BY CLAUS BREEDE
Copyright is held by the author.
“THAT’S a mansion. It’s enormous.” Said Dad in amazement, as he and Mom were dropped off by Fredrick, Mom’s half-brother.
With its circular drive, the house was well back on the massive lot with its manicured grounds and well-trimmed hedges. It was on the corner of one of the most impressive mansion lined streets in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in Toronto. The estate backed on to one of the deep, wooded ravines off the Don River. As Mom and Dad got their four large suitcases out of the car, their breath turned to icy fog in the sub-zero temperature. That 1957 February morning was one of the closes in living memory.
The two of them, feeling a bit embarrassed, walked up to the front door. The snow crackled under their feet.
“Don’t you think we should find the servant’s entrance?” my brother asked. “They won’t like us using the front door.” They were reporting for their first day of work as domestic servants.
During the job interview back in Copenhagen, just before the Christmas holidays, Mrs. Henderson had told them, “We will provide you and your husband with a room. It’s just behind the kitchen. We cannot accommodate your two teenage boys. You will have to find other accommodations for them once you arrive in Canada.”
Our lives’ drastic change had started with the enormous family row last October, during the Potato Holidays back in Denmark. Mom and her sister, backed by their husbands, had ripped into Granddad. It had become common knowledge that the old man, along with his lovely young secretary, had been testing the beds in every hotel room in town. Grandmother was “not amused,” and was talking about a divorce.
And here Mom and Dad were, four months later, just like in the Danish fable, “Escape to America,” standing at the front door of the house in which they were now going to be the butler and the maid.
My brother and I were not welcomed at the mansion. Arrangements had been made for us to be boarded with Uncle Frederick. That had been made clear before we left Copenhagen. The engagement with the Henderson Family was without the children. The Henderson’s had their own children, still living at home. They did not want more kids hanging around.
As part of their employment, Mr. Henderson had paid the air-fair for both the parents and had been generous enough to lend them the money for my brother’s and my tickets.
“We will be deducting that loan from your pay when you get to Toronto. We will work out a re-payment plan.” Mrs. Henderson had told Mom.
On the second weekend, after they had moved in, the Henderson family was out of town, and we were dropped off by Uncle Frederick for our first visit with the parents.
The house was a grand affair, with a heavy wooden front door, leaded windows set deep into the stonework. On entering the spacious foyer, several options were presented to the visitor. The overall impression of the interior was one of high ceilings and massive wooden beams. There were several massive red brick fireplaces and lots of oak panelling. The Library was off to one side and had floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with beautiful old leather-bound volumes. Dad said that Mr. Henderson had bought all those books from the interior decorator, “by the yard.”
The massive living room was straight ahead, with its heavy leather furniture and floor to ceiling French Doors overlooking the garden at the rear of the house. Opposite the Library was the formal dining room dominated by a large oak table with thick, richly carved legs. There was enough room around that table to seat at least 16 guests comfortably.
I felt a bit like I was snooping. I was uncomfortable wandering from one large room to the next. It was a big, fancy house, but it was not a home. I had no business being there. I sometimes wished that mom and dad would not have invited us there. I was embarrassed to be there. Here, mom was the maid, and dad was the Butler. It just did not seem right.
The job with the Henderson family did not last long, and it did not end well. Mom and Dad had signed a two-year contract. In the Copenhagen newspaper, the ad had stressed that their job was to manage the household, which included a staff. Mom had someone to help with the house cleaning, but she did everything else, including the cooking. Dad looked after the household financed but was also the Butler. I never meet any other staff members, and we never saw any of the Henderson family members. Aside from sneaking around on that one tour, whenever we visited, we were kept “below stairs.”
Given the needs of his new position in Toronto, Dad had decided to bring along all his formal wear. He referred to that as his “new uniforms.” He figured that his tuxedo was particularly important. As a butler, he would get more use of that thing in Toronto than he had during the past twenty years. He used it a lot before he got married back in 1941. But for the past ten years, he only wore it on special occasions. It did not even get out of the closed for our last New Year’s Eve celebrations back in Denmark. That event, he wore his “white tie & tails” to the party.
Dad was proud of his tuxedo; it was made from the finest cloth available. He had it made by a well-known Parisian tailor. It still fit “like a glove,” something he was very proud of. Dad knew he would cut the appropriate figure in that “uniform.” It was his tuxedo that proved to be his undoing as a domestic servant.
After about four months in the house, mom and dad were summoned to the Library.
