Wendy Mesley is a journalist. Her podcast, Women of Ill Repute, with Maureen Holloway, will debut in June.
I was raised to be a Woman of Ill Repute. My mother, after all, was a hooker. At least that’s what I thought when I found her undies under the couch. I was in Grade 5. She wasn’t married, but was obviously doing it so she had to be a hooker. I told one friend about my concerns. And soon the whole school knew. They also knew we were poor, because I’d told a friend my mom cut our pillows in half – it had to be a money thing. And we lived across the street from the mall in a crappy apartment while everyone else seemed to live in mansions. It was the first apartment we didn’t share with others, and my mom thought it was amazing.
My mom didn’t care what other people thought. She didn’t define herself the way society defined women. She taught me to fight for myself, fight for underdogs and speak the truth. She taught me to be direct, even blunt. Too blunt. She didn’t teach me that others might see things completely differently than I did.
My mom married my father because she loved him. He loved her, too, but he loved men more. She left him a year later when I was a few months old. It was 1958, and homosexuality was supposedly a mental illness that could be cured. It took her seven years to get a divorce – even after they hired a photographer to stage a picture of him in bed with not a man, but a woman, who was paid to be in the photo. That kind of adultery was the only way to persuade a judge that a marriage couldn’t be saved. Men loving men was illegal then and homosexuality was never stated as the reason for their divorce. When my mother finally took off her wedding ring at the age of 33, most of the men in town were spoken for.
Her parents refused to take her in. She never remarried and raised me on her own, doing physiotherapy in people’s homes while I was left sleeping or screaming in a laundry hamper in the back seat of her car. Back in the fifties women were usually seen as either spinsters or wives. There was nothing else. My mom rejected those roles and embraced what I now proudly and jokingly call being a Woman of Ill Repute. She didn’t care about makeup, cooking, shopping or seeking approval from men. She was sharp tongued, but cared deeply about being honest and brave and loving her friends and family.
As I grew older, I began to understand and accept that she wasn’t like the other mothers. She never taught me to wear clean undies in case I had to go to the hospital. She never baptized me or told me tales about Santa coming down the chimney. When I was 8, she put me on the bus to go by myself to the dentist because she barely had any days off. She owned one bra, that she wore for special occasions. Not because she was a feminist, but because it was uncomfortable.
After high school, her father told her that, because she was a woman, going to university was a waste of money. She went anyways, and somehow paid for it herself. She got a degree as a physiotherapist and eventually rose to the top of her field, running some of the biggest departments in Canada. Because women back then were supposed to quit when they got pregnant and hide their bellies at home, my mom would just lie to management, asking how dare anyone suggest someone on her staff was pregnant. It was just too many brownies! She was not an easy boss, but most of her staff loved her.
People would refer to us as a broken home. I never knew any other families with single moms, but I did see other homes with absent dads and unhappy mothers. I never felt broken, I felt lucky and loved.
I remember reading Linda Frum’s memoir about her mother and my hero, the journalist Barbara Frum. Linda talked about missing her mom, how she was always working. So I thanked my mom for always being there for me – only for her to tell me that if she’d had the chance to be Barbara Frum, to host As It Happens and The Journal, she’d have ditched me in a flash!
I was a parliamentary correspondent then, the first woman in CBC TV’s national bureau to cover a prime minister. My mom was very proud of me. But she probably wasn’t surprised. She’d raised me to think a woman could do any job as well as a man, that we should fight against accepting roles others had laid out for us. Her honesty drove me, but it also set me free decades later.
When I was in my 20s, I made a drunken promise to never put her in a home. I put her in a home. At the end of her life she needed a lot of care for dementia and other ailments. As her only child, it was an agonizing decision, but I now tell myself I had no choice. She died a year ago, at the age of 89. I miss her every day.
I am proud to have been raised by Joan Mesley, a Woman of Ill Repute. Perhaps it was irresponsible for her to put me on the bus when I was a kid and maybe it would have been nice to be taken to the dentist. But I am grateful she showed me there is more than one way to be a woman, more than one way to love.
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