“Responsible poverty is an endless cycle of no. No, you can’t have that. You can’t do that, can’t afford that, can’t eat that, can’t choose that. This is off-limits, and that is not for you, and this over here is meant for different kinds of people.”

                                                         Linda Tirado

                                Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

 

Now that I am in a more stable financial situation (though still in a precarious one), I can actually speak of this obsession to know where the nearest food banks are located, which gave me a sense of comfort, and still does really. In the last five years, I have been living on the South Shore of Montréal, and though I moved twice due to rent increases, I stayed in the same neighbourhood as the church where I can go to the tiny room with tiny shelves that hold some basic foods such as cans of soups and tuna, and boxes of pasta, which is a fancier name for spaghetti as it was known in the 60s when I was a child.

In the last two years, a larger food bank has opened its doors to the wider population of the South Shore, and this has relieved some of my anxiety since the slow tumble into living below the poverty line. This was during Canada’s recession of 2008-2009 when work started drying up for many people, including freelance writers like me. In my case, this was compounded by the fact that I was on a disability cheque because I had suffered three major bouts of cancer that had left me in survival mode. I was also living alone since the death of my husband in 2002, when he was 49 years old. This loss had made me more fragile, but I was able to regain some degree of health with the care of my family and friends, and my strong faith. What I wanted was to continue to write and publish more books.

After moving to Côte-des-Neiges to be closer to the hospital where I had follow-up tests and appointments, and to be in the cultural milieu of Montréal where I could more easily earn money, Canada’s recession hit suddenly and hard. This had an impact on my life as it diminished my freelance contracts, some of which were obtained from friends who had delegated work to me. I also had fewer opportunities to do poetry readings and publish various articles and reviews. My physical energy diminished too under the stress, and daily became as unpredictable as the climate change weather graphs.

One day, I had to face the fact that there were no more options, and even borrowing on the future was no longer viable. As I stared into my near empty fridge, I was reminded of how my father used to tease me as a child and recite the nursery rhyme, missing some words but not the sense:

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
Only to find all the shelves bare

Then he’d laugh, but somehow this image of the bare shelves stirred my apprehension rather than making me laugh. I came from a middle-class family, but we had hard times when we were close to having bare cupboards.

One reason that I could live with my fate is that many friends and acquaintances were also living on borrowed money, if not borrowed time. I began to ask questions to Jenny who made use of food banks between low-paying jobs because she had no choice, and was honest about it.

I found out that the food bank that served many people in downtown Montréal gave so much food at once, (a boon certainly) that Jenny said you had to have someone drive you home or else shell out for a taxi, as it was not possible to take the bus with all the heavy bags. Problem was that not everyone had money for a taxi or a friend who could be a driver that one day a month. And Jenny* said everyone had to register and show identification. This was something I balked at, as it made me feel even more embarrassed to go to a food bank. She explained that this was the way the government kept a record so they could catch those who took advantage of the system.

I didn’t want to give my name and address but my social worker at the CLSC, an older lady who was sympathetic and had respect for my writing skills, said that was the norm. And she recommended I go to the local food bank.

As Kara* and I approached the door, my knees started to shake, my heart beat faster. How had I ended up here? I only had the strength to go that sunny autumn morning because Kara had insisted I had to go, and she would come with me. She wasn’t as strapped as I was financially, but was certainly at the edge as she had recently retired on a small pension to care full-time for her aged mother.

She opened the door, and there were stairs to go down and people waiting in line. It seemed symbolic of my life that I had to go down stairs. I could see a large room with rows of tables like in a cafeteria and two people behind a counter taking information, calling out numbers and giving heavy plastic bags out. It was good to see the bags since they gave me hope that I would have some food, maybe even some tea bags which were my luxury now, for the next few days. I didn’t feel like running back out anymore, and didn’t even mind that Kara had left me alone to go smoke a cigarette outside.

Finally it was my turn at the counter. I showed my identification cards, was registered, then was given a number and told to go sit at a table and wait. I was shy to look at anyone so was glad to spot Kara waving at me from the back where there were fewer people. After a short time, my number was called. I went back to the counter, and the woman who was more business-like than friendly gave me a white plastic bag which was as heavy as it looked. Kara insisted she would carry the bag to the car since she was stronger.

She drove me home and said she had to go back to her mother right away. I thanked her and went up the three flights of stairs lugging the bags, as I felt claustrophobic in the small elevator and avoided it. I was grateful for Kara accompanying me: now it was time to open the bag. I had placed it on my tiny table in my tiny kitchen: I reached for what felt heaviest and pulled out a huge monster of a cauliflower which could have fed me well, but it was all brown on the top and looked bruised so it turned my empty stomach immediately. How could this be given out?

What else was in the bag: a huge can of pea soup with a visible dent, and two small containers of yogurt, but with past expiration dates. I sat down on the edge of the kitchen chair as tears streamed down my cheeks and into my mouth, hot salty tears.

I called Kara and hearing how discouraged I was, she offered to come by with $20 so I could at least buy some fresh bread and eggs and not make myself sick.

