Yellow With White Polka Dots

Reposted from the January 2014 post of the same name from  Bunch Family website with permission of the author, Anne, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons

Some of you may know that my kid likes bow ties. He loves to dress up. What you might not know is that he also likes dresses. At home, he ties blankets around his waist as skirts, and occasionally he will wear one of my shorter dresses. He likes to put on my high heels and walk around the house. My only rule is that he shouldn’t run in them.

Ben is very gender-fluid. This means that since he was very little, he’s told me that some days he feels like a girl, some days he feels like a boy, and most days, he just feels like Ben.* My partner Drew and I honour his feelings and encourage him to express them however he wants to. He has gone to school with wigs and nail polish, and sometimes he’s been laughed at.

There have been occasions where he’s been heartbroken, which makes my own heart seize up and want to spring to his defense. There have been times when I have taken his offenders on, ready to spit fire until I realized that they themselves are just kids. Instead, I have tried to engage them, question them on why they think the world is made up of rules that boys are this, and girls are that. Sometimes we get somewhere, and everybody is fine. Sometimes these kids run off, and I don’t know if it will happen again.

Drew and I try to teach our son resilience. I tell Ben he needs to learn how to stand up for himself. I tell him about being beat up when I was six years old for being different. When I do, my kid actually turns it around and comforts me, and I realize how childhood wounds surface in my parenting of him.

I try to remember that we are different people – perhaps Ben is living in a changed world, and he is better equipped with language and an understanding of paradigm shifts than I was. I tell myself that, but I am not convinced.

On the weekend, Drew and I took him to the mall. As we were walking, Ben said to me, “Remember how you said it was okay if I was a girl some days?”

I said yes. He said it was time that I bought him a dress. So, we walked into the Gap and went to the girls’ section, and Ben picked out a dress, bright yellow with white polka dots. He said he loved it. He immediately put it on when we got home. Drew and I told him he looked pretty, beautiful, lovely – all the words we reserve for girls, and boys don’t get to hear nearly enough.

This morning, Ben decided to wear it to school. I asked him if he was sure, and cautioned him that people might laugh and bother him. Ben said he knew that, and he could manage it. He said that he would yell, STOP LAUGHING. IT’S NOT FUNNY. IT’S JUST A DRESS AND BOYS CAN WEAR DRESSES TOO. He had a plan.

We went to see his grade one teacher this morning before class, and his teacher was loving and supportive. Andrew gave her a book to read to the kids in case she felt she needed it. It’s called 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert —  about a boy who loves dresses but is not allowed to wear them, so he imagines 10, 000 beautiful ones.

I held back my tears as Drew tied the ribbon on Ben’s dress into a bow. I held back tears when Ben marched into school along with his classmates, even as I heard some kids start to say, “Hey, you’re not a girl!” I held back tears when some older kids patted Ben’s back and said that he was “waaay cool.”

Now he is in there and I don’t know how it’s going, and I let the tears flow because I am so proud of this child for having such tenacity and self-love. I am crying because I am terrified and didn’t realize that I would have to send my child out there and have to trust the world so soon. I am crying because it is a precious thing when someone values pleasure above the risks in order to feel truly themselves.

If by now you are still reading this and feel irked – then I ask you to examine why that is, and how you are invested in the ways that gender is constructed.

I want you to think about how you would feel about my kid because he is wearing a yellow dress with white polka dots. Would you feel like it’s a harbinger of spring and make you smile? Or would you change your mind about everything else you might already know about him – that he’s funny, quirky, friendly, smart, beautiful?

Because my kid is, regardless what you think or believe, beautiful. And I ask that you never make him, or anyone else who goes against what your prescription of gender should be, feel any less gorgeous and brave.

* names have been changed for privacy


Epilogue from the author, Anne:

So, some kids laughed at him (he ignored them) and some kids complimented his dress (he thanked them). Ben said, “It was awesome wearing a dress to school! Can we go shopping again and get another one?”

I marvel that there was acceptance from most of his classmates, affirming that sometimes, six-year-olds do know better than us.

When I first posted this story on my Facebook timeline, I wasn’t certain how it would be received. I knew I would get some support, but I was unprepared for the huge number of people in my community and family who flooded Ben, Drew and I with love and encouragement. My friend Lynn observed how brilliant it was that all the comments became part of the story.

It gave us hope, and expressions of desire and longing for the world that my son wants and believes should be. I realize that what began that morning with my young child taking his first leap of faith had a ripple effect. It may be a little thing, a simple garment, a small act — and yet it wasn’t. Maybe one day, it will be.

– Anne

The McCormick Family and the Pill

The Pill turns 55 this year and it has changed the lives of women across the globe.  The story of the creation of the pill is an interesting one that involves eugenics, a devout Catholic who was trying to use science to help women who couldn’t conceive, and one very rich and forward-thinking woman.  This woman inherited most of her fortune from Stanley McCormick – the brother of Mary, after whom our little park and community centre are named.

stanleymccormickStanley McCormick
 was the youngest of 7 children, the “sensitive” child of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper.  Stanley graduated with honours from Princeton University and belonged to the Varsity tennis team. He was attracted to the arts and hoped to become an artist but in the end, being good with numbers, Stanley eventually entered the family business.  Throughout his life, he suffered from indecision, stress, and what we now know as obsessive compulsive disorder. Stanley kept 6-8 different weights of underwear and every morning he had a hard time deciding which type to wear.  In 1903 in Boston, he met up with his childhood friend Katherine Dexter.

katherinemccormickKatherine Dexter, like Stanley, came from a wealthy family.  Her father was a prominent lawyer in Michigan and died in 1890.  After his death, Katherine and her mother Josephine moved to Boston.  Katherine attended MIT and was the second woman to graduate there, although it took her 8 years to accomplish this because of the hurdles she faced from being a woman.   Katherine was in her senior year in 1903 when she met up with Stanley, who became very attached to her.  He was into socialism at that time and wanted to discuss politics with the left-leaning Katherine. She appreciated his intelligence and his interest in the arts but Stanley proved to be too much for her.  He admitted to being addicted to masturbation and had a leather harness made to restrain him against pleasuring himself at night.

