I remember the quarter jar my mother kept in the kitchen cupboard. It was for the laundry machines in our subsidized apartment. She often struggled to keep it stocked enough to do laundry. I remember it so well because, as a troubled teen, I would often raid it to buy cigarettes. I would take just enough so that it was not easily noticeable, short of counting each quarter. I thought I was quite clever but the truth is, my mother knew.
That was far from my worst choices and far from the worst things I thought I had successfully concealed from my mom.
At that time, we were living in an apartment that was subsidized with assistance from Jewish Family & Child. I believe the rent on our three bedroom unit was somewhere in the 100 dollar a month range as a result of that subsidy, but I was a kid and so I don’t know if that memory is accurate. What I do know is that we were surviving on social assistance cheques that added up to less than $20,000 a year. 20k…for a family of four. You don’t have to be a math genius to know that doesn’t add up to cover even the basic essentials to live, let alone to thrive.
When I talk about this story, I have been told that every time I tell it, we get a little bit poorer. That’s true but the reason is, I don’t think I have ever been able/ready to truly share the extent of it and each time I tell it, I get a little more comfortable to share the more and more of just how difficult things were.
I guess it’s hard to imagine for most. Unless you have been in this situation, you really can’t. You can’t imagine what living on social assistance is like and how little 20k a year will get you. You can’t imagine how poverty permeates all the decisions, the biggest and smallest nuances of our life, every day, every choice, every action and every consequence.
“…despite our situation, we had joy, laughter, song and a mother who who quite literally enveloped us in a shield of love and strength that insulated us from much of what was actually happening.”
I am not writing this for sympathy. In fact, despite our situation, we had joy, laughter, music and a mother who who quite literally enveloped us in a shield of love and strength. Her love insulated us from much of what was actually happening. I write this to honour her, my unsung hero and the inspiration behind Unsung Heroes Productions.
When I was a little kid, our story was actually quite different. We lived in Calgary. My father had a successful wholesale arts and crafts business. We went to a private Hebrew School, lived in a nice home, took vacations and had all the latest toys and clothes. We didn’t lack for much and though I still miss playing Intellivision, my Jordache jeans, our tab at the community centre cafe and all the other benefits of that life, I am actually grateful for my life. The experiences and lessons have shaped me to this day. Starting with what happened next.
Our path would take a turn in somewhat of a perfect storm. My father’s business had just taken out a loan to build a massive head office and warehouse which was followed by a very large economic downturn. In short, sales plummeted but the loan payments remained. In the end, he could not recover and needed to declare bankruptcy.
To make matters more complicated, my parent’s marriage had been suffering for some time and reached its conclusion. My mother found herself single, without a job, without a financial safety net, without real work experience and of course, with three mouths to feed, three humans to nurture.
My family was originally from Montreal and we had no support system in Calgary. However, moving back to Montreal wasn’t a real option either as none of us spoke French. I was 9, my sister was 12 and my brother was 14.
Without a foundation in French, we were simply too old to integrate into the Quebec school system. However, my mother had a cousin in Toronto which was the closest major city to Montreal. So she packed up the station wagon with our stuff, three kids and three cats (mine was named Mr T because…well, A-Team ruled). We sent whatever stuff we had in a rental truck to Toronto, bought Neil Diamond’s greatest hits on 8 track at a gas station to listen to and were on our way.
I can’t really explain to people that despite our situation, there were so many happy times. That road trip was truly one of them. I remember what an adventure it was. Listening to Neil, staying in hotels, seeing the country, discovering new towns…plus there was that one day my mother decided to take a break from driving so we could enjoy the waterpark near Winnipeg. It was epic!
Of course, when I reexamine it now, I see things very differently. We stayed at really run down motels, in towns that you would struggle to even find on a map (one was literally comprised solely of a motel and a gas station that had no gas with phone booths that no phones) and ate lots of diner food (don’t knock the gravy smothers hot turkey sandwich, mash potatoes peas till you’ve tried it!).
I can only imagine the fear, panic and uncertainty my mother must have been experiencing the whole trip. Where were we going? How were we going to live? Each penny spent on this trip is eating up the only money we had. How would we get by? How would she feed and take care of three kids?
For the next several years, I don’t even know how my mother did what she did. The situation had taken a terrible tole on her health. She struggled regularly with depression and weight. She struggled to find work that would be enough income to break out of social assistance and properly take care of her children. If you can try to imagine, without real work experience, there were very little options available to her. The kinds of jobs you can get in those situations actually paid less than social assistance and would mean losing social assistance altogether. Additionally, those types of jobs mostly require shift work that would mean no one would be home for her kids before and after school but with less take home pay, no way to pay for child care costs to compensate. When I hear people say that people on welfare are just lazy and are taxing the system, they really have no idea what it means to break out of the system, particularly as a single mom without a resume and without family or a support system to help. It sickens me when I hear people say those words. It’s not that I don’t get the logic but unless you have lived it, you really have no idea how monumentally difficult it is to do.
During those years, my mom would sacrifice everything for us. We were her full time job and her greatest joy. I remember that she only had a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts. They were cheap stretchy polyester pants. She was so good at shielding us from our reality that I didn’t get why she only wore those clothes and at the time I would bug her about it because I felt embarrassed by her. Can you imagine? Here she was living in the cheapest and smallest wardrobe so that she could give her kids more and I was embarrassed. I really had no clue what was going on and how much she gave up for us and I will spend the rest of my life finding ways to thank her.