Lily Brown’s vignettes: a retrospective glance at life in 1930s Toronto

Flat to Rent

“FLAT TO RENT” notices, typically written on a piece of cardboard, were often displayed in the front-room windows of many homes during the 1930s in Toronto.  

Like many newly arrived immigrants who wanted to own their homes in the promised land, in order to pay off their mortgages, my parents rented out the upstairs flat of their home. No questions were asked of the potential tenants, no forms were filled out, no credit checks. They were just delighted to get the monthly rent.

I grew up at 376 Harbord Street. In today’s terms our residence would be classified as a duplex. On one side was my father’s cleaning and pressing store and our home. On the other side, separated from the storefront, was a private entrance for the flat we rented out. Their entrance was unique. To get inside you had to enter through a bevelled-glass front door and one with a stained glass window. 

But, renting out that space had a big drawback. The one bathroom was on the renter’s side of the flat, so we all had to share it. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. 

Over the years we had many tenants, yet only one stands out in my mind: Miss Kane. She became my idol. I coveted the doll wrapped in a fuchsia coloured, raffia paper gown that always sat in the middle of her bed. 

I can still picture myself, at around seven or eight years old, watching Miss Kane by the kitchen window getting ready for work. Observing herself in the round mirror that hung on the wall while holding a curling iron that she preheated on the open flame of her gas range. With a cigarette dangling from her mouth she went about expertly creating her hair-do.

Miss Kane was a chain smoker. She loved lighting up and inhaling her first smoke of the morning. When she was broke, she would borrow pennies from me and send me to Mr. Wilson’s drug store to purchase penny cigarettes. I remember thinking that I will never smoke cigarettes if I have to borrow pennies from a little girl.

After she finished fixing up her hair, she’d apply her makeup. She’d powder her face with a powder puff, then spit on the hardened mascara, softening it so it’d be easier to apply to her lashes. Next, she’d add rouge to her cheeks. Her routine would be complete once she painted her lips bright red. 

Miss Kane was a sales lady in a dress shop on the corner of Queen Street and Spadina Avenue. She wore spiked heeled shoes that clicked as she walked down the steps to leave for work. I was mesmerized by her glamour!

Miss Kane was usually home on Sundays because in those days, no one worked on the Lord’s Day and her suitor Mr. McKenzie, a bank manager, was home with his own family. Back then Miss Kane was called a “kept woman.” This arrangement would have been considered in Yiddish, a shundah—a shame. Mr. Mckenzie could come and go as he pleased because of the private entrance. No one would be the wiser. And he paid for the flat. 

We were both lonely, but we had each other for company. I loved her companionship. I’d ask her to create a new hairdo for me. She’d take out my pigtails and brush my hair. Cutting rags into small pieces and curling each piece of hair round and round with wet rags, eventually placing a dry cloth on each curl. On Monday morning, before she went to work, she would unwrap the rags and then lift me up so I could see myself in the mirror. I loved seeing my long golden curls all over my head, just like Goldilocks. Through her I found my experimental style and love for high fashion. 

One morning I went upstairs to use the bathroom and Miss Kane was gone. I looked everywhere for her but she was nowhere to be found. I was devastated.

Except she did leave one thing behind. She left me her beautiful raffia doll. I never had a doll of my own before. 

I’ll never forget her act of kindness and the connection we shared. 

Lost and Found

In 1935, I went missing on Centre Island. Everyone had assumed I drowned. I was on the front page of the Toronto Daily Star. When my mother told me this story, I wondered whether it was true. Forty-five years later, while attending York University, I decided to find out. 

My favourite spot on campus was the Scott Library. I sought out the librarian who would lead me to the very newspaper I appeared on. She brought out physical copies of the Toronto Daily Star from 1935, and as I began my research—turning each page slowly so as to not miss anything—low and behold, I spotted the headline along with an image of myself. It read: “Fate of Girl, 6 Lost at Picnic Still Unknown, Lillian Brown Disappears From Sunday School Outing.” I was pleasantly surprised to see myself at age six and to read the front page story of the probability that I had drowned.

My mother, at the time, was in isolation at Weston Sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis unable to care for me. So, a Mrs. Rice took me to the Sunday School picnic on the island. 

To save my mother from any further distress, the hospital staff did not tell her that I was presumed missing. They kept the Toronto Daily out of sight.

