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We weren’t exactly poor. Actually, we weren’t poor at all. I grew up in the sixties in a middle-class, blue-collar suburb of Vancouver. My father was gainfully employed, my mother a “stay-at-home mom” long before that term was coined. “Housewife” was what she wrote in any document asking her to describe her occupation. We had more than enough food on the table, clothes and a roof over our heads.
But for some strange reason I didn’t comprehend, since we lived in a rain-forest region, not one person in our house owned an umbrella. Or a decent pair of gloves.
It was as if these two items were deemed a luxury beyond our grasp. How could that be? These were basic necessities that everyone used almost year-round in our part of the world to protect themselves from arriving soaking wet and/or freezing their digits off.
We had warm coats, snow and rain boots. But an umbrella? Unheard of. Lots of snow days that closed the schools down. But mitts to build our snowmen? Not one pair.
My mother would bundle us up in ski jackets, boots and tuques, then proceed to put a pair of socks on our hands. We would go out to play in the snow and, within 15 seconds, we’d be back for a dry sock replacement – which she would provide, constantly rotating wet and dry ones, using her recently acquired dryer to keep the supply flowing.
With four kids, this task must have consumed a good part of her day. And she probably could have bought 3,000 pairs of gloves for what it cost to run the dryer all winter. Maybe she was just so happy finally to have a dryer, she wanted to put it to good use.
I am old enough to remember having a manual wringer washing machine (which I still have nightmares about – “Stay away from the wringer washer, you’ll get your hair caught and be pulled right in”) and line drying. So I guess she deserved to use the new dryer any way she saw fit.
But that doesn’t explain the absence of umbrellas.
I walked back and forth to school every day, and while it wasn’t 10 miles in a blizzard, uphill both ways, it did rain 90 per cent of the time. When I pointed out to my mother that it would be nice to have an umbrella, she breezily commented, “Just run between the raindrops,” or “You won’t drown,” or “A little rain won’t hurt you.”
When I protested, she would offer to split open a plastic bag that had previously held a bunch of green onions and fashion a rain hat from it. She possessed an amazing skill at this, including a nice little way to tie it under your chin.
I was left with the choice of arriving at school with soaking wet hair, or with dry hair that smelled like green onions.
This was in the days before school administrators spent a lot of their time trying to ban bullying. There was no one to protect you from the scorn of other kids on the school grounds. It was survival of the fittest, and the law of the land was “don’t set yourself up.” (Let’s face it, you probably should be cast out as a social misfit if you choose to wear a plastic bag on your head.)
Many people who lived their childhoods in the 1960s will remember the bubble umbrella, a see-through plastic number that was dome-shaped and made you look like you were riding in a one-seat alien spaceship.
Most were totally clear plastic, but some had a butterfly or flower decal, presumably to deter unsuspecting birds from flying right into it. Brand-new ones were lined inside with what I thought was baby powder, but was probably some sinister chemical used to prevent the plastic from sticking.
Between the unknown powdery substance and the off-gassing of cheap plastic, I was probably pretty fortunate I never owned one.
But how I longed for a bubble umbrella! My best friend Karen had one. She was kind enough to share hers, but the bubble umbrella was really designed for one. We’d end up bobbing around, pulling in different directions. ALL the girls at our elementary school had a bubble umbrella, it seemed. But alas, for me it was not to be.
It wasn’t as if my parents consciously objected to the idea of an umbrella or winter gloves. I have finally come to the conclusion that they thought these things were reserved for the less hardy; that providing them to us would prevent us from building strong character and good survival skills. It was the way they were brought up.
Both my parents were born in the Prairies. My mother was born in a sod house with a dirt floor in a small town in Saskatchewan. Yes, sod. Mud and hay fashioned into walls.
It was pretty common for immigrants from the Ukraine and elsewhere to come to Canada with nothing and try to eke a living out of the land. But my mother’s story, or rather my grandmother’s, is actually quite incredible. Not only was my mother born in a sod house – so was her twin brother. Without a doctor. Maybe a midwife. My grandparents had eight children including two sets of twins, all born in a sod house with no heating except the wood stove, and no running water.
My grandmother lived to be 99, so I guess you can kind of see where my mom was coming from on the umbrella and glove front. They were luxuries, or at least somewhat frivolous.
Bridget Field lives in Coquitlam, B.C.