House

On Mathilda Jane Thompson

Sometimes, I think about the woman who used to live in this house.

We don’t know much about her. We do know that she was the daughter of a wealthy local railway man who built a house that remains one of the heritage homes in the city. We do know that, at some point in her life, her father built a large duplex right across the street from his still-larger home, one side for her brother and his wife, the other side for her and her husband. We do know that her husband was a banker. We do not know for sure if they had children, though I assume it likely.

When it comes to knowing about someone, this is oh, so very little. A woman’s life is not contained in her relationship to her father, or in her relationship to her brother, or her husband. It is not even contained in her relationship to her children.

So, sometimes, I look around this old house and I wonder.

Where did she spend her days? Did she use the room off the kitchen for an every day sitting room and save the more ornate living room and dining room for guests? Did she have female friends who called on her during the day, bringing their children to play – quietly – while they sat around the fire and drank tea (or, perhaps, something stronger)? Did they ever have a party, filling the grand living room and dining room with luxurious fashion and laughing faces? Did she and her husband share a room, or did he take the first master – the one with the fireplace – and she the second, a room with the exact same dimensions, but no fireplace and a slightly smaller closet? Did she spend evenings sipping tea in the comfort of the sunroom, or was this the room strewn with toys and her children’s hobbies? In which room did she rock her children to sleep?

In which room did she give birth?

I wonder what the kitchen looked like at the time. Today, it’s cheap and modernized, with a wall that is far from original separating the counters and cupboards from the laundry room and powder room in behind it. Then, did it contain large cabinets? A heavy island meant for kneading bread, chopping vegetables, and mixing copious amounts of baked goods? Did she have hired help? A maid, a cook, a housekeeper?

What did her furniture look like? Did she pick each item with great care without considering the cost, concerned only with current styles, and trends, and timelessness? Or, was much of her furniture handed down, overflow from her mother’s opulent taste in the great house across the street? Did she choose artwork to display on the walls? Things she liked? Artists she wanted to support? Did she wallpaper? Did she embroider her own pillowcases and knit her children’s wardrobe?

Would she have been an Instagram mom, had Instagram existed in 1870? Were her friends jealous of her perfect life in her perfect house with her perfect children?

Or, perhaps she used the house very little. Perhaps she spent her evenings here, going through the motions of raising proper Victorian children, but every morning, after a simple breakfast of bread and cheese, she gathered up her children and, hand-in-hand, they crossed the street to her parent’s home where they settled in to a much grander atmosphere, her children with their cousin and a governess. Here, perhaps, she pulled out her embroidery, and drifted into the stereotypical, quiet life of a wealthy Victorian woman.

But maybe she hated it. Maybe, every evening, alone in her own room, she sat in the bay window and peered down the street, wondering what it would be like to walk past her neighbours, away from the rows of red brick houses, over one bridge, and maybe another, into the Canadian wilderness in search of something else, something less buttoned, something less full of detail, and symmetry, and perfection. Maybe she thought about the wild that was beyond the city limits and wondered what it would be like to experience the vastness of a forest that never really ends until it hits the water, the overwhelming picturesque nature of the unsettled countryside. Maybe she wanted more than these 10 rooms, but couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was for which she yearned.

I have no idea. But sometimes, I look around and I wonder what other life this house has held.

Was she so different from me?

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