Looking back now, I wonder the type of person I might be if I was raised on the fast food and meals to go that a single working mother would be forced to feed me.
By Karl Andrus
Published July 31, 2017
I had forgotten or suppressed, through the haze of life, most of my mom's writings. I recalled she had written extensively on a broad reach of topics. This included our time on social assistance but the day-to-day grind remained shrouded in the past. When my mom died, I rediscovered these series of articles.
As I was sorting through the clipping of a lifetime of writings, suddenly a rush of memories came flushing over me. Here, written in black and white ink, were the details of my adolescent published and printed for posterity. At first it was with shame and sadness that I recalled those dreary days. The memories of poverty had scorched my soul. The vision of being shuffled, like refugees, from my childhood home to a cramped second-floor apartment haunt me to this day.
My mother used a pseudonym (Emily Bell) and had changed our gender to protect our anonymity. She hoped this might shield us from the shame and stigma she felt daily. At the time, to my horror, I quickly discovered that to the world we may not have been Emily Bell's welfare children, but we were nonetheless welfare children.
As the oldest, I provided more than the expected additional spousal labour around the house of the day: frequently cooking, cleaning, making lunches, walking siblings to school, child minding, laundry, and the litany of other domestic duty borne by women working or on welfare. I hated the burden of being my mom's right hand.
My early teen self also resented the baggage born of battles: The daily encounters at school of classism and stigma from peers. The schoolyard beatings and hazings were memories I didn't want to recall. The principal's only helpful suggestion was: "You're a big guy, why don't you fight back?"
Even then, school seemed to constantly have activities requiring cash we lacked. Picture days, pizza days, jumping rope for heart, school trips, birthdays of peers, Valentine's Day, an endless litany of requirements for money, all things I could not attend. My BiWay brand clothing and 1970s and early '80s second-hand rejects did not win me any popularity contests at school. Out of necessity, clothing and shoes were stretched well to the limit of wearability.
The rotating game of "Which Bill Gets the Cash" resulted in disconnected utilities that kept me from exchanging phone numbers with friends. Some months we would go a week, sometimes two, without hot water or telephone. The odd time we lacked power for a day or two. Looking back on it now I was a really sellfish and self-centred teen!
My experience was hardly unique, or that dreadful, when you consider the conditions here on Reserves in Canada, or set against the global scene. We always had food and a roof over our head.
What struck me most was the contradiction of our lived experience, as faceless welfare recipients vs. the outpouring of love and support generated by my mother's retelling of our story. On a personal level, my mother's story seemed to touch hearts. The switchboard at the Hamilton Spectator was flooded with calls as concerned citizens sought to contribute. Toys, cash and clothing were all offered by strangers who's lives had been touched by my mother's words.
She could not accept the vast majority of this outpouring and commented at the time that, though touched, she felt people missed the point of her article. During an interview for Ross Longbottom's article "Help others, writer of welfare story tells Spectator readers", Kate stated, "she hopes an outpouring of concern for her will be directed towards others." "What I suggest they do is look around their neighbourhood and help those in need close at hand."
The humanity expressed for the personal tale of Emily Bell struck a chord across the city and around the country. The contrast couldn't be more startling from our lived reality. From school teachers, bank tellers, pharmacists, doctors and every professional we encountered, all seemed to malign my "welfare mom". We encountered random slurs thrown out from passing cars as my mother, glasses held together with garbage bag tie, trucked her three children and a bundle buggy across city streets.
It seemed to me our daily encounters with the public always involved some sort of name-calling or helpful suggestion to my mother to get a job or dress better. The youngest would always find some way to get dirty and I would watch my mother's heart slump as she prepared to be told how bad a parent she was, an experience we did not get when better dressed and driving.
Our life also contained bright spots born from the kindness of humans and open access to city institutions. My mother documents well in her writing our trips to Ottawa to visit her oldest sister, my Aunt Linda, the Canada Day and Christmas filled with so much joy. Those bright spots alone were enough to carry us all through those bitter times. However, they were not my only escapes.
My escapes came from institutions that some seek to disband because they consider them pointless. The Downtown Branch of the Public Library was a sanctuary I delighted to explore. Free movies, books, and a place to hang with my friend made all the difference. At the Library I felt somewhat normal, safe and not judged. Books provided my adventures, my entertainment and a window beyond the drudgery. They let my mind wonder. There were endless activities, events and programs, all free!
The CBC rang constantly throughout the house. It made for great listening as the cable was frequently out.
Important, too, during those days was the bus pass I got monthly. Besides shortening the constant walking we did daily, it opened up the city for me to explore. At an early age I had mastered moving around the city from line to line, moving to every corner the HSR roamed, striking friendships with bus drivers as I watched, out the window, Hamilton's passing grandeur and decay.
The other escape, weather be damned, were the parks near my home. Swimming in the summer soothed my nasty teen soul. I could leave my brother and sister with the Supies and roam and explore. In the winter I played in the snow, tobogganing (I believe legally). I loved the snow fights with my siblings and used to skate without ice skates on the free rink in Victoria Park.
My mind and imagination were not poor, and I was free to read, play and explore. Free access to civic services more than likely kept me out of trouble and focused my interests, later guiding my path to university. They shielded me from the temptations of the darker past times of some peers.
Visits to the Farmers' Market also brightened those days. Free samples of cheeses and meats were a delight to us kids. My mom was an expert at making good food on the cheap. Throughout the welfare journey we never went hungry.
It was while recalling the food that my picture of the pandemonium and pestiferous teenhood started to fade. I begin to recall with delight assisting with my mother in baking and kneading bread. What was once a dreadful summer task of assisting with the canning of fruits and vegetables was now a cherished hobby.
My mom was always inventing new ways to make delightful meals from nothing. It was during this welfare crucible that my love of cooking and food was born. I now gleefully now scavenge the thrift shops for interesting retro clothing, which I proudly wear.
I was spared the latchkey life others of my generation experienced. It was also during this period that I first begin to understand privilege (although I wouldn't use that term until university), or rather a little bit of what life is like without it. The cruelty of others, though painful, helped build empathy and understanding deep in my soul.
Looking back now, I wonder the type of person I might be if I was raised on the fast food and meals to go that a single working mother would be forced to feed me. I consider the hours of laughter, sorrow, and shared adversity I would have been denied had my mother not been driven from the labour market.
I have a totally different take on my teenaged cravings: what would access to the designer consumer lifestyle I craved then done to my worldview? I was spared the latchkey life that others of my generation experienced. In retrospect, I would not trade that time with her for the lifestyle my teen self envied in my peers. I no longer view those years through the lens of a teenager. Twenty-Six years has changed the city and my perspective.
This is the fourth article in a series:
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