by Thelma Wheatley
“You knows what to write, Thelma, you knows legal.” That is what Daisy Potts said to me in 2006, the day she sought me out. She was in her early sixties at the time. Daisy gripped my arm.
“You c’n get my file from Orillia, please and thank you and kindly.” She said she had been in Cottage o.
At once Cottage o came to mind from my research: a dull, red brick, three-storey building with rows of windows, next to Entrance b. In its time, it had held thousands of girls, the long wards locked at night. Daisy Potts had been institutionalized in Orillia as a child, and now that institution was slated to be permanently closed by the government of Ontario in 2009. Daisy wanted my help to get her records, before it was too late. She had never been allowed to see them and she wanted finally to know what was in them.
The institution — which most people simply called “Orillia” — had originally been called the Asylum for Idiots and Feebleminded (a former branch of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto), the oldest in Canada for “mentally retarded” people, dating back to 1876. Heralded as innovative and humane, a “fine place” for idiots and epileptics, the asylum had provided custodial care and protection for the thirty or so inmates at its opening. Before that time, “mental defectives,” as they were often called, whose families could no longer care for them, often ended up in the county lunatic asylum, or worse, the work house or local gaol, or were left roaming the countryside at will. The new asylum was meant to mitigate such horrors, and provide not just custodial care but vocational training for the more “educable” ones, with the intent of eventually returning them to their families.
By the early 1900s, however, attitudes toward mental defectives had begun to change as the effects of the Industrial Revolution took its toll on the cities: slums, unemployment, crime, and disease gave rise to fears of a new underclass. Orillia became a big custodial institution, a useful place to put the unwanted in society, the so-called “feeble-minded,” that included a mix of indigents invariably found on its wards: paupers, incurables, alcoholics, syphilitics, the old and infirm, and unmarried girls and their babies who had nowhere else to go.
Renamed “Ontario Hospital School” (ohs) in 1936, it had a population of nearly 3,000 when Daisy was housed there in the 1950s. A grim sort of place for a child, I always thought on my visits, with its vast grounds, over two hundred acres, and towering Administration Building much praised for its fine front. There were double-glassed doors at the top of a flight of steps through which all the new admissions passed.
It was hard to imagine Daisy in such a place.
“But Daisy, you’re not retarded!” At once I regretted the word, so outmoded, anachronistic in definition. A look of bewilderment crossed her face.
“Yeah, well, that’s what Children’s Aid in T’ronto said too, Thelma. They promised I wouldn’t be with the retarded ones; I’d be kept sep’rate on the ward.”
I was silent. This sounded much like the placating of parents so familiar to me as a former teacher. There was obviously much here left unsaid, perhaps lost to the understanding of a small child, even duplicitous.
“First I was taken away, ’cause I was the oldest. Then Lizzie and my baby brother, Pips. But Children’s Aid kept them together in a foster home in Richmond Hill an’ I never really saw much of them again.”
Daisy sounded aggrieved. It was what she most wanted to know: why had she been the only one singled out for Orillia, and why had her mother signed her over? Why hadn’t she been placed with the Wilsons, too? The records would explain, the records would tell, said Daisy.
She wanted to know abouther mother especially — a no-good, low-down sort according to Daisy. All she’d wanted was a good time while their dad was out working all hours, Daisy added. “One cock wasn’ big enough for ’er.” She wanted her mother’s records from Orillia as well; she knew she had also been there as a patient, along with other members of her family.
Daisy wanted the truth. She wanted to know whether they had written about the rapes and the tortures that took place on the wards.
I glanced sharply at Daisy — mother and daughter both in Orillia. However, she seemed unaware of the implication: two generations possibly deemed “feeble-minded.”
I had known Daisy since the late 1990s, though only casually, through the Women’s Auxiliary Club run by the local church to which I belonged for a while. I sometimes gave Daisy rides home in the rain, or helped her with her shopping, or took her to the food bank. I had become fond of her. She was a responsible mother of two and a grandmother. Though uneducated — I was not sure how well she could read; I often helped her find her place in the song book at the club — she had supported herself all her life cleaning offices with her husband, Joe, managing the family income, and attending church, something she seemed proud of. Unlike her mother who was a Catholic, she once confided, Daisy was Anglican. “My dad said is better to be a Protesterant, Thelma, you get a better edjucation,” she explained.
