The King and I in Quebec

Aunt Ethel and I were born on the same date, but 40 years apart. I’d sing “Happy Birthday To Us” on the phone to her every year on our big day, which made her laugh.

From the late 1930s through to the early ’60s, Aunt Ethel – my mom’s eldest and favourite sister – lived with her two rambunctious boys and irritable husband in Quebec City. It’s the capital of Quebec province, with a population now of around 800,000, less than half the population of Montreal. But in the ’50s it was much smaller, more like a very large town, really.

Steam engine train
Photo (cc) by Jeff S. PhotoArt at HDCanvas.ca

As a nine-year-old kid in the summer of 1955, I went with my mom on a three-hour train trip to Quebec City to visit Ethel; it was to be a four-day adventure. I’d never been on a real train before. The kiddie trains at Belmont Park or at Eaton’s toy department at Christmas didn’t count!

This one (similar to the one in the picture above) was a ginormous iron monster belching dark grey smoke. And so loud! Hissing and chuffing along, it was truly impressive. I remember gazing out the window as the countryside sped past, counting cows and horses on endless farms… Finally we arrived at my aunt’s place. It was a dingy apartment not all that different from the one we lived in ourselves, come to think of it, but fewer furnishings, and a bit more drab.

I remember playing checkers with my cousin Bernie whom I hadn’t seen in years, half my life, to be exact! But even better was Aunt Ethel’s chocolate fudge cake. It was sublime! (She’d made it special for me because she knew it was my favourite treat.)

We went for walks in the neighbourhood; all the signs were in French, but most people spoke English too. It was almost as bilingual as Montreal was, at the time. I recall stopping into a dépanneur (convenience store) for ice-cream cones, and being thrilled that the large double-scoop cone cost only ten cents!

One day we took a picnic to the Plains of Abraham…

Ellie in Quebec City - 1955 'Plains of Abraham'
Ellie in Quebec City – 1955
on the Plains of Abraham

This was the location of the great battle of 1759, when General Wolfe’s troops (of England) defeated General Montcalm’s troops (of France). Many Quebecers of French ancestry still haven’t gotten over that loss. Behind me in the photo above you can see a statue of the loser, Montcalm, and he is also depicted below.

Montcalm_on_the_Plains_of_Abraham
Montcalm leading his troops at Quebec – at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham 1759
(Public Domain)

It was a strange, awful feeling to walk over those hallowed grounds, knowing so many soldiers had died virtually underneath our feet.

But for me the most memorable day of all was when my mom and Aunt Ethel conspired to commit a crime, starring – me!

At that time in the province you had to be 16 to go to a movie, with certain exceptions. There was a film in town that both Ethel and my mom were very eager to see, and for this one you only needed to be 12. It was The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. (Yes, I know the IMDb says it was released in 1956, but I swear to you we saw it in August, 1955. For one thing, see the photo of me, above? The note on the back of it says: “Quebec, Summer, 1955. The photographer was concentrating on the pose and didn’t notice that your hair was misbehaving! Sorry. Love, Auntie Ethel.”) 😀 So sweet.

Anyway, though, here’s the thing: you had to be 12 to get in. I was only 9! Oh dear, what to do?! Well, leave it to a mom and an auntie! Out came the lipstick and nylons, fancy jacket and hat – with attached veil! After they were done with me, poking and prodding, brushing and pulling and straightening, they took a few steps back and looked at me with cocked heads, appraising… Well… they finally said… you’ll do! Triumphantly, off we went to the thee-uh-tah!

When we arrived, the female ticket-taker, in about the same age range as my mom and aunt, looked at me askance. What she saw was an overly made-up nine-year-old little girl trying, and failing miserably, to look like 12! She said something to my aunt – in French! I didn’t understand, but I watched as Auntie Ethel turned with the woman a little ways off and whispered something conspiratorially into her ear. I only found out later that she’d said something like, “She’s my niece, it’s her birthday, they’re just visiting for the day, could you please, oh please…” Birthday fib notwithstanding, her ruse was marvelous, and it got us in!

The film was fabulous and the three of us were in heaven. It was a day to remember… a visit to cherish…

***

Aunt Ethel and I shared the same birthday, 40 years apart; it was almost inevitable that she would carry a soft spot for me until she died. And I will never forget her.

21 thoughts on “The King and I in Quebec

  1. Lovely story, Ellie. Now I know how you got started in your life of crime. Oh, wait… you’re the grammar COP! I guess that one day of illicit behaviour scared you straight for the rest of your life! 😀

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  2. What a wonderful relationship to share with us. So that picture is you at 9? made up to look 12 🙂 Oh that movie The Kind and I! Oh my goodness, its that movie that made me fall head over heels in love with Yul Brunner. I have no recollection as to when I first saw it. Probably on TV in Black and White as we didn’t get colour TV until I was about 10.

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  3. Ellie, what a charming story! Was that your first musical or had there been others? My mother had a handful of “musical” records when I was little, and I listened to them all the time. The King and I was my favorite because of the photo on the cover: Deborah Kerr in that gorgeous lavender dress and Yul in his rust getup. Plus I loved Marnie Nixon, although I didn’t realize it was her voice at the time. My first movie musical (not counting Disney) was The Music Man.

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    1. Thanks! I think that was my first musical, and the next one was probably The Pajama Game. (My mom was a biiiig fan of musicals. We also had a ton of records at home!) Yes as I said earlier, the casting was just perfect! I’d forgotten it was Marnie Nixon’s voice. Did you know she also was the voice of Snow White? 🙂 I missed The Music Man, although I did see Robert Preston do ‘Trouble in River City’ on TV.

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      1. Snow White?! I don’t remember that. I read her autobiography. It was a fabulous read (for me, at least). And then somebody borrowed the book and didn’t give it back and so I can’t look up Snow White waaa. I know My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Robert Preston was such an icon. LOVED him.

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