After graduation Katherine escaped to her family’s chateau in Switzerland but on the way Stanley accosted her on the wharf in New York.  He followed her to Switzerland and through his persistence and deep love for her, finally convinced her to marry him.  They honeymooned in Europe for 9 months, but apparently the marriage was never consummated — both mothers disapproved of their union and visited them throughout their trip. Stanley would never come to bed, spending his nights writing letters.  When they did try, Stanley couldn’t make it happen, blaming it on his masterbation habit and on a sexual encounter with a Parisian prostitute he admitted to having had years earlier.

After their honeymoon, Stanley and Katherine lived apart – Stanley in Chicago working at the family reaper business and Katherine in Boston.  In 1906, Stanley had to resign because of his mental illness and he moved in with Katherine.  As his mental state improved Katherine encouraged him to produce an heir.  Stanley turned violent, attacking a dentist, an elevator operator then eventually a German tutor.  Katherine checked Stanley into the McLean Institute in Boston, one of the most famous mental institutions in the United States.  On the admission form under “heredity”, doctors noted “family of nervous temperament, mother eccentric, sister insane”.

It’s at this point that Katherine and the McCormick family began to clash and would continue to disagree for the next 40 years.  Nettie, Stanley’s mother and Anita, his sister believed that it was Katherine who caused Stanley’s insanity and they fought against the treatment Stanley was receiving.  Katherine was devoted, visiting often and writing letters to Stanley.  Adolf Meyer, one of the United States’ top psychiatrists at the time, was brought in to diagnose Stanley. Being hired by the McCormicks, Meyer suggested to Katherine that she should divorce Stanley.  Katherine wouldn’t have any of it, and managed to persuade Anita to move Stanley to the estate Riven Rock, in Montecito, California, the house Stanley originally supervised to be built for his sister Mary.  Stanley lived the rest of his days there, with hired staff and in-house physicians.

Once Stanley was situated in California, Katherine turned to other interests.  In 1909, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, soon becoming the vice-president and treasurer.  Eventually she would help organize, alongside Carrie Chapman Catt, the women’s right to vote in the United States in 1920.  Finally, she became Vice-President of the League of Women Voters.  During this time she met Margaret Sanger – the founder of the modern birth control movement.  Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 and the first one staffed by females in New York in 1921.

margaretsangerMargaret Sanger was an influential early feminist who used her writing in support of the new cause for birth control for women.  In 1914 after publishing her newsletter The Woman Rebel, she faced going to jail, so she fled New York to England by the way of Montreal.  Sanger is still a contentious figure today.  While she is held in high regard as a feminist, having saved countless women from performing abortions on themselves, her birth control ideas went hand in hand with the idea of eugenics – selective breeding to improve the human race.  The placement of her clinics in the poorest immigrant and black neighbourhoods has been perceived as a way to control the population of these people.

Almost thirty years after meeting Sanger, Stanley passed away and Katherine gained full control of her inheritance ($10 million from her mother and $35 million from Stanley, 85% of which was taken by inheritance tax). Katherine was able to get in touch with Margaret Sanger again and help to fund birth control.   Sanger put Katherine in touch with Gregory Pincus, a biologist studying infertility.

gregorypincusGregory Pincus was a jewish biologist from New Jersey.  He attended Cornell University and then Harvard. Eventually he became an assistant Professor at Harvard in 1931.  His first breakthrough came in 1934 when he was able to create in-vitro fertilization in rabbits. In 1944 he co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology to research the relationship between hormones, heart disease, cancer and schizophrenia.  In 1951, Margaret Sanger’s  Planned Parenthood Federation of America had given the the Pincus’ foundation a small grant to conduct hormonal contraceptive research and Pincus and his partner Min Chueh Chang, were thus able to confirm that progesterone could act as an inhibitor to ovulation.  (It was in 1938 that Russell Marker first synthesized progesterone from a Mexican yam, making it much less costly than pulling the hormone from animals).   In 1952 Katherine McCormick met Pincus and increased funding for this research (by 50 times); one year later Pincus and Dr. John Rock began trials of progesterone on humans.

johnrockJohn Rock was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard medical school in 1918.  He  was a Catholic, married with 5 children.  Like Pincus, Rock was a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization as well as sperm freezing, allowing many of his patients the ability to conceive.

The rhythm method was (and still is) regarded by the Catholic Church the only moral from of birth control. In the 1930s Rock founded a clinic to teach this method to clients and he was the only Catholic physician to sign a petition to legalize birth control at this time.  In the 1940s, he taught a curriculum at Harvard which included birth control and also co-wrote a birth control guide in 1949 entitled “Voluntary Parenthood”.

Rock and Pincus began human trials in Puerto Rico in 1954.  Rock was using birth control in an  attempt to make women more fertile.  They would take progesterone and then stop and try to conceive.  The women in the trials had an encouraging 15% fertility rate using this method.  By 1955, Enovid, the first brand name birth control pill was approved by the USFDA as a menstrual regulator and by 1960 it was approved for contraceptive use.  Enovid was the first pill humans took that was not a treatment for illness.  The pill was not available to women in all of the United States until contraception became legal in 1965 and then legal for unmarried women in 1972.  Contraception became legal in Canada in 1971.

Katherine McCormick continued to fund birth control biology throughout the 1960s and donated almost the entire $2 million ($27 million today) it took for research and development.  She funded a residence for 200 women at MIT, and when she died in 1967, she donated $5 million to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, $5 million to the Stanford University School of Medicine for women doctors, and $1 million to Gregory Pincus’ Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.  Many of the priceless paintings she had bought with Stanley on their honeymoon were donated to the Chicago Institute of Art.

