My grandmother’s gloves are coming to me in the mail. They’ve spent some time at Honest Ed’s, “the world’s first true bargain store,” a fixture in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood since 1948. The shop seems a strange place for the elegant gloves, but they were part of a Koffler Gallery exhibit called “Honest Threads” by Toronto artist Iris Häussler. Participants donated an item of clothing that had special meaning for them, along with a passage explaining the item’s personal history, and a photograph showing the chosen piece. Visitors could then borrow and wear another’s garments, literally stepping inside someone else’s experience.
It seems to me that these kinds of shared stories are especially popular right now. On our website for The Occupied Garden, we invite readers to send anecdotes and photos of their own family’s war experiences, and a year after the book has been out, they still keep coming in. Last year, my husband Jeff Winch, a visual artist, did a video installation documenting the high and low points of the lives of some thirty people. Viewers were moved to tears by some of those stories, which lasted no more than a few minutes each. There are countless other examples, such as the Pier 21 site, where immigrants from various eras and homelands post stories of their arrival in Canada; or the wonderful Pocket Stories blog, which states “the doors of The Gallery are opened each time an object is removed from a personal space such as a pocket, a wallet, or a handbag and a story is revealed.”
Here’s what I wrote about my grandmother for “Honest Threads”:
These are my grandmother’s gloves, worn on her wedding day, September 22, 1934. Her name was Doris Lillian Deverill and she was born in London, England. Eighteen months later, her father stood talking in the kitchen with his foot on a chair, his elbow on his knee, when suddenly he fell to the floor, dead at 42. Five years later, with WW1 raging, Doris’s mother died of cancer, and Doris wore a black poplin dress and a white felt hat with a ribbon to the funeral. By then she was a student at Charles Dickens School, a detail I love because I’m a writer. She was taken in by Bebbie, a family friend, and they sometimes stood on the balcony together and watched the flaming Zeppelins fall from the sky. Eventually Bebbie brought Doris to Canada, leaving her older brothers and sister behind. How must it have felt, at 9, to cross the ocean and leave everything she knew? Bebbie had a weak heart, and soon working became impossible. The only option was for Doris to leave school – a smart, 14-year-old girl who loved learning – and go to work at Kellogg’s, the cereal factory. She was devastated by the loss of possibility, but after a few years her life looked brighter – she fell in love with a young university student named Fred, and hoped to marry him. But Fred had a brain tumour, and died – and then Bebbie died one evening at dinner, collapsing, grabbing her chest. It’s hard to believe that my grandmother could experience so much tragedy in a mere twenty years – and harder still to cram so much tragedy into a single paragraph about gloves. So I’ll end with this, the point at which my grandmother’s life took a beautiful, ordinary turn: at Kellogg’s, Bill, a cheerful young man working the bran dryer, had been watching Doris for some time. It’s him you see in the picture beside her. Besotted – absolutely smitten. They were married for more than sixty years, and as a kind of evidence, there exists a scrapbook of Valentine’s cards from him to her, each one signed with a “?”, though of course the sender’s identity was no mystery. I think a lack of mystery can actually be the most wonderful thing. When Doris died (an old lady by then), rheumy-eyed Bill would often smile and shake his head, thinking of her. “She was one heck of a lady. I miss my Dory.” He died not long after, happy to go, believing they’d be reunited. These gloves make me think of both of them – one hand holding another.