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The Diva Didn’t Come
 

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By Pat Mestern
December 3, 2005

How many of you remember Kate Aitken, Canada’s version of Martha Stewart, 1920s through 1960's style. One of the most popular women in Canada, she had her own radio show, wrote cook and lifestyle books, traveled round the world promoting Canada and interviewing all the great heads of state. For most Canadian women, Kate Aitken represented the epitome of style, grace and elegance. Wanting to emulate the Diva they tuned into her twice weekly CBC radio programme. Do your recall the show opened with the announcer saying “And now here’s Mrs. A.” Even if it meant ironing through lunch, Mother saved hers to do during Kate’s radio programmes.

Perhaps her enthusiasm for, and loyalty to, Kate was because mother was related to the lady. They were, in blood-relative terms, cousins who shared the same aunts and uncles.

The ancestors of Kate Aitken and Edith Mattaini were the Irish arm of the Scott family who came to Canada during the early 1800s. The two ladies shared the ancestry of the first white child born in Eramosa Township and parents of both women were born and raised in the township. Kate’s father, Robert Scott was educated at Rockwood Academy and eventually ran a general store in Oustic. After marrying Anne Kennedy, a Scottish lassie from the Belwood area, Kate’s parents moved to Beeton, Ontario and opened a general store.

Kate spent her childhood in Beeton, even wrote a book about it “”Never a Day So Bright”. She was a clever lass who became a school teacher at age fourteen. A beekeeper by the name of Aitken won her heart. She started the first canning operation in the Beeton area and as her talents grew, so did her reputation as a homemaker, writer and broadcaster. Kate Scott Aitken lectured for the Ontario Department of Agriculture and those lectures brought her to the Guelph/Kitchener/Waterloo areas at least once a year. Because Guelph’s Agricultural College had an excellent Home Economics programme, she was on several occasions, invited to attend convocations and other special events at MacDonald Institute.

It was as a result of one of those appearances just after the Second World War that mother received word that “Cousin Kate” had several hours to spare and would like to drop in. I believe that Mrs. A. was speaking in Guelph but don’t quote me on that bit of information. Wherever she was appearing, the Diva wanted to come to FERGUS! Let me put that bit of information into twenty-first century terms. What would you do if you received word that Martha Stewart was coming to your house for a visit?

Because we didn’t have a telephone at the time, the information came in the form of a one page note to P.O. Box #206. The envelope had a return address - that of Mrs. Kate Aitken, Streetsville, Ontario. Of course, in mid-twentieth century Fergus everyone knew everyone else’s business - often due to gossip gleamed at the post office while collecting one’s mail. You know the routine - pick up your mail - buy a stamp - ask what’s new - find out that a letter came from the divine Mrs. A for Mrs. J.F. Mattaini.

One of Mrs. Aitken’s requests was that her visit should be a private one. No news media should be told of the visit or invited to attend. In other words “mum was the word, dumb was the order of the day”. Hugh Templin, editor of the News Record was an avid Kate Aitken fan. Hugh’s women folk went overboard in their praise of Kate’s contribution to “independent womanhood”. On a number of occasions, Hugh had personally issued invitations for the Diva to visit Fergus - or for himself to interview her in Streetsville. All were refused, graciously, but never-the-less refused.

With only two days to make ready for the visit, mother threw herself - and everyone else in residence - into a frenzy of hyper-activity. At first she didn’t mention the visit to Grandmother Mattaini because Granny didn’t hold much respect for Kate Aitken. Granted, mother said “Kate had a voice that grated on one’s backbone on occasion” but that was not a reason to dislike the woman. She dispensed good solid, timely advice”. Grandmother was one of the few women in Canada who didn’t hang onto every word that Kate Scott Aitken said, who didn’t own one of her books and who didn’t adhere to her beauty and lifestyle advice.

Our house was no shining example of architectural and homemaking perfection - outside or inside. It could be called in today’s terms, a very lived-in home. At the time we had at least a dozen cats, two rabbits and two dogs in residence. Dad’s book collection alone took up walls - and walls and, on occasion. floor space too. His wine carbuncles resided on the stairs to the second floor - a different step for each year’s vintage. Let’s just say that our home was not the sort of place that one would associate with Kate Aitken who had a grand house in Streetsville that boasted at least two kitchens.

