When I phone my mother, Blanche Ruth Jamieson Moses, born in 1924, to wish her a happy birthday, she challenges me.
“So how old am I?”
“You don’t look a day over eighty!”
She rarely talks about the past—she’s so present—so when she mentioned that, once upon a time, she’d been in the Santa Claus Parade, she got my attention.
The first Santa Claus Parade, such as it was, took place the second day of December 1905. Santa Claus arrived by train at Union Station and was greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Eaton. Santa then walked through the streets to the Eaton’s store.
It was probably in the last year I attended York University, 1976, that my friend Wendy and I decided we’d make the journey down from Downsview, at that time a solid ninety-minute commitment on the TTC each way,
to attend The Parade.
My own experience of that parade, once upon another time, was always on television and only in black and white. Though my parents might take or send me into the actual city of Toronto in the summer for the CNE or to visit family who lived here, the televised town where that parade took place, sometimes through electronic snow, was always somewhere beyond the horizon. It was not any part of my quotidian imaginings, although at night it was certainly often a distant light.
I remember to ask about The Parade as we drive north on Highway 6, Mom at the wheel, on our way to pick up my sister, Debora. It’s the start of our Victoria Day weekend visit.
“What do you want to know about that for?”
“I was just wondering what the city was like back then. You grew up there?”
She checks the rearview mirror. “Grandma and Grandpa,” she says, speaking of her own parents, my grandparents, Minnie Davis and George E. Jamieson, now both long dead, “Grandma and Grandpa moved to Toronto. Grandma ran a boarding house over on Bleecker Street, in a row of houses in the block, I think, north of Carlton, a block east of Sherbourne . . .”
It was probably in the last year I attended York University, 1976, that my friend Wendy and I decided we’d make the journey down from Downsview, at that time a solid ninety-minute commitment on the TTC each way, to attend The Parade. She was from out of town, Montreal, and knew The Parade, too, as I did—by reputation—so I guess we both thought it would be fun. We might finally experience something of childhood we’d missed.
My grandmother Minnie was born in 1904, and my grandfather George E. Jamieson—there’s no clarity in the family now as to whether the never-used middle name was Elijah or Elias—was born in 1900. So I’m guessing now that my grandparents were living in the city when my mother was a teenager, certainly in the late thirties, during the Great Depression. Which may explain why they’d made the move in the first place and starts to explain how a Cayuga/Tuscarora Indian girl ended up way back then in—I’m imagining—a red and round bounce of a dress accompanying Santa’s sleigh down University Avenue.
But 1976 was the year the Eaton’s company withdrew its support from the event—I think old Lady Eaton had finally died—and I remember Wendy and I were disappointed in the quality of the floats: we were, after all, students of the Department of Fine Arts. We were also dispirited by all the popcorn, wrappers and cigarette butts the crowd left behind, by the surly cops herding the crowd back with steel fences at the corner of University and Queen, and by the kids cranky in the cold.
“It was a three-storey place,” my mother says, “with two rooms on the third floor, and one large room at the front, and one more other small room on the second floor, and folks from home would come and stay there when they first moved into town. Grandma had all kinds of them. She had a lot of single women from other reserves, too. They’d stay with Grandma for a while and then get jobs and move out. And sometimes, sometimes,” she groaned, “I had to share my room—and my bed!”
Any last possibility of the hoped-for childhood fun disappeared when Wendy dropped the news of a suicide in our residence at York. It was a boy who shared my first name. Wendy was on the residents’ council and had to hurry back to campus for a closed meeting about it—she probably shouldn’t have even told me—but I was offended by all the secrecy and wanted to argue about the decision to keep it quiet, “for the family’s sake.” So we ended our experience of parade day riding the subway north and buses west in silence.
“There was a lane right by our house,” my mother remembers, “and it ran behind all the houses in that row. Grandpa had a garage there for his car. He always had a car, always kept it clean and shiny. He was forever polishing that car. It always looked so good.”
In the late 1920s, CFRB started broadcasting an entire month of programs following Santa’s journey from the North Pole to Toronto. A month of that and everyone was excited for Santa to arrive.
“Uncle Ted,” Mom says, turning off the highway into the shopping mall parking lot, “Uncle Ted had a bike that year. Aunt Barb had a job at the drugstore on the corner and she had a bike, probably so she could do deliveries. We went to school just east of there on Winchester Street. Even Cecil Montour, one of the boarders, had a bike. I think he was Delaware. This one time I was late for school and Cecile offered to give me a ride. So I kept bugging Mom and Dad ’til I got a bike too. They saved up for it. It was second hand but it was mine!”
Saint Nicholas, a saint for merchants as well as children, was born on the coast of what today is Turkey, a town called Lycia. Little else is known about his life except he was the Bishop of Myra. Many miracles are credited to him.
“But The Parade? What do you remember about The Parade?”
She pauses a long pause. “Not much. Not much really. Just all the faces, all the faces looking at me.”
Debora’s arrival ends the interrogation.
A short while later, on the drive home, my mother remembers to mention something. “By the way,” she says, “I have to get up early Monday. For The Parade.”
So on Victoria Day, known on the Six Nations Reserve as Bread and Cheese Day, my eighty-four-year-old mother is up and out of the house by eight thirty. She and the other Red Hat Ladies have to finish decorating their float by nine thirty in time for the judging.
Our story is that Queen Victoria, in recognition of the Six Nations’ service and loyalty to the Crown during her reign, instituted an annual distribution of gifts. Why white bread and cheddar cheese? I’ve never heard an explanation of this detail. But the annual distribution is the centre of a secular festival. Every year, people come out or come home and gather and, following a parade through the village of Ohsweken, line up outside the Community Hall to receive fresh baked bread, sliced inches thick, and a chunk of tangy orange cheese.
The Red Hat Ladies, my mother reports on her return, won first prize.
“We’re not supposed to be making money. This club, it’s just for fun.”
But with their float decorated with banners, sashes and teddy bears, and all the ladies dressed up in their best hats and overcoats—it was a chilly weekend—and with their umbrellas twirling, all that richness of scarlet, crimson and ruby, with flashes of cherry, mauve, lilac, lavender, wine and plum, the flat-bed truck must have seemed a nearly psychedelic vision of Six Nations womanhood in the rain.
My mother has always favoured red but says she remembers the dress she wore in the Santa Claus Parade as blue, trimmed with white fur. But I prefer to think it was red and that Santa and his parade were the cause of her love for the colour.
“You should have seen the people,” Mom says, “all the people. Riding in The Parade like that, you get to see them. All those faces, just going on forever.”