A couple nights ago, I told my grandma that I'm planning on taking the Welfare Food Challenge.
"It's a challenge to raise awareness about what people living on welfare go through."
"You give yourself the average amount of money that someone living on welfare has to spend on food for one week, and you eat what you can afford. This year, it's $18 for the week."
She paused. "I can do that."
"Easy," she added.
We were sitting at the kitchen table. I had come home late because I'd been at a meeting after work, where we had discussed the Welfare Food Challenge. Kathy and I agreed we'd do it together. Anyway, it was a late dinner.
"You don't have to finish it," pointing to my soup.
"What? It's great!"
"Yeah . . . I don't know - I just tried it!" (She's recently taken to Googling new recipes).
"Yeah, and it turned out great!" It was a carrot and ginger bisque.
"Mmm. You can buy potatoes . . . carrots, if it's on sale . . . porridge . . . milk, because for the mashed potatoes and the porridge . . . "
I looked at her, realized we'd shifted gears. I tried to join in. "And maybe one cluster of spinach, for something green."
"Spinach cooks down too much."
"Could just eat it raw . . . " (Trying to save myself).
"Oh, yeah, you could."
I sat and ate my soup quietly, glancing up at her. She looked deep in thought.
She started laughing, "Yeah, I can do it!" More laughing, shaking her head. "No problem!"
"Well, I think the Welfare Food Challenge is more designed for people like me, and especially people who have more money than me, people who have never had to live on anything close to $18 a week. I really have no idea what that's like . . . of course you know how to do it."
"Yeah, we did it."
Another pause. She wasn't looking at me.
"Because they took all the men away," she said, looking at me now. "They took them all away, all the fathers and sons," her brow furrowed in concern. "And there was no work. And no food bank."
"Mmm . . . "
"So my mother would receive her cheque, or whatever it was, I don't know if there was welfare then . . . and we would make it last."
This wasn't the first time that the past had seeped into our conversation seemingly of its own accord. The thing about talking to my grandma is that the past is always hanging around, so you never know. And the thing about the past (at least in her case) is that despite its modern day ubiquity and the rather intimate quarters which they seem to share, she never actually knows it's there.
"Grandpa used to make $3000 a year, working at the CBC."
I looked up at her from my soup.
"Of course, everything was cheaper then, but still."
"That must have been hard . . . "
"Yeah, it was hard. Sometimes he didn't even have bus fare."
"Mm . . . "
"And when he started, it was $2000, and one day, he came home, and I remember he was so mad because he saw what they were getting on welfare, and he said that's more than I make!"
"Mhmm . . . "
"Of course, I had uh . . . what's it called — "
"Tenants . . . ?"
"Yeah, boarders . . . room and board. Bill and . . . I forget the other one. I had to, because . . . well, we needed it."
I finished the soup and moved on to a personal pizza. Homemade on a repurposed piece of pita bread. I don't know why I said it, but I did.
"I think the other thing for people living on welfare now is they don't necessarily live in a house like we do, right? They're frequently living in tougher situations and don't have a stove, oven, or even a fridge."
"Things will keep in the winter."
"Some things, yeah, but not everything . . . "
"How long is this thing?"
"Carrots will keep at least three days. Don't buy them all at once. Eat potatoes and porridge for a while. Or make chilli."
"And where are you going to put the chilli?"
"In the fridge."
"What if you don't have a fridge?"
"Put a lid on it. Or get a plate or something."
"And just leave in it in your room? Some rooms have rats."
"Put a rock on the lid."
For some reason, I kept going.
"The other thing is that people who are living on welfare now don't even necessarily get to wear what I'm wearing right now, you know? I'm in a really thick, warm sweater. In addition to facing hunger and malnutrition, they're facing the cold. All at once. This challenge I'm doing only addresses the food aspect."
"Yeah, but they can go to places. Lots of places have clothing donations."
"Yeah, that's true, but they can't pick out what they want like I can. It might not be in their size."
"No, but they can stay warm."
"Yeah, sometimes. But there might not be heating in their building."
"There was no heating in ours."
I knew that. She'd told me that before. She said the walls and floor froze. But here I was sitting at the dinner table eating the free home-cooked meal that she'd prepared for me, she staying up with me so I don't have to eat alone, and me sitting there telling her that I'm participating in this Welfare Food Challenge because to me it's an exercise and to her it was life and because I had to tell her because otherwise, she'd feed me.