard before sitting down to his daughter’s dinners. He was 20 years older than his wife; his head was covered in thick, pure-white hair that showed his 54 years. He had that kind of working man’s look prevalent in pictures of men from the twenties and thirties—thin, sallow faces, leathery skin, squinting eyes. He had good teeth though, which Rita inherited—big, white, solid and quick to smile. His marriage to his wife 18 years earlier was seen, in those days, as somewhat of a rescue job for she was pregnant with Rita out of wedlock, by four months. Ironically, he would ultimately lose her while in the same condition.
At 8 a.m., the four younger children followed their father out the door. Their walk to school took them over the Speed River and up Macdonell Street through bustling downtown Guelph. First stop was the C.N.R. train station where, in winter, the children slipped inside for a quick warm-up and an inspection of the steam locomotives sitting on the lot. Across the tracks was the old Bell Piano and Organ Company with its two huge water towers balancing on top. In its prime the company turned out 900 pianos, but now, in 1927, was moribund. Next, the little group of four crossed over the streetcar tracks and looked into the window of the busy blacksmith shop, then stopped to pet the horses at the Guelph fire hall, who kept its team out front at the ready. By the time they reached the lively Albion Hotel at the base of Catholic Hill before the long climb up the stairs to the Church, whose twin towers had only been completed the year before, the children were often late for school. All of these attractions en route were hard on a child’s punctuality. Horse-drawn sleighs could still be seen on the road on a winter’s day, their bells ringing. They were low enough for the children to hitch a ride by hanging on to the side and standing on the runners, which helped shorten the walk some.
With everybody out of the house, Rita had a few minutes of rocker time before the meat man, the fish man, the fruit man (who the kids called the banana man), the ice man, the baker and kind Sandy King, the milkman, came calling. Plus the vendors that sold eggs, corn and wood—each on horse and wagon. And of course there was the junk man who bought rags, bottles and anything else Rita could no longer find a use for, which wasn’t very much.
There was another visitor, a certain fair-haired, accordion-playing visitor, who also came calling when the others were out: nineteen-year-old George Porter. He was such a happy-go-lucky, talkative type that Rita revered the day Mabel Walton crossed her best friend Mary Cooke, who then set Rita up on a date with Mabel’s boyfriend George just to get even. George stayed Rita’s boyfriend from that moment on, what seemed to Rita to be a God-given diversion.
On the occasional Friday night, Rita unscrewed the bulb hanging from the wire in the centre of the bathroom ceiling and plugged in the curling iron, then proceeded to curl her hair, which was no easy task since she had just extinguished the room’s only light source. She sprayed herself with some of her mother’s perfume (there was no such thing as deodorant and bath day wasn’t until Saturday), then slipped out of her wool leggings and into silk nylons, the kind with seams up the back, also belonging to her late mother. Downstairs George was sitting with her father in the living room. Rita’s dad didn’t have any problem with having the boy around, even if he wasn’t Catholic. He’d always told the girls, “If you are ashamed to bring them home, then you should be ashamed to go out with them.” Rita had no shame at all. In fact, she was proud to have a boyfriend. It did a lot for a girl’s status in those days, and everybody wanted one. So into the night the couple went, splurging 35 cents on a motion picture at the Temple of Silent Art. It was the thing to do on a Friday night, and the theatre, on the site of the former Regent Hotel stables, accommodated the crowds, packing in so many rows that the projectionist had to use field glasses to focus the film on the screen.
Most nights though were not so glamorous. The Coady family usually stayed home together and tried to keep their spirits up. Now and then (but never during Lent) Rita brightened the mood with walnut-stuffed spiced prunes, dripping in corn syrup* she had made from a recipe in her mother’s old cookbook. These delicacies were no sooner on the plate before they were popped into the appreciative mouths of the younger kids sitting at the kitchen table playing Euchre, sometimes Snakes and Ladders, as they had no TV and no radio. (The two oldest boys, Son and Albert were about to change that, building a “Cat’s Whiskers” radio from scratch, the type that only one person could listen to with earphones and running on a battery as big as a sewing machine.) More often than not, Rita rocked the baby to sleep while watching her dad cut six-inch squares out of newspaper then thread them together into toilet paper packs. The Coadys had long since run out of the luxury toilet paper made of wrapping from Christmas oranges.
