Ignominious Poverty: A Mere 60 Years Ago


(Scamp on left, on stairs where we used to wait for my mother to come home)

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(right of twin WW1 houses: my home, Winnipeg; now renovated with a garage where once a rutted driveway led to my mother’s garden; caragana hedge across front now torn out; sidewalk and road paved, no longer crumbling and muddy when wet; my home from 1955-1963 A.D.)

I remember standing in the basement when the coal came rumbling in, down the chute to the coal box below. Later, in the spring, the basement, with its cave-like walls, flooded about a foot deep. The toilet was a primitive thing by the furnace and I remember my Dad carrying me into the basement and foot-high water to use the facilities. It was about that point that he and my mother vowed to get indoor plumbing that summer. That was the end of slogging through water to relieve oneself in the darkest and dankest of basements.

Another memory of having no food in the house (as we lived cheque to cheque, my fluctuating alcoholic-father on unemployment insurance). A Sunday, I told my mother I was hungry (this was something about as close to Dickens as we ever got), and she turned to the cupboards and started taking out basic ingredients like flour, flax, and baking powder turning them into supper. Yeah, we were that poor a mere 60 years ago.

Still another memory in coldest January, coming home from school or the rink, sitting on the floor in the living room by the iron-grille vent, pulling the two chains nearby in an effort to get heat on, to warm up a two-storey house, listening for the iron ghost furnace below to show signs of life, creaking to start, and sometimes not. (An oil furnace succeeded the old one and I discovered the pleasure of thermostats.) I remember going to sleep under damp myriad blankets in the screen-windowed (in summer) extra room protruding out the back of the second storey, the one you stepped down a foot into, the one my father drew Walt Disney figures on the walls with Laurentian pencils to entertain me.

And in winter, waiting a long hour or so after school, on the wooden stairs by the window with my mongrel pet dog Scamp for my mother to come trudging home through the snow, a block from the occasional Portage Avenue bus. Waiting for the most important person in my life who kept us going/alive all those poor lean years. Me, an only-child, latchkey-kid existence with not much more than the key to 271 on a string, forever waiting.

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