Written by Gillian Hewitt, a Certified Soleil Lifestory Network Memoir Professional
In 1953, we left our one-bedroom basement apartment on 7th Street in New Toronto to live in the small town of Tottenham, Ontario. We moved into a three-bedroom flat above a hardware store. There was no central heat or hot water, but I thought it was a palace, compared to the tiny apartment we had left. The centre of activity was the huge kitchen, where a massive Finlay wood stove kept us warm in the winter months. Pale green cabinets sprawled along the opposite wall. They came to an end at the four-burner Frigidaire range. Every week, my mother would get down on her hands and knees and apply a coat of Johnson’s paste wax onto the green-and-white checkered linoleum floor. When we arrived home from school, my brother Stephen and I would delight in wrapping old rags on our feet and “skate” all over the floor, bringing it to a glossy sheen. This was my mother’s Tom Sawyer act, and it worked every time.
Off the kitchen was a very large bathroom with a huge claw-footed tub, a pedestal sink, and enough room for our wringer washer and laundry tubs. The bathtub was never used, as hot water was a precious commodity. Mom heated water on the range or wood stove, and carried it into the bathroom to fill the wringer washer. She removed the agitator and Stephen and I were lifted in. We had great fun in that tub.
In the winter, we brought our pillows and our flannel pajamas out to the wood stove and placed them high up into the warming oven. When they were heated through, we would get dressed for bed beside the stove, snatch our pillows, and race down the hall to our bedrooms. It would take no coaxing to get us into bed, as we wanted to be snuggled in and off to sleep before the pillows cooled down. In the morning, we would reluctantly pull down the blankets to see our breath frozen in the air and witness Jack Frost’s canvas on the icy window.
On my way to Tottenham Elementary School, where I attended grade one, I passed a grocery store on Queen Street. Out in front were baskets of fruits and vegetables, and each day I would linger in front of some of the biggest, shiniest apples I had ever seen. They were five cents each. I told my mom about them, but never dared ask her for the five cents. I knew we had little money, and were saving every penny to buy our own house. One morning, she surprised me by slipping a shiny nickel into my hand, and said, “Go buy yourself a nice apple for lunch.” She was the best mom anyone could have.
I skipped my way along the street, pink plastic skipping rope in one hand and my precious nickel in the other. Arriving at the grocery store, I stood there, surveying the apples, trying to decide which one to choose. Shifting the skipping rope into my nickel hand, I reached toward the basket to claim my prize. The coin dropped out of my grip onto the sidewalk. Before I could bend down to retrieve it, a large, grimy shoe stamped down on top of my nickel. I looked up into the eyes of Susan McMahon. Susan was a nasty girl, with stringy blonde hair. Her family of seven children lived in a squalid, ramshackle house on the “other side of the tracks.” No one liked the McMahons.
“That’s my nickel. Take your foot off it!”
“It’s mine now. Get outta here.” One look at her face told me I wasn’t going to get that nickel back.
She bent down, took my nickel, and was gone. My lip started to quiver, and I felt tears burning my eyes. I turned back towards home and ran. My mom met me half way up the stairs. By now I was wailing, and through the sobs, managed to get my story out. Instead of scolding me for losing the money, she took out her little turquoise change purse and handed me another nickel. “You want that apple really bad, don’t you? Put this in your shoe and don’t take it out until you give it to the grocer.” With that, she dried my tears and sent me off again.
I bought the apple, but it didn’t taste as good as I had thought it would. All I could think of was how much of a sacrifice my mom had made for me.
Gillian Hewitt lives outside of Toronto. She is a retired high school teacher with a master’s in education who enjoys writing, distance running, cycling, and skiing, all activities that help her avoid vacuuming, dusting, and TV, which she says she hates. She is a Certified Teacher with Soleil Lifestory Network.