Of course, the time after their mother died was quieter than most. For six months the girls wore all black, the boys, a black armband, and the family sent letters on writing paper bordered by a black trim because this is how things were done. When the date for the big Guelph Centennial party in St. George’s Square eventually came, Rita and Helen were not in attendance. It wasn’t right to be seen in public at such a celebratory event during a mourning period.
The Coady children took Lent very seriously that year. They never once missed saying the rosary for those forty days. And they always crossed themselves with the holy water from the fount mounted on the wall in the hallway. They studied the Catechism during the week and kept up with their prayers before dinner, before bed, pretty well all the time. Their father gave these things up. He stopped going to church, too, which was considered a mortal sin; instead he spent Sunday mornings at the graveyard across town. The children filled the pew on their own. It was hard for the children to imagine the pain their father must have been feeling, for he only mentioned his wife once. “The longer she is dead, the more I miss her.”
His garden became his lover and she rewarded his devotion by offering him beautiful flowers in the spring, which everyone appreciated, especially Rita for they really enhanced her Sunday table setting.
Come summer, their dad decided to cancel the horse and buggy he always rented from the livery stable for the annual family reunion half an hour away in Elora. The gang of cousins missed the water pistols he used to fashion out of reeds he’d pluck from the bulrushes down at the river. No one would ever learn his trick of wrapping the ends with a string to keep the water in before shooting out a steady stream.
Their father became very intent on keeping that family well fed. Almost obsessed. He spent so much time fattening the chickens and cleaning the droppings off the floor of the coop that you could nearly eat off of it. He began to slip out early in the mornings before work to pick mushrooms at the garbage dump, as if he didn’t have enough to do with the garden.
In October, when the men from the Stove Company came to deliver the winter’s coal, Michael Coady asked them to back their truck out the lane instead of turning around in the yard. When his request was disregarded, the tires of the truck ended up cutting through his beloved garden. He was upset, which is understandable, but he couldn’t let it go. It seemed to eat away at him.
In three days, he would be dead.
At noon on a Saturday after a half-day at the Iron Company, Rita’s father stopped at the Guelph Farmer’s Market to order the winter’s supply of potatoes. Once home, he went down to the cellar and arranged the jars of preserves and stacked the bags of onions and turnips to make room for the winter’s supply of potatoes to be delivered that afternoon. At 1 p.m. when the two farmers arrived, Rita, who was alone with the baby as the others were uptown, finished a stitch of fancywork on an apron and greeted them at the door. She sent them around to the cellar window where her father was awaiting the load, then returned to her embroidery. Not ten minutes passed before the farmers were pounding on the front door, telling Rita her father did not return to the window for the second sack. Rita smiled, her glasses fogging from the crisp October air blowing in through the open door. Her dear dad was the fussy type. He was probably checking each potato for quality, she told them. He had been such a perfectionist since Mother died and planned to feed his family the best he could that winter, she explained. Not to worry, she would go down and hurry him along.
There, on the cellar floor was her father, slumped up against the stone wall, feet kicked out in front with the 100-pound sack of potatoes to one side. In his fedora and glasses and still wearing his factory clothes, he looked like he just backed right up then slid down the wall.
The first thing Rita thought of was whiskey. That would bring him to, she was certain, but one of the farmers caught her arm. “Too far-gone for that, miss,” he apologized. Rita sat down on the cellar steps. When the other farmer said “heart attack,” all Rita could hear were the chickens clucking all the way from the coop in the backyard.