Historically, birth control has been a contentious issue and we don’t know if that will ever change. One fact that everyone can agree upon is that the pill has had a great impact on our society.  The invention of the pill allowed many women to be in sexual relationships without the worry of unwanted pregnancy. The autonomy afforded by the pill contributed to opportunities for women to take on more varied roles than wife and mother.  It’s hard to know how closely tied the sexual revolution of 60s was to the invention of this little pill, created by the many personalities all connected in some way to the McCormick family.

I believe that Katherine’s difficult and strange married life allowed her to devote time and effort to the suffrage movement and birth control.   Could this have happened if she had gotten pregnant with Stanley McCormick’s child?  If Stanley hadn’t suffered such mental illness would he have supported Katherine in her efforts?  While no doubt Gregory and John Rock were well on their way towards the science of the pill, how long would it have taken for the pill to become available for general use without the McCormick fortune?  Looking back on history it’s interesting to think about these questions and to think about how we are connected to each other.  In our community, we use the McCormick name on a daily basis on our way to the park but that name really goes deeper than we think…  Anyone who’s taken the pill or been with someone who took the pill is related in some small way to the actions of Katherine Dexter McCormick.  It makes me wonder about the choices we make in our own lives as well as the chance events and encounters we have.  How might they affect society, and the future?

Further Reading

The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox
This hour has 7 days interview with John Rock
Letters between Katherine McCormick and Margaret Sanger

Small Histories: Flags, Riots and Faggos

The Rainbow Flag, San Fransisco 1978

I’m always interested in the history of things, and I wanted to find out how the rainbow flag came to be a sign for the Gay, Lesbian, Trans, and Bi movement and was there really a connection between Judy Garland “Over the Rainbow” and the pride flag?

The flag first flew in a Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978.  The flag was designed by artist Gilbert Baker and was inspired by the flag of the Races (which had white, black, yellow, brown and red stripes).  Gilbert’s flag design consisted of 8 colours, each colour had it’s own meaning.  From top to bottom, hot pink – sexuality, red – life, orange – healing, yellow – sunlight, green – nature, turquoise – magic/art, indigo/blue – serenity/harmony, violet – spirit.  The first flags were hand dyed and hand stitched for the parade.

In November of that year, when Harvey Milk was assassinated, the demand for the rainbow flag grew to use for Gay Rights demonstrations.  The hot pink colour was dropped from the flag because that colour fabric was difficult to find.  By 1979, the flags were hung along lampposts on Market Street, obscuring the middle stripe, and the easiest way to remedy this was to drop one of the colours to have 3 colours on each side – the turquoise colour was removed to leave 6 colours and the flag popular today.  It’s interesting that the 2 colours dropped are most closely related to the light pink and light blue associated with baby boys and baby girls.


The Stonewall Riots, New York, 1968

Gilbert Baker was also inspired by Judy Garland’s song “Over the Rainbow”.  Garland was a gay icon at the time and her death has been said to spur the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in New York City.  On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn which was a hang out for drag queens, transgendered, young gay men and homeless youth.  At this time in New York, police would arrest any man dressed as a woman and it was typical at these raids that drag queens were escorted to the bathroom by a female officer to prove that they were women!  This particular day, and it’s been suggested that because of Judy Garland’s death that the people in the Stonewall that night were feeling particularly fragile, the drag queens wouldn’t go and the patrons of the bar who were kicked out of the bar stayed outside.  As patrons of the bar began to come out handcuffed and put into patrol wagons the crowd grew more and more hostile. Other people on the street joined the mob.  Coins, bottles and bricks were thrown.  Police bats were used.  The patrol wagons were attempted to be flipped and some of the police sped away while ten officers barricaded themselves in the Stonewall.

A crowd of 500-600 were now gathered and they uprooted a parking meter to smash down the doors of the bar and climbed in through windows.  The Tactical Police Force arrived and formed a line to control the crowd but the mob just mocked the police forming a kick-line and singing.   This encouraged the police to use their night sticks to hit the crowd.  By 4:00 am the streets were cleared but the feeling of empowerment continued over the next few days with crowds gathering along Christopher Street and in front of the Stonewall Inn.

These events encouraged members of the LGBT community to organize themselves to fight for their rights.  Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Pride parades across the globe are inspired by these events and still take place on the anniversary of these riots on the last week of June every year.


Faggos, Toronto, Late 80’s

One of my first encounters with a gay male on TV was that of Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall.  I was a huge fan of the show that ran between 1989 to 1995.  I would record the show on VHS and watch it over and over again.  A skit that comes to mind immediately for me and one that I knew I had on tape was the skit “FAGGO’s”, where Thompson goes through all of the letters in the word FAGGOT and decides that it’s the T (that reminds everyone of Christ dying on the cross) that makes the word “faggot” upsetting.  In the end he says “C’mon Faggos! Let’s sing!”

The Kids in the Hall were so edgy back then and there hasn’t been anything as funny on CBC since. The CBC really needs to have more than just political humour and the usual CBC incestuousness. The funniest comedy comes out of the stuff that people are afraid to talk about.  If you watch some of the old Kids in the Hall, it’s still edgy today.  Take the “Scott’s Not Gay Anymore” for example, it talks about sexual freedom in the most hilarious way. I love it when Mark McKinney comes in with the gay paraphernalia.  Watch it below.

I remember hearing an interview with him after Ellen DeGeneres came out saying something like “WTF?  I did this like 10 years ago!!”.  This is when funny Canadians were out there pushing the boundaries.  Are Canadians as funny as they used to be?  In these Conservative times, I’m not so sure.


A Short Field Guide to Watching Movies with My Daughters

I’m sure that mine is a common story in this neighbourhood.  Weekly family routines feel excruciating at times. Much like that wheely turny thing in the park, once we’re all on it and somebody starts pushing there’s no turning back. School, work, extracurriculars keep the week spinning. And then comes Friday evening. I’m not sure when we developed it, but Friday night in our household is movie night and for my two daughters it has become almost sacred.