“I will be hosting a very important person at a cocktail party, followed by dinner. He will be arriving directly from his home in Switzerland. This must be a successful event. I cannot stress to you enough how important this is.” Mr. Henderson wanted both mom and dad to put on a “good show.”
It was up to mom and dad to make sure that all things went smoothly. There would be about 45 guests for cocktails at five, and half that number were invited to sit down for dinner at eight. The guest of honour had to be suitably impressed. This was the guest’s first visit to North America. Mr. Henderson was nervous about meeting this potentially significant business partner for the first time.
Though mom and dad were not totally sure about this, they did get the impression that an important business deal lay in the balance. Mr. Henderson insisted that this had better go well.
“I am relying on you and your European background to impress my special guest.” Mr. Henderson told them both.
Having worked tirelessly, almost non-stop, for 48 hours, the time arrived. The caterers were there, along with the additional staff needed to serve the canapés and the cocktails. All was as ready as it was ever going to be. Right on schedule, the guest began to arrive. Dad was running back and forth, answering the “Big Ben” chimes, and opening the massive front door. The late spring afternoon sun was setting, and dad was grateful that none of the guests had bothered with overcoats. Soon they were all “present and accounted for” except for the guest of honour.
Everyone was gathered in the living room, separated from the foyer by an enormous archway. The guests were clustering in little groups with the ladies in elegant cocktail dresses and the men in well-tailored Black Tie. It was a sort of “Great Gatsby” moment.
Mom stayed in the background managing the catering staff. She was making sure that all the guests were being looked after. The silver trays covered with baby shrimp, mushroom caps, little meatballs, a generous assortment of fruits and cheeses were circulated by the young ladies in black with small white aprons. Things were going well.
Finally, half an hour late, and 45 minutes after the last guest had arrived, the Guest of Honour showed up. His stretched limo pulled up to the front door. His uniformed chauffeur, after having opened the car’s rear door, stepped aside. The guest of honour walked up and rang the doorbell. All of the guests assembled in the living room heard “Big Ben” chime. Everyone’s attention was focused on the front door. They all had clear sight lines to that door, right through that large archway.
Mr. Henderson, forgetting for a moment that he had a butler, headed straight for the door to greet his guest. Having heard the arrival of the car, the butler made a quick dash for the door. Mr. Henderson practically ran Dad down in his eagerness to greet his guest of honour.
Dad was not quite fast enough. Mr. Henderson got there first. He opened the door with his Butler politely trying to nudge him out of the way. This was Dad’s job, not Mr. Henderson’s. It didn’t work.
It was at this point where Dad’s job as a butler and house manager unravel.
The wealthy banker from Zurich was faced with a dilemma. As the door opened, he looked at the two strangers standing there, right in front of him. He and never met Mr. Henderson. He did not have a clue who was who. He took off his hat and coat. Both of the two men standing in front of him were dressed alike; both wore Tuxes. The guest did what came naturally to him. He took a quick looked at the two of them, sizes them up, and made a quick assessment. Whoever was wearing the better-quality tuxedo must be the host. He handed his hat and coat to Mr. Henderson.
“Ah! You must be Herr Henderson.” He said, reaching for Dad’s hand.
All 40 guests in the living room looked at this in stunned silence.
Dad’s reaction was too slow. Mr. Henderson, at first quite motionless, finally handed Dad the hat and coat. He took the guest by the elbow and led him into the silent living room. Dad disappeared for the rest of the evening; his work was done.
The next morning, at around 11, Mr. Henderson, usually an early riser, but on this occasion still in bed, summonsed dad to his bedside and fired him on the spot. He accused Dad of embarrassing him so completely in front of not only the guest of honour but also in front of 20 of his most important business associates and their wives. Mr. Henderson stayed in bed for the rest of the day.
Mom was invited to stay on; Mrs. Henderson was very anxious for her to remain. So were the three Henderson kids. They had grown very fond of Mom’s meatloaf and her Danish open-face sandwiches.
She pointed out that under the circumstances, such an arrangement was not possible. Mom and Dad went down to their little room at the back of the kitchen, packed their bags, and showed up, unannounced, at Uncle Frederick’s house.
Four days later, and for the first time since arriving in the “New World,” the family was back together. We had found a small basement apartment on Roberta Drive, in the Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst Street area.
Payment for the airfare for my brother and me was never pursued by Mr. Henderson.
A week after that, dad found a job as a technician with a Toronto engineering company. It was better than being a butler, but still a hard pill to swallow for an engineer with 20 years’ experience.