So the rest of the potatoes were unloaded and the farmers were paid. The coroner showed up followed by the priest from Church of Our Lady Immaculate with the other children in tow, and the long thin body of their father was laid out in the living room for three days, just the way their mother had been eight months earlier in February. The house would have to be put in order again. Company was company. It was Helen’s turn to be on candle, coffee and oatmeal duty, while Rita dug out the heavy iron and pressed the children’s black clothing she had only just put into storage the month before.
Michael Coady’s funeral unfolded much the same as his wife’s with the service held at the Church and the burial in the Catholic graveyard across town, even though he hadn’t stepped foot inside the Church since his wife’s funeral.
This time, relatives offered to take the two younger boys, Ted and Albert, but they wouldn’t go. The Coadys wanted to stay together. On the eve of the Depression, the children were truly a family of orphans.
When the last of the company finally left, the children all went to bed. Both Rita and Helen were so sick they stayed there for days, so delirious they didn’t recognize anyone who came to their door to look in on the household of orphans. It was reaction of course. The children never imagined they would be left alone at that age. That year would mark the first in a series of winters where the whole family would be bedridden with flu, all at the same time. Rita administered the A.S.A. (aspirin) for the older ones, and gripe water* for the younger ones.
The sisters could not very well ignore the baby just because they weren’t feeling well, so they took turns between rocking her in one of the two rockers in the living room and vomiting. They weren’t about to turn their backs on the little ones either, so after a week of recuperation, the sisters came up with a plan. Rita would run the house. Helen would head back to the mill and take over their father’s role as primary bread earner. She would split her wages with Rita who would manage the finances. This included 48 dollars a month mother’s allowance (much of which would go to the Hydro Electric Power Commission), plus ten dollars a week given to them by the manager at Ingot Iron for the first year after their father’s death, which would cover the taxes. The other kids stayed in school but delivered The Guelph Mercury in the morning so they could have their own spending money. (Son and Albert smoked, as did most boys at the time.) Nine-year-old Ted also worked as a pinboy at the bowling alley on weekends, and Albert, 13, delivered groceries on his bicycle for the A & P. Everyone accepted the plan except Son. He wouldn’t have it; he said he had to do his part. So he quit school and took a job driving for Commercial Motor Bodies, bringing trucks up from Toronto to be hand-painted by the striper in Guelph. He was the only brown-eyed one of the bunch and always did things his way.
Rita kept close records of the expenditures to show to the lady from mother’s allowance who dropped in at the end of each month. Otherwise the family was left alone without any other aid.
It was the kind of training the children would never have wished upon themselves, but when The Great Depression hit, they hardly noticed it—they didn’t have a bank account, were already poor and certainly knew a thing or two about self-sufficiency. Only once did Rita make use of a relief voucher that Son had acquired. For standing the better part of a day at City Hall, with Ann in her arms behind a line-up of mostly men, Rita was handed a pair of gray work socks. That was it. Still, if ever a vagrant came to their door during those years, there was always a sandwich and a spot to eat it under the clothes stand in the backyard.
The children divvied up their father’s chores and got rid of the ones they just couldn’t take on. First to go were his chickens. They were eaten up that winter. The worst job was the furnace, but it couldn’t be ignored. It had to be banked with coal at night so it would last until morning. There was a real precision in knowing just the right time to close the drafts for the gas to burn off the coal but to not burn out all together. Many a night the children sat discouraged in front of that black beast, their hands covered in ash. The first winter they had the stove out more than they had it on. Everybody loved it when George Porter dropped by to lend a hand, especially Rita, but he was busy himself, with a job and his own chores at his parent’s house.
Their father’s intense drive to keep the home well stocked with food and supplies had ironically paid off. Everything was there to get the children through the winter without him—the vegetables, the coal, the chickens and the potatoes. Rita intended to make that food last by reading up on cost-saving ideas and cooking tips in Dorothy Dix’s Letter Box column in The Guelph Mercury. She also paid special attention to the ‘Points for Mothers’ with Ann in mind. Just for fun, she and Helen peeked at the society column, ‘Talk of the Town,’ just to see how the folks in the big houses uptown were living.