Food is exactly the same each week. A black bean, spinach, coriander what-not-mix with salsa and blue tortilla chips AND a movie. There is no thinking about the food, but the movie picking can be somewhat challenging. No doubt, there’s a lot out there. Just between Netflix and iTunes we’ve managed to keep this tradition up for a couple of years.

This is not to say that every Friday night our family sits down to quality films (note the word movie in the title). I’ve discovered that although our kids may not be so used to gender specific dialogue that subversively specifies roles for girls, there’s still a lot of it out there. Needless to say, My Little Pony has not made the cut.

So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I’m making these suggestions; having no professional film making experience and living with Neil Burns as one of my close neighbors. But in taking time to think about this process, I’ve realized that we seem to have a bit of a field guide that helps us recognize a great movie, or at least an entertaining one..

These are the measurement sticks that we use.


Magic, kindness, quirkiness, tension (this one is a bit hard on my 5 year old so it needs to be in small doses at times), beauty AND strong child narratives sometimes told from their own perspective.  A big help for us in finding these has been the website A Mighty Girl.  It’s got all kinds of movie lists to start from.

There are movies that I would have loved to put on this list, but could not in good faith because my daughter’s and I don’t seem to have the exact same taste and this is their list too.

Ok, here it goes. Fifteen movies in no particular order:

Song of the Sea


Ballet Shoes Ballet_Shoesparenttrapreview

My Neighbour Totoro


The Gabby Douglas Story


The Secret Garden


Saving Luna


The Parent Trap


Marley and Me


Because of Winn Dixie


Fly Away Home


A Little Princess

images princessreview

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

My first memory of talking about sex with my kids would be with my older daughter.  I was explaining how I was going to be having a baby, that there was a baby growing inside of me that would eventually come out and turn her into a sister. She was only about two at the time so I didn’t get into the rudimentaries. Before there was ever any talk about sex, there was just a lot of nudity. My older daughter loved to be nude. She would strip down at any opportunity and despite her growing sense of decorum she still sleeps without pajamas. My brother, crashing on our couch one night, recalled being awoken at dawn to her painting at the kitchen table stark naked.  She also enjoyed wrestling in her underwear. I can remember her around four years old greeting one of her little chums who had come over to our house;

“Henry, take off your pants. We’re playing naked Zurg.” There was never any latent sexuality in this kind of play. It was just joyfulness at being in her body and moving around. Although as I write that I can see that maybe a big part of sexuality is just that, or should be just that.

Later there would be questions…

Sometimes I would come upon the kids in compromising positions;

“What are you looking for?”

“My holes.”

Okay then. At least when you find them they will be clean I thought, since you are in the bath.

Or to my husband;

“Is that your bladder hanging behind your penis dad?”

Often the girls would look nostalgically at my breasts, asking if there was still milk in my nipples. Nope I would say, these wells are dry. There were questions about menstruation, or “moon time”, in the hippy parlance of their first care-giver…

“Are you blooding mom? Can I see?” Charming. Nothing beats pooping with an audience until you have to change a tampon, or a diva cup with a curious onlooker.

My youngest daughter, lucky enough to spend her early years at home with dad instead of at a daycare occasionally claimed to have a penis.

“Dad has a penis.”


“I have a penis too.”

“Nope, you have a vagina, like me and Aimee. Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.”

“No, I have a penis. Like dad.”

“Ok. Whatever you have is fine with me, as long as you go to sleep now.”

The interest in the penis subsided until the Christmas season when wrapping paper rolls were brandished, phallic and festive at once.  Lately she seems less interested, maybe the novelty wore off?

Typically any conversation around sex hinges on either babies, which both girls love, and how to get one, or on gender and biology; who has what and how does it all match up? I feel like I have had the talk about babies so many times that it is like being caught in an awkward Groundhog Day but without the help of Bill Murray.  The first time one of the girls asked about where babies come from I decided to stick to the facts, but provide only the bare requirement of information. I told myself that if they were asking about digestion I would have no qualms and so I pushed forward, past my weird feelings.

“I want to have a baby.”

“Well, maybe someday you will have a baby”

“I want one now.”

“Only adults can have babies.”


“Because your body is not done growing and so it can’t grow baby.”

“You grow a baby in your stomach.”

“Well, it looks like it’s in your stomach but women have a special place for babies to grow.”

“A vagina!” Close but no cigar, I think.

“Well, the baby comes out of the vagina when it is born but it grows in the uterus.”

“How does it get in the stomach?” Why bother explaining I wonder.

“It grows from a seed.”

“Okay. I’m hungry. Can we get cheesies?”

And for awhile that was enough. But like an addict, every time the topic came up they needed more information, more details, to be satisfied. I struggled to find a way to answer the questions without creating more questions, or to be honest without bringing up the question. It. Basically, doing it. I felt like I could get through any baby interrogation as long as I didn’t have to describe the act in its entirety.

The next time babies came up we were stuck in the car during a rainstorm, waiting for a break to make a dash into the library. The drops hit the windshield in gusts. The girls had their dolls in the back seat and were talking about how they would have so many babies when they grew up. Ha, I thought. I hope you do! Justice!  Anyhow, the older one, eager to assert her power by displaying her superior knowledge of biology began, in a very pedantic way, to explain how babies were made.

Little one: “They grow inside the mum.”

Big one: “Yes, but not in the stomach, they grow in a special place, by the vagina.” Not bad.

Little one: “They come out the vagina, but not the peehole.” Already superseding my own childhood anatomical knowledge by maybe a decade. What can I say? I went to Catholic school.

Big one: “That’s right. And we can’t make babies because we don’t have the special place yet.”

Little one: “Where do we get it?”

Big one: “From a seed!”

This is when the talk turned to me. Uh oh.

Big one, to me: “Where does the mum get the seed?”

“Well, the mum already has the special place, women are born with the place, the seed is just to grow the baby. You have the place. It just isn’t ready until you’re an adult and then you get the seed and grow the baby.”

Big one to me: “So we just need the seed. Where do we get the seed?”

I am starting to sweat. I look at the rain. Still pelting.