Now, somehow, the focus of our friendship had shifted in some implicit way, disturbing when she confided to me after a meeting that she was an “institutional girl,” as she put it. “I tell you ’cause I trust you, Thelma, you’re a mother of a handicap.” She meant my adult autistic son whom she had met on occasion at special club festivities.
I sensed the secret Daisy had obviously kept for years — “Only Joe knows, Thelma” — from neighbours, and especially from the ladies at the Women’s Auxiliary Club whose acceptance she especially desired and valued. (“That woman’s not sixteen ounces to the pound,” Moira Witherspoon, the club’s social and flowers convener, had once said somewhat cuttingly of Daisy when Daisy mixed up the opening songs. Daisy had sung all the louder, in confusion.)
Dear Daisy, with her worn cardigan, flip-flop sandals, and grey woolly hair. She was given to crossing herself effusively during the singing of “O Canada” at meetings; perhaps she thought she was in church. A lovable character, with undeniable quirks and oddities, not so unlike the rest of us as I liked to say at the club.
“Thelma, you understands, you has a retarded boy what you kept,” Daisy was doing her best to persuade me.
It occurred to me that Daisy and I were linked by similar motives, the same need to know about Orillia, about placing children there against their will. I was the mother of a child who could well have ended up in the institution, but had not. We had been urged to place him in a regional centre when he was age four. “He’ll never amount to anything.” I burned with indignation at the callous doctor. It was perhaps what had driven me subsequently to investigate Orillia over the years, something I realized Daisy intuitively understood. I was a mother who had said “no” to putting her child away, and her mother had said, “yes.” “And that was the difference,” said Daisy tersely. But was it that simple?
Of course I agreed to help Daisy. It was a moment in time, if we but knew, that we were about to embark unwittingly on a voyage that would take us ultimately to the very heart of Orillia.
But for now, a signed, witnessed letter and a copy of Daisy’s Health Card for identification purposes, to be sent to the Records Office, which was still in operation at the institution, sufficed. From my years of research into the Orillia institution, I was well acquainted with the intricacies of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of Ontario and the process of accessing records. It was not as complicated as Daisy seemed to think. In the case of older files, such as her mother’s, which went back to the 1930s, the Archives of Ontario provided access.
But I wondered if Daisy understood the implications, the danger, of opening up oldrecords, since what might be revealed she might not necessarily wish to know. “Are you sure you want this, Daisy?” Even more important, would her mother?
Daisy was certain her mother would sign. “Course, she only uses an ‘x’, Thelma; she had no edjucation,” she added nervously. “Me an’ Lizzie told her to go back to school an’ learn but she wouldn’t. Says she’s too old and stupid.”
I was surprised. I had not realized that Daisy was still in touch with her mother, or that she had a sister living here in Toronto. The way Daisy had spoken of them on other occasions, they had seemed estranged, as so many former patients of Orillia often were from their families.
“Oh, well, yeah, they’re here in T’ronto. My mother’s jus’ down the road, at Gerrard an’ Sumach Streets, Regent Park, same old place. She calls all the time bugging me she’s lonely and stuff, but I don’t reply, I don’t really know her. Or my sister. On account of bein’ in Orillia so long.”
Last time she had heard from Lizzie she was living in a room off Sackville Street.
We went down steep broken steps below street level to a basement flat; sodden leaves caught against the gritty window. Lizzie was now on a street off River Street, by the railway lines and the canal. The street was old, lined with brick row houses, some with rotting garbage behind them, and unpainted doors. This was a rental area like much of Toronto’s lower Cabbagetown, though some of the houses had recently been renovated by professionals, who brought a more tony air to the neighbourhood. There was a hum from the Don Valley Parkway below.
“Well, come on in. Watch the steps, the rail don’t work.”