There wasn’t much talking around the table that first Christmas dinner with the two empty chairs at both ends. Yet Rita somehow managed to do it up right. The children weren’t about to let themselves sit there and cry. They did have some things to be grateful for. Each other, for one. Rita served a Christmas goose complete with stuffing: hot tender innards baked with grated bread, chopped onion, green sage, salt, pepper, whisked eggs and farm-fresh butter. The side dishes were mashed turnip delight alongside fried cabbage and, the staple in the Coady kitchen, potatoes and suet. There was a choice for dessert: either steamed carrot pudding the neighbor had dropped by, or one of the best Spy apples from their dad’s tree Rita had saved up since autumn. Ann would have to wait before trying any of her sister’s cooking as it was a couple months yet before she was weaned off the Eagle Brand milk and onto soft foods mashed with gravy. The children didn’t bother with a tree that year, or presents or stockings or anything like that. They just wanted it over with.
Every meal meant umpteen trips to the cellar, no matter what memories were living down there, for that was where the food and coal were stored. Carrots, beets and turnips were buried in a bucket of sand to prevent shriveling, hard fruits piled in wooden barrels, soft fruits made into preserves, meat stowed in a crock, cheese layered with hay in a basket, butter salted and daubed into in a stone jar, milk poured into pails then covered with an extra supper plate (the only time milk was said to spoil was during a big thunderstorm when the milk would curdle), and, of course, potatoes piled high in 100-pound burlap sacks.
Scalloped potatoes and wieners became a favorite. Baked beans and molasses followed by bread pudding did not, but were served all the same, two or three times a week. None of the boys did any cooking, not like their father had, but sometimes, late at night after everyone was in bed, Son baked tea biscuits from the box.
Every kid had their chore, be it snipping beans, dusting coal ashes off the furniture or heading out to the bush to pick wild raspberries. Young Ted had an ulterior motive in the bush—hunting rabbits to sell at the farmer’s market alongside his big sisters Rita and Helen who sold asters, cabbage plants, gladiola bulbs, and vegetables that they managed to skim from their own supply.
Rita incorporated other cost-saving measures: instead of getting new shoes, shoes were half-soled; old hand-me-down clothes from neighbors were torn apart, the fabric reused then sewn into a new outfit. The decision was made not to reuse father’s clothing. It was awfully threadbare and far too big for any of the boys anyway, so Rita donated it to St. Joseph’s home for the poor. He had no other worldly goods, except for his shoes, which went to the junk man, as they wouldn’t have been of any use to anyone else on account of the built-up sole that had compensated for his bad leg. The boys did make good use of their mother’s old broken-down sewing machine. It hadn’t sewn a stitch since she attended dressmaking class at Central School just before she died, so they took it apart and turned it into a jig saw, which sure came in handy.
Even menstrual pads were recycled. Helen and Rita, and eventually Dorothy too, washed their own out by hand in a bucket of salt then laid them on the lawn to dry in a corner of the yard so the neighbors wouldn’t see. Although none of the girls ever used a disposable pad, each celebrated the advent of flannelette napkins attached with a belt replacing the uncomfortable procedure of pinning pads to their underwear.
On weekends, the Coady children did their best to have fun—playing Run Sheep Run, Can I Come Over and Hide and Seek. Tobogganing on the six-man bobsled made by their father was always good for a thrill, but it never ran quite as fast without their dad’s big push at the top of Queen Street hill. Rita soon learned the trick of suiting the boys up for hockey using Eaton’s catalogues for shin pads. When they came home with colds after too many hours spent on the river, Rita knew to coat their chests with mustard plasters*. If that didn’t work, but it usually did, she rubbed them with goose grease and turpentine and made little vests out of brown paper bags for them to wear beneath their clothing. This treatment was never a popular one, especially on school days when the smell would be cause for ridicule.
