observations and opinion
“To be a child in a shelter is to see your mom shorn of her authority. It’s not her house anymore, her rules, her food. She is a ghost there, hiding from danger. This unmoors you a bit – if the one thing you’re accustomed to is your mother being in charge, or at least cooking dinner, you feel uneasy when she becomes powerless.”
On a hot summer night when I was eight years old, my mum and I escaped (that is the word) our very unhappy home (the story of that escape is here: The Getaway Car).
Tolstoy said that all happy families are the same, and each unhappy one is unique. I don’t know about that – the content of our unhappiness was standard stuff: disillusioned, depressed, alcoholic adults, smashing up against each other.
But that summer one of the adults came out of hospital, after life-saving surgery – altered. She come out clear-eyed and ready for a new start. A woman who leaves her husband (in this case, not a violent husband but one who was out of control) will often leave everything. She knows what trauma is – she has endured and decided to overcome, at a steep price. This is real courage.
We left July 19th, traumatically, into a homeless dark.
Where we ended-up soon after, was an old house, run by an old woman. It was a place that children do not imagine exist, until they walk into one: a women’s shelter. A tired house, nondescript and unremarkable, on one of the city’s oldest roads – York Street. They called it “Inasmuch.” The name was drawn from the Bible, but I don’t know which verse*.
The old house was dark and smelly. The beds sagged, there was no TV set and they dished out the worst food I ever ate. The tinned milk, I remember particularly, was vile in my tea. I still can’t abide tinned milk, fairly or not.
We were strangers there, hotel guests with few privileges. I was a boy and had to escape where we had escaped to. That meant just next door at Dundurn Park, a sprawling and shady green space that reached all the way to the edge of the bay. And sitting there, on Sir Alan MacNab’s 19th century lawn, was the grande manse of the City of Hamilton: Dundurn Castle.
If the shelter was sad and spooky, the park and castle were magic. And I was eight years old, in need of magic. That meant getting outside as early as possible, going to the park and living there until dusk. I roamed the hillside looking out over Hamilton Harbour, finding or making paths. I lived adventures in my head, the way kids do.
Dundurn Castle itself was an historic site that had recently been renovated for the Centennial. Tours moved through it many times a day, and I took it – over and over and over again. Soon I could give the tour (and I did, chiming in with facts when the tour guides would forget something). If I ever go back inside, I bet I can still show you the “sick room” and the butter churns in the cold, cold basement. I loved it.
Some kids become pool rats or rink rats, hanging out endlessly, fascinated and at home, all at the same time. I became a castle rat. This is where I found history, the topic which has enriched and animated my life ever since.
That summer seemed to last forever and it was good: nobody was yelling, angry or afraid. The only bad moment for me, other than the meals, was when my older brother tried to visit the shelter. The old lady in charge, wouldn’t let him in. “No men” she said. That was the ironclad rule. My brother was 20, which meant he was a man, which meant he was not crossing that threshold. My mum was livid, but the rules were the rules. They talked out on the landing.
That episode was the first time, that I can remember, a person being judged purely on his “personal characteristics” as we call them in law – his gender. That he was really a gentle boy, who had already left home to escape the same madness, trying to visit his mother in a safe house, was irrelevant. He was a man, he was not permitted entry.
Barring him seemed senseless, as he posed no risk. He was in fact, a friend – family. But the house was full of women who had fled men in fear. They had experienced real terror. They needed a different kind of space. So I understood why he could not come in, even as I saw the heartache it inflicted on my mum.
To be a child in a shelter is to see your mom shorn of her authority. It’s not her house anymore, her rules, her food. She is a ghost there, hiding from danger. This unmoors you a bit – if the one thing you’re accustomed to is your mother being in charge, or at least cooking dinner, you feel uneasy when she becomes powerless.
Living in a shelter, having nothing: it was a strange, uncertain time – all of the known and predictable facts of life had been torn up. We were homeless, penniless and almost friendless. My mother was recovering from heart surgery. I was eight years of age. We were truly vulnerable.
And yet, despite the terrible food and the alien rules and the strangeness of it all, it was thrilling. Because suddenly there was different life, or the possibility of one. The air was different.
That is the hope you can help give someone, whom you do not know and will never meet.
This morning, this afternoon and tonight a woman will pack a bag, and her kids if she has them, and seek refuge from a man she loved (and may still love) who is hurting her. Will she find shelter? It is depressing to think that we need places for women to hide from their men, places which are themselves hidden. It is depressing, but it is true. They need safe places, more than most people do.
So the question is, what are we going to do about it? We can be angry, we can be articulate, we can be passionate and rise to shake our fists in fury. We can be morally superior – that’s easy (look at the internet, that’s what people do all day). We can do all of that.
But maybe we can also give a little of what we’ve got – a dollar or two -to make someone’s pain a little less terrible. To give them a place where nobody is yelling, angry or afraid. A little bit from you means a lot to them. Shelters keep a low profile, of course. But if you want to help, you can find one.
If you don’t know a shelter to support, choose the one where I stayed as a boy: Inasmuch, in Hamilton Ontario. They’re at a different location but still do the same urgent work, 365 days a year.
P.S. In speaking with management at a women’s shelter, I am advised that they are better now than in the past: happier, brighter and more secure.
Better food too, they say. That’s got to be true.
FURTHER NOTE TO READERS:
* reader Jane C, who knows the house, writes ““Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.” Matthew 25:40.