It had seemed opportune to call on Lizzie on the way to visit Mrs. Lumsden (Daisy’s mother), though Daisy had not seen her sister in years, not since a party for one of Lizzie’s children back in the 1980s. Lizzie might have some information or insight to offer on their childhood. Daisy hoped she could provide some of the answers Daisy sought in the records, as if Lizzie could maybe validate her existence in Orillia.
But Lizzie sat stiff, tight-lipped. She did not want “nothing to do with Orillia” or her mother, she said. Daisy had brought cigarettes and chocolates. Lizzie, at once, snatched up the Players and lit up.
Dim light filtered at a slant from the street above into the tiny living room, quite different from Daisy’s big, cosy, old apartment crammed with chesterfields and arm-chairs, ornaments and photos, knick-knacks everywhere. By contrast, Lizzie’s was almost ascetic, with bare white walls, plain wood floor.
“I mean, I never even remembered I even had a sister until 1966, when I was seventeen,” she said. “Then staff at Lorimer Lodge told me Daisy been released from the institution and I was to meet her.”
At that time, Lorimer Lodge had been a half-way house on St. George Street aimed at helping mentally-retarded women learn how to adapt to community living after being released into the neighbourhood, something that Lizzie herself may not have known. It was where she, too, had lived for a time, after she left the foster home. That Lizzie may have also been deemed “retarded” was the kind of information that could be revealed in the records; did Daisy understand that? That she could be privy to so much more, not only about her mother, but also about Lizzie and any number of other members of her own family. I tensed. “She was no fucking mother to me.” Lizzie took a long drag on her cigarette; did not care if her mother lived or died. “She was incompetent,” she said, bitterly.
And where had that come from? Perhaps Lizzie, as a child, and a ward of the Children’s Aid Society (cas), blinking behind her glasses, had caught the professional lingo of the adults talking over her head in the Wilsons’ living room, as the social worker checked up on Lizzie and her brother, Pips, arranging the next visit of their biological parents, Ella and Ernest Lumsden?
Daisy sat very still, staring at Lizzie.
“Mrs. Wilson was my mother. She was the best anyone could have! I can’t say enough for ’er, nor Pips.”
Yes, one could well see the neat suburban bungalow in Richmond Hill with its manicured lawns and basketball net in the driveway, the nice local school Lizzie and her brother Pips no doubt had attended, perhaps placed in a Special Class that maybe Lizzie had not been aware of (the records would tell). Then her parents, the Lumsdens, would arrive.
“They come up every two weeks on the bus. Soon as I got old enough I told them to fuck off, I didn’t want them in my life. First thing I done when I was free was change my name. I didn’t even want their fucking name, Eliza Lumsden.”
Yet, Lizzie had returned to Cabbagetown in Toronto on her release from the half-way house at first chance, I noted, to the very neighbourhood of her parents and grandparents with its old streets and taverns. Her first room had been but blocks from her parents on Sumach Street.
“Oh-h, I saw her once, in the Winchester, years ago…”
Lizzie seemed bemused. It was as if this was what we had really come to hear: to hear Lizzie tell us what the records could not reveal.
“She was drinking with some men at the bar and I thought: ‘I know that woman, it was my mother.’ And sure enough she comes over and says: ‘Are you Lizzie?’ I says, ‘Yes, and I know who you are.’ And I says, ‘Don’t I have a sister somewhere?’”
(So she did care then; Daisy sat up straighter.)
“And she said, ‘Oh, Daisy’s dead.’ She wanted me to join her for a beer, and I told her, ‘You stay at your end of the room and I’ll stay in mine.’”
Lizzie’s mouth set in a thin tight line. She was unlike Daisy, tall and thin with long platinum blond dyed hair. She had been divorced a long time now from Arnold, “the bastard.” “Went to jail over ’im,” she said dryly.
“Jail!” Daisy leaned forward excitedly.
“Did two months in Women’s Detention, Owen Sound, Assault an’ Battery,” Lizzie drawled. “Worth every single day. My only regret is I didn’ finish him off with a hatchet.”
Daisy squeaked. “You know, our mother was in jail once. For prostituting herself.”
Lizzie’s cheeks turned dark pink. “That’s not true!” She glanced quickly at me in confusion.