Saturday night was bath night and since the hot water didn’t run well in the bathroom it had to be lugged up all the way from the hot-water reservoir in the coal stove. The children missed the strong arms of their father who used to carry the big metal tub filling the bath in just two trips. Instead, the children had to run up and down the stairs with small pots. This meant two to a bath, which didn’t phase the Coadys much, considering they shared one toothbrush between the seven of them. Shampoo was simply grated soap and water boiled into a gel. Son came up with the idea of heating bricks in the oven, wrapping them in newspaper then tucking them at the foot of the bed at night to avoid a chill after the bath. With their heads on the good feather pillows that had been handed down through their mother’s family, bedtime was an absolute luxury.
Of course, every Sunday meant High Mass at 10:30 and the children never missed it. The Church of Our Lady had one of the best and biggest choirs around. A strong and bounteous sound swelled in the choir loft, curled down the winding wooden staircase and caressed the shoulders, the necks, the ears of the children; a hum that reverberated in their heads long after the song had ended. After church, on very special occasions, the Coady gang dropped in at the Kandy Kitchen for an ice cream float or a chocolate Sunday or some other such bit of heaven. Where there was pleasure to be had, the children clung to it like a babe to a bosom.
Around this time, George Porter’s presence at the Toronto Street home expanded from the occasional weekday to include evenings and weekends, then eventually to pretty-well all the time when Rita opted to give over the Coady name for Porter. Twenty-year-old George was about to become a fireman, but he had to be a married man and 21 years of age, as were the requirement for such a profession at the time. Rita could help him with the one, but the other would have to be fudged: George’s instant family of eight needed that income.
It was sad that George never got to know Rita’s mother, but at least he had spent some time with her dad out at Hart’s farm just before he died. The two had picked apples together from her father’s tree then sorted the scabby ones from the shiny into barrels.
It was a happy June wedding day in 1928. Rita’s siblings really liked George and were anxious to welcome not only him, but also his accordion and his propensity for house parties into their home. As George was a Protestant, the ceremony was held in the chapel at the rectory of Church of Our Lady and not in the Church. Helen stood at Rita’s side as her maid of honor. Photos were taken on the grounds of the Guelph Reformatory, not far from the house.
As the wedding took place on a Wednesday, George’s day off mid-week, there was no time for a reception, but they did have a wedding cake. Stout Aunt Jenny Coady, who had studied cake decorating at the new Bread and Cake Maker’s School at the agricultural college on the hill, made a 3-layer, ginger and clove, orange-peel wedding cake*. She aged it for four weeks wrapped in a rum-soaked cheesecloth, then decorated it with lemon Ornamental frosting tinged pink with red dye. Aunt Jenny had given the cake as a wedding gift, but at the last minute, asked for ten dollars, putting Rita in a pinch. Luckily Granddad Porter had given the couple that very amount as his present.
That night Rita and George took over the master bedroom, sleeping in the bed her parents had slept in, below the paintings of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin. Soon, Ann was replaced by babies of Rita’s own. After their first child, 23-year-old George had all his teeth pulled out for they were terribly rotten and crooked. This was cheaper than paying a dentist to fill in all the cavities. He wore a Charlie Chaplin moustache to hide his mouth for six months until his false teeth were ready. It didn’t deter Rita though, who bore two more children with him before she was 25, swelling the household to eleven and occasionally fifteen when Rita’s cousin “Big Rita” and her three children had no place else to go.
