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Posts Tagged ‘recession’

cheese-bun1This is an oldie, published in Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women in June of 2004. While we deal with the current recession, I can’t help but think of it again, and remember that we are often luckier than we realize.

 

Once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly blue and disillusioned with life, something happens to open my eyes. Call it an epiphany, if you will, but it’s a blessing for which I’m thankful.

Not too long ago, I had such an awakening. We were riding the tail of a very stressful month, filled with uncertainty and worry around recent employment changes, and emotions in our home had run the gamut. Finally, we decided to shake off the negativity that enveloped us, and recapture some of our usual fighting spirit. Whatever fate brought, we would focus on what was right in our lives, rather than worry about what we couldn’t control.

That night, the wisdom of our decision was proven to me in the guise of a solitary woman who stood behind me in the grocery store. I had come for just a few items, but being a bargain hunter by nature, I had taken advantage of mid-week bargains. I placed my carefully selected items on the grocery belt; two cases of Coke, two containers of ice cream, and two bags of potato chips, far from necessities, but all discounted; inexpensive laundry detergent; cat food; milk; bread; three bags of coffee. As I faced the the cashier scanning the bar codes, my eyes glanced left and downward and were drawn to pair of feet wearing flowered neon pink socks. The only protection between her feet and the cold November ground were a pair of cornflower blue flip flops.

From the corner of my eye, I gazed upwards. Bare legs, a printed skirt and shirt, and over it all, no coat, but a transparent green hooded raincoat. She stood ramrod straight, a large rectangular floral bag gripped tightly in her hands.

Must be eccentric; maybe an artist, or even a writer; someone who cares little of outward appearances, I thought to myself.

I handed the cashier the money for my purchases, and the woman placed her order on the belt: a single cheese bun.

“That will be fifty cents please,” I heard the cashier say, then “Do you want a bag?”

“No. Thank you anyway,” the woman answered, as she placed the coins in the cashier’s hand.

From over my shoulder I turned quickly to catch a last glimpse of the woman, and then I saw what was not apparent at first. For she didn’t wait until she was outside to hide her hunger from the rest of the world; there, in the suburban grocery store, she began to eat.

In that second, I knew the truth, and I sensed her shame.

In the parking lot, I quickly lost sight of her as she moved on foot between the cars. I wondered how far she had to travel on such a cold night, dressed so poorly. Then I looked down at my own clothes: the warm leather boots and brown lambskin coat, my carefully matched purse and gloves. I opened the trunk to my car, still like new, every option possible, all shiny black paint and chrome and tan leather, insisted on by my indulgent husband. I drove home, her image branded into my memory.

Somehow, she seemed abandoned, a solitary lonely woman. Beautiful once, and would be even now if sorrow and hard times weren’t so indelibly grafted into her skin. Perhaps younger than I, but I couldn’t be sure. Long, gently curling hair. Clear blue eyes which stared straight ahead. Tall and slim, good bone structure, she could have been a Hollywood actress on a set. But this wasn’t Hollywood.

Did someone love her once? Had she ever known the joy of a small child’s arms around her, or the warmth of a grown son’s hugs and the words “I love you, Mom.”

Did she one day have a husband like mine, who even then, despite work worries, was home in a cold garage, doing his own version of “Junkyard Wars” to create a closed cabin for his old snow plow? A husband who jokingly calls me “Highness,” who makes love to me and brings me tea, who tells me I’m beautiful and smart every day of my life? Has she ever loved someone who could make her laugh until she cried, who shared private jokes and silly stories with her?

If she did, was the sorrow I sensed the mourning of what was lost?

No matter what else life has dealt me, I have been lucky enough to know such love. I watch my husband from afar, and sometimes, his thick hair, now graying, seems once again the color of honey. The years disappear, and I see the vulnerable boy I fell in love with so long ago.

So, thank you, mysterious lady. You have helped me see once again how truly blessed I am. I hope that some day fate allows you to feel a similar joy in your own heart.

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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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