Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Powdered Poverty

When my parents decided to "chuck it all" and move back to Canada, I was seven years old. We had a pretty nice life (I did, anyway), in a nice suburb and a nice house with nice friends. I went to a nice school and my dad had a nice job. After a year of upheaval, in which Mom and I had travelled to Canada, the parents bought the new house, and I actually spent an entire year at the same school, I was not ready to pull up stakes and venture back across the pond.

However, parental units prevailed, and we set off on a grand adventure--towing an English trailer with an American car from Quebec City to Vancouver Island. We spent something over three months on the trip. When we got to British Columbia, Dad found that the job he thought he could just walk into didn't exist, and Canada was in the midst of a recession. Dad took the only job he could get; picking holly for minimum wage (seventy-five cents an hour).

Needless to say, their hopes of trading one nice life for another were dashed.

Poverty set in. They managed to land a property-sitting gig that netted free rent and a pittance, but poverty was real and immediate.

Mom was addicted to coffee. Not coffee as we know it, but coffee (of a sort), nevertheless. At that time, the only device for brewing coffee was the percolator. Be it stove-top or electric, it was all anyone had. There was this wartime innovation, though--instant coffee! Yes! Dearly Beloved, I have no idea how they made this stuff, or if it truly contained anything at all of actual coffee, but it was cheap and we drank it. We drank it with powdered milk.

Powdered milk. Guaranteed to have the same nutrients as fresh milk, with none of the flavour or texture. God, it was ghastly! But, it was cheap, so that was what we had. Instant coffee and powdered milk.

My parents had survived the rationing of World War Two, my mother in England and my father in the R. A. F. They had gone without pretty much everything at one time or another, including coffee and milk. Mom would allow me to have coffee, liberally laced with powdered milk, because getting me to drink it, unflavoured, was stressful, to say the least. If I thought I was being "grown up" and drinking coffee with Mom, she could sneak a bit of that awful stuff into me without the usual protest.

By the time I was in high school, my parents had clawed their way up to a sort of working class existence that was a vast improvement over the way we lived those first few years in Canada. By dint of extreme frugality, they had bought a house. My dad had a white collar clerical job, and Mom joined the Women's Auxiliary at church.

By then, there was fresh milk, because Mom traded our good yard eggs for it. The milk was un-homogenized, which meant that cream could be harvested from the top of the glass bottles, and, on Sundays, Dad would perk a pot of actual coffee, from ground and roasted coffee beans.

During the week, there was still the awful instant (this was before "freeze-dried crystals"), but there was always Sunday to look forward to.

I suppose they still make powdered milk, but, even in our worst times, I refused to visit that particular scourge on my kids. We always had whole, fresh milk. And, if I couldn't afford real coffee, I drank tea.

I hope there is a Starbucks in heaven. Mom would love it.

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