Recession Retrograde: a memoir In considering the current recession, I found myself wandering around in the recesses of my mind thinking about the last one. I graduated from university at the height of the 1980’s recession. Instead of lying in bed at night counting sheep, I was overwhelmed with visions of unrelenting debt accruing on my student loans at 21% interest. There were times, amid the insomnia, I swear I heard coins clinking. Despite doubt and debt, I still considered doing a post graduate degree, but with my father’s passing a few months after graduation, I put the brakes on and went into a bit of an unexpected tail spin. Much to my mother’s dismay, I chose to stay in the university town I then called home. Looking back it was selfish but at twenty-two years old, I was both looking out, and looking for, myself. To say jobs were scarce is an understatement. Back in those days, Canada Manpower offices operated a job bank service. I saw an employment counselor who suggested casual work in the community. She explained the work could be demanding and at short notice, but if I was game, she would call me for any domestic jobs that came up. Nothing prepared me for the assignment that took me to a house in an older part of town, on Bolivar Street. The counselor informed me, upon my arrival, I would be instructed in the tasks at hand. After knocking a number of times, I peered through a window. It was so bright outside, but so dark inside. Just as I was about to step down from the porch thinking I had the wrong address, I heard a strained elderly voice. “Come in, the door’s open, I’m in here.” I turned the door handle, entered a dusty entrance way, and announced I was from the Manpower office. An old woman tapped the floor with her white cane, asked me my name and said, “Follow me dear.” She lead me down a narrow front hallway that had a number of rooms off it. Turning left into a sitting room full of old wooden furniture, she felt her way to a rocking chair where she sat down. The CBC murmured out of a small plastic radio. In a slow scratchy voice, she told me of some duties her nephew did for her when he visited once a week. I looked around the small compartmentalized room with small windows. No wonder it seemed so dark from the outside, the day’s sun couldn’t filter through the grimy glass, thick with dust and dirt. Like a tiny and infirm Whistler’s mother, the old woman sat in the chair talking. Never having kept such close company with a blind person without them wearing some kind of shades, I didn’t know where to focus on her face. Her eyes moved with a rapid uncontrolled fury. I felt unfamiliar and a bit frightened. She said she would like me to make her lunch a little later (Meals on Wheels was dropping off supper) and do some cleaning of the kitchen, which I could already smell. The cats needed some taking care of too. I could hear mews coming from the kitchen at the back of the house. She reached for a stack of yellowed letters tied together with a leather string. We could start by reading, she said. Suddenly I was heart deep in letters from the First and Second World War, in some cases, penned by her departed family members. My own emotional filter was worn ragged anyway and the sad, long distance hand-written tales of separation without reunions, pierced like shrapnel. Without her gaze upon me, I was strangely free to let go of some of my own unexpressed grief; my eyes watered while she filled in backstories, and her eyes a constant flutter in the mid-morning light. Listening was to be one of the highlights of my job as she reminisced about living in England in 30’s and 40’s. I had just finished reading parts of Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London and daydreamed scenes from the novel as she spoke. Still, the kitchen awaited. She told me where the cleaning supplies were and thankfully, Playtex gloves. I have never before or since seen such a mess. I'll leave the most of the grungy details behind out of respect for this lady. I thought of calling public health but wondered where that may inevitably lead her. Dramatic irony grabbed me by the throat. I realized being blind she was oblivious to the state of the kitchen and her nephew’s neglect. Overcome by a sense of urgency instead, I buckled down, grabbed the garbage can, and started cleaning. Her cat recently had kittens. I found some of the furry little creatures and put them with their scraggly mother. Open cat food cans littered the counter, and in no short supply, maggots squirmed about in an ecstatic dance. I was wearing a scarf, tied it around my face and grabbed garbage bags, sponges and mops. When it was all clean an hour or so later, I made her a bologna sandwich on white bread with mustard. After lunch, she asked if I could go upstairs and bring down some soap for the main floor bath. With her British accent those words sounded as if she was living in a mansion. I had a sense the upstairs had long been vacant. All the doors were shut with old-fashioned skeleton keys still in the locks, except for the bathroom. I couldn’t find the soap she was referring to. I was looking for Ivory, Irish Spring, or some familiar brands. I went back downstairs. “Dear, you will find it right beside the tap on the sink." Thinking I must be blind myself, I walked back in and saw scraps of soap put together all hand molded into a small clump. I went downstairs and described the soap to her to see if this is what she was referring to. Her gnarled, rough hands and long fingernails felt my soft palm searching for the scraps of soap. “Oh dear, when you’ve lived through two world wars and Great Depression, you don’t throw anything out.” I left that day and those visions of maggots followed me. I was called to go back a few more times. They said she had taken a shining to me. With someone now on the scene, the nephew seemed better at keeping things up. There was not much of monetary value there, except hanging on the wall beside her chair, hung a violin, which she called a fiddle. She offered me the instrument; wanted me to take it. I told her I couldn’t, that it should go to a family member or someone she was closer to, though I doubted there was anyone. I survived that recession and many of us weather this one. This story was one glimpse into an old woman's world. There is never any shortage of work when it comes to caring for people. There were a few souls I came into touch with during those years that I have never forgotten. Like the war veteran who was a double amputee. I bathed him. What could have been awkward for a young girl was turned into a supreme example of humility. As a young person, working those jobs during the 1980's recession taught me immeasurable lessons early on and shaped my convictions. I am not glorifying poverty or loss, though being witness, strangely made my life richer. It was certainly not because of the minimum hourly wage I earned, but because I saw human spirit rising above circumstance. And you know, to this day, I still take small scraps of soap and hand mould them the way the blind lady of Bolivar Street did.
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