EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5 OF THE MENDING (SURPLUS WOMEN)
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[“Jessie,” my Father began,] “have they begun to speak with you at school about the university application process?”…
“There are surely a few of you who plan to proceed there. With your excellent marks, you will certainly be admitted to Victoria College.” Victoria College was a liberal arts college within the University of Toronto. ….
“I’m glad you mentioned that, Father. I’ve been thinking about the same thing and have made a few inquiries….There are a few programs that I could apply to at the university. While my teachers say that I could not go wrong going to Victoria, they think it would be best if I studied science rather than arts. You know, Father, that I have always excelled in science, chemistry in particular.”
“Science? I’d always pictured you as an arts girl. You so love to read.” I suppressed my indignation that he had not, after all the years of my work in his dental office and after all of our conversations regarding the compounding of chemicals, noticed that I enjoyed the subject of science.
“Yes. I do enjoy reading. But it isn’t so unusual for a woman to study science. Ina studied science in the department of household science.”
“Quite so,” he said. “Ina is very strong in science.” Ina had always loved science and visibly displayed her aptitude. It was Ina who kept a weather journal as a child and who had written weather columns for the local newspaper as a teenager. It was Ina who had set up science labs on the verandah and measured wind velocity and studied clouds. It was Ina who droned on and on about the subject with Eddie, God rest his soul. “Rose, will you pass the mustard pickle, please.”
As the small, heavily cut crystal bowl filled with Mother’s homemade relish was passed down the table, I continued. “The only thing is, what will I do with my degree? I confess, Father, not to be very interested in teaching children. I have never had a real affinity for children. My thinking—” He cut me off before I could go on.
“No affinity for children? Well, I can certainly understand that,” he said. “I rarely did myself. Maybe that’s why I’m quite content treating maimed and wounded men. Very few of them cry out for their mothers!” It was the closest Father had come to making a joke in a long time. I forced myself to laugh while the others at the table looked on, aghast.
“But you needn’t be worried about that, Jessie,” he said after catching his breath. His words gave me some momentary optimism. “You won’t have to teach long. Before you know it, you’ll be married. The youngsters you’ll be instructing will be your own. Nearly everyone who has no affinity for young children overcomes that when it comes to their own offspring.”
“Yes,” I conceded, not really surprised that he expressed none of those sentiments. “But you see, Father, I don’t think that we can assume that my career will be so short-lived. It’s quite possible that I will never marry.”
“What? Like your Aunt Lil?” he asked, appalled. It would have been hard for him to think of a worse fate for one of his daughters than living a life like that of his eldest sister.
“Well, yes. Aunt Lil would be an example.” I had not been thinking of her at all.
Slowly, he looked me up and down and then said, with firm resolution, “You are nothing like your Aunt Lil.” He gave me a long, strange look. “In any event, didn’t your Mother tell me that you have two or three beaux? You’ll be married in no time.”
“Father, have you not read the forecasts? Between the war and the flu, an entire generation of young men has been compromised. There will not be enough men to marry the women of my age.”
“Not your age, Jessie,” he corrected. “Ina’s age. She may be without suitors. It was the boys her age that died at the front. The boys your age were still at home at their mothers’ apron strings when the war was over.” I thought of the hours and hours that my male friends had worked at local farms and factories while still going to school. “At their mother’s apron strings” hardly seemed appropriate. But that was a conversation for another day.
“Yes, Father. Ina will be affected, as will Grace across the road, Marion around the corner, Irma down the street. They will all be impacted, but so will the girls of my age.”
“She’s right, Jethro.” Aunt Rose finally entered the conversation. “I’ve been reading articles about this. On average, men do not marry women of their own age. Generally, they marry women a few years younger. When Collin and Harold and Gordon marry women two, three, or four years younger than themselves, who will be left to marry Jessie and Hannah?”
“Well, they aren’t all dead,” Father replied. “Some of our boys are merely injured. And some younger men may marry older women. There may be men out there for Hannah and Jessie. Maybe even Ina.” He had, by his numeric reasoning, nearly written off the likelihood of Ina marrying.
“Of course, there may be,” Aunt Rose agreed. “Let us pray to God that there will be, but the odds are that many of these girls and their friends will not marry.”
….Father rolled his eyes. He clearly had never conceived such a notion.