Praying for a flush toilet and a light switch

Sep 14th, 2018 | By | Category: Mary Cook's Memories of the '30s

By Mary Cook

I always thought my Aunt Nellie Wagonblass was the wealthiest person in Arnprior.  Didn’t she live in a big brick house and have a flush toilet and glass doors between her parlour and dining room? I used to think Uncle Henry owned Kenwood Mills. It was years later when I found out he was a foreman, which in the ‘30s was an important enough job, but at the time I chose to assume he owned the whole factory, lock, stock and barrel.

Aunt Nellie and Uncle Henry had no children, and I like to think now that I was a favourite niece.

Even though it was a fair jaunt to Arnprior from our farm in Northcote, we visited them often … especially in the summer time. Mother would decide to make the trip in the old Model T and I often was the only one to be taken along for the ride. We had plenty of relatives in Arnprior, and so Mother would spend the day going from one house to the other. I wasn’t fond of sitting primly in parlours while the relatives visited and Aunt Nellie wisely knew this. So, she always suggested that I stay with her while Mother saw the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.

That meant that I could have lunch with Uncle Henry at noon hour too. And so it was a real treat to spend the day at the Wagonblass house.

I didn’t find the time long, even though I was often there the better part of the day. Aunt Nellie would get out the photograph albums, the button box or let me play the piano.

One late summer day I remember so clearly, we had arrived early and the heat had settled into the brick house. Aunt Nellie asked me if I would like to do something different that morning. I was always game for new experiences and when she suggested we go to the attic I was thrilled. We didn’t have an attic in the our old log house on the farm, and I knew Aunt Nellie approached the attic through a small narrow door beside the bathroom. We climbed the stairs and when she opened the top door, the heat rolled out like a blast from a raging Findlay Oval. The attic was one big room with light coming from windows at either end.  I was glad it was bright and not gloomy like I thought all attics should be.

Boxes were piled sky high. Trunks were lined up all along one side. Wood clothes racks held a huge array of overcoats, some of them fur, and under the racks there were rows of old laced-up boots and shoes.

Aunt Nellie left me, after throwing open the big windows to let some air into the stifling enclosure and telling me to root around in the boxes and do anything I wanted.

I stood for a moment, getting accustomed to the closed-in feeling the attic gave off, and wondering where to start first. I decided to look in the trunks lining one wall. Here were several humped-back trunks, covered with dust and smelling musty and old. The first one I opened held baby clothes. Long embroidered dresses, tiny leather shoes and frilled bonnets. I had little interest in the collection and moved on to the next trunk.

This was a different story. Here were long beaded dresses and velvet capes and kid gloves, and small purses with ivory handles. I lifted each piece out carefully, marvelling at the sheer elegance of every item. I had never seen such luxury.

I opened another trunk. Here was a bride’s dress of the finest silk, with a hat as big as a table to match. Under the dress were shoes in the same colour with small buttons up the sides and funny heels. I pictured Aunt Nellie in this finery on her wedding day. And there was a small bible printed in German with all the details of her wedding written inside … the wedding took place at the Lutheran church before the first world war, and Aunt Nellie’s long deceased sister and her husband were witnesses.

I have no idea how long I spent going over the trunks in Aunt Nellie’s attic. Long enough that I must have wiled away the morning. Because soon she was at the little stairwell telling me Uncle Henry was home for lunch. At the farm we called this noon meal dinner, lunch was what we had before we went to bed at night. There was Uncle Henry sitting at the dining room table with his white shirt sleeves held up with red elastic arm bands. His bow tie was exactly in the centre of his neck, and every silver hair was in perfect position.

I looked at the fine china and the silver napkin rings, and the dainty cucumber sandwiches and store-bought ham. And I thought of those trunks full to the brim with elegant finery, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt … my Uncle Henry was indeed the owner of the whole Kenwood Mills in the town of Arnprior.
How else could anyone live in the lap of such luxury?

And as long as we lived on the farm in that little log house, crammed full of people, and with the most scant of amenities, going to Aunt Nellie’s in Arnprior was like an escape to another world for me. After visiting her, the memory of her home, with all its luxury, lived in my mind like a brightly coloured picture. I thought of the home every night before I went to sleep. And even though I had been taught at Sunday school that it was a mortal sin to pray for anything material, I always tried to sneak in a little request to God that someday, somehow, I too would know the luxury of a nice home with a flush toilet, a light switch on the wall, and a kitchen tap that ran both hot and cold water. Somehow, I felt God would understand that if He couldn’t answer my prayer right then, that surely he would consider granting it when I was all grown up and left the farm. At the time, I didn’t think it was too much to
ask.

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