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Posts Tagged ‘a modest Christmas’

I am getting old. A sure sign is that in the midst of the current global economic crisis, I find myself dwelling on memories from our last recession. Details that I haven’t thought about in over twenty years now feel like yesterday. Somehow, those reflections act as a comfort, a testament to our strength. If we overcame obstacles then, surely we can do it again.

 

Seeing things through these rose-coloured glasses helps keep my panic at bay. The reality, though, is that not everyone and everything will survive an economic downturn like this. There are businesses that will never reopen; people who will never own another home;  some who will never work again. And there are others whose mental and emotional state may always remain fragile.

 

I wonder about someone like Ludmilla.

 

 The Czechoslovakian Doctor

In the early 80’s, Canada was knee-deep in a recession, and unemployment was the highest it had been in decades. As a result, all levels of government allotted short-term grants to aid the unemployed in their job search and thereby alleviate the drain on their welfare coffers. An unusual set of circumstances resulted in me working as such a counsellor, and it was there that I met Ludmilla. She had been a young doctor in Czechoslovakia. It is so long now that I have forgotten her last name. When the Communists took over, she eventually realized she had to leave. With her elderly mother in tow, she immigrated to Canada in the hope of starting a practice here.

It was not to be. Year after year she worked to improve her English and tirelessly applied for any medical position, even lab work. Her mother’s health, always frail, grew worse, and the doctor herself became less stable.

When I met her she would have been in her early forties. The welfare office had referred her to us, and it was our job to help her find work. Hands shaky, hair dishevelled, her appearance gave no hint of the near-genius she once had been. I agonized over her fate as I tried to make sense of the documents she spread over my desk.

She came to our offices almost daily to read the want ads, use the phones, or just get some much-needed emotional support. We struggled to piece together a resume that might get her work in a medical-related field, but in truth, I knew the chances were slim. Each day, Ludmilla seemed more and more desperate.

The week before Christmas, she dropped into the office, and in broken English, invited us to her home later in the week. Crossing the line from “professional to personal” was discouraged, but her invitation was so unexpected that we had no time to invent a believable excuse for turning it down. So we agreed, and on the Friday before Christmas, we left to visit her.

We had difficulty finding her home at first, not realizing that the makeshift structure we were looking at was an actual dwelling. We knew beforehand that Ludmilla lived at the back of a beauty parlour, but it turned out to be not part of the same building. Instead, it was a one-room addition that clung to the main structure haphazardly. It leaned like an after-thought, the floor sloped.

Inside there was a bed, a table and two wooden chairs. They cooked on a hotplate, and shared the bathroom down the hall with the beauty parlour patrons. Their room was piled high with boxes; atop those were what seemed hundreds of books.

There were five of us, the mother, the daughter and we three guests. Two sat on chairs, the others on the bed as we exchanged awkward pleasantries. The mother spoke no English. She smiled as she prepared food for us: tea and small digestive cookies. It was lunchtime and we were hungry, but I found it hard to swallow. I wondered what hardship they had suffered in order to buy those biscuits. Conversation was difficult as we tried not to stare at the signs of their poverty. Everything they owned was in this tiny room.

Atop their old dresser was a small artificial Christmas tree, modestly decorated with some shiny trinkets. As I left, she took six tiny silver snowflakes from the tree and pressed them into my hand. I have them to this day.

Once, she had been a doctor.

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