I’d been searching the remnants of her young life when I received it, wanting to know more of my family (and me). My grandmother had passed with a secret she longed to tell. Her urge to share it with her family usually swelled with a couple of bourbon manhattans. Under those conditions, none of us wanted to listen. Inebriation pollutes the truth.
I’d shut my heart a little to her. From her parents, Odile and Arthur, she’d inherited a stern composure—fortified for hardship and mostly intolerant of children. There were a few occasions when she was tender toward my brother and me. She looked after us for a weekend when my parents were away. She made me the lunch of my dreams on Saturday—cottage cheese, canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. I sat in the booth my grandfather had built in the corner of their kitchen, my legs dangling from the bench. Light chatter ran between us while I enjoyed my lunch and she puttered, pleased at having given me pleasure.
She made bubbles in our bath at night with a squirt of Sunlight soap. My grandmother especially liked when a child’s delight could be had on a shoestring. I loved how tightly her beds were made. It was soothing, like being swaddled, I imagine.
After she passed, my interest in her young life was piqued, freed of obligation. I made some sparkling discoveries but because I’d failed to ask the questions she most wanted, what follows is of my own making.
Theo, my grandmother, fell in love for the first time at around 18 years of age with a man who was a daredevil. He’d survived a trip over the Horseshoe Falls in a ball he’d made and was earning his living selling small scraps of rubber from the contraption and tall tales of courage and foolhardiness. More than two decades separated them in age. His wife and children in the U.S. proved no barrier to his pursuit. He likely never revealed those inconvenient truths.
My grandmother was an interesting beauty—just shy of six feet tall with a slim but sturdy frame. She sewed clothes for herself through much of her life, in part to have something that fit. She had great style.
I imagine my grandmother as a girl back then. This unlikely union was made possible for her by the first flush of love and a headlong run from a harsh childhood. Theo and her daredevil had some kind of arrangement. Their bond seemed promising enough that she began to assemble a trousseau. The tea set speaks to her good, if impractical, young taste. She was imagining a union that would lead to her hosting afternoon tea. Crumbs of pound cake left on a plate painted with the scene “Sad-Eyed Wandering Lover.”
Theo became pregnant and in the months before giving birth her brothers came and took her away. I don’t know if she ever saw her daredevil again.
She went to a "wage home" in Toronto, working as a chambermaid for a wealthy family in Rosedale. Her love of cooking began there and she learned much from the resident cook (she did tell me this). My grandmother maintained a friendship with the matron of the family for years afterward. My father recalled her limousine pulling up in front of his childhood home in Welland once a year. He and his siblings were shoed away during her annual visit.
Her child was born at Toronto's Hospital for Unwed Mothers—Grace Hospital today. There's no record of the birth. A fire in the 40s took care of that. Unlike many young women of the time, Theo did reunite with her young son. They loved each other as family for a long time.
I lived within blocks of that hospital for years. While walking home in Rosedale I would imagine my grandmother coming along the same route or working in the houses behind the brick walls and gates. I can’t imagine her struggle—brokenhearted, with a child on the way.
My grandmother held onto the tea set her whole life. When I looked on it as I was unwrapping it all I could see in it was what she’d lost. I cried. She might have found my tears intolerable. Sentimentalism was another kind of intoxication.
Now I look on that set as evidence of the love she’d enjoyed. It’s just as possible that’s why she never let it go. Scrubbing lost love from lives is a social norm. Yet she kept those dishes in plain sight in a cabinet in her dining room.
She knew love again with my grandfather Harry. He was soft and kindhearted, just what she needed. They made a good life.
I don’t know if I’ve laid out her secret perfectly right. What gives me great pleasure is showing it the light of day. I’ve heard it said that we’re only as sick as our secrets. My grandmother bore a heavy burden of Catholic guilt. Her pregnancy and the birth were needlessly complicated by it. The saddest part of this story is the shame she endured and the silence that has sustained it. Maybe I’d gone looking for the source of her shame so as to free myself of that heavy unspoken inheritance. Where once I’d closed my heart to her, now my heart is full of her. She and I are making peace with the past. I’m celebrating her love and great courage by having tea and cake on her set and I’m setting a place for her.
 Nancy Schnarr. “Nowhere Else to Go - Homes for Unwed Mothers in Canada during the 20th Century.” Commissioned to accompany the show, Foundling, by Michéle Karch-Ackerman at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery.