by Cece Scott
Ellen Stafford has travelled many miles in her life, but her longest journey was her evolution from a young, naive, manipulated, teenaged wife, into a confident, assertive woman fighting for the repressed and ultimately freeing herself along the way.
Always & After (Viking, 293 pages, $32 cloth, ISBN: 0670886203) illuminates significant moments in history: life in the roaring twenties and, more poigantly, a woman’s place in society in the downtrodden, dirty thirties. “All those battles women fought and won. The right to vote: women went to jail for that. The right to know how not to conceive a child. They went to jail for that right too.”
Stafford’s memoir is an ironic metaphor of repression. Her womanizing alcoholic of a husband, Malcolm, sells himself as the protector of the little people, the working but now out of work comrades who are looking to the newly-budding Communist Party for dignity, hope, and a way back to their next regular paycheque. The irony is that the protector is the aggressor, the dictatorial repressor of his own “wee-wifey” and two kids.
Malcolm perpetrates enough injustices to create his own skirmishes within the Second World War that rages on the international stage. While moving through the Party ranks, Malcolm has several flings and passes on sexually communicative diseases to a pregnant Ellen, who subsequently miscarries—this at a time when the sexual act was still firmly locked in the closet. Alcohol abuse and its subsequent hooliganism, along with child abuse, also putrefy the family. In one of her darkest moments, Ellen consults with her doctor, who, totally out of character, tells her, “I’m going to say this. Go on living with your husband and you commit suicide.”
Stafford’s memoir is a complexity of histories encompassing three major events: the changing role of women in society, the import of the Communist Party in Canada, and the onslaught of World War II. The most profound is the personal evolution of Stafford and the growing impact of women in the public realm. We experience through her eyes “the long trek from the Model T to the information highway” within which Stafford grows from child, adolescent, wife, and mother into the unchartered, male-dominated waters of journalist, editor, writer, and political activist.
It is eerily disconcerting that the author, writing with the clarity and “total picture” vision she now has, is not raging with bitterness. “I’m very much afraid I’ll be seen as a cross between Mother Teresa and a complete fool.” Stafford’s benevolence can take some credit from the fact that she has lived a good eighty-nine years and she asks for no refunds from life. There are contemporary writers, with their revengeful make ‘em pay tirades, who could take some lessons from the dignity in Stafford’s life travels. •