Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hey! Did You Change Your Spots?

Sunday mornings are usually reserved for catching up on my favourite websites and blogs and this Sunday was no different. This morning I read a rather insightful post on Michael Murray's blog. I began reading this particular blog for no better reason than Michael Murray writes for Pajiba (my favourite site, for those of you who don't know) and he lives in Toronto and often writes about my home town. I stuck around because his writing is fantastic.

In case you haven't found the strength to or aren't interested in clicking the link above, I'll fill you in. On Friday he wrote about a visit to a pub. Whilst in the pub Michael observed the activities being carried out by both employee and patron. He focuses his attention more so on the owner of the establishment and "the career waitress". His observations were so astute I felt myself drawn to another time, another place.

I have mentioned before my parents are divorced. As a single parent, my Mother worked very hard to make ends meet. The type of employment available to a woman of meager education is limited and menial. Factory worker, housekeeping, cleaning lady and waitress are all jobs often filled by a single mother. The (perceived) lack of skill required is only the first of many reasons why. The hours are often flexible (to work around childcare, school, etc.), and the number of positions available are usually numerous. My mother has done every one of them, often more than one at a time. But the one that profited us best was waitress. And it did so for approximately 15 years.

I was just shy of 13 when the death throes of my parents marriage finally ceased. We moved back to Toronto from my Dad's home province because that was where the majority of my Mother's family lived; where she would receive the most support. Almost immediately she found work as a waitress. Nor had this been the first time. Waitresses have the luxury of being able to find work almost anywhere, at nearly any time. She continued waiting tables until well after I had moved away from home.

I was usually in charge of the homestead while Mom worked. Occasionally, whether by choice or necessity, I was at the restaurant. Michael's post transported me to a time when I was perhaps 15 years old. School books and binders spread across the Formica topped table, the smell of stale cigarettes, beer and fryer fat heavy on the air. I sat and watched my Mom. She never wrote down an order. Raising the inevitable question, followed by amazement at her ability to remember orders. The pride in her voice when she assured the non-believers she didn't need a note pad, never had. The troublemakers that tried to catch her with complicated orders. They never did; she saw them coming.

I remember marveling at the seemingly super human ability to carry an impossible number of drinks, glasses and bottles alike without a tray. To arrange platefuls of food and transport them to their destination without dropping so much as a fry, again without a tray. She rarely utilized the bartenders book when mixing drinks, every ingredient, every measurment committed to memory. More often than not, she approached the table of a newly seated regular, already armed with their drink of choice.

At the wise old age of 15 I knew I never wanted to be her. I knew the hate she felt at her station in life. I saw the wasted and missed opportunities mirrored in her eyes. I understood the fear she felt at the thought of what she would do when she was too old to do this. I heard the audible click in her throat every time she swallowed her pride after being reminded she was only a waitress, at the mercy of every customer. I watched as she measured success in a tip cup.

But she was a goddess among women. As much as I focused on her faults (the breath of many a career waitress carries the scent of her favourite vice), I knew her sacrifice was great, so mine or my sisters wouldn't have to be. She provided for us the best way she knew how, never knowingly asking us to return the sacrifice. And eventually it became all she knew. It became all she could know, because everything else frightened her. To begin again induced anxiety and so she began to hide behind her memorized menu, cocktails and orders. Too old to start anew.

A career in the service industry is not without its hazards. Many attempt to drown the emotions related to the supposed lack of achievement. Often age becomes a hindrance so great, employment in their chosen trade is no longer an option. Occasionally, their wrists give out. I don't know how others have addressed this particular disability when waitressing is all they've known. I do know that my Mom, after attempting to deny it, falling back on one or two of the previously mentioned jobs, reigned in her will, her resolve, her strength and enrolled in college.

I used to know the woman in Michael's post. My Mom used to be that woman. Not anymore though. Now my Mom is a college graduate who has a career in Social Services. Shame on me for forgetting a leopard can change her spots.