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Nellie McClung: Humanity builds many bridges, and they take many forms

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on Sept. 14, 1940.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on Sept. 14, 1940.

I had five and one-half hours to wait for a ship, which is quite a wide slice out of the day, so I bought two books and went to the ladies’ waiting room on the third floor and got a good corner seat.

I did try to reach some of my friends by phone but they were all out, every last one of them. It seemed like a conspiracy. However, it was a new experience to have more time than I knew what to do with, so I settled down on a wicker chair and began to read the three-act play called Our Town, by Thornton Wilder.

It was reading the play that gave me the idea. Here I was on a stage, just as real as the one described in the book. There should be drama in this anteroom where people wait.

Outside, the currents of life were running deeply. Airplanes stroked the sky, ships were sailing into port and out again, automobiles were racing down the streets in a rolling black stream. On parade grounds soldiers were drilling and marching. Companies may have been leaving the station; sailors on leave were walking the streets, shy country boys, many of them from the prairie. In the houses, radios were bringing in the news from a world at war, but here in this backwater, people were sitting and waiting.

Across the room from me sat a pleasant-faced woman, who would most certainly be described as the mother of a family. She was dressed in a dark green knitted suit,
probably home-made, flat-heeled brown shoes, with a brown hat that had a wide brim. Beside her sat a string bag full of parcels. The pockets of her suit were bulging, her hair was out of control, but she proceeded to remedy this with a pocket comb.

She had evidently been at a sale, so I knew she must have people to buy for. No woman waits in line and plunges through crowds to save 11 cents for herself. It was probably a sale of schoolgirls’ skirts and blouses.

Anyway, I could see she had got what she wanted, for there was a triumph in her eye as she checked off a list written on a page of a child’s scribbler. A sheltered, happy woman, I thought, with a good man between her and the world, a man in a safe position with a regular salary.

Then there came in two young women, with little hats, high heels, red lips, slightly shrill in manner. They sat down, waiting for two more who came in with a rush of apologies, all talking together. The slow pace of the waiting-room was suddenly accelerated; it was like the dropping of stones into a quiet pool. Books were laid down, knitting ceased.

“Oh, let’s sit for a minute,” one of them said, “I’ve been rushing all day.” Then I noticed the four of them had one thing in common. They all wore the “wings” of the air force.

“I hate to see the days pass,” another of them said. “I begrudge every one of them, but I feel that I mustn’t think. If I think, I’ll go nuts!

“We’re all like people approaching a precipice. We know the time will come, and we’ll all play our part and be brave and all that. Women always do. But I’m not brave or reconciled, or patriotic. I don’t want Tom to serve his country. I want him to live right here. Above all I want him to live. He deserves to live.”

They sat still a minute and the one of them said: “I used to think I couldn’t live unless I had a nice house and a car to drive. Now these things have faded down to nothing. If Harry could stay at home I would be content with one room and a disappearing sink. Too bad we do not know how to value life until it is too late.”

“It’s not too late!” cried the one who hadn’t spoken. “No one has died and we haven’t lost the war. I’m all for today. It’s a fine one, isn’t it? We have seats for a play. Come on, and stop thinking.”

They went out in a rush, as light on their feet as balloons.

I looked at the woman with the string bag and our eyes met.

“The war is tough for the young,” she said. “I know — I lost my man in the last war; in the air force, too. But I’ve kept busy. I had my brother’s children to care for. He was killed and his wife married again.

“Work is the best remedy I know for a sore heart. Now I am raising another family, my niece’s children. No, I have never had any of my own. I married my flyer two days before he went overseas in 1915 and never saw him again. I got back his diary, that was all.

“Strange, isn’t it, how time heals? Life goes on no matter who dies, and I have really had a happy life, with children going out to school every morning and coming back at night. It’s the fact that I am part of life which keeps me steadfast and contented. I know I am needed. I am waiting now for the two little girls. I’m taking them to the dentist and then to a picture show for a reward.”

From where I sat I could look over the half wall to the manicure corner of the beauty salon, and it was easy to hear the conversation going on at the nearest table. One of the operators, a smart-looking little girl in a green uniform, was giving a manicure to a handsome woman, attractively dressed. The conversation had been going on for some time before I began to listen in. The customer’s voice was tinged with self-pity.

“My dear,” she was saying, “no one knows how tiresome it is to be moving around as we do. It is really a very hard life, but I have to go with my husband — he’s in the navy. We have lived in seven cities since we were married. I have never had a chance to keep house. We live in hotels all the time. We even travel by plane and so see nothing. It’s so monotonous.”

The manicurist stopped clipping and gazed at her in astonishment.

“Oh, wouldn’t I love that!” she cried. “What a lucky woman you are. I took all my holiday money this year and went to Regina by plane, and back gain. I could only stay one night, but it was the most thrilling holiday anyone ever had.

“I saw the fields below me like a tapestry, the rivers like green threads, the lakes like little mirrors. I don’t mind working all year for another trip just like it. In fact I don’t mind anything. And you have lived in Halifax and Ottawa and Winnipeg. Have you seen Niagara Falls with the coloured lights?”

“Oh, dozens of times,” the woman said dully. “You know, my dear, all these places bore you after a while. If one could really travel in Europe it would be different, but for all my travelling I’ve never been out of Canada, and it’s all an old story to me now. I think it was foolish of you to spend all that money on a holiday that only lasted two
days.”

“But it was more than that to me. Life can never be commonplace to me now. I know now that all that beauty and space is there for me to go back to. That trip of mine lasts all year, and all the years, even if I never have another.”

Then the operator remembered her instructions — the customer must lead the conversation — and the silence fell.

When I came to the end of my book, it left me, as I presume it does all readers, in a mood of detachment. In the last act, the dead come back to Earth and look in amusement at the living, with their foolish, feverish eyes. The dead are a bit impatient with the living.

Emily, the girl who came back, asks to live over again one day in her life, but finds she cannot make her mother even look at her. She is so busy about the house, urging the children to eat their porridge and bacon and grow strong.

“Oh, Moms,” she cries in desperation, “look at me, just once. We are all together. Why can’t we be happy!”

The stage manager of the play, who is the narrator, makes a summary in which he says: “I don’t care what they say with their mouths, everyone knows that something is eternal. Not houses, not names, not even stars. There is something away down deep that’s eternal in human beings.”

I sat thinking about the people to whom I had been listening. The woman who is now raising the second family not her own, has discovered the secret of happy living. So has the little girl who said that nothing matters, life can never be commonplace again, remembering the beauty and space of the world above the clouds. These two have something that carries them over.

“Work and growth,” says one. “Beauty,” says the other.

Everyone must have a bridge, here and now. For lack of it, poor humanity bogs down, in despair. These bridges take many forms, for God reveals himself in many ways.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses a good phrase to describe these aids. It calls them the “Grace of Assistance,” indicating that there is something greater and better ahead not beyond the skies, but here in our own heart.