We were very poor. But, growing up in Cowichan in the 50s, we farm families didn’t realize how poor we really were.
Everybody had fruit trees and grew large gardens to stretch the scant food dollars. We kids (my younger brother and I ) didn’t think it strange to have only three pairs of shoes to do us for a couple of years — one pair of black rubber boots for school, one pair of “Sunday School” oxfords, and a pair of 49 cent “thongs” (flip-flops) for the summer. When the thongs were wrecked, we went barefoot.
And I wasn’t too resentful about the fact that my mother was an invalid. Of Alberta Cree and Scots descent, she still, in her 50s, had the high cheekbones and long, raven black hair which made her considered a beauty. And every morning, before catching the school bus, I had to brush and braid that long hair.
However, there was one thing I was a bit resentful about — my birthday. It fell, unfortunately, on New Year’s Eve. So, I was used to getting one ‘large’ gift on Christmas that was supposed to be a Christmas/birthday gift. I particularly treasured one gift I had received. I was 13 and had been asking my Dad for a dollie with real Saran (combable) hair for as long as I could remember.
Providentially, my kindly uncle John was visiting from Vancouver that year. He and my dad split the cost of the special doll — $6! How I coveted that doll, always replacing it carefully in its box after each hair styling. However I usually resented the fact that my brother (born in March) always received two annual gifts while I, only one.
But, in September of my Grade 12 year, my beautiful mother died. We grieved. And by end-November we were feeling additional effects of poverty. My father explained to us that he was no longer receiving the monthly ‘cripples’ pension for my mother. Thus, our monthly budget had to be reduced by over $100 per month (a lot of money in those days). We kids feared a bleak Christmas.
However, we could axe down our usual tree from the forest of Mount Prevost behind us. Dad could butcher a retired broodie hen if he couldn’t afford a turkey. I despaired of getting a combined gift. But, being optimistic youngsters, we each hung up one of Dad’s old work socks. We strung the tree with Mom’s well-used decorations from the 30s.
The next morning, our stockings held the usual Japanese orange in the toe, a pair of socks for school, and some ribbon candy courtesy of a surprise Christmas hamper a Duncan charity had provided. I didn’t expect a major gift nor did I see one. However, when my birthday morning rolled around, hope renewed. I thought there was just a chance someone might come up with something for my birthday.
Bedtime came and I, disheartened, prepared to slink off to my room. Suddenly, my Dad came over to me, his hand behind his back. My brother stood behind him, smirking slyly. Dad told me to hold out my hand. In it, he placed a small, white box. It contained a single strand of fake pearls nestled on plain cotton batting.
My joy knew no bounds. Dad had saved pennies from the grocery money for a couple of months and bought the necklace at our only five and dime store for 69 cents. To me, it was worth more than if every pearl had been authentic.
Joy lives in Ladysmith and is a member of the B.C. Writers’ Federation. This is an excerpt from a manuscript, Cowichan Kid, that she is hoping to have published.