7 years later...the full story.
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 smokes. 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.
Our apartment 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.
When I talk about this story, I have been told that every time I tell it, we get a little bit poorer. The truth is, it’s because I don’t think I have ever been able/ready to truly share the extent of it and each time I get a little more comfortable to share more.
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. How little 20k a year will get you. All the various nuances of our life, the way poverty permeated through 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, 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 write this for her. To honour her. My unsung hero and the inspiration behind Unsung Heroes Productions.
As a small 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 (still miss playing Intellivision in my kick ass Jordache jeans, Sergio Valente shirt and Kangaroo shoes). We had a tab at the Jewish community centre and took cabs home from school quite often as my mother helped with the books at my father’s business. I can’t say we lacked for anything.
But 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 fairly large economic downturn. The impact to revenue came at the worst time as he had to make loan payments. 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 around the same time. My mother found herself without a marriage, without a job, without a financial safety net and without real work experience. Oh, and of course, with three mouths to feed and nurture.
Originally from Montreal, we had no support system in Calgary but also could not move back to Montreal as none of us spoke French. I was the youngest at the age of 9 and so we were too old to try and integrate into the Quebec school system. My mother had a cousin in Toronto and as it was the closest major city to Montreal, 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 rental truck to Toronto, bought Neil Diamond’s greatest hits on 8 track 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. Staying in hotels, seeing the country, discovering new towns and there was that one day my mother decided to take a break from driving so we could enjoy the waterpark near Winnipeg.
Of course, when I reexamine it now, I see things very differently. We stayed at 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). We ate lots of diner food (don’t diss the hot turkey sandwich on Wonder bread with powdered mash potatoes and frozen carrots and peas on the side all smothered in canned gravy till you’ve tried it!). I 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 while still meeting the requirements and while taking care of us. 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 often paid less than social assistance and risked losing social assistance altogether while requiring shift work that would mean no one would be home for her kids before and after school. 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 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 what is actually entailed.
She would sacrifice everything for us. We were her full time job and her greatest joy. I remember that she only every wore stretchy polyester pants and shirts. If memory serves, she had two pair of pants and maybe three shirts. I would bug her about it because sadly, 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 felt embarrassed by her. Can you imagine? Here she was living in the cheapest and fewest possible amount of clothes so that we could have 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.
I remember a game we used to play. It’s funny that what I am about to describe is a fond memory but it was. Mostly because I was good at it! We used to go to the grocery store where they would have a shelving rack full of cans with dents and no labels. They sold these for about ten cents. The game was to try and guess what was in them. The big bucks was chunky soup while creamed corn was the whammy (that’s a Press Your Luck reference for those who didn’t catch it). I loved this game! I was always able to find the chunky soup cans! I could shake the can and tell by the sound. I was untouchable! Imagine how turning the need to stretch every grocery dollar out into a game changed the experience for us. Like I said, she is my unsung hero.
In my teens I was more than a handful. Despite my mother providing a happy home, as years passed and teen pressures to fit in grew, I started to get frustrated that I could not have everything my friends at school did. Even though my mother stretched every penny, made every personal sacrifice imaginable so that I could have the things I did, I wanted more. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get more clothes, more brand names, take vacations, play in sporting leagues and so on. On top of it all, I had undiagnosed ADD (it was far less common at that time to spot and get help for ADD). So I rebelled. A lot.
Stealing quarters from the jar was only the beginning. That turned into stealing cigarettes out of the unlocked cars in our building’s underground parking garage. That turned into shoplifting cigarettes from convenience stores. That turned into shoplifting other things I could sell. I actually remember my mother giving me money to go buy some groceries and instead, I stole them and pocketed the money. Then came pot. Then came hash. Then came mushrooms. Then came me selling drugs. Then came me not finishing high school due to chronic absenteeism (which was a real tragedy as surprising to many of my friends, I was an honour roll student). Then, eventually and thankfully for only a short time, came cocaine.
This is the first time I am sharing everything because I really want people to know how low I was to appreciate what an unsung hero my mother was. I started working when I was 11, delivering the Toronto Star. At 14 I lied about my age and got a job at McDonalds. I held many part time jobs all throughout these years but was not able to keep one due to my many issues and rebellious nature. Through every single thing I have talked about, my mother was there. When I fell, she helped me back up. She believed I could do anything. She believed I was the smartest kid and so capable. She may have gotten justifiably angry or been justifiably disappointed but never, not for a second, did she ever stop believing in my potential. Something she made sure I knew and made I believed as well.
I moved out of the house and found an apartment and a roommate. I got by on my part time jobs and selling weed from time to time and I was high 24/7. I depended on others to bail me out of my financial problems. I asked for things from others that I did not earn or deserve. I begged. By sheer luck I never ended up on the street. I had friends who did, I had friends who escalated their crimes to credit card fraud, breaking and entering, dealing in cocaine, gem scams and more. I have friends who ended up in prison or ended up dead. I believe, with all of my heart, that none of them could have had a mother like mine. And one day came where I looked at myself in the mirror, high as a kite, broke and behind on rent and hated what I saw. This was not the son my mother had raised. This was not my path. This was not my future. Something had gone horribly wrong. I needed, in a way I knew so deep in my core, to be the person my mother knew I was.
Within a month I had booked a flight to Calgary where my dad was (and so where I had a place to stay). I needed to get out of Toronto as my whole world here only one of drugs and crime...I could not see a way out if I had stayed. I sold off whatever I had of any value to pay for the flight and I left. I stayed with my dad for a few months until I got a job and rented a room with some good people I had met. I worked my ass off from morning til night. I got promoted and promoted again. And again.
I became an Uncle back in Toronto and felt I was ready to move back. I kept progressing in my career, becoming an expert and thought leader in customer experience and employee experience helping some of the world’s greatest brands achieve amazing things. I know have three beautiful children of my own and run my own human experience consulting company.
It all stems back to that fork in the road. That moment in the mirror where I saw a reflection that was not my own. It was not the person my mother had given everything up for. Not the person she taught me I was. I owe her everything I have and will honour her in everything I do.
Through all those tough years, my mother took care of us. We had food on the table. We had a roof over our heads. We were loved unconditionally. She was our mother, our father, our cheerleader and our friend. All the while she was living in her own personal nightmare, filled with anxiety about how we would get by the next week, the week after that and the week after that. To explain how she gave us a happy life while concealing all that from us is a task I am simply not worthy of. I can’t explain it. All I know is, I owe her everything.