Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff


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She gathers her mother’s dress up over her ankles so she can move without tripping or ripping the hem as she shuffles over to the record player. Gingerly she guides the arm to the surface of the 78 until the needle catches a grove. The sweet sound of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade fills the room. She admires herself in the mirror. She imagines an enchanted night in a ballroom filled with pinpoints of light sparkling down on her from a revolving, mirrored ball. Then the little girl dances in her mother’s shoes, toes stuffed with Kleenex so they won’t fall off.

Jennie felt like Cinderella.

Though it wasn’t a wicked stepmother that made her feel that way. No. Her problem was her stepfather. This man, with his suffocating, old country ways, never accepted her and her older brother as his children. To him, they were an obligation reluctantly agreed to. To him they were outsiders. And everyday he found ways to remind them.

Her natural father died while Jennie was still in her mother’s womb. They had just immigrated to Canada. Out of desperation the family arranged a hasty marriage for their newly widowed daughter. Her soon-to-be stepfather, tired of being alone, simply wanted someone to take care of him. He came with a good job and a home that needed a wife. A pregnant widow was a less expensive and more convenient alternative than a trip to his village in Italy to bring back a bride. To the still grieving widow the hasty marriage meant security for her young son and unborn child. Or so she thought.

In the years that followed, the match evolved into one of provider and housekeeper. Both believed they had taken advantage of the other. It was not a union of love. It was a union of mutual necessity.

When Jennie turned five the reality of her position in the family became obvious soon after the birth of her first half-brother. The stepfather expected her to care for the child while her mother took care of the house, cooked his meals and eventually, had more babies.

Growing up as the oldest girl in a large Italian family, it was her lot in life to be surrogate mother and nanny to her younger siblings. And it wasn’t as though they were overly demanding or mean spirited like their father. They loved her. She was their big sister. By the time Jennie was eighteen she almost single handedly raised three half-sisters and four half-brothers…all while going to school…all without a life of her own.

The absence of love, the absence of a father she never knew, plus a stepfather who ignored her, taught Jennie how to live within herself. As for her brother, she was jealous of the love her mother showered on him. She took some comfort in the fact that he was unhappy enough to stay away from home as long as he could after school. When the stepfather bullied him, her mother fiercely defended him. During these arguments Jennie would turn away, withdrawing into her make-believe world.

Their mother tried to restore the intimacy of a true family when her husband wasn’t around. She kept a faded, wedding photo hidden at the bottom of a battered old steamer trunk beneath her wedding gown and all the christening dresses. When the stepfather worked nights, she would lock the bedroom door, open the trunk and bring it out.

“This is my Salvatore,” she would whisper, almost to herself. “This is your father.” She would gaze at her son; hold the fading black and white picture up to his face and say, “You have your father’s eyes. I look at you and I see him. See, your smile is just like his.” Then, she would press the picture to her breast and moan, “Oh Salvatore, why did you leave me? Why did you leave your babies?”

At first, Jennie and her brother would giggle and mimic their mother rocking back and forth lost in her memories. As they grew older they began to understand her sadness was theirs as well. Jennie was always uncomfortable when the photograph was taken from its secret place. It wasn’t long before she grew tired of the attention it always brought to her brother.

Behind a locked door so no one can see, the little girl dances in her mother’s shoes.These are the moments when she is free. When music carries her soul to a forbidden world.

As her half brothers and sisters grew older and more independent, she began thinking about breaking the grip the stepfather had on her. When he told her it would help the family if she found part-time work she quickly realized, and he didn’t, that this was a small gift of freedom.

Gina was her best friend. Her parents had a small grocery store. They offered her work behind the counter. The job was liberating. She was accepted, without question, by a small family who shared their love for each other with her. In another unexpected turn, the stepfather allowed Jennie to keep a small portion of her earnings. It was, she thought, a grudging reward for all her years of servitude. Purposely, she neglected to thank him.

Jennie bought records with the money she saved. The first one she brought home was, “In the Mood,” by Glenn Miller. When the stepfather discovered what she had done he gave her a stinging lecture about wasting money on jitterbug music. Worst of all, she was forbidden use of the record player. So every 78 she bought stayed at Gina’s for safekeeping. Away from the critical eyes of her stepfather, she could dance to the music of the popular bands, just her and Gina in the spare room with no one bothering them. Like her brother, she stayed away from home as much as propriety would allow.

Little girl dances in her mother’s shoes, alone in her bedroom ballroom. Shadows and sunlight paint patterns on the floor. Stepping between them, concentration frozen on her face, she tries to be graceful in heels far too high for her small body.

On Saturday nights when everyone was out, Jennie would turn on the large Marconi radio and search the dial for the live broadcast from the Palais Royale Ballroom.

When Glenn Miller’s trombone sweetly sang the first bars of Getting Sentimental Over You, her body began to sway slowly. Raising her arms to embrace her make believe partner she danced across the carpet, eyes half closed, head held slightly back and chin coyly tilted ever so slightly to one side. Imagining the feel of his hand firmly in the small of her back, gently leading her in small circles forward and back, she willed herself deeper into a dream world of soft lights, magic nights and escape.

The music and its promise was all she had. Everything she heard on records and from the Palais Royale broadcasts spun in her head. When she felt her life caving in, she came back to the music. Humming to herself she would dance small graceful steps pretending that some handsome young man was leading her away from the life she wished to forget. That was all she wanted, that and to go dancing at the Palais Royale.

