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Women and Shadows: A Meditation

You can learn a lot from shadows. You can learn the shapes of things you can’t see — including yourself. Sometimes we overemphasize shadows’ propensity for distortion — for elongation, compression, reorientation. But that distortion is data — about time of day, direction, season. And never forget: shadows are inextricably attached to the object they represent. We know something is real because it has a shadow. And when we see a shadow, we know there is light.

The woman stands on the sidewalk in the late afternoon sun. She’s got that perfect lipstick look of the 1940s, dark, full. Must be red. Rouge under her cheekbones, and her eyes are wide set, made up a bit sleepy. Her left shoulder juts a bit forward, and the way she holds her clutch purse in her left hand shows off a glistening wedding ring. Maybe she’s holding black gloves in that hand as well. She’s got a coat draped over her, as if, as she was leaving the house, a man who loved her draped it over her shoulders. She isn’t looking at the camera — somewhere down and to the left, somewhere that makes her smile, a bit indulgently, like a Queen might smile at a jester. She doesn’t just smile — she bestows a smile. She’s relaxed; her smile shows her teeth. Her hat — well, her hat would look silly on another woman, a more unsubstantial woman. It is a froth of cloth flowers, little pale-coloured ones, over her forehead, and up in some kind of poofy shape. Her hair is up. She can pull this off.

Like the woman herself, the house across the street behind her right shoulder glows in the late afternoon sun. A semidetached pair with worn wood siding, windows open to various degrees, some with curtains and some with blinds. Lived in. The left side of the building is partly shadowed by the peak of a roof of a house on the west side of the street. And only if you focus on that dark triangle do you notice that next to the woman stands a little boy. He’s got a newsboy cap on. He comes up to her hip. As he is in shadow, he doesn’t have a shadow of his own. But the woman does. Standing between two houses, she’s in the sun even when it’s so late in the afternoon. You can see the shadow of her whole body on the road. It looks… complete. Sharp. Substantial. It reaches almost all the way across the empty street.

Directly behind her, there is a laneway stretching into the distance. Telephone pole, skeleton trees. Fall? Not yet spring? Aha — I think it is Easter. An early Easter, but warm enough that she has chosen not to put her arms in the sleeves of that coat. The flowered hat. Easter.

This is Megan Blaney, the barber’s wife. Mother at this time of the one little boy, named Earl after his dad, and baby Annmarie, just walking. It’s probably Annmarie Megan is looking at — Annmarie, we know from another photo, dressed in immaculate white with matching bonnet and shoes. Earl, the barber, was the one who would have draped that coat over her back, and who would have taken this photo, of his wife looking like a fashion model, on Montreal Street, in Kingston, Ontario, a few houses down from the barber shop and their apartment above it, just after the war, on a cold Easter afternoon, on their way to Mass.

Megan went on to have eight children all together, and to be a hairdresser herself. And over the years, her children grew up. Earl became a teacher; Annmarie and Marilyn became hairdressers; Paul, Gregory, and Kevin became florists; Peter works in finance; Bev became a doctor; and the family has continued to hold down the southwest corner of Montreal Street and Raglan Road.

And here we have two young girls. Or maybe young women. They’re wearing white sack-like dresses, almost matching, with wide white collars. The girl on the left, a little taller, has very straight cut thick bangs, probably a headband, and some sort of rolls of hair sticking out at the sides. The one on the right has curly hair pulled back. Both are smiling, squinting, brows slightly cast down to shadow their eyes from the bright summer sun. They have their arms hooked together and one of them has reached across her stomach to toy with her friend’s fingers. The other’s free hand is in motion. They look very happy to be together, and happy to be photographed.

This is the end of town, a place of dirt driveways, young trees, empty lots. The short shadows of the girls are tangled in a mess of weeds. Behind them, on the other side of the street, is a brick semidetached house, and what must be half of another next to it. The sun is high; one house casts a sharp triangular shadow on the other. And beyond these identical houses, back to the right, we can see some other houses scattered in the distance, and another girl in white. You get the feeling that we are almost on the edge of the known world.

The girl on the right is labelled “Mother.” This pulls us out of the time of girlish friendships, into the future of the moment of photo taking. But not that far into the future, it turns out. The girls in the photo were born in 1902 (Alice Godwin, the one on the left) and 1895 (Helen Bennett, the one on the right, who went by Nellie). The houses in the photo were built in the winter of 1913. I’d put the photo in summer 1916, when Alice was thirteen and Nellie twenty. There’s another photo taken at the same time and place — Stephen Street at Cowdy —  showing Nellie learning how to ride a bicycle with Ronald Wallace. Nellie married Ron in March 1918 and first became a mother seven months later. Though the wedding was a bit rushed, what with a baby on the way and Ron training to ship overseas with the army — the couple look very sober in the photo with their baby Helen — things turned out well. The war ended before Ron saw battle, and Nellie went on to have four more daughters.

In 1920, Alice married Nellie’s brother, George Bennett, making Alice and Nellie not just friends but sisters-in-law. Alice never became a mother — at least, not of a surviving child. She had two stillbirths (a girl in 1921 and a boy in 1923), and several miscarriages. But George took over his father’s supermarket, and the couple prospered. Alice was particularly known for her beautiful garden and her stylish clothing. Annmarie Blaney-Clarke remembers visiting the Bennetts’ house with her siblings on Hallowe’en: “Alice Bennett had eyeglasses with diamonds on the sides of them — at least we all thought they were. She also had on a mink coat. She would hire one of the girls that worked in the store to make up her bags of candy. If you were a skinny little kid, she would give you two.” Alice’s generosity wasn’t limited to Hallowe’en: “She always treated us like we were her children.”

We all have shadows. That’s how we know we are real.

— Laura Murray

For photos and stories, thanks to Annmarie Blaney-Clarke; Marilyn, Kevin, Paul, and Peter Blaney; Isobel Wallace Gordon. This post also draws from census and birth and death records — and, thanks to John Grenville, the Canadian Builder and Carpenter, February 1914.

3 Comments

  1. Andra

    Your reading of the shadows really draws me into each story, and makes me think more about the shadows in photos that I see elsewhere, as well. The shadows have a life of their own.

  2. Paula Dusharme-Scott

    It was great seeing the pictures and reading the stories. I grow up in the neighbourhood and remember the families in the stories. I also went to the Bennets house for Halloween they gave out the large bag of candy it was worth the wait as the lineups where very long.

  3. Alex Rowse-Thompson

    This fascinating research and narrative. You mention another photo taken at Stephen and Cowdy streets. I’m a heritage planner and love architectural history (I also happen to live on Stephen Street). If possible, I would love to see this photo!

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