The times being what they were, Rita started to get nervous thinking if this carried on by the time she had her ‘change of life,’ she’d have twenty kids. As childbearing and rearing were to be a woman’s crowning joy, information on birth control, especially for a Catholic girl, just didn’t exist. Women were uninformed and families were inevitably large. George’s sister, a Protestant, told Rita about a doctor’s office in Hamilton where girls could get fitted for this magical device called a pessary (diaphragm today), so Rita and her sister-in-law made the trip by train. At the office, Rita was asked her religion, which posed a problem as Catholics were not allowed access to birth control. Since it was also a sin for Catholics to lie, Rita was booted out the door. Another baby came. Then Rita heard about a rubber factory in Kitchener. Luckily nobody at Kaufmanns, where shoes were made up until a few years ago, was concerned about Rita’s religion when she showed up at the back door of the factory. A few weeks after Rita registered herself, a plain brown envelope arrived at Toronto Street. Inside was a small rubber ring and a thin tube of jelly. It was hush hush how it all worked, but Rita managed to figure it out, for which she and George and the rest of the Coady gang were grateful.
Besides babies and music, one of the other things George brought to the Coady household was a car, which quickly became the family’s favorite source of entertainment. On Sundays the whole gang piled in for a tour of the most recent hydrants installed by the fire department. That car took Rita, and Ann, too, to see the two-year-old Dionne quintuplets in Callander. It also took Rita camping in the hardwood bushes of Muskoka and to the occasional wrestling match in Toronto, in one of which George himself was a contestant losing to Whipper Billy Watson. Even in the winter, when the windshield was coated with frost inside and out, Rita set candles on the dash to melt the ice so the car was good to go year-round—when they could afford the gas, of course.
By 1935, the house was getting pretty crowded, especially with George and Rita sharing a room with their three children. The only space available for the latest baby was the walk-space to the bed. Rita had to enter the room then pull the crib (made from an old meat basket with a pillow inside and a fancy curtain sewn around the border) in after her so everyone could fit. It was time for the Porters to move out. Rita was so sorry she couldn’t take 9-year-old Ann with her, but her brothers and sisters felt Ann should stay in the family home. Little did Rita know that in years to come she would take care of not only Ann once again, but also her baby every Sunday night to Friday while Ann was at work.
Ann was encouraged to go on in school, pushed even by her older siblings who had grand plans for her, but she was a strong-headed child. After Grade 8 she quit school and headed straight to the Spinning Mill. Ann must have heard about the “after-hours sex education,” for at seventeen, she became pregnant by a man who worked at the mill but could not legally marry him until the age of eighteen as there were no parents available to sign for her. She went on to have seven babies, just like her mother Annie Coady.
When the war years came, George took a leave of absence from the fire department to join the army. He was away from home for five long years. Looking after the children and the house became Rita’s whole life once again. When George returned in 1945, the Porters bought a 66-by-330-foot lot, and, with help from off-duty fireman, began to build a house across town, a little white house with a pumpkin-orange door. Not long after they moved in, George became sick and was hospitalized with nephritis for 74 days. As children were not allowed in hospitals in those days, Rita took the bus up to St. Joseph’s by herself every night with a newspaper and fresh pajamas. When he eventually came home he lived on a diet of milk pudding three times a day for one month.
Ten years later, in 1957, George’s heart failed and he left Rita for good. From this point on, Rita measures her life in the time before and after George died.
Wow. What a beautiful piece, Dawn. Rita endured so much, and managed to find joy along the way, which was no small feat. Thanks for sharing this.
wow -thanks shannon. i loved rita. kids knew her well! 104 and kicking. thanks very much for reading this. please send me your writing as well.
Loved reading about this amazing woman. Well done.
Thanks Cheryl! You made it all the way through…
Ran across this site today when looking for something on Alexander Saison and could not stop reading the piece . A well written article by a remarkable woman about a truly remarkable woman.
wow! thanks Bonnie!!!
Years ago, I heard about a cookbook called “Making Do” and today I remembered the title and searched for it. That’s what brought me here, where I’ve just spent a half hour reading and pondering about the Coady family and their lives. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It’s a good reminder to count my blessings, especially the blessing of family. Your writing paints vivid pictures; job well done.
OH that is so wonderful – Quite a woman. I believe she lived to 104- can’t remember exact age, but we all went to her funeral. Thanks!