Living in her stepfather’s house she was not allowed to date, let alone go dancing. It made no difference to him that her brothers regularly went to the Palais on Saturday night, or that her sisters went to Saturday matinees just to meet boys. After all these years, after everything she sacrificed for his family, she believed she had earned the right to be treated as an equal. So she asked.

“No daughter of mine will offer herself like some cheap dancehall tramp.” His tone of voice was belligerent. “That’s not how I raised you.”

She had expected to be turned down, but she didn’t expect to feel his anger flip a switch inside of her.

“You didn’t raise me,” she heard herself yell. “I raised myself and your children. And what has that left me with?”

She could not believe the words came from her. Never in her life had she been defiant, had she talked back, had she disobeyed the stepfather in any way. Years of fear and silence fell away in an instant. “I’m going,” she heard herself say.

The man stood stiffly in front of her. His cheeks flushed red. Silence filled the space between them. Her eyes fixed on his and she saw how her firmness had unnerved him.

“If you go, don’t come back to this house.”

The threat took her by surprise. Leaving this house, this servitude that he had forced on her because she was not his child, was something she desperately wanted. The uncertainty of leaving her mother always held her back. In that moment though, she realized that the others would still be there. She saw the opportunity floating in front of her and she embraced it with a firmness that shocked him.

“Fine!” She flung the word in his face. “Gina’s family has a spare room. I can stay there. I’ll work in their store for room and board and go to dances whenever I feel like it.”

“You would leave you mother, your home, your family just to go to a

dancehall? “

“Yes,” was all she said knowing that the dancehall was the beginning she longed for.

Little girl dances in her mother’s shoes unaware of footsteps on the stairs. A key slides silently into the lock. Through half-closed eyes she sees the silhouette of a man framed in the doorway. “Come. Dance with me,” she says to the figure walking over to the record player.

She left home without incident. In their silent embrace Jennie knew she had her mother’s blessing. The confrontation with the stepfather was behind her now. Everything she had was packed into two old suitcases her mother used when she came from Italy. She was leaving for a room of her own, a bed she didn’t have to share and a life without boundaries.

The stepfather was at work when she left. He came home expecting to see her in the kitchen, setting the table, as always. When he realized she wasn’t there, he never said a word. There seemed to be a tacit understanding among her brothers and sisters. It was as though they were proud of her, each privately respectful of her act of defiance. Even her mother smiled. She was happy for her daughter.

The streetcar stops where King Street, Queen and Roncesvalles converge in front of the Bus Terminal. From there the girls walk down a long flight of concrete steps, cross over to the boardwalk and follow the crowds towards the muted music floating out on the early evening air. To Jennie the sound is a promise not yet defined.

Sunnyside Amusement Park runs from the mouth of the Humber River to the CNE. Just up from the beach the boardwalk stretches along the shoreline shaded here and there by arching willows, large oaks and maples. At the foot of Roncasvales Avenue stands the Palais Royale. Large windows and doors punctuate all sides of its stuccoed exterior. On its distinctive barrel vaulted roof rows of clerestory windows run north and south. With all this glass, the setting sun pours light into the vast ballroom flooding the cantilevered, sprung hardwood dance floor in front of the elevated stage. Off the main ballroom the Terrace Royale runs the length of the building overlooking the beach. Couples are already dancing in the open air hoping to catch a cooling Lake Ontario breeze.

Arm in arm, Gina and Jennie walk quickly past the small crowds mingling outside. Some single men stand around smoking and cautiously sipping from silver flasks which they quickly return to the inside pocket of their suit jackets. The unattached women gather close by sizing them up. Each man memorizes the faces of those they want to ask to dance and each woman those they will say no to. Jennie is too excited to be bothered with the flirting going on around her. She wants to be inside, she wants to be close to the music.

At a table by a large window she sits, nervously waiting, fiddling with the straw in her glass of Coke. What is left of the sunset rims her dark hair with a thin line of light. Wide eyed she watches the couples on the dance floor, studying their moves so she will be ready. The music she had heard on records and the radio spills from the stage, fills the dancehall and settles all around her. The last light of the sun leaves the ballroom. Couples on the crowded floor become a mass of clinging, shuffling shadows. Above, the mirrored ball begins its slow turning, sending multi-coloured stars orbiting the universe of the room. A look of expectation settles on her face. A small, self-satisfied smile crosses her lips. Being here tells her she has won.

She knows she must be patient. Someone will come. He will be tentative at first, putting out his cigarette before he reaches the table, smoothing back his hair with his hands. Speaking in a low voice to hide his nervousness he will ask her to dance. Her smile will tell him, ‘yes.’ And as she takes his hand and follows him to the dance floor, he will not notice the hope dancing in her eyes.

The record lies in pieces on the floor, but the music still plays in her mind. The man leaves, his anger hanging heavy in the room. Silently the little girl dances to the music in her mind…tears in her eyes…dreams still alive in her soul.

Remembering Jennie on this Mother's Day

Remembering Jennie on this Mother’s Day.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

May 10, 2015 at 8:41 AM

3 Responses

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  1. Hi Ed

    I read your Mother’s day post and enjoyed it greatly. Well written, well crafted. Wish Norma a very happy mother’s day from the two of us.



    May 10, 2015 at 2:46 PM

    • Ed, you could have been writing about me as a child – in many ways, other than my father was my biological one. I know who Jennie is and I applaud your tribute to her. Beautifully done. I missed it when you first posted it.


      July 12, 2015 at 11:58 AM

  2. Glad you could see yourself in the story. Thanks. We need to come see you guys.


    July 12, 2015 at 1:45 PM

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