“Well, you get the seed from your partner. Usually.” I amend, thinking about donors and same sex parents and surrogates…keep it simple, right?

Big one to little one: “See, we can have babies when we’re adults. Do you want to have a baby with me?”

Little one: “Yes!”

Big one to me: “We are going to be partners and have babies together.”

“Well, usually you need a boy to give you the seed. The dad gives the seed to the mum. Or sometimes a close friend, or…” I am faltering. This is getting too complicated. How do you explain the many and varied ways of obtaining a seed. But it doesn’t matter. I have lost them at the dad part.

Big one: “We’ll just get the seed from dad! We can be partners and dad can give us the seed.”


“NO, No no it doesn’t work like that. You can’t get the seed from your dad.”

Big one: “What about Ben? We can get a seed from him.” (her cousin)

“You can’t get a seed from anyone you’re related to. It looks like it’s letting up, come on!”  Imparting this final fact I choose the rainstorm over any more strategizing and open the car door.

The next time the seemingly inevitable seed conversation rolls around I am parking near St. Joe’s in order to take the older one to the asthma clinic. I can’t remember what sparked the question this time; I must have remarked offhand that this was the hospital where she was born.

Big one: “But not (my sister), she was born at home, in the bathtub, right?”

“Yep.” It sounds so makeshift and somehow slipshod. I wonder if I should have made up a lie that she was born decorously in a birthing tub. Too late.

“So dad gave you the seed, right?”

“He sure did.”

Silence as I unbuckle her and lock the door and we make our way across the street.

“But how did you get the seed?”

Think, think, think.

“Well, like I said dad gave it to me.”

“But how? Where does it come from?”

“Well, it comes out of his penis.”

“What!” in total disbelief. “Well, that’s weird.  Can I get a cookie after the doctor?”

So that was it. I did it. Could’ve been worse. I guess. At least I was the first one to tell her, not some know-it-all on the playground. I did mention later that most parents like to be the ones to explain about seeds so that if she had friends who wanted to know the whole story she should tell them to ask their own parents. Besides, who knows what level of broken telephone would occur in her retelling of the facts. For now I had escaped the inevitable explanation: it. Bare facts had sufficed, the strange image of a seed (likely a sunflower seed or orange pip , as that’s the extent of my kid’s seed knowledge) emerging from a penis confounding enough to distract my daughter from the next inevitable question. That would be another story, for another time. I had, at least, a respite, time to gather my resources and prepare for the next level of inquiry.

P.S. I ❤ You

Sarah Couture McPhail is an artist, resident of the Brockton community and the creator of Neighbourhood Fan Mail.  She’ll be at the Dundas West Fest again this year on June 6th between 11am and 2pm.  Instead of being in the St. Claren’s parkette, look for Neighbourhood Fan Mail in a tent at the corner of Dundas and Margueretta.


■ – What is Neighbourhood Fan Mail?

Sarah Couture McPhail  – The Neighbourhood Fan Mail project encourages handwritten fan letters to local shops, restaurants, neighbours and friends —letting them know how they are appreciated.

This community engagement endeavour explores city life through handwriting letters about people in specific neighbourhoods and delivering other writers’ works.  Participants are encouraged to think about what makes their community better and then discover new places they might not know. The results functions as creative expression and social exploration of participants surroundings, and also reaffirms individuals and their place within the community.

■ – Who are you a fan of in the community?

SCM – My neighbour, the one we call Grandpa Joe. He has boundless energy and runs and plays ferociously with my kids. In his seventies, he is a model of health, strength and good nature. Neighbourhood kids know him and love him. When my kids see him, their eyes sparkle. If he isn’t deserving of fan mail, I don’t know who is.

Many people in this neighbourhood deserve acknowledgement. Our local grocer, whose smile never fails to brighten our worst day. Our favourite coffee shop, who saves our heads from aches with their delicious and always fresh coffee. The person down the street who curates the most amazing garden and has inspired our own verdant thumbs.

■ – Who can participate?

SCM – Participation has no age requirement, no language barriers, or requisite social standing. It doesn’t even necessitate that participants reside in the community. People must however acknowledge the neighbourhood’s greatness.

■ – Are there any other rules of Fan Mail?

SCM – First Rule of Fan Mail: In order to write a fan mail people MUST FIRST PROMISE to deliver someone else’s fan letter. Once this commitment is made, participants write/draw/decorate their fan letter. When they are finished, they drop their letter off in “Outgoing Mail” (attach letters to the hanging display using a clothespin), where they can also pick up someone else’s mail. Then they are expected to deliver the mail while they are walking through the neighbourhood. Keep it positive. Be creative. Have fun.


Slow Dance

Alison Bates is a proud member of the Brockton community and co-chair of the Shirley Street Parent Council.  You may have seen her wandering around the neighbourhood with her two kids chasing down ice cream trucks in the summer. Last year, she and Sarah Couture McPhail started “Slow Dance: No Excuses” at the Dundas West Fest.  You’ll find them both once again at the at this year’s event.

■ –  How did “Slow Dance: No Excuses” come about?

Alison Bates – We all have the need to burn off some energy, let loose, and just have some FUN once in a while! How often have you thought to yourself “I need to go out dancing”? Last year’s Slow Dance: No Excuses was sparked from this idea. Because really excuses might pile up, but sometimes we just have go out dancing!


■ – Slow Dance premiered at last year’s Dundas West Fest. What was that like?

AB – It was great! We trimmed the grassy area in at the back of St Clarens parkette with lanterns and flags. And like back in high school, it may have started off with a touch of nervousness but once snowball was called, it was an all-out party. Although the dance party is called “Slow Dance” there were many fast, up beat songs to dance to as well! Adults, teens, kids, toddlers… everyone was dancing. And suddenly our nerves disappeared. Everyone danced and laughed the evening away. It was a great end to a wonderful day at Dundas West Fest.

■ – How do neighbours take place in this year’s Slow Dance?

