Times were tougher than I knew. We had never had much, so it was not unusual to go without, when it was common for friends to have things that I couldn’t have. But it did mean that when special things happened, like steak dinner or new running shoes, that it was a big deal. Small things were appreciated.
We came to the Fraser valley in February, from a blistering cold, driving snow filled Winnipeg winter to green grass and blossoming flowers. Now it was May and I don’t think father had ever found a steady job. It’s true the grass was greener in Greendale, but that was not the metaphorical green grass that meant prosperity for us.
But one Saturday in early May, father had secured a day job helping a fellow do inside demolition in a small building that was being renovated just outside Vancouver. I got to go along as a helper. It was hard, dusty labor, tearing down walls, hauling scrap wood, shoveling and sweeping chunks of plaster, dragging overflowing garbage cans to the dumpster. Lunch was a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of water.
When we were finally done, we climbed into our 57 Chev (which had been secured on credit back in Winnipeg when father still had his job at Dominion Motors) and headed home. But part way into the drive home we stopped at a strip mall. Father parked the car, told me he was just going to make a quick stop at the bar and I should wait in the car. He gave me a dollar bill, as my pay for being a helper on the worksite. I could run over to the store and get myself something, if I wanted.
He departed, for his after-work beverage and I was left holding my dollar bill. I decided that I would make a visit to the store, since I was now a person of means and reward myself with something special, perhaps an O’Henry chocolate bar or maybe a toy of some kind. The only nearby store was a drug store. The selection of ‘special stuff’ was very limited. Plenty of band-aids, aspirin and lady stuff but not much for a kid that had spent his whole Saturday slaving in grime and rubble.
But then I spotted the greeting card rack. It was overflowing with all kinds of fancy cards, for birthdays and sick people. More than all the rest was a whole line of Mother’s Day Cards. And the next day, Sunday, May 9th, was Mother’s Day. So I decided I would spend my dollar bill on a Mother’s Day card. I searched through the rack and found the perfect card. To my very good fortune it was exactly one dollar. I took the card to the cash register counter and presented it to a jolly looking round lady. I slid my dollar bill onto the counter, with satisfaction at the special gift I would be able to give to mother on her special day.
With a smile on her jolly round face, the cashier lady said, “It’s a dollar and five cents.”
I don’t recall exactly what I said but it was probably something like, “What?”
“A dollar five. One dollar for the card and five cents for the tax.”
Once again, in my brief life, I was about to come up short. I was used to disappointment, but still, I had great anticipation that I would be giving a heartfelt gift to my mother, earned from my own labor. But now I was five cents short. Because of Mother’s Day Tax. How was I to know about tax. There was no tax in Manitoba when you bought things. But BC made you give extra money to the government, just for buying things. How fair is that? I must have looked like this to the jolly lady:
Or maybe this:
But whatever my expression was, I guess the jolly lady felt sorry for me or accepted my excuse that I didn’t know about tax. She let me have the Mother’s Day card in exchange for my one dollar bill.
I returned to the car with my special gift, the first time I had bought something for someone with money I had earned myself. Father returned from his visit to the bar, after a long while, and we drove the rest of the way home. I couldn’t wait for the next day to present the card. I told the story of my day long work and choking on the plaster dust and pushing garbage cans across the cement floor of the old building. But I didn’t tell anybody that in BC the government made you pay tax on things, because I didn’t want anybody to find out that the jolly lady let me get away tax free.