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Marjorie Mintz

by Marjorie Mintz | May 21, 2003

Having just celebrated my eightieth birthday, I am learning and accomplishing new skills, I never have imagined.

Being a fiber artist, my last work was as a continuing education teacher. When I started that career, I had no car. The nature of this work is to bring in all your supplies and get them out again. I started to siphon money into driving lessons. A friend of mine was selling his car for $1,000, but that car sat in my driveway for one year while I failed seven driving tests. I finally got a driver’s license.

Excitedly, planning my first expedition, I drove over to my daughter’s house. Our first grandchild was two and I was going to take her for a drive. When I saw the expression on my children’s face, I knew I had made a big mistake. Back in the car, tears were streaming down my face, I was not to be trusted. Living in Toronto and my sister in Montreal, she came and taught me how to drive on the highway. I have now rolled in rented cars all over the Western world.

When I turned 61, impulsively, I quit my job. Having started to work at 12, therefore there was no high school and I always felt ignorant. There was the ability to teach much deeper than basics. Needlework can be a fine art, but not the self-confidence and no administrator had respect for stitchery. With no idea of what I was going to do, my car decided. Driving over to York University, I enrolled in the fine arts program. I would likely fail and maybe they would let me repeat. That did not happen. I was so uninformed, I did not know it was an honours program. It took six years to get the 20 credits, but the bachelor of fine arts diploma is mine. Essays were rough, for I had no grammar. The design programme was geared to the planning of malls and I had very little math. When starting a project, I do not design on paper, nor do I plan. I just take out materials, spread them around, usually, too much more than will be used. The bits and pieces are where the ideas have originated, and I just start and do. Usually comes out rather well.

My rules are, products must be finished and executed neatly. In the meantime I was practicing driving on highways and began to frequent antique shops.

Thus began a unique and comprehensive collection of needlework tools. When my mother died, I found a few of her things., a thimble, some pliers and an old crochet hook. I remembered that when I was six, my mother said, I will teach you how to crochet. We cannot use this hook, it is ivory and the points break. We will buy a new hook at Woolworth’s. Recognition of an artifact was easy, I was always a stitcher. However, I had not been aware of the multiplicity of articles used by Victorian women. My collection runs into thousands of items plus old how-to books that go back to 1886. Research had always been part of my life. There are innumerable books and manuals about making the product but research on tools is rare. What literature is available is repetitive and not too reliable. Victorian artifacts are usually handmade. Thimbles are well documented and therefore do not have special interest for me. Hard to document and great fun to discover data are the countless items used by women who stitched constantly.

One day my daughter came to visit and everything was spread all over the dining room. What is this, my daughter asked? And what is this thing for, she continued? These things have to be identified. Identification prompted another idea. What about taking my collection to museums and giving lectures? Still in university, I asked one of my teachers if he knew a student photographer. I needed pictures. What is it you want, Marge, a wedding, a bar mitzvah? Bringing him a few artifacts, I explained why I needed pictures. My teacher was intrigued. For this you need money, not only pictures, but also good slides and some equipment. Apply for a Canada Council grant. In the meantime I was approaching 65 and planning to sell our house, so that I would have money to travel. My budget was $9,000 for nine weeks in Europe. I was not an experienced traveller. I would go alone, but I discovered university groups and I loved it. While in Spain, I received a cable from my sister. I had been awarded $6,000. Would I accept? But, I was almost finished my trip, using my own money. The advisor informed me that the grant would allow me to use my grant retroactively. That was in 1985.

On the return home, as I was sorting papers, I remembered our camping trips with the family, when they were children. I always took the opportunity to visit churches and look at their linens and I also remembered that Ontario backwoods life started late in the nineteenth century. Europe was fun and since my major was art history, I did see many masterpieces but the research discoveries had been slim. Our Ontario libraries are excellent. One of the reasons is because we had a strong influx of Scottish immigrants. Scotland little girls were literate. Many immigrants from Scotland were attached to the militia and kept written records. They are the backbone of our library systems. What about studying women and women’s work? York must have a women’s study program. They do, but there is little about women in our history books, particularly nothing about older women and children.