AB – This year we’ve decided to make the dance a masquerade. On Saturday June 6th from 7:30pm to 10:30pm, the St Clarens parkette will transform into a community ball room of our dreams filled with feathers, glitter, super heroes, and animal costumes, anything you like! We’ll also have a tickle trunk of costumes mostly all donated by Brockton’s own dancing crossing guard, the lovable Kathleen, to make things even more fun! The Goodtimes have signed on to D.J. the party. And, if everything falls into place, we may all be delighted by a surprise or two.

In preparation for the dance, we are having a mask making workshop on May 23 during the Brockton yard sale. We’ll be sharing some materials and costume ideas, and get excited for the big event, (if you missed it, visit the event page to see what we made and get inspired!).

■ – Are there any rules on who you should dance with? Who danced with whom, last year?

AB – There are no steadfast rules to the dance, other than to be respectful and kind to one another. Kids danced with parents and friends. Friends danced with friends. Actually, the dance acted as a kind of ‘date night’ for a few people too! That was great to see.

■ – What makes you want to run this yearly event?

AB – Toronto may have nearly 3 million people living within it, but it can still feel like a small town especially here in Brockton. Thankfully, we are a city of amazing neighbourhoods. The hope with this dance is to demonstrate other ways neighbours can use their local outdoor green spaces. Last year’s dance was a great success in bringing together neighbours new and old to Brockton. Perhaps in the future we can organize another community dinner, a theatrical performance, an active game day, or have even more dances in the park too! There are so many options!

■ – Slow Dance is also part of the 100in1Day Festival. Can you tell me a little about this?

AB – This is 100in1Day’s second year in Toronto. It takes place all across the city and is fueled by civic engagement – people who want to make their city a better place by having small initiatives that spark change. Check out their website for a list of the interventions or to get info if you want to host one yourself!

■ – Slow Dance sounds like a lot of fun.  I can’t wait to get my dancing on…

AB – Come by to say hi, and have a dance or two! It’s going to be a great night!


The Mystery of Miss Mary McCormick

Mary McCormick is the name of our local park and community centre.  But who is she?  The Blok digs deep to bring you the fascinating story of this mysterious woman.

At the pumpkin walk this year I ran into Joe who lives across from McCormick Park (and is part of the group Friends of McCormick Park) and I told him about this magazine and how I was searching around for some history of the neighbourhood.

During our conversation Joe brought up a question; “Who was Mary McCormick?”  And that idea led to this article. The first problem I encountered searching online was how common a name Mary McCormick was in early Toronto. After a trip to the Toronto Reference Library and wading through old articles from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail I began to unravel the mystery of this unusual woman.

In the archives there are old photos of McCormick Playground with the date 1911 scribed on the bottom. I searched the Toronto Star database for “Mary McCormick Playground” looking for the earliest entries. Bingo! Here is the headline that I found:


The Gift of Miss McCormick, Promised Recently, Received by Chairman Brown To-day.”

The genial face of Trustee C. A. B. Brown was one broad, beaming smile to-day.  The reason was that lying before him on his desk when he came to his office this morning was a letter which contained a check for $10,000.

It was a gift of Miss Mary B. McCormick to the Toronto Playground Association.  The check was made payable to  Mr. Brown as president of the association, and the $10,000 is to be used to equip the new Cottingham Square playground.

Miss McCormick is the daughter of the founder and head of the famous McCormick harvester manufacturing firm, and is reputed to be a millionairess.  She came to reside in Toronto recently, and bought the residence of Senator MacDonald on Avenue Road hill. She has interested herself in the playground movement, and her interest is practical as well as sympathetic.

The plans for the equipment of Cottingham Square playground have been examined and revised by Chicago’s park superintendent, and it is designed to have this Toronto playground go the Chicago south side playgrounds one better.

“It will be the finest in the country,” said Mr.Brown.  “We cannot say too much for this fine gift of Miss McCormick’s”.

It seems that after this, Mary became well known in the Toronto scene as “Miss McCormick.”  At that time women were usually known through their husband’s first and last name and “spinsters” such as she were known as just “Miss”.  Armed with this piece of Victorian etiquette I had more luck. “Miss McCormick” turned up more than “Mary McCormick” and soon enough I found what I was looking for from the Daily Star, March 1, 1912.


A visual of the structure that existed at the McCormick playground with Miss McCormick’s name attached.  Next I found the following article from the Toronto Daily Star, December 31, 1917:


By searching Oaklands and McCormick I was able to come up with even more information about the enigmatic Mary McCormick.  I learned her middle name, Virginia, and some interesting facts about her home and her personal bathing preferences…

“Oaklands” was the name of Mary McCormick’s house on Avenue Road.  It was purchased by her in 1905 from John McDonald (not John A., but the first prime minister did make him a Senator). Miss  McCormick installed “…a needle shower, her own private bowling alley, and a dentist’s chair.”  A needle shower is basically a stand-up shower, which was very uncommon in those days, as I am guessing a dentist’s chair might have been too!  I also learned that McCormick had “…her own private black band.  She was wont to call upon them at any hour of the day or night to perform in the ballroom.” Additionally, it turned out that Mary would hop aboard any horse-drawn carriage, even a grocer’s cart or an ice cream wagon and drive off.  Each fall, she would leave for California, using 14 limousines to get her there. A particular portrait of Mary McCormick was beginning to take shape in my mind:  an independant woman of means who could afford to indulge her eccentric tastes. I thought about the splash this would have made in the conservative Toronto neighbourhood where she lived.

This was getting interesting.  This Mary McCormick would have been a shoe-in for a reality TV series.

The Full Picture

Armed with Mary’s correct title and name, I had the key to a wealth of information about her and her family. Her story is a sad, unusual one that criss-crosses the continent. Never would I have imagined that my local park’s benefactor had such a history.