“Is so. My dad told me. I went to him and said, ‘Dad, you gotta tell me the truth, was my mother ever in jail? And he said, ‘How did you find out?’ angry-like. And I said Lizzie told me. And he said, ‘Your sister was right, she was arrested an’ put in detention in the Don Jail.”
“I never said any such thing!” Lizzie flushed and glanced at me, embarrassed.
Daisy held her tongue, but as soon as Lizzie went out to the kitchenette for the sandwiches, Daisy whispered, “Did you see that, Thelma? Can’t face it.”
It was hard to read Lizzie. Was she of “normal” intelligence? Could she read and write? Though perhaps this was irrelevant. She had survived thus far in life, she said wryly, married and divorcedwith four children, and three grandchildren.
She screwed up her thin, fair face. Despite her tough words, one could sense all was not well. Though Lizzie seemed to have been raised in a kind foster home with a loving foster mother, Daisy seemed the more secure, despite the experience of Orillia and a difficult childhood. She was affluent, even, by comparison, in her own small way. Daisy and Joe Potts’ apartment on Rose Avenue near Wellesley and south of Bloor Street, once trendy in the 1960s, must have been a come-up in the world for Daisy, certainly superior to life in a rooming house.
I struggled with the seeming paradox — Daisy with a husband of forty years, a home and social circle, despite being what she called “a institution girl.” I saw now how important the Women’s Auxiliary Club was for her socially, and worried how opening up the records of her institutionalization might affect her view of herself and her social standing if these records included the results of any i.q. tests that might have indicated she was indeed “retarded.”
“I can always get money,” said Lizzie quickly. “I’m moving out soon.” She took another drag at her cigarette, glancing sideways at Daisy who still sat excitedly on the sofa next to her.
Daisy had been particularly thrilled to see Lizzie again. “After all, she’s my sister!”
“You’re like her,” said Lizzie, slowly. “Like mother.”
“No! No, am not!” Daisy’s lip trembled. “I’m like my dad.”
“N-no. Me and Pips is like him, strawberry blond,” persisted Lizzie, her glasses glinting. “I had red hair to my waist as a kid,” she turned to me.
“I’m like my dad!” Daisy was tearful.
“I’ll tell you something about Lizzie,” Daisy confided angrily, as we drove away. “She’s a lesbian.”
“Yep. And you won’t believe how I knows, Thelma. I was just out of Orillia and back in T’ronto. It was 1966. I was twennyand didn’t know nothing. And she calls and says for me to come on over and meet her friends, get to know each other, go for a drink, and I thinks yes, this is my only sister.”
They went to an old pub on Queen Street, a bit of a dive. “She left me at the bar by myself, said she had to go to the loo, and time went by. I was thinking what’s going on?” After a while Daisy went to the washroom to find out. “There was Lizzie with some woman sucking her tits, on top of the toilit, a whole bunch of them sucking each other I won’t tell you where, Thelma. But then I thought, I don’t know what happen to her over the years but she’s my sister, and it don’t harm me so I forgive her.”
The last thing Lizzie had called out from the doorway was: “Don’t you dare give that woman my phone number!”
Daisy was anxious about seeing her mother again. “She got a boyfriend, Ron, living with her,” she warned. “Pretends it’s her brother. It’s disgusting, him sixty and her eighty and all.”
Ella Lumsden was not what I imagined. She turned out to be a tall, powerful, big-boned woman, with insane-looking eyes due to a stigmatization, a piercing squint like Lizzie’s. Dyed blond hair, long aristocratic nose, round face like Daisy’s. Her legs were sheathed in nylons and she wore a twin-set and tartan skirt, the stylish clothes of another era likely bought from the second-hand shop on Queen. She usually wore sweat-pants, whispered Daisy. She had dressed up for us.
It was a desperate sort of place, Regent Park. Low-rental housing from the fifties built in blocks, with numbers inset in the red brick walls: Building 49, Building 26, Building 37 (not unlike Orillia). There had been another murder there that week.
The apartment in Building 247 was stifling hot, the windows tightly locked. The apartment’s contents included a sofa, an armchair, a huge console tv with a talk-show on, a sideboard, and a table.
“Nothing has changed,” marvelled Daisy softly. Her mother sat on the sofa with her boyfriend, who grinned.
