Tuesday, 26 June 2012

My mother's voice: Never let them see you sweat

I was thinking about my mother today, as I often do on the cusp of a birthday.
It's a way I have of marking time, examining my own life against another's benchmarks.
When my mother Vera was the age I will be on July 2nd -- 56-years-old -- she was working in a sweltering factory in St. Catharines making fine knit sweaters for the well-to-do. There was no air conditioning at Warren Knit, which had its factory above the shops on St. Paul Street, the main drag of my home town. Often, the temperature would reach into the 40s, an unimaginable working condition for a woman nearing her third act.
Vera also worked shift work, which added stress to her already over-loaded system. But she never complained, just came home and downed about six beers and smoked a pack of cigarettes; maybe she'd watch a bit of television.
By the time she reached 56, the heavy and difficult job was taking its toll. Vera had a hard time walking the few blocks to the bus and her back was in ruins, the discs strained to a pulp, and she was in constant pain from the sciatica which would eventually, and gratefully, land her on a disability pension.
Like many blue collar employees, Vera looked forward to old age, when she could receive her CPP and senior's pension, but in the meantime, her only future was backbreaking work for minimum wage.
It struck me as a young adult, when I saw the movie Norma Rae what an awful job my mother took to support me as a teenager. Like Norma Rae, Vera fought management tooth and tail and became one of the founding members of a fledgling union which got her the benefits she would eventually need when she could no longer walk, no longer enjoy the quality of life we take for granted.
I admired my mother for the sacrifices she made, to try to make life better for me. It certainly didn't make life any better for her, and she would eventually die a woman battered by a hard life not of her making.
She left school at 16 to pursue factory work. She married my father, who died, and she raised us as a widow with no resources other than a tiny cheque from the government. The shame of living on Mother's Allowance propelled her toward working in the factory. She would rather kill herself over a knitting machine in sub-human temperatures that face the humiliation of handouts from the government any longer.
Watching my mother, I knew this was not the life for me, that there were better options. Under the paternal care of a Liberal government which believed in giving a helping hand to those in need, I managed to cobble together some grants and loans to go to university and find a better path.
I took my place among the educated elite, found outstanding jobs in journalism, politics and consulting, and made sure my children were not burdened by debt.
In recent years, my life hasn't gone as planned, but whenever I feel too sorry for myself, I think of Vera in that sweltering July heat, lifting the noisy levers of heavy machinery, spooling the fine thread and weaving creations she could never afford to wear herself.
Though dead 20 years now, Vera remains my hero.
She is the voice in my head.
Never give up.
Never let the bastards get you down.
And even in 40 degree working conditions, never let them see you sweat.

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