The next step was to apply for a grant to learn oral history in Ontario. The second grant was awarded in 1986, and I graduated in 1987. Although my teachers were snobby about fibre arts, I was invited to take a studio and work at the school, but I had another idea. What about making a video?

I found a filmmaker, intrigued him with an artifact called a Stanhope Viewer, a souvenir item. An ivory needlecase with a peephole, which shows 6 miniature views of Paris. The no-budget video, courtesy of equipment and students loaned from York University, is called Needle, Hook and Thimble.

Are you pleased, my colleague Jim asked? No, it is too much like a lecture. I want to find a historical woman, put the tool in her hands and talk about the conditions of her life. My mother was a sweatshop worker, who took her work home. She sewed at night and, to save money, stitched by the light of the moon. Pioneer women often sewed with a saucer of light, illuminated by a wick called a cruisie, or by the light of the fire. It is very difficult to find a real subject. You have an imagination, Jim said, make one up.

In the meantime, I had been invited to go to India with CESO. CESO is an organization that sends senior volunteers out to many countries, all expenses paid. The one-week indoctrination was in Ottawa, and I went to see my adviser at the Canada Council. I want to make a film. Then he said, you have to write a treatment. Now what is that? Treatments are taught in university as part of film courses. The India trip was to teach, and I was already assigned to four different areas. Preparation was one year in Canada, and I took a course about India, along with other preparation from CESO about India. Also took the film course and wrote the treatment. It was necessary to do a lot of fieldwork because the treatment was a proscribed written document and the fieldwork was to set up a budget. My adviser, knowing I was going to India, was generous enough to tell me we had won our grant for the preparation. That was in 1990. When I returned, Jim and I applied for a fourth grant to do the 30-minute docudrama I had now written, but we did not get the money. It may have been that the subject, women, was no longer marketable or the product was not good enough, but I am also aware that, while Canada is heavily into filmmaking, it is experimental film, not historical. Disappointed, no, it was a marvelous experience and I learned mountains.

While still in university, papers were accumulating about my collection. It became a challenge just to find anything. I was still doing lectures. University had become fun. I recognized my skills. Self-esteem and pride were now a large part of my life. Every morning I looked in the mirror and told myself, do you know now that you are an intellectual, you can think in the abstract, your ability to be creative and free is phenomenal you are great?

My son came to visit and saw my piles of papers, boxes, binders, under the beds, everywhere. Mother you need a computer. Do you know that all this paper can fit into a 7-inch disc?

A computer, what is that? My neck will hurt, my eyes will not take the strain, besides I cannot learn such complicated technology. Anyway I can’t afford it.

Mother it is a present. I have all the old equipment and you will do fine.

The real present was my son’s time. He is a computer consultant and an excellent teacher. He was a single parent with two children, and I also divided my time to help care for his two little boys. For him to have taken the time was a true act of love. Even with a little computer literacy came another kind of freedom. My research was always overburdened. Either the ease of writing on computer or university attendance changed my habits. I cannot type either. Fifteen months ago, we are now in 1998, I bought a PC, the best black and white printer and inherited a scanner. My son predicted wit would take a year for me to be comfortable. By this time I knew what I was, a feminist activist. I had already joined the ranks of advocacy workers. I do a lot of volunteer work on the computer.

1999, is the year of the IYOP, Independent year of older persons. OCSCO, Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens, planned an event at Ryerson Polytechnical for 400 seniors. I suggested we have an Internet workshop and, working with a staff person, I was the assistant teacher of 80 years old. The Toronto Star sent a reporter and took my picture. That article generated over 70 calls. The director of OCSCO was overwhelmed. Funding has been provided for me to organize a programme called SCT, Seniors Computer Training, for free. Our first class is set up for the week of September 13. I have been encouraged to book a second class. I don’t know where this is going but I have some plans. If anyone had told me last year that I would be teaching computer skills and getting paid, I would never have believed it.

I wonder what I will be doing tomorrow?

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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