There's something sad in her eyes. Or maybe it's what I want to see.
Look at her full lips—a high-spirited young woman, felled at the knees.
I want to wrap my arms around her. Tell her everything is going to be okay.
Theo was a young woman with a sexual appetite. Nineteen years of age. Full of desire.
Sometime in late October or early November 1932, she had sex.
I hope there was pleasure that it didn't all come down to pressure. Or thirst for a virgin. Please let it have been more than once.
"Illegitimate pregnancy may be a sign of inability to meet satisfactorily the pressures and responsibilities of adulthood. Like stealing, setting fires, and difficult behaviour in school, it may be a symptom of a fundamental problem."
The catholic church in the 1930s—averting their eyes to acts of infanticide performed by their congregants and faithful servants.*
I shake my head at Theo's loyalty to that institution. All her life, she sat six-rows from the front at St. Kevin's in Welland—belting out the hymns in alto.
Maybe it was her vengeance. There she was reminding them every Sunday she'd done pretty well for herself.
Théophilta means friend of God in Greek.
She was a fille-mère.
A sinner. Not sinned against.
When I began to search, I lived a two-block walk from the hospital where her son was born.
July 11, 1933.
Eighty-eight years ago, today.
The proximity shook me. It felt like she was speaking things she couldn't in life.
Was she with les soeurs de miséricorde on Jarvis, or did she escape their vicious grip?
A block up the street was Toronto's Hospital for Unwed Mothers—Grace Hospital today. At the time, there was a residence for young women attached. I phoned the Salvation Army looking for information, hoping to find evidence. But the records were lost in a fire in the 40s. About all else, they were vague.
At every step of the way, shame and silence.
"A young girl's sexual development was supposed to lead only to the altar; abstinence was not presented as a choice but an obligation. It's hard to imagine most girls who were hidden away in homes coming out without a distorted view of sexuality."
The man was a daredevil.
Went over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball.
Hawked pieces of it to earn his keep—a bonafide local celebrity.
I phoned the head office of Ripley's Museum in Florida. They sent me photos. The moment I saw him, I knew. I was looking at my uncle.
More than two decades her senior. His wife and family in Philadelphia. No barriers to pursuit.
"Then, as now, help for unwed mothers was not a popular tax expenditure. For the small subsidies governments gave to the homes, every province required the father to be named, so he could be tracked down and made to pay."
I wonder how much rubber that took.
Or if he even bothered.
Father isn't the correct term for an absent man.
"I had to give up my last name for the rest of my stay…the only other identifying feature was my due date."
Anonymity is a detail that breaks my heart.
To protect the family name.
So there's nothing permanent.
And to speed the forgetting.
"The babies left behind had few takers in the Depression and war years, and they ended up in huge orphanages run by a religious order."
Theo's family stepped in.
Her baby boy stayed within reach.
His early history was fiction.
To save face.
And to give Theo some freedom.
I inherited a tea set from her—Royal Crown Derby Blue Mikado.
It came in a cardboard box wrapped in pale yellow tissue paper velvety soft from time and wear.
Likely ordered from the Eaton's catalogue.
A gift from the daredevil.
Did she imagine a union where she could host afternoon tea?
Poundcake crumbs on a plate painted with the scene, 'sad-eyed wandering lover.'
The dishes were always in plain sight in a cabinet in her dining room. There was something she wanted to remember.
The photo below is from 1935—two years after his birth.
That smile. I feel relief. She made it.
Working on the St. Lawrence River.
That's where she met Harry. A gem of a man—soft and kind-hearted. Just what she needed. They made a good life.
"Some of my ambition came from the determination to put it all behind me. But despite any success I had, I was always fearful and nervous. I often had what I called "emotional problems"—panic attacks and long bouts of anxiety."
We never talked about it. There were grown-up whispers. But no details.
I asked a family member if distant relatives who were still alive would talk to me.
No, they were good French Canadian catholics.
She never talked to the people who loved her the most.
Went to her grave with it.
Left behind an unspoken inheritance.