Many, many years before COVID-19 threw our world into turmoil, a young woman named Brownie and a young man named Sam rebelled against physical distancing guidelines. They kept their rebellion a secret until their “big reveal” to their adult children, the details to be disclosed further into this story. But first, let’s backtrack a bit.
In English folklore, a brownie is a household spirit said to come out at night and perform chores for the owners of the house while they sleep. A fairy is a mythical being with magical powers who dwells on earth in close relationship with humans.
So why were two Jewish twin girls born in Winnipeg in 1909 nicknamed Brownie and Fairy? The obvious answer appears to be that Claris (Brownie) had brown hair and her twin Ruth (Fairy) had fair hair. As legend has it, Ruth wisely discarded her nickname when she was a young teen. Claris, however, was known as Brownie her entire life.
Brownie, who lived almost 100 years, was my mother. I remember her as sophisticated and statuesque, as well as practical and well organized. She had no elf-like qualities.
In 1927, when she met my father, Sam Freedman, she was a hard-working student nurse at the Winnipeg General Hospital.
Brownie was popular with boys and had numerous dates. Sam was an intellectual bookworm whose first date, when he was in law school, was with Brownie. It was love at first sight. Perhaps their instant connection on that date at the Princess Tea Room on Portage Avenue was buoyed by their menu selections. In the spirit of romance, my father ordered a sardine sandwich. My mother ordered a banana split.
My parents were married on June 29, 1934. That’s the date on their Ketubah, the Jewish wedding certificate that is framed and hanging on a wall in my home. That’s the anniversary they celebrated each year. But as my brother, sister and I discovered at a family event in the 1980s, there was some deception regarding their wedding.
I recall my parents gathering their adult children together for a discussion. “Brownie, is now a good time to tell them?” my father asked. My siblings and our spouses were puzzled.
My father’s puckish grin was a clue that he was going to reveal a secret. He loved stretching out a story to a captive audience.
“Sam, tell them already,” my mother said.He was milking this for all it was worth. He loved this. (As a renowned public speaker, my father, Chief Justice of Manitoba at the time, had impeccable delivery.)
After a slow build up and a quick slide into the shocking revelation, my father said: “Your mother and I got married five years before our Jewish wedding.”
I think we all exclaimed, “What?” at the same time.
We were flabbergasted. Why had our parents kept this a secret for so many years? Eventually, they admitted that they—actually my mother—had been embarrassed about their civil wedding. They had kept it secret because apparently the reason for the civil ceremony was simple: they wanted to have sex. In those days, physical intimacy outside of marriage was frowned upon. What if Brownie got pregnant? The shame was not worth the risk.
The civil ceremony, performed at city hall with one friend as a witness, gave them permission to be intimate years before they could afford to get married at a Jewish wedding with family and friends.
My parents, in their own rebellious fashion, found a way to be intimate in a climate of restrictive social norms. But their insurgence didn’t hurt anyone. Now, in 2020, if we rebel against physical distancing stipulations (albeit of a different kind), we risk hurting others. It’s best we follow the rules.
Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of four.