At the age of 53 my grandmother was widowed with seven children still at home. They had 12, total. While my grandfather was dying of cancer in the family home, he also learned that they would lose the family farm in Carlsbad Springs, due to unpaid taxes. It was 1937. Though my grandmother’s roots dated back to the 1660s in this country, generations of farmers even in France, after his death, she left the country and moved to downtown Ottawa. She didn’t speak a single word of English. Like a foreigner in her own country, she had to pack up, leave the life she knew and make her way.
Five daughters, two sons and one fierce mother moved into an upstairs Clarence street. apartment. Desperate, alone, the weight of the world on her shoulders, she had a way of saving hard-earned money. In spite of the magnitude of her loss, she laid down the first and last month’s rent on that apartment and set about to find work. The work my grandmother found was cleaning. She became a char woman, as they were called. Up at 3 am, she cleaned government offices. She came home for breakfast and went to daily morning mass, then off to Rockcliffe Park, where she cleaned homes for the rich. I don’t know if she ever learned the second native tongue in this land, but she did know her numbers and that saved them.
The stories from my mother about my grandmother are a bit muddled since my mom was the youngest in that family. A seven-year-old who also had her world ripped apart but had the face of courage as a role model. That comes in handy in life, with or without a dad. So I heard that my grandmother never bought a stitch of clothing for herself. She didn’t wear a bra. She didn’t buy toilette paper, either, rather they used the tissue that goods were wrapped in, like in today’s gift bags. My frugal grandmother supported her children until one by one they married or moved out.
Now you know a bit about my grandmother: An even tempered Catholic widow who literally counted pennies, in what seemed like a foreign land. So when I tell you that two weeks into her first month in that apartment when she looked down and saw prostitutes plying their trade below, you’ll understand the magnitude of what she did. She packed up and left, losing the rent money. She moved into one of her grown daughter’s homes. Both families shared a single bathroom; both families making the best of 1937 and desperate circumstances.
My grandmother made no bones about what prostitution really was and what was needed to protect children’s innocence and young men’s minds. She referred to them as “those poor girls” but nonethelss, when they were almost literally on her doorstep, she was gone like the wind. I read prostitution advocate and pimp Valerie Scott’s comments that “there’s always money involved when it comes to sex, whether it’s sex work or not.” The fact is there is much more than just money involved. My grandmother made yet another difficult move because she understood the language of love and family, if not English.
In the back and forth on prostitution today and the hand wringing about safety, consent and crime, I am not conflicted. I like Canada’s proposed new laws on prostitution. What we learn and what we teach about the nature of human relationships will carry future generations.
A good Madame may not care about that but a good mother does.by