Mary Virginia McCormick was the first-born daughter of Cyrus H. McCormick and Nettie Fowler. Cyrus was the inventor of the first commercially successful reaper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest wheat.  He was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia.  By 1858 the McCormick Co. of Chicago was the largest farm equipment supplier in the United States with assets totalling more than 1 million dollars (approximately 28 million today). In 1859, Cyrus married and two years later Mary Virginia was born. In 1880 at age 19, Mary was diagnosed with “…dementia praecox of the catatonic type” or schizophrenia.  Cyrus died in 1884 but his fortune bought land in Santa Barbara, California, and Mary’s brother Stanley supervised the building of “Riven Rock” for her.  Mary lived here from 1898 – 1904.


Wisconsin Historical Society, Gray, W. C., 1901, Mary Virginia McCormick, 42526. Viewed online here

At this time in Mary’s adult life and there seemed to be attempts by her family to protect and support her in light of her mental illness.   No doubt it would have been difficult for a wealthy family during such conservative times to deal with this disease in social circles and perhaps this is why Mary moved among different residences all over the continent.  It’s hard to know how much control Mary had over her own life and which choices, if any, were made by her.  In any case, there seems to be no shortage of funds, and no expenses spared for Mary’s lifestyle.

At the turn of the century, Mary was moved to Alabama.  No doubt, the McCormick family was attracted to the sanitorium and resort hotel there in the town of Viduta (derivative of the Spanish word “Vida” meaning life).  People had been coming to this area near Monte Sano, (the spanish words for “Mountain of Health”) since the 1820s. The sanitorium opened on June 1, 1897 and closed early in the 1900’s.

The closing of the sanitorium coincides with the purchase of the estate called “Kildare” in Huntsville, Alabama.  Mary was supported by a large staff the under the guidance of Grace Walker (the one mentioned in the newspaper snippet above).  Mary McCormick’s philanthropy seems to have begun during her stay in Huntsville, Alabama.  She funded “…several YMCAs in the mill villages surrounding town, an African-American wing for the then-segregated Huntsville Hospital, and a hospital at Alabama A&M University.”  It’s been suggested that it was Grace Walker who influenced Mary’s philanthropy.  Grace Walker remained an assistant to Mary for over 30 years.  Grace grew up in Canada and was the daughter of a minister.  She served on the national board of the YWCA of Canada for 25 years and was a long-time member of the Housing Board of the City of Toronto. It’s unknown when Mary met Grace, and perhaps Grace is the reason she ended up coming to Toronto.  It is also unknown how much time Mary and Grace spent in Alabama during each year (it was possibly a stopover on the way to and back from California?) but the house there was used for many social events, including Christmas parties for children, Easter egg hunts, and a celebration for Virginia’s birthday in May. Eventually, Kildare was sold by the McCormicks in 1932.

The Kildare estate is now known for its ghost stories.  Mary’s ghost supposedly haunts the basement where it is believed that Mary was locked up because of her mental illness.  The last owners had such a problem with ghost chasers that they built a huge fence around the property and fought with city council about it. The estate is now slated for demolition, but there is a Facebook page out there trying to raise funds to save it.


Time in Toronto

By the time Mary McCormick came to Toronto in 1905 she would have been 44 years old and back then a true “spinster.”  Mary did not live in the neighbourhood of Brockton; her house “Oaklands” was near Avenue Road.  Her donation to Cottingham Square was transferred to Brock Avenue because the rail tracks were too close to that park.  It was actually McCormick’s mother who came up from Chicago to the opening of the Toronto playground in 1911.  Perhaps Mary was in a poor state of health or in Alabama or California at the time.  During Mary’s time in Toronto, she was mentioned in the newspaper as attending many events and hosting talks or parties at her home “Oaklands.”  Oaklands is now known as De La Salle College; a co-ed private school.  There are ghost stories about this place too; many people have heard her private black band playing late at night, decades after she had moved away.  You can rent Oaklands on AirBnB!

Mary McCormick’s estate in Toronto “Oaklands” , this picture taken in 1891


Around 1926 Mary McCormick contracted a throat ailment and gave up on Toronto and Alabama and moved to California permanently.  An estate called “Quelindo” was built for her in 1929 in Santa Monica and she lived here as a recluse for 17 years. She died in 1941.

This property is now for sale for $23 million.


The story of Mary McCormick leaves many unanswered questions; the most puzzling for me was why did Mary McCormick come to Toronto in the first place.  Was there treatment for her affliction available here in Toronto that didn’t exist anywhere else?  Was the family trying to hide Mary’s illness from their family and friends in the States?  Did Mary herself choose to come here for a new start in her middle age? How does Grace Walker fit into Mary’s life? Was it her upbringing in Toronto that brought Mary back here? We don’t know the answer to these questions. We can only speculate about the events and motivations for these moves.  In any case, we have the mechanical reaper and Mary and her family’s generosity to thank for our local playground, which at one time was built to be one of the best in North America.  Unfortunately, while I’ve spent many hours at the park and the community centre, I’ve yet to witness the ghost of Mary McCormick.


Blackface in Brockton

While perusing the archives for old pictures of the McCormick Community Centre, I came across something shocking – 2 pictures of the McCormick Minstrels, one dated December 28, 1916 and the other January 29, 1920.  I was interested to find out the history of this photograph.  What was the minstrel show?

Jump Jim Crow

First on de heel tap, den on the toe
Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
I wheel about and turn about an do just so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.

It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of white people performing in blackface as its history stretches back to before Shakespearean actors performed Othello, but the beginnings of whites performing slave music in North America can be traced to around the 1820s.  Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) “Daddy” Rice popularized blackface with his performance as “Daddy Jim Crow” which was based on a folk trickster persona that was popular among black slaves.  The persona was also inspired by a black crippled slave whom Rice met in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. He used to sing the traditional slave song “Jump Jim Crow” with a little hop at the end of each verse. Rice took his “Daddy Jim Crow” performance on tour and by 1841 the song became so popular that the U.S. Ambassidor to Central America was played the song as his official welcome in Yucatan, Mexico because the song was actually thought to be the United States national anthem.  The Boston Post wrote, “The two most popular characters in the world at the present are [Queen]Victoria and Jim Crow.”

