Her name was Jane Houde. She was half French-Canadian and half-Irish. She was born in Quebec City and raised in a convent there. My parents found her through a newspaper ad. She came to live with us and to take care of my brother, Michael, and me while our Mum and Dad struggled to make a living. Dad was on the road, and during the week Mum was rooming in a basement in Pointe Claire while running a bakery. Except for Saturday nights, we were alone with Miss Jane. I remember her as sad, quiet, bony-thin, pinched-looking and repressed. She was of an indeterminate middle age and as plain as her name. She had a brother in Quebec City and may have had nieces and nephews. Miss Jane was the stereotypical 1950s version of a spinster: isolated and lonely, with nothing in her life except other people’s children.
Miss Jane was always very correct, and she taught us to be, too. I don’t remember hugs and kisses, but I don’t remember unkindness, either. What stands out for me is how she taught us to use cutlery. My little brother learned to eat with a knife and fork while still in his high chair. She taught us beautiful table manners, too. Miss Jane always addressed us as Sharon and Michael, and we always addressed her as Miss Jane. There was no baby talk and no overt affection, but we felt safe with Miss Jane. When we were able to see our parents at supper on Saturday nights, we would show off what we had learned from our self-effacing nanny.
Miss Jane prepared our meals, and her own. When she mentioned to our German neighbour, Mrs. Katie Trautman, her quest for fish on a Friday, the latter informed her that serving fish on Fridays wasn’t necessary. Miss Jane found that confusing. She had contracted to work for people who had come from Poland after the war. Though her charges’ parents didn’t attend church, the father would drive her to services on Sunday mornings. There was a Christmas tree in the apartment during the holidays. Miss Jane did not realize it had been placed there for her.
When Katie Trautman from Berlin explained to Jane Houde from Quebec City that fish on Fridays wasn’t necessary because her charges and their parents (her employers) were Jewish, the reserved and imperturbable Miss Jane burst into tears. “But that’s not possible! They’re wonderful people! And I love the children!”
Mrs. Trautman, whose husband had destroyed all photographs of himself in Wehrmacht uniform, explained to the bewildered convent-raised lady that Jews were as human as she was. Miss Jane had no way of knowing. She had never before encountered a Jew.
Perplexed, Miss Jane said nothing. It was Mrs. Trautman who related the incident to my parents. They sat down with a flustered Miss Jane.
“Miss Jane, we love you and we’re happy with you, but if you feel there’s a problem, you’re free to leave.”
“Oh no! I want to stay! I love the children!”
Dad continued to drive Miss Jane to church. By his quiet example, the Holocaust survivor re-educated the convent-raised lady.
Miss Jane stayed with us for two years. When my mother was able to move back home, she found Miss Jane another position, but our nanny continued to visit. She needed to be slowly weaned away from us as much as Michael and I needed to be slowly weaned away from her.
I was ten years old when I last saw Miss Jane. It was at Eaton’s department store, before Christmas. I screamed out her name, ran to her and threw my arms around her. She appeared embarrassed, yet pleased.
I am now older than Miss Jane must’ve been when she was taking care of us. I too am single and childless, yet my life bears no resemblance to the truncated existence of an unpartnered woman produced by Duplessis’ Quebec. I was not taught to fear the unknown. I was not raised to hate the unseen. I was raised to be free.
Still, my affection for Miss Jane remains. I wonder how long she lived, and how and when she died. I hope there was someone, at the end of her life, who took care of Miss Jane as decently as she took care of me, at the start of mine.