When I think of my mum, who died on Mother's Day in l989, at the age of 91, I equate her memory with courage, honesty, humour and all the other attributes that made her the epitome of what a mum should be.
Born in Vernon, B.C. in l898, Mum was raised to be a "little lady" - so I can imagine how she suffered during the Great Depression trying to raise my sister and me as "little ladies" when we lived in smelly West End Vancouver rooming houses and shared a bathroom with strangers. But she tried.
Left alone to raise two young daughters, she was advised to quit work because she had been diagnosed with a "spot on her lung" - apparently a precursor to tuberculosis. So, in l935, she was granted a Mother's Pension of $42 a month for the three of us. But at least we weren't receiving "Relief," which was a step down the ladder of degradation. There was no work, but families were proud and would do anything rather than admit they were on Relief. But even though we were a step above, we had to lift our feet to prove to the once-a-month-visiting Government Social Worker, that the holes in our shoes were genuine before we were given a chit for a new pair. In the meantime, we made cardboard soles, which fell out of the holes when they got wet.
Like so many other mothers during the Depression, Mum "made do." When we couldn't afford fuel she sat with her winter coat on in front of the toaster to keep warm until my sister and I arrived home from school; then she turned the heat on. She not only had a big dollop of intestinal fortitude, but also was exceptionally honest (a trait she demanded of her children).
One Christmas, even though the streetcar fare was only a nickel, we walked a few kilometres downtown from the West End to look at the Christmas lights and beautiful Christmas displays in Woodwards, Spencers and the Hudson's Bay Company; the three big department stores in Vancouver in l936. We walked down Hastings Street and mum found a $2 bill on the sidewalk. She immediately looked around to see if anyone had dropped it but no one had, so, with a clear conscience, she marched us into the White Lunch with its clean, shiny, white-tile interior and the three of us had Christmas dinner with all the trimmings for 50 cents each.
Those were the days when one or two hungry men knocked daily on the door and offered to do any kind of work for a meal. I don't think Mum ever turned anyone away.
Eventually she was found well enough to work. She had taught herself shorthand and learned typing in high school, and started working again as a stenographer with the government. She had to leave us at home alone to fend for ourselves with a list of "don'ts: don't let anyone in when I'm not home; don't talk to strangers; don't let anyone know you have the front door key; and a million more don'ts I can't remember, but there was a long list tacked to the wall.
She was so terrified of losing her job that she never missed a day. I saw her sick and feverish to the point where she couldn't find the front door handle, yet she went to work. When I was an adult, she told me that some of the jobs were so awful she packed everything up every night and told herself she didn't have to go back the next day.
We didn't go hungry, but the food was monotonous. I was the eldest, so I had to go to the butcher shop and ask for "dog bones" out of which Mum made healthy soup. Many people with no dog asked for dog bones and the butchers knew it. We ate a lot of rice pudding and oatmeal and as a special treat sometimes, the rice pudding included raisins.
She ached to give us everything we wanted, but we learned not to ask. I wanted to be a veterinarian and my sister was dying to take ballet and piano lessons, but those were dreams.
I think we lived in every one-room hovel in the West End. The single metal springs on all the beds in the so-called "furnished" dumps were sprung and sagged into the middle. My sister and I had to sleep together, so we put pillows down the middle so we didn't touch each other and therein lay the source of many fights. "You TOUCHED me." "No I DIDN'T, you touched me!"
Today, I look at my daughters and their children. Could they survive in a real depression? I don't know. Mum staggered out to work sick, yet my girls thought nothing of quitting their jobs because, until recently, there had always been another one waiting. They never worried about leaving their children home alone because they could pay for sitters. Their children don't know what it's like to want and not get. My youngest daughter pays more for my grandson's hockey gear than Mum made in a month, and his twin sister's ballet costs double that. None of them has ever been poor and maybe that's a sad thing. Doing without builds character. You learn the difference between "want" and "need."
But maybe I shouldn't worry. Their great-grandmother was a strong lady and if it becomes necessary, let's hope her genes have reached the third generation.
Happy Mother's Day, Mum, wherever you are. And thank you!
SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER - May 2009
SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND - May 2009
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