 

Montréal street art (photo by Jody Freeman)

 

After that experience, I did not go back to a food bank. Somehow I was able to cobble enough money together with my monthly disability cheque and work editing and doing translation for people who answered my ads, and writing articles and book reviews when I could get an assignment. The income was erratic but whenever it came, it was needed. I was also writing a novella when I had any left-over energy. This was what I liked to do.

By cutting my expenses down to the bone and using tips from people in similar dire straits, I survived over these hand-to-mouth years, but my clothes began to wear out. I lost 9 kg from my already slim frame. I became more of a recluse, feeling unable to be in crowds even at my church where I found support. When it was my birthday or Christmas, friends who lived out of town would send me generous gift cards from stores like Walmart and Loblaw’s. Friends nearby would bring over plates of food when I came down with the flu. Family helped in emergencies such as for the dentist or new prescription glasses, or winter boots because mine had holes in them. And my mother gave me the brand new winter coat that was too small for her. This made me feel a mixture of emotion since I was grateful but also ill-at-ease to be as needy as a child.

Though my financial situation has improved lately and is more stable, the economy is increasingly unstable. The 2016 HungerCount report from Food Banks of Canada highlights that there are 28% more people in need now than during the 2008-2009 recession.

One day, while at work on this essay, I picked up a copy of the local newspaper The St-Lambert Journal at the grocery store, and was struck and saddened by the front page headline: “Food bank is issuing urgent plea for donations.” The plea, I read later in the article, came from the Presbyterian Church where the small food bank was running out of food to satisfy the increasing number of people in need. This seemed very close to home.

 

* Jenny and Kara are fictionalized names used to protect these individuals’ privacy.

 

References:

Tirado, Linda, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Berkley Books, 2014

https://www.foodbankscanada.ca

A second com

A Second Coming, Canadian Migration Fiction
Edited by Donald F. Mulcahy, Guernica, 348 pages

One of the best stories included in the twenty-four chosen by Thomas Mulcahy, editor of this intriguing anthology, has the chilling title, “Mephisto in the Land of Ice and Snow.” Written by Eileen Lohka who was born in Mauritius and who teaches French and Francophone literature and cultures at the University of Calgary, the story vividly captures the running theme of this anthology: that there is an emotional and sometimes physical consequence for emigrating, for leaving behind the familiar home country.

Canada is a land of opportunity, a multicultural space that welcomes immigrants, though the more financially comfortable life they may build can come with a cost. Kamla, the narrator of the story, arrives in Alberta as an 18-year-old from her native village, after reading a want ad for schoolteachers. She proudly becomes a Canadian citizen and changes her name to Camilla. Eventually, the “frozen prairie” becomes her inner landscape, and she remembers her village nostalgically: “I catch myself dreaming about cascading bougainvilleas, pulpy lychees, sensuous mangoes, turquoise seas and the spicy aroma of the Grand Bazaar we call the Port Louis Market.” She reflects further: “Memories assault me, paralyze me. I wonder why my children seem so bland to me, so much like everybody else. Why they never ask about my childhood.”

This kind of feeling of not being at “home” even with one’s children or relatives seems to be a shared experience with some of the characters in the stories of this anthology. Although the longing to be reunited with parents, grandparents, cousins and the original place of birth overwhelms the characters, it does not defeat them.

Another story that stands out is “Fantastic Falafel” by Veena Gokhale, a writer from Bombay who came to Canada on a Journalism Fellowship in 1990, and eventually settled in Montréal. The main character, Keshav, a retired engineer living in Mississauga with his wife and daughter, bumps into Vaman, an old friend who is also a retired engineer, while having his morning coffee at Tim Horton’s. They renew their friendship, and Keshav is flooded with memories of his childhood in India. Though Keshav is satisfied with his life, he finds that his born-in-Canada daughter, Veena, tires him as she criticizes his old ways. He wonders if she is a product of the Canadian education system that promotes critical thinking. Eventually his old friend Vaman reveals a secret to Kheshav that makes this story touching.

A more spare and haunting story is “Leokadia and Adam” by Ron Romanowski, a writer and poet from Winnipeg. Leokadia’s son is at her deathbed with his father Adam and his sister Basia and brother Wojtek. He reflects on his mother’s life and how she had published a book of poems in college back in Poland, but in Canada, had put aside her dream of being a poet in order to earn a living for her family. She had become the owner of a Winnipeg deli that sold kielbasa and sausage. In her last moments, her son recalls the Polish mystical legend of the snow white mountain goat, the Bialy Baran that appears only to the dying to ease their passage to the other world.

“Nick and Francesco Visit Canada” by F.G. Paci, author of 13 novels, is a humorous story that relates how a retired Canadian teacher with a smattering of Italian from his childhood in Italy, agrees to shepherd two eccentric men from Italy, invited to appear on a CBC game show. How they react to Canada is part of the whimsy of this story.

Other interesting stories are “The Motorcycle” by Licia Canton, previously published in an Italian journal, Rivistalunaspecie; and Michael Mirolla’s quirkily nightmarish tale “Above El Club El Salvador” that appeared in an issue of the literary magazine, Event.