My memory of the event has always been as clear as a bell. I can still picture myself boarding the Centre Island Ferry to return to Toronto’s shore. After I walked off the ferry and onto the gang plank, I then snuck into the back doors of the streetcar. I have no recollection of crying or of anyone on the ferry wondering why I was alone . . . they must have assumed I was with my family as the streetcar was filled with kids and their parents. I rode north along Bathurst Street and exited at the stop in front of the Western Hospital. From there, I found my way to Auntie Chana’s, one of my mother’s sisters. She took me in and put me in a feather bed among her many children

I don’t recall how many days I spent with my aunt, but eventually my mother’s older sister, Chaia, came to the playground, grabbed me by the arm and schlepped me up Bathurst Street, and then Harbord Street, and then toward my father’s cleaning and pressing store. 

Along the way, she warned that the police were searching for me. I was so frightened of what lay ahead. 

As we approached the store there was a mob of police, reporters, and bystanders gathered. 

When she was questioned by the reporters and the police, Chaia told them she had a premonition that I was at my aunt’s. Personally, I think she was going shopping in the Jewish market and found me by mistake. 

When Auntie Chana was questioned as to why she did not take me home, she said that with my mother in hospital, she assumed my father sent me to her. If she had any doubts she wouldn’t have been able to call my father. Affected by the Great Depression, neither my aunt nor my parents owned a telephone.

When my father saw me, he fell to his knees sobbing. He did not let me go. 

I have reached my ninety-first birthday and yet, after all this time, I can still feel his lips kissing my keppy, my forehead. I can still hear the toot toot of the Centre Island Ferry calling me to get on board to carry me home.

The Toronto daily Star, June 28, 1935, Front page (top image) and continued article inside (bottom image). Photographs of clippings courtesy of Lily Brown.

Popsicle

Ida Goldfarb was more than a runaway bride.

What happened on the day she, my mother’s niece, was supposed to wed Joe Gimpel has haunted me for many years. Even as I write this, the fear that gripped my heart that fatal day is still present.

The family gathered at the rabbi’s home on Brunswick Avenue for the wedding. In his study stood the wedding canopy. Ida stood under the chuppah with Joe, her parents, and the groom’s sister. The rest of the family formed a circle around the wedding canopy including Ida’s brothers Al, Frank, Hymie, and her sister Fanny. 

After the Rabbi and his wife greeted everyone warmly, he stepped under the chuppah, faced the bride and groom and began to recite the opening prayers. All of a sudden the bride ran out the front door and out onto the street as fast as she could. 

Frank ran after her and grabbed her by the arm dragging her back kicking, swearing, and screaming. He then shoved her under the chuppah. I started to cry so hysterically that my mother had to take me out of the rabbi’s study. She tried her best to comfort me, but I was beyond help and so was she. They called an ambulance because Ida would not calm down. She refused to leave the rabbi’s study and was admitted to Toronto General Hospital. I remember going with my mother to visit Ida there. I had to wait outside. She was kept in the basement of the hospital. I was trying to peek through the bars on the basement windows looking for the bride, but I couldn’t see through. The psychiatrists recommended a lobotomy and said this procedure would calm her down. They were right. She was stripped naked of any emotion for the rest of her life. No one understood why she was apprehensive to marry Joe and didn’t believe her when she said he was unwell and not suited to be her partner.

When they opened Joe Gimple’s black, war-torn, suitcase, it was filled with popsicle wrappers that he apparently collected from the streets of downtown Toronto. No clothing, no personal items to start their married life—just popsicle wrappers. Clearly she knew what awaited her if they indeed married, but it was too late. The damage was done. No one believed her when she told them that Joe was unwell. She lived out the rest of her life incarcerated in Whitby Psychiatric Hospital for the insane. 

When I received my driver’s licence, some years later, my mother and I went to visit Ida. She recognized my mother, her Aunty Sara. She was in a long ward with windows facing Lake Ontario. My mother brought her homemade gefilte fish, challah and her specialty, apple pie. Ida gobbled it up.

These visits took an emotional toll on my mother. She remembered a beautiful young woman, vibrant, full of life, who had the world by the tail. The day of the wedding, a bright light went out of this world.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. 

2 Comments
  1. Lily…warm greetings from Salt Spring Island. I enjoyed your stories so much…especially the last one that has left tears in my eyes.

    Thank you for sharing them…they are sheer delight…

    Also remembering fondly the years we shared together at the Narayever….Hannah Brown

  2. A wonderful idea, Lily. I enjoyed very much reading your blogs. Keep it up.

    Stephen Glazer, Jerusalem (born and raised in Toronto)

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