The dusty sideboard is crammed with mementos: photographs of Daisy and Joe on their wedding day; Lizzie aged eighteen, blond hair backcombed in a sixties bouffant. Lizzie, age four, squinting in the sun in a dirty dress. What had happened to Pips? Who knew? On the wall hung a faded picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and another of the Solidarity of the Blessed Virgin.
“I think Pips is dead!” said Ella suddenly.
Ella Lumsden straightens up suddenly on the sofa next to Ron. Ella then seemed to forget Pips as quickly as she remembered him. She smiled coyly, “This is Ron, my half-brother.”
“He helps with the rent,” smiled Ella. We kept up the pretence. Ron, smaller than Ella, kept grinning, toothless.
Her “fancy man,” hissed Daisy. “How can she sit there with him under her and dad’s wedding photo?”
I was secretly admiring of eighty-year-old Ella, intrigued by the charade she demanded. Twice a day Ron gives Ella her medication, we learned. A cleaning woman comes in each week to tidy the apartment, and a nurse from the Victorian Order gives her a bath, all paid for by Social Services. She has a small disability pension. Ron has her Health Card, for safe-keeping, he hinted.
“Look, Ma,” Daisy cut in. “We wants you to sign a letter to get your records from Orillia, to find out what happen.”
“What happen?” Ella looked up, suspicious.
“You know,” said Daisy fiercely. This was a new Daisy I was seeing, stronger, even aggressive.
But Ella did not want to talk about Orillia, the old Hospital for the Feeble-Minded. She wanted to talk about Lizzie. Lizzie and Daisy. They were in a bar, the Isabella on Sherbourne Street, decades ago. She looked dreamy, her eyes clouded.
“Daisy sat nicely with you,” she said distantly, as if Daisy was not there. “But Lizzie. You take her for a drink and she’d go to some man across the room and start talking, making up to him like. I calls to her, ‘Do you know that man, Lizzie?’” Ella leaned toward me on the sofa, indignant at the memory now. “‘No,’ says Lizzie, all saucy-like, ‘that’s why I’m talking to him!’ That was Lizzie. But not Daisy. Daisy would stay with you nice and quiet. I think she’s dead now, Lizzie, dead an’ gone.”
“Never mind Lizzie,” Daisy said, her voice firm.
And, of course, there was another story here, beneath the story, the words rambling on as Daisy whispered to me, Ella slumped and stared at a repeat of The Oprah Winfrey Show. “It still makes me so mad thinking of it, my dad out on night-shift working all hours and her in the pubs.”
Daisy pushed the letter into her mother’s hands. “You remember Orillia.”
“Hey, she gotta ’ave her medicashun,” Ron fluttered. He pattered to the kitchen, then brought back a glass of water and some little orange pills.
“Shutup, lover-boy.” I had never known Daisy to talk like this. “You go photocopy the Health Card down at the office.”
Ella Lumsden came alive: Orillia. Her eyes flashed, her lips curled in a sneer. For a moment she remembered. What did she remember? What of the girl Ella Hewitt, before she married Ernest Lumsden? Young Ella Hewitt’s memory of the 1930s, and the institution she had known as the Hospital for the Feeble-Minded, was the memory we needed.
“All they did was drug you!” she hissed. “Drugs, drugs, drugs. And them nurses bossing you around morning to night, do this, do that!”
We waited for more, but nothing came. She sank back on the sofa. That was it; yet it said so much.
“Look, Ma, just put an ‘x’ by the dot,” said Daisy impatiently, her round face flushed.
Ella nodded; this woman who wished her children dead. Her bony fingers gripped the pen. Slowly, painfully, she drew the ‘x,’ perhaps the only letter of the alphabet she knew, a large unwieldy scrawl like that of a child. It was the ‘x’ that would release the past.
Daisy and her mother were, I realized, a living testament to Orillia.
I warned Daisy about the possible consequences of opening up records marked “Confidential,” records that had never been meant for her eyes: Daisy Lumsden, Case #65043. “Are you sure you want this, Daisy?”
But Daisy was adamant. She wanted to know what they had written about her.