Mucalhy explains in the Introduction that the anthology was also meant to include essays, memoirs and creative non-fiction on the subject of emigration/immigration. However, the abundance of material available made it a necessary to create two volumes: this anthology of fiction and a companion volume of non-fiction, also edited by Donald Mulcahy, Coming Here, Being Here.

Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton, Anna Pottier, Dundurn Press, 2015, 336 pages

In her recently published memoir Good as Gone, about her marriage with internationally renowned Canadian poet, the late Irving Layton, Anna Pottier boldly asserts that “modern Canadian poetry was born in Irving’s living-room” in his “tiny house” on Kildare Road in Montreal where he lived with his third wife, Aviva Layton, in the mid-1950s. This informal gathering of local poets took place every Friday night and Leonard Cohen, then in his early twenties, dropped by. He immediately impressed the well-known Layton with his early poems.

Pottier, in a chapter entitled “The Golden Boy,” describes her meeting with Cohen, a close friend of Layton, on June 7, 1984. She wants to set the record straight on literary myths such as Layton having been Cohen’s mentor. This irritated Layton, she writes, because it was not the truth. And this is what Pottier wants to reveal in her passionate account of the twelve years she shared with Layton, years that she admits have marked her deeply, irrevocably.

Pottier, born in the Acadian village of Belleville, Nova Scotia, dreamed of becoming a writer, not a doctor, as her parents wanted her to be. In 1981, as a twenty one year old student at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, she attended a poetry reading and met Irving Layton who was famous, married, and forty-eight years her senior. They began a correspondence, and when Layton separated from his fourth wife, Harriet Bernstein, two years later, he invited Pottier to move into his Niagara-on-the-Lake home as his housekeeper. She agreed, thrilled that he took an interest in her poems and encouraged her to write.

Pottier began this memoir soon after the death of Irving Layton in January 2006. She defines it as “my homage to and thanks for all that he lavished on me: his absolute trust, an Ivy League education taught at the table, during long walks, and in the pre-dawn light as he challenged me like the extraordinary teacher that he was, all imbued with unconditional love.”

In Good as Gone, Pottier, who now lives in Utah, is remarried, and is a painter in demand in art exhibitions, writes with candour about her relationship with Irving Layton. Since the beginning, she kept personal journals that were very detailed, included verbatim conversations, and notes about Layton’s views on life, death, and the poetic process.

Pottier (her birth name was Annette but Layton preferred to call her Anna, which she agreed to) was as meticulous in her journal keeping as in her work as assistant in preparing the poet’s later books for publication such as his childhood memoir Waiting for the Messiah. Pottier remembers laboriously typing draft after draft on a typewriter, PCs not yet widely in use. Among the interesting selection of rarely seen black and white photos, is one taken by Pottier in May 1985 at their house on Monkland Avenue in the NDG area of Montreal. It is of Layton sitting on the sofa, gazing into the camera, his look bemused and exhausted, the final manuscript pages spread around him on the cushions and coffee table. As she notes in the caption, they had little time to relax as they were bound for Athens.

Some of the best chapters are those that describe the couple’s trips to Italy, a country where Layton’s poetry won deep respect in large part due to the brilliant scholar and translator Alfredo Rizzardi, who promoted Canadian Studies at the University of Bologna. In fact, Italy would nominate Layton’s work twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In an uninhibited voice, Pottier recalls how she accompanied her husband-to-be to the International Festival of Poets, where he had been invited to give readings:

“Landing at Fiumicino, I had to pinch myself. Barely one year earlier, I had come through Rome as a nearly penniless hitchhiker, solitary, hungry, and barely distinguishable from millions of other backpackers. How very, very different for me now, stepping out into the Roman air, warm with oleander, refined perfumes, Marlboro cigarette smoke, and testosterone, on the arm of a poet who was soon to be received like a rock star.”

Pottier also found that Italians accepted their age difference, and this freed her of self-consciousness, being looked upon as the youthful muse of a famous aging poet. One of the happiest of the anecdotes from Italy is in “Lunch with Ettore and Fellini,” when Layton meets and entertains the great filmmaker of 8 1/2, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and she finds herself in Fellini’s Mercedes.

Not her family’s rejection, or the complications with Layton’s ex-wives and adult children, could undermine their solid marriage, but their age difference eventually did.

Accompanying Layton on worldwide cultural trips as he aged became traumatic. In 1992, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and the beginning of Alzheimer’s, confirmed Pottier’s unspoken fear that she might be incapable to assist her beloved husband as he lost control of body and mind.

With harrowing honesty, Pottier relates how being the caregiver eventually led to burnout. Tears became frequent between the couple rather than the laughter that had bound them. Pottier began an affair with a younger man than herself, and sought the counsel of one of Layton’s lifelong friends, also her friend at the time, Musia Schwartz, who agreed that she should separate and offered to care for Layton.

In Good as Gone, Pottier vividly captures the impersonal cruelty of aging and conveys the love and creativity of their marriage. She writes how she still misses the man and poet who had made so many of her days extraordinary, the memoir a heartfelt testimony to this truth.