Mother figured that at most the Diva would see only three rooms and those were the areas that she concentrated on cleaning. Dogs, cats and rabbits were put outside for the duration. All the curtains on the first floor were taken down, washed, starched and rehung. What patches of floor that were visible were scrubbed and waxed. Scatter mats and living room rug was beaten to within an inch of their lives. Furniture was polished, re-polished and polished again. The best china was inventoried and washed squeaky clean. Dainty cakes and one-bite cookies were baked. With no explanation as to why, Dad sent his cigarette-smoking buddies to the barn when they arrived for an evening of “intellectual chat” - dad’s words for an evening of arguing politics and religion.

Dad’s job was to tidy the vegetable gardens and orchard. Mrs. Aitken was known as a “devil of a gardener”. After all, isn’t that where her career started - extensive gardens on the Aitken farm in Beeton after which the canning factory came into existence? Grandmother quickly got wind of the visit. She vowed that Kate wouldn’t get into her house but would, if she asked politely, be allowed to tour her extensive flower gardens. She spent a day on her knees weeding her day lily beds and another half morning cleaning out her water gardens which were housed in half buried tubs from Beatty washing machines.

The morning of Kate’s visit, I was tossed into the bath tub and scrubbed until my skin shone - I’m sure my sisters endured the same treatment. Then, dressed in my Sunday best, I was instructed to sit quietly in the living room to await the arrival of the woman. I was told that after the lady did arrive I was not to move or speak, unless spoken to, until Mrs. Aitken had “left the building”. Do you know how hard it is for me who was used to the freedom of acres of hills, to sit still for three hours - or so? Grandmother eventually arrived in the living room, dressed in her finest, hand-sewn Sunday dress, hat and gloves.

And then, mother noticed a familiar car parked on Prince’s Street with someone she knew in it - Hugh Templin! He’d gotten wind of the visit and with notebook and camera, he was ready to pounce. Dad, coming in from a last check of the gardens said “ There’s a flock of dames across the road at Victoria Park”. Sure enough, an ever-increasing collection of wild hatted women stood expectantly on the sidewalk awaiting the arrival of their heroine. Our swear-on-a-bible secrecy pact had fallen to the post office’s mutter-mill brand of news. Obviously with a little sleuthing someone had found out about Kate’s “spare time” and our frantic housecleaning efforts. What to do? Didn’t Kate say no publicity?

There was only one thing could be done, dad said. Using Kate Aitken’s own rules for proper etiquette, Mother had to let her know that we had a slight problem with her request for privacy. Grandmother had a telephone. Mother should place a call to the location where Kate was speaking, and hope that a message got to the Diva before she left for Fergus. With heavy heart, mother went to place the call. She came back with the news that organizers would try to get a message to Mrs. Aitken. Just in case the message didn’t get through mother decided that we should sit tight until one half hour after the planned official time of arrival. “Always prepare for the unexpected”, the Diva counseled.

Of course, Kate Aitken didn’t come. Mother assumed she had received the message. Eventually Hugh Templin and the huge crowd left. We enjoyed a fancy plate tea with no special guest but lots of goodies to eat. Sometime later mother found out that Kate Aitken had been driven to Fergus. Approaching the house, she took note of the crowd and instructed the driver that he shouldn’t stop. They just kept right on motoring. Kate wrote that she was disappointed that she didn’t have the opportunity to visit and waxed poetic about mother’s lovely two-storey house with its gorgeous deep porches, replete with huge cactus plants and the shining character of the woman who must call it home.

Problem! The house she was talking about was Grandmother’s. Kate didn’t mention the tiny wood frame house next door trying to put its best foot forward. The upshot of the aborted visit was that while grandmother became a devoted Kate Aitken fan, mother stopped listening to her broadcasts. A disappointed Hugh Templin and the women-in-waiting turned their venom on the post office for miscommunication. Ah well . . . .

 

 

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