February 29, 2012
“We’ll just have to tape up that shoe,“ my mother said disconsolately as she watched the sole of my shoe flap wildly with each step. “Our welfare cheque does not come until the end of the month and it’s hardly enough to keep us in food after we pay the rent,” she apologized as she fetched me a glass of milk from the orange crate that was perched on the ledge outside the window.
This kind of apologetic concern was expressed regularly by my mother who had a tough time stretching our scarce resources to provide our family of five with the barest of necessities. Despite this, she always displayed a cheerful and optimistic attitude that things would somehow get better.
That was a good thing because there was no way for her to hide her frustrations and anxieties in the single room in which we all lived in downtown Toronto’s Cabbagetown. No doubt, she worked hard at keeping her chin up to keep the spirits up in the rest of us.
This situation of poverty was new for my mother, the oldest of three attractive daughters in a stable middle class family of three girls, well provided for in their East York single-family home at 65 Gatwick Avenue by her businessman father and stay-at-home mom. The youngest of the daughters often entered beauty contests, which were popular at the time and, as often as not, came home with the prize, even coming third in the Miss Toronto contest in the early fifties.
These types of beauty contests seemed important to my grandmother who even, unbeknownst to my mother, entered my twin brother and I in the baby contests at the Canadian National Exhibition. At 12 months, we won for twins 12 to 18 months old.
While my mother`s childhood home seemed cheery with my grandmother`s melodious voice as she answered the phone, it was a very quiet prim and proper home run with quite formal, if unwritten, rules set with kindly example by my grandparents. No matter how close a relative you were, on visiting, you always knocked, waited to be let in, took your shoes off, and sat quietly on the couch for tea to be served. There didn’t seem to be a lot of joyful enthusiasm or comfortable spontaneity in the house.
So my mother finding herself living on welfare with all of her children in a single room in what were then Toronto’s slums must have been quite a shock to her.
No one ever knows when their life might take an unfortunate turn for the worse. In my mother’s case, she married the local “bad boy,” a drinking, carousing guy, always the center of attention and always on the edge of mischief. Unlike my mother, he came from a very boisterous home. The mismatched marriage lasted only until my youngest brother was born when I was just starting kindergarten at 5 years of age.
After a few years in a foster home under the care of the Children`s Aid, my mother and my brothers and sister and I reunited in that single downtown room and others like it over 4 or 5 years until my grandparent`s bought my mother a house. Perhaps they were feeling guilty about abandoning her earlier.
As always, necessity is the mother of invention, and at about 12 years of age, my twin brother and I became quite the entrepreneurs. We had numerous paper routes radiating out in all directions from our main distribution point, a newspaper stand at the bus stop at Sherbourne and Wellesley Streets. We’d sell hundreds of newspapers daily in our routes covering much of the area bounded by Jarvis, Wellesley, Queen and Ontario Streets. My identical twin and I were so busy that customers must have wondered how one person could be everywhere at once. Between routes, one of us would always go through the Wellesley Hospital patient rooms pitching papers. We grew to realize that if we needed shoes, bikes, a bottle of pop or a chocolate bar, we had to earn money to buy it. This responsibility and hard work were both excellent early teachers, the lessons of which have stayed with me and contributed enormously to my successes in life.
As a result of these life experiences, when I see the homeless or the poor, I have perfect understanding of the saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.“ It`s unfortunate that too many of those who have never seen the dark side have so little understanding or empathy for those who have...and just don`t get it!
“Just work harder they say...and your path will be paved with gold!“