At this time it was common to see black people mocked as being uneducated, irrational, and lazy.  Rice’s minstrel shows and his stage persona helped to perpetuate this negative and stereotypical view among white audiences.  By 1938, “Jim Crow” became a derogtory term for “Negro” and later in the century when laws were passed for the segregation of African Americans from whites, the laws became known as “Jim Crow laws”.

Researching the minstrel show in Toronto. I read in Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and  Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book The Underground Railroad: Next stop Toronto!  that 45 members of the black community approached city hall in 1840 to ban the minstrel show in Toronto.  At the time they were denied, but 2 years later it passed council that minstrel shows were not to be performed in the city. Nevertheless, the minstrel show’s popularity grew and could not be restrained.

I decided to talk to someone who knew the history of minstrel shows in Canada and Toronto, and I found Cheryl Thompson, Ph D., an expert on the subject.  Her essay, “Come One, Come All: Blackface Minstrelsy as a Canadian Tradition and Early Form of Popular Culture,” will be published later this year.

■ – In 1842, Minstrel shows were banned in Toronto.  The photo I found from the local community centre was dated 1920.  Was the ban a reflection of the wishes of the wider community and if so, why did the shows continue past this date? Who was responsible for administering and maintaining these bans and were there repercussions for those who ignored them?

Cheryl Thompson – Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that a group of black Torontonians petitioned the city in the 1840s to forbid travelling circuses and minstrel shows, even though many feared that such protest would incite racist repercussions.  But there is no evidence that minstrel shows were banned. My research of Toronto newspapers reveals the consistent presence of advertisements for professional minstrel shows at theatre houses, and amateur minstrel shows at athletic clubs, high schools, girls and boys’ clubs, and lodges consistently from the 1880s through to the 1930s.

■ – I imagine that with this many children dressed up in blackface that this particular minstrel show had a wide support in the neighbourhood. This wasn’t a small group; this was a well- organized troupe.  In your research, did you come across what material a children’s troupe like this might perform?

CT – Children’s groups often performed minstrel shows. For example, in the 1920s, the Eaton’s Girls Club would frequently entertain audiences with a minstrel show. The minstrel show was so ubiquitous in Toronto that the real question to ask is which group was not holding a minstrel show. Whites, but also other ethnic groups, especially Jews, also performed amateur minstrel shows, such as the Jewish Boys and Girls Club in the 1920s.

■ –  What would have been the appeal of a minstrel show in a community like this? Were the shows’ primary purposes to maintain rigid racial boundaries and reinforce racial stereotypes? Was there any other reason for using blackface?

CT – Yes, maintaining rigid racial boundaries and reinforcing racial stereotypes were two primary reasons. It is difficult to speak to intentions or get into the minds of people who put on darkening makeup to appear in performances as supposed black people. Part of the allure was in the mimicry and the distance from black bodies. It was easy to perform these shows in spaces where blacks were absent. Toronto has a long history of de facto segregation, so during the time period of these images, blacks would not have been allowed in spaces where these performances were taking place. These spaces became “safe” white spaces where people could deflect their own subjugation in society by taking on the supposed corporeal features of those deemed to be “less than”… The racial implications of blackface are interconnected with issues related to immigration, a sentimental remembrance for black enslavement, and access to employment.

■ – In some ways, Canadian cities were a haven for Black people escaping slavery in the 19th century, but with the Jim Crow laws passed in the United States at the end of that century, I imagine that some of that racial tension would have been felt in Canada too.  Can you descibe what a Black person’s experience of Toronto after the WWI would have been like?

CT – Before and after WWI, Canada’s federal government implemented racist immigration policies that in not so many words aimed to “keep Canada white.” Blacks, especially African Americans, were overtly named as unwanted immigrants. There are even images of military troops from WWI performing blackface shows overseas during the war. The early twentieth century can be remembered as a time where the principles of eugenics were widespread. Eugenics was a form of social Darwinism which stated that the white Anglo-Saxon race (men, specifically) was superior to all other races and that they, and only they, had the right to teach, build, and own. Whiteness was defined by a superiority that was biological and believed to be intrinsic to the white race. Thus, the experience of blacks in Toronto during this time would have been marked by an astute awareness of this widespread belief. At the same time, black Torontonians during this time opened businesses and ran churches; they organized in the 1920s with many joining chapters of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), so there was resistance to the widespread racism of the period. If you look on the city of Toronto archives you will find a panorama photographic of black community members standing outside what is now Old City Hall in the early 1920s.

■ – When did the Minstrel show in Toronto (or Canada) fall out of fashion?

CT – Some would argue that it has never fallen out of fashion, the reason why every Halloween there is another incident where whites wear blackface at a university party. The difference today is that these performance are taking place at elite universities across the country rather than local clubs, and the newspapers are reporting the incidents as a problem, not celebrating how great the show was. In terms of the minstrel show as part of the community, by the 1960s it began to fade away and few clubs would have performed these shows after this period. The civil rights movement and shifting attitudes toward race and immigration had a role to play in changing white attitudes about the shows, which many had previously considered to be “fun.” In the contemporary, young white kids believe that it is OK or not racist to put on blackface to portray Jamaicans or a black rapper whom “they like and admire” because these white kids have no clue about the history of blackface in the United States nor are they aware of its history here in Canada and right in their own local communities. They think it is OK because there is a geographic distance between those whom they are “imitating” and the practice of blackening one’s face. But in fact, there is not. If you look at contemporary blackface, these white students are darkening their skins (meaning, putting on a black makeup that doesn’t even resemble actual black skin) just like whites did a century ago. These kids are mocking black bodies and culture, just like they did a century ago. And just like a century ago, they find enjoyment in the practice. The only difference is that these performances are no longer behind closed doors, they are made public and are viewed by the very blacks that the shows of the past kept away. Will blackface ever go away? Probably not until we take seriously the history of race and racism in Canada.



McCormick Sports Teams of the Past