Rick Storey penned an excellent opinion piece in the Examiner today about visiting an old colleague and finding that time had taken its toll. But kudos to Mr. Storey for reaching out, for knocking on a door and saying ‘Hello in There,’ to quote a poignant song by John Prine. And this time of year, as we become swept up in the season and consumed by holiday preparations, we must always remember that there are those who are lonely, hungry, homeless, or house poor. Peterborough is a generous community, and thank God for that. Still, it’s all too easy (isn’t it?) to give our money and make our donations, then fade back into our respective worlds without giving the reality of those nameless, faceless folks we may have just helped financially and anonymously, a second thought. How could we know, having never been through something like that?
Well I know someone who has been through something like that…
It was Christmas Day, in Lindsay many years ago, when a lad of 13 excused himself from the small chrome table, buttoned his shabby coat and escaped into the magnificence of a bright, winter day.
It had snowed overnight, and the horizon afforded the likeness of a frosted cake. The
anaemic holiday traffic could not muster the usual supply of the dark street
pudding of snow pummelled into road slush, and the infrequent tire tracks only added to a scene from the Currier and Ives catalogue.
And yet, the boy felt anything but festive. Pushing along sidewalks choked
with snow, he would gaze longingly at the grand houses resplendent in
wreathes, mistletoe and wisps of chimney smoke—the hint of a hearth fully
It was then that his thoughts returned to his own woeful accommodations; two rooms in a run-down rooming house, shared with his mother and three siblings.
His parents had separated the year before. A traditional homemaker, his mother had never been in the workforce, and lacking the skills that would make her even remotely employable the woman had little choice but to rely on social assistance to make ends meet.
Suitable accommodations were sorely limited.
The only roof she could afford hovered above a set of rooms fashioned from the
front porch of a once-proud century home now serving as a flophouse across the street from what was once the Lindsay Jail. The hastily erected walls kept the elements at bay, but without insulation the walls proved no match for the cold. The ancient furnace, sputtering puffs of anemic heat only to easily escape through the drafty walls and windows, served to deepen the misery.
The threadbare coat in which he braved the sunlit chill doubled as his bedclothes to fend off the sharp cold of night. The shabbiness of the garment was in stark contrast to the glorious scene before him, as he sought in vain to absorb the cheer of a Christmas Day. A day, he soon realized, which held little cheer for him.
It wasn’t the lack of gifts that bothered him, or the pining for a traditional Yuletide feast no longer within his reach. For a brief moment he indulged in the memory of annual visits to his grandparent’s house in Toronto for Christmas dinner. Grandpa would proudly carve the turkey, and ladle the gravy, and oh! – the plum pudding. A day overflowing with love and tradition, and the warm, safe feeling that comes from knowing you are home.
Just as quickly he chased the memory from his mind. It only deepened the despair borne from the reality of their cramped and depressing set of rooms, with drunks down the hall and mice at their feet.
He lied about his address to the few friends he clung to. They never came over. He fancied them now, gathered around the Christmas tree his own family didn’t have, opening gifts that weren’t his to unwrap, enjoying a meal he could only imagine. He guessed what his schoolmates had wished for; skis, a new snowmobile, the western boots that were all the rage at the time.
His only real wish: the opportunity to doff his coat in the house without freezing.
In truth – and we must realize this – there are many kids just like him, he and his siblings pining for something you and I pretty much take for granted. A single mother, or the working poor, wishing so deeply to be in a position to provide better for their kids, but can’t.
You and I grumble about the mortgage and curse the hydro bill, but we carry on nonetheless. We can afford to gripe.
I suspect there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands of families in cities and towns right across our great land who don’t have access to the dry roof and the warm bed that we go home to. And as I suggested earlier, this isn’t about those in need of social assistance. There are those who put in an honest day’s work but for lack of skills, or opportunity find themselves in low-paying jobs without the capacity to afford a mortgage, or market rents.
And so they make do with a leaky roof and drafty walls, their kids breathing in mould, their outlook dark and foreboding, their hopes for the future piled in a heap on the floor.
What do we say to that boy, barely a teen, savouring little more than the
possibility of a decent place to live? What can we do to save him, his siblings, and others like them?
His, is a need that is all around us. Out there. So far it hasn’t been all that cold in this year of the El Nino. But it will. And on the other side of the frosted bay window and out past the snow-covered birdbath when the snow finally comes, is that image of a troubled boy, braving the cold in a shabby coat to escape his gloom.
That boy of 13 is grown now, with a loving family and a modest life he has worked hard to earn. His equally modest home is warm, dry and safe. His kids were never made to feel, or suffer the despair he and his siblings once knew. And unlike some, he recovered from that despair. He used it to fuel his push forward in what has evolved into a modestly successful life as a media personality. What has driven him all this time is the memory of that walk, and the cold, cramped prison he once called home.
And so a merry Christmas to all. As we enjoy this Yuletide from the warmth and comfort of home and hearth, let’s remember those who might be cold, or hungry, and in need of both our prayers, and our benevolence.
The boy thanks you…