During my first two years in Toronto I lived in a rooming house at 36 Gloucester St. and ate most of my meals in restaurants that today would be classified as greasy spoons. See My Sister Scuttles Plan B, for a description of this situation.
Although obvious to me right from the start that this was not an ideal situation for a teenager, it was early 1956 before I actually got around to doing something about it. The reason it took me so long was a combination of the excitement of living in downtown Toronto after growing up in a village of four hundred people, and being able to walk to just about everywhere I needed to go. I could walk to a dozen or more theatres, countless restaurants (ranging from greasy spoon to upscale), Maple Leaf Gardens, Varsity Stadium, every kind of store imaginable, and even to work if I was feeling particularly energetic.
I wasn’t making enough money to rent even a bachelor apartment, so my only alternative was room and board. Although The Star and The Telegram had dozens of ads offering room and board, the vast majority of them had addresses that were too far from my beloved downtown, so I decided to run an ad of my own. I put the following ad in The Star: “Male youth desires room and board in family atmosphere in central Toronto.”
I received two replies: one from a Salvation Army family at St. Clair and Earlscourt, and the other from a Mrs. McBride who lived at 36 St. Clair Avenue West.
Although it didn’t escape my notice that Mrs. McBride lived at house number 36, as did I, that wasn’t the reason I decided to go there first; the reason was Mrs. McBride’s address was only a three-minute walk from the St. Clair subway station whereas the Salvation Army family’s address was a twenty-to-thirty minute streetcar ride from the subway. So, the following Saturday, after what I hoped would be one of my last meals at the Chinese restaurant at Yonge and Gloucester, I headed up to Yonge and St. Clair.
Because I knew it would be, it was no surprise that 36 St. Clair Avenue West was just a short walk from the subway station; the surprise was the house itself. As a huge, well-kept, stately, brick edifice with a large veranda, it looked to me more like a mansion than a boarding house. But I walked up the steps and rang the doorbell anyway.
The door was answered by a friendly-looking middle-aged lady. The angle from which I could see through the door afforded a view of an entry, a hallway, and, through a large archway, some of the living room. I was looking at the most beautiful, and, I`m sure, the most expensive furniture I`d ever seen, which seemed to confirm my view that this was no boarding house.
“Hello” she said, “Can I help you?”
“Well,” I replied, “I think I may have the wrong address. I put an ad in The Star looking for room and board ....”
Before I could finish my sentence she said, “Oh, you’re the youth. I’m Helen McBride, come on in.”
She introduced me to her husband, her twelve-year old daughter Mary, ten-year old daughter Sue, and six-year old son Peter. (I didn’t meet their eight-year old daughter Pat until I moved in the next day.)
Don McBride was a vice-president with Crown Life (back when vice-presidents were really very senior executives, not middle managers like they are in most financial institutions today). Mrs. McBride worked with her best friend, Hildy Toll, at one of Toronto’s premier photographic studios, Leroy Toll Photography. (Even I had heard of it.) It was clear this family didn’t need to take in boarders.
We all sat down in the living room. While the three kids sat there demurely, patiently and silently, Mr. & Mrs. McBride asked me a number of questions about myself. Then Mrs. McBride took me upstairs and showed me what would be my room, a bright, spacious bedroom with a double bed, huge dresser, more than ample closet space, a bookcase, an easy chair, and a desk and chair set. Because of the unusual layout of the second floor, my room was actually fairly private. She told me I could have breakfast and dinner seven days a week, a packed lunch on work days, and lunch with the family on Saturday and Sunday
Then she said something along the lines of, “Lyman, we want you to be a member of the family in every way. There is no part of the house that is off limits to you. You can have visitors. If you want to invite someone for dinner, just give us some notice.” She also made it clear that I was under no obligation to be at any meal, but that I should let them know if I wasn’t going to be there. She said I could have breakfast any time that was convenient, but dinner was at six o’clock.
She then told me why they would take in a boarder. She explained that they didn’t want Peter growing up solely under the influence of three older sisters and that it would be nice for the girls to have an older “brother,” so they would keep a teenage boy as a boarder until he was nineteen. The expectation was that he would act like an older brother for, as I clearly recall her saying, “all the children, but especially Peter.”
I discreetly pinched myself to see if I was dreaming and then asked, with some trepidation because I was afraid it might be more than I could afford, how much it would cost me. I don’t remember the weekly amount, but I do remember it was about the same as I was spending on my room and meals in the restaurants.
The deal was struck and, as mentioned earlier, I moved in the next day.
Mrs. McBride and I always had breakfast together on weekdays, during which we shared a copy of The Globe & Mail. Sometimes other family members would be there and sometimes not. Before the first week was out she and I were picking horses at Woodbine and stocks on the Toronto Stock Exchange every morning with ten-cent bets on each. (Because Mr. McBride said he wouldn’t “touch it with a barge pole,” I even gave Mrs. McBride her first driving lessons.) Mr. McBride was always generous with advice on a wide range of subjects, and I thoroughly enjoyed being a big brother to four great kids. It’s impossible to adequately describe, or put a value on, all I learned from them about being an adult in Toronto, or anywhere else for that matter.
I lived with this wonderful family until I went to Saskatchewan in April of 1958, see chapter 9, TransCanadaPipeLines – Round One. I remained close to Don and Helen throughout their lives, (Don was the master of ceremonies at our wedding) and Anne and I have remained friends with Mary, Sue, Pat and Peter to this day.
Oh, I forgot to mention: I was boarding with a family that had a cook and a maid who came in from Monday to Friday.