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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas memories

When I was a child my mother owned a millinery shop. She had learned millinery as a trade in Ireland and continued to work at it after she emigrated to Canada in 1930 to marry my father who had arrived in 1928. After my parents moved from Toronto in 1942 she went into business for herself. In those days, women always wore hats; they didn't need a special occasion. While my mother had her own designs that sold well, her customers would often bring her photos from fashion magazines and ask her to create something similar. Some women came from Toronto to buy. She was good, very good.

We lived behind the shop on the main street just on the edge of downtown. By today's standards the entire place was small; probably no more than 20 feet wide by 40 deep including the shop. One storey, no basement, no front yard and a postage stamp of a grassless rear yard. My bedroom was an alcove off my parents'. But when you're five you don't notice these things.

I was always around the shop. At first I would sit in my high chair in the workroom where my mom could keep an eye on me. When I was older she would give me scraps of material and I would make "hats". I was later told I always said they were for Aunt Martha, my mother's aunt. No one had any idea why. I was lucky. Although my mother worked at a time when few married women did, she was always home.

The shop, although small, was a place of wonderment. Drawers filled with hats and their makings. Feathers, beads, boas, artificial fruit, buttons, sequins, fur. Wooden heads that served both to display the hats and to block them (set their shape) when being made stood on shelves and counters. And always people to fuss over me.

Christmas was special. Like Easter, the run up was my mother's busiest period. She often worked 14 hour days, either serving customers or making hats, to meet the demand, easing off the week before. But she always decorated. There were lights around the door and front window. The window display was stripped of hats to become a winter wonderland. Houses with lights inside, papier-mâché figures, Santa in a sleigh, reindeer dotted throughout, little artificial Christmas trees, a mirror laid flat as a skating pond. And all the empty space was filled with cotton batting snow, drifting from between the houses, softening the edges of the pond, fluffed and tufted, sparkling with sequin ice.

I suppose if I were to see it now I wouldn't be all that impressed, but my Ghost of Christmas Past always lets me use rose-coloured glasses.

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