My friend Carol was here for a visit recently. I hadn’t seen her in sixteen years. Carol and I go way back to the early nineteen seventies when I lived in Calgary Alberta. We met at a nursery when we were both young mothers taking part in parent group discussions led by trained facilitators who brought books we could borrow about psychology and parenting. One book in particular, ‘Born to Win’ by Muriel James, dropped a seed in my subconscious that would sprout enormous changes in my life; but that was years ahead, in a future I could never have imagined back then.
Carol and I immediately became friends, taking the kids on mid week camping trips in summer, visiting her mum at their farm in Stettler where she grew up, or to Gull Lake about three hours from Calgary where her sister and brother in law were building a cabin that is now their permanent home. They included me and my kids as if we were part of their family and I loved them all for it.
“Your life has certainly been interesting,” Carol says, sitting at our table in Alameda, looking across the Bay at the San Francisco skyline. I tell her that all I really wanted back then was to be a family; raise my kids and feel part of a community, but it didn’t turn out like that. It seems that every time I tried to settle into a simple family life like The Waltons show on TV, some event would shake things up and I would be bolted out of my comfort zone, into whole new beginnings.
Carol couldn’t remember the exact year she and her husband Vern and the kids visited us in Nova Scotia. But I remember it well. In the summer of 1981 we sold our suburban home in Calgary, bought a small farm in Nova Scotia and drove across the country in a camper and mini van with all our belongings; my husband Ki, our three elementary school aged kids, and our dog, a white fluffy samoyed. A few months after our arrival Ki was hospitalized with a broken back following a car accident. We no longer had any income, winter was coming, our four cows grazing in the field had to be coaxed into the barn, harnessed in stalls, fed, watered and mucked out daily; then there were the chickens and ducks to feed. I was a suburban housewife with barely a clue about country living, much less farming. The hospital in Halifax was a two hour drive from our home..
There was no money, but the farmhouse was paid for and in decent repair; we had wood for the fire and the freezer was filled. But when snow came a few weeks later, farmers on tractors clearing snow for themselves and neighbors, would dump even more of it into our long driveway as they passed, afraid of the gossip that would follow if they stopped to help a young attractive woman alone and a stranger in the community. At the same time, the local gas station gave me credit for gas so I could make the trips to and from Halifax and just before Christmas, a hamper with a turkey and all the trimmings was left on our doorstep.
Ki was home from hospital in time for the holidays. His feet were so tender from being bedridden for two months that he could hardly bear to put pressure on them for several weeks. But thanks to a highly skilled surgeon, a bone splinter that was a hair from his spinal cord was successfully removed and he was eventually able to walk. Had the splinter even touched the sensitive cord, he would have been paralyzed from the waist down. He was forbidden to walk outside in case of a fall which could reverse the success of his surgery. He was a long way from being able to work at his job as a bricklayer, but he was home safe and I was free to work. Our marriage was on the rocks long before that.
I found three jobs; a cashier in a supermarket, transplanting cuttings at a nursery and despite having no experience what so ever, I got a job as the only staff person on duty for night shifts at a licensed boarding home with twenty seven residents. My job was to peel mounds of vegetables for meals the following day, clean toilets and at 5 am, begin getting residents bathed and ready for the day shift. My favorite resident was a lady of a hundred and four. She was blind, had no teeth and always knew my voice. She loved telling me stories of her chuck wagon days when she traveled across the prairies and was particular about the color of the dress she wanted to wear each day. And shamed to her core each time she’d had an accident, and her nightclothes had to be peeled from her frail body. As I washed her thin delicate skin as tenderly as possible, trying in vain to soothe her pride, her lips would tighten up, while tears rolled down her cheeks. Her name was Mrs. Fraser.
I told each of my employers that I had only one other job thinking they wouldn’t hire me if they knew I had three. Being a stranger was a help. People didn’t ask me a lot of questions.
One morning as I was packing groceries for a customer, I could feel the woman staring at me. Finally she asked, “do you have a twin? I’ve just seen your double at Einsenel Nurseries.” I had just driven from my job at the nursery in the next town after returning from the night shift at the boarding house. Without looking up I answered her. “I’ve been told that before,”I said and handed her change to her. In those days we didn’t use credit cards. Everything was paid for with cash.
Each job paid $2.99 an hour. Clearly no matter how many hours I worked at that rate, it was not going to be enough to support our family. Seeing an ad in the paper for a social worker, I decided I needed an education and called a local university to ask for advice. A wonderful woman on the other end of the phone sent me on a path that changed my whole life. After putting the phone down I headed straight to the bookstore for a GED instruction book. If I passed the exam I could apply for a community services course at the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology in Halifax beginning in eight months. The three jobs would give me just enough hours to finance the ten month course through unemployment insurance. Carol and her family arrived for their visit just as the course finished.
I was scheduled to sing at the Community Services graduation and needed an outfit so Carol and I set off for Kentville the nearest town where there was one store that sold what I thought of as decent womens’ clothes. I found a lovely peach chiffon dress that cost $92.00, much more than I could afford, but I decided to splurge anyway. When I got to the checkout Carol had paid for the dress. That was June,1983. By September of 1986 I was separated from Ki, living in Halifax with our three kids and had a Masters degree in Social Work. I met my husband Howard a few months before my graduation.